Whose truth?

by

Commemoration of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons and Theologian

Readings:

Psalm 145:8-13

Proverbs 8:6-11

2 Timothy 2:22-26

Luke 11:33-36

Error, indeed is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced more true than truth itself. — Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 1 Preface, Para. 2

In most churches and denominations, Sunday school consists of learning Bible stories and verses. This is continued if and when people choose to attend either adult Bible studies or other formational events. Seldom is there a lot of mention about church history once we get to Revelation in the Bible or the period a few decades after the destruction of the Second Temple.

Doing the third year of Education for Ministry (EfM) began to rectify that with a thorough run-through of church history from the time of Jesus to the present day. There are lots of names and changes of direction, tons of heresies (I always wondered why they weren’t his-esies since men were invariably the ones either creating or arguing them) and more philosophy than I ever wanted to know. The most recent textbook for Year 3 is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, over 1,000 pages of names, dates, trends, philosophies, heresies, and current events that had some bearing on the history of the church and, in fact, the world.

One of the big names in church history is the man we commemorate today, Irenaeus of Lyons. James Kiefer gives a brief summation of his life and theology which is good because even after reading MacCulloch’s book twice plus reading half a dozen other books on church history, I still can’t keep my heresies and doctrinal shifts much less my theologians straight. I wish my brain were as quick as it was when I was in my twenties and thirties; I might remember a lot more than I do in my late sixties. I do remember, however that Irenaeus was noted for his opposition to Gnosticism, the philosophy that there was hidden knowledge available only to a few and that that knowledge was the unmitigated and total truth which lesser people would never understand or accept. Gnosticism was denounced as a heresy, a belief or opinion not shared by the orthodox religious bodies or one which profoundly differed from the generally accepted theology. He lived at a fascinating time in church history, a time when the original apostles were gone and the church was left to grow as it could from the root stock they had planted.

Church growth is like the growth of anything organic; there are times it seems to spurt, other times it takes a long time for anything to happen. In the meantime the middle bulges and the two ends try to pull apart, orthodoxy on one end, another kind of orthodoxy on the other. Each end believes it has the truth and tries its best to wrap it all up in a nice lovely package that everybody will buy into. It doesn’t work that way; it never has and never will. Some will be convinced, others will totally reject one side or the other. Meanwhile the middle will continue on, trying to make sense of it all and not always succeeding in unwrapping the pretty packages and seemingly comforting words to find the real truth that lies under it.

We do the same thing with life outside the church. We are presented smooth advertisements and clever soundbytes that encourage us to do the “right thing,” to support the “right” (orthodox) position and “see through” the wiles of the opposing party. Each side accuses the other of clouding the issues, lying about their “real” objectives and demonize those who were right-thinking and plainly transparent about their desire to serve and support the people. The thing is, just who are the people they’re wanting to serve and support? Once that question can be answered, it can be measured against a standard, preferably the one Jesus taught.

Jesus said, “‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).” When Jesus spoke those words, he was telling his disciples that they were going out into a world where things weren’t always what they seemed. We live in a more complex world but the saying is just as true today as it was then. We are supposed to trust God and the things that come from God but that doesn’t mean we have to trust whatever someone or something says comes from God. There’s a difference. We have to be wise enough to know whether it is the truth or not and innocent enough to be open to whatever God truly sends.

Irenaeus needed both wisdom and innocence to thread the delicate balance between parties in order to bring about a peace if not a total agreement. Whether the arguments are about the proper date for Easter or whether we ought to send troops into harm’s way, we have to look to see where God is in whatever it is. Is it true or is it something dressed up as truth? How do we know? Are we being wise or innocent or both? Is it what Jesus taught or what someone else said Jesus taught?

The Bible was written thousands of years ago and we still find it useful, authoritative and compelling, but we can also read writers such as Irenaeus and find words of wisdom that speak to us today just as they did to the people for whom they were originally set down. I think Irenaeus has raised my awareness a bit, making me more conscious of what I hear and see and calling me to examine them for truth — God’s truth.

Will it make me more wise or more innocent? I don’t know yet, but I’m willing to try to find out.

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