“In the beginning . . .” And from here, many Christians begin their journey through the Bible. It seems like a reasonable place to start, and considering that it contains the beginning of salvation history, it’s not a bad idea. What is likely to happen, however, is that a reader will continue on until he hits the avalanche of ritual ordinances or the never-ending lists of obscure Old Testament names. The clear trail at the beginning of Genesis seems to taper off into a dense forest of text. It can be a matter of pure perseverance even to make it to the book of Psalms!
Assuming one makes it through the Bible okay, the next problem is one of understanding. What in the world was all that about? We find a good example of this problem in the Acts of the Apostles where an Ethiopian eunuch is stumped while reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah. As divine providence would have it, one of the Apostles, Philip, was nearby when the Holy Spirit prompted him to go to the Ethiopian. “Do you understand what you are reading?” asks Philip. With great humility, the Ethiopian responds: “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” (Acts 8:26–40).
Wouldn’t it be nice if St. Philip were around today? “Hey, Philip, I was reading through Ezekiel the other day, and . . . well, what is up with those dry bones?!” And to think that there were whole generations of Christians who could do this! Pope St. Clement would have known SS. Peter and Paul. St. Polycarp and St. Ignatius of Antioch were disciples of St. John. The saint we celebrate today, St. Irenaeus, was a pupil of Polycarp, and in a letter to Florinus, he recounts learning from his teacher:
I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. . . . 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” (1 John 1:1), Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures. (Eusebius, Church History, V.20)
St. Irenaeus had the great gift of sitting at the feet of a theologian and bishop trained by the Theologian—the one Apostle who was with Mary at the Crucifixion of our Lord! And what a great gift we have in the writings of Irenaeus, Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement, and many other early Fathers of the Church.
We learn another important fact from St. Irenaeus: these Fathers were not just Christian intellectuals, leaders, or martyrs; they were successors of the Twelve.
It is within the power of all . . . who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times. (Against Heresies, III.3.1)
Already in the second century, St. Irenaeus was encountering a great number of people who were distorting the Scriptures and the Gospel message. It was not to the Bible alone (nor could it be) but also to apostolic succession that St. Irenaeus appealed in order to demonstrate the true Christian faith.
It is right for us all to imitate the humility of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles. How can we understand unless someone instructs us? Indeed, unless the Apostles and their legitimate successors instruct us? We may not have the Twelve physically present with us today, but we do have their successors.
Image: Raphael, Christ’s Charge to Peter