THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH - Volume 2: by Philip Carrington, Archbishop of Quebec. Published by the syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1957. Katapi edition by Paul Ingram, 2013.


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The great book of Irenaeus, in five volumes, was written in the hundred-and-eighties, while Eleutherus was bishop of Rome. In the preface to the first volume he asks to be pardoned for his poor Greek; for how can anyone expect elegant Greek from a man who spends his time among the Celts and has to talk to them in their barbarous speech? And in any case it is not an accomplishment that he has ever mastered. The person for whom he is writing obviously did not live among the Celts. He was an important personage who had teaching responsibilities in the church and had asked him, some considerable time before, for a book on the subject of the heresies. Unfortunately his name and rank are not known.

Irenaeus proposes to deal principally with the Valentinian gnostics, since he has a number of pamphlets which give their secret doctrines, and so is in a good position to tackle the subject. The weakness and ineffectiveness of older and better men was due to the fact that they had not been well informed on the heretical 'rules of faith'.

The title of his book was the Refutation and overturning of the Gnosis which is falsely so called. The knowledge or 'Gnosis falsely so called' is a phrase from 1 Timothy, which Hegesippus may have used before him; « See Eusebius, E.H. in, 32, 8. and the words 'refutation and overturning' may have been borrowed from the Marcionite Apelles, who had undertaken to refute and overturn the revelation of God given by Moses, Eusebius says.

Large portions of the original Greek of Irenaeus are preserved, and |308 there is a complete translation into Latin, which seems to have been made not long after the book was written. It is 'barbarous' in character, but fortunately it is very literal. We have to depend upon it for the greater part of the text, and in consequence the book is generally referred to by its Latin title, Adversus Haereses, or 'Against the Heresies', which is abbreviated to Ad. Haer., or even A.H.; but for general purposes the Greek word Elenchos, or even its English equivalent Refutation, is coming into fashion.

Later on, he wrote a shorter and simpler volume which he called the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, which may similarly be shortened to the Epideixis or Demonstration. It is a positive outline of Christian teaching, which is interesting for its almost entire dependence on the Old Testament, which was still in the mind of Irenaeus the real Bible of the church. It was discovered not long ago in an Armenian translation; and some fragments of an Armenian translation of the Refutation also exist. His writings, therefore, were very widely known.

We shall make no attempt to summarize the Refutation, or do justice to its controversial or theological abilities. We shall simply use it to throw light on the development of the Christian religion, as Irenaeus saw it.


Irenaeus opens his first volume of the Refutation with a long transcript or summary of the Valentinian system, as it was expounded in the lecture-notes of Ptolemaeus, who was teaching in Rome at this time. It suggests strongly that this was the situation to which the book was primarily addressed, and that the person to whom he dedicated it was a leading Christian in Rome, possibly Bishop Eleutherus himself.The Demonstration was dedicated to a certain Marcianus, who may be the Smyrnaean author who wrote up the story of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Irenaeus goes on to criticize the gnostic allegorization of the Gospels, and to recommend the best defence against their propaganda, which is to hold fast to the rule or 'canon' of truth which the believer had received at his baptism; for this is the faith, he says, which the church dispersed throughout the world had received from the apostles or from the disciples of apostles. It was a faith in

One God the Father Almighty who made heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them;

|309 And one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation;

And the Holy Spirit, who announced by the prophets the dispensations and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the Passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the taking up of the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus our Lord into the heavens, and his coming from the heavens in the glory of the Father.
(Irenaeus, Ad. Haer. I, 2.)

He adds to this an eschatological passage which accentuates the supreme exaltation of the Christ, and includes the general resurrection and the righteous judgement.

Here is our first clear view of the baptismal creed in which the faith of the believer was confessed. It embodies in an act of devotion the gospel which had been received by the whole church; 'which is dispersed throughout the world, and yet dwells together as it were in one house; preaching and teaching and transmitting everything in harmony, whether it be in the Germanics or the Spains, or among the Celts, or in the east, or in Egypt or Libya, or in the central parts of the earth', by which he means Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome.

This creed is a formula; no doubt not a fixed formula, but a formula nevertheless; beginning with Hebrew monotheism and ending with apocalyptic music; gathering into unity the powerful phrases in which the gospel had come down from the mouths of the apostles; containing all the passwords of the common Christianity; not complete yet; not perfectly formed; but saying what was needed; what God's people had always believed; in the old language to which they were accustomed; stirring the heart, not merely summarizing doctrines.

It is not a doctrinal diagrammatic statement about the deity or the incarnation or the atonement; it is not an abstract system of definitions, such as we shall find attempted at the end of the century; it is the answer of the Christian believer to God at his supreme moment of personal dedication; and its power and significance is derived from the existential situation in which it was uttered; the entrance into a new life with God which may prove to be the road to martyrdom. It is pre-theological.


Irenaeus naturally goes on to draw a contrast between this unity in faith and the large amount of variety and difference which existed among the heretical schools and cults. In the course of this he gives a portrait of |310 the head of the Valentinian school in Ephesus, a man named Marcus, a practitioner of the lower type, who excelled in magic and ritual and numerology. He had transformed the Christian parables and sacraments into a sexual mystery-cult, in which he was the chief performer. A deacon in Asia had received this charlatan into his house, and his wife had fallen a victim to his arts. The woman eventually made her profession of penitence and returned to her husband and to the church; so here at any rate there was no doctrine that sin committed after baptism could not be forgiven.

Irenaeus adds that this form of gnosticism had invaded the Rhone valley, where he was now bishop, and this helps to explain his special interest in Marcus. It is also an illustration of the fact that gnosticism operated at different levels. An examination of the mystical theology of Valentine as expounded by Ptolemaeus fails to give the whole picture; gnosticism lacked the moral discipline of the church, and sorcerers like Marcus could make a living out of it.

Irenaeus gives several examples of his numerological and astrological extravagances, and then goes on to gnostic misinterpretations of the scriptures. He mentions too, the inexpressible multitude of apocryphal and bastard scriptures which the gnostics forged; and he gives a story from one of them.

When the Lord was a little child, and was learning his letters, the master said to him, as the custom was, 'Say Alpha', and he said Alpha. But when the master ordered him to say Beta, the Lord answered, 'You tell me first what Alpha means, and then I will tell you what Beta means.'
(Irenaeus, Ad. Haer. I, 13, 1.)

The story is also found in the 'Epistle of the Apostles', which is a second-century writing, and in the so-called Gospel of Thomas:, but here we have it in Ephesus about A.D. 180, which attaches it to a definite time and place. We shall return to this question of apocryphal Gospels in a later chapter.

The apocryphal Gospels and the fantastic rituals are an efflorescence of the Christian imagination when it was liberated from the controls of the apostolic tradition; and they are of great importance to the historian. Strange as they may seem to be, they are attached to the Christian roots at some point and shed light on Christian life at certain levels.


In the making of an ancient book there was no law of copyright or feeling against plagiarism to hamper an author; if a thing had been well written by a previous writer, there was no need to do the work over again. Whole chapters or sequences of chapters were taken over with very slight changes. The limits and origins of these sources can often be detected by modern critical methods.

In the fifteenth chapter of his first volume, we are conscious that Irenaeus is entering upon such a source. It is the Syntagma of Heresies which Justin had written in the hundred-and-forties. Irenaeus gives a series of short sketches of the eminent heresiarchs of that time: Simon, Menander, Saturninus (for so Justin spelt the name), Basilides, Carpocrates, Cerinthus, the Ebionites, the Nicolaitans, Cerdo, and Marcion. The same portrait gallery is found, with some changes, in the writings of Hippolytus, the pupil of Irenaeus; and it seems clear that he too was using the Syntagma of Justin, which does not survive independently. Both men edited it for their purpose, Irenaeus seems to have omitted the section on Valentine, about whom he has already said so much. He seems to have added the sections on the Ebionites and the Nicolaitans.

The word 'Ebionite' appears here for the first time, and it is the name of a recognizable group or party; but there was no recognizable heresy of Ebionism, it would appear, when Justin wrote. There were simply Jewish Christians of various sorts and degrees. The Ebionite sect described by Irenaeus has no traces of Jewish gnosis; it kept the Law of Moses, practised circumcision, rejected the Virgin Birth, used the Gospel of Matthew, rejected Paul as an apostate, and adored Jerusalem as the house of God. As for the Nicolaitans, it is usually thought that Irenaeus or some informant invented them by combining the Nicolaitans of the Revelation with the Nicolas of Antioch who is mentioned in the Acts; but Clement of Alexandria knew something about this sect.

It would seem that the Ebionites and the Nicolaitans were more active in Asia than in Rome; and the Cerinthians too. Irenaeus has Asia in mind as well as Rome.

It was necessary for Irenaeus to add an appendix to the Syntagma of Justin to bring it up to date. It dealt with the encratites, or ascetics, who were on the border-line of heresy, and with Tatian who is |312 described by Jerome as their grim patriarch. Irenaeus regards them as an offshoot of the oriental schools, and affiliates them with Saturninus of Antioch and Marcion of Pontus. He says that the Egyptian sects, which followed Basilides and Carpocrates, tended to develop in the opposite direction, and thought nothing of promiscuous sexual intercourse, a multiplicity of marriages, and participation in the banquets of the gods. His remarks are based on his own observation, but they may be rather sweeping; and his personal feeling against Tatian is not concealed. Irenaeus will not concede him even the virtue of originality. He borrowed all his opinions from others except for his dogma that Adam could not be saved; that one he invented for himself. (Now Irenaeus had an affectionate interest in Adam.)

He follows this discussion with a number of obscure Ophite myths, which should be treated under the heading of Christian imaginative writing, or possibly Christian polytheism.


We may excuse ourselves from the task of ploughing through his second volume, in which he refutes the gnostic mythology on logical and metaphysical grounds; but we may take from it a typical example of the 'tradition of the elders', which he knew in his youth and used now as a supplementary authority which explained and elucidated the apostolic gospel. We have already given one or two of these, which he took apparently from the pages of Papias, though he claimed personal access to the tradition through his contact with Polycarp.

There was a controversy of long standing on the length of the Lord's ministry, from his baptism to his Passion, which is of interest also to modern scholars. There was a view which was based apparently on Mark (or Matthew) that the ministry of Jesus lasted for exactly twelve months; but Irenaeus was able to meet this theory with evidence and inferences from the Gospels of Luke and John; « This chronology based on Luke and John was also known to Melito: see chapter 14. and these arguments in their turn could be supported by the living voice of the apostolic 'elders'.

And all the elders bear witness, those who accompanied [convenerunt] with John the disciple of the Lord in Asia, saying that this was the tradition of |313 John; for he continued with them up to the times of Trajan; and some of them had seen, not only John, but other apostles too, and had heard the same things from them, and bear witness to this report.
(Irenaeus, Ad. Haer. II, 33, 3.)

Here is a tradition from the Asia Minor school which Irenaeus was in a position to transmit out of his personal knowledge. The word 'elder' had been used by Papias of the apostles themselves; it is now used by Irenaeus of the venerable men who had heard the apostles and instructed him; it has the general meaning, in either case, of the senior men, now beyond recall, who were the bearers of the tradition in their day. He uses the word of Ignatius of Antioch, and of the Roman bishops prior to Soter. It is the same conception of succession that we find in the Rabbinic schools; it is an inheritance from the Jewish period of Christianity.


In his third volume Irenaeus takes up again the question of the apostolic gospel, which he regards as the creative and unifying impulse in the church. He insists that it was originally an oral 'kerugma' or preachment; and that is what in essence it continues to be. It was taken to the bounds of the earth by the apostles, each of whom had perfect knowledge of it and possessed it in its entirety. He is refuting here the criticisms of the gnostics, who held that the original apostles did not fully understand it; he is also preparing the way for the phenomenon of diversity in its presentation.

Matthew, he thinks, was the first to reduce the oral gospel to writing.

Now Matthew produced among the Hebrews, in their own language, a written form of the gospel, while Peter and Paul were proclaiming the gospel in Rome, and laying the foundation of the church. After their departure [by which he means their martyrdom] Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed down to us himself in written form what had been preached by him [Peter]; and Luke the follower of Paul set down in a book the gospel which was preached by him. Then John the disciple of the Lord, who reclined upon his breast, himself produced the Gospel while living in Ephesus of Asia.
(Irenaeus, Ad. Haer. III, 1, 1.)

Irenaeus impresses us throughout his book by his strong feeling for history. He harbours no legendary or miraculous or picturesque |314 additions to the apostolic tradition; the Christian world was full of it, and he rejects it all. The Gospel was written down in four forms in accordance with its fields of expansion: they represent the schools qf Matthew, Peter, Paul and John.

This is another formula, a Roman formula. It has a date concealed in it which has a Roman sound. The Romans counted their years from the foundation of the city, ab urbe condita ; in this document the fixed point is the founding of the Roman church. That was the time when Matthew was writing his Gospel in the Hebrew language. The statement, as a statement, is unobjectionable; we know that Irenaeus, in some way or another, identifies this Hebrew Gospel with the canonical Matthew, and doubtless that was very generally done now; but the formula does not say this. It says that Matthew gave out his Gospel in the language of the Hebrews.

It was after the martyrdoms that Mark delivered the preaching of Peter in a written form 'to us'; that is to say to the Romans. We are in a part of the Refutation where the words 'to us' are constantly appearing with this meaning. It is a Roman document, a Roman source perhaps, though Irenaeus obviously shares its sentiments. He grounds his treatment of the Gospels in the year of the foundation of the Roman church; « For the 'foundation' of the Roman church, see the note at the end of this chapter. he enumerates the succession of Roman bishops from that date as a means of measuring historical time; he leads up to a statement about the Roman church which glorifies it as old and famous and apostolic.

The Gospel formula has two more interesting points about it. One is that while it contains two statements which are also found in Papias, it is not dependent upon him; Papias was not interested in the places where the Gospels originated, or their relative dates. The other is that it is plain and realistic and has no legendary colouring; it does not profess to know where Luke wrote his Gospel, though others did. It reads like prologue-material. Marcion or someone in his church had been equipping the Pauline Epistles with brief introductory notes saying where and why they were written; they were widely copied in the catholic church, and appear in medieval manuscripts. 'Anti-Marcionite' prologues were composed for the four Gospels, which we made use of in our first volume. The Marcionite church would only require one Gospel prologue of course, since it had only one Gospel; |315 the 'anti-Marcionite' prologue to Luke looks like an answer to such a single prologue; and this Roman formula which is used by Irenaeus looks like a single prologue or preface which might serve for a unified fourfold Gospel. A more extended collection of prologue material is found in the Muratorian Catalogue.


The four Gospels had been criticized by the heretics, who claimed that they were not accurate, or had no authority, or disagreed with one another; but Irenaeus does not regard them as the primary authority. The primary authority was the living voice, and we may perhaps have an echo of Papias here. The living voice, or gospel message, or oral tradition, was entrusted by the apostles to a flesh-and-blood corporation which Irenaeus calls the succession of the elders in the churches; and he associates with these 'elders' the bishops who were appointed in the churches by the apostles, and the successions which are derived from them.

It was quite possible, he says, to enumerate the various lists of bishops to whom the apostles had entrusted their own positions as teachers or masters; but this would take too long; so he contents himself with taking the ancient and glorious church of Rome, so well known to all, 'having been founded and constituted by the two apostles, Peter and Paul, and holding firm the tradition which it had received from the apostles, and the faith which was proclaimed to mankind and had come down through the successions of bishops as far as ourselves'; and here again is the inclusive 'we', which intimates that Irenaeus is writing as a Roman for Romans at this point.

And to this church, on account of its more powerful leadership, « 'Potentiorem principalitatem': see note at end of chapter. it is necessary for every church to gather [convenire]; that is to say the faithful from all quarters; because the tradition from the apostles is preserved there by those who come from all quarters.
(Irenaeus, Ad. Haer. III, 3, 1.)

We have already made use of this important passage which unfortunately is only extant in the Latin translation. There has been a good deal of discussion about its precise meaning. The word convenire which I have translated as 'gather', is sometimes translated 'agree'; but the |316 expression convenire ad ought to mean motion to. The word was used in our previous extract about the elders to translate the original Greek word sumballein, which means to accompany; and in a quotation which I give later it translates sunelthein, which means to come together; and these instances seem to show what the usage of the translator was. In any case the international character, the powerful leadership and the central position of the Roman church are fully vouched for.

There were two great historical causes which gave the Roman church its position of 'more powerful leadership'. One was the tradition of the two apostles, who had preached in Rome and founded the church by their witness to death. The other was that all roads lead there. There was no other international centre with schools and local communities representative of so many races. Jewish, Syrian, Egyptian and Asian teachers 'convened' there, each representing the apostolic tradition in one form or another. The faith was preserved there by the representative men who came from all quarters. Traditions and interpretations could be checked; error could be refuted and overthrown; the true character of the universal faith could be clarified.

A third point must be added – the solidity, conservatism, hospitality and generosity of the Roman church itself. We may also add its record of fidelity to the faith. Clement still had the oral teaching of the apostles ringing in his ears, Irenaeus says; or is it Hegesippus quoted by Irenaeus? Ignatius had declared that the Roman church was filtered free from any foreign stain. It was invaded by heresy under Hyginus, but it recovered under Pius. It had the Roman virtue of stability, and was in communication with what was called the whole world; but there is no evidence whatever of any centralized organization. The nature of inter-church action through regional councils and correspondence will become apparent when we come to the records of the Paschal controversy.


We are now in a part of the book where Irenaeus is deriving his material from Hegesippus, and it is perfectly possible that what he had to say about the Gospels and the Roman church was based on Hegesippus, too, though there is nothing in it which would not have been common knowledge. The Gospels could not have been distributed with less information than that.

|317 Hegesippus had made his list of Roman bishops in the episcopate of Anicetus, and continued it down to the episcopate of Eleutherus, under whom Irenaeus was writing. It was through this order and this succession, he says, that the tradition of the apostles and the preaching of the truth came even unto us. Once again the words 'we' and 'us' emphasize his personal participation in the Roman tradition; but he is careful to insist that it was not unique.

The other great apostolic see-cities had their episcopal successions too, a statement which he supports by referring to the tradition of Asia, which was his first love. He gives a good account of Polycarp, who had been 'made a disciple' by apostles, and had associated with many who had seen the Christ. He had been established by the apostles as a bishop for Asia in the church at Smyrna; and there Irenaeus had seen him personally, in his early manhood; « He had listened to Polycarp with Florinus as a boy (eti pais on ). He is thinking now of a later period when he was a young man. for he survived for a long time, and was a man of great age, and witnessed gloriously as a martyr. He mentions Polycarp's visit to Rome to confer with Anicetus, and his refusal to recognize the heretic Marcion. He gives Polycarp's anecdote about John and Cerinthus, and mentions his Epistle to the Philippians. He also refers to the church at Ephesus, which had been founded by Paul, and where John had survived into the times of Trajan, some eighty years before the date of writing: that is to say, the boundary of living memory.


Irenaeus then gives further information from Hegesippus which deals with the arrival in Rome of the great heresiarchs, and after some argument on this point returns to the topic of the written Gospels. There were heretics who made capital of the fact that their beginnings were all so different. These heretics were content with one Gospel only: the Ebionites with Matthew; the Marcionites with their abbreviated Luke; the Cerinthians with Mark; while the Valentinians favoured John above the rest.

This argument about the different 'faces' or 'beginnings' of the four Gospels appears in other sources. A book in the form of a roll was necessarily known by its beginning, since one would unroll a little of it |318 to identify it, if it had no frons or label attached to it. Irenaeus had an old piece of orthodox gnosis which glorified this diversity; it was based on the accepted apocalyptic mysticism. The whole work of God in creation and revelation was fourfold, or was so described in the mystical tradition; there were four winds, four points of the compass, four seasons of the year, four principal constellations in the skies. He who sat on the throne of the heavens sent out his spirits north and south and east and west; the Lamb of God in the Revelation, who is also the Word, unsealed the scroll of mystery, and four riders on four horses rode out into the world. (Revelation vi. 1-8; see also Mark xiii. 27, Matt. xxiv. 31.)

Lindisfarne Gospels: The Gospel According to St Matthew. Title Page. (Section) Lindisfarne Gospels: The Gospel According to St Mark. Title Page. (Section)
Lindisfarne Gospels: The Gospel According to St Luke. Title Page. (Section) Lindisfarne Gospels: The Gospel According to St John. Title Page. (Section)

It is impossible to unravel all this astral symbolism here; but it is possible to make two points about it. One is that the expansion of the gospel is universal; it speeds out in all directions. The other is that it is diversified; it assumes different forms; and that is what is symbolized by the number four. The four living beings which uphold the throne of God in Ezekiel and John have different faces; the bull, the lion, the eagle, and the man, corresponding to the four constellations which mark out the cardinal points of the heavens. These are the 'faces' which he assigns to the four Gospels; the lion for John representing the princely and glorious birth, the bull for Luke representing the priestly and sacrificial character; the man for Matthew representing his birth as a man; the eagle for Mark representing the descent of the Spirit and the gift of prophecy.

This ancient mythological wisdom is not without its more profound meaning. It is easy to see that the creative power never repeats itself identically. It expresses itself diversely and requires all the diversities in order to express the truth. The church would have been poorer with only one form of the gospel tradition. It had to have four; and four was enough.

The four apocalyptic animals have continued to be used in the church tradition as emblems of the evangelists, though the lion has been allotted to Mark and the eagle to John. We have here another example of the poetic or artistic efflorescence of the gospel which found its way into the devotional life of the church. It would appear that this imaginative art-form is more characteristic of primitive Christianity than the definitions of the philosopher. The poet and the artist may be able to interpret something in the work of the prophets and evangelists which |319 the theologian does not always see: the theologian comes later and works out the implications of the tradition. Irenaeus attempts this task himself with the help of his predecessors. He distinguishes and defines.


From the Gospels he passes to the Acts, in which the most authoritative parts for him are the speeches of the apostles and the decrees of their council at Jerusalem, the old mother-city of Christendom. The apostles are his authority, rather than the book. He also uses the Revelation, the Epistles of Paul, 1 Peter and two Epistles of John. He includes an interesting dissertation on Luke, in which he says that everybody made use of selected extracts from his Gospel, some of which he enumerates; thus suggesting that he was not always read through in course, as we have presumed to suggest that Matthew and Mark were. He points out how absurd it is for the heretics to use these Lucan 'Gospels', as he calls them, and at the same time to reject the book of Acts by the same author; or to set a high value on Paul and reject the narrative which was written by his trusted companion.

Irenaeus, therefore, had a New Testament very like ours; and he sometimes alludes to a Gospel or an Epistle as 'scripture'; but it is not right to attach too precise a definition to this word in the second century. The word graphe, or 'writing', is obviously used for holy books in a religious tradition, but more cannot be said. Among the Jews it was the third and last class of inspired books that were given the title of the 'writings', kethubhim, a name which was used to distinguish them from the Law and the prophets. Irenaeus also applies it to Hermas, which he quotes once, but no precise deduction as to inspiration or canonicity can be drawn from this, except that he regards it as a holy book. He takes them all as he finds them in the church tradition; they are all holy writings. At one moment he treats them as a sacred text; at another he can discuss their origin or authorship in an objective way. Nevertheless, he had a collection of apostolic or near-apostolic books, whose authority stood apart from the rest; and the glimpse we thus get of the development of a New Testament is very important.

The striking point about this embryo New Testament is its conservative and critical character. He makes no use of the numerous 'apocryphal' books, the apocalypses, visions, oracles, manifestations, |320 and Sibylline verses which abounded in his time; still less the apocryphal Acts or Gospels. He does not even use the Revelation of Peter, which was read in the Roman church; he does not use 2 Peter or Hebrews. It is doubtful whether he uses James. There are no traces of 3 John, but the lack of a quotation from so small an Epistle does not prove that he did not know it. He mentions the Epistle of Clement, and more than one of Polycarp. He quotes once each from Hernias and Ignatius, but without naming the author. He supplements these writings with the testimony of his Asian elders, specially mentioning Papias.

He must have had a very full apostolic and sub-apostolic library, to which must be added Justin and Hegesippus among his senior contemporaries.


The real Bible of Irenaeus was the Old Testament. When he comes to write his Demonstration which is a manual of the Christian faith, he uses the Old Testament throughout to prove his points.

The principal theological emphasis of Irenaeus is the historical solidarity of Judaism and Christianity. The God who created the world and revealed himself to the Jews was also the God of the Christians. His revelation was continuous; Jesus Christ was his Son; the apostles proclaimed no other God. The scriptures of the Jews are the scriptures of the Christians.

But when he takes up the Old Testament he is obliged to refer to the new interpretations and the new translations, just as preachers and writers have to do today. He mentions the new translation by Theodo-tion of Ephesus and the earlier one by Aquila of Pontus, both of whom, he says, were converts to Judaism. These translations were also used by those Ebionites who asserted that Jesus was the son of Joseph; they translated the famous text from Isaiah as, 'The maiden shall be with child and bring forth a son'; not, as in the Septuagint, 'The virgin shall be with child and bring forth a son.'

Irenaeus points out the antiquity of the Septuagint translation, which was made by the Jews themselves long before the coming of the Lord. It is plain that he knows no Hebrew himself. He tells the story of the translation of the Hebrew scriptures by the seventy 'elders' in the days of Ptolemy II, and is the first to add the miraculous feature that they each made a separate translation, and, when they came together |321 (convententibus ipsis), it was found that they had all translated the Hebrew by the same phrases and words from the beginning to the end; so God was glorified, and it was established beyond doubt that this translation was inspired. Here is a tale accepted by Irenaeus which does not stand up to critical investigation. The legend had been amplified since Justin wrote it down. The Septuagint is an inspired translation, it asserts; the new ones cannot compete with it.

Irenaeus goes on to point out that the apostles, Peter and John and Matthew, all used this translation, made by the 'elders'. He establishes a succession, that is, from the prophets who wrote the Hebrew books, through the elders who translated them, down to the apostles who used them in proclaiming the gospel. This biblical succession was a fact of history, though in a rather different way from this. The Septuagint had been the Bible of the Hellenistic synagogue, and had never lost that position when the Hellenistic synagogue was transformed into the Hellenistic church; it was one of the continuous liturgical factors. Its position was not unchallenged, however, even among Gentile Christians. The new 'adoptionist' schools in Rome which had some affinity with Ebionism, interested themselves in the textual criticism of the Hebrew scriptures, and it would not be long before Origen devoted himself to the same task in Palestine.

We must not look for such an attitude in Irenaeus. He was no more interested in textual criticism than in philosophic speculation; he was interested in the historical revelation which had come down to him through the Hebrew prophets within the Christian church; the incarnation of the Son of God; the apostolic preaching; and the succession of elders in the church. Not that he approved of all elders without distinction. He condemns the minute studies and legal elaborations of the Jewish elders of the Pharisee tradition, and he reprobates those elders of the church who separated themselves from the episcopal succession, and held assemblies by themselves; they were heretics or schismatics or hypocrites; they were playing with strange fire like Nadab and Abihu. He was thinking perhaps of his quondam friend Florinus and other suspected members of the Roman presbytery.


Irenaeus has an interesting analysis of the Law of Moses, which should be compared with the analysis of it which was made by the contemporary gnostic, Ptolemaeus. There, were two classes of precepts, Irenaeus says. First there were the precepts of nature, or common morality, by which men were justified before ever the Law of Moses was given. They are summarized in the Ten Commandments, and similar passages, which the Lord came to 'fulfil'. These had a certain quality of servitude or slavery about them which had to be removed so that men could follow God without fetters. They had to be transformed by Jesus into a law of liberty, a possible echo of the Epistle of James. Irenaeus, with his feeling for history, could sense the idea of progress in a historic revelation. It was necessary to begin with secondary things, he says, before attaining to the primary. Men were called through types and symbols to the reality; through temporal things to the eternal; through the fleshly to the spiritual; through the earthly to the heavenly. So there was law and discipline and prophecy of better things in the future for Israel in that period.

The second class of precepts was given them because of the 'hardness of their hearts', and even the new covenant was not free from legislation of this kind; the apostle Paul had made concessions to his flock because of the 'weakness of their flesh'; a statement which bears some resemblance to the views of Montanus. But what Irenaeus really has in mind at this point is the ceremonial law, which was given to the Jews as a second best when they failed to accept the higher revelation at Mount Sinai. It was a necessary discipline for them and was not without its symbolic significance, since it was a gift from God; but its binding character had been cancelled by the new covenant of liberty; and those laws which were natural and free and common to all mankind had been increased and broadened.

This criticism of the Old Testament is based on principles which had been expounded in the Pauline Epistles, and Hebrews, and Barnabas, and Justin. Its attempt to distinguish a universal and spiritual morality which was harmonious with the inborn moral feeling of the human heart was the work of a mind which could distinguish between different levels of insight in a religious tradition. It presents Jesus as a teacher of ethics who worked within an imperfect but progressive revelation, |323 expanding it into full perfection. Irenaeus is perfectly familiar with the idea of organic growth in history. It is his strong point.

Furthermore, he can make a penetrating analysis of holy books and develop the general principles which underly them.


Enough has been said to show that it is very difficult to assess Irenaeus as a theologian, since more than one emphasis is to be discerned in his thinking. It is best to look upon him as an expositor; the expositor of an ancient traditional religious culture. He accepts it as he finds it. He never invents what he writes. He is an interpreter.

We dare not enter deeply into the question of his theology or theologies. It would seem that he did not have the theological approach. At any rate he did not have a system of philosophy or doctrine through which he could unify his various points of view. What he had was a certain vision and appreciation of the prophetic and evangelical and catholic tradition as a whole. It may be rather audacious to attempt a sketch of it, but we will try.

It was determined by history. He was not interested in what God did before creation. He did not begin in eternity with an infinite being and a co-essential thought-process or logos-power. He began with a spiritual deity who had involved himself in matter and materialism; his joy was to create, and to continue creating, and to reveal himself in his creation. The nature of his creation was to be organic and responsive and progressive and free; but these words are inadequate; in the language of Irenaeus himself, its nature was to be fertile and to 'fructify'. It is the theology of the Marcan seed parables. God's creation and revelation is perpetually growing, increasing, enlarging, maturing, and coming to perfection. God was revealed to man within this process, and so the process of revelation was organic and progressive too. It came to a precocious maturity at one point in cosmic history, when man, the darling son of the universe, and the image of his Creator, first came into existence. He was perfectly made, but immature. He was a child; « The Ebionites held that Adam was a perfect man, being made in the image of God and animated with his Spirit. God's child; and he was lost. He gave way to the powers of evil, and passed under the dominion of death and corruption. The rather |324 dramatic, rather materializing, perhaps-too-flesh-and-blood imagination of Irenaeus comes out here. It is not death-and-sin he thinks of, like St Paul in Romans, but death-and-corruption, though that is a Pauline word too. Man is not so much under judgement and needing to be atoned for by blood; he is lost and dying and under the dominion of the evil power, and needing to be saved and set free and restored to life.

The word 'corruption' must not be understood simply as bodily decay; it is the process of ruin or deterioration which goes on in the whole man, body, soul and spirit. It is the inheritance of mortality in which death is the decisive point so far as our present bodily life is concerned.

There is something Greek, perhaps, in the thought of a salvation from mortality; something Greek, too, in his conception of the remedy, and in the 'mythological' turn of his thinking at this point. Man must be deified. Divine power and spirit must be infused into him to overcome the powers of dissolution, to which his mortal nature is subject; a transfusion of life and spirit by which he will become God as he was originally destined to do. The divine Son of God, the eternal true Man from heaven, enters the world with new life and power, and takes that ruined and corrupted nature into union with himself. He comes in the heart of the sacred preordained area of redemption, and brings everything that man needs; he takes up the curse; he endures the death; he overcomes it; he rises again in glory; he offers all mankind the victory. He infuses new life; incorruption; immortality.

The creative energies of God never pause; they constantly bring forth more fruit. The Son of God moves onward as his gospel is proclaimed to the world in the church; he bestows his spirit; he bestows incorruption; through the gospel preaching, through the teaching, through the waters of baptism, and in the universal sacrifice of the eucharist. He restores, he renews, he mends human personalities, he liberates men from death and decay; he endows them with immortality; they become once again God's darling sons.

God becomes man that man may become God.


Such, in a paraphrase, is the picture one gets of the vision of Irenaeus. How far it is a logical systematic theology one is not prepared to say. Certainly it coheres.

|325 At any rate it represents the preaching of a theologically minded, deeply learned, highly imaginative pastor of souls. It is how he talked, how he lectured, how he preached, how he dealt with scripture and how he answered questions. And now at one point it verges on theology, and now at another it verges on myth, or, as we would say, poetry. And while, at one moment, we have the poetic genius of the Asian mind with its love of sensuous imagery, at another we have the practical Roman mentality with its feeling for order and history and succession. Quite steady, however, is the vision of the whole creation as the evergrowing medium of God's creative power, and man, as his darling child, ever growing nearer to his likeness as he is infused with divine grace; and if the thinking of Irenaeus seems to the pure theologian or the Lutheran evangelical to be too sensuous, and insufficiently aware of the reality of guilt, or the terror of God's judgement upon sinful man, let it be remembered that it was formulated in opposition to the glossy and unsubstantial mirage of the gnostic other-world, and the notion of an automatic salvation for superior minds through knowledge. The salvation which he proclaims is the salvation of Adam, the common man.

His preoccupation with this world and its destiny leads him to close on the vision of the redeemed earth; and now the Asian mysticism with its dreams of an earthly paradise takes complete control. He accepts all the promises of the prophets with a child-like literalism which is in complete contrast to his profound analysis of the symbolism of soteriology. A new earth, restored and redeemed, rises before his eyes. The chiliasm of Phrygian prophets and elders, to whom he had listened in his younger days, takes possession of his imagination. He quotes the sayings of the men of that generation. Matter and substance will not pass away, but the fashion of the world will be changed. Jerusalem on earth will be rebuilt according to the image of the Jerusalem in heaven. Men will forget how to die. The earth will bear fruit out of its own fertility, and by means of the dew of heaven. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and if the straw in those days can feed a lion, what manner of wheat will it produce for men?

Irenaeus loves this world. He will not have it destroyed by fire; he will have it infused with more creative life. He has no interest in an otherworldly Elysium; this world is good enough for him. What can be better for man, than God's own creation, when it has reached perfection?


Text of the 'Anti-Marcionite' Gospel Prologues

1. To Mark : extant only in Latin.

Mark comes next, who is called stumpy-fingered,1 because he had fingers which were too short in proportion to the rest of his bodily development. He was the interpreter of Peter. After Peter's own 'departure' he wrote this Gospel in the regions of Italy.

2. To Luke : extant in Greek as well as in Latin.

There is Luke, a Syrian of Antioch, a physician by profession, who had been a follower of the apostles, and afterwards followed Paul until his martyrdom, serving the Lord without distraction; he was unmarried and had no children, and fell asleep at the age of eighty-four in Boeotia, full of the Holy Spirit.

There were already Gospels in existence, the one according to Matthew written in Judaea, and the one according to Mark in Italy; but he, being moved by the Holy Spirit, composed this whole GospeP in the regions about Achaea, making plain in the introduction this very point, that there had been others written before him, and that it was necessary to set forth the accurate narrative of the dispensation for the benefit of the faithful from among the Gentiles, so that they would not be disturbed by Jewish mythologizings, or be deceived by heretical and vain fantasies, and so depart from the truth. Of necessity, therefore, we have received, at the beginning, the birth of John, who is the beginning of the gospel, having been the forerunner of the Lord, and a participant in the perfecting of the gospel and in the management of the baptism, and in the fellowship of the Spirit; of which dispensation the prophet Malachi makes mention, being one of the Twelve.

And then after that Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles; and after that John the apostle, being one of the Twelve, wrote the Revelation in the island of Patmos; and after that the Gospel.

3. To John : extant only in Latin.

The Gospel of John was manifested and given to the churches by John, while still living in the body, as a certain person, Papias by name, a man of Hierapolis, a dear disciple of John, has related in the Exoterica, that is to say in the last five books; for he wrote down the Gospel correctly, as John dictated it. But Marcion the heretic, when he had been rebuked by him, because his opinions were contrary, was rejected by John ;3 for he had brought writings or letters to him from the brethren who were in Pontus.

|327 Notes.

(1) The nickname 'stumpy-fingered' for Mark is used by Hippolytus also in an anti-Marcionite context.
(2) Luke's Gospel is the whole Gospel, not the shortened version used by Marcion.
(3) Perhaps in the original Greek Marcion was rebuked by Papias, and rejected on the authority of the writings or teachings of John: abjectus est ab Johanne.

The Lucan prologue was obviously composed in connexion with an incipient canon which included as a minimum the four Gospels with the Acts and the Revelation.


We have ventured to suggest that the 'foundation' of the Roman church by the apostles Peter and Paul in Irenaeus is a date which may be compared with the foundation of the city by Romulus and Remus. Since writing this, we have noted the importance of the fact adduced by O. Cullman in his recent book Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr (tr. by F. V. Filson, Philadelphia, 1953) that the date assigned to the foundation of the city was 29 June, which was also adopted for the commemoration of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul.

We point out in chapter 26 that the latter date first appears in the Liberian Calendar opposite the year 258 where it is allotted to the 'deposition' of Peter and Paul, the word 'depositio' being used in this document for the burial of a bishop. It is clear if we connect these three points, that the founding of the Roman church was associated with the martyrdoms of the two apostles; and this of course is the point from which the episcopal years are calculated. Perhaps the word 'depositio' (laying down) originated as a figure of speech derived from the laying of foundation stones. Such an idea could then be connected with the imagery of tower-building in the Visions of Hermas, in which apostles, teachers, bishops, and deacons form the foundation stones of the church.

However this may be, the glory of the ancient Roman church is certainly associated in the mind of Irenaeus with its foundation by the two apostles. He also allots it a 'more powerful leadership' (potentiorem principalitatem) or 'very powerful leadership' as it may be translated. There is no agreement unhappily about the meaning of the latter word; but it can be argued that the word 'principalitas', being connected with 'princeps' (the first man of a number) contains the idea of primacy or presidency; and this is connected by some scholars with the statement of Ignatius that the Roman church presides in the region of the Romans: see vol. I, chap. 24. It is true that the word 'princeps' was a title of the Emperor, but only in virtue of his position as the first man on the senatorial roll. But the word certainly does suggest someone who has a position as first in relation to others of the same standing.

|328 It is remarkable indeed that nobody refers to the promise made to Peter in Matthew xvi. 18. Indeed, the apostolic pre-eminence of Rome at this time was founded on her possession of both the great apostles, who were coupled together in connexion with her by Clement and Ignatius and Dionysius; and also by Gaius in his reference to the two monuments. It was the fusion of their two traditions which took place in the latter half of the first century, and its alliance with the tradition of John which took place early in the second century, that gave Rome its unique position. It had also accepted from Syria at about the same time the Gospel of Matthew, and had awarded it the premier place among the four; it had accepted it as representing the Jewish Gospel of Matthew which it looked upon as contemporary with the preaching of Peter and Paul at Rome. Matthew must, to some extent, have displaced their own Gospel of Mark.

We see here an example of what Irenaeus meant by his statement that the faith was preserved in Rome by those who flocked there from all parts. It is all very different from the Syrian picture of Peter transmitting his authority to Clement as first bishop, a view which may, for all we know, single out for attention one important factor in the multiple tradition of the 'ancient and glorious church'.

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