Church History, Lesson 10: The Tradition is Passed On: Irenaeus

Irenaeus 2Intro

Irenaeus (135-202 AD) came from Smyrna in Asia Minor, which today is Izmir, Turkey.  Born between 130-140 AD, he studied under Polycarp (AH 3, 3:4; “Letter to Florinus” Eusebius’ Church History, 5, 20:5-8).  He provides a valuable account of the 2nd century Church, both East and West, bridging the end of the Apostolic Fathers (as a student Polycarp) to the turn of the 3rd century.

He served most of his life in Lugdunum, which today is Lyons, France, becoming Bishop in 177 AD.  During that time, he wrote his most significant work, Against Heresies.  A 5-volume work, he rebutted the false teachings of Gnosticism (Volumes 1-2).  In Volumes 3-5, he expounded more on Christian thought and doctrine.

The references from Against Heresies are noted as such: AH 4 [which of the 5 volumes], 37 [the chapter]: 1 [section].


The Heresy of Gnosticism

The word “Gnosticism” derives from the Greek word for “knowledge.”  Gnostics took many philosophical notions, and its adherents combined these with elements of the Old Testament and Christ’s life and teachings, producing a bewildering array of doctrines.  Though many groups of Gnostics formed, they all placed knowledge, not faith, at the center of one’s religious experience.

The Gnostics believed physical matter and the body to be evil in its essence, not ruined and corrupted by the fall into sin.  This meant Jesus only appeared to be human, for if He had a real body, He would be intrinsically evil.  For the Gnostic, the person must await the final separation of the divine element from matter, from the physical, so that it can return to the divine realm.

For this reason, the early Church fathers, including Irenaeus, used much ink to show Jesus as both human and divine.  Irenaeus also focused on who had the real “tradition,” the Church or the Gnostics.



The Church dispersed throughout the whole world to the ends of the earth has received from the Apostles and their disciples this faith: We believe in one God, the Father Almighty … and in one Christ Jesus … who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit … [AH 1, 10:1]

The perfect bread of the Father offered himself to us as “milk” when he came as a human being.  Now we, being nourished … by this feeding might grow used to eating and drinking the Word of God, and contain within us the bread of immortality, the Spirit of the Father. [AH 4, 38:1]

  • In what way does Irenaeus affirm the real “tradition” of the Church and Jesus as a real human?


  • How do Irenaeus’ descriptions show us which understanding of God was being attacked?



Irenaeus held a high view of Scripture.

  • The Scriptures are perfect since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit [AH 2, 28:2].
  • [The Gnostics] appeal to … spurious writings which they have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish people and those who do not know the Scriptures of truth [AH 1, 20:2]
  • All Scripture, which has been given to us by God, is entirely consistent [AH 2, 28:3].
  • Why are the Scriptures “perfect” and “consistent”?


  • What is the difference between the “Word of God” and “the Scriptures”?


By moving passages from one place to another and inventing new meanings, [the Gnostics] adapt the oracles of the Lord to their notions and deceitfully delude many people.  They take a beautiful mosaic of a king, which has been made by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, and dismantle that likeness and rearrange the gems into the form of a dog or a fox. [AH 1, 8:1]

  • What did the Gnostics do with Scripture?


  • Does this still take place, even among those who claim the name “Christian”?


Interpreting Scripture

Irenaeus admitted:

  • These things … are clearly, unambiguously set forth in the sacred Scripture [AH 2, 27:1]
  • Others are ambiguous [AH 2, 10:1].

Irenaeus then gave an example of how someone should understand Jesus’ parables.

That is why the parables should not be adapted to fit ambiguous statements.  If one keeps this caution in mind, the one who interprets the parables will avoid danger, and they will receive the same interpretation by all. In this way, the whole body of truth holds together harmoniously, without conflict. [AH 2, 27:1]

  • If one shouldn’t use an “ambiguous statement” to understand Scripture, what should he use?


When we refer [the Gnostics] to the tradition which originated from the Apostles, which the succession of presbyters in the Churches has preserved, they object to tradition.  For they claim to be wiser—not merely than the presbyters, but even than the Apostles—because they have “discovered” the unadulterated truth….  So it comes down to this, that these people will not yield, either to Scripture or tradition. [AH 3, 2:2]

  • For Irenaeus, was there any tension or opposition between “tradition” and “Scripture”?


  • Is the context different today, making us less confident of the “tradition which originated from the Apostles”? If so, how should this uncertainty shape our teaching and practice?


What Irenaeus Considered to be Scripture

10, Ireneaus and Pauls EpistlesFor Irenaeus, The Old Testament was the Septuagint.  We know this because when he referred to the Old Testament, of the differences between the Hebrew Masoretic Text and Septuagint, we only find the Septuagint’s wording.  For example, the Masoretic Text and Septuagint differ in Deuteronomy 10:16 (AH 4, 16:1) and Jeremiah 17:9 (AH 4, 33:11), of which Irenaeus referenced.

Further, Irenaeus referred to the Apocrypha in several places: Judith 16:18 (AH 5, 5:2); Wisdom of Solomon 2:24 (AH 3, 11:9), 11:20 (AH 4, 4:2); Susanna 1:52-53, 56 (AH 4, 26:3); Bel and the Snake (AH 4.5.2, referenced as “Daniel the Prophet”); and Baruch 4:36-5:9 (AH 5, 35:1)

From the New Testament, he quoted from all four Gospels, Acts, the Epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, 1-2 John, and Revelation.   

This shows how widespread the texts had spread and the Church’s use of them.



Irenaeus’ Favorite Salvation Motif: Recapitulation

“Recapitulation” means “to sum up.”  “God revealed to us the mystery of his will … to bring everything together in Christ, in heaven and on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).  Christ reconciled all things to Himself by being born, living, dying, and being physically resurrected.  For us, this will become a reality on the Last Day, when Christ returns and calls forth a new heaven and earth (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

Today, most Christians in the West understand Jesus’ salvation for us through the lens of “substitutionary atonement.”  Though without sin or wrongdoing, Jesus was executed, who became our substitute for the penalty of eternal death we deserved because of our fallen nature and sins committed.  Though Irenaeus does hold this view, it was minor in his thinking.  For example:

Having suffered, the Lord granted us salvation …  By his passion [crucifixion] our Lord also destroyed death, dispersed error, put an end to corruption, and destroyed ignorance, while he manifested life, revealed truth, and granted the gift of incorruption. [AH 2, 20:3]

… by means of a tree we were made debtors to God, so also by means of a tree, we may obtain the remission of our debt. [AH 5, 17:3]

Jesus: The Second Adam

Some see the cross as the sole saving work of Christ.  Not so with Irenaeus, who understood all of Jesus’ life as salvific (salvation-causing).  Jesus came into the world to undo the sin of Adam by participating in all of the stages of human life.  Irenaeus wrote:

In the second Adam, however, [Jesus] who was obedient even unto death, we are reconciled, being made obedient even unto death.  For we were debtors to no one but to him whose commandment we broke at the beginning. [AH 5, 16,3]

[Jesus] sanctified every stage of human development by participating in it himself….  He passed through every stage, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those of this age, and serving them as an example of piety, righteousness, and submission.  He matured into a young person for young people, becoming an example to youth and sanctifying them for the Lord; so also he was a mature person for the mature. [AH 2, 22:4]

This is also why [Jesus] passed through every stage of life, restoring all [Christians] to communion with God. [AH 3, 18:7]

  • In recapitulation, is any stage of human life barred from receiving Christ’s saving work and communion?


When [Jesus] became incarnate and was made man, he began anew the long line of human beings and, to state it briefly, furnished us with salvation.  Consequently, what we had lost in Adam—namely, the image and likeness of God—we recovered in Christ Jesus. [AH 3, 18:1]

  • By Jesus becoming the “second Adam,” what do we “recover,” which Adam lost?


Theosis as a Subset of Recapitulation

Theosis is man becoming God (but not as you may think).

The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who through his transcendent love became what we are, that he might make us what he is. [AH 5, Preface]

For it was to this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of Man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.  [AH 3, 19:3]

  • If we never stop being created beings, why does Irenaeus say the Christian becomes “the son of God”? What does he mean?


Psalm 82:6-7: I said, “You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.  However, you will die like humans and fall like any other ruler.”

Irenaeus’ most direct deification language relates to his use of Psalm 82:6, identifying believers as “gods” and “sons of God.”  These descriptions are part of his larger portrayal of salvation, which culminates in being restored in the image and likeness of God on the Last Day.  Jesus became the “second Adam,” so we can become what He is—like God and even called “gods.”

This is being restored to God’s likeness, which Irenaeus describes as incorruption.  This does not deny being and remaining a creation of God but recognizes the Spirit uniting us to the God’s only Son, Jesus.  If this union is real, then Jesus imbues us with what He is and has: eternity and even divinity.  All this takes place on the Last Day when we, with Jesus, “will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 21:1, 22:5)



For Irenaeus, to be “born again” is to be baptized.

Giving to the disciples the power of regeneration into God, Christ said to them, “Go therefore and disciple all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” [Matt 28:19]. [AH 3, 17:1]

John 3:3: Jesus replied [to Nicodemus], “I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

John 3:5: Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

For [Jesus] came to save all in himself, all those who are born again to God through him—infants, toddlers, young children, youths, and the mature. [AH 2, 22:4]

  • According to Irenaeus, is any age group to be excluded from baptism?


  • What does God go through baptism?


The Eucharist

If the flesh cannot be saved, then the Lord did not redeem us with his blood—nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of his blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of his body [1 Corinthians 10:16]. [AH 5, 2:2]

  • What is the “cup of the Eucharist” (a metonymy referring to the content of the cup, the wine)?


  • What is the “bread of the communion”?


For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly.  So also our bodies.  When they receive the Eucharist, they are no longer corruptible, since they now have the hope of the resurrection to eternity. [AH 4, 18:5]

  • According to Irenaeus, when does the bread of the Eucharist stop being only bread?


  • What does God do through the Eucharist for the Christian?


The Church

For Irenaeus, someone finds Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church where pastors preach and teach the message of the Apostles and distribute the Sacraments of Christ.

What we have received from the Church we preserve.  By the Spirit of God, she is always renewing her youth, as if she were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel …  This gift [the deposit of the Faith] of God has been entrusted to the Church, as breath was to the first created man.  For this purpose, all members receiving it [the gift of faith] may be given life.  The Church enjoys communion with Christ through the Holy Spirit, the sure pledge of incorruption, who confirms our faith…  Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace…  [AH 3, 24:1]

  • For Irenaeus, if one despises the Church, who is he ultimately despising?


  • Discuss: Irenaeus upheld both Scripture and the Church. How are they meant to work together?


10, Church and Scripture, Both And


Irenaeus Establishes the Tradition of Looking to Rome

With no one left whom the Apostles had directly taught, as a “grandson of the Apostles” (taught by Polycarp, who was taught by the Apostle John), Irenaeus directed people to look to the churches founded by the Apostles.  Of all the apostolic churches, Rome was pre-eminent, having the clout of two Apostles: Paul, followed by Peter.

Even so, we can answer the heretics and their adherents by … pointing to that tradition derived from the Apostles which is found in the very great, very ancient, and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.  The faith they preached to all has come down to our time through the successions of bishops.  It is necessary for every church to agree with this church because of its significance.  [AH 3, 3:2]

What options did Irenaeus have?  Yes, he used Scripture, as those who came before him.  But no universal list of Scripture texts existed in the Church (not until 397 AD).  So, that was not a real option.  Besides, the heretics were the ones taking Scripture, “inventing new meanings” and adapting “the oracles of the Lord to their notions” (AH 1, 8:1).  For Irenaeus, to understand Scripture properly required someone to learn it within the tradition handed down from the Apostles.  Otherwise, people could get the Scriptures to say whatever they wanted them to say, as the Gnostics did.

  • How has the precedent, which Irenaeus helped put in place, affected the Church to this day?


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