On Saint Irenæus and the Continuity of the Church


A post-Protestant friend of mine has a particular fondness for that great Doctor of the Church, Saint Irenæus of Lyons, whose feast day is today1. He occasionally quotes from the saint’s great work, Adversus Hæreses (Against Heresies), and he is particularly fond of the saint’s assertion that “the proper glory of God is man fully alive.”

He refers to the saint as a “pre-Roman Catholic”. He draws distinctions between the “spiritual” Church and the “hierarchical” Church, which he sees as profoundly anti-Christian.

Needless to say, I bristle at his “pre-Roman Catholic” terminology, and indeed, at the faulty theology and reading of history that gives rise to it.

Perhaps one could refer this way to the Church prior to the Roman missions of Saints Peter and Paul, but by the time of Irenæus, that would be impossible. In contradiction to the claims of those who repudiate the Catholic Church with its hierarchy and tradition, the saint, who was taught the faith by Saint Polycarp, who was in his turn taught the faith by the Apostle Saint John (the beloved disciple) has this to say:

But since it would be too long to enumerate2 in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles.

With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.

(Saint Irenæus of Lyons, Adversus Hæreses 3:3:2 [A.D. 189])

Saint Irenæus died for his faith and his Church.

There is a beautiful, flowing continuity through time and spirit from Christ to Peter and the Apostles to the Fathers to the Bishops of the present day.

The spiritual Church is the hierarchical Church is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

We stand in an uninterrupted progression of tradition and apostolic succession from Christ, through the Apostles, through the Church to the present moment of the present day.

  1. In the calendar of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. In the older western Rites, his feast is celebrated on July 3, and in the eastern Rites on August 23.
  2. The original “tl;dr”.

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