In order to appreciate Irenaeus, we need to have a working knowledge of three major elements playing a crucial role in Irenaeus’s world.
In 177AD several old men were eaten by wild beasts while the crowd cheered their approval. The crime committed by Alexander, Attalus, Espagathus, Maturus, Sactius and Pothinus? They were Christians.
Under the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180AD) a persecution of Christians broke out in a region called Gaul (modern day France). People from the two major cities in Gaul, Lyons and Vienne, wrote letters to other churches letting them know the horrendous persecution happening in their land. These first-hand accounts were eventually preserved and published by the first great church historian, Eusebius (263-339AD).
The letter states, “The greatness, indeed, of the tribulation, and the extent of the madness exhibited by the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings which the martyrs endured in this country, we are not able fully to declare, nor is it, indeed, possible to describe them.”1
The letters do, however, go on to describe the horrors of the persecution in Lyons. After enduring lengthy torture which killed some of the oldest Christians, the rest were taken into the Amphitheater in Lyons and eventually killed by wild beasts.
The city of Lyons and the outbreak of persecution become very important for our theologian: Irenaeus.
Many people in the second century flocked to a new form of the Christian message known as Gnosticism. The Greek word gnosis simply means knowledge. Gnostics let you know there’s some secret knowledge you need, in addition to the Bible, which will open your eyes to the real truth and make it possible for you to really be a Christian. Would you like to know the secret? I’m sure you do. Ok, here it goes in a nutshell:
The ultimate God is an amazing God too great to know. In the Pleroma (think heaven), God lives and has many sub-gods. One of these sub-gods known as Sophia grew impatient and wanted to be like the unknowable supreme God. Pride and arrogance led her to take matters into her own hands and birth a son known as Demiurge. He had all the traits of his mother: sinful; prideful; arrogant and evil. The Demiurge then created the world. You might know him through another name, Yahweh. He’s the evil god we read of in the Old Testament. Everything Yahweh created is evil and his people, Jews, are especially evil.
The ultimate God placed on the evil earth some good spirits known as Aeons. These Aeons would be inside evil bodies and when these “seeds of light” were turned on they would allow people to escape the world and rise to be part of the Pleroma. How does your “seed of light” get turned on? Well, let me quote a verse you probably already know, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
You see the true God, not that evil Yahweh sub-god, sent another glorious sub-god named Christ to enlighten and open the eyes of the elect Aeons. Christ had to join up with the evil body of a man named Jesus (luckily only for a little while) in order to give people the secret knowledge. Would you believe in Jesus today? He came for you to show you the way. He is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the unknowable God but through Him. Here is a visual of Gnosticism:
One of the leading Gnostics, with a big following, was a man named Valentinus. He will become a huge part of Irenaeus’s world. Valentinus gained so much popularity he became a leading candidate to be the next Bishop of Rome. He could possibly be one of the key leaders of the entire world-wide Christian church.
I will not go into as much detail on Marcionism. Marcion has many of the same ideas as the Gnostics but is known uniquely for his approach to the Bible. Marcion rejected The Old Testament as the writings which spoke of an evil God. He only liked the New Testament. He didn’t, however, like all the New Testament. He only liked one of the Gospels, the book of Luke. He came up with a list of 11 total books which he believed to be the Scripture for Christians.
This is the world upon which Irenaeus was called to come and fulfill his role in history.
Little is known of Irenaeus’s life. He was born in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) in 130AD. As a young man he saw and heard Polycarp of Smyrna.2 It is unclear how much Polycarp may have mentored Irenaeus. Polycarp was the lead pastor (bishop) of a place called Smyrna. Polycarp is famous for two things.
First, he was directly discipled by John the Apostle. Yes, the same John who wrote the book of Revelation. How’s that for an impressive résumé? Second, Polycarp is famous for how he died. When Irenaeus was 25 years old the aged Polycarp was given an ultimatum: Worship the gods of Rome, reject Jesus, or you will die. Honoring Polycarp for his old age the proconsul insisted if he would only curse Christ he would be free to go. Polycarp’s response, “For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no evil. How could I curse my king, who saved me?”3
Polycarp was tied to a post and fires were lit to burn him alive, he was then stabbed when the fire failed to touch him.4 Irenaeus states this about Polycarp, “a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics.”5
It is interesting for Irenaeus to think of Polycarp in light Valentinus and Marcion, men who were starting to win the minds of the people.
In 177 AD Irenaeus was offered a new job. Pothinus, bishop of Lyons, had just been killed for being the bishop of Lyons. There was now a job opening. Your mentor, Polycarp, has been killed for his faith. Your predecessor, Pothinus, has been killed for his faith. Would you like to become the next bishop of Lyons? The health benefits aren’t that good. Would you accept the position? Irenaeus courageously became the bishop of Lyons.
Irenaeus spent his life doing two things: shepherding the flock given to him by God; and refuting the beliefs of the Gnostics and Marcionites. Only two of his literary works survived: the Demonstration of Apostolic Faith, and the famous On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-called Gnosis – more popularly known by its Latin title Adversus Haereses (“ Against Heresies”).
Tradition attributes the death of Irenaeus (some say by martyrdom) to the first years of the next century (202AD). 6 He survived for 25 years as the bishop of Lyons.
Irenaeus may justly be called the first biblical theologian; for him the Bible is not a collection of proof-texts as it is for the church leaders who came before him, but a continuous record of God’s self-disclosure and his dealings with man, reaching its culmination in the person and work of Christ.7
With Gnostics and Marcionites in mind he upholds the importance of the entire Old and New Testaments. Jeffrey Bingham writes:
What distinguished Irenaeus from the heretics was his theme of unity and his commitment to interpreting Scripture within the parameters of the faith passed down from apostle to bishop. What has been entrusted from one faithful Christian to another always plays an important role in interpretation.8
Irenaeus saw the Bible speaking to the importance of interpretive tradition:
Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith. (1 Tim. 6:20-21)
What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Tim. 1:13-14)
The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Tim 2:2)
It is clear to Irenaeus Gnosticism and Marcionism were never taught by Jesus, the apostles, nor the earliest followers of Christ. We do not need secret knowledge to unlock the Bible. There is no hidden layer of meaning which re-interprets all of the Bible. He declares:
All Scripture, given to us by God (2 Tim. 3:16), will be found consistent. The parables will agree with the clear statements and the clear passages will explain the parables. Through the polyphony of the texts a single harmonious melody will sound in us, praising in hymns the God who made everything.9
No one can change the message of God, he writes:
Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one who can say but little diminish it.10
Irenaeus becomes the first human being to fully articulate the extent of the Word of God. He classifies as Scripture not only the entire Old Testament but most of the books known today as the New Testament. He quotes from 21 of the 27 New Testament books, while clearly excluding many Gnostic books which had been flourishing in the 2nd century. Where Marcion only accepted a heavily edited form of Luke’s gospel, Irenaeus asserted there were four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He states:
It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are…he that sits on the churbim and holds all things together, when he was manifested to humanity, gave us the gospel under four forms but bound together by one spirit.11
Irenaeus focuses a great deal of his effort in refuting the Gnostic view of God and Christ. He possesses an advanced view of the incarnation of Christ and of the Trinity. He writes, “The Father is Lord and the Son is Lord, and the Father is God and the Son is God; for that which is begotten of God is God.”12 This wording will not be so clearly articulated at a wide level until the Council of Nicea; 200 years later!
Making sure it is clear the Trinitarian God, not the Demiurge, created the world Irenaeus writes:
For always with him are his Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, through whom and in whom he made everything freely and independently, to whom he also speaks when he says, ‘Let Us make man after our image and likeness’ (1:26), taking the substance of the creatures from himself as well as the pattern of things he adorned.13
Irenaeus spends volumes articulating what he believes to be the biblical teaching on a whole range of topics which were being used by the Gnostics and Marcionites to confuse, mislead, and threaten the pure Bride of Christ.
In a pivotal era that some contemporary scholars frame to be a struggle for various Christianities, and either imply or insist on the legitimacy of all voices that claim any version of Jesus, Irenaeus is the distinct figure viewed as shaping orthodoxy.14 The bishop from Lyons, with a Bible in his hand and a heart to accurately shepherd his people in the Way effectively labored to keep the church from embracing Gnosticism and Marcionism.
His articulation on Scripture, which was not yet in canonical form throughout Christian communities, helped to show most churches everywhere in the late second century saw a certain collection of writings to be Scripture.15
His surprisingly advanced views of the Trinity, along with some contemporaries like Tertullian, became the foundation upon which the Church would ultimately make the famous articulation all of church history would stand on at the Council of Nicea in 325AD.
John Lawson applauds the talent behind his legacy by saying, “Irenaeus is a man of many-sided genius.”16
If Irenaeus is removed from the 2nd century, if he is removed from the chaotic influence of Gnosticism and Marcion which he was strongly refuting, his thoughts can be harmfully taken out of context.
For example, Irenaeus refutes the Gnostics by showing Christ to be the second human Adam. He must be fully human. In order to show the Gnostics the extent of Christ being human he depicts Mary as the second Eve. His mother was fully human as well. In equating Mary and Jesus people could charge Irenaeus with teaching something which is today known in some Roman Catholic circles of Mariology as the Co-Redemptrix (Mary as the co-redeemer of humanity).
Several of our Top Ten Theologians will have a large “Foibles” section. We know little of Irenaeus’s life. Most of the areas we should stay away from relate to taking his thoughts too far in a direction Irenaeus never intended.
Irenaeus’s Effect on Us
I hope a person reading this will be filled with new courage to step into an unknown situation and do anything to shepherd those around them in the entire Word of God. Irenaeus helped to direct his people to Jesus through every page of Scripture. Jesus is not only a messenger, but the message of all Scripture.
I hope you will find a renewed passion for the importance of the Word of God, the importance of understanding and teaching the Trinity, and the importance of living for a Savior who is both completely like us and completely God. The world of Irenaeus threatened to erase all of those ideas from humanity. Please let Irenaeus direct you to courageously uphold and live out these important realities in the sphere of your world.
What do you think of Irenaeus? Please comment below on our first Top Ten Theologian. Up next, a completely different type of person in a completely different
situation. The stakes, however, are just as high.
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