Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All
Like most early Christian writers, information about Irenaeus’s life is scarce and inexact. Most information about him either comes from what little can be gleaned from his writing, and from church tradition.
Irenaeus was born somewhere in the area of Smyrna. The exact date of his birth is a matter of conjecture. Some believe him to have been born between 115 and 125CE, while others will date his birth later, between 130 and 142CE. Irenaeus was apparently born into a Christian home and grew up in the church at Lyons, where he was ordained a priest. During Irenaeus’s childhood and young adulthood, he was privileged to hear the direct teachings of the elderly Polycarp, a former student of the Apostle John (both of whom are said to have lived into their 90’s). The instructions of Polycarp apparently had a profound effect on Irenaeus, as he frequently cited these teachings in his writings.
While Irenaeus was serving as a priest, the church at Lyons encountered trouble with “Montanism,” a heretical sect of self-proclaimed charismatic prophets. Irenaeus was dispatched to the church in Rome with a letter regarding Montanism, and with a glowing letter of introduction which labeled him, among other things, as “one zealous for the Testament of Christ.” When Irenaeus returned from Rome, he discovered that his church had come under severe persecution, and that the bishop had been seized and killed. He found himself being elected the new bishop of Lyons.
While Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons, he labored diligently to evangelize the region. The largest obstacle to his efforts at evangelism was the rapid expansion of Gnosticism in Asia, and most of Irenaeus’s diligence was poured into the effort to combat the corrupting effects of this heretical doctrine.
It was this project that prompted Irenaeus to author his magnum opus – a five-volume book entitled Against Heresies. This is widely considered to be the earliest known example of a systematic theology.
In the early 190’s, Irenaeus was placed in the position of a peace-keeper when there was a difference of opinions between the church in Rome and the churches in Asia Minor concerning the observance of the Easter celebration. Irenaeus was successful at convincing the Roman church to lift the sentence of excommunication they had placed on the churches Irenaeus defended.
Irenaeus is believed to have died at the beginning of the third century. While tradition states that he was martyred, there is no concrete evidence for this.
In the last half of the second century, when Irenaeus lived, the Christian church was still rapidly expanding. With expansion came persecution, and martyrdom was still a very common way for Christians to meet their end.
Many Christian communities of the time viewed persecution and martyrdom to be a badge of honor as it showed their worthiness before the Lord. It was also widely considered to be a sign that Christ’s return was almost upon them.
It is possibly this belief in the imminent return of Christ that had led to several difficulties: churches everywhere had not made any great efforts to gather and refine a definite cannon of scripture. The books of scripture were circulated throughout churches, but there was some disagreement on which books should be included, and most churches were not aware of all of the scriptural books in existence.
There was also at this time a high regard for the oral traditions passed down from the teachings of the apostles. As often as not, it was these teachings that ministers cited in their preaching of the Gospel.
Finally, there had not been a great deal of effort put into nailing down systematic theologies to which everyone could refer, and most of the doctrines of the church were still being hashed out among the contemporary thinkers.
It was in this milieu that the heresy of Gnosticism flourished. While there were a wide variety of Gnostic sects, most of them claimed to have secret knowledge passed down to them through the oral traditions of the Apostles. Several of them also had their own “gospels”; forgeries named after such biblical characters as Thomas, Judas, and Mary Magdalene.
Because the Gnostics claimed to have the same authoritative resources as the orthodox church, Christian leaders such as Irenaeus were forced to trace the chain of custody of apostolic truths, and to define which scriptures were canonical and which were forgeries.
It was during this time period that great Christian writers and thinkers began to seriously devote themselves to the task of identifying false teaching as distinct from scriptural teachings.
It is uncertain how many works Irenaeus authored. Eusebius refers to four of his works that are now lost: On the Ogdoad, an untitled letter to Blastus regarding schism, On the Subject of Knowledge (also titled On Science), On the Monarchy (also titled How God is not the Cause of Evil). Only two of his books survive to this day: The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (also known as Proof of the Apostolic Preaching), and Against Heresies.
Against Heresies (also titled On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis) is by far his most influential work, as it brilliantly details the Gnostic teaching of the time, gives an excellent defense of the legitimacy of the four canonical gospels as well as many of the epistles, lays down a definite chain of custody for the apostolic teachings, and provides the first known (and very thorough) systematic theology.
Against Heresies has had a permanent effect on church doctrine ever since, and is a vital tool to modern apologists, as it is proof positive of the early dating of the gospels – especially the most criticized gospel, John – and of the chain of custody from the eyewitnesses of Jesus to the early church fathers.
Iranaeus wrote in a time before there was a universally recognized cannon of scripture. In Against Heresies, typically dated around 180CE, Iranaeus references the four recognized gospels, and all of the apostolic writings except Philemon, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation. In so doing, he provides valuable evidence of the early adoption of these works as authoritative.
Against Heresies is a five volume work. In the first volume, Irenaeus gives a very thorough outline of the teachings of Gnosticism. In his 2009 lecture on Irenaeus, Professor Lawrence Feingold makes the point that to define Gnosticism was to refute it, since a bird’s-eye view of this “mystery cult” makes it obvious just how ridiculous their doctrine was.
Indeed, Irenaeus defines the Gnostic teachings with whit and sarcasm. For example, when explaining how the Gnostics taught that the waters of the earth came from the tears of the demigod Sophia, he adds that the Gnostics haven’t considered the difference between the types of water in the earth. He suggests that they refine their teachings such that the salt water comes from her tears, and the fresh water from her sweat. He then winkingly suggests that his readers may imagine for themselves from whence the hot and acrid waters of the earth might spring.
Some scholars contend that Irenaeus’s characterization of Gnosticism was occasionally exaggerated and that some of his sources were out of date. That said, he still appears to be masterfully well-informed on the subject he is addressing, and his work is still the best record that remains of these teachings.
The second book in On Heresies attempts to use pure reason to deconstruct the Gnostic doctrines, showing how they self-destruct under scrutiny. This is a useful book because in some senses it is a Presuppositional apologetic, inferring that reason and truth are grounded in God’s nature and that, properly utilized, they will always ultimately prove God.
In book three, Irenaeus compares Gnostic teachings – which claim to be the true Christian doctrine – against scripture to show how scripture contradicts Gnostic claims. This comparison is so thorough and well-written, it could be argued that Irenaeus here provides the grounds for the rejection of all future heresies.
Book four focuses specifically on the teachings of Jesus, comparing them with the doctrine of the Old Testament to show that they are consistent with one another. Once again, Irenaeus provides an essential tool for future apologists, as the claim that the Old Testament is incompatible with the New Testament is a persistent one up to the current day.
Finally, book five compares Christ’s teaching with the writings of the Apostle Paul to show that the two are in harmony. Throughout the history of the church, there have always been those who claim that Paul’s doctrine and Christ’s were different. By presenting this argument, Iranaeus has left a legacy that modern-day theologians would do well to adopt.
Against Heresies goes above and beyond its intended goal of refuting Gnosticism, and provides Christians everywhere with a systematic theology and a comprehensive foundation to errant claims of every type.
Doctrine of Scriptural Authority
Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp who in turn was a student of the Apostle John who was a direct eyewitness of Jesus, his deeds and teachings. As such, Irenaeus was a third-hand hearer of the teachings of Jesus. In addressing the Gnostic’s claim that they had a secret oral tradition passed down from the Apostles, Irenaeus challenged them to produce a chain of custody to the Apostles, and then proceeded to do just that for the church at Rome, listing the twelve bishops who had led the Roman church, beginning from the time that Peter and Paul taught together in Rome, up to his present day.
In his book Our Legacy, Dr. John Hannah defines Irenaeus’s argument thusly:
In the emergence of the bishop’s office, Irenaeus was important because he appears to have been the first to attribute to church leaders a special custodial relationship to the truth – a notion unknown to Ignatius, Tertullian, or Origen. A line in Irenaeus’s writings, referring to the bishops, states “Those who together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth…” (Against Heresy 4:26). By this time, the bishop was viewed not merely as the head of a local church but also as an incorruptible guardian of the truth, because he was a part of the single episcopate emanating from the apostles. It was neither the office of the bishop nor his historical lineage that conferred authority on the leadership in the churches at this time; rather, it was the message and its conformity to the teachings of the apostles. Irenaeus wrote, ‘True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles… according to the succession of the bishops… without any forging of Scriptures… a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures’ (Against Heresy 4:33). – Our Legacy, Dr. John Hannah, p.44
This teaching becomes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provides valuable evidence against the claim of modern liberal scholars that the books of the New Testament are a series of haphazardly selected mythologies and forgeries thrown together by Constantine in the fourth century in order to control the gullible masses.
On the other hand, it has evolved into the foundation of the Catholic doctrine of the papacy and its claim to have Apostolic authority equal to that of scripture:
For with [the Church in Rome], because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic Tradition. – Against Heresies 3.3.2
Doctrine of God
The Gnostic teachings on God were convoluted to say the least. With a complex series of “eons” (demigods) with interweaving origins and relationships one to another, Irenaeus was forced to outline the character of God, and his relationship to Christ Jesus, in no uncertain terms.
In the fourth book of Against Heresies, Irenaeus responded to the arguments of Marcion that the God of the Old Testament was a hateful and wrathful character that should be rejected in preference to the God of the New Testament. Irenaeus stresses that the God of the Old and New Testaments were the same, and that the concepts of justice and redemption are clearly shown throughout both Testaments.
In so doing, Irenaeus took up the thread of John’s Gospel, affirming the deity and humanity of Jesus and showing that Christ was of the same substance and the manifestation of God in flesh:
There is therefore… one God the Father, and one Christ Jesus our Lord… in every respect, too, he is man, the formation of God: and thus he took up man into himself, the invisible becoming visible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering, and the Word being made man, thus summing up all things in himself. – Against Heresies III.16
The Doctrines of Sin and Redemption
Irenaeus said that Adam was created in the image of God with rational thought and free will:
In man as well as in angels, he has placed the power of choice… so much so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves. On the other hand, they who have not obeyed… judgment: for God did kindly bestow on them what was good; but they themselves did not diligently keep it… Rejecting therefore the good… they shall all incur the just judgment of God. – Against Heresies 4.37.1
Adam voluntarily disobeyed, corrupting the human race:
Through the disobedience of that one man… the many were made sinners and lost life. – Against Heresies 3.18.7
Christ restored to humanity what was lost through Adam (a restitutional view):
He summed up in Himself the long roll of the human race, bringing to us a compendious salvation, that what we lost in Adam, being in the image and likeness of God, we regained in Christ Jesus. – Against Heresies 3.18.1
…and the essence of Christ’s work was substitutionary:
Redeeming us by His own blood in a manner consonant to reason, [He] gave Himself as a redemption for those who have been led into captivity… The Word of God, powerful in all things, and not defective with regard to His own justice, did righteously turn against that apostasy, and redeem from it His own property… Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh… all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. – Against Heresies 5.1.1
Quite apparently, Irenaeus lays out a well-argued and circumspect doctrine of original sin, free will, and salvation:
Indeed, through the first Adam, we offended God by not observing His command. Through the second Adam, however, we are reconciled, and are made obedient even unto death. For we were debtors to none other except to Him, whose commandment we transgressed at the beginning. – Against Heresies 5.16.3
Doctrine of the Church
Irenaeus saw the church as the “Children of Abraham.” Since Israel had never fully received the promise of a land; that promise had passed to Abraham’s spiritual children – the church – in the future return of Christ.
As discussed above, Irenaeus was arguing against those who claimed to hold a secret knowledge outside what the orthodox church believed. Irenaeus responded with an argument that held that the orthodox church was a receptacle of the sacred truth passed down from the Apostles, and that the church in Rome was superior because it had been founded by Peter and Paul, consequently all other Christian churches must calibrate their teachings to that of Rome.
Doctrine of Eschatology
Irenaeus divided history up into seven different thousand-year epics (representing the seven days of the creation week). He believed himself to be living in the sixth epic, a time of trial and persecution leading to the revelation of the anti-Christ. The subsequent defeat of the anti-Christ, and the thousand-year-reign of Jesus that follows, he believed to be the final epic, symbolizing God’s Sabbath at the end of creation. After the millennial reign of Christ, the earth would be destroyed, the final resurrection of the dead would occur, and the creation of the new heaven and the new earth would usher in the eternal state.
The arguments for the truth of scripture and the revelations contained therein have not greatly changed over the centuries, and this is a good thing. If Christianity is the revelation of God and the only true worldview, then it does not require new proofs or arguments. In fact, if the arguments for the truth of Christianity had radically changed over the years, this would point to a system of belief that was untrue as it constantly had to adjust and evolve.
This being the case, it is worth while for modern Christians to acquaint themselves with the classic arguments and proofs provided by the church fathers, and one could do little better than to read Irenaeus. Not only is his reasoning sound and scripturally grounded, but he is surprisingly readable for a man who wrote eighteen-hundred years ago.
by Joel C. Furches