The Church Fathers ABCs
The Restoration of All Things: Preaching Irenaeus of Lyons
Irenaeus of Lyons was an indomitable defender of early Christian faith. As the early church was sorting out its theology and practice post-New Testament, it had to confront the dual pressures of reverting back to Judaism and accommodating to Hellenism. In addition, there were also a host of heretical temptations such as Gnosticism, which viewed the created world as an evil from which people need rescue through secret knowledge. The church had to thresh out its responses to these threats with no precedent to guide its thinking. Into this fray emerged Irenaeus whose monumental writing contested false doctrine and steered the church toward its right practice. Irenaeus did this not by coming up with creative theological innovations, but rather by grounding theology in an understanding of that scriptural teaching which tradition had heretofore preserved. His highest aim was to state clearly what the church believed and taught, and to guard that teaching from corruption. In his various statements of faith appear all the essentials of the later Nicene Creed.
We know little of Irenaeus' life. He was born in Asia Minor around 130 A.D. and later migrated to southern France to help with missionary work. A ferocious persecution broke out in Lyons, killing the bishop of the fledging church there. Undeterred, the infant community called Irenaeus to be its new leader. Persecution only made the church stronger. Like his Lord, Irenaeus viewed affliction as the path toward sure resurrection. He asked, "What, did the Lord wish that his apostles should undergo buffeting and that they should endure affliction? That's what the word says. Why? Because strength is made perfect in weakness, rendering one a better person who by means of infirmity becomes acquainted with the power of God. For how can a person learn that he is an infirm being, and mortal by nature, and that God is immortal and powerful, unless he learns it by experiencing it? There is nothing evil in learning one's weaknesses by suffering; rather, it has the beneficial effect of preventing a person from forming an undue opinion of his own nature."
Irenaeus' view on earthly faith was always with an eye toward heaven. It is from Scripture's promise of a certain future that faith finds its hope and strength to endure the present. The book of Revelation grants a glimpse of the celestial command center, the heavenly headquarters occupied by Almighty God. The blinding light of God's glory reflects off precious gemstones, as well as off the emerald rainbow that encircles the throne. Flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, reminiscent of Mt. Sinai, foreshadow ferocious wrath to be unleashed against evil. However the rainbow, reminiscent of God's promise to Noah, also foreshadows ferocious grace. God's justice is always tempered by mercy. Nevertheless, those enemies who in the end persist in scorning God's mercy will not be spared. The calm sea of glass, spread before the throne, testifies to evil's imminent demise. Throughout Scripture, a churning sea symbolizes the reservoir of satanic chaos. But in Revelation 4, the sea is calmed and evil defeated. Redeemed from its curses, creation is freed to fulfill its purpose.
What is its purpose? John paints a picture of worship. Four living creatures representing all animate life on earth surround God's throne and sing, Holy, Holy, Holy. With their wings they evoke the seraphim of Isaiah who sang the same song. Their coverings of eyes shows that God forever watches over them. Rightly joining in their chorus are twenty-four elders who embody the redeemed people of God. Their robes and crowns are their rewards for persevering faithfulness, the thrones are their own seats saved in heaven. However these elders readily bow and relinquish their crowns "whenever the creatures give glory, honor and thanks to the one who sits on the throne and who lives forever and ever." Casting down their crowns they acknowledge the worthiness of God. Why? Because, "You created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being."
Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.