The Ark: The Patristic Witness

st-irenaeus-of-lyonIn our previous post, we wrapped up our discussion of apocryphal witnesses to the typology behind the Ark of the Covenant. In this post we’ll begin a lengthy chronological survey of how the ancient Fathers of the Church viewed the Ark. Please recall that, as I have noted several times, the Church tends to see the Ark as a type of the Holy Virgin. We will find that this view is not unanimous among the Fathers and tends to develop over the centuries.

Nowhere in the writings of the early fathers of the Church do we find a treatise on the role of the Mother of God in the economy of salvation. Rather, in order to ascertain the consensus of the Fathers, we must resort to collecting brief extracts scattered throughout works focused instead on the great doctrinal crises of the day, or perhaps in sermons, letters, or other pastoral works.1 In the following series of posts are collected relevant excerpts that demonstrate the development of the great patristic conversation over the centuries. We will begin as early as possible with Saint Irenaeus of Lyons.

The earliest patristic reference to the typology of the Ark, as far as this author is able to ascertain, is found in a couple of fragments from the lost writings of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. The two fragments seem to largely overlap, and so I share from the most complete fragment below. Saint Irenaeus quite explicitly links the Ark with the body of Christ.

ark declared a type of the body of Christ, which is both pure and immaculate. For as that ark was gilded with pure gold both within and without, so also is the body of Christ pure and resplendent, being adorned within by the Word, and shielded on the outside by the Spirit, in order that from both [materials] the splendour of the natures might be exhibited together.2

In our next post, we will examine what Saint Hippolytus says about the Ark.


1 Thomas Livius, The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries, (London: Burns and Oates, Limited 1893), p. 15.

2 Translated by Alexander Roberts, Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenæus, 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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