Church Foundations


By Brandon Markette

Irenaeus was born in Asia around 135 AD, somewhere near Smyrna (modern days Izmir, Turkey). A student of Polycarp as a young man, his education continued in Rome. Irenaeus traveled to Gaul and settled in Lugdunum, near modern Lyons, France. There he became an elder of the church. When the Bishop of Lyons, Pothinus, died in prison around 177 A.D., Irenaeus succeeded him as Bishop. During his time, both as presbyter and bishop, Irenaeus pastored and wrote. It is believed he was martyred in 202 AD.

Only two of Irenaeus' works remain, Against Heresies and Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. The later explains and defends the apostle's teaching in a catechism style while the former work defends the Christian faith against false teaching. Chief among the false teachings of Irenaeus' day was Gnosticism. While various strands of gnostic thought have arisen throughout history, a common thread links them together. That thread is their concept of salvation.

For Gnostics, even those in the Church whom Irenaeus opposed, salvation does not come through a Savior. Instead it comes through a secret knowledge or gnosis (hence the label, gnostic). This secret knowledge included the key to salvation. For the gnostic salvation meant returning to a heavenly abode. However, that abode is guarded by angelic creatures. They do not let everyone enter, but only those who possess this secret knowledge. Thus, the knowledge contained secret words which were the passwords necessary to pass through the gates of heaven. Clearly such teaching contradicts the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Irenaeus' arguments against such heresies took two complementary tracks. On one track he simply pointed out the logical inconsistencies in their arguments. On the second track he defended the Christian gospel through the use of Scripture. One of Irenaeus' great contributions relates to this use of Scripture. He used Scripture to explain Scripture, and relied heavily upon the authority of Scripture. For Irenaeus, if it is in the Bible, then it is authoritative. Certainly modern Christians would agree with this Church Father on his methodology and his high view of Scripture's authority.

Going a bit further, we also would largely agree with the books Irenaeus labelled as Scripture. Of course we have the Old Testament, but Irenaeus quotes authoritatively from all but four of the books of the New Testament! Not only did he quote from them and use them in his defense and explanation of the faith, but Irenaeus also appears to have coined the term "New Testament" to label these books.

As he defended the faith, Irenaeus also defended core doctrines. Against the Gnostics, he argued forcefully for the Trinity. He also argued for creation ex-nihilo, the doctrine which holds God created everything out of nothing.

As it comes to Jesus, Irenaeus defended the incarnation. From Scripture Irenaeus argued for a Christ who is both fully God and fully man. He understood not only Scripture's teaching, but also the necessity of the incarnation for the Gospel message. Without the incarnation, Christ's death, while exemplary, could never save.

Image Credit: St. Irenaeus; Public Domain

TagsFalse-Teaching  | History-Apologetics

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Published 4-22-2014