“Zealous for the Covenant of Christ”

On account of writing projects and other responsibilities, I have not posted an article in a couple of months. But I decided to briefly emerge from my blog hibernation to post one today.  It was three years ago today that the first article on this blog was posted, explaining the focus of the blog, and also referring to its primary and secondary dedicatees, Jesus Christ, the true Recapitulator, and Irenaeus, the second-century AD bishop of Lyons.

Irenaeus’s life is shrouded in a good deal of mystery. We know him primarily through his writings, and also by some statements made about him in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History; but even those statements are somewhat unclear.

One plausible reconstruction is that, about the year AD 177, Irenaeus was serving as a presbyter (pastor) in Lyons, under the Bishop of Lyons, Pothinus. Eusebius writes that at some point during Irenaeus’s ministry in Lyons, certain “confessors” in the church of Lyons sent him to the Bishop of Rome, Eleutherus, asking for that bishop’s intervention in some particular doctrinal  matter.  The letter also served as a commendation of the bearer of the letter, Irenaeus.  Eusebius seems to state that the confessors who sent Irenaeus on this mission did so from prison where they had been incarcerated on account of their testimony.  How they could have done this from prison, and why Irenaeus, as a presbyter, was not in prison with them, is unclear.  In any case, here is part of the letter:

We pray, father Eleutherus, that you may rejoice in God in all things and always. We have requested our brother and comrade Irenaeus to carry this letter to you, and we ask you to hold him in esteem, as zealous for the covenant of Christ. For if we thought that office could confer righteousness upon any one, we should commend him among the first as a presbyter of the church, which is his position. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.4.2)

According to this understanding of events, while Irenaeus was in Rome, the persecution of Christians in Lyons became more intense, and the bishop, Pothinus, was put to death. When Irenaeus returned to Lyons, he was chosen to take Pothinus’s place as the new bishop.  Irenaeus then served in this capacity for over twenty-five years, leading the church at Lyons as their bishop, attempting to establish and keep peace between the churches, and writing his two extant works, Against Heresies, in which he combatted the false teaching of Marcionism and Gnosticism, and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in which (as well as in much of the previous work), he laid out the teaching of the Christian faith, the regula fidei, the “rule of faith.”

Serving as Bishop. Perhaps (we are not sure) suffering persecution and even martyrdom for his testimony.  Combatting heresy.  Teaching the faith once for all delivered to the saints.  Guiding the church of Christ to read Scripture in terms of a faithful and historical biblical “covenant” theology.  Glorifying Christ as the one who came to recapitulate humankind and to fulfill in his own life the intended image-of-God role for which humanity had been created.

All this because he was “zealous for the covenant of Christ.” I cannot think of any better phrase to serve as a summative epitaph for one’s life and ministry.  May God increase the number of pastors, theologians, educators, and denominational leaders of whom it may be said that they were “zealous for the covenant of Christ.”

Jerry Shepherd
Feast Day of St. Irenaeus
August 23, 2016

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