« Prev Introduction Next »


The General Character of His Work

Irenaeus of lyons occupies a paradoxical position in the modern study of the Fathers of the Church. Since his great work was first published by Erasmus in 1526, no Christian writer of the age before Augustine has been so frequently called to enter directly into our modern controversies. The result is that his ideas are discussed as ideas and not simply as historical relics of early Christian teaching. This is partly due to his significant, though not wholly clear, references to topics of Church order and New Testament history, and his statements about the authority of Scripture and tradition, matters that have been of current interest ever since the sixteenth century. His evidence for the Eucharistic devotion and liturgical practice of his time is so valuable, and yet so tantalizing, that an eighteenth century scholar was led to amplify this source of information by publishing a few fragments of Irenaeus which he seems to have constructed himself.960960The "Pfaffian Fragments"; see A. Harnack, Die Pfaff’schen Irendäus-Fragmente als Fälschungen Pfaffs nachgewiesen (Texte and Untersuchungen XX. 3). Leipzig, 1900. Yet all these are matters rather incidental in Irenaeus’ discussion, introduced as buttresses to his main argument. His main purpose in writing is to establish in clear simplicity the belief in one God which Christianity inherited from Judaism, and the faith in the redemption of the human race through Jesus Christ his only Son. These constitute the specifically Christian gospel, whether in the twentieth century or in the second. It is not surprising that modern theologians invite Irenaeus to give them his support in our modern discussions. One of the works that has been a turning point of modern 344theology calls for a return to the "classic doctrine" of the atonement which he expounded.961961G. Aulen, Christus Victor, tr. A. G. Hebert. S.P.C.K., London, 1931. Again, a recent writer looks to him for a sound statement of the structure of revelation.962962L. S. Thornton, Revelation and the Modern World. Black, London, 1950. It is not unnatural that all claim him for their own—a Swedish bishop finds his teaching in harmony with that of Luther,963963 a French Church historian speaks of him as a truly Catholic soul,964964J. Lebreton, in J. Lebreton arid J. Zeiller, The History of the Primitive Church, tr. E. C. Messenger, 2 vols., Vol. II, p. 690. New York, 1949. and an English editor modestly observes that one could easily find in his writings all the articles of the Church of England.965965W. W. Harvey, Sancti Irenaei Libros Quinque Adversus Haereses, 2 vols., Vol. I, p. clxxiii. Cambridge, 1857.

Yet when the student first turns from modern citations of Irenaeus to the actual writings of the bishop of Lyons he is likely to be puzzled and even repelled. Weird systems of fantastic speculation, almost as difficult to understand as to sympathize with, are given careful if not favorable exposition. Moreover, they are refuted by arguments which, when they get beyond general principles, seem often to be based on eccentric interpretations of the Bible, or on attempts at reasoning in which rhetoric is stronger than logic. The profound insights which commentators have found in Irenaeus appear as islands of brilliance in a work which pursues its turgid way, following a general outline to be sure, but often seeming to lose sight of it when the author descends to details.

The greatness of Irenaeus appears all the more clearly when one realizes how fully it was by concentration on the problems of his own day that he made his permanent contribution to Christian thought. The title under which he wrote his great work, The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called, is both more impressive and a truer reflection of his approach than the prosaic label Five Books Against the Heresies, by which the manuscripts generally describe it. Irenaeus may be considered as the first great systematic theologian of the Church, but he did not write a systematic theology. As his preface indicates, he wrote as a pastor and teacher of the Church, and addressed himself to other pastors to assist them in protecting their flocks from teachings that seriously perverted the gospel or replaced it by a jumble of speculations and encouraged either laxity of conduct or serious misbehavior. 345The systems that we call Gnostic have this in common, that they found orthodox Christianity, with its straightforward creed, too simple. (Our use of the term "Gnostic" is not exactly Irenaeus', since he seems to use it for the earlier phases of the movement, although it is not clear precisely to what systems he limited it.) They professed at least to give a more complex answer to the riddle of the universe. It might be in terms of a vague world of divine beings, the Fullness or Plērōma of deity, the least and feeblest of whom had, as a result of some fatal error, departed from the bright world above and brought into being this physical universe, from which the goal of true wisdom is to escape. Or it might be in terms of dualism, explaining the ambiguities of mortal existence by telling of the conflict of two independent powers, good and evil, or perhaps merely perfect and imperfect. The first of these answers produces the system of Valentinus, the second that of Marcion, and most of the rest may be classified as variations of one or the other. Marcion is of all the leading Gnostics the one who is most definitely a heretic, that is, the leader of a divergent movement within the Christian tradition itself. He is indeed the first founder of a denomination or sect among Christians; in various parts of the Near East Marcionite Churches confronted Catholic for some centuries. In spite of his rejection of the Old Testament, his teaching had a strong Puritan note. His followers became one of the sects, of which the Manichaeans were the most lasting, in which the ascetic was considered to be the only real Christian and the ordinary believer, who had not wholly broken with the world and its affairs, was either denied baptism or treated as little more than a catechumen. Gnostics of the Valentinian type, on the other hand, are scarcely to be listed as Christians, although the names of Jesus Christ, the Father, the Spirit, and other Christian or Jewish terms might be the most concrete elements in otherwise shadowy systems of speculation. They were more likely to be concerned with the difference between matter and spirit than with that between good and evil—or, if they were trichotomists, with a distinction between the physical, the psychic, and the spiritual. Only the higher order mattered, and hence the body was perhaps to be abused, or perhaps to be indulged—in any case it was not to be redeemed. Hence one could not believe that even a lesser deity had really entered into human nature. Christ was perhaps a high power (how much higher, different teachers would express differently) who came upon Jesus at 346his baptism and left him before his death, thus avoiding the double scandal of the birth from a woman and the death on the cross. Their closest approach to the idea of God present in the man Christ Jesus would be in such words as these:

"The invisible Christ was incorporeal, whereas Jesus was a corporeal or bodily existence. The dual personality, of the seen and the unseen, the spiritual and material, the Christ and Jesus, continued until the Master's ascension, when the human, the corporeal concept, or Jesus, disappeared, while his invisible self, or Christ, continued to exist in the eternal order of Divine Science,"966966Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, 52d ed., (Boston, 1891), ch. 5, no. 15 of platform, p. 229. though this quotation is from a modern writer.

To Irenaeus the refutation of Gnosticism was primarily a practical and pastoral matter. The background of his writings is the rivalry between sound religion and the vagaries of the esoteric and the occult for the souls of men and also of women. The latter are represented by the good ladies of Irenaeus’ own congregation on the banks of the Rhone, who were attracted by the impressive if meaningless ceremonies of a Gnostic conventicle, in which when grace was called down upon the water it visibly turned pink—by some chemical trick, as Irenaeus was sure.967967Irenaeus, I, ch. 13 (unless otherwise noted, refs. are to Adversus Haereses). Gnostics could not really believe in the incarnation. Therefore they could not really believe in the extension of divine power into human life by sacraments celebrated within this physical order. Least of all could they hope in the resurrection, which proclaimed that the eternal promise of life with God belonged to the body as well as to the soul. In replying to them Irenaeus develops in some detail the interrelation of incarnation, Eucharist, and resurrection. His general line of thought, if not any particular phrase, seems to be the justification for the sentiment which English writers since the seventeenth century have ascribed rather vaguely to the Fathers, that the sacraments are the extension of the incarnation.

The Life of Irenaeus

Only a few episodes from the life of Irenaeus are recorded. He first appears as the bearer of a letter from the confessors of Lyons to the church of Rome at the time of the persecution of A.D. 177. He was then already a respected leader of the 347Church, holding the office of presbyter.968968Eusebius, Hist. eccl., V, ch. 4. He himself tells us that he had personal memories of the great Polycarp, the "blessed and apostolic presbyter" who for many years headed the church of Smyrna. As quoted by Eusebius from a lost letter, they seem more like the memories of a bright boy, vividly recalling the scenes of his childhood, than of a pupil of a theologian. He could remember where Polycarp used to sit and stand, what he looked like, and what he used to say in his sermons.969969Ibid., V, ch. 20; cf. Irenaeus, III. 3:4; and Irenaeus as a disciple of Polycarp preserving the letter that recorded his martyrdom (Mart. Poly., ch. 22). Polycarp could say at his martyrdom in 155 that he had served the Lord for six-and-eighty years; his reminiscences of John and others who had seen the Lord made him for Irenaeus an invaluable link in tradition, since thus only two stages separated him from the days of Jesus. Whether family, personal, or missionary motives led to his going to Rome and then to Lyons we cannot say. He was probably at Rome when Polycarp visited the city in the time of Bishop Anicetus, shortly before his death, although Irenaeus’ references to that visit do not stress his personal knowledge.970970Eusebius, Hist. eccl. V. 24:14–17. He derives enough of both ideas and phrases from Justin Martyr to make it probable that he had been a pupil of Justin's as well as a reader of his books, though his own interests are considerably different. When he wrote the Refutation and Overthrow he had probably long since left the capital, except for the visit of 177. But it was still for him the natural center of the Christian as of the civilized world. The heresies that he attacked were primarily those that had either sprung from, or spread to, the imperial city, although he improved his information about them by personal inquiries at Lyons.

Second century Lyons was a lesser Rome. A commercial city at the head of navigation on the Rhone, center of the Roman road system for Gaul, it was the seat of a garrison, and the capital of one of the Gallic provinces. Through the concilium Galliarum it was the headquarters of the imperial cult for three provinces, and a metropolis in its own right as well as a gateway between the Mediterranean world and the provinces north of the Alps. Like Rome, it had a large Greek-speaking element in its population, and among this element Christianity was first established. The martyrs of Lyons included several of Asiatic origin, and the account of their martyrdom notes as 348exceptional that the deacon Sanctus of the nearby town of Vienne confessed his faith in Latin, answering to all questions only Christianus sum.971971Eusebius, Hist. eccl. V. 1:20. Irenaeus felt a human homesickness at times for the Greek cities of his youth. He registers a real sorrow as well as making a formal rhetorical apology, when he notes that he is an exile among the Celts, accustomed to speaking a barbarous tongue. By this I am not at all sure that he does not mean Latin, although local Celtic dialects are also in view. His later contacts with the rest of the Christian world are by letter. In spite of his love for personal tradition, he learned about earlier days largely from the same literary sources that are known to us.

On return from his visit to Rome, Irenaeus succeeded the martyr Pothinus as bishop at Lyons, and Eusebius speaks of him as leader of Christians in Gaul. Certainly his interest, perhaps also his missionary responsibility, extended to such congregations as existed in northern parts of Gaul and in Germany (that is, in the Roman provinces along the Rhine). In the Refutation and Overthrow, Irenaeus continues the list of Roman bishops down to Eleutherus, who was succeeded by Victor about 189 or 190. He thus dates approximately the composition of that work. His other preserved work, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, refers to the Refutation and is therefore later. Irenaeus last appears in history when he addresses a respectful but firm letter of protest to Pope Victor for his threatened excommunication of the Asiatic churches on account of their loyalty to the observance of the paschal feast on the Jewish date, the fourteenth of Nisan, instead of the following Sunday. Eusebius takes leave of him with the note that he was indeed a promoter of the peace of the Church, as his name suggested, both in this and in his other letters on the subject.972972Ibid., V. 24:18. Having been more than an infant when he knew Polycarp, Irenaeus was probably over sixty by the end of the second century. He would scarcely have been silent in the controversies that arose after the death of Victor (A.D. 198), and probably passed away himself at about the same time. No authentic tradition credits him with a martyr's death, although a general sense of the fitness of things led to his inclusion as bishop and martyr in medieval martyrologies, and he is so honored in the calendar of saints today. He was certainly a martyr in the broader sense, a steadfast witness for the truth of the gospel.


Irenaeus’ Work and Thought

In general the Refutation and Overthrow follows a logical order, although it is not always clear in detail. Book I describes the heresies in question, sometimes sarcastically, and Book II shows their absurdity. In Book III the basis of Christian doctrine in Scripture and tradition is laid down, and its essential points, the unity of God and redemption through Christ, are enlarged on in detail. Book IV defends against Marcion the unity of the two covenants, and Book V resumes the discussion of redemption and passes on to the last things and the hope of the world to come. The Demonstration, which seems to represent Irenaeus’ teaching to catechumens, follows the order of the baptismal formula, adducing Scripture proof for belief in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It avoids the literal millenarianism of the Refutation, which suggests that Irenaeus had either changed his views on the subject or thought best to pass over the matter more lightly.973973Demonstration, ch. 61. Eusebius mentions several other works now lost, but they seem to be smaller essays on topics discussed in the Refutation and Overthrow.

Irenaeus was profoundly a churchman and a pastor, and he writes as such. He was not desirous of originality, and had no more hesitation than the Biblical writers in reproducing material derived from different sources. From this there perhaps derive the slightly confusing shift in numbering the list of bishops at Rome, in which the apostles are sometimes counted and sometimes not, and some repetition with variations in his treatment of particular heresies. The latter is doubtless due to notes taken from different sources, and does not simplify the already complex problem of what Gnosticism really was. One important source is certainly the work of Justin Martyr on the history of heresies, whether the collection of material on that subject referred to in Justin's First Apology should be thought of as a published Work or as a collection of notes available for people like Irenaeus who were interested in the subject.974974Justin, Apol. I, ch. 26. The formal prominence of Simon Magus as the father of Gnosticism is certainly due to Justin, whose interest in another native of Samaria was further stimulated by what he took to be a statue of the heresiarch on the banks of the Tiber. The systems with which Irenaeus was actively concerned were the Valentinian, with its variations, and the Marcionite. On 350these he doubtless collected information from a number of sources, supplementing it by some personal contacts with such representatives of the sects as had come to Lyons and were causing confusion in his own congregation. A recent study has shown Irenaeus’ use of works of Theophilus of Antioch, and also some of the blocks of Eastern Christian tradition which he employed.975975F. Loofs, Theophilus von Antiochien Adversus Marcionem und die andere theologische Quellen bei Irenaeus (Texte und Untersuchungen, 46, 2), Leipzig, 1930; cf. Thornton's comment, Revelation and the Modern World, pp. 118, 119.

But though Irenaeus was dependent on a variety of sources, it is a great mistake to think of him merely as a compiler. Even on that level we have to ask why he compiled precisely this collection of facts and arguments. He did not aim at originality, but this did not prevent his achieving a considerable amount of it. He was, to be sure, a man of tradition, paradosis. To him, however, what was handed down was not a collection of formal beliefs, but a means of living contact with the sources of life, indeed with the Life himself. He felt to the full what a modern writer has called "the thrill of tradition."976976James Moffatt, The Thrill of Tradition, p. 71. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1944 (though he misunderstands Irenaeus, III. 2:1). His highest aim was to state clearly what the Church believed and taught, and to preserve that teaching from corruption. Indeed in his various statements of faith there appear all the essentials of the Creed of Nicaea except its technical terms. Yet in his repeated outlines and comments he presented the essence of Christian theology. Preaching to Gentiles, he was conscious that the firm belief in one God, Creator of all things, from which Jews began their introduction to Christianity, needed to be stressed with others. His view of mankind is neither unduly dark nor merely optimistic. God has led man through history to his final revelation, especially by the Law and the Prophets, whose standing it was necessary to defend against the Marcionite rejection of them. But on the other hand much of that history is the record of the great rebellion of angels and men, the apostasy, which God finally countered by the incarnation of his only Son.977977Cf. Irenaeus, IV, chs. 14; 37 to 38.

Irenaeus’ view of redemption is rich, and indeed may have gained something from his dealing with Gnostic thought. Vague as was the basis of Gnostic mythology, it certainly described the moral and metaphysical structure of the universe 351in dramatic terms. Irenaeus sticks to the simplicity of the faith, but gives it some of the thrill that enables one to describe the Creed as an epic and the dogma as the drama. The Son of God worsted the ancient enemy in fair fight, thus redeeming mankind from its slavery. (It is most unfair to read into the one word "redeemed" the idea of a ransom paid to the devil.)978978V, ch. 1; cf. H. Rashdall, The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, pp. 233–248 (the interpretation here criticized on p. 244, n.1). London, 1919. We were bought with a great price; but it was the price of the victor's toils endured that we might be free, not a price paid by omnipotence to any lesser power. In Christ there is a new creation, a new source of higher life, overcoming the defects of the basically good yet weakened first creation. There is a new Adam and also, as Irenaeus observes in passing, a new Eve, since the obedience of Mary began to repair the damage done by the disobedience of the mother of all living. Is this a piece of unwritten apostolic tradition, as has been suggested,979979Charles Gore, The Holy Spirit and the Church, p. 280. London, 1924. or was Irenaeus here stimulated by Gnostic ideas about the mother to start a chain of speculation on the dignity of the mother of Christ, which was later to have remarkable developments? In any case, the new life is primarily life in Christ, of whom Irenaeus anticipates an Alexandrian epigram when he says that he became what we are so that we might become what he is.980980V, pref. This new life is a life of faith, which certainly for Irenaeus means the acceptance of sound belief, but in the sense of joyful turning to God, not simply of correct information about him. In the circle of the new life God's world, created good, returns once more to its right relation to him. In contrast to all Gnostic or falsely spiritual depreciation of the material universe, Irenaeus stresses the significance of the offerings of bread and wine which the Church, as the priest of creation, offers to God. They are the gifts of thanksgiving which become the body and blood of Christ, and as such preserve our bodies and souls to everlasting life.981981IV, chs. 17; 18; V, chs. 1; 2. God redeems nature by nature and through nature. We can best understand Irenaeus’ tendency to even a literal eschatology of the earthly millennium as part of his insistence that God has redeemed his own dear universe and not simply provided a way of escape from it. And so at the end of the drama the world which came from God will visibly return to him again.


Irenaeus did not want to speculate, but he could not help it. He was a practical theologian and not a formal philosopher. After all, he was a missionary and pastor in Lyons, and did not move in the sophisticated circles to which some of the Apologists tried to commend the gospel. But he provided the framework of formal theology and indicated the topics that later theology and Christian philosophy would have to take up. How the Son of God and the Spirit are related to the Father he never discusses, but he lays down the terms of that discussion by treating both as in the sphere of deity, while writing on the precise subject of Christian monotheism. That question was to come up immediately, in fact, was already the subject of controversy at Rome before the death of Irenaeus. On other topics, like the atonement and sacraments, he threw out hints that were not to be taken up for some time. His credal assertions, however, about God and his world waited for philosophical development only for the next Christian who was also a philosopher—in other words, for the bright boy who was already reading books at Alexandria when the old bishop finished his task at Lyons. Irenaeus closes the first age of the formulation of tradition, and opens the way for Origen, who is his logical successor in the general movement of Christian thought.

The great interest of the study of Irenaeus’ sources for his knowledge of Christian truth is that they are also ours. In other words, he is the first Christian writer who worked with the New Testament much as we do. It is for him as for us part of the Bible, although he does not put it exactly that way. He reveres the Old Testament and vigorously asserts its authority for Christians; but the Apostolic Writings can be quoted for themselves, and Irenaeus does not have to attempt, like Justin or the Apostolic Fathers, to base the gospel on the Old Testament if he is to use arguments from a sacred book. He refers to all the New Testament books except two or three of the shortest epistles,982982Philemon, III John, and perhaps Jude; cf. F. R. Montgomery Hitchcock, Irenaeus of Lugdunum, ch. 12, Cambridge, 1914. although the authority of the Writings is still that of each of its parts taken separately rather than of the collection as a whole. Tradition brought him the creed and the rites of the Church; but it was not, except perhaps for one or two minor items, a great source of further information. On the whole he was dependent on the books available to him at Lyons, including already venerated works of the early Fathers, 353like I Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, which are admirable Writings too, though not on the level of the apostolic compositions. In writing about the New Testament Scriptures and interpreting them, Irenaeus is an exegete and even a higher critic. He collects external and internal evidence for the authorship and character of the Gospels. His essays in exegesis are sometimes startling, as when he argues that Jesus had a long ministry of two decades, since otherwise there would be no point in the phrase, "You are not yet fifty years old."983983II, ch. 22; Jesus thus, it occurs to Irenaeus, sanctifying every age of human life. As an interpreter of the Christian tradition, Irenaeus had about the same resources that were available to later Patristic scholars.

Irenaeus could already look back to an early Church and even to a middle period, the age of men like Polycarp who connected his generation with that of the apostles. Through them he could almost join hands with Jesus himself, and in effect say to his Gallic converts, "What our eyes have seen . . . and our hands have handled of the Word of life."984984I John 1:1. Life in Christ is ever new and directly received, but its connection with the historic Jesus is already dependent on links; hence the importance of a sound succession in the Church. This must be taken in no narrow sense. Irenaeus finds it in the traditions of elders, and points it out in the series of directors in a great Church like the Roman (so we might translate episkopos, since the term had not yet become primarily a technical one by translation). But the great succession which Irenaeus stresses is the succession of faith and life from generation to generation of believers, bound together in the fellowship of the Body of Christ.

The Latin Translation of Irenaeus

Irenaeus has suffered the strange fate that none of his works are preserved complete in the language in which they were written. This is partly because he wrote so definitely for the problems of his own age, partly because the hints he offered for Greek theology were so completely taken up by later writers as to make reference to him superfluous. Doubtless also local situations contributed. Lyons was the natural center of interest in Irenaeus, and the Greek tradition in the church there did not long survive him. Eusebius still knew Irenaeus in Greek; like many modern students, he was mainly interested in the 354incidental historical evidence that he preserves. Treatises on heresies rapidly became a form of Christian antiquarianism. This kind of interest is responsible for the preservation of much of Book I by the fourth century heresiologist, Epiphanius of Salamis, who lifted into his collection Irenaeus’ account of Valentinus and other Gnostics. Hippolytus of Rome had already made use of him, and there are a few later quotations.

Happily a Latin translation of the Refutation and Overthrow was produced, probably not very long after Irenaeus’ time, and as further fragments of the Greek are identified they can be checked into their proper place in it. Where the original is available, the translation seems to be almost woodenly literal, and on the whole the student of Irenaeus is grateful for this, since it gives him reasonable confidence in depending on the general sense of the translation elsewhere. A point on which the translator gives us comfort rather than help is the question of those Gnostic terms that are also Greek words. Are they to be treated as personal names or personifications, and so in English should it be Bythos or Depth, Sophia or Wisdom, Monogenes or Only-begotten, and so on? The Latin translator evidently felt that they were sometimes one and sometimes the other, and used his discretion as to whether to translate or transliterate, not always consistently; the English translator seems justified in following his example without always being bound by his authority. The first printed edition was edited by Erasmus in 1526, and ever since then the study of Irenaeus has been pursued with vigor. Seventeenth century scholars identified two families among the Latin manuscripts; critical editions begin with the eighteenth. W. W. Harvey's edition of 1857 prints a full collection of Greek fragments along with the Latin, and is adequate for most practical purposes. More recently an Armenian version has come to light (Books 4 and 5 and fragments) and will have to be employed in any future critical edition. It is also to an Armenian version that we owe the modern recovery of the Demonstration.

« Prev Introduction Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection