St. Irenaeus Essay - Critical Essays

St. Irenaeus


St. Irenaeus c. 130-c. 200-02

Greek theologian.

Described as the “founder of Christian theology,” St. Irenaeus composed a detailed statement of second-century orthodox Christian thought in his Adversus Haereses, or Against Heresies. The five-volume work was intended as a refutation of the Gnostics, whose beliefs were thought to be threatening to the early Christian Church. Through the course of his argumentation, Irenaeus offers the first systematic discussion of orthodox Christian theology.

Biographical Information

Little is known for certain about Irenaeus's life. He was probably born around the year 130 in Smyrna, in Ionia. After traveling to Gaul as a missionary and becoming a priest, he was sent as an envoy to Eleutherius, Bishop of Rome, in order to convey to him news of the conflicts suffered by the church in Gaul. Serving as a presbyter in Lyon during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Irenaeus was elected to the bishopric of Lyon, or Lugdunum, around 177-78. He is believed to have died around 200-02.

Major Works

Irenaeus's primary work is Adversus Haereses. In it, he outlines the beliefs of the Gnostics and then presents rebuttals to their arguments. The major disputes addressed by Irenaeus include the Gnostic doctrine of election, according to which only those who possess knowledge of the “unknown Father” hidden in the Scriptures will be saved. The Gnostics also take an allegorical approach to the Scriptures, and view Jesus as one of many “cosmic intermediaries” between God and the world. The Gnostics further contended that since the world contains evil, it could not be God's creation. In The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus focuses on the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity and emphasizes that the truth revealed in the four Gospels was foretold in the Old Testament.

Textual History

Only portions of Adversus Haereses have survived in the original Greek, through quotations by other writers. A complete version of the text is extant in Latin; the oldest of these manuscripts dates from the ninth century, although the first Latin translation was most likely made in the early third century. It is estimated that Irenaeus completed the original text of books one and two of Adversus Haereses before 180, and that the fifth book was finished by 188 or 189. The text of The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching was discovered in 1904 in an Armenian church. Scholars date its original Greek composition to the late second or early third century.

Critical Reception

Criticism of Irenaeus's thought focuses on his two written treatises and on particular aspects of his biblical theology. Scholars such as Hamilton Baird Timothy and Dominic J. Unger examine in detail the arguments Irenaeus makes in Adversus Haereses. Timothy discusses Irenaeus's dissection of the Gnostic beliefs and studies Irenaeus's rebuttals to the arguments of the Gnostics, noting in particular that Irenaeus objected to the Gnostic doctrine of election based on knowledge, Gnostic allegorization of Scripture, and the Gnostic view of Jesus as one among many intermediaries between God and the world. Timothy also stresses that Irenaeus did concede that knowledge, or reason, served to supplement revelation and enlighten faith. Unger observes that by writing Adversus Haereses Irenaeus became the first Christian writer to provide a systematic treatise on theology, a treatise which includes discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity, creation, Christ as savior, the Church, salvation, and resurrection. According to Unger, a study of Irenaeus's style reveals such flaws as repetition, prolixity, and overly involved constructions. Unger does, however, praise Irenaeus's use of figurative language, his precision in word choice, and his calm, modest tone.

Despite the relatively recent discovery of the treatise The Proof of the Apostolic Teaching, there is much criticism about the text. Scholars have examined the Armenian translation and the German translation made soon after the discovery of the Armenian text. English translations shortly followed. J. Rendel Harris finds that the treatise does not deviate substantially from the conventional teachings of the second-century Christian Church, despite the fact that Irenaeus places less emphasis on the sacraments and on ritual than one might expect. Additionally, Harris finds that the work contains a strongly anti-Judaic tone. In his examination of The Proof, Joseph P. Smith explains that the form of the work is that of a letter, although it is obvious, Smith states, that the treatise was planned as a composition for the general public. Smith finds that the construction is clear and logical, although the style is sometimes confused and repetitive. The intention of the treatise, contends Smith, is to prove that the preaching of the apostles was true; it is not an exposition of their preaching, as the title seems to suggest.

While some critics have focused their analyses on particular texts, others have studied specific elements of Irenaeus's theology as a whole. Gustaf Wingren examines Irenaeus's emphasis on the absolute power of God as creator, and on the role of the Son and his relationship with God's creation—man. Wingren observes that according to Irenaeus, the Son is the image and the likeness of God, whereas man is created in God's image and likeness. John Lawson provides a detailed investigation of certain aspects of Irenaeus's exegesis on the Old and New Testaments in order to demonstrate that Irenaeus's exegesis was subjective and allegorical, despite the fact that some critics maintain Irenaeus's stood firmly against allegorization of Scripture. Terrance L. Tiessen centers his study on Irenaeus's doctrine of divine revelation as it concerns the non-Christian. A key point in Irenaeus's thinking, Tiessen states, is the fact that Irenaeus assumed that the Church's teachings were spread across the world and that the faith was preached uniformly. Therefore, non-Christians were justly condemned, for they had personally rejected the Gospel. Tiessen seeks in Irenaeus's theory the possibility of exemption for the non-Christian and questions whether Irenaeus would have been more optimistic regarding the salvation of non-Christians if the saint had been aware of people who had not been exposed to Christ.

Principal Works

Adversus Haereses [Against Heresies] (treatise) c. 180-89

Proof of the Apostolic Preaching [also referred to as Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Epidexis, and On the Apostolic Preaching] (treatise) c. late 2nd - c. early 3rd century

The Writings of Irenaeus (translated by A. Robert, and W. H. Rambant) 1868-69; reprinted 1979

Five Books of S. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, against Heresies (translated by J. Keble) 1872

The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (translated by J. A. Robinson) 1920

Proof of Apostolic Teaching (translated by J. P. Smith) 1952

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, against the Heresies (translated by Dominic J. Unger) 1992


J. Rendel Harris (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: “Irenaeus on the Apostolical Preaching,” in Expositor, Vol. 3, 1907, pp. 246-58.

[In the essay that follows, Harris analyzes Irenaeus's On the Apostolic Teaching and observes that the treatise is in many ways conventional, marred by historical inaccuracies, and unexpectedly focused on spiritual enlightenment.]

We have now before us the text of the newly-found treatise of Irenaeus On the Apostolical Preaching, which forms the first part of the thirty-first volume of Harnack's Texte und Untersuchungen. More exactly we should have put, instead of Harnack, the joint names of Harnack and Schmidt, and that collocation would have at once...

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Gustaf Wingren (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: “Creation,” in Man and the Incarnation: A Study in the Biblical Theology of Irenaeus, translated by Ross Mackenzie, Muhlenberg Press, 1947, pp. 3-38.

[In the following essay, Wingren studies the significance of God's absolute power as Creator and of the relationship between Christ and man in Irenaeus's theology.]


Our best starting-point for a full understanding of the concept of God in Irenaeus is the sovereignty of God—the absolute power of the Creator. The Gnostics' pessimism in regard to the world forced them into assuming a God who had nothing to do with the world, and they kept large parts of reality separate...

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John Lawson (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: “On the Exegesis of the Bible,” in The Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus, The Epworth Press, 1948, pp. 55-86.

[In the following essay, Lawson contends that in Irenaeus's writings on both the Old and the New Testament, exegesis is subjective and allegorical. Superscript numbers next to biblical references throughout this essay refer to verse numbers.]

The manner in which S. Irenaeus expounded the Bible and the justice he did to it are studies of the most far-reaching consequence for the understanding of a Christian Father who was so largely a Biblical theologian. It is unfortunate, therefore, that this aspect of his work has been so commonly...

(The entire section is 12013 words.)

Joseph P. Smith (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: An introduction to St. Irenaeus: Proof of the Apostolic Teaching, translated by Joseph P. Smith, The Newman Press, 1952, pp. 3–44.

[In the essay below, Smith examines the history, form, style, and structure of Irenaeus's Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. Smith states that Irenaeus's motivation for writing the treatise was to prove that what the apostles preached was true, and that his intention was not to provide an exposition on apostolic preaching.]



St. Irenaeus (end of second century) comes in the history of patrology after the...

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H. B. Timothy (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Irenaeus of Lyons,” in The Early Christian Apologists and Greek Philosophy, Van Gorcum & Comp., B.V., 1973, pp. 23-39.

[In the essay below, Timothy examines the content and structure of Irenaeus's Adversus haereses,demonstrating Irenaeus's skill in refuting the arguments of the Gnostics.]

In the manner of a surgeon performing a major operation, though not quite so methodically, Irenaeus, in the first book of the Adversus haereses, begins to lay bare the nerves and sinews and so take us to the very heart of the Gnostic heresy which he knew from all too close acquaintance with it in the valley of the Rhone and had, it seems probable,...

(The entire section is 6609 words.)

Dominic J. Unger (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: An introduction to St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies, Paulist Press, 1992, Vol. I, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay, Unger provides an overview of Irenaeus's Adversus haereses and argues that with the composition of this treatise, Irenaeus earned the right to be called the founder of Christian theology.]

1. An earlier volume in this series presented a translation of the Proof of the Apostolic Preaching,1 one of the two works of Irenaeus which have survived in their entirety. With this volume the series begins publication of Irenaeus's principal work, his Exposé and Overthrow of What Is Falsely Called Knowledge. It is...

(The entire section is 11566 words.)

Terrance L. Tiessen (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Conclusion,” in Irenaeus on the Salvation of the Unevangelized, ATLA Monograph Series, No. 31, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993, pp. 250-82.

[In the essay below, Tiessen investigates Irenaeus's doctrine of divine revelation as it pertains to the “non-Christian” and compares this doctrine with the modern notion of “anonymous Christianity.”]

It is possible now to draw together the results of the investigation that has been made of the salvation of the unevangelized, in the theology of Irenaeus. The question of the state of the non-Christian, particularly of the individual who has not had opportunity to learn of God as revealed in Christ, is of great...

(The entire section is 9560 words.)

Further Reading


Hitchcock, F. R. Montgomery. “The Creeds of SS. Irenaeus and Patrick.” Hermathena 14 (1907): 168-82.

Compares the contents of the creeds of the two saints and argues that Irenaeus belongs to the Greek school of thought and Patrick to the Latin school.

———. “The Apostolic Preaching of Irenaeus and Its Light on His Doctrine of the Trinity.” Hermathena 14 (1907): 307-37.

Studies the German translation of Irenaeus's Proof of the Apostolic Preaching and responds to the German editor's criticisms of the text, particularly those related to Irenaeus's conception of the relationship between God,...

(The entire section is 247 words.)