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Irenaeus of Lyons: Contending for the Faith Once Delivered

Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus of Lyons

Today’s posting was originally published in Again Magazine.

St. Irenaeus is considered by many to be the greatest Christian theologian of the second century.  Irenaeus is well known for Against the Heretics — a theological classic in which he defended the Christian Faith against the heresy of Gnosticism.  He was a third generation Christian, a disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of the Apostle John.  He was born between 130 to 140 and died sometime after the year 200.  He lived early enough to see the four Gospels become part of the biblical canon.  His proximity to the original apostles makes Irenaeus an invaluable window for Christians interested in the early Church.

Many Protestants believe that soon after the last of the apostles died, the early Church (assumed to be Protestant) fell from the simplicity of the pure gospel and turned into a religious institution that would become the Roman Catholic Church.  Roman Catholics assume that a fundamental continuity exists between the early Church and contemporary Catholicism.  However, a careful reading of Irenaeus shows that the early Church was neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic.  Also, a traditioning process was in place with safeguards to protect the integrity of the Christian Faith.


The Traditioning Process

Irenaeus held a high view of the inspiration and the authority of Scripture.  He referred to Scripture as “the foundation and pillar of our faith” and spoke of Scripture being “perfect.”  He was one of the first Church Fathers to construct a biblical theology making use of both the Old and the New Testament.  However, it should be noted that Irenaeus did not hold to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura “the bible alone.”  His interpretation of the Bible was not based on an inductive method but was guided by the “rule of faith” he had received from Polycarp.

He saw Tradition as consisting of a written and an oral tradition: the two complementing and supporting one another.  Living in Gaul where he was doing missionary work among preliterate peoples, Irenaeus was familiar with the effectiveness of oral tradition.

Even if the apostles had not left their Writings to us, ought we not to follow the rule of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they committed the churches?  Many barbarian peoples who believed in Christ follow this rule, having [the message of their] salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit without paper and ink.

This understanding of tradition as both written and oral is consistent with Paul’s admonition: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (II Thessalonians 2:15).


Evangelical and Catholic

Irenaeus’ theology was both evangelical and catholic.  The evangelical side can be seen in his high regard for the authority of Scripture.  It can also be seen in his affirmation of God as Trinity and his endorsement of Christ’s divine nature.  He writes:

… unlike all men of the past the Christ is properly proclaimed as God, Lord, eternal King, Only-begotten, and incarnate Word, by all the prophets and apostles and the Spirit itself.  The scriptures would not give this testimony to him if he were a mere man like all others.

His evangelical zeal can also be seen in his firm belief that Christ came to save the world, and his willingness to be a missionary bishop on the Western frontiers of the Roman Empire.

Many Evangelicals today would feel quite at home with his teaching on the end times.  Irenaeus held to a literal understanding of biblical prophecy.  He believed in the Antichrist, the Great Tribulation, and the physical resurrection of the dead as actual events.  He also believed in the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of all flesh, and the final judgment.

The catholic side of Irenaeus’ theology can be seen in his high view of the sacraments.  In his time baptism was not a mere symbol, but a sacrament that conferred the Holy Spirit and spiritual rebirth.

For this reason the baptism of our regeneration takes place through these three articles (belief in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), granting us regeneration unto God the Father through His Son by the Holy Spirit: for those who bear the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son, while the Son presents [them] to the Father, and the Father furnishes incorruptibility.

Baptism was also closely linked to the catechumenate.  Those who desired to join the Church were given “the rule of truth” — a body of doctrine — that would guide them in their understanding of Scripture and protect them from the heresy of Gnosticism.  We also find in Irenaeus one of the earliest witnesses to infant baptism in the early Church.  Modern Evangelicals’ reluctance to accept infant baptism and their belief that baptism is just a symbol shows how far they have departed from the historic mainstream.

The early Church believed that in the Lord’s Supper we partake of the actual body and blood of Christ.  The Gnostics, on the other hand, believing that the material and fleshly were corrupt and inferior rejected the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  In response to the Gnostic heresy Irenaeus wrote:

For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him?

The Evangelical understanding of the Eucharist as just a symbol seems closer to Gnostic heresy than historic Christianity.

The catholic side of Irenaeus’ theology can also be seen in his high view of Mary.  In Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15, Paul wrote about Christ being the Second Adam who came to reverse the First Adam’s tragic error.  Irenaeus expanded upon Paul’s teaching when he described the Virgin Mary as the Second Eve.  He wrote:

…so the second [Eve] was given the good news by the word of an angel to bear God and obey his work; and as the first [Eve] was seduced into disobeying God, so the second [Eve] was persuaded to obey God so that the virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve.

Irenaeus saw Mary as the Second Eve who made possible the salvation of the human race; the Incarnation of the Son of God would not have happened without her consent.  He wrote that through her obedience Mary became “the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race.”  He also described Mary as the advocate for Eve, an implicit reference to the intercession of the saints.  All this challenges the Protestant low view of Mary which tends to see her as an ordinary human being no different from us.


Our Salvation In Christ

Irenaeus is well known for his describing salvation in terms of “recapitulation.” Recapitulation means: “to repeat the principal points or stages of” or “summarize” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Tenth Edition).  The term was used by the Apostle Paul.  In Ephesians 1:10, Paul describes salvation in cosmic terms, “…to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”

Irenaeus’ understanding of salvation took as its starting point the Incarnation.  The Son of God became man so that we would be saved through his life, his death on the cross, and his rising from the dead.  As the Second Adam, Christ lived out the principal stages of human existence perfectly reversing the tragic error of the First Adam.

And the transgression which occurred through the tree was undone by the obedience of the tree–which [was shown when] the Son of Man, obeying God, was nailed to the tree, destroying the knowledge of evil, and introducing and providing the knowledge of good….

The significance of the Incarnation lies in the fact that Christ came to save the entirety of human existence, i.e., both physically and spiritually.

Irenaeus’ understanding of salvation is quite different from that found in Western Christianity which understands salvation in terms of Christ’s atoning death to placate God’s wrath against man’s sin.  For Irenaeus salvation means the restoration of communion with God.

For this the Word of God became man, and the Son of God Son of man, that man, mingled with the Word and thus receiving adoption, might become a son of God.  We could not receive imperishability and immortality unless we had been united to imperishability and immortality.  And how could we have been united with imperishability and immortality unless imperishability and immortality had first been made what we are, so that what was perishable might be absorbed by imperishability and what was mortal by immortality “that we might receive adoption as sons”?

Through the Incarnation human nature was joined to the divine nature in order to restore humanity to full relationship with God.  This forms the basis for the Orthodox doctrine of theosis, salvation as participation in the divine nature (see II Peter 1:3).


The Gnostic Challenge Today

Gnosticism was one of the earliest and most dangerous heresies that the early Church faced.  It challenged Christianity in two ways.  One, it claimed a secret knowledge that was superior to that of the Church –in effect challenging the teaching authority of the bishops.  Two, it held that the spiritual was superior to the physical and that the true Christ was a pure spirit being — thereby rejecting the Incarnation.  As a heresy, Gnosticism threatened the Christian Faith not by outright rejection, but by distorting and redefining the essential meaning of the Faith.  It denied the virgin birth.  Gnostics believed that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, but was superior to other men because of the purity of his soul.  They were moral relativists insisting that good and evil are a matter of perception.  And, they denied that Christ really suffered on the Cross.

The Gnostic heresy is very much alive and with us today.  Its influence can be seen in liberal Protestantism.  A friend of mine sent an e-mail describing a conference she had just attended:

At the Earl Lectures 2005 sponsored by the UCC-supported Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA, a minister stood up and declared he didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  I asked him if he didn’t think it was possible.  “Oh, it was possible, just not necessary.”

Being a theologically astute Evangelical, my friend recognized the minister’s statement as a form of Gnosticism.  Robert J. Sanders wrote an e-mail article in which he describes the de facto theology of the Episcopal Church as Gnostic.  He points to the denomination’s “gospel” of radical inclusion which rejects the distinction between good and evil, regards creeds and morality as secondary, and practices open communion — inviting unbaptized and even non-Christians to the Eucharist.

The tendency towards Gnosticism can also be seen among Evangelicals.  A seminary friend of mine has expressed deep concern over Evangelicalism’s low view of the church, symbolic understanding of sacraments, low view of the creeds, faith in Christ as a personal experience, and emotional worship.  He sees all this having a striking similarity to Gnosticism’s mind/body dualism and the Gnostics’ giving priority to mystical experience over doctrine and structure.

Irenaeus’ defense of the Christian Gospel was multipronged.  Although the Gnostics claimed to be Christian, Irenaeus pointed out that none of them could trace a line of succession back to the original apostles of Christ through the bishops.  In other words, the Gnostics’ version of Christianity was a made-up religion, just the personal opinion of an individual.  Another line of defense was the unity and catholicity (universality) of the Faith.  Irenaeus boasted that no matter where one traveled throughout the vast Roman Empire one would find the same faith being confessed everywhere.

Having received this preaching and this faith, as I have said, the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it, as if living in one house.  She believes these things [everywhere] alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth.

Truth for Irenaeus was not pluriform — taking many differing, even contradictory expressions, which vary from one place to the next.  Christianity being grounded in the historical reality of the Incarnation of divine Son of God is true in all places for all time.  Also the Christian faith is a corporate faith, this is a consequence of the Church being the Body of Christ, the “pillar and foundation of truth” (I Timothy 3:15).

Irenaeus played a key role in defeating the Gnostic heresy and articulating a theological framework that would preserve intact the Christian Faith for generations to come.   For this he is honored today as a saint and a Church Father.


Learning From St. Irenaeus

As a church history major at an Evangelical seminary I often felt like an orphan, a wandering nomad with no family history to speak of.  Reading Irenaeus and the church fathers made me feel like I had entered into a foreign country with an alien language.  I began to wonder: “Am I related to them theologically?  Or, do I belong to a different faith?”  Thus, Church history is not an innocuous discipline, but one fraught with danger for Protestants.

I found the similarities between the Orthodox Church of today and Irenaeus’ second century Christianity daunting.  If the traditioning process worked as intended, then we can expect to find a church today that bears a striking resemblance to the Church of Irenaeus’ time.  That church is the Orthodox Church.  A careful study of church history supports Orthodoxy’s audacious claim that it has kept the Faith unchanged and that it is the true Church.

In my study of church history, I was struck by how much the Roman Catholic Church has changed over the years, especially under the influence of medieval scholasticism, the Counter- reformation, and the more recent Vatican II reforms.  Moreover, in reading Irenaeus I was struck by the absence of teachings that Protestants found objectionable: papal supremacy, papal infallibility, Mary’s immaculate conception, purgatory.  While Irenaeus did affirm the real presence in the Eucharist, he did not define it in terms of transubstantiation.  Irenaeus was Catholic, but not Roman Catholic.

Prior to becoming Orthodox, I was an Evangelical in a liberal Protestant denomination.  I often found myself struggling against liberal theology.  For this reason I felt a kinship with Irenaeus when I read his Against the Heretics.  However, I also found Irenaeus challenging the basis for my Protestant theology.  His insistence on the importance of the traditioning process and apostolic succession challenged the principle of the “bible alone” — the foundational principle of Protestant theology.  Also his description of the catholicity of the Faith in the early Church stood in stark contrast to Protestantism’s thousands of denominations, each contradicting the other.  This forced me to change my question from: “Do I have the right doctrine?” (which is a Protestant question) to “Do I belong to the true Church?”  This in time led to my joining the Orthodox Church and my taking Irenaeus as my patron saint.

Robert Arakaki 


  1. David Brent

    Robert, this is so good. I must start reading Irenaeus! Thank you for your work.

    • robertar

      Thanks David. It means a lot to me. A word of advice about Irenaeus’ “Against Heresies,” a lot of the book consists of detailed description of what the Gnostics believed; the interesting stuff about the Christian Faith are like nuggets of gold in the ground. I’ll put out some of the nuggets from Irenaeus in a future posting.


      • David Brent

        You are right. I started reading last night and had no idea just how involved the gnostic fabrication was. My head was spinning! How could anyone who was a Christ follower buy into such nonsense? I can’t imagine anyone who was mature in Christ to fall for this, but maybe I’m mistaken. The gnostic wolves must have been so very cleaver and devious.

  2. Doubting Thomas


    Good point about ‘AGAINST HERESIES’. It is long and was tedious at times when I read it, particularly when he was describing in detail the various believes of the different forms of gnositicism. However, there is a lot of good stuff there too which witnesses to the beliefs of the early orthodox catholic Church.

    Folks may want to read his shorter work ‘On the Apostolic Preaching’ which is also very good.


    Great article, Robert. So glad I subscribed to this site.

    • robertar


      Thank you!


  4. Gregory Soderberg

    Thanks for this summary!

    Happily, times are changing in the evangelical and Protestant world. Dr. James R. Payton recently released an abridged version of Against Heresies, and I’m in the middle of Julie Canlis’s delightful book: Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension, in which she looks at both Irenaeus’ and Calvin’s theology of spiritual ascent and participation in the Divine Life of the Trinity.

    • robertar

      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge!

      It’s good to see Protestants interacting with the early Church. I believe it will result in a healthier and more balanced theology.

      I will try and take a look at Payton’s edition of Against Heresies. You might be interested in my review of James Payton’s Light From the Christian East.

      Canlis’ book Calvin’s Ladder sounds intriguing.


  5. Eric

    Great summary, which reflects a similar journey to mine when I read the Fathers. Upon first reading Ireaeus, I thought he didn’t understand the Gospel. (Lord have mercy!)

    It is a scary thing for the Evangelical to entertain the idea that perhaps he doesn’t understand Scripture the way the writers of the New Testament intended.

  6. Kyle Elijah Stancliff

    There is a clarity in Orthodoxy that I knew little of–in my various protestant denominations. I have found solace in Orthodoxy, which has been illumined unto me this year. Your testament is further affirmation to my heart, mind, and spirit that seeks a home in Christ and His “Ekklesia”–His Bride.

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