I have participating in the group Read the Fathers for two months now (see “Two months of Patristics”) and in order to help me maintain this discipline I have been posting my notes each Saturday. 

St. Irenaeus
St. Irenaeus

This week’s readings were from Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against Heresies, Book 4.


Valentinian Gnosticism is depicted by Irenaeus as blasphemy based on ignorance (4.Preface.1-3). He uses Eve’s deception in Eden as an analogy (4.Preface.4). Their insistance that the Demiurge made Creation shames the Creator God, who is the Father of Jesus. Other groups of heretics that Irenaeus denounces as not hearing the voice of the Spirit include the Marcionites, who he criticizes throughout (see notes below), for denying that it is one God who gave both Covenants (postulating two gods). The Ebionites’ soteriology fails for Irenaeus because they deny the incarnation. He asks rhetorically, “…how can they be saved unless it was God who wrought out their salvation upon earth? Or how shall man pass into God, unless God has [first] passed into man?” For Irenaeus God becoming human through the virgin birth is how human regeneration is possible. Otherwise, Jesus is not better than David or Solomon. Likewise, if Jesus wasn’t authentically human, humans cannot receive anything from him. These people are false prophets and schismatics according to Irenaeus. Irenaeus says that “true knowledge” (an attack on the idea of gnosis = salvation) comes in the Apostolic Tradition, which comes through the succession of Bishops, which is Catholic and not sectarian (4.33.1-9).

The Son and Spirit are described analogously as the hands of God the Father. This proto-Trinitarian language has factored into later discussions about the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit like the Filioque and even contemporary discussions regarding how God the Father is revealed in the world. Recently, Amos Yong adopted this language in his books exploring a Christian theology of religion to ask if it possible that there is a sense in which God works through his revealed Son, but also through the cosmic Spirit, through other religions and traditions (4.Preface.4). God is presented as singular with Word and Spirit coming forth from/as the one God (4.1.1). Irenaeus basis this affirmation on the teachings of the Apostles as received from Jesus himself (4.1.2). Figures like Moses, David, and Isaiah spoke of the singularity of God (4.2.1). Jesus continued this tradition and those who teach the contrary are in danger of judgement, even those who confess Israel’s God but do not confess Jesus himself (4.2.2-8).

Monotheism (yes, I know this word is simplistic) remains Irenaeus’ working paradigm. He is emphatic that all things come from the one Creator God and no one else. This means that the one God is responsible for interacting with his people across both Covenants, and the one God is responsible for the salvation of the world, like a cosmic King declaring what he will do (4.9.1-3, see also 4.32.1-2, regarding one cosmic judge see 4.40.1-34.41.1-4): “For there is one salvation and one God; but the precepts, which form the man are numerous, and the steps which lead man to God are not a few. It is allowable for an earthly and temporal king, though he is [but] a man, to grant to his subjects greater advantages at times: shall not this then be lawful for God, since He is [ever] the same, and is always willing to confer a greater [degree of] grace upon the human race, and to honor continually with many gifts those who please Him?”

Creation has an eschatological future according to Irenaeus. He interprets passages that speak of the demise of Creation as not being about Creation itself, per se, but the wicked and the evil state of Creation. Creation will continue alongside the redeemed people of God (4.3.1).

Jerusalem is presented as God’s capitol, but that was temporary. Irenaeus explains Jerusalem’s destruction, and what seems to be the end of Israel’s God being identified with Jerusalem, as something God did for a time, but something God has changed (4.4.1-4).

Abraham plays a Pauline role in the cosmic drama. Irenaeus speaks of people being his children who model his faith (showing he understands Romans 4 better than many commentators). This relationship between Abraham, Jews, and Gentiles is framed in monotheistic terminology (4.5.1-5). Abraham is presented as the source of the Christian religion (4.21.1). Isaac and Jacob are presented as important symbolic figures as well. Isaac and Jacob foreshadow election. Jacob foreshadows the “older brother” being rejected for the younger, which according to Irenaeus is Israel, the older brother, whose inheritance goes to the Church, the righteous Jews plus the  nations (4.21.2-3). Abraham is presented the father of those in both Covenants (4.25.1-3).

Revelation comes from the Father by the Son. Jesus is presented as the only one who can reveal God the Father, and when Jesus is known, as the Word, the Father is known. Irenaeus argues that even when God is revealed in Creation, or the Law, or the Prophets, God is revealed through the Word. The Son is called “God” and the Spirit is mentioned in unison with Father and Spirit (4.6.1-7). People like Abraham know the Father through the Word, and if someone rejects the Word, God is unknowable (4.7.1-4).

Scripture is about the Son of God according to Irenaeus. He argues that Moses wrote about Jesus. He follows Justin Martyr in presenting theophanies as the Word visiting Adam, Noah, Abraham, Sodom, Jacob, and others (4.10.1-2). Irenaeus used Isaiah to argue for the virgin birth and the anointing of Jesus by the Spirit as thing foretold. Irenaeus sees these prophecies as obvious, explaining the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch or the crowds in Israel as being based on how easily it was for them to recognize the apostolic proclamation of Christ in Scripture (4.23.1-3). Jewish familiarity with Scripture made it easier to convert Jews than Gentiles according to Irenaeus (4.23.1-2).

The Apostolic Tradition is the hermeneutical safeguard advocated by Irenaeus for interpreting Scripture. He argues that the hidden message of Scripture in Christ (4.26.1). Those who have been entrusted with this insight are in the Apostolic Tradition–the Bishops, the Presbyters. Ireaneus writes, “For these also preserve this faith of ours in one God who created all things; and they increase that love [which we have] for the Son of God, who accomplished such marvellous dispensations for our sake: and they expound the Scriptures to us without danger, neither blaspheming God, nor dishonouring the patriarchs, nor despising the prophets.” When heretics read Scripture it is inevitable that misinterpretation will happen because it is done outside the safety of an ecclesial hermeneutic (4.26.2-5).

Contra Marcion there is connection between the God revealed to Abraham and the God revealed through Jesus. Irenaeus argues in defense of the Old Covenant. Unlike many early Christian commentators the Old Covenant is presented as good, but misunderstood. For example, Irenaeus argues that God did interact with Abraham’s physical descendants (though he doesn’t allow for them to deny the Word and remain in Covenant with God) by arguing that Jesus didn’t deny the Law’s statement about the Sabbath, but rather that Jesus showed how the Sabbath was to be understood correctly (4.8.1-3). This assertion is grounded in the idea that God is perfect and that God is not manipulated or changed. If God promised something to the patriarchs and the prophets, God will do those things, and since God has spoke through his Word, God’s revelation through the Word is a continuation and fulfillment of the Old Covenant (4.11.1-4). According to Irenaeus Jesus differed with his fellow Jews on interpreting and applying the Law. Jesus did not deny the Law’s value, but instead the traditions of his rivals. Jesus’ interpretation of the Law is the commandment to love God and the commandment to love neighbor. For Irenaeus, unlike Marcion, this isn’t Jesus representing a different God, but Jesus interpreting the Old Covenant correctly (4.12.1-5). Also, the accuracy of the Old Covenant Prophets regarding Christ and the New Covenant are reason to connect the Covenants. Irenaeus says the same God who sent the Prophets sent the Son (4.34.1-4, 4.36.1-8, see further denouncing of gnostic ideas in this regard in 4.35.1-4)

The Law according to Irenaeus is a good thing and the “natural precepts”, e.g., adultery, remain valid and extended by Jesus’ teachings. Irenaeus cites Jesus’ teachings about loving an enemy, giving away a second coat, going another mile, et cetera, as being not the abandonment of the Law, but the fulfillment of the Law (4.13.1-4). God is presented as a condescending God (not negatively!) in that Irenaeus argues that the Tabernacle, the sacrificial system, and those aspects of the Law are not like “natural precepts”, but rather, so that Israel would have a form of worship that would promote their fidelity to the true God in the midst of idol worshipping nations, God gave these structures to them (4.14.1-3). Irenaeus argues that if this is true of the Old Testament, then it is true of the New Testament as well. He speaks of God condescending when he gave Moses a decree for divorce, or when Paul permits some things regarding divorce and remarriage that seem to do the same thing, arguing that if God can condescend then he can condescend now. Some elements of the Law, like circumcision and Sabbath, functioned as shadows of things to come. Circumcision as an outward sign of Covenant identity foreshadowed the reception of the Spirit as that sign now. Sabbath is presented as a state-of-rest foreshadowing “God’s table” (Eucharist). One thing that survives in general is the Decalogue (save Sabbath, which Irenaeus sees as foreshadowing rest in the Kingdom at God’s table), and natural precepts, but those things given by God to prevent idol worship, or to condescend to Israel’s place at the time, have come to fulfillment in Christ (4.17.1-5). Irenaeus explains the sacrificial system as secondary to obedience, not primary. Jesus as having replaced the need for sacrifices. Prayers as the incense of the saints now (4.18.1-6, see his summary statements on symbolism in 4.19.1-3).

Recapitulation resurfaces with Irenaeus speaking of the present as the “last days”, even the days of Christ, where the old humanity corrupted through Adam is replaced by a “New Human”, which includes people from every age. Irenaeus writes, “For it was not merely for those who believed on Him in the time of Tiberius Cæsar that Christ came, nor did the Father exercise His providence for the men only who are now alive, but for all men altogether, who from the beginning, according to their capacity, in their generation have both feared and loved God, and practised justice and piety towards their neighbours, and have earnestly desired to see Christ, and to hear His voice.” These will be resurrected on the last day. Interestingly, along with Justin Martyr, this language seems to leave the door open for the idea of righteous pagans, those who “both feared and loved God, and practiced justice and piety towards their neighbors, and have earnestly desired to see Christ, and hear his voice.” Does someone have to know Christ, or seek Christ unknowningly?

David and Solomon are juxtaposed with Christ as relates to when they did “good”–David refusing to kill Saul, Solomon judging wisely–but they are inferior to him when they did evil–David taking Bathsheba, Solomon taking many pagan wives and their idols (4.27.1).

The Harrowing of Hell is presented by Irenaeus as an interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19-20 where Christ descended into the abode of the dead to inform the righteous of their deliverance. This indicates for Irenaeus that the one God is God of both Covenants and that the death of Christ was for those who came before and after his Advent (4.27.2-4).

Judgement for those who reject God by his Word, who reject the Advent of Christ, is depicted as hell, eternal hell, though there are some ambiguous statements about degrees of punishment. Irenaeus says that the saved will inherit the Kingdom. Also, he responds to those who blame God for there being lost souls on the basis of the idea that if God would not have sent the prophets or Christ there would be no message to reject. He responds that those who were saved could not have been saved unless there were these people. His argument is applied first to the Egyptians who had to be punished for Israel to be freed, and to the Jews who crucified Jesus in order for Christians to be saved (4.28.1-30). According to Marcionites there was a criticism of God as author of sin because of stories such as God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart or Isaiah’s words (used by Jesus and Paul) that these people should not see or hear the Gospel. Irenaeus’ rebuttal is based on God’s foreknowledge. God does this because he knows who will choose to reject him, so he gives them over to sin (4.29.1-2).

The First and Second Advents are discussed at length by Irenaeus. Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of the Father and coming as the Son of Man seem to be past events. He speaks of Christ coming to judge (especially on behalf of persecuted saints). Jesus’ First Advent made God known in Zion, fulfilling passages foreshadowing YHWH’s visit to Zion. He writes about the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ in the First Advent. He says that his Ascension would be followed by the nations coming against the Church. The Church hears the Spirit, receives the New Covenant, and avoids the judgment coming to the world (4.33.10-15).

There is a very interesting discussion in 4.30.1-4 where Irenaeus defends Israel taking spoils from the Egyptians at the beginning of the exodus by criticizing those who refuse to acknowledge that there is a similarity in how Christians (and heretics) use Romans roads, and the safety provided by their military might, to proclaim the Gospel. He calls these people hypocrites for their fake piety. Also, Irenaeus challenges his readers not to judge the failures of OT characters easily. He uses Lot’s sex with his daughters as an example, arguing that Lot was not trying to be lustful or crude, and his daughters thought the world was coming to an end because of what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah, therefore they had sex with their father to try to have children to preserve the world. Irenaeus says that when we see these things we should seek the symbolic (the moral?) element of the story rather than focusing on the literal part (4.31.1-3).

Free will is an important piece of Irenaeus’ anthropology. Even though he talks about election, he presents God hardening the hearts of sinners he foreknew as those who would reject him. This stands in contrast to Calvinism’s emphasis on God choosing people before the universe, as individuals. Irenaeus writes:  

“But if some had been made by nature bad, and others good, these latter would not be deserving of praise for being good, for such were they created; nor would the former be reprehensible, for thus they were made [originally]. But since all men are of the same nature, able both to hold fast and to do what is good; and, on the other hand, having also the power to cast it from them and not to do it,—some do justly receive praise even among men who are under the control of good laws (and much more from God), and obtain deserved testimony of their choice of good in general, and of persevering therein; but the others are blamed, and receive a just condemnation, because of their rejection of what is fair and good. And therefore the prophets used to exhort men to what was good, to act justly and to work righteousness, as I have so largely demonstrated, because it is in our power so to do, and because by excessive negligence we might become forgetful, and thus stand in need of that good counsel which the good God has given us to know by means of the prophets.”

Ireaneus reacts strongly to ideas that some are predetermined, mostly because this idea was essentially gnostic as he saw it. The gnostic proposal that some people where inherently better souls, enlightened, and others were lesser seems to have prevented Irenaeus from concluding with Calvin that there was some sort of election that negated free will. Irenaeus sees election as predicted on foreknowledge (4.37.1-5).

Irenaeus addresses other questions like why weren’t humans created perfect (4.38.1-4); do humans understand the difference between good and evil (4.39.1-4),

* John the Baptist mentioned in 4.7.2.