CHAPTER VI. —THE FATHERS OF THE SECOND AND THIRD CENTURIES
is the next author of eminence whose works have come down to us. He was a disciple of Polycarp, came from the East, settled in France, and became Bishop of Lyons; for in his time there was some distinction between bishops and presbyters, though it was very unlike the modern one, and though he continues, as I formerly had occasion to mention, to use the words in a great measure indiscriminately. He lived till the very end of the second or the beginning of the third century. We have already had occasion to mention that his principal work, which has come down to us, is a full account and confutation of the heresies that had been broached since the introduction of Christianity; and its real value must in a great measure depend upon the importance of acquiring a knowledge of these heresies—a topic which we have already endeavored to explain. In confuting these heresies, however, Irenaeus has made a most abundant use of Scripture; and indeed it has been calculated, that he has quoted or referred to about nine hundred texts, and his work thus forms an important link in the chain of evidence for the authenticity and integrity of the canonical books. It is true, however, of him, as of the rest, that his writings afford us very little assistance in ascertaining and establishing the true meaning of any portion of Scripture, except, as formerly explained, indirectly, through the information they afford as to the precise nature of the heresies to which the apostles referred; and that they contain abundant proof that he could not by any means be safely followed as an expositor of Scripture. Although there are no plausible grounds for charging Irenaeus with being led into error by a love of philosophical speculation, or by a predilection for heathen literature, as has been alleged in regard to Justin Martyr; and although there is no reason to doubt that he was a man of true piety, yet he seems to have deviated farther from scriptural doctrine, and to have embraced a larger number of erroneous opinions than Justin did; thus illustrating the almost regularly progressive corruption of the church. He was, like Justin, a believer in the doctrine of the Trinity, though, like him too, he has made some statements which have afforded a handle to the Arians. He has, more explicitly than Justin, asserted the doctrine of free will (autexousion), in what would now be called an Arminian or Pelagian sense; while be has also very explicitly contradicted himself upon this subject—i.e., he has laid down scriptural or evangelical principles which oppose it—thus apparently indicating that the great principles of evangelical truth which the inspired apostles taught, were still generally retained in the church, though they were beginning to be somewhat obscured and corrupted; and that the corruption was coming in at that point, or in connection with that topic, which has usually furnished one of the most ready and plausible handles to men whose perception of divine things was weak and feeble, and who have, in consequence, been the great corrupters of scriptural doctrine—viz., the alleged natural power of man, as he is, to do the will of God. Irenaeus, like Justin, indulged in some unwarranted speculations about angels, and the state of the souls of men after death; and he has put forth some unintelligible absurdities in the way of comparing Eve, the mother of us all, with Mary, the mother of our Lord, which have afforded to Papists a plausible ground for alleging that he ascribed to Mary a share in the salvation of sinners, and in consequence thought her entitled to a measure of honour and worship which the Scripture certainly does not sanction.
Irenaeus cannot be said, any more than any of the fathers who preceded him, to have conveyed to us any valuable information as to what the apostles taught or ordained, in addition to what is taught or ordained in the canonical Scriptures. He does indeed profess, upon several occasions, to communicate to us some information which he had received by oral tradition from the apostles; but it so happens providentially, that in the instances in which he does this most explicitly and most confidently, he alleges in one case what clearly contradicts Scripture, and in another what is too absurd to be believed upon almost any testimony. Some Gnostics had asserted that Christ’s public ministry lasted only one year. Irenaeus is answering this, and after adducing many foolish reasons to prove a priori that Christ must have lived longer on earth than thirty years,—such as that He came to save men of all ages, and must therefore have passed through, old age as well as childhood,—distinctly avers that Christ lived on earth till He was nearly fifty years of age, and refers, in proof of this, first to the gospel, and then to the testimony of all the elders who conversed with John, the disciple of our Lord, and who declared that John told them this; and he adds, that these men had not only seen John, but also others of the apostles, who had told them the same thing. Notwithstanding this somewhat imposing array of hearsay evidence, I am not aware that any of the more respectable worshippers of tradition has adopted Irenaeus’ opinion as to the duration of our Saviour’s sojourn on earth, which the gospel history so clearly refutes.
In the other case, he gives a very childish and ridiculous description of the abundance of luxuries, and of the fertility of the soil, especially in producing grapes and wine, to be enjoyed in the days of the millennium,—a description which he alleges had been handed down from the mouth of our Lord Himself. Of course no one now believes that our Lord or His apostles ever said what Irenaeus ascribed to them on this subject; yet he evidently believed that they did. Irenaeus was a man quite equal to the generality of the fathers of the first three centuries in point of good principle and good sense; and these facts therefore show, not only how little reliance is to be placed upon any allegations of theirs as to the transmission of doctrines or appointments of the apostles by oral tradition, but also more generally, how unsafe and uncertain a medium of transmission oral tradition is.
The same lesson is taught us very clearly and impressively by the circumstances connected with a discussion which broke out more than once in the course of the second century, in which Irenaeus was concerned, and which may be said to have been the first controversy which agitated the church. I refer to the well known dispute as to the day on which Easter should be kept, in which, on both sides, there was an appeal to the authority of the apostles conveyed by tradition. We find in the book of the Acts plain proofs that the apostles, and the Jewish converts generally, along with other Jewish rites, observed the Passover, which is translated (Acts 12:4) unfairly Easter. The keeping of the Passover as such, does not seem to have continued after the destruction of Jerusalem, except by the Judaizing sects, the Ebionites and the Nazarenes; but instead of it, or as a sort of substitute for it, there seems to have been gradually introduced the practice of commemorating the event of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, —the original institution of this ordinance being identical in point of time with our Lord’s last observance of the Passover, and the ordinance itself having, in the Christian church, a place and a purpose analogous to those of the Passover in the Jewish church. This again seems to have led to the commemoration of our Saviour’s resurrection, the great direct subject of the apostolic testimony; and then the commemoration of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, identical in point of time with the Jewish Passover, in the keeping of which the whole of these days of commemoration manifestly originated, seems to have been transferred to the day of His death, which was still regarded as the Passover. It has always been, and indeed still is, a subject of controversial discussion, whether the day on which our Saviour kept the Passover and instituted the Lord’s Supper, or the following day, on which He was crucified, was the right legal day for observing the Passover on that occasion; in other words, whether the Thursday or the Friday of that week was the 14th day of the first month. Many have contended that our Lord, on that occasion, anticipated by one day the ordinary time for observing it; and that the Friday, the day of His crucifixion, was that on which, according to the law, it ought to have been observed.
At any rate, the 14th of the first month was that on which, in the primitive church, first the Jewish Passover as such, then, as coming, in its place, the commemoration of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and afterwards the commemoration of His death, was celebrated; and then, of course, the anniversary of His resurrection would fall to be celebrated on the third day thereafter. We find that, about the middle of the second century, a difference obtained in the practice of different churches as to the day on which the commemoration of the resurrection should be celebrated, and that a dispute arose concerning it. From the very imperfect notices which we have of this affair, there is some difficulty in determining precisely what were the points involved in the discussion; and Mosheim has investigated this topic very fully and minutely.
But the main point of dispute was this, whether the anniversary of our Saviour’s death and resurrection should be celebrated upon the 14th day of the first month, and the third day thereafter respectively, on whatever day of the week these might fall, —or should be celebrated upon the Friday and the following Lord’s day, whatever day of the month they might fall upon. The churches in Asia generally adopted the former rule, and the churches of the West the latter. Thus stood matters about the middle of the second century, when some discussion arose concerning the accuracy of the different practices. About that time, Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, came to Rome and discussed the matter with Anicetus, bishop of that city. It could scarcely be alleged that there was anything in Scripture to warrant the observance of such anniversary days in the Christian church, or to determine the time of their observance; and the appeal accordingly was to the alleged practice of the apostles, the Asiatics claiming in support of their rule the practice of the apostles John and Philip, and the Western churches that of Peter and Paul. Polycarp and Anicetus could not come to an agreement upon the question; but as there was still a large measure of brotherly love and forbearance among the churches, and no such sense as afterwards obtained of the importance and necessity of perfect uniformity in all outward rites and ceremonies; and as Anicetus, though Bishop of Rome, had no more idea that he was entitled to rule the universal church than Peter had that this prerogative was vested in him, they separated on friendly terms after uniting together in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, at which Polycarp presided.
The diversity of practice continued, and about the end of the century gave rise to another dispute, involving the same principles and the same appeals to apostolic practice, but conducted with greater vehemence. Victor Bishop of Rome, seems to have insisted upon the Eastern churches changing their practice, and agreeing to commemorate Christ’s resurrection upon the Lord’s day, on whatever day of the month it might fall; and, of course, regulating the keeping of any other days observed about that season of the year by the fixing of what was afterwards called Easter Sunday instead of the 14th day of the month. The Asiatic churches disregarded his interference; and Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, wrote a letter to him in their name, part of which is preserved in Eusebius, in which, after appealing to the practice of the apostles John and Philip, and of the bishops who had succeeded them, he bases their refusal to adopt the Western practice upon no less sacred a principle than the duty of obeying God rather than men. Victor, who seems to have exhibited in embryo the spirit of pride and usurpation which ultimately produced the full-blown Papacy, —though he did not venture to put forth a claim to supremacy over the church, issued, in consequence, a sentence of excommunication against the Eastern churches; and here it was that Irenaeus became connected with the controversy. Though an Asiatic by birth, and a disciple of Polycarp, he agreed with the Western church, in which he was now settled, about the celebration of Easter; but he wholly disapproved of the arbitrary and insolent conduct of Victor, and addressed to him a letter of earnest remonstrance upon the subject, which is also preserved, and is one of the most interesting documents that have come down to us bearing upon the history of the second century. It is from this letter that we learn of Polycarp’s visit to Rome, and of the fraternal intercourse between him and Anicetus notwithstanding their difference of opinion and practice upon the subject; and the principle object of the letter is to urge Victor to follow the example of forbearance upon this point which his predecessors had set him. As it is certain that Victor’s sentence of excommunication was wholly disregarded by the Asiatic churches and by the church in general, —as it was never cancelled, —and as yet the ecclesiastical standing of the Asiatic bishops and their successors was not in the least affected by it, —some Roman Catholic writers, seeing the inauspicious bearing of this fact upon the allegation that the Bishops of Rome have always been recognized as the vicars of Christ and the sources and centers of catholic unity, have maintained that Victor merely threatened to excommunicate the Eastern churches, but did not carry his threat into execution.
This question is not altogether free from difficulty, and there are both Protestant and Popish writers who have defended the opposite sides. Bellarmine assumes it as incontrovertible, that Victor excommunicated the Asiatic churches, and adduces it as a proof of the then recognized right of the Bishop of Rome to exercise supremacy over the whole church; and the same use had been previously made of it by Pope Nicholas I., who flourished in the ninth century, and dealt largely in excommunications. But later Popish controversialists, shrinking from the difficulty of having no evidence to produce that the supposed sentence of excommunication was either regarded as valid at the time, or was cancelled afterwards, have thought it more expedient, even with the necessity of throwing Pope Nicholas overboard, to maintain, as is done boldly and learnedly by Natalis Alexander, that Victor merely threatened to excommunicate, but did not issue the sentence. Protestants have no temptation to deal unfairly by the historical evidence upon this point; for, whether the sentence of excommunication was issued or not, the history of this whole matter affords abundant proof that the idea that the Bishop of Rome was the vicar of Christ, or that it was necessary to be in communion with him in order to be in communion with the catholic church, was then wholly unknown. But I have no doubt that there is quite sufficient evidence in statements upon the subject found in Eusebius, Socrates, Nicephorus, and Epiphanius, that Victor did excommunicate the Asiatic churches, while the only evidence on the other side is the notorious fact, that the sentence was entirely disregarded, and did not take effect; and for a Romanist to found on this as a proof that the excommunication was never issued, is of course a mere petitio principii.
The bearing of these proceedings and discussions connected with the time of celebrating Easter, occurring as they did soon after the middle, and again near the end of the second century, upon the questions of the reliance that may be placed upon alleged apostolical traditions not recorded in Scripture, and the recognition and exercise of the alleged supremacy of the Pope, is too obvious to need to be pointed out; and it gives to them an importance in the history of the church that bears no proportion to the intrinsic importance of the subject, in itself very insignificant, to which they referred. We are to regard the work, and to notice the design, of God in this, as in all the dispensations of His providence; and we cannot but view these transactions as a great beacon erected near the commencement of the church’s history, to warn men, first, that no reliance is to be placed upon any pretended apostolical traditions, unless they are contained in the canonical Scriptures; and, secondly, that the Bishops of Rome are neither qualified nor entitled to govern the church of Christ. The warning on both points was disregarded; and the consequence was, that the great body of the professing church ultimately made almost entire shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience, and became involved in thick darkness and deep degradation.
 Lib. 2, chap. 22.
 Commentarii, p. 435, et seq.
 Lib. 5, chap. 24.
 Vide La Placette, p. 88.
 Vide Bellarnminus, de Rom. Pont., Lib. 2, chap. 19; Mornayi Mysterium Iniquitatis, p. 16, et seq.; Heideggeri Historia Papatus, Period 1, sec. 14; Dupin, de Antiqua Ecclesiae Disciplina, p. 145; and especially La Piacette, Observantiones Historico Ecclesiasticae, Part 2, Obs. 1, pp. 83-102; Ittigius, H.E. saec. 2, chap. 2, pp. 78-89; Nat. Alexander, saec. 2, Diss. 5, Art. 5.