The faith of the Church of the Gauls in, the second century.


WE have no Gallic author whose name is so famous as St. Irenaeus: he was a disciple of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna; and being sent into Gaul by that apostolic man, he was first Priest of the Church of Lyons, and afterwards succeeded Pothinus, first Bishop of that city: it was in his time that the Church suffered the fifth persecution under the government of the Emperors Verus and Marcus Aurelius. Eusebius has preserved the relation of the martyrdom of the believers of Lyons and Vienna, which, according to all probability, is judged to have been made by St. Irenaeus in the name of both these Churches.

This relation tells us first of all, that the Roman President having caused some slaves to be apprehended that belonged to Christians, made them confess, at the sight of tortures prepared for them, that the Christians did eat children in their assemblies, and that they there promiscuously polluted themselves by abominable incests; which was afterwards confirmed by weak Christians, who for fear of torments abjured their religion.

2. That the Christians having confuted this calumny, by their constancy in enduring the torments, and above all the rest Blandina, who after a whole day’s suffering tortures, having cried with a loud voice, I am a Christian; there is no wickedness committed amongst us: (which was seconded by Byblis, who before had abjured:) How, said she, should the Christians, to whom it is not lawful to eat the blood of beasts, devour infants?

3. Blandina is represented to us in these acts, as praying to God with great affection, and as it were conversing with Jesus Christ in prayer. Attalus being set in a chair of iron, to be there burnt, and perceiving the smell of his broiled flesh, said to the spectators in Latin, In hoc demum est homines vorare quod agitis; nos vero neque homines voramus, neque omnino quicquam mali facimus:

“This that ye do here is indeed to devour men; but as for us, we neither devour men, nor do any thing at all that is evil.”

Lastly, The Church was desirous to bury what remained of their bodies, as the relation informs us, but the fury of the Pagans, who burnt them to ashes, hindered them: these are the chiefest heads of this relation, where we find nothing but God and Jesus Christ called upon; where we do not see the believers troubling themselves to explain or qualify the corporal manducation of the body of Jesus Christ, as it became them to have done, had they believed their eating of him with their bodily mouth; and where there is not the least word that might give us to understand that these Churches took care to preserve these so precious relics, to honor them with their adorations, as in latter times has been done.

We find here also the spirit of calumny transporting the heathens against the disciples of Jesus Christ; and how far the cruelty of torments may prevail to make men confess the most enormous calumnies to be true. The reader must not forget these two characters of old Rome, because the Inquisitors have renewed these very same slander against the Albigenses, and have pretended to confirm them by confessions which the cruelty of their tortures have forced from them.

Neither is it only in this work of his, that St. Irenaeus informs us, what in his time was the faith of these Churches planted in Gaul, for he hath left us five books, and Eusebius has preserved for us some epistles of that ancient Bishop, altogether refulgent with the purity of the faith delivered by the Apostles.

1. St. Irenaeus gives us this for one character of the Gnostics, that they embraced doctrines which were not to be found in the writings of the Prophets or the Apostles, lib. 1. cap. 1. p. 33.

And it is with the same spirit that he attributes to heretics the accusing of the Scripture for being unintelligible, without the help of tradition, whereas he maintains, that that which had been preached, was committed to writing by the special will of God, to the end it might be the ground and pillar of our faith, lib. 3. c. 1. et 2. And that it is to make the Apostles hypocrites, to suppose that they taught some things in public, and others in private; whence it appears clearly, that when he makes use of tradition, he only does it with respect to those scriptural doctrines which the heretics opposed, and whereof they pretended that the Apostles had left the contrary to those that succeeded them, lib. 3. c. 2. It is upon this occasion that he allegeth the testimony of the Church of Rome, founded by the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, as of one that was most known: Ad hanc enim Ecclesiam (saith he) propter potentiorem principalitatem, necesse est omnem convenire Ecclesiam, hoc est eos qui sunt undique fideles, in quo semper ab his qui sunt undique conservata est ea, quae est ab Apostolis traditio;

“For to this Church, because of its more powerful superiority, it behoves the whole Church to come, that is, the believers of all parts, forasmuch as therein the tradition from the Apostles has always been preserved by the believers of all parts.”

It is apparent, that whatsoever design he may have had to raise the authority of the Church of Rome, he makes no other use of it, than to make out that it was impossible those doctrines which the heretics gave out for apostolical should be really so, seeing they were unknown to a Church which had had the Apostles and their successors for her guides; more especially seeing that Church was placed in the very seat of the empire, which continually drew to Rome a vast number of believers from all the different places of the empire, from whence they brought not along with them a different tradition from that which they found in the bosom of the Church of Rome.

That St. Irenaeus had no other aim but this, is owned by F. Quesnel, in his notes upon the tenth Epistle of St. Leo, p. 809. And this appears evidently, because, after all that esteem which he had for the Church of Rome, he was not afraid to write to her Bishop very censuring letters, upon the account of his having excommunicated the Churches of Asia, that celebrated Easter the fourteenth of the moon of March; as also because he continued in the communion of those Churches of Asia, without being concerned at the excommunication of the Pope of Rome.

2. He reduces the whole faith of Christians throughout the world to that which we call the Apostles’ Creed, without mentioning so much as a word of those doctrines which the Church of Rome has superadded to it, pretending to confirm them by tradition, lib. 1. c. 2.

3. He maintains the Scriptures to be both clear and perfect, lib. 2. c. 47.

4. He rejects the doctrines which the heretics grounded upon the explication of some parables, maintaining that nothing ought to be established but upon clear and evident places of Scripture, lib. 2. c. 46.

5. It appears by his writings, that penance at that time was public, without dispensing with women that were overtaken with the sins of uncleanness, by which means being exposed to extreme confusion, it made some of them abjure Christianity, lib. 1. c. 9.

6. He makes it appear that celibacy was not yet known in Asia, whence these first Christians of the Gauls derived their original, which is acknowledged by Feuardentius, lib. 1. c. 9.

7. He assigns to the Marcosians the custom of anointing those they received into their communion with balm, [opobalsamo,] which shews, that at that time extreme unction was not known: and we may make the same observation from his imputing to other heretics the anointing of persons at the point of death with oil and water, lib. 1. c. 18.

8. He attributes to the Gnostics the imitation of the heathens, because they had the images of Jesus Christ, lib. 1. c. 24. which makes it evident that the Christians had no images, much less that they gave to them any religious worship. And indeed we find him reasoning, lib. 2. c. 6. after such a manner as shews that the Christians were yet in full possession of a right to reproach the heathens with all those absurdities that arise from the use of images. The same may also be gathered from lib. 2. c. 42. where he divides the law into two tables, in a manner very different from that of the Doctors of the Roman Church, and altogether conformable to the judgment of Josephus and other Jewish Doctors.

9. He makes it appear, that he knew nothing of the separability of accidents from their subjects, which is the sole support of transubstantiation, lib. 2. c. 14.

10. He in plain terms rejects the invocation of angels, instead thereof recommending that of our Savior Jesus Christ, lib. 2. c. 57.

11. He asserts that the blessed Virgin had unseasonable motions, intempestivam festinationem, John 2:3 so far was he from believing her wholly free from sin, lib. 2. c. 18. This shews that when he saith, cap. 33. Quod alligavit Virgo Eva per incredulitatem, hoc Virgo Maria solvit per fidem;

“What the Virgin Eve bound up by her unbelief, that the Virgin Mary set free by her faith;”

he doth not own the Virgin for the person that saved men, but his meaning is like that of Hesychius, who said, speaking of the women to whom Jesus Christ appeared after his resurrection; Invenere enim, saith he, mulieres, quod olim amisere per Evam; lucrum invenit ea, quae damni occasionem praebuerat.

“For the women found what formerly they lost by Eve; she found the gain, who had been an occasion of the loss.” T.15. B. P. p. 823, col. 1.

And this is the sense likewise of that other passage of St. Irenaeus, which we find, lib. 5. c. 19. for though he calls the Virgin, Eve’s advocate, it plainly appears that he meant nothing else but what is expressed by St. Chrysostom, in Ps. 44. t. 3. p. 221. Virgo nos Paradiso expulit, per Virginem vitam aeternam invenimus;

“A Virgin drove us out of Paradise, and by a Virgin we have found eternal life.”

12. That he did not believe we ought to have recourse to the intercession of saints, can be invincibly demonstrated from hence, because he did not believe that the faithful should see the face of God before the day of judgment, lib. 5. c. 3.

13. He plainly asserts that the apostolical succession is of no consideration without the truth of doctrine, lib. 4. c. 43. so far was he from making it a bar to hinder believers from examining the doctrine propounded to them.

14. He maintains that the gates of heaven were opened to Jesus Christ, because of the assumption of his flesh; so far was he from believing that his glorified body could penetrate bodies, lib. 3. c. 18. et lib. 4. c. 66.

He asserts that Jesus Christ, at his being born, opened the blessed Virgin’s womb, lib. 4. c. 66. which the Church of Rome condemns for divers reasons.

And forasmuch as he holds the Holy Ghost to be the food of life, lib. 4. c. 75. accordingly he maintains, c. 2. lib. 5. that our bodies are nourished by the creatures of God received in the Eucharist, and that they receive growth by them.

He distinctly asserts, that the sacrament of the Eucharist, as to its substance, consists of bread and wine, which are the creatures of God, which he receives as oblations of a different kind from the sacrifices of the Old Testament; and, indeed, in case he had otherwise conceived the matter, he would have favored the opinion of the Gnostics, who, pretending that the work of the creation was not the work of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, could never have lighted upon a more comfortable doctrine than that of transubstantiation, by means of which the nature of bread and wine would be destroyed by Jesus Christ in the Sacrament, and nothing left but the accidents, that is to say, mere phantoms, without any thing of reality, lib. 4. c. 34. et 57.

In like manner we find him asserting, lib. 5. c. 33. that what Jesus Christ gave to his disciples in the cup, was the generation or product of the vine.

15. We see clearly from what Eusebius has preserved of St. Irenaeus, that the variety in observing a fast before Easter was very great, and that there was no law of the Apostles or of Jesus Christ enjoining it, every one using it according to his own free will and devotion. We find also, that whatsoever respect St. Irenaeus had for the Church of Rome, he was no more inclined to be led by her sole authority, than St. Polycarp was, whom he much commends; and if he considered her as an apostolic Church, yet he never attributed to her any authority over the other flocks of the Lord.

I will not dissemble that St. Irenaeus seems somewhat at a loss about the state of believers after death; but to this it is sufficient to say,

1. That we find in St. Irenaeus an abridgment of the faith almost in the same form that we find it in the Apostles’ Creed, as it is called.

2. That if we do not agree to all the opinions of St. Irenaeus, about the state of souls after death, it is certain that the Doctors of the Church of Rome do at least reject as many articles as we do, yea, and more too. From what I have said, we may however perceive what was the state of the Christian religion in Gaul, a little after the middle of the second century, which is the time wherein St. Irenaeus lived and flourished. I wish I could produce for the following century as authentic a witness concerning the state of the Churches in this part of Gaul; but indeed, though there were divers famous writers, whose works are cited by St. Jerome, yet there is in a manner nothing of them left to us. I know there are some who believe that Victorinus was Bishop of Poictiers in the third century; but this is not found true, for it is certain that he was Bishop of Passau Patavionensis, and not Pictaviensis; so that we must proceed to those who can inform us of the state of this part of Gaul during the fourth century.


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