Many Protestants believe that soon after the last of the Apostles died, the early Church—assumed to resemble modern Protestantism—fell from the simplicity of the pure Gospel and turned into a religious institution that would become the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholics assume that a fundamental continuity exists between the early Church and contemporary Catholicism. However, a careful reading of Irenaeus shows that the early Church was neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic in its doctrine and worship. Also, a process was in place for passing on traditions, with safeguards built in to protect the integrity of the Christian Faith—what we might call a “traditioning” process.
The “Traditioning” Process
Irenaeus held a high view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. He referred to Scripture as “the foundation and pillar of our faith” and spoke of its being “perfect.” He was one of the first Church Fathers to construct a biblical theology making use of both the Old and the New Testaments. However, it should be noted that Irenaeus did not hold to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, “the Bible alone.” His interpretation of the Bible was not based on an inductive method, but was guided by the “rule of faith” he had received from Polycarp.
Irenaeus saw Tradition as consisting of a written and an oral component: the two complementing and supporting each other. Living in Gaul, where he did missionary work among preliterate peoples, Irenaeus was familiar with the effectiveness of oral tradition:
Even if the apostles had not left their Writings to us, ought we not to follow the rule of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they committed the churches? Many barbarian peoples who believed in Christ follow this rule, having [the message of their] salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit without paper and ink.
This understanding of tradition as both written and oral is consistent with Paul’s admonition: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Evangelical and Catholic
Irenaeus’s theology was both evangelical and catholic. The evangelical side can be seen in his high regard for the authority of Scripture. It can also be seen in his affirmation of God as Trinity and his endorsement of Christ’s Divine Nature. He writes: “Unlike all men of the past, the Christ is properly proclaimed as God, Lord, eternal King, Only-begotten, and incarnate Word, by all the prophets and apostles and the Spirit itself. The scriptures would not give this testimony to him if he were a mere man like all others.”
His evangelical zeal can also be seen in his firm belief that Christ came to save the world, and his willingness to be a missionary bishop on the western frontiers of the Roman Empire.
Many evangelicals today would feel quite at home with his teaching on the end times. Irenaeus held to a literal understanding of biblical prophecy. He believed in the Antichrist, the Great Tribulation, and the physical resurrection of the dead as actual events. He also believed in the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of all flesh, and the final judgment.
The catholic side of Irenaeus’s theology can be seen in his high view of the sacraments. In his time, baptism was not a mere symbol, but a sacrament that conferred the Holy Spirit and spiritual rebirth.
For this reason the baptism of our regeneration takes place through these three articles (belief in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), granting us regeneration unto God the Father through His Son by the Holy Spirit: for those who bear the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son, while the Son presents [them] to the Father, and the Father furnishes incorruptibility.
Baptism was also closely linked to the catechumenate. Those who desired to join the Church were given “the rule of truth”—a body of doctrine—that would guide them in their understanding of Scripture and protect them from the heresy of gnosticism. We also find in Irenaeus one of the earliest witnesses to infant baptism in the early Church.
The early Church believed that in the Lord’s Supper, we partake of the actual Body and Blood of Christ. The gnostics, on the other hand, believing that the material and fleshly were corrupt and inferior, rejected the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In response to the gnostic heresy, Irenaeus wrote:
For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him?
The catholic side of Irenaeus’ theology can also be seen in his high view of Mary. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wrote about Christ being the Second Adam who came to reverse the first Adam’s tragic error. Irenaeus expanded on Paul’s teaching when he described the Virgin Mary as the Second Eve. He wrote:
So the second [Eve] was given the good news by the word of an angel to bear God and obey his work; and as the first [Eve] was seduced into disobeying God, so the second [Eve] was persuaded to obey God so that the virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve.
Irenaeus saw Mary as the second Eve who made possible the salvation of the human race; the Incarnation of the Son of God would not have happened without her consent. He wrote that through her obedience, Mary became “the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race.” He also described Mary as the advocate for Eve, an implicit reference to the intercession of the saints.
Our Salvation in Christ
Irenaeus is well known for his description of salvation in terms of “recapitulation.” To recapitulate means “to repeat the principal points or stages of” or “to summarize” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Tenth Edition). The term was used by the Apostle Paul. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul describes salvation in cosmic terms: “that . . . He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.”
Irenaeus’s understanding of salvation took as its starting point the Incarnation. The Son of God became Man so that we would be saved through His life, His death on the cross, and His rising from the dead. As the Second Adam, Christ lived out the principal stages of human existence, perfectly reversing the tragic error of the first Adam:
And the transgression which occurred through the tree was undone by the obedience of the tree—which [was shown when] the Son of Man, obeying God, was nailed to the tree, destroying the knowledge of evil, and introducing and providing the knowledge of good.
Irenaeus’s understanding of salvation is quite different from that found in Western Christianity, which understands salvation in terms of Christ’s atoning death to placate God’s wrath against man’s sin. For Irenaeus, salvation means the restoration of communion with God.
For this the Word of God became man, and the Son of God Son of man, that man, mingled with the Word and thus receiving adoption, might become a son of God. We could not receive imperishability and immortality unless we had been united to imperishability and immortality. And how could we have been united with imperishability and immortality unless imperishability and immortality had first been made what we are, so that what was perishable might be absorbed by imperishability and what was mortal by immortality “that we might receive adoption as sons”?
Through the Incarnation, human nature was joined to the Divine Nature in order to restore humanity to full relationship with God. This forms the basis for the Orthodox doctrine of theosis, salvation as participation in the Divine Nature (see 2 Peter 1:3).
The Gnostic Challenge
Gnosticism was one of the earliest and most dangerous heresies the early Church faced. It challenged Christianity in two ways. Firstly, it claimed a secret knowledge superior to that of the Church—in effect challenging the teaching authority of the bishops. Secondly, it held that the spiritual was superior to the physical and that the true Christ was a pure spirit being—thereby rejecting the Incarnation. As a heresy, gnosticism threatened the Christian Faith not by outright rejection, but by distorting and redefining the essential meaning of the Faith. It denied the Virgin Birth. Gnostics believed that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, but was superior to other men because of the purity of his soul. They were moral relativists, insisting that good and evil are a matter of perception. And they denied that Christ really suffered on the Cross.
Of course, the gnostic heresy is still very much alive and with us today. Its influence can be seen in liberal Protestantism. A friend of mine sent an e-mail describing a conference she had just attended: “At the Earl Lectures 2005 sponsored by the UCC-supported Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA, a minister stood up and declared he didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I asked him if he didn’t think it was possible. ‘Oh, it was possible, just not necessary.’”
My friend, being a theologically astute evangelical, recognized the minister’s statement as a form of gnosticism. Robert J. Sanders wrote an article in which he describes the de facto theology of the Episcopal Church as gnostic. He points to the denomination’s “gospel” of radical inclusion, which rejects the distinction between good and evil, regards creeds and morality as secondary, and practices open communion—inviting those of other denominations and even non-Christians to the Eucharist.
The tendency towards gnosticism can also be seen among evangelicals. A seminary friend of mine has expressed deep concern over evangelicalism’s low view of the Church, symbolic understanding of the sacraments, low view of the creeds, faith in Christ as a personal experience, and emotional worship. He sees all this having a striking similarity to gnosticism’s mind/body dualism and its giving priority to mystical experience over doctrine and structure.
Irenaeus’s defense of the Christian Gospel was multipronged. Although the gnostics claimed to be Christian, Irenaeus pointed out that none of them could trace a line of succession back to the original Apostles of Christ through the bishops. In other words, the gnostics’ version of Christianity was a made-up religion, just the personal opinion of individuals. Another line of defense was the unity and catholicity (universality) of the Faith. Irenaeus boasted that no matter where one traveled throughout the vast Roman Empire, one would find the same faith being confessed everywhere:
Having received this preaching and this faith, as I have said, the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it, as if living in one house. She believes these things [everywhere] alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth.
Truth for Irenaeus was not pluriform—taking many differing, even contradictory expressions, which vary from one place to the next. Christianity is grounded in the historical reality of the Incarnation of the Divine Son of God, and this is true in all places and for all time. The Christian faith is a corporate faith, a consequence of the Church being the Body of Christ, the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
Irenaeus played a key role in defeating the gnostic heresy and articulating a theological framework that would preserve intact the Christian Faith for generations to come. For this he is honored today as a saint and a Father of the Church.