Saints Polycarp and Irenaeus: Redemption

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The following was a college essay written by Katherine Stoeckl. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Katherine Stoeckl, Texas A&M

Evident in the Church Father Irenaeus’ relationship to St. Polycarp is the necessity of a lived experience of the faith. For Irenaeus, Polycarp was a living epistle and Irenaeus took notes on his heart (rather than paper) of the example of Polycarp. Although Irenaeus was not a disciple of the apostles as Polycarp was, he took seriously the witness he did have by which he cultivated the faith. Where he could have devoted himself to the writings of John the Beloved (whether that meant finding them or commenting on them) in order to find some hidden knowledge consequently becoming a gnostic, he instead built his character as a budding pastor, peacemaker, and teacher. In order to promote orthodox theology of redemption, Irenaeus elucidated the parts of man (body, soul and spirit), arguing that God’s creative power is justification for His restorative power.

Man is a material body, his soul, in the classical sense, is his principle of life, and his spirit is that which orients him to be able to receive divinity. Man does not have God by nature, but he does image Him on each of the three aforementioned levels. He has the likeness of God by the Holy Spirit before the Fall and redemption is the process by which likeness is restored and God’s image in man is repaired. Christ is able to be perfect in image because He is fully man, having body, soul, and spirit and is perfect in likeness by His perfect receptivity of the Father’s love as the Word.

The Word is the means of our redemption. “As a vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season” so does man nourished by the Eucharist find his home in the ground to be raised on the day set by the Lord for the glory of His name.  Irenaeus not only relies on creation for analogies for the spiritual life, but in a real way draws attention to man’s dependence on nature because of his Christocentric worldview. Specifically, in the way that Christ brought “mortals immortality and to the corruptible, incorruption”[1] Christ, the eternal Word is our means of sanctification. Irenaeus makes reference to Elijah and to Jonah, both of whom, while working out their faith in obedience to God, underwent normally fatal trials without being hurt: the fiery chariot and the belly of the whale, respectively. Whether these trials were literal or figurative, they speak of the reality that souls are formed by suffering. As Polycarp wrote to Ignatius of the refining of silver by getting it hot enough to see one’s reflection in it, Irenaeus catches on the significance of change for salvation.

Irenaeus thinks of salvation as a recapitulation, a putting of everything under a new head. For Irenaeus, characteristics of this head will be its public nature, its unity and its being animated by the Holy Spirit.[2] The spirit of man is inherently rational, it is part of what sets man apart from the animals. It is on the level of spirit that both sin and redemption enter in because it is man’s rationality that orients him either towards or away from God. Man’s body as part of his nature is a partaker in the image of God and by the power of the Holy Spirit, his likeness is restored and redirected to God. Because God has the capacity to create and give life, He also has the power to restore man from sin, and also raise him from the dead to life in the resurrection.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.2.3.

[2] Benedict XVI, Church Father: From Clement of Rome to Augustine. 2008 Ignatius 24-25.

One Response

  1. This is a very helpful essay. It shows the sophistication of thinking about redemption and restoration within the life-span of people who knew the earliest Apostles. In the 21st Century we now understand human development and transformation in a somewhat more sophisticated manner…but that typically means we use bigger words, not that we have much greater insight than these Ante-Nicene Fathers.

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