Magazine Article

Irenaeus: Right and Wrong

He looked for truth, and almost found it.

John W. Reeve

Irenaeus faced a crisis of faith. The late-second-century bishop of Lyon was working to protect his church from the Gnostic truth claims about the Creator God and His relationship with humans. In his major work, known to us as Against Heresies, a work of five books containing 25 to 41 chapters each, Irenaeus reports the teachings of the various Gnostic sects and contrasts them with the teachings of the one church.1

Setting the Stage

The Valentinians (1.1-11), Marcosians (1.13-21), and dozens of other groups as presented by Irenaeus throughout books 1 and 2 of Against Heresies, claimed secret knowledge (Gnosis) about divinity that portrayed the Creator of the universe as a selfish, conniving, superficial manipulator trying to steal the inner light from eternal souls trapped in human bodies in the material cosmos he created as their jail. They claimed to find this knowledge in the text of Scripture as read through their knowing eyes (1.8), revealing the creator as the Demiurge (1.7).

Demiurge was the name Plato gave to the fabricator of the material cosmos, in his fourth-century B.C. dialogue Timaeus. Plato presents the creator not as the One God (Monad), but as the second, the Dyad, coming from the One God, but different enough from the One God to be able to have interactions with materiality and physicality, and be capable of actually making the physical universe. For Plato, this Demiurge is neither conniving nor evil, just different from and emanating from the One God, a lesser but good divinity. Similarly for Plato, the physical universe is essentially good, even though it is physical and changeable rather than eternal and unchangeable.

Nearly 500 years after Plato, in the second century A.D., things had changed. The physical universe and the lesser god who created it were deemed not just lesser, but morally inferior. Physicality and materiality were viewed as evil in the time of Irenaeus and the Gnostics. The creator, the Demiurge, they understood as a low divinity within the hierarchy of gods, jealous of the one true God of pure, spiritual light. The only hope for trapped humanity was to learn the secret knowledge from the superior spiritual class of humans who innately possessed the “seed,” or “true light,” giving them access to the “fullness,” above and beyond the material world and the creator (Demiurge) of this universe.

More on Irenaeus’s Times

The circumstances of his place and time made Irenaeus’s Christian congregants susceptible to such deception. Their philosophical milieu, the basic assumptions of their age, gave credence to the popular ideas that physical bodies and material things were tainted and morally impure. Only pure, eternal realities were spiritual and morally superior. In this environment it was unthinkable that (a) the Christ could actually become physically human; (b) a future resurrection of the flesh would be deemed as positive; or (c) the privileged classes were not more spiritual and virtuous than the common classes. The very character of the Creator God, the nature of the incarnate Christ, and the basis of humans’ salvation were all at stake. Irenaeus’s work in these three areas is instructive for any study of Gnostic readings.

We recognize that the truth resides in Scripture.

Irenaeus insisted that God’s prophets through Scripture teach us to expect the future bodily resurrection of the flesh. Christ’s resurrection was presented by Paul as the guarantee of our own future resurrection: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. . . . The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:20-42).2 Christ’s resurrection body was portrayed as a real body, as Jesus walked with His disciples to Emmaus (Luke 24:15, 16), and later ate fish with them to prove He was no ghost (verses 37-43). Paul reiterated that the resurrection of the dead in Christ was future, at the second coming of Christ, and was the beginning of living forever with Christ (1 Thess. 4:13-18). Irenaeus’s statement of belief, pitted against the teachings of the Gnostics, affirmed that the beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, was “coming from heaven in the glory of the Father to recapitulate all things, and to raise up all flesh of the whole human race” (1.10).3

Similarly, in regard to Jesus Christ, the Word of God, becoming flesh, the prophet John voiced the eternity of the Word as God and the individuation of the Word as God with God (John 1:1, 2); this same Word who is God being the very one who became flesh (verse 14). As repugnant as it was to the people of the Greco-Roman world with their emphasis on personal positions of power and authority, Paul demonstrated that Christ Jesus, who is the very nature of the most high God and equal with God, made Himself nothing and became not only human but a servant of humans, dying on a criminal’s cross (Phil. 2:5-8). In fact, Paul’s description of the mystery of godliness began with Christ appearing “in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). God revealed through His prophets that He really did become flesh. Irenaeus, in his statement of the faith of the church, boldly declared that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, “was enfleshed for our salvation” (1.10).

Again, God’s prophets bore the message that God does not recognize human classes and hierarchies; that all humans are sinners in need of the blood of Christ; and that all are invited to accept His grace. The prophet Luke portrayed Peter as shocked by God’s acceptance of Cornelius and his household: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34, 35). Peter was here referring to Deuteronomy 10:17: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality.” The Mosaic passage continued by describing God as defending normally powerless classes of people: the fatherless, the widows, the aliens (verses 18, 19). Peter’s speech in Acts disclosed all God’s prophets testifying “that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). Peter’s own writings asserted that God is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but [for] everyone to come to repentance” (1 Peter 3:9). These texts exposed Gnostic error: God did not orchestrate distinct classes of humans bound either for the realm of light or for destruction, with a middle class savable if given the right knowledge. No! Rather, all have sinned; all fall short; all may be justified freely by His grace (Rom. 3, especially verses 22-24). John quoted Jesus: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). All are sinners, all are drawn by Christ to the cross of Christ. Irenaeus paraphrased: “God consigned all things to disobedience that He may have mercy on all” (1.10; see Rom. 11:32).

Irenaeus relied on a right reading of Scripture to overcome the Gnostic misreading in all three of these areas. But what constitutes a right reading? Turning to Scripture to learn what to believe means understanding the principles of truth in each text within its original context; reading words and phrases for the rhetorical meaning of the sentences, the author’s evident intention. We understand God’s prophets as expressing their inspired thoughts to their intended audiences in understandable ways within shared, familiar contexts. We also understand them to be “carried along” by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20, 21) so as to ensure that God’s message comes through. We thus place trust in the Scriptures as the final arbiter of truth and practice (sola scriptura), seeking to understand each passage in its own context; then, to understand passages on the same topic in canonical context, i.e., within their own book and chapter as well
as in context with each other, building up a whole biblical understanding of a topic (tota scriptura). We recognize that the truth resides in Scripture, in the authorially intended rhetorical meaning of the text.

The Gnostics, by contrast, believed that the truth resided in the privileged, spiritual reader, derived through allegory and noncontextual meanings where words and phrases mean something different than what the author intended, misguidedly attributing truth to the spiritual reader rather than to the Spirit-inspired text, as Irenaeus insisted.

The three cases cited above show Irenaeus’s statement of truth in accordance with the evident intentions of the Bible writers. Irenaeus hinted at this kind of authorial intention when he pointed out that John never intended to speak of any Ogdoad—eight different archons—in the Gospel of John. For Gnostics, John’s “Father,” “Grace,” “Only-begotten,” “Truth,” “Word,” “Life,” “Man,” and “Church” stood for an Ogdoad of eight archons within the 30-member divine hierarchy. Irenaeus argued that John’s use of these eight words was not intended to express any such Ogdoad. He rejected such a reading as not being the one right reading.

Problematically, though, Irenaeus’s one right reading was not the text of Scripture with its internal evidences of authorial intent, but the handed-down apostolic tradition (1.10). He found security in his conviction that “the entire church has one and the same faith throughout the whole world” (1.10), a historically nondemonstrable claim. In book 3 of Against Heresies Irenaeus’s argument for the apostolic succession of truth contended that the shortest line of succession from the apostles to his own day went through Polycarp of Smyrna, who, in his youth, knew the apostle John (3.1-5). Irenaeus knew Polycarp in his own youth, making himself the closest link to the apostles. Irenaeus said of Polycarp: “He always taught the things that he had learned from the apostle, which he also handed on to the church and which alone are true” (3.3).4 For Irenaeus, the truth resided not as much in the text of Scripture as in the one right reading of the church, as found in the apostolic succession of bishops.

Taking Issue With Irenaeus

Holding to Scripture’s only legitimate reading as the one traditionally handed down (3.4) sounds highly optimistic. But what happens when humans in the church make the inevitable mistake? How can the church be corrected by Scripture if the teaching of the church is the standard of truth (4.26)? Irenaeus correctly rejected the gross wrongs of the Gnostics, but wrongly elevated church tradition as the guarantor of truth. Following his well-meaning misstep, small mistakes in church thinking and action grew, uncorrected, into massive errors.

For sheer love of golf, I spend a lot of time in the trees and the long grass looking for golf balls I’ve sent there. True, there’s always the second shot. But what you mainly need from that shot is right direction. How do you set the direction for your second shot? By looking back to check the direction of your last shot? If I continue going in the direction of my first shot, I’m making the same mistake that Irenaeus did. And soon enough, continuing without correction, I may be completely outside the golf course with no surviving idea where my original goal was.

Irenaeus was right about the Word becoming flesh, about the future resurrection of the flesh, about God’s invitation to save all humans. But he was wrong about apostolic tradition, and about eternal punishing by a God who wills the wicked never to die (4.39, 40). Correcting misguided beliefs is an ongoing challenge. The Spirit who gave the Scriptures by inspiring His prophets invites each of us to accept the unbeatable privilege: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

  1. I reference Against Heresies using the traditional book and chapter designations and in-text citations within parentheses.
  2. Scripture references are from the New International Version.
  3. Quotations from Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 1, are from Dominic J. Unger, trans., St. Irenaeus of Lyons Against the Heresies, book 1, Ancient Christian Writers 55 (New York: Paulist, 1992).
  4. Unger, book 3, Ancient Christian Writers 64 (New York: Newman, 2012), p. 33.

John W. Reeve, associate professor of church history, directs the doctoral programs of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Michigan, United States.

John W. Reeve