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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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