Friday, December 10, 2021



As a young man, he had sat at the feet of the local bishop, ‘a steadfast witness of truth’ by the name of Polycarp – and who, so Irenaeus reported, had in his turn known the gospel-writer John.

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland

The time is the latter part of the second century.  Irenaeus would travel from Asia Minor to Gaul, which, by then, already had a local population of Christians.  He was able to take such a journey for the same reason that the Apostle Paul was able to travel long distances: Roman roads and Roman governance.  He would write:

“It is thanks to them that we are able to walk along well-kept roads without fear, and take ship wherever we wish.”

Local mobs and the empire felt otherwise.  And it is this that Holland describes, in 177 in the Rhône valley:

…so capriciously did the violence spread, and so savagely did it manifest itself, that it seemed to its victims to have erupted from a realm of darkness beyond the merely human.

Beaten, then imprisoned, then subject to being gored by bulls, savaged by dogs, or roasted on red-hot chairs of iron.  One wonders if those safe Roman roads were merely roads to hell.  This, taken from a letter written quite possibly by Irenaeus himself (as quoted by Eusebius):

“Those things reckoned by men low, and invisible, and contemptible, are precisely what God ranks as deserving of great glory.”

A sentiment more contrary to Roman virtue could not be found.  This was exemplified in Blandina, a slave girl, enduring every torture and torment.  Other Christians relented, but not her.  In the arena, her broken body had seemed transfigured:

Her fellow martyrs, in the midst of their own agonies, ‘had looked upon their sister, and seen in her person the One who was crucified for them.’

But had Christ really suffered so?  Some thought He was only spirit; it was inconceivable that Christ might have actually suffered death.  Some thought that, at the last minute, He tricked an ignorant man to take His place on the cross.  Those who suffered as Blandina did were pathetically deluded.

Irenaeus embraced the necessity for orthodoxy.  “Beliefs, after all, did not patrol themselves.”  He was in an authentic battle of ideas, condemning heresies and thereby approving orthodoxy.  The origin of doctrines would be traced back to the time of the apostles. 

But the heresies would come.  Marcion was revolted by the idea that Christ might have had a human body; the God that sent Christ was not the God of creation.  Marcion’s canon would include ten letters of Paul, and a condensed version of Luke – and, certainly, it would exclude the Jewish scripture in its entirety.

Irenaeus would counter this: the Jewish scripture was declared essential reading for all Christians.  He would include, in addition to Luke’s gospel, that of John, Matthew and Mark.  All other accounts of Christ’s life were deemed “ropes woven out of sand.”

Next, we come to Origen of Alexandria, the son of Christian parents.  In 202, when he was seventeen, his father was arrested and beheaded.  He would often have to evade angry mobs himself.  His dread: that the Great Church was under constant siege. 

Origen would enshrine the Jewish scripture as an “Old Testament.”  This, despite all of the riddles, parables and dark sayings (as he would write) that were inherent. 

Yet all of them derived from God.  Contradictions only hinted at hidden truths.

The great library of Alexandria held many ancient texts.  In this, Origen would find that “Whatever men have rightly said, no matter who or where, is the property of us Christians.”  God has spoken to Greeks and Jews, and such an idea was to be found even in the writings of the Apostle Paul. 

Christianity, in Origen’s opinion, was not merely compatible with philosophy, but the ultimate expression of it.

He would establish a school, where nothing was hidden from the students.  Every doctrine was available for study.  Of course, not as an end to itself, but as a means to help illumine Christian truth.  Origen would use philosophy, more than anyone before him, to fashion an entire theologia – a science of God.  and a tough nut to crack – how was Jesus God if there is only one God?  And what of the Spirit? 

To answer such questions, he would reach back even to Aristotle and beyond.  After all, Paul noted that the Greeks had an alter to the UNKNOWN GOD.  The Greek philosophers were also on a search, and Paul would provide an answer.


In the year 250, a formal decree was passed that would seal Origen’s fate.  All, except for the Jews, must offer a sacrifice to the gods.  To fail to do so was treason, punishable by death.  The choice was their lives or their faith. Origen was arrested and beaten.  But he would not recant.  Spared execution, he would die a year or so later, never recovering from the brutal beatings.

Philippians 1: 20 According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. 

21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

1 comment:

  1. From my prior readings I am more a fan of Irenaeus than Origen. I am not against his comments on Christianity being the ultimate expression of philosophy and seeing truth in sources outside the Bible. That is all reasonable I think. I also think it is okay to see where even pagan philosophy and Biblical truth intersect. Those are all good things. To me what made Origen a bad actor was his adoption of Greek methods of interpretation. He interpreted the Bible the way the Greeks interpreted the Iliad and the Odyssey, completely allegorical.

    But I never heard about how firmly he stood against the Romans. That improves my view of him. Irenaeus is still my favorite church father so far.