Irenaeus: Touchstone of Catholicity


Irenaeus of Lyons it would seem has been all things to all people. He was highly regarded in the early church and frequently cited by later writers as a "reliable and orthodox witness" of the catholic faith.1 He provides an important link between Greek and Latin Christianity, as well as between the apostolic church and its later institutional forms. Irenaeus has consistently been regarded as the touchstone of catholicity. As the first theologian to attempt to systematise Christian doctrine, Irenaeus was held in high esteem by the early church. In the writings of Irenaeus we can recognise the nascent structures of what became the catholic church. It is probably for this reason that Irenaeus came to be associated with the idea of "early catholicism". Eric Osborn has shown that this association is dubious in that a number of thought patterns associated with the idea of "early catholicism" are notably absent from Irenaeus' writings.2 The problem is not with the catholicity of Irenaeus but with what the term "early catholicism" represents. The discrepancy between the two is one that resonates with contemporary debates about the nature of catholicity and one that I will explore for the illumination that it offers for how we might rethink the idea of catholicity in conversation with Irenaeus.


Irenaeus and "early catholicism"

According to Eric Osborn, the primary characteristic of early catholicism was considered to be the beginnings of a shift in "the locus of salvation . . . from Christ to the church as institution".3 This separation is inappropriate when applied to Irenaeus for whom the church is the whole body of Christ, adopted through the Word as sons and daughters of God.4 The church shares in the first fruits of the new creation and looks forward to its fulfilment in Christ. Although Irenaeus recognises the importance of institutional structures, he never identifies them with the church. Rather, the church is constituted by the presence of the Holy Spirit. "For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace".5

We can glimpse the attitude of the Christian community at Lyons towards the increasing hierarchialisation of the church, in a letter from this church commending Irenaeus to Eleutherius. "We beg you to hold him in high regard as one zealous for the covenant of Christ. For if we had thought that rank could confer righteousness on anyone, we would have recommended him as a presbyter of the church, which he is in fact."6 Irenaeus, likewise, is scornful of those who are "puffed up with pride in their presidential seats".7

A second characterisation of early catholicism is found in Bultmann's suggestion that within early catholicism, "law became constitutive rather than regulative for the church".8 That this cannot apply to Irenaeus is demonstrated by Irenaeus' intervention in the dispute over the celebration of Easter. Victor, bishop of Rome, had attempted to persuade the churches to remove themselves from communion with the Quatrodecian churches of Asia Minor who celebrated Easter according to the date of the Jewish Passover. Although Irenaeus himself preferred the Roman practice, he wrote to Victor citing the example of his predecessor Anicetus and of Polycarp of Smyrna, who although they had been unable to reach an agreement on the same matter, "communed with each other, and in church, Anicetus yielded the consecration of the Eucharist to Polycarp, obviously out of respect. They parted from each other in peace, and peace in the whole church was maintained."9

Another feature that was considered to be characteristic of early catholicism but which turns out to be especially inapplicable to Irenaeus is "the fading of future eschatology as the significant trend".10 In Irenaeus' theology eschatology is constitutive of catholicity through the recapitulation of all things in Christ. This is expressed clearly in his theology of eucharist, which I will discuss below.

Although the term "early catholicism" does point to a genuine truth, Osborn hopes that the term "may fall into well-deserved neglect by interpreters of Irenaeus" on account of its imprecision.11 It appears to me, however, that the problem with this idea of "early catholicism" lies in its use by both apologists and those nostalgic for the simpler Christianity of the apostolic church, whereby the perceived traits of a later Roman Catholicism are projected onto the early church. The term may still be useful as an attempt to appreciate how the early church understood catholicity. For this reason that I would like to preserve the idea as a way of re-imagining a catholicity that is in continuity with both the early church and the exigencies of our own contemporary situation in which the possibility of a truly catholic (world) church has perhaps emerged for the first time. I look to Irenaeus, therefore, not to justify the present structures or to lament them, but as a touchstone and guide in imagining the future.

The Catholicity of Irenaeus

Irenaeus is a genuinely catholic thinker for whom nothing is left out of the economy of salvation and for whom truth is always to be found in the whole. To cite Osborn again, "In Irenaeus, Athens and Jerusalem meet at Patmos He is the first writer to have a Christian bible before him."12 He "pioneered the first comprehensive ecclesiology"13 and was the first Christian theologian to speak in a systematic way of the rule of faith.14

Irenaeus did place an emphasis on tradition and argued for the importance of the apostolic succession in the maintenance of that tradition: features that attract the attention of Catholic apologists. But Irenaeus would not allow a place in the hierarchy of apostolic succession to confer the right to determine the content of that tradition. That, after all, is the way of the Gnostics who establish lineages to authenticate their novelties. Nor will Irenaeus admit the possibility of disagreement between apostolic churches on matters bearing on the rule of truth. Although Irenaeus cites Rome as an example of an apostolic church with whom all should be in agreement,15 it is the unity of belief that determines the catholicity of faith, not the other way around. Irenaeus' catholicity was not one of discipline or hierarchy. The hallmark of the catholicity of the church was what was believed everywhere, even by those who are "`are barbarians in relation to our language' (2 Cor.14:11) but most wise, because of the faith".16 The church proclaims, teaches and hands down the faith, "harmoniously, as if she possessed but one mouth".17

Central to Irenaeus' idea of catholicity are the principles of continuity and harmony. If a dispute were to occur between two churches, that is between two places, then appeal could be made to continuity in time, to ancient practice.18 One apostolic church cannot be judged by the tradition of another as all apostolic churches hold the same tradition, even though practices may vary amongst them. Similarly, if there were a dispute arising from discontinuity in time, between ancient and contemporary practice, continuity of practice across the churches of the world in the present would testify to its authenticity. The problem with Gnostic teaching, Irenaeus argued, was its novelty and total lack of continuity. "They contradict the order and continuity of the scriptures".19 In other words, they lack catholicity.


A Eucharistic Theology

My main interest in Irenaeus, however, is his theology of eucharist in that the eucharist is constitutive of church. It is the sacrament of church effecting what it signifies. It is "the source and summit of Christian life".20 This idea supported by Irenaeus: "Our teaching is in accord with the Eucharist and the Eucharist, in its turn, confirms our teaching".21 For these reasons we can get a clearer understanding of someone's ecclesiology by examining their theology of eucharist.There is close correspondence between the church's dominant theology of eucharist and its ecclesiology and social structure. When the dominant understanding of eucharist is that of sacrifice there is an emphasis on hierarchy. The two seem to go hand in hand to the extent that lay-priestly differentiation is usually accompanied by a greater emphasis on the eucharist as an expiatory sacrifice. To take a position on the manner in which the eucharist is or is not a sacrifice is to take a political, ecclesiological as well as a theological position. Irenaeus does in fact call the eucharist a sacrifice but in a manner consistent with the New Testament subversion of the sacrificial paradigm and his own theology of the economy of recapitulation. A properly sacrificial economy, on the other hand, emphasises discontinuity by separating the elect from the ritually impure in the present and for this reason is not conducive to a vital eschatology.

Robert Daly argues in The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice that "it is precisely an incarnational spiritualisation of sacrifice that is operative in the New Testament and the early Church".22 An examination of the way in which the language of sacrifice is used reveals that the Christian sacrificial activity in the New Testament is primarily ethical and practical rather than liturgical or cultic.23 Sacrificial language is rhetorical in the same manner that Matthew's gospel has Jesus proclaim that he has not come to abolish the Law but to complete it even though the ritual commandments of the law have disappeared.24

In the world of the early church sacrifice was one of the principal means of communing with the divine. Christians were often suspected of "atheism" precisely because they did not sacrifice, as the pagans understood it. For Christians in this environment to claim that they too have a sacrifice, but one that exceeds and replaces all others, was, perhaps, the most straightforward way in which to express the radicalness of the Christian break with sacrifice.25 The Christian use of sacrificial language transforms sacrifice itself.

According to Irenaeus the eucharistic offerings are not made because God needs or profits by them. Rather, God allows us to make them because we have a need to make them in that they give us the opportunity to be fruitful and grateful.26 Our offerings do not give glory to God, but, properly offered, they bring glory to us.27 Oblation and sacrifice do not confer holiness upon the person who makes them but rather are made holy by the pure conscience of the one who offers them. 28 Made without inner charity and justice towards one's neighbour and fear of God, will be of no avail.

In that eucharist in itself does not purify, the eucharist is not, strictly speaking, a sacrifice. What is important for Irenaeus is one's interior disposition. That it is Christians themselves who constitute the "new temple" overturns the cultic traffic with transcendence by making the divine an immanent reality not separated from the profane but transforming the profane into a "new creation".

For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.29

In Christ, all things are reconciled, both clean and unclean. The Irenaean catholicisation of the sacred is at odds with the sacrificial logic of closure and exclusion.

Irenaeus elaborated his eucharistic theology, not in apologetic term but in opposition to the Gnostic world-view. This is the reason that he stresses the materiality of the things offered to God which could not be offered, Irenaeus argues, if they were not God's own. The eucharist for Irenaeus is always linked to thanksgiving for God's creation in order that we may be neither unfruitful nor ungrateful. 30

In Irenaeus' text it is not the body and blood of Christ that is offered but the bread and wine. These are offered with thanksgiving and out of pure hearts, and through the invocation of Christ's name become his body and blood, from which we eat and drink. By a sacrifice of gratitude, the earthly first-offerings become first-fruits of the new creation, for the nourishment of believers.31

The eucharist is, according to Irenaeus, oriented towards eschatological fulfilment in which the believer is transformed through sharing the first fruits in Christ. The new creation, then, stands in continuity with the first creation. For just as creation is made through the Word, the new creation is realised in Christ. We are nourished by both the creation that God provides and Christ in whom we grow as a new creation.32

Here Irenaeus' thought exemplifies what Dermot Lane describes as the two theological principles of eschatology. The first is that Christ must be the norm and foundation of eschatology. The second is "that a `red thread' should be seen to run through the doctrines of creation, redemption and consummation."33 In Irenaeus' theology nothing is left out. Even the visible universe is destined to be transformed and will itself serve the cause of justice.34


 Concluding remarks

The principle of continuity runs through both Irenaeus' theology of the economy of salvation and his theology of the eucharist which is the sacramental expression of that economy. The most distinctive mark of Irenaeus' theology is its inclusive concern for the whole of creation and his "unreserved commitment to the world in Christ's name for the sake of the world, the world's argument, approbation and wrath notwithstanding".35 Continuity is also the hallmark of Irenaeus' theology of recapitulation in which creation is fulfilled through the incarnation in the eschaton.

For Irenaeus, catholicity is the consequence of the universal manifested in the particular. This establishes a continuity and a harmony between the particulars in that they are all illuminated by the one divine source.36 This catholicity expresses the public character of truth that is both particular and universal. It is particular because it can only be expressed in a particular time and place, in the local church whose traditions are to be respected and not to be negated by those of another church. It is universal because it cannot be limited to or exhausted by any if its particular expressions. It is not the exclusive possession of any single party, nor is it able to be identified exclusively with any of its parts. One might argue for a certain priority of the particular as the necessary incarnation of the whole, but its catholicity can only be assured so long as it remains open to the whole, to its other in time and space with whom it shares a common faith.

This openness to the whole also means openness to the new. Irenaeus showed such openness in his sympathy towards Montanism until its divisiveness became apparent. Rosemary Radford Ruether suggests that this was in part Irenaeus' intention in seeking to refute those who "set at nought the gift of the Spirit, which in the latter times has been ... poured out upon the human race".37

The bishop of Lyons, although conservative in his concern for the integrity of the tradition, also insists on the importance of the evangelical and charismatic dimensions of Christian faith. To keep the faith is at the same time to proclaim the faith. Against those who would divide the church, the heavenly and the earthly Christ, flesh and spirit, kerygma and tradition, Irenaeus stressed unities,38 while always allowing for an authentic plurality of interpretation.

Irenaeus opposed any who would divide the church, whether they be Gnostics, schismatic millenarians, or the authoritarianism of the Bishop of Rome himself. It is this inclusiveness that is most characteristic of Irenaeus' sense of catholicity which is at odds with both the scholarly notion of "early catholicism" and the divisive ultra-montanist tendencies of much conservative Roman Catholicism today. Ultimately, a genuine catholicity such as that portrayed by Irenaeus is inclusive of difference because it is kath 'holou of the whole.


This article is reproduced with permission from the Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church, Vol. 3. Liturgy and Life, edited by Geoffrey Dunn and Bronwen Neil.




1 Euseb. Hist. eccl. 3. 23, Eng. trans. P.L. Maier, (Grand Rapids 1999), 110. 

2 E. Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons (Cambridge 2001), 124-126.

3 Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons 124.

4 D. Minnis, Irenaeus (London 1994) 116.

5 Iren. Adv. haer. 3.24.1; SC 211, A. Rousseau and L. Doutreleau, eds (Paris 1974) 472, Eng. trans. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. eds. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson (Grand Rapids 1987) 458.

6 Euseb. Hist. eccl. 5.4.

7 Iren. Adv. haer. 4.26.3; SC 100, A. Rousseau, ed (Paris 1965) 720, Eng. trans.

8 Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, vol. 2, (London 1955) 97-8. Cited by Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons,125.

9 Euseb. Hist. eccl 5.24, Eng. trans. P.L. Maier, 199. Eusebius continues with the observation that, "Irenaeus, whose character suited his name as a peacemaker, negotiated such issues for the peace of the church. He wrote not only to Victor, but also to many other heads of churches in discussing the question."

10 Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons, 124.

11 Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons, 126.

12 Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons, xi.

13 Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons, 124.

14 Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons, 145.

15 Irenaeus lists Rome by way of example, because it is "greatest, most ancient, and known to all, founded and set up by the two most glorious apostles". Because the church of Rome is emblematic of all apostolic churches "it is necessary for every church . . . to agree with this church, in which the tradition from the apostles, has always been preserved". Iren. Adv. haer. 3.3.2; SC 211 32, Eng. trans. R. M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (London 1997) 125.

16 Iren. Adv. haer. 3.4.2: SC 211 48, Eng. trans. Grant, 127.

17 Iren. Adv. haer. 1.10.2; SC 264, A. Rousseau and L. Doutreleau, eds (Paris 1979) 158, Eng. trans. D.J. Unger, ACW 55, St. Irenaeus of Lyons. Against the Heresies (New York 1992) 49.

18 Iren. Adv. haer. 3.4.1; SC 211 46.

19 Iren. Adv. haer. 1.8.1; SC 264 112, Eng. trans. Grant, 65.

20 Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 11.

21 Iren. Adv. haer. 4.18.5; SC 100 610, Eng. trans. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, 486.

22 Robert, J. Daly, The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice (London 1978) 138. The question arises as to whether sacrifice can undergo an "incarnational spiritualisation" and still be sacrifice?

23 Daly, The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice, vii.

24 Cf. Matt 5:17.

25 Justin Martyr in his First Apology clearly situates Christian worship in its anti-sacrificial and cosmic dimension.

"What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring, as we have been taught, that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; whom we praise to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things wherewith we are supplied, as we have been taught that the only honour that is worthy of him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him to offer thanks by invocations and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present before Him petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in him."

1 Apol. 13. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. 166. Elsewhere Justin writes,

that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God . . . For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind.

Dial. 117, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, 257.

26 Iren. Adv. haer. 4.17.5; SC 100 590.

27 Iren. Adv. haer. 4.18.1; SC 100 596.
28 Iren. Adv. haer. 4.18.3; SC 100 604.

29 Iren. Adv. haer. 4.18.5; SC 100 610, Eng. trans. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, 486.

30 Iren. Adv. haer. 4.17.5; SC 100 590.

31 Irenaeus explains:

He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said, `This is My body'. And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, he confessed to be his blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world, to him who gives us as the means of subsistence the first-fruits of his own gifts in the New Testament.

Iren. Adv. haer. 4.17.5; SC 100 590 592, Eng. trans. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, 484.

32 Iren. Adv. haer. 5.2.2: SC 153, A. Rousseau, L. Doutreleau and C. Mercier, eds (Paris 1969) 32, Eng. trans. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, 528. "He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies." The new creation, therefore, is continuous with the first creation.

33 Dermot Lane, "Eschatology", A New Dictionary of Theology, eds. J. Komonchak et al. eds, (Dublin 1990) 341.

34 Iren. Adv. haer. 5.32.1; SC 153 398.

35 Douglas Farrow, "Eucharist, Eschatology and Ethics", The Future as God's Gift. Explorations in Christian Eschatology, D. Ferguson and M. Sarot eds, (Edinburgh 2000) 213-124.

36 Iren. Adv. haer. 1.10.2; SC 264 160.

37 Iren. Adv. haer. 3, 11, 9; SC 211 170 172. See R. Radford Ruether, Women and Redemption: A Theological History, (Minneapolis 1998) 53. The translator in the Ante-Nicene Fathers assumes the opposite viewpoint that Irenaeus is in fact attacking the Montanists in this passage. Grant, Irenaeus, 6, states that we don't know what Irenaeus thought but that "if he really opposed Montanism he must have . . . objected to its disorderly character, not its emphasis on spiritual gifts".

38 B.E. Daley, The Hope of the Early Church. A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Cambridge 1991) 28.