Because this introduction is something of a long read, I am posting it a day in advance. Tomorrow, January 12, we begin On the Detection and Overthrow of the False Knowledge/Gnosis, commonly known as Against the Heresies, by Irenaeus of Lyons. This is the longest work we’ve encountered, and it is dense. The introduction will be a bit fuller as a result. Because of the difficulties many have in reading this work, each of the five books will have a brief introduction of its own as we progress through the work, although Book 1 will get its introduction as part of today’s general introduction.
We shall consider Irenaeus’ life, his works, the main themes and famous parts of Against the Heresies, and the structure of the work before listing translations and other works for further reading. Today’s post is very long for Internet reading, so feel free to skip along through the headings of the sections below to what interests you. But I do hope that if you read the whole post, you will be better equipped to appreciate Irenaeus.
The life of Irenaeus
Irenaeus was not from Lyons. Like many early theologians and Christian philosophers, Irenaeus was from Asia Minor. He lived from around AD 120 to around 200. Before leaving his homeland, he heard Polycarp of Smyrna preach. He was a presbyter (priest) among the Christian community at Lyons by 177, at which time he represented the community on a trip to Rome.
The context of this visit to Rome was the martyrdom of many Christians at Lyons, as recounted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.1-3. Irenaeus was to become bishop of Lyons, where he lived, as he himself notes, among people of a barbaric tongue. However, given that he had come on established trade routes to a major city of Gaul, and given that he writes in Greek for a Greek audience (probably in Rome), Lyons is probably not as much of a backwater as it may sound — although it may have felt that way, sometimes!
Works of Irenaeus
None of Irenaeus’ works survives entire in the original Greek. Besides Against the Heresies, Irenaeus wrote a surviving work entitled Proof of the Apostolic Preaching which survives for us in an Armenian translation, coming to the West only in 1904. According to John Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons, this work was written after books 1 and 2 of Against the Heresies but before the rest (p. 69). This work is an abridgement of Irenaeus’ anti-heretical theology as found in Against the Heresies. He also wrote now-fragmentary letters of an indeterminate number, dealing with questions such as the sole sovereignty of God, schism, the Ogdoad, and the date of Easter.
Against the Heresies survives complete only in a Latin translation, although a number of Greek fragments do exist as quotations elsewhere. It is a work in five books, as the original title shows, against ‘so-called knowledge’ — against groups that would come to be considered ‘Gnostic’. It was written at various stages when Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons, probably with an audience in Rome. This work was known to Eusebius who quotes from it frequently in the original Greek.
Main themes and famous parts of Against the Heresies
Obviously, a main theme of Against the Heresies is the definition of orthodoxy and true knowledge against that of the false teachers whom Irenaeus has encountered. Based on his descriptions of his opponents’ teaching, we can see that Irenaeus had access to certain original ‘Gnostic’ documents, particularly of the local Ptolemaeans of Gaul, as well as some second-hand documents by other (proto-)orthodox Christians.
As a result of his focus on the Gnostic movement and his opposition to it. one of the main themes that runs through Irenaeus’ work is how to define orthodoxy and where the authority for making such a definition lies. Thus, Irenaeus is one of our earliest witnesses for the ‘rule of faith‘, for statements that are essentially credal. One such example from Irenaeus is found at Against the Heresies 1.10.1:
The Church, indeed, though disseminated throughout the world, even to the ends of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples the faith in one God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth and the seas and all things that are in them; and in the one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was enfleshed for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets preached the Economies, the coming, the birth from a Virgin, the passion, the ressurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, and His coming from heaven in the glory of the Father to recapitulate all things, and to raise up all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus our Lord and God, Savior and King, according to the invisible Father’s good pleasure … (Trans. Unger and Dillon, Ancient Christian Writers series)
He is also one of our earliest witnesses for Apostolic Succession — the idea that Christian truth has been handed down in an unbroken succession from the Apostles to this day through bishops, and these bishops are the people with the authority to teach in the church and to lead the church.
Furthermore, Irenaeus is an early witness to the fourfold Gospel — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — to which he allows no additions, such as the various gospels associated with the Gnostic movements.
All of these things for which he is famous as one of the earliest expositors are in this book as part of his anti-Gnostic arsenal.
Irenaeus is also famous as an exponent of Christus Victor atonement theology, also called the Classic View (or, as in Gustav Aulén’s book Christus Victor, theClassic Idea). To quote Aulén:
It is the Word of God incarnate who overcomes the tyrants which hold man in bondage; God Himself enters into the world of sin and death, that He may reconcile the world to Himself. Therefore Incarnation and Atonement stand in no sort of antithesis; rather, they belong inseparably together. …
The work of atonement is … depicted in dramatic terms, as a conflict with the powers of evil and a triumph over them. This involves a necessary doublesidedness, in that God is at once the Reconciler and the Reconciled. His enmity is taken away in the very act in which He reconciles the world unto Himself. (Christus Victor, 50-51)
An aspect of this atonement theology in Irenaeus is anakephalaiosis, or recapitulation, made popular amongst evangelicals by Robert E. Webber’s book Ancient-Future Faith. This is the idea that Christ, in reconciling the world to God, is the second Adam, and he lives a full human life, his divine life cutting through human life, of eternity intersecting history. Through his holiness, divinity, and obedience, Christ recapitulates Adam and sets the whole human race free from bondage.
Sometimes this presentation of Christus Victor is misunderstood, and people think that Irenaeus has no room in his atonement theory for the cross. This is not true. It precisely on the cross and through his death that Jesus takes on and conquers the forces of evil.
Irenaeus summarises the theology of Against the Heresies in the final sentence of the work (as noted by John Behr):
For there is the one Son, who accomplished His Father’s will; and one human race also in which the mysteries of God are wrought, which the angels desire to look into; (1 Peter 1:12) and they are not able to search out the wisdom of God, by means of which His handiwork, confirmed and incorporated with His Son, is brought to perfection; that His offspring, the First-begotten Word, should descend to the creature (facturam), that is, to what had been moulded (plasma), and that it should be contained by Him; and, on the other hand, the creature should contain the Word, and ascend to Him, passing beyond the angels, and be made after the image and likeness of God. (Book 5.36.3; trans. ANF 1)
Structure of Against Heresies
Against the Heresies is divided into two main sections of unequal length. The first section is books 1 and 2, which focus on the Gnostic movement. The second section is books 3-5, a presentation of orthodoxy. John Behr writes:
If readers make it to book three, where Irenaeus begins an exposition of his own theology, many of the elements that he discusses are now so familiar to those who know something of Christian theology that, paradoxically, he is … a difficult figure to read because, laying all this out so fully for the first time in the history of Christian theology, he does so according to his own rationale, rather than the ‘logical’ order of Christian theology we might expect to see, and so he can … appear rather inept. (Irenaeus of Lyons, 73)
Book One – The teachings of Irenaeus’ opponents
Book Two – Why Irenaeus’ opponents are wrong
Book Three – Proofs from the Scriptures
Book Four – The teachings of Christ
Book Five – The apostolic epistles
Structure of Book One (from Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons, 85)
Book One: Refutation/Exposure of the Valentinians
I. The ‘Ptolemaean’ hypothesis (haer. 1.1-12)
Pleroma (haer. 1.1-3)
Creation (haer. 1.4-5)
Human beings (haer. 1.6-7)
Their use of Scripture (haer. 1.8-9)
II. The Ecclesial Rule of Truth and the Genealogy of the Valentinians (haer. 1.10-21)
The Rule of Truth (haer. 1.10)
The teaching of Valentinus and his followers on the Pleroma haer. 1.11-16)
Their teaching on the creation (haer. 1.17-19)
Their use of Scripture (haer. 1.20)
Their redemptive practices (haer. 1.21)
III. The Ecclesial Rule of Truth and the Genealogy of the Heretics (haer. 1.22-28)
The Rule of Truth (haer. 1.22)
The succession of the heretics (haer. 1.23-28)
The ‘Gnostics’ (haer. 1.29-1.31.2)
Conclusion (haer. 1.31.3-4)
Besides the translation of Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, to which we will link on the daily readings page. you can also find an English translation of books 1-3 with annotations in three volumes for Ancient Christian Writers:
St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies. Volume 1: Book 1. Translated and annotated by Dominic J. Unger, revised by John J. Dillon. Ancient Christian Writers 55. New York: Paulist Press, 1992.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies. Volume 2: Book 2. Translated and annotated by Dominic J. Unger, revised by John J. Dillon. Ancient Christian Writers 63. New York: Paulist Press, 2012.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies. Volume 3: Book 3. Translated and annotated by Dominic J. Unger, revised by John J. Dillon and M. C. Steenberg. Ancient Christian Writers 64. New York: Paulist Press, 2012.
The only major translation I know of in French is that of Sources chrétiennes. It is a multilingual edition, using Greek alongside Latin where available, and with copious notes, thus stretching Against the Heresies into 10 volumes, edited by A. Rousseau, L. Doutreleau, C. Mercier, and B. Hemmerdinger, in volumes 100, 152, 153, 210, 211, 263, 264, 293, and 294. If you have access to a university library, this may be nice, mais …
Other languages coming soon…
I promise to make a post about Spanish when I have a chance to find a Spanish translation…