Often I agree to speak on topics that I know nothing about. It is the best way to get me to do the reading to plug holes in my knowledge! That’s why earlier in the year I consented to doing a presentation on three second century church leaders- Ignatius, Polycarp and Irenaeus. Most of my knowledge of church history comes from much later and so my understanding of the earliest developments in the church after the death of the first apostles was decidedly patchy.
Why do I mention this now? It is because reading the works of the second century leaders is a great way of connecting with the apostles who provide us with the Christmas stories. It shows us that the Gospel accounts didn’t simply emerge from the shadows after several centuries but were recognised by the church very early on. Doing this study increased my confidence in the reliability of the records we have.
Polycarp and Irenaeus are perhaps the key figures in connecting us back to the apostles. Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John- when Polycarp was young and John was old. Polycarp then became the Bishop of Smyrna prior to his martyrdom. He also had a great influence on a young Irenaeus- who was the Bishop of Lyons in the second century before he also was martyred. Irenaeus’ work Against Heresies (written around 170-180 AD) is one of the most significant early documents in the history of the church. It gets us close to the apostles for Irenaeus, through Polycarp, is only a couple of generations away from the apostle John. Irenaeus describes Polycarp in these words:
“Polycarp was instructed by the apostles, and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ…He used to speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord, and he would call their words to remembrance. He tarried a very long time and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the church has handed down, and which alone are true.”
Polycarp was so convinced of the truth of the apostles’ witness that, like those who had gone before, he was prepared to die for his faith in Christ. His words when asked to recant his faith are well known:
“Eighty-six years I have served him and He never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour?”
In truth, Against Heresies can feel like hard work for the modern reader. The particular heresy that Irenaeus was seeking to combat was Gnosticism and the opening half of his work explains this philosophy in some depth. It owed a lot to a slightly bizarre form of mysticism. It seriously downplayed the physical and so denied that Jesus could be both human and divine.
But the second half of the work is very helpful for modern readers. It is absolutely packed with quotations from Scripture- both Old Testament and New Testament- a clear indication that the Gospels were widely disseminated and used by the church within two generations of the apostles. It is Irenaeus who describes Mark- the Gospel author- as “the disciple and interpreter of Peter.” He insists that there are only four Gospels and asserts their veracity as opposed to the much later Gnostic Gospels- the false teachers “being altogether reckless, while they put forth their own compositions, boast that they possess more Gospels than there really are. Indeed, they arrive at such audacity, as to entitle their comparatively recent writing, ‘The Gospel of Truth’, though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles.”
The work of Irenaeus shows us that the Gospel accounts were written early and were accepted by a church that still had close connections with those who had been with Jesus. That should give us great confidence. What is more, Irenaeus shows us that the core truths we believe today were being taught by the early church: they didn’t develop centuries after. So listen to him on the Trinity:
“The church, though dispersed through the whole world…has received from the apostles and disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit…”
“The knowledge of the Father is through the Son, and the knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit.”
He is absolutely clear on the truth that God has inspired both Old and New Testaments- pointing out that God is a righteous judge in both and also observing the way in which Christ is foretold in the Old and appears in the New:
“How did the Scriptures testify of Him unless they were from one and the same Father, instructing men beforehand as to the advent of His Son and foretelling the salvation brought in by Him?”
Irenaeus writes gloriously about the accomplishments of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection:
“It was incumbent upon the Mediator between God and men, by His relationship to both, to bring both to friendship and concord, and present man to God, while He revealed God to man.”
Like the apostle Paul, a strong theme in Irenaeus’ work is that Jesus reverses all the harm done by Adam:
“For doing away with that disobedience of a man which had taken place at the beginning by the occasion of a tree, he became obedient to death, even the death of the cross, rectifying that disobedience which had occurred by reason of a tree, through the obedience which was upon the tree.”
“As our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life through a victorious one.”
As we consider the Gospels this Christmas, we can rejoice that we are not looking at dubious documents that emerged from the shadows. There is a clear chain from the apostles, who were with Jesus, to the church of later centuries and the Gospel accounts are right at the heart of that. Through the Gospels we are being connected to those who were eyewitnesses of His majesty. And through them we meet Jesus- the one who in Irenaeus’ words “became the Son of Man for this purpose- that man also might become the Son of God.”