Irenaeus (ca. 125-202) was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is now Lyons, France. Irenaeus was born in Smyrna in Asia Minor, where he studied under bishop Polycarp, who in turn had been a disciple of the Apostle John. Leaving Asia Minor for Rome he joined the school of Justin Martyr before being made bishop of Lyons in Southern Gaul in about 178 AD.

Irenaeus is primarily noted for his refutation of early Gnosticism. To this end he wrote his major work Against Heresies, in which also sought to expound and defend the orthodox Christian faith. A shorter later work is his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, a brief summary of Christian teaching, largely concerned with Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.


Life of Irenaeus

Early Years/Life

The facts about the life of Irenaeus are not extremely clear or plentiful. We do know that he was born somewhere in Asia Minor—probably in Smyrna, as it is written that he studied under Polycarp of Smyrna in his youth. At some point before 177 Irenaeus moved to the area of Lugdunum (Lyons) in the area of Gaul. It is known that Irenaeus was there at that time because in 177 AD Marcus Aurelius authorized a mass slaughtering of the Christians in Lyons.^[1]^ At the time of this severe persecution of 177 AD Irenaeus was carrying a letter concerning Montanism from Gaul to the church at Rome. Thus he escaped the ending of his life for Christ by martyrdom as did his fellow Christians of Lyons. Upon returning to Lyons Irenaeus was made bishop of Lyons, circa 178 AD. He would remain in this position, being an avid writer against heresies that were becoming wide spread in the church. Specifically Irenaeus wrote against Gnosticism and Marcionism—both heresies that had cropped up in many places of the empire, influencing and leading astray many individuals.


Irenaeus died around the year 200 AD. There is a later tradition of Irenaeus being martyred under Septimus Severus. Jerome in one passage called Irenaeus a martyr, but no other early author gave that title to Irenaeus.^[2]^ The next time that Irenaeus' death was mentioned was in the end of the 6th century in writing by Gregory of Tours. This tradition was followed by martyrologists thereafter. This tradition cannot be supported by evidence that is available from early sources and it has been generally rejected by the scholarly community.^[3]^

Writings of Irenaeus

During the second century many Christians sought to refute the various doctrines that they saw as a threat to Christianity. Eusebius records that Justin wrote Against All Heresies and Against Marcion, and Theophilus of Antioch wrote Against Marcion and Against Hermogenes. All of these writings have been lost except for the record that we have of them in Eusebius. Thus, the earliest heresiologist whose works we have is Irenaeus of Lyons.

In the writings of the early church we have two documents extant from Irenaeus—Adversus haereses, also titled Denunciation and Refutation of the So-called Gnosis, and another work entitled Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching. There is account according to scholars of many more works from the pen of Irenaeus which have been lost.^[4]^ The Adversus Haereses seeks to defend the postion of the Christians in the whole of the world against the incursion of the Valentian heresy. Irenaeus sought to dispel the myths and structure of Valentians' Gnosticism, such as the complex structure of aeons or the split between the creator God, the supreme God, and other gods. He did this by basically expounding the doctrine of the Gnostics, especially Valentinus' disciples and followers. Upon reading the five books of Adversus Heraesus one will see that Irenaeus is more focused on quoting Gnosticism as understood by this specific school of thought and applying this to all of the heresy that was in the larger vein of Gnosticism. As Irenaeus wrote himself, "It is not necessary to drink up the ocean in order to learn that its water is salty".^[5]^

Since the discovery of the library of Nag Hammadi it has become clear though, that Irenaeus was dealing with individuals who were followers of Valentinus, not necessarily the exact doctrines of Valentinius himself.^[6]^ It seems that Valentinus had a more moderated Gnostic understanding of God, not placing the Aeons on the same level of authority as actual individual gods as did the Gnosticism described in the works of Irenaeus.^[7]^

The Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, commonly referred to as the Epidexis, was written for the purpose of strengthening the faith of those who were already believers. In this work one sees Irenaeus filling his pastoral and leadership role as a bishop of the church in Lyons. Only an Armenian version has been preserved of this text.

Scholarly Critiques of Irenaeus' Writings

Debate Over Originality of Writings One classic debate over Irenaeus' writngs was framed by Friedrich Loofs. In the early 20th century Loofs suggested that Theophilus of Antioch was the source of Irenaeus' writings, not Irenaeus himself.^[8]^ F.R.M. Hitchcock, in his article "Loof's Theory of Theophilus of Antioch as a source of Irenaeus"^[9]^ has shown some of the weaknesses of Loofs' study. He acknowledges that some writings from a different context are apparent at some points of Irenaeus' work but that this does not prove Loofs theory. An example is in Adversus haereses 3. 22. 1, where Irenaeus makes use of an anti-Ebionite argument that proves that Christ was born of a virgin in order to argue against the Gnostics that Christ had a human origin. There have been a slew of other academics who have taken positions on both sides of the issue, with the general appearance of the unity and validity of Irenaeus' work being favored.^[10]^

Uses of the Writings of Irenaeus Irenaeus' writings, as have many other church fathers, have been used by a variety of scholars to support a myriad of contemporary and historical heretical positions. One particular theological position that has been skewed is Irenaeus' doctrine of recapitulation. M.C. Steenberg has pressed the concept of the recapitulation of Christ into a Roman Catholic Mariology. Arguing against the possibility that Irenaeus is driven primarily by aesthetic concerns, the author posits a reading of Irenaeus that finds in Mary's person an integral and essential component of a theologically coherent system of personal and social recapitulation.^[11]^ This style of tainting the works of the church fathers is both unworthy scholarship and dangerous to the uninformed reader.

Analysis of Works

The most prominent feature of Irenaeus’ work his organic and eschatological view of redemptive history. Opposed to the various Gnostic heresies of the early church, which either ignored the Old Testament or invented strange teachings of Aeons and the like, Irenaeus viewed the whole of Scripture as a testament to the incarnational Son of God, who is the eschatological event of the cosmos. He is referred to often as containing a biblical theology in his writings.^[12]^ Irenaeus displayed this doctrine in an organic view of revelation and the history of redemption, his view of the incarnation of God in Jesus, the unity of the Bible, and the Recapitulation of all things in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Unity of the Bible and Unity of God

Irenaeus viewed the Scriptures as organically connected from the Garden of Eden to the summing up of all things. He understood that the organic feature of revelation is an unfolding drama that leads to the eschatological person and work of Christ. He states, in reference to the first advent, “the advent of the Son of God took place in these last times, that is, in the end, rather than in the beginning [of the world]; and unfold what is contained in the Scriptures concerning the end.”^[13]^ This “unfolding” is the organic process of revelation, which culminates in the appearance of the Son. These revelations, while pointing to Christ, are indicative of the eschatological nature of revelation, and they invite humanity to participate with God in the eschaton. Thus, Irenaeus states that God “called him [humanity] upwards from lesser things to those greater ones which are in His own presence.”^[14]^ For him, the greatest doctrine is the eschatological presence of God, and his drawing all things back to himself. Irenaeus likens humanity to a child growing from the womb or a stalk of corn growing from the ground. It is here that one can see then Irenaeus focusing on the essential unity of God. As Irenaeus continues, “But it is one and the same Creator who both fashioned the womb and created the sun; and one and the same Lord who both reared the stalk of corn, increased and multiplied the wheat, and prepared the barn. ” ^[15]^


Irenaeus followed Pauline theology in utilizing the first and second Adam theme found within the Apostle Paul’s writing to the Corinthians and Romans.^[16]^ Irenaeus believed that humanity was represented federally and covenantally in Adam, and that the Garden of Eden was eschatologically alluding to the reality of the second Adam. Irenaeus explains, “that as in Adam we do all die, as being of an animal nature, in Christ we may all live, as being spiritual, not laying aside God's handiwork, but the lusts of the flesh, and receiving the Holy Spirit.”^[17]^ When Adam fell in the Garden, humanity fell with him, and the only redemption is based upon the work of the eschatological Adam, that being Jesus Christ. Therefore, for Irenaeus the protological Adam was indicative of the eschatological Adam. The eschatological focus within redemptive history displays Irenaeus’ understanding of the nature of revelation and the culmination of it in Christ Jesus.

Irenaeus’ understanding of salvation is revealed in light of his biblical theology, especially within his doctrine of recapitulation. He believed that as the culmination of redemptive history, the incarnate Son of God recovered what was lost in the first Adam. Some theologians erroneously declare that Irenaeus is articulating a view of universalism in his doctrine of recapitulation.^[18]^ However, Irenaeus held recapitulation to be the “summing up” of all history and humanity in Christ Jesus as the conclusion of the drama of redemption.^[19]^ Furthermore, his belief is that in Christ, the saved are justified through his eschatological work as he is “both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us captives in Adam, and trampled upon his head.” ^[20]^ Thus he draws a parallel with Christ and the promised seed of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. Therefore, the summing up of all things is the fulfilling victory of Christ, the reverse of the curse, and the salvation for those who are covenantally in Christ as opposed to Adam. This understanding of the soteriological and eschatological elements within redemptive history was Irenaeus’ evangelical, apologetical, and theological emphasis. Irenaeus used this doctrinal understanding within his ministry to spread the gospel and to edify and defend the early church.


Irenaeus is a testimony of the redemptive-historical paradigm unfolding in the teaching of the church from the first centuries of Christian history. The recapitulation of the saved in Christ is a critical link that Irenaeus uses to show the unity of the Bible, the organic nature of revelation and the history of redemption, the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus, and the unity of God. The Biblical-Theological approach that Irenaeus used allowed him to be a bastion of truth against the Gnostic heresies that were so pervasive at his time. May he serve as an example to Christians today, to seek to find the eschatological Christ in the protological Adam, indeed the eschatological Gospel in all of revelation, so that we too may be guarded from straying from the path of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord.


  1. ? James T. Dennison Jr. Irenaeus of Lyons. (Outlook: December 2002) p. 9.
  2. ? James Beaven. An Account of the Life and Writings of S. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons and Martyr: Intended to Illustrate the Doctrine, Discipline, Practices, and History of the Church, and the Tenets and Practices of the Gnostic Heretics, During the Second Century (Rivington, 1841) p. 54.
  3. ? Mary Ann Donovan, "Irenaeus in Recent Scholarship," Second Century 4.4 (1984): 219-241.
  4. ? Justo L. Gonzalez. A History of Christian Thought (Abingdon: 1970) p. 158.
  5. ? Adversus Haereses, Irenaeus. 2. 19. 8
  6. ? Gnosticism. ISBE, pp. 489-490.
  7. ? See The Gospel of Truth (Intro pp. 21f.) written either by Valentinus or one of his disciples.
  8. ? Friedrich Loofs, Theophilus von Antiochien Adversus Marcionem und die anderen theologischen Quellen bei Itenaeus (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1930)
  9. ? JTS, 38 (1937), pp. 254-266.
  10. ? For a critical view see Von Harnack (1907, 1-38), who was followed by Bousset (1915) and Loofs (1930), more recently followed by Widmann (1957: 156-73) and Benoit (1960). For support of the unity of the works see Lawson (1948) and Wingren (1959), also Bacq (1970).
  11. ? M.C. Steenberg. The Role of Mary as Co-recapitulator in St Irenaeus of Lyons (Vigilae Christianae, 58. 2, 2004), pp. 117-137.
  12. ? Irenaeus. Anchor Bible Dictionary. p. 458.
  13. ? Adversus Haereses, 10 (ANF p. 543)
  14. ? Ibid, 28 (ANF p. 699)
  15. ? Ibid, 28 (ANF p. 699)
  16. ? Cf. 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 5.
  17. ? Adversus Haereses, 5. 12 (ANF p. 943)
  18. ? See D. Jeffrey Bingham and L. van Rompay's Irenaeus' Use of Matthew's Gospel in Adversus Haereses: In Adversus Haereses (Peeters Publishers: 1998) p. 182.
  19. ? Adversus Haereses, 5. 20 (ANF p. 561)
  20. ? Ibid, 5. 21 (ANF p. 561)

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