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Tag: irenaeus of lyons

Irenaeus and the mighty God

Stained glass window of St Irenaeus in the Church of St-Irénée, Lyon, France, by Lucien Bégule (1848-1935)

I’m sorry it’s taken a little bit to post a post-Irenaeus post…

When a person has heard a bit about Irenaeus and sits down to read Against the Heresies, there is an expectation that he or she will read a lot about what Gnostics believe, encounter the idea of Apostolic Succession, read a few early ‘credal’ statements, and engage with his doctrine of Recapitulation. These are certainly all things that happen in Irenaeus, and you can read about Irenaeus and the Development of the Creeds in a post by Possidius from the last round of Read the Fathers in 2013 as well as my quick note on Recapitulation from this round.

What struck me this time, however, was the transcendence of God.

Irenaeus is not original, new, or unusual in believing in a transcendent God. Indeed, he expects that his “Gnostic” opponents also believe in a transcendent God. Belief in some sort of divine being beyond our known experience was common to ancient Mediterranean religions by the time of Irenaeus, whether Christian, Jewish, or many of the varieties of religious experience and expression we might call “pagan”.

Nevertheless, Irenaeus continually pushes for the God of the Bible, of both the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian New Testament (itself an inchoate collection at this time), as being absolutely transcendent. For some people, radical transcendence poses a problem — if God is utterly incomprehensible as to his essence (I fear I may intruding post-Nicene language, but I cannot discuss these ideas otherwise, and I’m reading a book about Basil of Caesarea just now), how are we supposed to know Him?

And do the Christian Scriptures not say that we can?

When I read his descriptions of the groups we call “Gnostic”, it seems that their solution to this “problem” is a series of gradations of being. However, if the distinction between Creator and Creation remains absolute, then no number of intermediaries will be able to bridge the gap. Moreover, if intermediaries can bridge the gap between human creation and the divinity, then the divinity is no longer truly transcendent.

In fact, it seems to me that their beliefs as described by Irenaeus continually fall into this second trap. In seeking to bridge that gap, something else is always leading to another thing, with the result that any of the various beings in the various hierarchies that might be posited to be the God ends up being limited in some way.

Even the Neo-Platonists ran into essentially the same problem, whether through gradations of being in a similar mode, or through Plato’s Timaeus, where the stuff of creation is co-eternal with the divinity who creates.

Such a divinity is not absolute, in Irenaeus’ worldview

How, then, can the gulf between creatures and their Creator ever be bridged? The answer is for the divinity to come down in his own person — well, almost. To say that would be to fully close the gap between Irenaeus and post-Nicene orthodoxy. He comes as close as he can — his very own Word becomes a human person in Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and humans. Here is how Irenaeus puts it:

But God being all Mind, and all Logos, both speaks exactly what He thinks, and thinks exactly what He speaks. For His thought is Logos, and Logos is Mind, and Mind comprehending all things is the Father Himself. He, therefore, who speaks of the mind of God, and ascribes to it a special origin of its own, declares Him a compound Being, as if God were one thing, and the original Mind another. So, again, with respect to Logos, when one attributes to him the third place of production from the Father; on which supposition he is ignorant of His greatness; and thus Logos has been far separated from God. As for the prophet, he declares respecting Him, “Who shall describe His generation?” –Against the Heresies 2.28.5

This insistence of the God of the Bible being the true Creator of everything and of His Word becoming truly incarnate as Saviour produces some statements that are worth meditating on regardless of their relationship to the so-called “Gnostics.” Here are two:

Now, that the preaching of the apostles, the authoritative teaching of the Lord, the announcements of the prophets, the dictated utterances of the apostles, and the ministration of the law — all of which praise one and the same Being, the God and Father of all, and not many diverse beings, nor one deriving his substance from different gods or powers, but [declare] that all things [were formed] by one and the same Father (who nevertheless adapts [His works] to the natures and tendencies of the materials dealt with), things visible and invisible, and, in short, all things that have been made [were created] neither by angels, nor by any other power, but by God alone, the Father — are all in harmony with our statements, has, I think, been sufficiently proved, while by these weighty arguments it has been shown that there is but one God, the Maker of all things. –Against the Heresies 2.35.4

But He Himself in Himself, after a fashion which we can neither describe nor conceive, predestinating all things, formed them as He pleased, bestowing harmony on all things, and assigning them their own place, and the beginning of their creation. In this way He conferred on spiritual things a spiritual and invisible nature, on super-celestial things a celestial, on angels an angelical, on animals an animal, on beings that swim a nature suited to the water, and on those that live on the land one fitted for the land—on all, in short, a nature suitable to the character of the life assigned them—while He formed all things that were made by His Word that never wearies. -Against the Heresies 2.2.4

Allow me to break my rule about being dispassionate on Read the Fathers for a moment. There are some of us who believe that a failure to preach or believe in a transcendent God is part of the sickness now besetting the church in the West. Perhaps Irenaeus and the Fathers can be part of our cure.

A wee intro to Book 5 of Against the Heresies

John Behr provides the structure of Book 5 in Irenaeus of Lyons on page 103:

Book Five: ‘The rest of the teahcings of the Lord and the epistles of Paul’


I. The power of God (haer. 5.1-14)
The work of God, forming human beings through their death (haer. 5.1-2)
The strength of God manifest in the weakness of the flesh (haer. 5.3-5)
The glorification of God in his handiwork (haer. 5.6-8)
‘Flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom’ (haer. 5.9-14)

II. The work of Christ (haer. 5.15-24)
Christ as Creator (haer. 5.15.1-16.2)
The Passion (haer. 5.16.3-20)
The temptation of Christ (haer. 5.21-24)

III. The Final End (haer. 5.25-36.1)
The Antichrist (haer. 5.25-30)
The resurrection of the righteous (haer. 5.31-36.2)

Conclusion (haer. 5.36.3)

A wee intro to Book 4 of Against the Heresies

We continue with John Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons, page. 98, as our guide to the structure of Against the Heresies:

Book Four: ‘The Words of the Lord’


I. The one God, the transcendant Creator and Author of the Law and Gospel (haer. 4.1-19)
The Father of the Lord, the God of the Patriarchs (haer. 4.5.2-8.1)
That Christ observed the Law (haer. 4.8.2-3)
The Law and the Gospel, Stages of Growth (haer. 4.9-11)
The Gospel as Fulfilment of the Law (haer. 4.12-16)
The Eucharist as the Completion of Figurative Sacrifices (haer. 4.17-19.1)
Conclusion: The Transcendence of the One God (haer. 4.19.1-3)

II. Christ and the economy (haer. 4.20-35)
Christ, the key (haer. 4.20.1-4)
The prophetic character of Scripture (haer. 4.20.5-8a (finishing at line 196))
The visions of the prophets (haer. 4.20.8b-11)
The prefigurative acts of the prophets, patriarchs, and Christ (haer. 4.20.12-22.2)
The Word concerning Christ, sown in the Scripture, reaped in the Church (haer. 4.23-25)
The reading of, and transfiguration by reading, Scripture (haer. 4.26.1)
The ecclesial reading of Scripture of the presbyters and spiritual disciples (haer. 4.26.2-33)
Conclusion (haer. 4.34-35)

III. Calling and judgement, from the Parables of Christ (haer. 36-41)
The call of God (haer. 4.36)
Human liberty (haer. 4.37-39)
Judgement (haer. 4.40-41.3)


A wee intro to Book 3 of Against the Heresies

Once again, I present to you John Behr as a guide to Irenaeus, from Behr’s book Irenaeus of Lyons, p. 94:

Book Three: The Apostolic Preaching
Scripture, Tradition, Church (haer. 3.1-5)

I. One God (haer. 3.6-15)
Witness of the Prophets, the Apostle, and the Lord himself (haer. 3.6-8)
Witness of the Evangelists (haer. 3.9-11)
The other apostles (i.e. Acts) (haer. 3.12)
Supplementary comments on Paul (haer. 3.13-15)

II. One Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour (haer. 3.16-21.9)
The witness of the Evangelists (3.16.2-5)
The identity of Christ (haer. 3.16.6-18)
The ‘signs’ of Salvation (haer. 3.19-21.9)

III. Recapitulation of Adam (haer. 3.21.10-23)
The Church as the locus for the human being (haer. 3.24-25.6)


Behr writes:

Book three is thus structured in the same threefold pattern as book two, demonstrating that there is one God, one Christ revealed in what he has done in the one economy, and the new reality that this recapitulation has brought into effect, providing a new head for those who turn to Christ.

Some highlights from Irenaeus, Against the Heresies Book 1

Irenaeus of Lyons

I must confess it as a personal weakness that I do not find Irenaeus’ descriptions of the beliefs of Valentinians, Ptolemaeans, Gnostics, and other such groups very interesting. In fact, I find it almost intolerable. If any of you are of a different disposition, please chime in in the comments! In fact, seven years ago, in 2013, when Read the Fathers did its first round, Book 1 of Irenaeus is where I fell off the wagon — it didn’t help that I was hunting manuscripts in Florence at the time, I reckon.

One moment I found illuminating was in chapter 6, where the Perfect seem to be so simply through their gnosis, not through their mode of life. They can live as they please, having been made perfect through this knowledge already. This matches the description of such groups (broadly termed ‘gnostic’ by everyone else) as I read in Gabriel Bunge’s book Spiritual Fatherhood.

For the rest, here are some passages I appreciated, taken from ANF.

1.8.3: Learn then, you foolish men, that Jesus who suffered for us, and who dwelt among us, is Himself the Word of God. For if any other of the Æons had become flesh for our salvation, it would have been probable that the apostle spoke of another. But if the Word of the Father who descended is the same also that ascended, He, namely, the Only-begotten Son of the only God, who, according to the good pleasure of the Father, became flesh for the sake of men, the apostle certainly does not speak regarding any other, or concerning any Ogdoad, but respecting our Lord Jesus Christ. For, according to them, the Word did not originally become flesh. For they maintain that the Saviour assumed an animal body, formed in accordance with a special dispensation by an unspeakable providence, so as to become visible and palpable. But flesh is that which was of old formed for Adam by God out of the dust, and it is this that John has declared the Word of God became. Thus is their primary and first-begotten Ogdoad brought to nought. For, since Logos, and Monogenes, and Zoe, and Phōs, and Soter, and Christus, and the Son of God, and He who became incarnate for us, have been proved to be one and the same, the Ogdoad which they have built up at once falls to pieces. And when this is destroyed, their whole system sinks into ruin — a system which they falsely dream into existence, and thus inflict injury on the Scriptures, while they build up their own hypothesis.

All of 1.10!

1.12.2: He, as soon as He thinks, also performs what He has willed; and as soon as He wills, also thinks that which He has willed; then thinking when He wills, and then willing when He thinks, since He is all thought, [all will, all mind, all light,] all eye, all ear, the one entire fountain of all good things.

1.22: 1. The rule of truth which we hold, is, that there is one God Almighty, who made all things by His Word, and fashioned and formed, out of that which had no existence, all things which exist. Thus says the Scripture, to that effect By the Word of the Lord were the heavens established, and all the might of them, by the spirit of His mouth. And again, All things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made. John 1:3 There is no exception or deduction stated; but the Father made all things by Him, whether visible or invisible, objects of sense or of intelligence, temporal, on account of a certain character given them, or eternal; and these eternal things He did not make by angels, or by any powers separated from His Ennœa. For God needs none of all these things, but is He who, by His Word and Spirit, makes, and disposes, and governs all things, and commands all things into existence — He who formed the world (for the world is of all) — He who fashioned man — He [who] is the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, above whom there is no other God, nor initial principle, nor power, nor pleroma — He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we shall prove. Holding, therefore, this rule, we shall easily show, notwithstanding the great variety and multitude of their opinions, that these men have deviated from the truth; for almost all the different sects of heretics admit that there is one God; but then, by their pernicious doctrines, they change [this truth into error], even as the Gentiles do through idolatry — thus proving themselves ungrateful to Him that created them. Moreover, they despise the workmanship of God, speaking against their own salvation, becoming their own bitterest accusers, and being false witnesses [against themselves]. Yet, reluctant as they may be, these men shall one day rise again in the flesh, to confess the power of Him who raises them from the dead; but they shall not be numbered among the righteous on account of their unbelief.

  1. Since, therefore, it is a complex and multiform task to detect and convict all the heretics, and since our design is to reply to them all according to their special characters, we have judged it necessary, first of all, to give an account of their source and root, in order that, by getting a knowledge of their most exalted Bythus, you may understand the nature of the tree which has produced such fruits.

A wee intro to Book 2 of Against the Heresies

Today we begin Book 2 of Against the Heresies. In this book, Irenaeus seeks to overthrow the teachings he has enumerated in painful detail throughout Book 1. Here is John Behr’s schematization of the structure from his book Irenaeus of Lyons, p. 87:

Book Two: Overthrowal
I. One God (haer. 2.1-19)

The logical necessity for this (haer. 2.1-10)
The truth that there is one God the Creator of all by his Word (haer. 2.11)
Questions to those who teach otherwise (haer. 2.11-19)

II. Christ (haer. 2.20-28)

The supposed analogies with his parables and actions (haer. 2.20-24)
The proper mode of enquiry (haer. 2.25-28)

III. Anthropology (haer. 2.29-30.8)

Conclusion (haer. 2.30.9)

Recapitulation and refutation of other heresies (haer. 2.31.1-35.3)

Notice of further work (haer. 2.35.4)


Today, in Against the Heresies 1.10, we encountered an important piece of Irenaeus’ theology, recapitulation or anakephalaiosis. Here is what Unger writes in his notes:

The word anakephalaiosis expressed a capital idea in Irenaean theology. … It must convey the idea of being brought to a head as a unifying principle and of somehow resuming all things. This process of recapitulation of all things begins with the Incarnation and will be completed with the glorification of the body, yet because the Word preexisted creation and was in the planning, and was operative from creation on, the Incarnate Word recapitulates all things. He summarizes in Himself all creation and unites all people and angels too to HImself as under one Head, and in so doing He duplicates, or resumes, the acts of Adam either by similarity or by opposition.

Dominic J. Unger, St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies. New York: Paulist, 1992, pp. 185-186.

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


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 …

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’ Homeric Poem

In today’s reading (January 14), Irenaeus likened the ‘Gnostic’ use of Scripture to that of someone who takes Homeric verses and rearranges them to create a new poem on a totally different theme. This passage is strong evidence that Irenaeus was classically-educated — Homer was the backbone of ancient Greek education. Furthermore, in all likelihood, Irenaeus composed this little poem about Heracles himself.

This form of poetic composition is called the cento (not the canto) in Latin (and hence English) and κέντρων in Greek (deriving from the Latin for once). The  Latin term literally means any patchwork piece of clothing, especially a cloak (as I found it in Petronius’ bawdy Satyricon referring to a cloak). It was practised throughout antiquity to produce new poetry out of old. The cento is a demonstration of the erudition of the poet, not necessarily of his or her own originality.

Although Homeric resonances, sometimes not only half- but even full lines, are found throughout Greek poetry from the Archaic period (up to the 5th c. BC) onwards, such resonances are a different sort of composition, being either conscious or unconscious allusion/intertextuality with Homer, not a complete poem composed out of rearranged Homeric material.

The cento does not become popular until the imperial period (31 BC-476/1453) and usually uses epic (which, in Greek, invariably means Homer), such as Palatine Anthology 9.381 and Dio Chrysostom Oration 32. In Latin, the cento uses Vergil (70-19 BC) the most; Vergil was the backbone of imperial Roman education, as Homer was of Greek education. Petronius in the first century produced a Vergilian cento at Satyricon 132.11, and our earliest surviving whole cento is the 461-line Medea attributed to Hosidius Geta in the second century AD. We have eleven other pagan centos, all of them under 200 lines.

Although a Christian, Irenaeus’ cento is basically a pagan cento.

Christians do, however, take up the cento for more than apologetic or polemical purposes and use them to recast the Gospel story to convert the snobbish upper classes of Rome. Although Jerome sniffs his nose at centos, we must admit that many in antiquity sniffed their noses at the Bible, whether in Latin or Greek (recall Augustine’s admissions of his own attitude before conversion). The cento casts the Good News of Jesus in a poetic form acceptable to a pagan audience for evangelistic purposes.

The most popular Christian cento was a Latin cento of 694 Vergilian verses by Proba (mid-4th c AD) that takes the reader from the Creation to Redemption, from Adam to Christ. This text was very popular throughout the Middle Ages as a school-text, no doubt because it could teach good style and the Gospel at once. John Currans recently wrote an article about Proba’s cento,* demonstrating how not only was the style of narration affected by this recasting of the Gospel, but also its moral content. Proba gives us a Jesus who is the best of what an aristocratic Roman could hope to be but also mirrors some Irenaean themes of recapitulation.

Another cento worth mentioning is a Byzantine play of 2,610 verses drawn from Euripides, Aeschylus, and Lycophron called Christus Patiens. This tragedy retells the passion of Christ and was long attributed to Gregory of Nazianzus (late fourth century, composed his own verses in Homeric dialect and metre) but is now thought to be from the 11th or 12th century.

I don’t imagine that when Irenaeus wrote his Heraclean cento he thought that Christians would one day employ the same poetic strategy for spreading the Gospel. But they did, and he is probably the first Christian to write a cento.

*’Virgilizing Christianity in Late Antique Rome’, in Gavin Kelly and Lucy Grig, eds, Two Romes. New York: 2012, 325-344.

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).


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).


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.


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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