views updated


IRENAEUS (c. 130c. 200) was a bishop of Lyons (177/78c. 200), theologian, and antiheretical writer. Claimed by both Roman Catholics and Protestants as their progenitor, Irenaeus framed the catholic concept of authority that helped to pull diverse churches together in a period of identity crisis created by gnosticism, Marcionism, and other movements. Opposing the radical accommodation of Christian thought to Hellenistic culture, he pointed to canon and creed as interpreted by bishops in churches of apostolic foundation. Until the discovery of a gnostic library at Nag Hammadi (modern-day Chenoboskion, Egypt) in 1945, Irenaeus's treatise Against Heresies also supplied the main and most reliable information on gnostic thought.


Nothing is known of Irenaeus's ancestry or of the date or place of his birth. He grew up, however, in Smyrna, where he sat at the feet of Polycarp, the distinguished bishop martyred about 155, who, according to Irenaeus, had known the apostles, specifically John, in Asia. From Polycarp perhaps he drew his penchant for biblical theology, for, he observed, Polycarp "related all things in harmony with the scriptures," which he then noted "not on paper, but in my heart." Irenaeus witnessed Polycarp's debate with Anicetus in Rome about 155 and studied in Justin's school, gaining much from Justin's apologetic methods but diverging sharply from him in his partiality for a biblical theology rather than for Platonism. After 164 he went to Lyons, where he was ordained a presbyter. He narrowly missed the pogrom that took place in Lyons and Vienne in 177, when Pothinus, the nonagenarian bishop of Lyons martyred in the persecution, sent him to Rome with a letter for Eleutherius (pope, r. 175189) in which Pothinus characterized his protégé as "zealous for the covenant of Christ" and "among the first as a presbyter of the church."

On returning to Lyons, Irenaeus succeeded Pothinus as bishop. When Victor, bishop of Rome (189199), rashly excommunicated the Christians of Asia because they observed Easter according to the Jewish Passover, whatever day of the week that might fall on, and not always on a Sunday, as in Rome, Irenaeus intervened with a stern rebuke. Writing in the name of "the brethren in Gaul," he pointed out that although variety of practice was customary among Christians from ancient times, they had always lived in peace with one another. Victor's predecessors in Rome, he added, all adhered to the Roman custom but did not excommunicate the Asians on account of a different practice. Anicetus and Polycarp once had a direct confrontation; although neither could persuade the other to change, they remained in communion with each other. Apart from his writing activities, little more is known about Irenaeus's career as bishop of Lyons. About 576 Gregory of Tours reported that Irenaeus was martyred in the persecution under Septimius Severus, but the lateness of the account makes this unlikely.


Two major works of IrenaeusRefutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (usually referred to as Against Heresies ) and Proof of the Apostolic Preaching have survived. In addition, three lettersone to Blastus, On Schism; a second to Florinus, On Monarchy or That God Is Not the Author of Evil; and a third to Victor on the Easter controversyare quoted partially or wholly in the Church History of Eusebius. Other works have survived only in fragments or not at all, including a treatise against Valentinian gnosticism titled On the Ogdoad; an apology, On Knowledge, against the Greeks; and comments on scriptures under the title Dissertations. Irenaeus's works, especially the treatise Against Heresies, circulated widely and exerted a widespread influence on Christian theology in subsequent centuries, particularly in the West.

Composed at the request of a friend and usually dated 185189, Against Heresies is somewhat repetitious and disjointed. In book 1 Irenaeus outlines the gnostic system of Valentinus and his pupil Ptolemaeus and refutes it briefly on the grounds of inconsistency and diversity, especially in handling scriptures (in contrast to the unity of the catholic church's teaching); in a similar way he sketches and refutes the practices and thought of the Marcosians; and he gives thumbnail sketches of the variegated teachings of other heretical teachers or sects: Simon Magus (the archheretic, according to Irenaeus), Menander, Saturninus, Basilides, Carpocrates, Cerinthus, the Ebionites, the Nicolaitans, Cerdo, Marcion, Tatian, and the Encratites, Barbeliotes, Ophites, Sethians, and Cainites. In book 2 Irenaeus undertakes a more detailed rational refutation of the Valentinian system with its elaborate cosmology. In book 3 he constructs his famous argument for catholic teaching based on scriptures and tradition. In book 4 he pursues the refutation of Marcion (d. 160?) that he begins at the end of book 3. Following in the train of his teacher Justin, whose treatise Against Marcion is no longer extant, Irenaeus argues from scriptures the oneness of the God of the Old Testament and the God who had disclosed himself in Jesus of Nazareth. Christ bore witness to the God of the Old Testament; the scriptures of the Old Testament bore witness to the Christ of the New. In book 5 Irenaeus sustains chiefly the Christian doctrines of resurrection of the flesh, incarnation, and last things against gnostic "spiritualizing." Like his teacher Justin, Irenaeus adopts the eschatology of the Revelation to John with its expectation of the millennial reign of Christ.

The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, long lost but rediscovered in an Armenian translation in 1904, is a catechetical treatise, addressed to a certain Marcianus, that Irenaeus describes as "a manual of essentials." Basically a summary of salvation history, the first part focuses on theological matters (divine monarchy, Trinity, baptism) and the second on christological matters (Jesus as Lord, Son of David, Christ, Son of God; the glory of the Cross; the kingdom of God). "Proofs" for various doctrines come principally from the Old Testament.


Irenaeus, responding to gnostics and Marcionites rather than presenting an apology to Gentiles, rejected Justin's concept of the Seminal Logos who illuminated the minds of both Jews and Greeks. Although he could praise Plato faintly, he had few compliments for nonbiblical writers and writings. He placed his confidence, rather, in the Old Testament and in writings beginning to be collected into a New Testament. Against Marcion and some of the gnostics, he asserted vigorously that one and the same God inspired both. In his understanding of inspiration he came closer to the rabbinic concept of the spirit indwelling an individual who faithfully adheres to the established tradition of truth than to the Greek mantic theory, but he never denied the latter. He regarded the Old Testament in the Greek Septuagint as canonical in its entirety. Although the limits of his New Testament canon are not clear, he left no doubt that it included at its core the four Gospels and thirteen letters of Paul.

In his polemic against the gnostics Irenaeus criticized especially their use of allegorical exegesis, but he himself resorted freely to this method even in interpretation of the New Testament, the first orthodox writer to do so. He struggled to solve problems posed by the Old Testament by way of a theory of progressive education of the human race; but, although biblical, he lacked historical sensitivity in treating of the Old Testament. In the final analysis, Irenaeus saw the basis of religious authority as the tradition committed to the churches by the apostles, as a collective and not as an individual witness. The "living voice," a continually renewed understanding of the church's heritage, was his actual authority.

Irenaeus's theology reflected throughout a strong biblical and especially Pauline slant. Against gnostic and Marcionite dualism he affirmed Jewish monotheism. One God, the creator, created ex nihilo and not through emanations (as in Valentinian gnosis). To prove at once the immanence and the transcendence of God, Irenaeus developed the distinctive doctrine of "the two hands of God." Through the Son and the Holy Spirit (or the Word and Wisdom), God acted directly in creation, not through intermediaries, and God continues to act in inspiration or revelation. Scholars have often tried to decide whether Irenaeus held to an "economic," or "modalist," concept of the Trinity (that God appeared at one time as Father, at another time as Son, at a third time as Holy Spirit), but the "two hands" doctrine is scarcely compatible with such a concept. For Irenaeus, God is the living God of the Old Testament. Although he counterbalanced this understanding with ideas drawn from the philosophical leanings of earlier apologists, he always leaned heavily toward the biblical side. Whereas Justin thought of the Logos as the hypostatized Divine Reason, for example, Irenaeus conceptualized the Logos as the Word of God depicted in John 1:114. Also, whereas Justin could call the Logos a "second God" (deuteros theos ), a part of God, for Irenaeus the Logos is GodGod self-disclosed.

Unlike his precursor Justin, Irenaeus was also profoundly biblical and Pauline in his doctrine of redemption. According to his famous recapitulation theory, Jesus traversed the same ground as Adam but in reverse. Through his obedience he overcame the powers that hold humankind in thrallsin, death, and the devil. To establish his theory, Irenaeus contended that Jesus experienced every phase of human developmentinfancy, childhood, youth, mature adulthoodsanctifying each by obedience. On the basis of a comment in the Gospel of John ("You are not yet fifty," Jn. 8:57), he argued that Jesus lived to age fifty. To be sure, alongside the motif of Christus Victor in his recapitulation theory, Irenaeus also gave attention to the Greek concept of divinization by way of the vision of God in the incarnate Son. "He became man," said Irenaeus, "in order that we might become divine." This idea, however, did not dominate his theology as did that of recapitulation. As Irenaeus used it, moreover, it had both Pauline and Johannine roots. Thus, although nodding to Hellenism, Irenaeus did not depart from a strong biblicism.

There has been much debate among Protestant scholars about Irenaeus's emphasis on free will. In opposition to the gnostic division of humankind into three groupsmaterial, psychic, and spiritualhe insisted on the survival of freedom even after the fall. Distinguishing "image" (eikon ) and "likeness" (homoiosis ) in the Genesis account of creation, as did Valentinus, he held that the fall affected only the "likeness." The "image," the whole bodily and spiritual nature with no added supernatural gift, was unaffected. Loss of the divine "likeness," however, resulted in a disordered human nature, death, and enslavement to Satan. Thus every person is born in sin, but this does not mean, as it did to Augustine, inheritance of guilt. Realizing that moral responsibility necessitates freedom of choice, Irenaeus viewed sin as wrong moral choice by a responsible agent. Although this meant that he sometimes minimized the need for grace, he was far from being a forerunner of Pelagius (fl. 410418), who emphasized "natural grace" almost to the exclusion of supernatural. The fall, Irenaeus would say, attenuated free will, although it did not obliterate it.

In his understanding of the church Irenaeus again reproduced much of Paul's thought. The church is Israel under a new covenant, the true Israel, the priestly people of God. Although he believed in a universal priesthood, Irenaeus nevertheless lacked Paul's concept of the church as the body of Christ. He understood the church rather as a corporation composed of individuals and seldom spoke of being "in Christ" or "in the Spirit."

Irenaeus did not comment at length on the sacraments. Baptism, according to him, is a sign of faith and marks the beginning of the Christian life. He presupposed adult baptism, although one allusion connected with his recapitulation theory has often been pressed in support of infant baptism. The Eucharist, or Lord's Supper, played a minor role in his thinking. With Ignatius he could designate it "the antidote of life," or with Justin he could say the elements were "no longer common bread." Yet he preferred the phrase "the new oblation of the new covenant." Rich as his writings were in the formation of catholic theology, however, he did not approach the medieval idea of transubstantiation. The Eucharist is a "sacrifice" of praise symbolic of the recapitulating death of Christ; it proclaims and sets forth Christ's saving truth, the raison d'être of the church.

Irenaeus's understanding of ecclesiastical authority has evoked fierce debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics, for the meaning of a crucial statement is uncertain. Citing Rome as an example of an "apostolic" church, "founded and organized by Peter and Paul," and possessed of a reliable succession of bishops, Irenaeus added, "Ad hanc enim ecclesiam propter potiorem principalitatem necesse est omnem convenire ecclesiam." Roman Catholics have preferred to translate this sentence as "For it is necessary that every church agree with this church on account of its more powerful authority"; Protestants as "For it is necessary that every church come together with this church on account of its greater antiquity." Lack of a Greek original makes certainty impossible.

In eschatology, Irenaeus followed in the footsteps of his mentor Justin. Indeed, he was more rigorous than Justin in demanding adherence to millenarian beliefs. Countering the gnostics' dualism, he attached great importance to the idea of general resurrection, and he insisted on a resurrection of the flesh. Curiously, unlike Justin, he expected the general resurrection and the Last Judgment of both human beings and fallen angels to precede the millennium. Citing Papias (c. 60130), bishop of Hierapolis, he believed the devil and his angels (demons) would be consigned to an everlasting fire while the saints would reign with Christ during the millennium. This millennial vision capped Irenaeus's theory of the evolution of religion.


Irenaeus's integration of biblical and Hellenistic thought, more cautious than that of his predecessor Justin or his contemporary Clement of Alexandria, was to have a significant impact in subsequent centuries. Eastern theology adopted his Christus Victor motif and his idea of the perfectibility of human nature consummated in immortality. A strong emphasis on free will in Eastern thinking probably also has its roots in Irenaeus. In the West both Roman Catholics and Protestants have claimed Irenaeus and Augustine as their leading mentors. Roman Catholics have cited Irenaeus on authority, Protestants on the Bible. Neither, however, has felt entirely at ease with the bishop of Lyons. Although Irenaeus came up with a "catholic formula" for truth, he left much uncertainty about Rome's place in safeguarding it. Similarly, although he was basically a biblical theologian, the Protestant reformers felt uncomfortable with both his idea of authority and his "Pelagian" tendencies. In the present ecumenical climate, fresh studies of Irenaeus are aiding in the reexamination of theology that must inevitably accompany progress toward Christian unity.


The standard text of Irenaeus's treatise Against Heresies is Sancti Irenaei libros quinque adversus haereses, 2 vols., edited by W. W. Harvey (Cambridge, U.K., 1857). A complete English translation can be found in volume 1 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited and translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (1867; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1975). Irenaeus's catechetical work appears in two English translations: The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, translated by J. Armitage Robinson (London, 1920), and Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, translated and annotated by Joseph P. Smith, S.J. (Westminster, Md., 1952) for the series "Ancient Christian Writers." The standard English biography of Irenaeus is F. R. M. Hitchcock's Irenaeus of Lugdunum (Cambridge, U.K., 1914). Valuable comprehensive studies of Irenaeus's theology include John Lawson's The Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus (London, 1948) and Gustaf Wingren's Man and the Incarnation: A Study in the Biblical Theology of Irenaeus, translated by Ross Mackenzie (Edinburgh and Philadelphia, 1959).

E. Glenn Hinson (1987)