Church History Irenaeus: A Pivotal Theologian In A Pivotal Era

(Note: Article originally submitted for Christianity and Culture in 2nd and 3rd Centuries, a Master's level course at Regent University)


American President Theodore Roosevelt once said that “it is not the critic that counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.” President Roosevelt’s words ring true with regards to one such man from the early church, Irenaeus. Irenaeus was perhaps the most important and influential theologian of early Christianity. He defended against attacks by Gnosticism and Marcionism, he was the first to recognize most of the texts that would form the canon as it is known today, and he developed a robust understanding of Scripture and salvation. Irenaeus, known anachronistically as a 'biblical theologian', shaped Christian orthodoxy that would lay the foundation of the Church for centuries to come.

Irenaeus’ World- Persecutions

In A.D. 177, a brief but brutal persecution of Christians occurred in Lyons and Vienne (southern France). The persecution saw around “50 persons, both male and female, young and old, martyred, on account of their admitted Christian faith.” Even more people were tortured under the state, all under the rule of Marcus Aurelius. Local authorities would hold Christians prisoner until the governor decided what to do with them. After consultation and approval from the Emperor, the governor would carry out atrocious acts against Christians. Foakes Jackson believes the persecutions were the most brutal ever recorded. Some Christians were caught because they were accused of cannibalism or incest. They were arrested on those charges, and through torture it was discovered that they were Christians. Cruel torture and then execution would follow. Christians who were Roman citizens received a less painful death- they were beheaded. Non-Roman citizens were tortured and then gored to death by wild animals, usually in public and in front of large crowds. “In some instances, and perhaps out of sheer frustration at their obstinacy (in terms of both lack of confession, and / or the rather miraculous lingering of life) Christians eventually had their throats cut if they continued to outlive their oppressor’s inhuman treatment.” The only way to survive torture and persecution was to receive a pardon. A pardon was given if the Christian were to pledge allegiance to Rome, and recant the Christian faith. Christians in the communities where persecution was taking place wrote letters to other churches, letting them know of what was going on. These letters were preserved and later published by Eusebius, the church’s first historian. One letter states, “The greatness, indeed, of the tribulation, and the extent of the madness exhibited by the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings which the martyrs endured in this country, we are not able fully to declare, nor is it, indeed, possible to describe them.” The letters do, however, go on to describe the persecution at Lyons. Those Christians who endured torture were herded into the amphitheater at Lyons and killed by wild beasts. One of those killed during these persecutions was the bishop of Lyons, Pothinus. His successor was Irenaeus.


Persecution is not all that Irenaeus would have to strive against. Gnosticism had reared its head in the churches during the second century. Gnosticism is difficult to define in any satisfactory way. It was once thought that because there were limited sources, Gnosticism could not be properly defined, and what was known about it was limited to Christian polemics. However, in 1945, a cache of papyrus books was found near Nag Hammadi. This discovery shed new light on Gnosticism. Kurt Rudolph provides seven significances of this discovery: 1. The amount of original sources was now enlarged. 2. The new sources offer new insights into different Gnostic schools of thought. 3. The discovery contained Christian and non-Christian documents. 4. Christian Gnosticism believed it was the correct interpretation of Christianity. 5. Jewish ideas influenced Gnosticism. 6. Greek and Platonic influences could now be better understood. 7. The sources expose a concept of a non-Christian redeemer.

These significances have led some scholars to summarize the common points between the various types of Gnosticism. Eric Osborn lists six. First, there is a cosmic dualism between matter and spirit, and the world is evil and is ruled by evil powers. Second, there is a distinction between the Supreme God and the Creator God. The Creator God is associated with the God of the Old Testament. Third, some humans are naturally like God. Fourth, the human condition is explained by the myth of a pre-cosmic fall. Fifth, humans are freed by knowledge of their true nature. Sixth, only an elect few have the spiritual seed that determines the destiny of the person. Gnosticism receives its name from the fifth point, that humans are freed by gnosis, which is the Greek word for knowledge. For Christian Gnostics, or rather Gnostics who used Christian writings and thought, this knowledge is esoteric and you need it in addition to the Bible to be freed. The reason is thus: The Supreme God is too great to know. The Supreme God lives in the Pleroma, with other sub-gods. One sub-god named Sophia, succumbed to passion and wanted to be like the Supreme God. She birthed a son known as Demiurge, and he was evil just like his mother Sophia. The Demiurge created the world, and everything he created is evil. The Demiurge is also known as Yahweh, the same from the Old Testament. However, the Supreme God had placed good spirits on evil Earth known as Aeons. Aeons would reside inside evil bodies and could be turned on to allow people to escape the evil world and rise to be part of the Pleroma. These “seeds of light” could be turned on through the Son. The passage John 3:16 is used to show that the Supreme God sent his Son, Christ, to free man. Christ is another sub-god sent to enlighten the elect Aeons. Christ temporally joined with the man Jesus in order to give people the esoteric knowledge they would need to be freed. No one could come to the Supreme unknowable God unless they came through Christ.

It was primarily this form of Gnosticism that Irenaeus would be writing against, although he would apply it to all of the heresy of Gnosticism, no matter the form it took. His reasoning was, “It is not necessary to drink up the ocean in order to learn that its water is salty.” Irenaeus would attack this school of thought, which was propagated by Valentinus and his followers. It was no easy task, for Valentinians maintained that they accepted the Christian creeds of God and Christ, and they protested against being labeled heretics. This indicates that Valentinians were probably not clearly separated from other Christians, but were part of the same community. Valentinus even rose to prominence in Rome between 135 and 160 A.D. and Tertullian writes that Valentinus himself almost became the bishop of Rome. Tertullian also writes that Valentinus fell into apostasy around 175, although he was never universally condemned as a heretic during his lifetime. Scholars also note that Irenaeus’ writings against Gnosticism dealt with the followers of Valentinus, not necessarily the doctrines of Valentinus himself. Nevertheless, in later centuries Valentinus was identified as one of three arch heretics in the early church-the other two were Arius and Marcion, the latter of whom Irenaeus also had to deal with.


Marcion was a wealthy ship-owner from Sinope (northern Turkey) who came to Rome around 138 A.D. Marcion began to argue that the Old Testament was inferior to the New, and therefore it was not authoritative. Marcion believed that the god in the Old Testament was wrathful and was not the same god as the forgiving God in the New Testament. Therefore, the god in the Old Testament was a lower entity; it was a tyrant or a demiurge. Marcionism is very similar to Gnosticism, in that they are both dualistic; there is a higher spiritual “good” and a lower material “evil.” However, Philip Schaff says Marcionism has no Pleroma, no Aeons, and no Sophia. Marcion rejected the Old Testament, and insisted the New Testament revealed the true God in the coming of Christ. However, he only accepted eleven books from the New Testament. These were ten of Paul’s epistles and “an abridged and mutilated Gospel of Luke.” Marcion put “Galatians first in order, and called Ephesians the Epistle to the Laodicaeans. He rejected the pastoral epistles, in which the forerunners of Gnosticism are condemned, the Epistle to the Hebrews, Matthew, Mark, John, the Acts, the Catholic Epistles, and the Apocalypse.” Irenaeus has scathing words for Marcion and his canon:

“Besides this, he mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord, in which the Lord is recorded as most dearly confessing that the Maker of this universe is His Father. He likewise persuaded his disciples that he himself was more worthy of credit than are those apostles who have handed down the Gospel to us, furnishing them not with the Gospel, but merely a fragment of it. In like manner, too, he dismembered the Epistles of Paul, removing all that is said by the apostle respecting that God who made the world, to the effect that He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and also those passages from the prophetical writings which the apostle quotes, in order to teach us that they announced beforehand the coming of the Lord.”

The Pauline epistles that Marcion approved are prominent in his canon, as he believed Paul correctly transmitted Jesus’ message. Wilson says that Marcion believed that “the Church was wrong in attempting to combine the gospel with Judaism. Indeed, Marcion’s principle goal was to rid Christianity of every trace of Judaism. Hence, Marcion became known as the archenemy of the ‘Jew God.’” His own father, who was bishop of Sinope, excommunicated Marcion in 144 because of his heretical opinions. However, his ideas continued to spread and his followers became known as Marcionites. Justin Martyr considered Marcionism to be “the most dangerous heresy of his day” and Irenaeus said, “Salvation will be the attainment only of those souls which had learned his doctrine; while the body, as having been taken from the earth, is incapable of sharing in salvation.”

Irenaeus’ Thoughts

Persecution, Gnosticism, and Marcionism are the enemies that Irenaeus would have to wage war against when he took up the bishopric in 177. Fortunately for him, he was an inheritor of a great spiritual legacy. He was the son of Christian parents who placed him under the discipleship of Polycarp. This is the same Polycarp who was the disciple of John, the disciple of Christ. This is also the same Polycarp who war martyred in Smyrna in 166, uttering at his death the well known line, “I have served him eighty and six years, and he never did me any harm, but much good, and how can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

Irenaeus primarily spent his life doing two things: taking care of his people at Lyons, and refuting Gnosticism and Marcionism. William Cunningham writes that Irenaeus was one of the first theologians to give “a full confutation of the heresies that had been broached since the introduction of Christianity.” Irenaeus’ two major works, On the Apostolic Preaching and Against Heresies, reflect this defense. They both use Scripture to sustain his arguments. Cunningham believes that Irenaeus “quoted or referred to about nine hundred texts [of Scripture], and his work thus forms an important link in the chain of evidence for the authenticity and integrity of the canonical books.” Irenaeus is the first person to fully articulate the extent of God’s Word. He classified Scripture as the entire Old Testament and most of the New Testament. He recognized 21 of the 27 New Testament books, save Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude. He did not include the Gnostic books that were circulating in the 2nd century. As noted earlier, Marcion only claimed canonicity for parts of Luke, but Irenaeus asserted that the four Gospels known today, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were all legitimate.

He writes:

“It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are…he that sits on the churbim and holds all things together, when he was manifested to humanity, gave us the gospel under four forms but bound together by one spirit.”

For Irenaeus, the Bible was not a collection of proof-texts, but it is a continuous record of God disclosing Himself to man. This disclosure reaches its climax in the person and work of Christ. This is why Irenaeus has been called a “biblical theologian.” Unlike the Gnostics and Marcionites, he upholds the importance of the entire Old and New Testaments. Jeffrey Bingham writes:

“What distinguished Irenaeus from the heretics was his theme of unity and his commitment to interpreting Scripture within the parameters of the faith passed down from apostle to bishop. What has been entrusted from one faithful Christian to another always plays an important role in interpretation.”

Bingham highlights a key issue of debate between Irenaeus and Valentinian Gnostics- that of apostolic tradition. Valentinians claimed that their secret tradition was passed from the Apostle Paul, to Theodas, and from Theodas to Valentinus. Irenaeus would argue against this line of reasoning. He said that the apostolic tradition the Gnostics were arguing for could not be empirically verifiable. Who was this unknown Theodas? Irenaeus said an unknown person could pass down any kind of information, especially fictional information. He illustrated this point by creating a term called a Gourd. Along with this Gourd:

“There exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced…a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought fourth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus…”

Needless to say, Irenaeus comically showed the folly of the Gnostic’s argumentation.

Furthermore, Irenaeus could point to a list of bishops that were empirically verifiable. He could point to Smyrna, to Rome, and to Antioch. He could cite earlier writers such as Clement, Polycarp, Justin, and Ignatius. Any tradition that was passed down through this line of writers could be publicly checked, unlike the Gnostic’s esoteric claims. Furthermore, none of the previous writers Irenaeus cited, recognized or even acknowledged the Gnostic’s claims. This is because, as Irenaeus correctly understood, no one can change the Word of God. He writes:

“Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one who can say but little diminish it.”

Therefore, the Gnostic’s claim to an esoteric tradition as truth was severely undermined by Irenaeus. For Irenaeus, since the Gnostics also used the Scriptures, correct biblical interpretation and true tradition were found in the Church. The Church preserved the rule of faith that came from the Apostles. The rule of faith was that there was one God in Father, Son, and Holy Sprit. “The Father is Lord and the Son is Lord, and the Father is God and the Son is God; for that which is begotten of God is God.” Irenaeus stated clearly what would be affirmed 200 years later at Nicea.

Included in the rule of faith was that Jesus the Son of God lived, died and then resurrected. The incarnation and resurrection of the body was also a key refutation, since Gnostics believed all things material were evil, and that Christ’s work did not require incarnation. Irenaeus viewed the entirety of Scripture as a testament to the incarnational Son of God. This is why he was so adamant to defend against the claims of Marcion and Gnosticism regarding their rejections and distortions of Scripture. To do so threatened the incarnation, and therefore threatened salvation.


According to Irenaeus, when Adam disobeyed God and fell, he introduced corruption and death into the entire human race. What Adam did in the Garden affected all human beings automatically because Adam was a fountainhead of humanity. This thinking comes from an interpretation of Paul in Romans 5, where Paul speaks of Christ as the second Adam of the human race. Christ therefore is the second fountainhead of the entire human race. Irenaeus wrote that in Christ, “God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that he might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man and therefore His works are true.” By this he meant, that in order to reverse the Fall and renew the race that fell because of Adam’s disobedience, the Word had to live through man, in order to transform it. For Irenaeus:

“If man is to be saved, it is necessary that the first man, Adam, be brought back to life, and not simply that a new and perfect man who bears no relation to Adam should appear on the earth. God, who has life, must permit His life to enter into ‘Adam’ the man who truly hungers, thirsts, eats and drinks, is wearied and needs rest, who knows anxiety, sorrow and joy, and who suffers pain when confronted with the fact of death.”

This is Irenaeus’ expression for how the incarnation works to transform humanity. The entire human race is given a new fountainhead, one that is unfallen, pure, and immortal. Christ passed through all stages of life, and sanctified every stage, and thus all of humanity was sanctified. Thus the incarnation is proof against the Gnostics, for without it, without a physical body, Christ could not have reversed the Fall of Adam, sin and death would remain forever, and there would be no redemption. Eric Osborn says “human salvation depended on the truth of the incarnation, where man was joined to God. A man had to overthrow man’s enemy for the victory to be real and God had to give salvation for the gift to be permanent. Only a real union of God and man could enable man to share in incorruption. This final union consists of love and friendship.”

The mediator of God and man had to be related to both parties “in order to bring each into friendship and concord and to ensure that God should welcome man and man should offer himself to God.” This view, that the incarnate Christ is the second Adam who recovers what was lost at the Fall, is what has been termed recapitulation.

However for Irenaeus, recapitulation was not merely a return to the state enjoyed by Adam in Pre-Fall Eden. Rather, Christopher Smith says that recapitulation “speaks explicitly of the harmony exhibited throughout the process of salvation whose goal is not restoration to Eden, but ascension to God-likeness.” Recapitulation was sharing in God’s own immortal and divine nature. If one willingly chose to participate in Christ’s new humanity, the corruption caused by Adam would be reversed, and man could partake in the divine nature because the incarnation fused humanity with divinity. This is salvation for Irenaeus, a process of transformation of humans into partakers of the divine nature that “divinized” man but did not make him into God himself. Salvation for Irenaeus was a process of restoring creation, not of escaping creation, as in the Gnostic view of salvation. Later theologians would term this as “divinization” which is still held to by the Orthodox today. Protestants would reject this concept of salvation, preferring to emphasize an instantaneous forensic view of salvation. Protestants would also reject Irenaeus’ view of Mary as a second Eve, something Roman Catholics would hold on to.

This view was also rooted in his understanding of recapitulation, in that Irenaeus sought to show Christ as truly human. It also illustrates Irenaeus’ emphasis on the unity of the Scriptures. Recapitulation is “the harmony of salvation, understood as a continuous work whose end, far from being merely patterned on the beginning, may rather reveal previously unspecified features which one may then deduce to have been present at the start.” For example, Irenaeus believed Eve was a virgin because in Eden, he believed she was prepubescent. Even though Adam was her “husband” she was still a virgin. “Irenaeus sees here a back-reference from Mary to Eve, in that Mary similarly had a man betrothed to her and was nevertheless a virgin.” The point is that “what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” Irenaeus sees unity here to ultimately prove to the Gnostics that Jesus was not born from Joseph, but that God truly became human. But recapitulation could also work in the other direction, it is a two way street. Instead of looking back to confirm something forward (Eve confirms Mary), one could look at an event that is forward in the harmony of salvation to confirm an event at the back. For instance, Irenaeus says that Adam died on the same day of the week in which he ate the forbidden fruit, that is the sixth day. Christ, the second Adam, died on a Friday, therefore Adam died on a Friday (Christ confirms Adam). Smith provides other examples and delves further into this concept, but the point is that Irenaeus’ harmony of salvation is revealed throughout the Scriptures, which culminates in Christ, and thus serves to highlight Irenaeus’ emphasis upon its unity against Gnosticism’s and Marcionism’s attacks.


Irenaeus was a pivotal theologian in a pivotal era of Church history. His doctrine of redemption was a massive leap forward for the development of thought in that area as compared to earlier writers. He had an advanced view of the Trinity, 200 years before it would be fully articulated. His emphasis upon Scripture and its unity, while not yet in canonical form, helped to show other communities that the apostolic writings were indeed Scripture. In the midst of persecution, he stepped in at Lyons to shepherd a community that was in desperate need of leadership. He pastored his flock for 25 years until he himself may have been martyred in 202 A.D. Such courage for caring for a community of God should embolden people today to go out and direct people to Jesus, especially in today’s relative time of peace, and to care for those who need help, no matter who it may be. Irenaeus stood firm amidst attempts by enemies to redefine who Jesus was and is. This danger is ever prevalent today in the world’s pluralistic societies that attempt to say that Jesus is only one God among many, who are all essentially the same. Irenaeus stood firm with intelligent discourses that were all based upon the unity and authority of the Scriptures. Today Christians need to stop bowing to the winds of culture that say the Bible is just a dirty old text without relevance that is filled with inconsistencies, errors, and myths. They need to stand firm upon the foundation that Irenaeus spent most of his life defending. They need to study hard to apply what it says on how to live a godly life. They need to know it well enough to combat the heresies of Gnosticism and others that disguise themselves within the Scriptures, and have begun to resurface. The most obvious example is the media’s fascination and insistence of lost gospels that the early church supposedly crushed for political reasons. Any novice student of Scripture could easily refute those claims. Sadly, many Christians cannot. Perhaps more unnerving is much of the Church’s endorsement of the recent film Noah (2014), which is essentially a Gnostic tale. Dr. Brian Mattison is shocked by how many Christians missed the references to Gnosticism, while they instead focused on what the film got wrong biblically, or focused on the film as a conversation starter despite the creative licenses. Instead Mattison says, “The Bible is not his [the director’s] text.” He continues, “Not one of them [Christian leaders on the right or the left] could identify a blatantly Gnostic subversion of the biblical story when it was right in front of their faces.” Those are powerful and convicting words and should spur every Christian to study the Church’s past, especially those with a formal education. In fact, Mattison says, “not a single seminary degree [should be] granted unless the student demonstrates that he has read, digested, and understood Irenaeus of Lyon’s Against Heresies.” Christians would do well to heed his words, and the books of Irenaeus, the early church’s greatest theologian, for Gnosticism and heresies like it are not going away any time soon.


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About author
MA in Church History and I'm a Church Librarian. In my free time I kayak, play hockey, and photograph historical sites.


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