The men who followed the Apostolic Fathers in the 2nd, 3rd and early 4th centuries fought many important battles for orthodox Christianity as passed to them from Jesus Christ through the apostles and the apostolic fathers. The writings of these brave men are important for modern Christian apologists to read because the battles they fought are similar to what we fight today. Plus, we can learn from the deep devotion they presented in both their lives and ministries.
In our last study we finished looking at the apologetic ministry of Justin Martyr. We move now to the apologetic ministry of Irenaeus of Lyons, a writer Christian apologists should give special attention.
Irenaeus was born in the city of Smyrna (Asia Minor) in the early part of the 2nd century AD (approximately 130 AD). He heard the preaching of Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John, who was Bishop of Smyrna during the 2nd century AD –
“But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,-a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics.” Against Heresies, Book III
Irenaeus moved from Smyrna to Lugdunum (Lyons .. modern-day France) and became Bishop of Lyons after the martyrdom of Pothinus (approximately 177 AD). Irenaeus continued to serve as bishop until his death (approximately 202 AD).
The New Dictionary of Theology describes Irenaeus as a “vigorous anti-heretical writer devoted to the biblical faith” (New Dictionary of Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 2016, p 456). His writings include Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching mentioned by Eusibius in his Ecclesiastical History –
“Knowing, my beloved Marcianus, your desire to walk in godliness, which alone leads man to life eternal, I rejoice with you and make my prayer that you may preserve your faith entire and so be pleasing to God who made you. Would that it were possible for us to be always together, to help each other and to lighten the labor of our earthly life by continual discourse together on the things that profit. But, since at this present time we are parted from one another in the body, yet according to our power we will not fail to speak with you a little by writing, and to show forth in brief the preaching of the truth for the confirmation of your faith.” The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Translated from the Armenian by Dr. Armitage Robinson, The MacMillan Co, 1920
One of the benefits for a Christian apologist to read Irenaeus’ Demonstration is to see how a leading 2nd century bishop handled biblical theology. Irenaeus begins his instruction for Marcianus by explaining the primary purpose for Christian instruction –
“We send you as it were a manual of essentials, that by little you may attain to much, learning in short space all the members of the body of the truth, and receiving in brief the demonstration of the things of God. So shall it be fruitful to your own salvation, and you shall put to shame all who inculcate falsehood, and bring with all confidence our sound and pure teaching to everyone who desires to understand it. For one is the way leading upwards for all who see, lightened with heavenly light: but many and dark and contrary are the ways of them that see not. This way leads to the kingdom of heaven, uniting man to God: but those ways bring down to death, separating man from God. Wherefore it is needful for you and for all who care for their own salvation to make your course unswerving, firm and sure by means of faith, that you falter not, nor be retarded and detained in material desires, nor turn aside and wander from the right.” ibid
Notice key terms and purposes –
- manual of essentials
- all the members of the body of the truth
- receiving .. of the things of God
- fruitful to your own salvation
- put to shame all who inculcate falsehood
- bring with all confidence our sound and pure teaching to everyone who desires to understand it
- the way leading upwards for all who see, lightened with heavenly light
- many and dark and contrary are the ways of them that see not
- this way leads to the kingdom of heaven, uniting man to God
- those ways [the dark and contrary] bring down to death, separating man from God
- needful for you and for all who care for their own salvation
- make your course unswerving, firm and sure by means of faith
- that you falter not
- nor be retarded and detained in material desires
- nor turn aside and wander from the right
These are all essential in the full process of making disciples “of all the nations.”
Irenaeus began his instruction at the “beginning” –
“For it is necessary that, things that are made should have the beginning of their making from some great cause; and the beginning of all things is God. For He Himself was not made by any, and by Him all things were made. And therefore it is right first of all to believe that there is One God, the Father, who made and fashioned all things, and made what was not that it should be, and who, containing all things, alone is uncontained. Now among all things is this world of ours, and in the world is man: so then this world also was formed by God.” ibid
And continued through the teachings of Moses, the preaching of the Hebrew prophets, the coming of Jesus Christ to earth, His crucifixion and resurrection, and His sending the Apostles into the world.
Irenaeus also addressed the ongoing challenges from heretics of the 2nd century –
“So that none should imagine God the Father to be other than our Creator, as the heretics imagine; (for) they despise the God who is, and make gods of that which is not; and they fashion a Father of their own above our Creator, and imagine that they have found out for themselves something greater than the truth. For all these are impious and blasphemers against their Creator and against the Father, as we have shown in the Exposure and Overthrow of Knowledge falsely so-called. And others again reject the coming of the Son of God and the dispensation of His incarnation, which the apostles delivered and the prophets declared beforehand, even such as should be the summing up of mankind, as we have shown you in brief: and such also are reckoned amongst those who are lacking in faith. And others receive not the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and cast away from themselves the prophetic grace, watered whereby man bears the fruit of life unto God: and these are they of whom Isaiah speaks: For they shall be, saith he, as an oak that is stripped of leaves, and as a garden that hath no water. And such are in no wise serviceable to God, seeing that they cannot bear any fruit.” ibid
So then in respect of the three points of our seal error has strayed widely from the truth. For either they reject the Father, or they. accept not the Son and speak against the dispensation of His incarnation; or else they receive not the Spirit, that is, they reject prophecy. And of all such must we beware, and shun their ways, if in very truth we desire to be well-pleasing to God and to attain the redemption that is from Him.” ibid
Irenaeus is best known for his writings against heretics and heresies of his day – not unlike those that Christian apologists deal with today. In the next part of our series we will look at Irenaeus’ famous Against Heresies.