I am participating in the group Read the Fathers, so in order to help me maintain this discipline I will be sharing my notes every Saturday:

saint-irenaeus-of-lyonsThis week’s readings were from Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against Heresies, Book 2.


– The creed of Irenaeus begins with the monotheist assertion in 2.1.1 that,  “God the Creator, who made the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein (whom these men blasphemously style the fruit of a defect), and to demonstrate that there is nothing either above Him or after Him; nor that, influenced by any one, but of His own free will, He created all things, since He is the only God, the only Lord, the only Creator, the only Father, alone containing all things, and Himself commanding all things into existence.” He juxtaposes the Christian view with gnostic pluralism arguing that a plurality of deities causes many problems, like who should serve what god, which god rules what space, and how one could know which god is the highest god, since infinite distances between gods may mean there is another unknown god somewhere. Irenaeus states in 2.1.5, “For it must be either that there is one Being who contains all things, and formed in His own territory all those things which have been created, according to His own will; or, again, that there are numerous unlimited creators and gods, who begin from each other, and end in each other on every side; and it will then be necessary to allow that all the rest are contained from without by some one who is greater, and that they are each of them shut up within their own territory, and remain in it. No one of them all, therefore, is God. For there will be [much] wanting to every one of them, possessing [as he will do] only a very small part when compared with all the rest. The name of the Omnipotent will thus be brought to an end, and such an opinion will of necessity fall to impiety.” The oneness of God is discussed again beginning in 2.9.1. (quoting Paul’s disapproval of idols from Romans 1:25). Irenaeus says the one God is the Creator and he criticizes the gnostics for trying to know a God higher than the Creator God (in 2.10).

– Irenaeus challenges the idea that angelic beings, or lower deities, created this world without the approval of the Most High God. If this is true, then the Most High God isn’t the Most High God, because he was defeated by angelic beings (see 2.2.1-2, cf. 2.5.1, which includes commentary on Jewish exorcism and compares God to the Roman emperor). On the other hand, if the Most High God willed that angelic beings create the world, then it was the will of God that is responsible, ultimately, and this upends the gnostic idea that a lower god made the material world against the will of a higher god, if indeed one is to speak of a higher god (2.2.3). Irenaeus counters with the Christian proposal in 2.2.4: “God stands in need of nothing, and that He created and made all things by His Word, while He neither required angels to assist Him in the production of those things which are made, nor of any power greatly inferior to Himself, and ignorant of the Father, nor of any defect or ignorance, in order that he who should know Him might become man. 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.” Then, quoting John and Genesis, Irenaeus argues that the one God created all things by his Word (2.2.5).

– Irenaeus attacks the logical inconsistency of gnostic cosmology beginning in 2.3.1. I confess that this debate between ancient theological paradigms can seem quite irrelevant at point. Both Irenaeus and his opponents live in a world with highly developed metaphysical paradigms. Most moderns in our scientific era think of things materialistically. We may have a theological worldview, but it is simple, and it is usually grounded in the language games of the Great Traditions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Islam), or a reaction against the Great Traditions, or the spiritualizing of the material world (Neo-Paganism, Wicca). I struggle as it is with reading Christian writings on something like the doctrine of the Trinity that seems impossible to verify or deny. The gnostic cosmology attacked by Irenaeus is far more complex, and incoherent, and wordy.

– Valentinian cosmology is presented as borrowing from paganism beginning in 2.14.1. Irenaeus connects their cosmology to language borrowed from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, the Stoics, the Cynics, the Pythagoreans, and others. Numerology is important to the Valentinians, so Irenaeus has to debunk the ideas that the “twelve apostles” or “thirty years of Jesus’ pre-ministry life” are symbolic of something within Valentinian cosmology.

Judas was mentioned in Book 1. He is mentioned again in Book 2 (2.20ff). It seems as if the figure of Judas is important to the Valentinians. Does this have anything to do with the Gospel of Judas as suggested by some?

– Ireneaus’ eschatology is glimpses in 2.22.2. “The acceptable year of the Lord” is interpreted as the time between the advents. Then there is a day of judgment.

– Interestingly, when putting together a chronology of Jesus’ life in 2.22.3, Irenaeus relies on the Gospel of John. Also of interest, Irenaeus argues in 2.22.4 that Jesus had to live through every “stage” of life–infancy, childhood, youth, becoming old–to redeem people of every stage of life. Irenaeus argues that Jesus lived into his forties in order to fulfill all ages, a claim unique to Irenaeus as far as I know (2.22.5-6).

– Epistemology is Irenaeus’ concern in 2.24.1ff. He asks how some can aim to know more than what God has revealed through his Word. This critiques gnostic special knowledge. In 2.27.1ff we see Irenaeus’ “hermeneutical principles” if you will. He argues we must keep our reading simple and straightforward, not trying to find mysterious, hidden messages in the text. He goes as far as to say anyone can understand Scripture (2.27.2). Also, he argues that there are some things that will not be understood in this life, so to try to hypothesize about the unknown is dangerous (2.28ff, think “Job’s friends”). One humorous aspect of reading this section is he uses examples from nature, saying who can understand how this or that works, many which can be explained by scientists now!

– Irenaeus seems to understand Scripture as harmonizing in its message. He writes in 2.28.3, “…all Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and the parables shall harmonize with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements the meaning of which is clear, shall serve to explain the parables; and through the many diversified utterances [of Scripture] there shall be heardone harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things.”

– Irenaeus admits that questions regarding God predestinating people, and hell, and similar doctrines are difficult to understand:

“In like manner, also, we must leave the cause why, while all things were made by God, certain of His creatures sinned and revolted from a state of submission to God, and others, indeed the great majority, persevered, and do still persevere, in [willing] subjection to Him who formed them, and also of what nature those are who sinned, and of what nature those who persevere…That eternal fire, [for instance,] is prepared for sinners, both the Lord has plainly declared, and the rest of the Scriptures demonstrate. And that God foreknew that this would happen, the Scriptures do in like manner demonstrate, since He prepared eternal fire from the beginning for those who were [afterwards] to transgress [His commandments]; but the cause itself of the nature of such transgressors neither has any Scripture informed us, nor has an apostle told us, nor has the Lord taught us. It becomes us, therefore, to leave the knowledge of this matter to God, even as the Lord does of the day and hour [of judgment], and not to rush to such an extreme of danger, that we will leave nothing in the hands of God, even though we have received only a measure of grace [from Him in this world]. But when we investigate points which are above us, and with respect to which we cannot reach satisfaction, [it is absurd] that we should display such an extreme of presumption as to lay open God, and things which are not yet discovered,as if already we had found out, by the vain talk about emissions, God Himself, the Creator of all things, and to assert that He derived His substance from apostasy and ignorance, so as to frame an impious hypothesis in opposition to God (2.28.7).”

– In 2.30.7-8 Irenaeus challenges the revelations of the gnostic thinkers by asking if they are wiser and more knowledgable than Paul himself. It is an interesting read, especially to see how Irenaeus interprets Paul’s words about ascending into the third heaven, but not knowing if it was bodily or out-of-body.

– Irenaeus has this to say about God the Father and the Son in 2.30.9 (this is Binitarian at best, since the Spirit receives no mention, yet):

“But there is one only God, the Creator—He who is above every Principality, and Power, and Dominion, and Virtue: He is Father, He is God, He the Founder, He the Maker, He the Creator, who made those things by Himself, that is, through His Word and His Wisdom— heaven and earth, and the seas, and all things that are in them: He is just; He is good; He it is who formed man, who planted paradise, who made the world, who gave rise to the flood, who saved Noah; He is the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of the living: He it is whom the law proclaims, whom the prophets preach, whom Christ reveals, whom the apostles make known to us, and in whom the Church believes. He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: through His Word, who is His Son, through Him He is revealed and manifested to all to whom He is revealed; for those [only] know Him to whom the Son has revealed Him. But the Son, eternally co-existing with the Father, from of old, yea, from the beginning, always reveals the Father to Angels, Archangels, Powers, Virtues, and all to whom He wills that God should be revealed.”

– On several occasions Irenaeus challenges his readers to observe the differences in behavior between those he considers orthodoxy and the gnostics, e.g. 2.31.3, where Christians do good things for others free of cost. This speaks to modern false dichotomies between the social Gospel and the proclaimed Gospel or orthopraxy and orthodoxy.

Charismatic activity is normal among Christians according to Irenaeus who writes in 2.32.5:

Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practicing deception upon any, nor taking any reward from them [on account of such miraculous interpositions]. For as she has received freelyfrom God, freely also does she minister [to others].

Nor does she perform anything by means of angelic invocations, or by incantations, or by any other wicked curious art; but, directing her prayers to the Lord, who made all things, in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to workmiracles for the advantage of mankind, and not to lead them into error. If, therefore, the name of our Lord Jesus Christ even now confers benefits [upon men], and cures thoroughly and effectively all who anywhere believe on Him, but not that of Simon, or Menander, or Carpocrates, or of any other man whatever, it is manifest that, when He was made man, He held fellowship with His own creation, anddid all things truly through the power of God, according to the will of the Father of all, as the prophets had foretold. But what these things were, shall be described in dealing with the proofs to be found in the prophetical writings.

– In 2.33.1ff., Irenaeus attacks the idea of the transmigration of souls, a doctrine taught by some gnostics. he argues for a connection between body and soul, that the soul cannot forget something it knows, so it can’t enter a different body. Also, he argues that the soul “sees” and knows thing through the body. Very materialistic of him! In 2.34.1ff., Irenaeus argues that the soul retains the same “form” as the body in which it dwelt. It seems that he understands souls to come into existence when a human body is formed, but the soul is eternal.