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Introducing Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus of Lyons

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

Preface

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)

Translations

English

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.

French

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 …

There is another translation online, but I have no bibliographical details for it.  It is part of Lire le Pères (what a nice title!).

Other languages coming soon…

I promise to make a post about Spanish when I have a chance to find a Spanish translation…

Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus of Lyon

Irenaeus of Lyons

Our next Father is Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 200). He is a well-known figure for various reasons: until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents, he was one of our major sources for ancient ‘Gnosticism’ (and his descriptions have been largely proven accurate); he is the first clear, conscious defender of the fourfold Gospels (no more, no less); he gives us many variations on the ‘Canon (or Rule) of the Faith’ which are precursors to the later creeds; he is an early exponent of the Apostolic Succession; and, while continuing Justin the Martyr’s logos theology, he gives a vibrant and exciting account of Christus Victor atonement theory and the theology of recapitulation (anakephalaiosis).

Biography

Irenaeus hailed from Smyrna in Asia Minor, where he grew up under the authority and teaching of the Apostolic Father Polycarp. At some stage he emigrated to Gaul where he settled in Lugdunum (today’s Lyons, France). Christianity was strong in many Asian communities, but not so in Gaul. Around 177, he lived up to his name on an embassy from Lyons to Rome where he pleaded against the excommunication of Montanists (whom we’ll study in more detail when we read Tertullian). Irenaeus was elected episcopos of the community in Lyons as successor to the martyred Photinus.

During his epsicopate, he produced his theological works and also wrote a letter to a Roman episcopos named Victor, once again urging an irenic approach to disputes, this time in the dispute over the date of Easter called the Quartodeciman Controversy, the details of which we will study in our reading of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.

Irenaeus died around the year 200. Our first reference to his martyrdom is Jerome (347–420), Commentary on Isaiah 17.64. Even later is a tradition recounted by Gregory of Tours (538–594), living in Merovingian Gaul, that the Pope of Rome sent Irenaeus on an evangelistic mission to Lyons, at which he was widely successful (contrary to many of Irenaeus’ own references to the un-Christian barbarians amongst whom he lives).

Works

Irenaeus’ greatest work is his five books Against Heresies, directed principally against Gnostic teachings. A second work by Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, was discovered in Armenian translation in 1904, after the ANF series was compiled. The latter work is thus not on our reading calendar, but we encourage anyone interested to read the Proof, found either in the public domain, or in the works referenced below.

Theology

Irenaeus is best known theologically for his views on atonement, the theory of recapitulation and Christus Victor theology (or the ‘Classic View’ of atonement, vs. the ‘Latin’ or ‘Juristic View’). Taking up Justin’s vision of the logos (inspired in turn – of course – by John 1), Irenaeus sees Christ as existing before the Incarnation as the eternal Word of the Father, who put the universe into place and governs it.

This Word took on flesh as part of God’s ongoing revelation to the human race. Had Adam and Eve not fallen, the Word would have become Incarnate anyway, for humanity was on a trajectory of development and growth into godliness (theosis) from the beginning. However, since Adam and Eve did sin through the deception of the serpent, Christ’s incarnation takes on a redemptive role. Not only does he become a human to show us more of God; he becomes a human to save us from sin, death, and the Devil.

Christ, the Incarnate Word, comes to undo what the first disobedience did. Therefore, just as sin began with a disobedient woman (Eve), the recapitulation-atonement begins with an obedient woman (Mary). Just as sin was perpetuated by a sinful man who was God’s son, so would it be stopped by a sinless Man Who is God’s Son (Jesus).

The Incarnation is a cosmic event and an irruption of the power of God into human history. By living a full, human – yet sinless – life, Jesus transforms all of human life. And when he, the only just man on earth, dies an unjust death on the cross, he destroys the power of death, as demonstrated by his triumphant resurrection and subsequent ascension. Because of the Incarnation and the drama of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, those who put their faith/trust in him with a determination to live holy lives are saved from their sins and the death that accompanies them, being given power over the devil.

This is a short recapitulation of recapitulation that does not do the theory justice. Good thing we’re going to read Irenaeus in the coming weeks!

This theology is played out against the backdrop of his battle, his polemic, against those whom he sees as having deviated from the true faith handed down from the apostles, the various groups termed ‘Gnostic’ as well as the Marcionites. At all times, we should see his statements of the Rule of Faith and Apostolic Succession and the Fourfold Gospel within their second-century, polemical context, and not to seized upon and misinterpreted with twenty-first-century assumptions.

Alternate Editions

There exists only one complete translation of Against the Heresies, and we shall be reading it (although Paul and Sara Parvis with Dennis Minns are working on a new one). However, there is a newer translation of Book 1 in the Ancient Christian Writers translated by Dominic Unger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Scandal of the Incarnation compiles a hundred pages of thematically arranged excerpts.

Proof of the Apostolic Preaching has been translated for the same series; another translation is John Behr’s for St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics series.

For the keen and skilled in ancient languages, the entirety of Against the Heresies only exists in Latin translation. Two editions are worth noting: Contre les hérésies, ed. A. Rousseau, L. Doutreleau, C. Mercier, and B. Hemmerdinger, 10 vols. Paris: Cerf, 1965-1982 (with French translation); and Epideixis: Adversus haereses, ed. N. Brox. Fribourg, Switzerland: Herder, 1993-2001.

Further Reading

Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons in Routledge’s Early Church Fathers series provides a decent introduction to the material, and Dennis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction is well worth reading.

For the extra-keen, I recommend two studies that have been my matrix for Irenaeus’ theology. One is the popular-level book by Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, and the other is the classic modern work by Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor.

For those really interested in the rule of faith, do not forget J. N. D. Kelly’s classic, Early Christian Creeds. For evangelicals, see Baptist patristics scholar D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition.

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