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Home > Fathers of the Church > Against Heresies (St. Irenaeus) > Book IV, Chapter 17

Against Heresies (Book IV, Chapter 17)

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Proof that God did not appoint the Levitical dispensation for His own sake, or as requiring such service; for He does, in fact, need nothing from men.

1. Moreover, the prophets indicate in the fullest manner that God stood in no need of their slavish obedience, but that it was upon their own account that He enjoined certain observances in the law. And again, that God needed not their oblation, but [merely demanded it], on account of man himself who offers it, the Lord taught distinctly, as I have pointed out. For when He perceived them neglecting righteousness, and abstaining from the love of God, and imagining that God was to be propitiated by sacrifices and the other typical observances, Samuel did even thus speak to them: God does not desire whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices, but He will have His voice to be hearkened to. Behold, a ready obedience is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. 1 Samuel 15:22 David also says: Sacrifice and oblation You did not desire, but my ears have You perfected; burnt-offerings also for sin You have not required. He thus teaches them that God desires obedience, which renders them secure, rather than sacrifices and holocausts, which avail them nothing towards righteousness; and [by this declaration] he prophesies the new covenant at the same time. Still clearer, too, does he speak of these things in the fiftieth Psalm: For if You had desired sacrifice, then would I have given it: You will not delight in burnt-offerings. The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart the Lord will not despise. Because, therefore, God stands in need of nothing, He declares in the preceding Psalm: I will take no calves out of your house, nor he-goats out of your fold. For Mine are all the beasts of the earth, the herds and the oxen on the mountains: I know all the fowls of heaven, and the various tribes of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you: for the world is Mine, and the fullness thereof. Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Then, lest it might be supposed that He refused these things in His anger, He continues, giving him (man) counsel: Offer unto God the sacrifice of praise, and pay your vows to the Most High; and call upon Me in the day of your trouble, and I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me; rejecting, indeed, those things by which sinners imagined they could propitiate God, and showing that He does Himself stand in need of nothing; but He exhorts and advises them to those things by which man is justified and draws near to God. This same declaration does Esaias make: To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? Says the Lord. I am full. Isaiah 1:11 And when He had repudiated holocausts, and sacrifices, and oblations, as likewise the new moons, and the sabbaths, and the festivals, and all the rest of the services accompanying these, He continues, exhorting them to what pertained to salvation: Wash you, make you clean, take away wickedness from your hearts from before my eyes: cease from your evil ways, learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow; and come, let us reason together, says the Lord.

2. For it was not because He was angry, like a man, as many venture to say, that He rejected their sacrifices; but out of compassion to their blindness, and with the view of suggesting to them the true sacrifice, by offering which they shall appease God, that they may receive life from Him. As He elsewhere declares: The sacrifice to God is an afflicted heart: a sweet savour to God is a heart glorifying Him who formed it. For if, when angry, He had repudiated these sacrifices of theirs, as if they were persons unworthy to obtain His compassion, He would not certainly have urged these same things upon them as those by which they might be saved. But inasmuch as God is merciful, He did not cut them off from good counsel. For after He had said by Jeremiah, To what purpose did you bring Me incense from Saba, and cinnamon from a far country? Your whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices are not acceptable to Me; Jeremiah 6:20 He proceeds: Hear the word of the Lord, all Judah. These things says the Lord, the God of Israel, Make straight your ways and your doings, and I will establish you in this place. Put not your trust in lying words, for they will not at all profit you, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, it is [here]. Jeremiah 7:2-3

3. And again, when He points out that it was not for this that He led them out of Egypt, that they might offer sacrifice to Him, but that, forgetting the idolatry of the Egyptians, they should be able to hear the voice of the Lord, which was to them salvation and glory, He declares by this same Jeremiah: Thus says the Lord; Collect together your burnt-offerings with your sacrifices and eat flesh. For I spoke not unto your fathers nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices: but this word I commanded them, saying, Hear My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people; and walk in all My ways whatsoever I have commanded you, that it may be well with you. But they obeyed not, nor hearkened; but walked in the imaginations of their own evil heart, and went backwards, and not forwards. Jeremiah 7:21 And again, when He declares by the same man, But let him that glories, glory in this, to understand and know that I am the Lord, who does exercise loving-kindness, and righteousness, and judgment in the earth; Jeremiah 9:24 He adds, For in these things I delight, says the Lord, but not in sacrifices, nor in holocausts, nor in oblations. For the people did not receive these precepts as of primary importance (principaliter), but as secondary, and for the reason already alleged, as Isaiah again says: You have not [brought to] Me the sheep of your holocaust, nor in your sacrifices have you glorified Me: you have not served Me in sacrifices, nor in [the matter of] frankincense have you done anything laboriously; neither have you bought for Me incense with money, nor have I desired the fat of your sacrifices; but you have stood before Me in your sins and in your iniquities. Isaiah 43:23-24 He says, therefore, Upon this man will I look, even upon him that is humble, and meek, and who trembles at My words. Isaiah 46:2 For the fat and the fat flesh shall not take away from you your unrighteousness. Jeremiah 11:15 This is the fast which I have chosen, says the Lord. Loose every band of wickedness, dissolve the connections of violent agreements, give rest to those that are shaken, and cancel every unjust document. Deal your bread to the hungry willingly, and lead into your house the roofless stranger. If you have seen the naked, cover him, and you shall not despise those of your own flesh and blood (domesticos seminis tui). Then shall your morning light break forth, and your health shall spring forth more speedily; and righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall surround you: and while you are yet speaking, I will say, Behold, here I am. Isaiah 58:6, etc. And Zechariah also, among the twelve prophets, pointing out to the people the will of God, says: These things does the Lord Omnipotent declare: Execute true judgment, and show mercy and compassion each one to his brother. And oppress not the widow, and the orphan, and the proselyte, and the poor; and let none imagine evil against your brother in his heart. Zechariah 7:9-10 And again, he says: These are the words which you shall utter. Speak the truth every man to his neighbour, and execute peaceful judgment in your gates, and let none of you imagine evil in his heart against his brother, and you shall not love false swearing: for all these things I hate, says the Lord Almighty. Zechariah 8:16-17 Moreover, David also says in like manner: What man is there who desires life, and would fain see good days? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips that they speak no guile. Shun evil, and do good: seek peace, and pursue it.

4. From all these it is evident that God did not seek sacrifices and holocausts from them, but faith, and obedience, and righteousness, because of their salvation. As God, when teaching them His will in Hosea the prophet, said, I desire mercy rather than sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings. Hosea 6:6 Besides, our Lord also exhorted them to the same effect, when He said, But if you had known what [this] means, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless. Matthew 12:7 Thus does He bear witness to the prophets, that they preached the truth; but accuses these men (His hearers) of being foolish through their own fault.

5. Again, giving directions to His disciples to offer to God the first-fruits of His own, created things — not as if He stood in need of them, but that they might be themselves neither unfruitful nor ungrateful — He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said, This is My body. Matthew 26:26, etc. And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world, to Him who gives us as the means of subsistence the first-fruits of His own gifts in the New Testament, concerning which Malachi, among the twelve prophets, thus spoke beforehand: I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord Omnipotent, and I will not accept sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun, unto the going down [of the same], My name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is My name among the Gentiles, says the Lord Omnipotent; Malachi 1:10-11 — indicating in the plainest manner, by these words, that the former people [the Jews] shall indeed cease to make offerings to God, but that in every place sacrifice shall be offered to Him, and that a pure one; and His name is glorified among the Gentiles.

6. But what other name is there which is glorified among the Gentiles than that of our Lord, by whom the Father is glorified, and man also? And because it is [the name] of His own Son, who was made man by Him, He calls it His own. Just as a king, if he himself paints a likeness of his son, is right in calling this likeness his own, for both these reasons, because it is [the likeness] of his son, and because it is his own production; so also does the Father confess the name of Jesus Christ, which is throughout all the world glorified in the Church, to be His own, both because it is that of His Son, and because He who thus describes it gave Him for the salvation of men. Since, therefore, the name of the Son belongs to the Father, and since in the omnipotent God the Church makes offerings through Jesus Christ, He says well on both these grounds, And in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice. Now John, in the Apocalypse, declares that the incense is the prayers of the saints.

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Source. Translated by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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