I have been participating in the group Read the Fathers for over 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

This week’s readings were from Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against Heresies, Book 5.


In the Preface Irenaeus argues that he has refuted the heretics, but he will continue to expound upon their error in contrast to the true apostolic message.

The Incarnation is the basis for revelation. If God doesn’t become human in Christ there is no knowing the truth of the Gospel. Irenaeus makes the appearance of the Son of God the basis by which God is known in the world. He argues that this is how God persuades people, since he does not do it by “violant means”. God saves those predestination to hear of his Son on ths basis of his foreknowledge (5.1.1). For Irenaeus the Incarnation is essential. Jesus must have received his humanity from Mary. Jesus had to have “flesh and blood” to redeem people of flesh and blood (5.1.2). Irenaeus’ attack is directed toward the Ebionites. He argues that as the Spirit of God was breathed into Adam to make him human, so God must give us his Spirit for the age to come. This shows familiarity with passages like Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 (5.1.3). Irenaeus returns to this point in 5.14.1-4.

The Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of the Father”. Irenaeus say this Spirit brings God to humans, and that the Incarnation brings humans to God (5.1.1-2). Irenaeus testifies to the presence of charismata saying that the Holy Spirit continues to give people gifts, some speaking in many languages (glossolalia). Irenaeus senses he must clarify what Paul means by someone being “spiritual”. He does not mean ethereal, but that a person has the Spirit of God (5.6.1). The Spirit is what causes future resurrection. He is influenced by Paul’s binary between humans with the Spirit of God and humans without the Spirit of God (5.8.1-3).

Although Irenaeus’ Pneumatology hints as Trinitarianism, he moves back toward Binitarianism easily. For example, in 5.8.4 the Spirit-filled person meditates on the God who is Father and Son. Now, contextually, he has been talking about the Spirit for a while, but doxologically, Father-Son emerges to the surface again. Likewise, in 5.18.1, Irenaeus does move the action of God from Father to Son to Spirit. There does seem to be a hierarchy for Irenaeus from Father to Son, or Father to Son and Spirit (5.18.2-3, the Spirit is mentioned again with Word and Father in 5.20.1). When Irenaeus explains his monotheism he speaks of the one God, the Father, and the Word of God, who came to undue what Adam has done. That God is one is evidence for Irenaeus that Marcion’s idea that there is a God of Israel and a God of Christ is false. One God saves Israel, and is revealed through his Word (5.17.1-4, see also 5.22.1-2).

The Atonement is said to have come by Jesus’ blood. Jesus’ humanity must be real. He must have become human in order to die for humans. He appeals to the worship of the Church as manifest in the Eucharist. If Jesus was not a real human than the blood and body of Jesus in the Eucharist is to no avail. Irenaeus is pro-body. He moves from the physicality of the Eucharist to the argument that our physical bodies do receive salvation in that our physical bodies do receive Christ and our physical bodies are made ready for the future resurrection (5.2.1-3). Even infirmities in the body are beneficial, as exemplified by Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”, which taught him the love of God in Christ (5.3.1).

The Resurrection is discusses as a physical salvation. Irenaeus notes that it is not hard for God to reconstitute those who were physical once, but who have died, since he has done the difficult deed of making us physical in the first place. Against his opponents who frame salvation as ethereal he argues that if God gives us physical life now why won’t God give us an enhanced physical life in the future (5.3.2-3)? Also, he proposes that if God doesn’t resurrect bodies he is unable (a matter of power) or cruel (forcing us to live in bodies, when embodiment is evil), which is an interesting critique (5.4.1-2).

Irenaeus provides other arguments for the goodness of the human body including the length of human life presented in the Book of Genesis, Enoch’s and Elijah’s translations into heaven in their bodies, Paul’s vision in the third heaven, Jonah’s survival in the whale, and the three Hebrew boys surviving the fiery furnace. These serve as proof that God can bless physicality (5.5.1-2).

As to the statement that “flesh and blood” won’t enter the Kingdom, Irenaeus interprets this to mean that those who are “merely” flesh and blood, i.e., Spirit-less, cannot enter the Kingdom of God (which is close to Paul’s meaning, but I think Paul meant that our current bodies, bodies that are animated by “flesh and blood” rather than animated by God’s Spirit cannot enter the Kingdom, but must go into the ground like a seed to become a glorified body, 5.9.1).  Irenaeus borrows Paul’s engrafting language from Romans 9 to argue that the physicality doesn’t change for spiritual people, but being engrafted into the Spirit changes the sort of fruit produces by the branch (5.10.1-2). Similarly, Paul’s language about the “works of the flesh” don’t mean embodied deeds, but deeds based in our carnal, debased nature (5.11.1-2). This is how Irenaeus divides spiritual people from fleshly people, following Paul, as either people with the Spirit or without, not people who are physical over against people who will be freed from physicality. Irenaeus notes that Jesus said the meek would inherit the earth, which implies future physicality (5.9.2-4).

Healing provides impetus for Irenaeus to affirm resurrection, as does Jeremiah and Paul speaking of being formed in the womb, which he understands to be an affirmation of physicality (5.15.2). Adam’s creation as a physical being is important too (5.15.3). The Valentinian anthropology doesn’t jive with Scripture (5.15.4). Irenaeus says that our return to earth at death matches the Genesis narrative, confirming the Word as the one who created humanity from the earth, making Adam in his image, and image confirmed at the Incarnation (5.16.1-3).

Jesus’ resurrection is the model for Irenaeus. He quotes Scripture passages that seem to indicate that Jesus was alive during his intermediate state in the place of the dead, but that he did not ascend into heaven until he had received his resurrected body. Irenaeus deducts that dead saints must remain in a invisible place, bodiless, until the resurrection, because it doesn’t make sense that the bodiless would enter heaven when Christ had to wait for his body (5.31.1-2).

Irenaeus finds resurrection in the OT: Isaiah 26:19, 66:14; Ezekiel 37 (5.15.1).

Irenaeus’ anthropology seems to consist of body, soul, and spirit. He says that the soul and spirit are part of the human, but the human is whole when embodied. He argues that Paul’s use of “Temple of God” language glorifies the body (5.6.1-2). He states that Paul didn’t deny a soul or spirit, but taught that the body dies, decays, and the soul remains in hopes of a new body (appealing to Paul’s seed analogy in 1 Cor 15 and to the Gospel accounts of Jesus maintaining his wounds to argue that Jesus wasn’t merely a spirit, 5.7.1-2).

Irenaeus differentiates between the “breath-spirit” common to all humans and the Holy Spirit given to the children of God. Breath will dissipate at death; the Spirit will resurrect (5.12.1-2). Contra some gnostics, a Demiurge did not create humanity, but the Most High God through his Word, and this is the message preached by Paul and others (5.12.3-6).

Paul is important to Irenaeus. Apparently, his opponents appealed to Paul, so Irenaeus spends much time exegeting Paul, and challenging their interpretations (FWIW, Irenaeus understands Paul very well, 5.13.1-5).

Recapitulation comes into play again beginning in 5.19.1-2. Christ reverses Adam, Mary reverses Eve. Irenaeus presents Genesis 3:15 as being about Christ coming through Mary in 5.21.1-2.

The Rule of Faith is presented again in 5.19.1-2 (as confirming Irenaeus’ teaching), 5.20.1-2 (as older than the heresies, established through apostolic succession, with the heretics being like Adam and Eve in Eden seeking a “higher knowledge”, see further commentary in 5.23.1-2), and 5.21.1-2 (presenting Jesus as glorifying the Father, with the apostate angel, Satan, advocating something else like the heretics).

Human government is from God, not Satan, according to Irenaeus. God is the final judge of human rulers. Romans 13 is cited. Satan is depicted as attempting to usurp power from God (5.24.1-4).

The Antichrist is depicted as a slave, who wants to be a King, who self-identifies as God. He is said to be empowered by the devil. He won’t be a legitimate world ruler, but an apostate one (whatever this might mean). He doesn’t worship idols, because he wants to be understood as God. As with many modern prophecy fanatics, Irenaeus speaks of the Antichrist as coming as if he is Christ, ruling from Jerusalem, and even doing so in a Temple. Irenaeus lived after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Did he imagine it rebuilt? The Book of Daniel is interpreted as pointing toward the eschaton, not some past event (5.25.1-5). The same is true of the Apocalypse (5.26.1-2).

Eschatology is the central theme at the end of Book V. Jesus returns to judge the wicked. These receive death and separation, eternally. The righteous receive resurrection. These receive life with God, eternally (5.27.1-2). Irenaeus participates in a lot of speculation, especially numerology as it relates to six days of creating to one day rest as six millennia of humanity before one millenium of rest (5.28.1-3). Irenaeus says this age will end with tribulation before the saints are “caught up” at the Parousia (note: he didn’t have a doctrine of a “rapture”; he is echoing Pauline language). The Antichrist will come with the number 666 (5.29.1-2; 5.30.1-4).

The New Creation is one of the main points of Irenaeus’ eschatology. He denies any theology that demeans the future body or the future physicality of the cosmos. The inheritance promised to the Patriarchs (Abraham, et al.) must be delivered; therefore, the saints must be resurrected to reign over the earth for a time. He interprets Paul’s statements about Creation in Romans 8:19ff., as saying, “… the creation itself, being restored to its primeval condition, should without restraint be under the dominion of the righteous”. Creation must become like Eden. It must be restored from the Genesis 3 disaster (5.32.1-2). For Irenaeus, Jesus’ promise to drink wine with the disciples someday supports this idea. Abraham’s promise, Jacob’s promise, David’s promise, and all the promises of God are given to Christ and the saints. Irenaeus cites Papias taught that John taught that Jesus taught was Isaiah prophesied about a time of recapitulation, when wolf and lamb were at peace, this being the age to come. Irenaeus says that some seem to teach that his is happening now, in the Church, as people from different nations come to worship the true God, but he indicates that this doesn’t remove the need for a future restoration, when animals can be free, when humans no longer eat animals, but return to eating food from the earth alone (5.33.1-4). The Creation itself will not pass away, but its current state-of-being will be changed. This will be the New Heaven and the New Earth. Now, Irenaeus does seem to postulate that there is a hierarchy of location in the age to come: some people enter Heaven, others “Paradise”, some remain in the City (New Jerusalem), but God is everywhere.

The Future Kingdom is part of this discussion. Irenaeus weaves together Scripture on resurrection, New Creation, and the Kingdom. The Kingdom consists of Abraham’s seed, Old Covenant and New Covenant. Jerusalem is the center of the world in Irenaeus’ vision. God will dwell on Zion (5.34.1-4). According to Irenaeus there is no room for allegorizing these prophecies. These prophecies aren’t about a celestial world, but this world, this Jerusalem, the nations of this earth (5.35.1-2). Likewise, there may be a sense in which in the age to come humans can ascend closer to God up this ladder from earth, to Paradise, to Heaven, as if this was the original goal of humanity, but he mentions these ideas in brief, at the end (5.36.1-3).

* The “two hands of God” analogy is used again in 5.6.1.

* John the Baptist mentioned again in 5.17.4 and 5.32.2.

* Irenaeus quotes Ignatius of Antioc in 5.28.3.

See notes from: