St. Irenaeus Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.