Irenaeus’ words on Polycarp

From New Advent:

Various passages in St. Irenaeus concerning Polycarp

In Irenæus, Polycarp comes before us preeminently as a link with the past. Irenaeus mentions him four times: (a) in connection with Papias; (b) in his letter to Florinus; (c) in his letter to Pope Victor; (d) at the end of the celebrated appeal to the potior principalitas of the Roman Church.

In connection with Papias

From “Adv. Haer.”, V, xxxiii, we learn that Papias was “a hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp”.(the Apostle John seems to have greatly influence the Apologists in much the same way that Paul did the early Church)

In his letter to Florinus

Florinus was a Roman presbyter who lapsed into heresy. Irenæus wrote him a letter of remonstrance (a long extract from which is preserved by Eusebius, II, E., V,xx), in which he recalled their common recollections of Polycarp.

4. In the letter to Florinus, of which we have spoken, Irenæus mentions again his intimacy with Polycarp saying:

“These doctrines, O Florinus, to speak mildly, are not of sound judgment. These doctrines disagree with the Church, and drive into the greatest impiety those who accept them. These doctrines, not even the heretics outside of the Church, have ever dared to publish. These doctrines, the presbyters who were before us, and who were companions of the apostles, did not deliver to thee.

5. “For when I was a boy, I saw thee in lower Asia with Polycarp, moving in splendor in the royal court, and endeavoring to gain his approbation.

6. I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it; so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the ‘Word of life,’ Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures.

Lightfoot (op.cit., 448) will not fix the date of the time when St. Irenæus and Florinus were fellow-pupils of Polycarp more definitely than somewhere between 135 and 150. There are in fact no data to go upon.

In his letter to Victor, Bishop of Rome

The visit of Polycarp to Rome is described by Irenæus in a letter to Victor written under the following circumstances. The Asiatic Christians differed from the rest of the Church in their manner of observing Easter. While the other Churches kept the feast on a Sunday, the Asiatics celebrated it on the 14th of Nisan, whatever day of the week this might fall on. Pope Victor tried to establish uniformity, and when the Asiatic Churches refused to comply, excommunicated them. Irenæus remonstrated with him in a letter, part of which is preserved by Eusebius (H. E., V, xxiv), in which he particularly contrasted the moderation displayed in regard to Polycarp by Biship Anicetus with the conduct of Victor. “Among these (Victor’s predecessors) were the presbyters before Soter. They neither observed it (14th Nisan) themselves, nor did they permit those after them to do so. And yet, though not observing it, they were none the less at peace with those who came to them from the parishes in which it was observed. … And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp … nor Polycarp Anicetus … . But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the Eucharist in the Church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace“, etc.

There is a difficulty connected with this visit of Polycarp to Rome. According to the Chronicle of Eusebius in Jerome’s version (the Armenian version is quite untrustworthy) the date of Anicetus’ accession was A.D. 156-57. Now the probable date of Polycarp’s martyrdom is February, 155. The fact of the visit to Rome is too well attested to be called into question. We must, therefore, either give up the date of martyrdom, or suppose that Eusebius post-dated by a year or two the accession of Anicetus. There is nothing unreasonable in this latter hypothesis, in view of the uncertainty which so generally prevails in chronological matters (for the date of the accession of Anicetus see Lightfoot, “St. Clement I”, 343).

In his famous passage on the Roman Church

We now come to the passage in Irenæus (Adv. Haer., III,3) which brings out in fullest relief Polycarp’s position as a link with the past. Just as John’s long life lengthened out the Apostolic Age, so did the four score and six years of Polycarp extend the sub-Apostolic Age, during which it was possible to learn by word of mouth what the Apostles taught from those who had been their hearers. In Rome the Apostolic Age ended about A.D. 67 with the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, and the sub-Apostolic Age about a quarter of a century later when St. Clement, “who had seen the blessed Apostles”, died. In Asia the Apostolic Age lingered on till John died about A.D. 100; and the sub-Apostolic Age till 155, when St. Polycarp was martyred. In the third book of his treatise “Against Heresies”, Irenæus makes his celebrated appeal to the “successions” of the bishops in all the Churches. He is arguing against heretics who professed to have a kind of esoteric tradition derived from the Apostles. To whom, demands Irenæus, would the Apostles be more likely to commit hidden mysteries than to the bishops to whom they entrusted their churches? In order then to know what the Apostles taught, we must have recourse to the “successions” of bishops throughout the world. But as time and space would fail if we tried to enumerate them all one by one, let the Roman Church speak for the rest. Their agreement with her is a manifest fact by reason of the position which she holds among them (“for with this Church on account of its potior principalitas the whole Church, that is, the faithful from every quarter, must needs agree”, etc.).

Then follows the list of the Roman bishops down to Eleutherius, the twelfth from the Apostles, the ninth from Clement, “who had both seen and conversed with the blessed Apostles”. From the Roman Church, representing all the churches, the writer then passes on to two Churches, that of Smyrna, in which, in the person of Polycarp, the sub-Apostolic Age had been carried down to a time still within living> memory, and the Church of Ephesus, where, in the person of St. John, the Apostolic Age had been prolonged till “the time of Trajan”. Of Polycarp he says, “he was not only taught by the Apostles, and lived in familiar intercourse with many that had seen Christ, but also received his appointment in Asia from the Apostles as Bishop in the Church of Smyrna”. He then goes on to speak of his own personal acquaintance with Polycarp, his martyrdom, and his visit to Rome, where he converted many heretics. He then continues, “there are those who heard him tell how John, the disciple of the Lord, when he went to take a bath in Ephesus, and saw Cerinthus within, rushed away from the room without bathing, with the words ‘Let us flee lest the room should fall in, for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within’. Yea, and Polycarp himself, also, when on one occasion Marcion confronted him and said ‘Recognise us’, replied, ‘Ay, ay, I recognise the first-born of Satan’ “.

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