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Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons: Gnostic Fighter and Unifying Theologian

His Teaching

A portion of Irenaeus’ writing from approximately 200 CE.
Image: Cambridge University library manuscript 4113 / Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 405. Wikimedia Commons.

Irenaeus was one of the first Church Fathers to organize the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. The most famous work of Irenaeus is Against Heresies, where he fought the heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a heretical “Christian” group that claimed to have exclusive knowledge. They taught a reality of “dualism”, that is two equally conflicting realities such as light vs. dark, spirit vs. matter, good vs. evil. Matter is evil; only spirit is intrinsically good. This means that Jesus did not come in true flesh and blood, but was a spirit in the appearance of flesh. Furthermore, they denied the necessity of atonement for sin. Sin was escaped through knowledge that was revealed only to the spiritual elite, which of course was them. They taught that Jesus was the transcendent God, but that Yahweh was a lesser God because he created matter, which is evil. They insisted that what was recorded in the traditional gospels were good enough for the common man, but the true gospel was received only by the spiritual elite.

To fight this heresy Irenaeus taught that:

  • The Gospel is for everyone.
  • The Church that spread out through the known world is Catholic, meaning universal or united. The Church in Ephesus, Rome, Lyons and elsewhere are all branches of one catholic Church.
  • God reveled in the Old Testament is the God and Father of the Lord Jesus.
  • There is unity between the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures. The Old Testament laid a foundation for the New Testament.
  • Jesus came in the flesh as the second Adam to restore what the first Adam lost (Eph. 1:10). The theological term for this is recapitulation.
  • The Church must be aware of the heretic’s system in order to expose their error.
  • Love is above knowledge. “Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” I Cor 8:1
  • The Church performs miracles of healing just as Jesus did in order to restore material flesh.


Quotes from Against Heresies

The Source of the Gospel

We have learned the plan of our salvation from none other than those through whom the gospel came down to us. Indeed, they first preached the gospel, and afterwards, by the will of God, they handed it down to us in the Scriptures . . . Matthew also issued among the Hebrews a written Gospel in their own language, while Peter and Paul were evangelizing in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord who reclined at His bosom also published a Gospel, while he was residing at Ephesus in Asia. [3.1.1]


The “Hands of God”

And therefore throughout all time, man, having been molded at the beginning by the hands of God, that is, of the Son and the Spirit, is made after the image and likeness of God. [4.28.4]


Prophecy and Speaking in Tongues in the Church

In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God. [5.6.1]


Gifts of the Spirit and Healing in the Church

Any claim that the gifts passed away with the apostles is in direct conflict with Irenaeus’ report.

For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come; they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? Is it not possible to name the number of gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God. [2.32.4] [ii]

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Category: Church History, Spring 2017

About the Author: Derek Vreeland, MDiv (Oral Roberts University), DMin (Asbury Theological Seminary), is the Discipleship Pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He is the author of Shape Shifters: How God Changes the Human Heart: A Trinitarian Vision of Spiritual Transformation (Word & Spirit Press, 2008), Primal Credo: Your Entrance into the Apostles' Creed (Doctrina Press, 2011), and Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Reader's Guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Doctrina Press, 2015). Twitter: @DerekVreeland

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