St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the First Systematic Theologian of the Second Century

Johnson Thomaskutty,
Faculty of New Testament, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

I. Prologue

In a period of identity crisis for Churches, created by Gnosticism, Marcionism, and other movements, Irenaeus' concept of authority helped the early Christian community to overcome the dangers of the heretics. Opposing the radical accommodation of Christian thought to Hellenistic culture, he pointed to canon and creed as interpreted by bishops in churches of apostolic foundation. In the face of growing postmodern tendencies of loosely interknitting the Christian doctrines, a serious Christian's duty is to systematize and strongly expound the doctrines of the Bible. Irenaeus is a strong example for contemporary theologians to follow. His attempt was never one of “compromising his faith and practices”, rather, strong refutation of the non-Biblical. He was a bridge between early Greek theology and Western Latin theology, which began with his younger contemporary, Tertullian. While Justin was primarily an apologist, Irenaeus' main contribution lay in the refutation of heresy and the exposition of apostolic Christianity. Through their diverse approaches, these figures contribute and influence greatly to the succeeding generations.

II. Irenaeus' Life and Writings

St. Irenaeus was born during the first half of the 2nd century (the exact date is disputed: between the years 115 and 125 according to some, or 130 and 142 according to others). He is thought to have been a Greek from Polycarp's hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, now Izmir, Turkey, born into a Christian family. As a boy he listened to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who had known the Apostle John. During the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161-180, Irenaeus was a priest of the Church of Lyon in France. The clergy of that city, many of whom were suffering imprisonment for the faith, sent him (in 177 or 178) to Rome with a letter to Pope Eleuterus concerning the heresy Montanism, and that occasion bore emphatic testimony to his merits. Returning to Gaul, Irenaeus succeeded the martyr Saint Pothinus and became the second Bishop of Lyon.

Irenaeus' major work was his Five-volume “On the Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called Gnosis”, generally known by the shorter title of “Against Heresies” (in Latin, Adversus Haereses). This was written primarily in opposition to Gnosticism. In Book I, Irenaeus talks about the Valentinian Gnostics and their predecessors, who go as far back as the magician Simon Magus. In Book II he attempts to provide proof that Valentinianism contains no merit in terms of its doctrines. In Book III Irenaeus purports to show that these doctrines are false, by providing counter-evidence gleaned from the Gospels. Book IV consists of Jesus' sayings and here Irenaeus also stresses the unity of the Old Testament and the Gospel. In the final volume, Book V, Irenaeus focuses on more sayings of Jesus plus the letters of Paul the Apostle.

The purpose of "Against Heresies" was to refute the teachings of various Gnostic groups. Until the discovery of the Library of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Against Heresies was the best-surviving description of Gnosticism. According to some biblical scholars, the findings at Nag Hammadi have shown Irenaeus' description of Gnosticism to be largely inaccurate and polemic in nature. Though correct in some details about the belief systems of various groups, Irenaeus' main purpose was to warn Christians against Gnosticism, rather than accurately describe those beliefs. He described Gnostic groups as sexual libertines, for example, when some of their own writings advocated chastity more strongly than did orthodox texts. However, at least one scholar, Rodney Stark, claims that it is the same Nag Hammadi library that proves Irenaeus right.

In his criticism of Gnosticism, Irenaeus made reference to a Gnostic gospel which portrayed Judas in a positive light, as having acted in accordance with Jesus' instructions. The recently discovered Gospel of Judas dates close to the period when Irenaeus lived (late 2nd century), and scholars typically regard this work as one of many Gnostic texts, showing one of many varieties of Gnostic beliefs of the period. It seemed that Irenaeus' critique against the Gnostics were exaggerated, which led to his scholarly dismissal for a long time. For example, he wrote: "They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no other did, accomplished the mystery of betrayal; by him all things were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas." These claims turned out to be truly mentioned in the Gospel of Judas where Jesus asked Judas to betray him.

Irenaeus also wrote "The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching," an Armenian copy of which was discovered in 1907. From these 2 sources we can appreciate the importance of Irenaeus as the first great Catholic theologian, the champion of orthodoxy against Gnostic heresy, and a mediating link between Eastern and Western churches. This work seems to have been an instruction for recent Christian converts. Various fragments of other works by Irenaeus have been found, and many lost works by him are attested by other ancient writers. Most of these works are attested by Eusebius. Of his other works only scattered fragments exist; many, indeed, are known only through the mention made of them by later writers, not even fragments of the works themselves having come down to us. These are:

(1) A treatise against the Greeks entitled "On the Subject of Knowledge" (mentioned by Eusebius);

(2) A writing addressed to the Roman priest Florinus "On the Monarchy”, or “How God is not the Cause of Evil" (fragment in Eusebius);

(3) A work "On the Ogdoad", probably against the Ogdoad of Valentinus the Gnostic, written for the same priest Florinus, who had gone over to the sect of the Valentinians (fragment in Eusebius);

(4) A treatise on schism, addressed to Blastus (mentioned by Eusebius);

(5) A letter to Pope Victor against the Roman priest Florinus (fragment preserved in Syriac);

(6) Another letter to the same on the Paschal controversies (extracts in Eusebius);

(7) Other letters to various correspondents on the same subject (mentioned by Eusebius, a fragment preserved in Syriac);

(8) A book of divers discourses, probably a collection of homilies (mentioned by Eusebius); and

(9) Other minor works for which we have less clear or less certain attestations.

Before Irenaeus, Christians differed as to which gospel they preferred. The Christians of Asia Minor preferred the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Matthew was the most popular overall. Irenaeus asserted that all four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were canonical scripture. Thus Irenaeus provides our earliest witness to the assertion of the four canonical Gospels, possibly in reaction to Marcion's edited version of the Gospel of Luke, which Marcion asserted was the one and only true gospel. Scholars contend that Irenaeus quotes from 21 of the 27 New Testament Texts.

Nothing is known of the date of his death, which must have occurred at the end of the second or the beginning of the third century. In spite of some isolated and later testimony to that effect, it is not very probable that he ended his career with martyrdom. He was buried under the Church of Saint John in Lyon, which was later renamed St Irenaeus in his honor. The tomb and his remains were utterly destroyed in 1562 by the Huguenots. His feast is celebrated on June 28 in the Roman Catholic Church, and on August 23 in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

III. His Theology

Irenaeus, responding to Gnostics and Marcionites rather than presenting an apology to gentiles, rejected Justin's concept of the Seminal Logos who illuminated the minds of both Jews and Greeks. Although he could praise Plato faintly, he had few compliments for nonbiblical writers and writings. In his polemic against the Gnostics Irenaeus criticized especially their use of allegorical exegesis. Irenaeus' theology reflected throughout a strong biblical and especially Pauline slant. Unlike his precursor Justin, Irenaeus was also profoundly biblical and Pauline in his doctrine of redemption. But, in eschatology, Irenaeus followed in the footsteps of his mentor Justin.

Irenaeus was in possession of a fully articulated system of doctrine; and the reader has no trouble in recovering his doctrines of Godhead, Creation, Man, the Incarnation, Salvation, and Last Things. In fact, because Irenaeus' theology is confessional rather than speculative, its worth is more apparent in a controversial setting than it would be if stated in a more schematic form. With a profound knowledge as a Systematic Theologian, Irenaeus strongly refuted against the prevailing Gnostic teachings and tendencies.

As the term “Gnostic” indicates, the early heretical groups were chiefly distinguished by their claims to be possessors of superior knowledge. They maintained that in the nature of things there are three kinds of men: carnal men, animal or psychic men, and spiritual men. The Gnostics, of course, claimed to be of the spiritual variety, and they boasted that they had a special knowledge which had been handed down orally from Christ by those who were able to receive it. The public teaching of Christ, together with His death and resurrection, was, they said, for the benefit of animal men, who, lacking the element of spirit must always be subject to authority.

Gnosticism is a modern term which covers a variety of second-century sects with certain common elements. They believed in a Supreme God who is totally remote from this world. He had no part in its creation—that was the bungling work of a lesser deity, often identified with the God of the Old Testament. Between this evil world and the supreme God there is a hierarchy of divine beings. While our bodies, being physical, are part of this world, our souls are a divine spark, trapped in the body. Salvation is the escape of the soul from the body to the heavenly realms above. In order to reach the Supreme God the soul needs to pass through the realms above this world, which are controlled by the stars and planets, potentially hostile divine beings. Salvation is by knowledge (Greek ‘Gnosis'). Gnosticism was a radically different religion from orthodox Christianity. The different Gnostic groups had their own scriptures. They also appealed to secret traditions, which they claimed to have received from one or another apostle.

The central point of Irenaeus' theology is the unity of God, in opposition to the Gnostics' division of God into a number of divine "Aeons", and their distinction between the utterly transcendent "High God" and the inferior "Demiurge" who created the world. Irenaeus uses the Logos theology he inherited from Justin Martyr in order to defend his position. Irenaeus prefers to speak of the Son and the Spirit as the "hands of God". His emphasis on the unity of God is reflected in his corresponding emphasis on the unity of salvation history. Irenaeus repeatedly insists that God began the world and has been overseeing it ever since this creative act; everything that has happened is part of his plan for humanity.

According to Irenaeus, the high point in salvation history is the advent of Jesus. Irenaeus believed that Christ would always have been sent, even if humanity had never sinned; but the fact that they did sin determines his role as a savior. He sees Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did: thus, where Adam was disobedient concerning God's edict concerning the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of a tree. In addition to reversing the wrongs done by Adam, Irenaeus thinks of Christ as "recapitulating" or "summing up" human life.

Irenaeus adopted a totally negative and unresponsive attitude, however, toward Marcion, a schismatic leader in Rome, and toward the Valentinians, a fashionable intellectual Gnostic movement in the rapidly expanding church that espoused dualism. Because Gnosticism was overcome by the Orthodox Church, Gnostic writings were largely obliterated. In reconstructing Gnostic doctrines, therefore, modern scholars relied to a great extent on the writings of Irenaeus, who summarized the Gnostic views before attacking them. After the discovery of the Gnostic library near Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the 1945, respect for Irenaeus increased. He was proved to have been extremely precise in his report of the doctrines he rejected.

Irenaeus employed a number of arguments against Gnosticism, of which three can be mentioned: (1) He described the different Gnostic systems in detail. He sought to expose the ludicrous nature of many of their beliefs. As he himself put it, ‘merely to describe such doctrines is to refute them'; (2) He challenged the Gnostic claims to secret apostolic traditions. He argues that if the apostles had had special teaching to pass on, they would have entrusted it to the churches which they had founded; and (3) Irenaeus was one of the first to talk of New Testament Scripture alongside the Old Testament. Irenaeus appealed to apostolic Scripture (New Testament) and to the apostolic teaching handed down (tradition) in the apostolic churches.

Irenaeus rests his arguments mostly on the teachings of Scripture, devoting the greater part of his work to exposition of the key passages from the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Epistles. In opposition to the arbitrary use which the Gnostics made of the Bible, he laid down the principle that each passage must be interpreted in harmony with all the remainder of Scripture, and he urged at the same time that men bring a “sound mind” to the study of these writings, and that they interpret the obscure parts in the light of those which are clear and ambiguous, rather than follow the contrary practice.

It is evident, says Irenaeus, that the Gnostics are late-comers, by comparison with the Church's bishops, and that they can only be understood as deviating from the right way. What that “right way” is, the confession of the Church makes clear. Irenaeus cites, on several occasions, a confessional formulary which, he says, was used by churches in all parts of the world. Obviously, it is an early form of what we know as the Apostles' Creed. Drawing upon Scriptures for proof, Irenaeus seeks to show that there is but one God, the Father of all, and that, far from there being an interminable succession of divine personages emanating from the One, there was with God before the creation of the world only “the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit”.

In discussing the creation of man, Irenaeus recounts that God the Father consulted with the Son and with the Spirit, saying, “Let us make man in our image and in our likeness”. Irenaeus introduces the distinction between “image” and “likeness”, which has become official Roman doctrine. God's image, according to this view, is the free and rational constitution which is inalienable from man; God's likeliness is the gift of incorruptibility which man lost as a result of disobedience. Irenaeus holds that the plan for man's salvation is clearly taught both in the Old and New Testament. Man fell into sin by following Satan. In this way, he lost his “likeness” to God and became liable to judgment. But, says Irenaeus, God sent His Son into the world in order that those who follow Him may recover their lost inheritance and be reunited with God in their resurrected bodies. Irenaeus was, also, careful to oppose the Gnostic view that Christ did not become truly man.

IV. Epilogue

Irenaeus' integration of biblical and Hellenistic thought, more cautious than that of his predecessor Justin or his contemporary Clement of Alexandria was to have a significant impact in subsequent centuries. With Irenaeus, Western Christendom found its characteristic theological stance. Distrustful of speculation, he purchased certitude by limiting the scope of man's investigation into divine things. He did not repudiate reason, maintaining that God's plan for man's salvation is completely rational. He insisted, however, that love, rather than knowledge, is necessary to lead men's souls to their perfection. It was, in his view, no little thing that Gnosticism had no martyrs, whereas the Church numbered its martyrs by thousands. Irenaeus remains of considerable importance as a source of information about the various Gnostic systems. His defense against Gnosticism was largely successful. It was thanks to him and to those who followed in his footsteps that orthodox Christianity triumphed over Gnosticism.

The life and theology of Irenaeus have a lot to contribute to the present day Christendom. The church must remain rigid in its orthodoxy, and it must not invite the varied tendencies of this world. The primary duty of apologists, refuters, polemists, and theologians is to defend the truth of the Bible by hook or crook.

For Further Reference:

Clark, Mary T. "Irenaeus", Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. Ed. Everett Ferguson. New York: Garland Press, 1990.

Dockery, David S. Biblical Interpretation Then And Now: Contemporary Hermeneutics In The Light Of The Early Church. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.

Frend, W. H. C. The Rise of Christianity. Augsburg: Fortress Publishers, 1984.

Grant, Robert M. Irenaeus of Lyons: The Early Church Fathers. Routledge, 1997.

Hinson, E. Glenn. “Irenaeus”. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 8. Ed. Mircea Eliade. New York: McMillan, 1987.

Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Doctrines. San Francisco: Harper, 1978.

Lane, Tony. The Lion Concise Book of Christian Thought. Sydney: A Lion Book, 1984.

Lawson, John, The Biblical Theology of St. Irenaeus. London: Epworth Press, 1948.

Magill, Frank N. Ed. Masterpieces of Christian Literature: In Summary Form. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963.

Norris, Richard A. God and World in Early Christian Theology: A Study in Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origen. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1966.

Osborn, Eric. Irenaeus of Lyons. Cambridge: University Press, 2001.






London School of Theology