This father was born “somewhere between A. D. 120 and A. D.
140.” He was “bishop of Lyons in France during the latter quarter of the
second century,” being ordained to that office “probably about A.D. 177.”
His work Against Heresies was written “between A. D. 182 and A. D. 188.”
First-day writers assert that Irenaeus “says that the Lord's day was the
Christian Sabbath.” They profess to quote from him these words: “On the
Lord's day every one of us Christians keeps the Sabbath, meditating on the
law and rejoicing in the works of God.”
No such language is found in any of the writings of this father. We will quote his entire testimony respecting the Sabbath and first-day, and the reader can judge. He speaks of Christ's observance of the Sabbath, and shows that he did not violate the day. Thus he says:
“It is clear, therefore, that he loosed and vivified those who believe in him as Abraham did, doing nothing contrary to the law when he healed upon the Sabbath day. For the law did not prohibit men from being healed upon the Sabbaths; [on the contrary] it even circumcised them upon that day, and gave command that the offices should be performed by the priests for the people; yea, it did not disallow the healing even of dumb animals. Both at Siloam and on frequent subsequent occasions, did he perform cures upon the Sabbath; and for this reason many used to resort to him on the Sabbath days. For the law commanded them to abstain from every servile work, that is, from all grasping after wealth which is procured by trading and by other worldly business; but it exhorted them to attend to the exercises of the soul, which consist in reflection, and to addresses of beneficial kind for their neighbor's benefit. And therefore the Lord reproved those who unjustly blamed him for having healed upon the Sabbath days. For he did not make void, but fulfilled the law, by performing the offices of the high priest, propitiating God for men, and cleansing the lepers, healing the sick, and himself suffering death, that exiled man might go forth from condemnation, and might return without fear to his own inheritance. And again, the law did not forbid those who were hungry on the Sabbath days to take food lying ready at hand: it did, however, forbid them to reap and to gather into the barn.” - Against Heresies, b.iv. chap.viii. sects. 2, 3.
The case of the priests on the Sabbath he thus presents:
“And the priests in the temple profaned the Sabbath, and were blameless. Wherefore, then, were they blameless? Because when in the temple they were not engaged in secular affairs, but in the service of the Lord, fulfilling the law, but not going beyond it, as that man did, who of his own accord carried dry wood into the camp of God, and was justly stoned to death.” Book iv. chap. viii. sect. 3.
Of the necessity of keeping the ten commandments, he speaks thus:
“Now, that the law did beforehand teach mankind the necessity of following Christ, he does himself make manifest, when he replied as follows to him who asked him what he should do that he might inherit eternal life: `If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.' But upon the other asking, `Which?' again the Lord replied: `Do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor father and mother, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,' - setting as an ascending series before those who wished to follow him, the precepts of the law, as the entrance into life; and what he then said to one, he said to all. But when the former said, `All these have I done' (and most likely he had not kept them, for in that case the Lord would not have said to him, `Keep the commandments'), the Lord, exposing his covetousness, said to him, `If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell all that thou hast, and distribute to the poor; and come follow me,' promising to those who would act thus, the portion belonging to the apostles. . . . But he taught that they should obey the commandments which God enjoined from the beginning, and do away with their former covetousness by good works, and follow after Christ.” Book iv. chap. xii. sect. 5.
Irenaeus certainly teaches a very different doctrine from that of Justin Martyr concerning the commandments. He believed that men must keep the commandments, in order to enter eternal life. He says further:
“And [we must] not only abstain from evil deeds, but even from the desires after them. Now he did not teach us these things as being opposed to the law, but as fulfilling the law, and implanting in us the varied righteousness of the law. That would have been contrary to the law, if he had commanded his disciples to do anything which the law had prohibited.” Book iv. chap. xiii. Sect. 1.
He also makes the observance of the decalogue the test of true piety. Thus he says:
“They (the Jews) had therefore a law, a course of discipline, and a prophecy of future things. For God at the first, indeed, warning them by means of natural precepts, which from the beginning he had implanted in mankind, that is, by means of the decalogue (which, if any one does not observe, he has no salvation), did then demand nothing more of them.” Book iv. chap. xv. Sect.1.
The precepts of the decalogue he rightly terms “natural precepts,” that is, precepts which constitute “the work of the law” written by nature in the hearts of all men, but marred by the presence of the carnal mind or law of sin in the members. That this law of God pertains alike to Jews and to Gentiles, he thus affirms:
“Inasmuch, then, as all natural precepts are common to us and to them (the Jews), they had in them, indeed, the beginning and origin; but in us they have received growth and completion.” Book iv. chap.xiii. sect.4.
It is certain that Irenaeus held the decalogue to be now
binding on all men; for he says of it in the quotation above, “Which if
any one does not observe, he has no salvation.” But, though not consistent
with his statement respecting the decalogue as the law of nature, he
classes the Sabbath with circumcision, when speaking of it as a sign
between God and Israel, and says, “The Sabbaths taught that we should
continue day by day in God's service.” “Moreover the Sabbath of God, that
is, the kingdom, was, as it were, indicated by created things; in which
[kingdom], the man who shall have persevered in serving God shall, in a
state of rest, partake of God's table.” He says also of Abraham that he
was “without observance of Sabbaths.” Book iv.
But in the same chapter he again asserts the perpetuity and authority of the decalogue in these words:
“Preparing man for this life, the Lord himself did speak in his own person to all alike the words of the decalogue; and therefore, in like manner, do they remain permanently with us, receiving by means of his advent in the flesh, extension and increase, but not abrogation.” Section 4.
This statement establishes the authority of each of the ten commandments in the gospel dispensation. Yet Irenaeus seems to have regarded the fourth commandment as only a typical precept, and not a perpetual obligation like the others.
Irenaeus regarded the Sabbath as something which pointed forward to the kingdom of God. Yet in stating this doctrine he actually indicates the origin of the Sabbath at creation, though, as we have seen, elsewhere asserting that it was not kept by Abraham. Thus, in speaking of the reward to be given the righteous, he says:
“These are [to take place] in the times of the kingdom, that is, upon the seventh day, which has been sanctified, in which God rested from all the works which he created, which is the true Sabbath of the righteous, in which they shall not be engaged in any earthly occupation; but shall have a table at hand prepared for them by God, supplying them with all sorts of dishes.” Book v. chap. xxxiii. sect. 2. And he elsewhere says: “In as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded. . . . For the day of the Lord is as a thousand years: and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the sixth thousand year.” Book v. chap. xxviii. sect. 3.
Though Irenaeus is made by first-day writers to bear a very explicit testimony that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath, the following, which constitutes the seventh fragment of what is called the “Lost Writings of Irenaeus,"” is the only instance which I have found in a careful search through all his works in which he even mentions the first day. Here is the entire first-day testimony of this father:
“This [custom], of not bending the knee upon Sunday, is a symbol of the resurrection, through which we have been set free, by the grace of Christ, from sins, and from death, which has been put to death under him. Now this custom took its rise from apostolic times, as the blessed Irenaeus, the martyr and bishop of Lyons, declares in his treatise On Easter, in which he makes mention of Pentecost also; upon which [feast] we do not bend the knee, because it is of equal significance with the Lord's day, for the reason already alleged concerning it.”
This is something very remarkable. It is not what Irenaeus said after all, but is what an unknown writer, in a work entitled Quoes et Resp. ad Othod., says of him. And all that this writer says of Irenaeus is that he declares the custom of not kneeling upon Sunday “took its rise from apostolic times”! It does not even appear that Irenaeus even used the term Lord's day as a title for the first day of the week. Its use in the present quotation is by the unknown writer to whom we are indebted for the statement here given respecting Irenaeus. And this writer, whoever he be, is of the opinion that the Pentecost is of equal consequence with the so-called Lord's day!. And well he may so judge, inasmuch as both of these Catholic festivals are only established by the authority of the church. The testimony of Irenaeus in behalf of Sunday does therefore amount simply to this: That the resurrection is to be commemorated by “not bending the knee upon Sunday”!
The fiftieth fragment of the “Lost Writings of Irenaeus” is derived from the Nitrian Collection of Syriac MSS. It relates to the resurrection of the dead. In a note appended to it the Syriac editor says of Irenaeus that he “wrote to an Alexandrian to the effect that it is right, with respect to the feast of the resurrection, that we should celebrate it upon the first day of the week.” No extant writing of Irenaeus contains this statement, but it is likely that the Syriac editor possessed some portion of his works now lost. And here again it is worthy of notice that we have from Irenaeus only the plain name of “first day of the week.” As to the manner of celebrating it, the only thing which he sets forth is “not bending the knee upon Sunday.”
In the thirty-eighth fragment of his “Lost Writings” he quotes Col.2:16, but whether with reference to the seventh day, or merely respecting the ceremonial sabbaths, his comments do not determine. We have now given every statement of Irenaeus which bears upon the Sabbath and the Sunday. It is manifest that the advocates of first-day sacredness have made Irenaeus testify in its behalf to suit themselves. He alludes to the first day of the week once or twice, but never uses for it the title of Lord's day or Christian Sabbath, and the only thing which he mentions as entering into the celebration of the festival was that Christians should not kneel in prayer on that day! By first-day writers, Irenaeus is made to bear an explicit testimony that Sunday is the Lord's day and the Christian Sabbath! And to give great weight to this alleged fact, they say that he was the disciple of Polycarp, who was the disciple of John: and whereas John speaks of the Lord's day, Irenaeus, who must have known what he meant by the term, says that the Lord's day is the first day of the week! But Polycarp, in his epistle, does not even mention the first day of the week, and Irenaeus, in his extended writings, mentions it only twice, and that in “lost fragments” preserved at second hand, and in neither instance does he call it anything but plain “first day of the week.” And the only honor which he mentions as due this day is that the knee should not be bent upon it! And even this was not spoken of every Sunday in the year, but only of “Easter Sunday,” the anniversary of Christ's resurrection!
Here we might dismiss the case of Irenaeus. But our first-day friends are determined at least to connect him with the use of Lord's day as a name for Sunday. They, therefore, bring forward Eusebius, who wrote 150 years later than Irenaeus, to prove that he did call Sunday by that name. Eusebius alludes to the controversy in the time of Irenaeus, respecting the annual celebration of Christ's resurrection in what was called the festival of the passover. He says (Eccl.Hist. b. v. chap. xxiii.) that the bishops of different countries, and Irenaeus was of the number, decreed that the mystery of our Lord's resurrection should be celebrated on no other day than the Lord's day; and that on this day alone we should observe the close of the paschal fasts, and not on the fourteenth of the first month as practiced by the other party. And in the next chapter, Eusebius represents Irenaeus as writing a letter to this effect to the Bishop of Rome. But observe, Eusebius does not quote the words of any of these bishops, but simply gives their decisions in his own language. There is therefore no proof that they used the term Lord's day instead of first day of the week. But we have evidence that in the decision of this case which Irenaeus sent forth, he used the term “first day of the week.” For the introduction to the fiftieth fragment of his “Lost Writings,” already quoted, gives an ancient statement of his words in this decision, as plain “first day of the week.” It is Eusebius who gives us the term Lord's day in recording what was said by these bishops concerning the first day of the week. In his time, A. D. 324, Lord's day had become a common designation of Sunday. But it was not such in the time of Irenaeus, A. D. 178. We have found no writer who flourished before him who applies it to Sunday; it is not so applied by Irenaeus; and we shall find no decisive instance of such use till the close of the second century.
This father, about A. D. 170, wrote a letter to the Roman church, in which are found these words:
“We passed this holy Lord's day, in which we read your letter, from the constant reading of which we shall be able to draw admonition, even as from the reading of the former one you sent us written through Clement.”
This is the earliest use of the term Lord's day to be found in the fathers. But it cannot be called a decisive testimony that Sunday was thus called at this date, inasmuch as every writer who precedes Dionysius calls it “first day of the week,” “eighth day,” or “Sunday,” but never once by this title; and Dionysius says nothing to indicate that Sunday was intended, or to show that he did not refer to that day which alone has the right to be called “the Lord's holy day.” Isa.58:13. We have found several express testimonies to the sacredness of the Sabbath in the writers already examined.
This father wrote about A. D. 177. We have nothing of this writer except the titles of his books, which Eusebius has preserved to us. One of these titles is this: “On the Lord's Day.” But it should be remembered that down to this date no writer has called Sunday the Lord's day; and that every one who certainly spoke of that day called it by some other name than Lord's day. To say, therefore, as do first-day writers, that Melito wrote of Sunday, is to speak without just warrant. Moreover the word “day” is omitted in the original Greek of Eusebius. It is not certain, therefore, that Melito wrote of the Lord's day. He wrote of something pertaining to the Lord. It may have been the Lord's Supper, as Paul wrote, or the Lord's life, as wrote Ignatius.
Bardesanes, the Syrian, flourished about A. D. 180. He belonged to the Gnostic sect of Valentinians, and abandoning them, “devised errors of his own.” In his “Book of the Laws of Countries,” he replies to the views of astrologers who assert that the stars govern men's actions. He shows the folly of this by enumerating the peculiarities of different races and sects. In doing this, he speaks of the strictness with which the Jews kept the Sabbath. Of the new sect called Christians, which “Christ at his advent planted in every country,” he says:
“On one day, the first of the week, we assemble ourselves together, and on the days of the readings we abstain from [taking] sustenance.”
This shows that the Gnostics used Sunday as the day for
religious assemblies. Whether he recognized others besides Gnostics, or
Christians, we cannot say. We find no allusion, however, to Sunday as a
day of abstinence from labor, except so far as necessary for their
meetings. What their days of fasting, which are here alluded to, were,
cannot now be determined. It is also worthy of notice that this writer,
who certainly speaks of Sunday, and this as late as A. D. 180, does not
call it Lord's day, nor give it any sacred title whatever, but speaks of
it as “first day of the week.” No writer down to A. D. 180, who is known
to speak of Sunday, calls it the Lord's day.