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 3.


Simon Magnus is considered the “father of all heretics” by Irenaeus, who claims to relay the traditions of the apostles. According to Irenaeus all of these gnostic sects can be traced to his error. In Book 3 he aims to continue his attack on the heretics: “…the first [book] comprises the opinions of all these men, and exhibits their customs, and the character of their behavior. In the second, again, their perverse teachings are cast down and overthrown, and, such as they really are, laid bare and open to view. But in this, the third book I shall adduce proofs from the Scriptures…” (Preface).

The Apostolic Tradition begins with Jesus ordaining the Apostles after his resurrection to go into the world with the Gospel. Matthew is said to have written a Gospel to the Hebrews. Mark recorded Peter’s stories. Peter and Paul preached in Rome. Luke recorded Paul’s stories. John is identified with the Beloved Disciple and he is said to have his Gospel “at Ephesus in Asia”. These men proclaimed one God, the Father, and Jesus Christ (3.1.1-2). The elders have passed along the tradition of the Apostles, and the Scriptures preserve this traditions, but according to Irenaeus the gnostic sects claim to have another oral tradition going back to the Apostles that verifies their teachings (3.2.1-3).

Bishops were ordained by the Apostles, and these Bishops maintain and relay the Apostolic Tradition. Irenaeus claims that the Church at Rome is the one with which all the rest of the Church must agree, because Peter and Paul organized the Apostolic Tradition there. Of course, there has been debate between Roman Catholics and Orthodox (and Anglicans) over what it means for the Church at Rome to be preeminent. Irenaeus traces apostolic succession in Rome from Peter and Paul to Linus, then Anacletus, then Clement, saying that Clement had heard the preaching of the apostles. Evaristus followed Clement, then Alexander, then Sixtus, then Telephorus, then Hyginus, then Pius, then Anicetus, then Soter, then Eleutherius. This is the remember succession of Roman Bishops according to Ireneaus. He claims to have known Polycarp of Smyrna when he was young. He connects Polycarp to the Apostle John, and talks about Polycarp’s stand against heretics of his day, like Marcion, and John’s stand against Cerinthus, apparently grounding his own polemic in this tradition (3.3.1-4). Irenaeus argues that if there weren’t writings from the apostles it would be the Churches that had verifiable apostolic succession that would be the preservers of the tradition alone, therefore, these Churches should be honored, unlike the heretics who can be traced back as far as their founders alone (3.4.1-3). Irenaeus advocates distancing from the heretics, aligning with the true Gospel that traces back to Christ (3.5.1-3).

The Holy Spirit is portrayed as the active voice speaking in Scripture, speaking of one God alone, not a pantheon like the gnostics teach. This monotheism is presented as Father and Son, one God. Obviously, the Spirit is the active revealer of Father-Son, so it seems that Irenaeus’ theology proper is a hybrid of Binitarianism and Trinitarianism. Irenaeus quotes a variety of passages arguing the the one God is portrayed by the Spirit as a singular duality of Father-Son. The Pneumatology of Irenaeus is difficult to frame. The Spirit speaks in Scripture, reveals God the Father and his Son, but he is not aligned specifically with Father-Son at many points (3.6.1-5). Yet there are places where the Spirit is mentioned alongside Father-Son (3.17.1-4). Pneumatology is intertwined with Ecclesiology. At the end of Book 3, Irenaeus will argue that, “For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth.” This closes the door on the gnostic sects being guided by the Spirit anew, distinct from the Apostolic Tradition (3.24.1-2).

Exegesis matters to Irenaeus. He argues against some gnostic interpretations of Paul’s writings, implying that Paul’s word order is misunderstood and misappropriated by his opponents to teach things Paul did not teach (3.7.1-2). Similar debates occur over the meaning of statements in the Gospel of Matthew. Irenaeus argues canonically (not saying a canon is established, but rather than received books like the Gospel of John may inform the meaning of other received books like the Gospel of Matthew, 3.8.1-3). Matthew is an apostolic representative who aligns with the Hebrew prophets in proclaiming one God, Father and Son. Irenaeus argues that John the Baptist proclaimed one God, and that when he baptized Jesus, this was not an adoption, but an anointing of the one who is the Word of God already. Irenaeus cites prophets like Isaiah, and writings like the Psalms, to support his argument from the Old Testament (3.9.1-3). Luke is portrayed as sharing this message. John the Baptist was great, but he introduced Christ, who is born of a virgin to reign over the household of David forever. Mark affirms the message of Matthew and Luke, and he portrays John similarly as a monotheist, according to Irenaeus. The main idea is that there is one God, Father-Son, as revealed by the Spirit, affirmed in the Gospels, and traced to the preaching of people like John, indicating John’s testimony, as recorded in the Gospels, remains valuable (3.10.1-5).

The Johannine writings are presented as affirming this same message. The Apostle John opposes Cerinthius, and the Nicolaitans (mentioned in the Apocalypse), who taught what the gnostics teach (again, the gnostics are connected with opponents of the Apostles, like Simon Magnus, placing the Bishops on the side of the Apostles, 3.11.1-6).

The Fourfold Gospel–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–are presented as providing a unified message. The “first principle” being monotheistic: “…that there is one God, the Maker of this universe; He who was also announced by the prophets, and who by Moses set forth the dispensation of the law,—[principles] which proclaim the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ignore any other God or Father except Him.” Irenaeus argues that even the heretics rely on these Gospels, but that they pick-and-choose: Ebonites use Matthew, Marcion used (some of) Luke, some adoptionistic types use Mark, the Valentinians used John. Yet there cannot be less than four Gospels, or better yet a Fourfold Gospel. Irenaeus argues that there are four zones of the world, four winds, four pillars, the cheribum is four-faced (a Lion, a Calf, a Man, and an Eagle = the fourfold presentation of Jesus). According to Irenaeus, using one Gospel creates heresy (3.11.7-8). The Book of Acts receives Irenaeus’ attention as well as he argues that Peter and the other Apostles did not preach someone else after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, but proclaimed Jesus. He recounts many of the narratives beginning with Peter replacing Judas, to Pentecost, to the preaching of John, Philip, Paul, and others (3.12.1-10).

The Montanists, an early charismatic sect, are presented as trying to monopolize the prophet Spirit. Interestingly, Irenaeus doesn’t have qualms with their emphasis on a prophetic Spirit, but he perceives they reject the Gospel of John catholicity of the Paraclete and Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians (quoting 1 Cor. 6:4-5) for limiting the gift. He says Paul approved of men and women prophesying, which seems (?) to indicate he thinks the Montanist don’t allow for this diversity (3.11.9).

The Old and New Covenants must remain connected, even if distinct, for Irenaeus. The error of the gnostics is thinking that the Jewish message of the Apostles is inferior to their insights, dejudaized. Irenaeus recounts the Acts 15 council, arguing that even as the Apostles made decisions to let Gentiles remain Gentiles, they continued to wrestle with the meaning and application of the Old Covenant, because it mattered and it was holy (3.12.11-15). The Marcionites are presented as trying to make distinction between the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Paul. Irenaeus argues for a unified message from these two (foreshadowing contemporary debates over Paul’s connection to the earliest disciples). Irenaeus writes, “Peter, therefore, was an apostle of that very God whose was also Paul; and Him whom Peter preached as God among those of the circumcision, and likewise the Son of God, did Paul [declare] also among the Gentiles. For our Lord never came to save Paul alone, nor is God so limited in means, that He should have but one apostle who knew the dispensation of His Son.” Irenaeus cites Paul, indicating Paul respected Peter as a witness of the resurrection, alongside the Twelve, and that it was their mission to go to the household of Israel, while Paul came to the Gentiles (3.12.1-3). Against the idea that Paul may have taught things preserved outside his writings, Irenaeus appeals to Luke, his companion, arguing that he teaches nothing about these things, and that he wrote a Gospel himself (3.13.1-4).

The Ebionites deny Paul’s apostleship. Irenaeus argues that it is logically consistent for them to cease using Luke’s Gospel, since Luke supported Paul (3.15.1). Irenaeus attacks the Adoptionistic ideas that “Jesus” and the “Christ” are different, that Jesus is somehow not the same with the Logos, the Word, the Son of God (; 18.1-4). He presents Logos Christology as an alternative to Adoptionistic ideas, or any view that would minimize Jesus as merely human, and not divine (3.19.1-3). For Irenaeus the plan of God is to give humans the gift of existence, so that he might save them, resurrecting them from the dead, and this is impossible unless God does the saving, for if Jesus was merely human he cannot save humanity (3.20.1-4). Since the virgin birth is an essential part of Irenaeus’ Christology, as regards his deity, he follows Justin Martyr in arguing for the validity of the LXX rendering of Isaiah 7:14 (“virgin” rather than merely “young woman”) over against some Jewish proselytes who argue otherwise. He accompanies his argument with other passages from the OT. He accompanies this with an interpretation of Romans 5:12-21, arguing that as Adam was born without a human father, if Christ is going to “recapitulate” humanity, redeeming humanity through Mary, he must have God as his Father, not Joseph (3.21.1-10). On the flip side, Irenaeus argues that Jesus must have received something from Mary, he must have been authentically human, and not merely divine (3.22.1-3).

Recapitulation includes Jesus being the new Adam and Mary being the new Eve. Eve is presented as a virgin in Eden, too young to have children at the time of her failure. Jesus undoes Adam’s sin; Mary undoes Eve’s (3.22.4). This coincides with Roman Catholic and Orthodox Mariology. The Resurrection of Christ is understood to be the victory of God. If Jesus had not been resurrected, Death wins, God loses (3.23.1). Likewise, Jesus’ actions must redeem Adam (contra Tatian) for recapitulation to have occurred (3.23.2-8).