Irenaeus of Lyons and the Evolution of Orthodoxy Part I

04 Aug

Having finished Irenaeus and finally finding the time to post about it, I’m amazed at how much there is in him to talk about. And then there’s the whole issue of not just what he said but how it was received, how influential he was, etc. I’m also running into an interesting phenomenon. I have never been all that interested in the development of doctrine and complex theological issues but I’ve been reading enough on it that it’s starting to become intriguing. Heck, I think I could even use a word like soteriological in a sentence if I had to. That can’t be good. I really need to get back to the 5th century, or at least the 4th. I suppose rambling on like I have for the past few sentences doesn’t make this happen any more quickly. In addition to rambling I’ve decided to split my Irenaeus comments into multiple posts, the first looking at him as heresiologist, the second (I may need a third post to get it all in) as theologian. 1

As usual, a brief biography seems to be in order. Irenaeus was born sometime in the early to mid 2nd century somewhere and grew up in some place. That was enlightening, wasn’t it? His writings betray that he almost certainly had received training as a philosopher. As Irenaeus mentions that during his childhood he heard Polycarp speak it has been theorized that he spent his early years, or at least a portion of them, in Smyrna. 2 Then again, maybe Irenaues’ family was traveling to Smyrna for some reason. All we know for sure is that he was born and grew up in the Greek-speaking regions of the Empire. And we can’t even use this to date Irenaeus’ birth with any certainty. Polycarp was martyred around the year 155 and was 86 at the time. 3 I’m not enough of a linguist to talk about this in any depth however Irenaeus’ use of the Greek term for child/boy could, depending on context, be used to describe anyone up to the age of 18. I think Irenaeus could have been born anywhere from the early 130’s to the late 140’s based on this. 4 I’ll return to this matter of age a bit later in this biography.

From that point we know very little about him until 177 when he became Bishop of Lyons though he appears to have spent some time in Rome. He took this position in the wake of what must have been tragic circumstances following a persecution which resulted in the martyrdom of 48 Christians belonging to that Church. A presbyter at the time, Irenaeus had been sent to Rome carrying a letter against Montanism (and praising the bearer) when this persecution was in its early stages. It’s easy to read an implication that the elders of the Lyons Church sent him in order to spare his life though I’m not aware that this is explicitly stated anywhere. 5 For me, one of the persuasive arguments in favor of Irenaeus having been an older youth when he heard Polycarp is that it seems unlikely that he would have been very young at this time in taking over a Church in crisis which would have needed a figure who could command respect. I’m unaware of any age requirement for bishops at this time however if he was around 40 it would indicate that he was in his teens when he heard Polycarp which helps explain how in his Letter to Florinus he could state that he remembered what Polycarp said so clearly. 6

As Bishop, Irenaeus was fairly active. He wrote several books and letters, many of which are lost and only known of through mentions by later writers. According to Eusebius he had significant influence on the Church and was able to persuade the Bishop of Rome not to excommunicate churches for not following the customary dating for Easter. 7 It’s unfortunate that more of his material hasn’t survived as it might shed more light on what he intended with some of what he wrote. Still, his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching is informative and his Against the Heresies or Adversus Haereses is monumental, both in scope and influence.

St.-IraneusIrenaeus of Lyons

The end of Irenaeus’ life is another mystery. The Easter incident seems to have happened in 190 or 191. Some time after this, he died. Gregory of Tours later states that he was martyred however I don’t see how this could be considered reliable. 8

There are a couple of ways of looking at Irenaeus and his writings. I’m going to start with the simplest and the area where there isn’t a lot of debate; his influence on heresiology. Quite simply, as Justin Martyr is considered the first Christian Apologist, Irenaeus is the first heresiologist. Now this may not be quite fair to Justin as he was known to have written a book against heresies but it has not survived. 9 I’m going to speculate a bit on why this may have happened toward the end of this post.

Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies consists of five books. Book I is a listing of various heresies and heretics, their belief systems, how they (mis)use scriptures and false books they’ve written. While he uses some of this book to counter their beliefs, for the most part Book I is descriptive, not argumentative (this is far from absolute and certainly Irenaeus does not portray heresies in a favorable light). Books II-V contain Irenaeus’ theology, used to counter heretical claims and beliefs and as a “proof” of what is correct Christian belief, or what Irenaeus would then have considered Orthodoxy.

For Irenaeus, the single ultimate source of all heresy is Simon Magus. He used magic arts to delude people into believing that a woman who accompanied him was the mother of all mankind, an eternal being who had been, among other incarnations, Helen of Troy. His sect was called the Simonians and all other heresies can be traced back to this first error. 10

I am not going to go into Irenaeus’ description of the various heresies in any detail. Though his most vehement arguments are used against Valentinian Gnosticism, he lists plenty of others. 11 Based on a review of my notes, in the order he mentions heresies and noted heretics in the text (I won’t be footnoting all of these) he discusses; Valentinian Gnosticism, Marcus and Marcosians, Simon Magus and Simonians, Saturninus, Basilides, Carpocrates, Cerinthus, Ebionites, Nicolaitanes, Cerdo, Marcion and Marcionites, Tatian, Encratites, Barbeliotes and Cainites. 12

Now, so what I’ve written so far doesn’t end up reading as a preface to a series of Irenaeus articles, I want to touch on a couple of aspects of Against the Heresies which I found notable. These are his knowledge of heretical texts and the rhetorical methods he used to argue against the validity of various heresies.

Throughout Against the Heresies, Irenaeus shows that he possesses considerable knowledge of texts used by heretics, particularly Valentinian Gnostics but others as well. This knowledge level has been substantially supported by examining surviving texts, though it’s unlikely that what we have are identical to those known by Irenaeus. He opens Against the Heresies with a lengthy description of the beliefs of Valentinian Gnosticism. 13 Many of the points he describes can be found in The Gospel of Truth, discovered at Nag Hammadi. Howard Attridge and George McRae go so far as to state, “Given the general Valentinian affinities of the text of Codex 1[containing this gospel], it is quite possible that it is identical with the work known to Irenaeus.” Other historians are less confident of this however it’s pretty hard to argue that Irenaeus wasn’t very familiar with it. 14

Another interesting text which Irenaeus discusses, though in less detail, is the Gospel of Judas. In discussing the Cainites he says, “They [Cainites] produce a fictitious history of this kind which they style the Gospel of Judas.” 15 According to Irenaeus the Cainites have a tradition where Judas alone is aware of the true meaning of Christ and the necessity of his crucifixion. While this brief description is not enough for anyone to say that the recently discovered Gospel of Judas is identical to the one known by Irenaeus, or even that he had read the text rather than knowing of its existence, it does agree with one of the overall themes of the Gospel of Judas. 16

Having spent several months late last year and early this year reading up on apocrypha I was pretty impressed by Irenaeus’ knowledge level. During the Medieval period a lot of contemporary anti-heresy works betrayed a lack of knowledge about the groups they were attacking. While it’s certain that he portrayed heresies and heretics negatively, when it comes to their belief systems Irenaeus knew what he was talking about.

The other aspect of Irenaeus and heresy which interests me are his methods of argument. The bulk of Books II-V involve an examination of scripture, particularly the Old Testament, along with logical arguments, as would be expected from someone with a philosophical background. 17 He also uses references to pagan borrowings by heretics as a source of error and the influence of demons. 18 However he also uses ridicule in interesting and (to me anyway) entertaining ways.

Using a form of reductio ad absurdum he provides a delightful example mocking the (as he describes it) seemingly random method by which the Valentinians name their deities by calling a power/deity a “Gourd” which produces deities named “Cucumber” and “Melon.” I’ve mentioned before how I need these little points of entertainment to break up what are often monotonous texts (at least to me), and Irenaeus’ botanical journey through the Cucurbit family did this for me. Too bad the American pumpkin wasn’t known in the Old World or we might have another myth about the origin of Halloween. He uses a similar argument against the Marcosians’ applying a complex numbering and lettering system to items found in the Old Testament to explain their theology. 19

A similar theme, though he tends to approach it more seriously, is that of complexity. Irenaeus thinks the belief systems posed by various gnostic sects and others such as the Marcosians are too complex. For him, Christianity is fairly simple. God would not have hidden his meaning so completely in such a complex belief system with mystical meanings of words and letters and complex hierarchies as the heretics have devised. God’s message is designed for everyone, not just a learned few. The world is ruled by one God, his son the Word, and his Wisdom the Holy Spirit. 20

In reading Irenaeus one issue, beyond theology and heresiology, kept popping up in my mind. Justin Martyr was a respected theologian, a martyr and a saint. Why didn’t his book against heresies survive? I can hypothesize three reasons. First, he and Irenaeus may have said the same thing so why preserve both? Second, Irenaeus may have written something which later religious leaders considered superior. Third, and one which isn’t much fun to talk about, simple accident of survival. Based on the general tone of their writings, I lean toward the second, and I think this indicates something of a change in the Church, or at least in what would become the Orthodox branch.

Justin, throughout his writings, is more moderate toward those who believe differently from the mainstream than Irenaeus. He has numerous statements where he says something along the lines of, “We believe this, but those who believe this instead are still Christians.” For example, he believes that those who believe in Christ but observe all other matters of Jewish Law will be saved. 21 Irenaeus is harder, less forgiving, not as willing to allow those holding diverse opinions membership in Christianity. It is not yet as strict as it would become in the fourth century with Athanasius, but things are moving in that direction. There is less room in the Church for variance in belief. I believe later Church writers may have read Irenaeus and looked at how he viewed heresy and heretics and found him to be more in line with what they believed, enough so to preserve his work while discarding Justin Martyr’s. Then again, we don’t have many copies of Irenaeus so maybe accident is the better explanation.

In any case, Irenaeus became a model for later heresiologists. His anti-heretical arguments are frequently used by writers such as Eusebius, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, etc. For whatever reason, his reputation as a theologian wasn’t nearly as strong. I’ll be looking at Irenaeus’ theology in subsequent posts.

Abbreviations used in notes:

AH = Irenaeus, Against the Heresies
Proof = Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching

NOTE: My numbering system for source citations is pretty simple; it’s based on how the source was numbered in whatever I read it in. These may not match those used in other editions.

1 One of the risks of my posting on what I find in reading Ancient Christian authors is that I’m often not very familiar with much of the recent work done on said author and/or topic. So some of the things I find puzzling or have questions about may well have have been clarified by historians. However, since I’ve evidently decided to spend a couple of years diving into this area, it’s either make posts about it, despite my relative level of ignorance, or not have a blog. I should probably make this a standard disclaimer, at least until I get back to the 4th century.

2 AH, III.3.4

3 Well, probably. In The Martyrdom of Polycarp, IX, Polycarp says he has served God for 86 years. This could mean 86 years from his baptism, not his birth but I’m sticking with this as a statement of age.

4 For a more detailed discussion of what Irenaeus’ use of the term child or boy may indicate, see Charles E. Hill, “The Man Who Needed No Introduction”, pp 97-102 in Parvis and Foster (2012). Hill goes even further in arguing that Irenaeus may have been up to 40 when he heard Polycarp. While I’m convinced by his argument where he takes this to the age of 18, I’m not persuaded when he takes this to 40 (though I’d like to be, see my thoughts on Irenaeus being older when he becomes Bishop of Lyons).

5 The account of the Lyons persecution, including Irenaeus as letter-bearer, is given by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V.1-4.

6 As recounted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V.20.

7 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V.24.9-14. Eusebius states that Irenaeus was considered a peacemaker which initially seems a bit odd considering his anti-heretical writings however this was in reference to helping preserve the unity of the Church. For more details on this see Paul Parvis, “Who was Irenaeus? An Introduction to the Man and His Work,” in Parvis and Foster (2012).

8 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, I.29. As a historian, Gregory seems to be pretty reliable when talking about things close to him geographically and chronologically. Otherwise, not so much. As Gregory places Irenaeus’ martyrdom at the start of the Lyons persecution, even before the other 48 martyrs, I don’t think we need to place much stock in this.

9 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV.11.10.

10 For Irenaeus’ description of Simon and Simonians see AH, I.23. For additional statements about his being the root of all heresy see AH, I.Preface.1, II.Preface, and II.12.12.

11 There’s no space here for much of a discussion of the heresies but the Gnostics and Marcosians both constructed belief systems based on symbology they found in the Bible. The Valentinians found hidden meanings in scripture while the Marcosians use numbers to indicate what words and terms actually mean. Both believe the supreme deity did not create the world and possessed very complex celestial hierarchies. Irenaeus goes after every heresy I’ve listed but the Valentinians receive the most attention and I’d say the Marcosians probably come in second.

12 My apologies for not footnoting all of these but I’m figuring anyone who really gets into this can check the index of whatever edition of Irenaeus they’re using. Also, sometimes Irenaeus names a heresy and sometimes he talks about an individual, what he taught and his followers, such as in AH, I.24.1 where he says, “Arising among these men[followers of Simon Magus], Saturninus (who was of that Antioch which is near Daphne) and Basilides laid hold of some favourable opportunities, and promulgated different systems of doctrine – the one in Syria, the other at Alexandria.”

13 AH, I.1 – I.7.

14 Quote from Attridge and McRae, “The Gospel of Truth (I,3 and XII,2),” p 38 in Robinson (1990). For a fuller discussion of Irenaeus’ knowledge of apocrypha, see Paul Foster, “Irenaeus and the Noncanonical Gospels,” in Parvis and Foster (2012).

15 AH, I.31.1.

16 The Gospel of Judas had previously been known only by reference and a few surviving fragments, either of the text or the text as quoted in other sources. In 2004 it was discovered in a papyrus known as the Codex Tchachos. More correctly, it was discovered in the late 1970’s but not identified as the Gospel of Judas until 2004. For a translation, see Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst (2006). For its discovery and a history of Codex Tchachos see Ehrman (2006), pp 1-10 and Rudolphe Kasser, “The Story of Codex Tchachos and the Gospel of Judas,” in Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst (2006).

17 While most of Irenaeus’ biblical arguments come from the Old Testament, he happens to be the earliest Christian author to make extensive use of the New Testament. See Charles E. Hill, “Irenaeus, the Scribes, and the Scriptures: Papyrological and Theological Observations from P.Oxy. 405,” pp 119-20 in Parvis and Foster (2012).

18 His main argument for pagan influence is detailed in AH, II.14 but he returns to this theme with some regularity and using various arguments and examples.

19 For melons, AH, I.11.4. Marcus’ extensive lettering and numbering system is discussed in AH, I.14 – I.21. Irenaeus’ compares this with someone trying to number every grain of sand on every beach, or every hair on every head in the world in AH, II.26. He also says that any name can be deduced from a creative use of numbers in AH, V.30.3.

20 For Irenaeus’ Trinitarianism see Proof, XLVII.

21 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, XLVII.

Ehrman, Bart, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19-531460-1.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C.F. Cruze, trans. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Kasser, Rudolphe, Meyer, Marvin & Wurst, Gregor, eds., The Gospel of Judas. Washington: National Geographic (2006). ISBN: 978-1-4262-0042-7.

Parvis, Sara and Foster, Paul, eds., Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-8006-9796-9.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Robinson, James M., ed., The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume, New York: HarperCollins (1990). ISBN:978-0-06-066934-8.

Smith, Joseph P., trans & ed., St. Irenaeus: Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. Mahwah, NJ, USA: Paulist Press (1978). ISBN: 978-0-80910-264-8.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.


Posted by on August 4, 2013 in Religion


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6 responses to “Irenaeus of Lyons and the Evolution of Orthodoxy Part I

  1. Michelle Ziegler

    August 5, 2013 at 12:29 am

    Text survival must be directly related to popularity and willingness to use resources to copy texts. It may be that Ireneaus just got more popular. We humans like to fight and us vs them divisions, unfortunately. I’m sure many moderate texts were lost due to lack of popularity.

    • Curt Emanuel

      August 6, 2013 at 10:09 pm

      The problem is, we only have two early versions of Irenaeus. A Latin version which is believed to have been translated in the late 4th century and an Armenian which they believe dates from the early 5th (not the manuscripts themselves but those translations). There are only fragments of the original Greek. Now that’s infinitely more than we have from Justin Martyr, which is zero, but it’s not like there were a bunch of copies floating around, Still, I’m sticking with my theory (it’s probably someone else’s too, I just haven’t read it). Even discounting the number of surviving manuscripts, Irenaeus gets mentioned much more often, is quoted more frequently, and has entire passages used by later authors. Other than the general statement that he wrote such a book, Justin Martyr doesn’t receive that kind of attention.

  2. Larry Swain

    August 18, 2013 at 3:50 am

    Hey Curt,
    Delighted that you like Irenaeus!! He’s long been of interest to me and I even wrote a paper for publication once upon a time (and then never published, but that’s another story) on Irenaeus’ use of rhetoric (or misuse as the case may be). The essential argument was that he wants to presents the “heretics” as chaotic in every way, not even able to think logically….enough so that one must even use fallacies to describe them.

    Regarding “popularity”, we have a real issue with first, second, and third century Christian writers in that there is little that remains of their work other than references and quotations. We would love to have more of any Christian writings or art work in this period, but it didn’t survive. It’s not until the fourth century that it does. So disappearance of this material should not be a witness to how popular or unpopular a particular author was. Or how important on the thought of succeeding Christian thinkers.

    • Curt Emanuel

      August 18, 2013 at 11:06 am

      Thanks Larry. When I started reading him I had no idea there’d be so much there. I was figuring on him being the first heresiologist. I had no idea how theologically significant he’d be. I’m spending far more time on him than I thought I would though this is becoming an old song as I read up on Early Christianity.

      Hard to believe that I started out simply wanting to find out more about how 4th-5th century Christian thought relied on classical philosophy. Not that this theme isn’t significant, important, or that I haven’t learned about it. But I’ve become interested in so much more.


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