Irenaeus on Scripture and Tradition

Irenaeus on Scripture and Tradition

by Dr. Norman L. Geisler


Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200) is an important figure in the early Church. He was the Bishop of Lyons, France who heard Polycarp (the disciple of the apostle John) when he was a boy. He was thought to be a native of Smyrna who studied at Rome. He was the first great Father in the West. His major work was titled Against Heresies.

His View of Scripture

Irenaeus stood soundly on the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture. He also held to its inerrancy. Further, he is an important testimony to the authorship and dates of the Gospels.

On the Authority of Scripture

The Scriptures are said to have divine authority for they are called “divine Scriptures” (AH 2.35.4; 3.19.2). The Bible is called “the ground and pillar of our faith” (AH 3.1.1). It is “the Scripture of truth” as opposed to the “spurious writings” of heretics (1.20.1). For “…all Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent” (AH 2.28.3). He affirms that “…even the Gentiles present perceived that the Scriptures had been interpreted by the inspiration of God” (AH 3.21.2). Indeed, the apostle Paul’s words came from “the impetus of the Spirit within him” (AH 3.6.7).

On the Inerrancy of Scripture

Irenaeus declares that “the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit” (AH 2.28.2). They are also said to be “divine” (from God), and God cannot err (Rom. 3:4; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). They are called “the Scripture of truth” as opposed to the “spurious writings” of heretics (1.20.1). The fact that “all Scripture, which has been given to us by God” is further evidence of their inerrancy, since God cannot err (AH 2.28.3). Likewise, the fact that they are “found by us perfectly consistent” bespeaks of their flawless character. Indeed, Irenaeus speaks of the authors of Scripture as “the apostles, likewise, being disciples of the truth, are above all falsehood” in what they taught (3.5.1). They Gospels, written by the apostles, are based on the words of our Lord. And “our Lord, therefore, being the truth, did not speak lies” (AH 3.5.1)

On the Authenticity of the Gospels

Irenaeus held the traditional authorship of the Gospels were the contemporary eyewitness apostles and disciples whose names they bear. He speaks of “the Gospel of truth” (AH 3.11.9) that were written by the true apostles. He wrote: “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundation of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.” Further, “Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John the disciple of the Lord…did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia” (AH .3.1.1). Irenaeus exhorts, “let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel” (ibid.). He speaks also of the certainty we have of the Gospel which we would not have were it not for the apostles. “For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings” (AH 3.4.1). Hence, “these [four] Gospels alone are true and reliable, and admit neither an increase nor diminuition of the aforesaid number, I have proved by so many and such arguments” (AH 3.11.9).

The Transmission of the Truth of Scriptures

Irenaeus offers two main arguments for the accuracy of the transmission of biblical truth. First, the translations are accurate. Second, the interpretation is the same as that of the apostles and associates who produced them with whom we have an unbroken historical connection.

The Accuracy of the Copies.–Little is said on this point because little needed to be said. After all, the available copies were only about a hundred years after the New Testament was completed. Nonetheless, Irenaeus does make some comments about both Testaments.

As for the Old Testament, he bases his belief in the reliability of the translation on the widely believed story of the alleged miraculous origin of the Septuagint (LXX). It was supposedly produced by some 70 different translators, each working independently and yet producing identical translations from Hebrew to Greek.[1] He wrote, “For all of them read out of the common translation which they had prepared in the very same words and the very same names from beginning to end, so that even the Gentiles present perceived that the Scriptures had been interpreted by the inspiration of God” (AH 3.21.2). As unlikely as this story is, there is a core of truth contained, namely, abundant available manuscripts verify that the Old Testament has been accurately reproduced down through the centuries (see Geisler, General Introduction, Chap. 21), is that the Old Testament has been accurately copied down through the centuries.  

Irenaeus adds to this the argument that the text has not been corrupted because “the Scriptures have been interpreted with such fidelity, and the grace of God has prepared and formed again our faith towards His Son, and has preserved to us the unadulterated Scriptures in Egypt, where the house of Jacob flourished;…This interpretation[2] of these Scriptures was made prior to the Lord’s descent to earth, and came into being before the Christians appeared…–but Ptolemy was much earlier, under whom the Scriptures were interpreted” (AH 3.21.3). Irenaeus’s argument is similar to that of current Christian apologist who point out that Isaiah 53 is a messianic prediction about Christ, since even the Rabbis before the time of Christ understood it to be about the Messiah, not about a suffering nation (see Driver, FTCIAJI, Vol. 2).

As for the New Testament manuscripts available in the second century, Irenaeus based their authenticity on several factors. He wrote: “But our faith is steadfast, unfeigned, and the only true one, having clear proof from the Scriptures, which were interpreted [transmitted] in the way I have related; and the preaching of the Church is without interpolation.” This is evident because “…the apostles, since they are of more ancient date than all these heretics, agree with this aforesaid translation; and he translation harmonizes with the tradition of the apostles. For Peter, and John, and Matthew, and Paul, and the rest successively, as well as their followers, did set forth all prophetical announcements, just as the interpretation of the elders contain them” (AH 3.21.3). He adds, “For the one and the same Spirit of God, who proclaimed by the prophets what and of what sort the advent of the Lord should be, did by the elders give a just [right] interpretation of what had been truly prophesied” (AH 3.21.4). In short, the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also guided the early Fathers in interpreting them.

On the Unbroken Chain of Transmission

Irenaeus refers to the links in this unbroken chain transmitting the apostolic understanding of the Gospel, namely, it came from John the apostle to Polycarp to Irenaeus who knew him. Indeed, he spoke of Polycarp as one “not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but also, by the apostles in Asia appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth…” (AH 3.3, 4). Irenaeus wrote: “But, again,… we refer them [heretics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, and which is preserved by means of the successions of presbyters in the Churches” (AH 3.2.2). Indeed, Irenaeus refers to the “presbyters” as “the disciples of the apostles” (AH 5.35.2). For, “It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men to our own times” (AH 3.3.1).  Irenaeus added, “These things are borne witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp [who was a disciple of the apostle John), in his fourth book” (AH 5.333.4).

On the Canonicity of Scripture

Irenaeus cites freely from every major section of the Old Testament and from most of the books. He also cites from more New Testament books than any other early writer (all but Philemon, James, 2Peter, and 3John). And he gives no reason to believe he rejected any of these; he simply had no occasion to quote from them, three of them being tiny one chapter books (Geisler, GIB, 193). Further, he chides heretics because they “adduce an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings” (1.22.1) as opposed to the authentic Scriptures.

On the Primacy of Scripture.

No one reading the apostolic and other early Fathers can’t help but be stuck by their extensive and authoritative use of Scripture. Just seven major Fathers from Justin Martyr to Eusebius cites 36, 289 verses from the New Testament–every verse but eleven (most of which are from 3 John). Irenaeus alone cites nearly 2000 verses (1819 to be exact) (see Leach, OBHGI, 35-36).

Further, the manner in which they are cited reveal the great respect shown to the Scriptures as the very written word of God. As we have already seen, Irenaeus believed that the very words of Scripture were God-given, perfect, and without error. It is the very ground and pillar of truth.

Other than a few scant references in early Fathers to the oral words of apostles confirming what is in their written word, which alone is God-breathed (2Tim. 3:16 cf. 2Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16), the Bible is not only the primary source of divine authority cited; it is the only source. Hence, it is not simply a matter of the primacy of Scripture but the exclusivity of Scripture as the sole written, God-breathed authority from God. Indeed, Irenaeus criticizes heretics because “they gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures” (1.8.1). Likewise, he condemns them because they “adduce an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings” (1.22.1). In this sense, Irenaeus held to Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone)–one of the great principles of the later Reformation.

On the Perspicuity (Clarity) of Scripture

As J. N. D. Kelly notes, “Provided the Bible was taken as a whole, its teaching was self-evident” (ECD, 38). Only when heretics wrenched texts out of their proper context did the basic message seem confused. Of course, because the Bible is “spiritual in its entirety” it is not surprising that there are some obscurities (Kelly, ibid., 61). Nonetheless, the proper exegesis and aid of the Holy Spirit, the main message of the Bible is clear.

Irenaeus criticized those who “…accuse these Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and assert that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition” (3.2.1). This shows clearly that he not only believed in the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture but also the sufficiency of the literal hermeneutic, apart from tradition, to understand what the Scriptures are teaching.

Irenaeus recognized, of course, that as clear as the Scriptures are there are depraved minds which will not accept it. He said, “I shall for the benefit of those at least who do not bring a depraved mind to bear upon them, devote a special book to the Scriptures referred to…, and I shall plainly set forth from these divine Scriptures proofs to satisfy all t he lovers of truth” (AH 2.35.4)

On the Interpretation of Scripture

Following on the clarity of Scripture is the belief in a literal historical-grammatical hermeneutic which alone can yield this clear message. Irenaeus believed that proper interpretation yields a harmonious and unambiguous understanding of Scripture. He wrote: “A sound mind…will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed with the power of mankind…and will make advancement in them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study” (AH 2.27.10). He added, “these things are such as fall plainly under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures” (ibid.).

Irenaeus concludes: “Since, therefore, the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all, although all do not believe them,…those persons will seem truly foolish who blind their eyes to such clear demonstrations…” (ibid.).

As for difficult passages, “the parables shall be harmonized with those passages which are perfectly clear…” (ibid.). Hence, there is a proper and improper way to read a text. And “if, then, one does not attend to the proper reading of the passage…there shall be not only incongruities, but also, when reading, he will utter blasphemy…” (AH 3.7.2). While Irenaeus did not hesitate to offer “proofs [of] the truths of Scripture” he was quick to point out that “proofs of the things which are contained in the Scriptures cannot be shown except form the Scriptures themselves” (AH 3.12.9). That is, the Bible speaks best and most clearly for itself.

Referring of the New Jerusalem, Irenaeus speaks against the allegorical method of interpreting prophecy, saying, “nothing is capable of being allegorized, but all things are steadfast, and true, and substantial, having been made by God for righteous men’s enjoyment. For as it is God truly who raises up man, so also does man truly rise from the dead, and not allegorically, as I have shown repeatedly…. Then, when all things are made new, he shall truly dwell in the city of God” (AH 5.35.2).

As for Iraenaeus’ affirmation of the true exposition of the Scriptures is to be found in the church alone, the context indicates that he simply means that, as the repository of the true teaching that has come down from the apostles, the church alone, as opposed to heretics outside it, contains the true meaning of Scripture. This is clear from what he says in elaborating on this very point. For he wrote: “It behoves us to…adhere to those who, as I have already observed, do hold the doctrine of the apostles….” (AH 4.26.4). And, “it is also incumbent to hold in suspicion other who depart from the primitive succession…” (AH 4.26.2).

Likewise, Irenaeus places the correctness of his teaching this close link to the apostles, saying, “I have heard from a certain presbyter, who had heard it from those who had seen the apostles, and from their disciples, the punishment declared in Scripture was sufficient for the ancients in regard to what they did without the Spirit’s guidance” (4.27.1). Hence, “True knowledge is that which consists in the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved, without an forging of Scripture, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor suffering curtailment in the truths which she believes; and it consists in reading the word of God without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures…; and above all it consists in the pre-eminent gift of love…” (AH 4.33.8, emphasis added).

It is evident from the emphasized words in the foregoing quote that the correct interpretation of Scripture is found by: 1) reading a text in its proper context; 2) in harmony with other Scripture; 3) as the apostles meant it; 4) and as it is expressed in the apostolic doctrines; 5) which is known to us by historical links with the apostles.

Thus, the succession of elders in the church were to be followed not because of any special divine revelatory authority that rest in them but because known historical link to the apostles gives validity to their claim to be offering a correct interpretation of what the apostles taught.

On the Canonicity of Scripture

Because the basis of the New Testament revelation is the authority of the apostles–both what they had originally proclaimed orally and later committed to writing (AH 3.1.1)–“it was not simply church custom but apostolicity, i..e., the fact that they had been composed by apostles and followers of the apostles” that was the basis for discovering their canonicity (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 38).

Not only does Irenaeus cite every New Testament writer as an apostle of accredited mouthpiece for God (like an associate of an apostle), but he cites from the vast majority of the twenty seven New Testament books. The same is true of the Old Testament. So, there is no reason to believe he rejects any one of the sixty six canonical books of Scripture. As for the so-called apocryphal books of the Old Testament later accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, there is no definitive evidence that Irenaeus believed they were inspired. Of the 14 apocryphal books (11 of which are accepted as inspired by the Roman Catholic Church), only two are alluded to by Irenaeus: 1) History of Susana ( AH 4. 26.2) that is quoted but not used as a divine authority to establish any doctrine. 2) The other book, Wisdom ( AH 2.18.9) is only a possible allusion, not a quotation or an authoritative citation at all. This in contrast to 1819 citations from a vast array of Old Testament books and 23 of the 27 books of the New Testament.

On the alleged citations of the Old Testament Apocrypha by Irenaeus and other early Fathers, the canonical authority Roger Beckwith notes:

When one examines the passages in the early Fathers which are supposed to establish the canonicity of the Apocrypha, one finds that some of them are taken from the alternative Greek text of Ezra (1Esdras) or from additions or appendicies to Daniel, Jeremiah or some other canonical book, which …are not really relevant; that others of them are not quotations from the Apocrypha at all; and that, of those which are, many do not give any indication that the book is regarded as Scripture (Beckwith, OTCNTC, 194, 382-383).

His View on Tradition

In defense of his orthodox interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus appealed to several arguments. First, the correct means of interpretation of Scripture is used. This entails several factors: taking their words in their literal sense and the over-all theme of Scripture (see below). Second, the presence of the Holy Spirit is in the Church to guide it to correct interpretation (AH 3.21.4). Indeed, the Church is viewed as the home of the Holy Spirit who through its Spirit-endowed men who vouchsafed the truth of the Gospel (AH 4.26.2, 5).

Third, he refers to and unbroken chain of Bishops going back to the apostles to verify it was the correct interpretation (AH 3.2.2).

Finally, in connection with this later argument was Irenaeus’s belief that there was a living oral tradition housed in the Church which attests to the true apostolic interpretation of Scripture.

The Nature of Tradition

According to J.N.D. Kelly, not authority on the early Fathers, “Scripture and the Church’s living tradition [are viewed] as co-ordinate channels of this apostolic testimony….” (Kelly, ECD, 35-36). In contrast to Gnosticism, Irenaeus held this tradition to be public. It emanated from the apostles and them alone who were the sole authority on the matter (AH 3.1.1). He contended also, that regardless of differences in language and expression “the force of the tradition” communicated by the apostles was one and the same (AH, 1.10.2; 5.20.1).

The Locus of the Tradition

Unlike Papias who could refer to personal reminiscences of the apostles (Kelly, ECD, 37), Irenaeus believed in “the tradition from the apostles” which he said was available in the Church for all who care to look for it (AH, 3.4.2-5), having been faithfully “preserved by means of the succession of Presbyters in the Churches….” (AH 3.2.2) He also pointed to Barbarian tribes whom he believed had it in unwritten form (AH, 3.4.1). For all practical purposes this tradition could be found in what he called “the canon of truth,” Kelly calls a “condensed summary, fluid in its wording but fixed in content, setting out the key points of the Christian revelation in the form of a rule” (ECD, 37). Irenaeus makes numerous allusions to this body of truth (AH, 1.10.1, 22.1; 5.20.1 etc.).

The Relation of Scripture and Tradition

While some infer that Irenaeus exalted tradition alongside of, or ever over, Scripture, Kelley rejects this for several reasons. First, this only appears to be the case, since in his controversy with the Gnostics Irenaeus appealed to apostolic tradition as the proper way to interpret the Bible. Second, “the Gnostic’ appeal to their supposed secret traditions forced him to stress the superiority of the Church’s public tradition, [yet] his real defense of orthodoxy was founded on Scripture” (Kelly, ECD, 38-39, emphasis added). Third, “tradition itself, on his view, was confirmed by Scripture, which was `the foundation and pillar of our faith’ [3.1.1] (ibid., 39, emphasis added). Fourth, even the “canon of truth” which converts supposedly received at baptism used to help preserve orthodoxy was itself based on Scripture. Finally, Kelly said that Irenaeus believed that “Scripture and the Church’s unwritten tradition are identical in content” (ibid., 39, emphasis added). Kelly adds, “If tradition as conveyed in the “canon” is a more trustworthy guide, this is not because it comprises truths other than those revealed in Scripture, but because the true tenor of the apostolic message is there unambiguously set out” (ibid.)

Further, considering the overall context of Irenaeus’ polemic againt the Gnostics, who were misinterpreting Scripture, it is understandable that Irenaeus would stress the value of valid tradition supporting the orthodoxy of his anti-Gnostic views.

On the Apostolicity of the Church

It is evident form repeated statement by Irenaeus that the final authority for the church rests in the teachings of the apostles, not in any one apostle. Even the founding of the Church at Rome was said to be by two apostles, Paul and Peter (AH .3.1.1). Irenaeus repeated speaks of “the apostolic tradition” (AH 3.3.2) and “the blessed apostles” who “founded and built up the Church” (3.3.3), “the doctrine of the apostles (AH 3.12.4), and “the tradition from the apostles” (AH 3.5.1). He wrote: “these [apostles] are the voices of the Church form which every Church had its origin...; these are the voices of the apostles; these are the voices of the disciples of the Lord, the truly perfect, who after the assumption of the Lord, were perfected by the Spirit…” (AH 3.12.4, emphasis added) For “He [God] sent forth His own apostles in the spirit of truth, and not in that of error, He did the very same also in the case of the prophets” (AH 4.35.2)

On the Unity of the Church

Irenaeus strongly stressed the unity of the Christian Church. As just shown, most often this is in connection with its central apostolic doctrines over against heretical views which denies some fundamental tenet of the Faith.

He spoke repeatedly against schisms, once declaring of “A spiritual disciple” that “He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ….” He then adds, “For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism” (AH 4.33.7).

On the Authority of the Church

A good deal of controversy revolves around a disputed text in Against Heresies, Book Three. Irenaeus refers to “that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also by pointing out the faith preached to men, which comes down to our times by means of the succession of the bishops.” For “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree [Latin, Convenire] with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by those faithful men who exist everywhere” (AH 3.3.2, emphasis added).

Interpretation favoring the Primacy of Rome.–Kelly sets for the dispute in these words: “If convenire here means “agree with” and principalitas refers to the Roman primacy (in whatever sense), the gist of the sentence may be taken to be that Christians of every other church are required, in view of its special position of leadership, to fall in line with the Roman church, inasmuch as the authentic apostolic tradition is always preserved by the faithful who are everywhere” (Kelly, ECD, 193).

Interpretation not Favoring the Primacy of Rome.–Many scholars have found fault with this translations for two reasons. First, the weakness of the final clause has struck them as “intolerable” (ibid.). Second, “the normal meaning of convenire is “resort to”, “foregather at”, and necesse est does not easily bear the sense of “ought” (ibid.) Indeed, the editor of the Apostolic Fathers in the The Ante-Nicene Fathers, A. Cleveland Coxe, cites one candid Roman Catholic scholar who translates is it as follows: “For to this Church, on account of more potent principality, it is necessary that every Church (that is, those who are on every side faithful) resort; in which Church ever, by those who are on every side, has been preserved that tradition which is from the apostles” (ANF, 1.415). Coxe adds, “Here it is obvious that the faith was kept at Rome, by those who resort there from all quarters. She was a mirror of the Catholic World, owing her orthodoxy to them; not the Sun, dispensing her own light to others, but the glass bringing their rays into focus” (ibid.). This is in direct contrast to the proclamation of Pope Pius IX who “informed his Bishops, at the late Council, that they were not called to bear their testimony, but to hear his infallible decree” (ibid., 461). In short, what Irenaeus meant was that Rome is the center of orthodoxy since she, by virtue of being the capitol of the empire, was the respository of all catholic tradition-–‘all this has been turned upside down by modern Romanism” (ibid.)

Kelly concurs, observing that many scholars “…have judged it more plausible to take Irenaeus’ point as being that the Roman church [of that day] supplies an ideal illustration for the reason that, in view of its being placed in the imperial city, representatives of all the different churches necessarily (i.e., inevitably) flock to it, so that there is some guarantee that the faith taught there faithfully reflects the apostolic tradition” (ibid., 193).

It is noteworthy that the apostles did not appoint more apostles to replace them after Pentecost where they became the “foundation” of the Church, Christ being the chief cornerstone (Eph,. 2:20). Rather, they appointed “elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Irenaeus himself speaks of “the disciples of the apostles” as “presbyters” (elders) (AH 5.35.2). He wrote: “… we refer them [heretics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, and which is preserved by means of the successions of presbyters in the Churches” (AH 3.2.2).

Irenaeus seemed to believe that each church has a single Bishop over it, speaking of Polycarp as “bishop of Smyrna” (cf. AH 3.3.4) and a line of bishops in Rome beginning with Linus (AH 3.3.3). However, this is in contrast to the New Testament which is clear that every local church had its own “bishops and deacons” (cf. Phil. 1:1; Acts 14:13).[3] And it was they whose leadership was to be followed by their congregations (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24), not any ecclesiastical authority in Rome. For Christ, the Chief Shepherd, was the invisible Head of the visible church. For He walked among them and rebuked them for not recognizing His Headship (cf. Rev. 1-3).[4]


While the non-Catholic interpretation of Irenaeus seems preferable for the many reasons given, the outcome of this issue is not definitive for the debate about the alleged primacy of Rome. For if the former view is correct, it simply shows an earlier statement of what later developed into what came to be known as Roman Catholicism. If so, this would not be surprising for a couple reasons. For one thing, the beginning of false doctrine, even on the primacy of the episcopacy, was nearly a century before this time. John the apostle spoke of it in his third epistle when he warned: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us” (3Jn. 9). Further, Irenaeus was over a century after most apostles had died–the very time that even apocryphal Gospels were emerging. Indeed, he is writing sometime after the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (c. 140). So, there was plenty of time for false views to emerge, even among those who were otherwise orthodox. What is more, considering the attacks on Christianity at the time, there was strong motivation to develop an ecclesiology that would provide a united front against the divergent heretical groups emerging at the time, which is reflected in Irenaeus’ emerging episcopal view of church government. Finally, there is no evidence Irenaeus favored the Roma Catholic view of the primacy of Peter. And even if he favored the primacy of Rome as the center of Christianity, he does not support the later Roman Catholic pronouncements on the infallibility of the Pope. His constant appeal was to the original “apostles” (plural) as the God-established authority. Peter was not singled out by him as superior to others. He, at best, was only a co-founder of the church at Rome along with Paul. He was in fact on the same level as Paul and the other “apostles” to whom Irenaeus repeatedly refers. Furthermore, his stress on the primacy of Scripture as the final written authority of the Christian Faith demonstrate that all ecclesiastic authority is based on Scripture, not the reverse. Finally, his stress on the sufficiency on the Holy Spirit and the proper mode of interpretation as sufficient to understand the Scripture denies the later Roman Catholic view that the church in an organizational authoritative sense is necessary to interpret Scripture.

Other Doctrines

Other doctrines of interest included his view on anthropology, human responsibility, and eschatology.

On Anthropology

Irenaeus strongly defended creation ex nihilo over against Greek and Gnostic views of ex deo and ex materia.

He also believed in a dualistic view of human nature. While united to the body in this life, the soul survives death and is immortal. Human’s a conscious between death and resurrection, but are not made complete again until they are reunited with their bodies.

On Human Responsibility

On the question of human free will, Irenaeus stood in the long tradition of those who maintained the self-determining nature of free choice. Irenaeus wrote, “Those persons, therefore, who have apostatized from the light given by the Father, and transgressed the law of liberty, have done so through their own fault, since they have been created free agents, and possessed of power over themselves” (AH 4.39.3).

On Redemption

Along with his orthodox views on the death and resurrection of Christ for our sins, Irenaeus is the author of the so-called “Recapitulation” theory of the atonement. According to this view, the fully divine Christ became fully man in order o sum up all humanity in Himself. So, what was lost through the disobedience of the First Adam, was restored through the Second Adam (Christ) who went through all the stages of human life, resisted all temptation, died, and rose victoriously over the Devil (AH 5.21.1).


Irenaeus said, “With regard to those (the Marcionites) who alleged that Paul alone knew the truth, and that to him the mystery was manifested by revelation, let Paul himself convict them, when he says, that one and the same God wrought in Peter for the apostolate of the circumcision, and in himself for the Gentiles [Gal. 2:8]” (AH 3.13.1). Likewise, his companion Luke knew what Paul taught. And he told Ephesians he told them the whole council of God (Acts 20). The Church is spiritual seed of Abraham (5.34.1, 3).

On Eschatology

Along with most other early Fathers, Irenaeus was premillennial (5.32.1-2; 33:1; 5.35.1-2). The millennium begins with the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6). Of this Irenaeus said, “John, therefore, did distinctly foresee the `first resurrection of the just.’ and the inheritance in the kingdom of the earth” (AH 5.36.3). According to George Peters, other premillennial early Fathers included Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Hermas, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Melito, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian (Peters, TK 1.451). Irenaeus also believed in the literal fulfillment of the unconditional land promise to Abraham and His descendants (5.32.2).

The Conscious Survival of the Soul

Irenaeus believed that the soul consciously survives death and lives on immortally in the next world (AH 5.31.1). Here the soul of believers awaits the resurrection when it will be reunited with the body forever in a perfect state. Unbelievers will be banished from the presence of God in a place of punishment (call Hell) forever.

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End Notes

[1] Justin Martyr had this same view (To the Greeks, 13), as did St. Augustine after this time (see City of God).

[2] The word “interpreted” includes the idea of translated, since one must interpret a text correctly in order to properly translate it.

[3] Indeed, bishop and elder were used interchangeably in the New Testament (cf. Titus 1:5, 7), the former being the term Greeks used or leaders and the later which Hebrews used. Indeed, the qualifications are the same for both; the duties are the same; there was a plurality of both in even small churches (cf. Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1). Thus Irenaeus, writing over a hundred years after the apostles, is reflecting an emerging episcopal form of government not found in the New Testament.

[4] See N. L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol. 4, Chap. 4.


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Behr, John. “Irenaeus and the Word of God” in Studia Patristica 36 (2001)

Driver, S.R. and Ad. Neubauer, The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to Jewish      Interpreters (Oxford: James Parker and Co., 1877). Vol. 2.

Jacobsen, Anders-Christian. “The Philosophical Argument in the Teaching on the Resurrection of the Flesh” in Studia Patristica 36 (2001).

Geisler, Norman and William E. Nix. General Introduction to the Bible, revised (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986).

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Dr. Geisler is the author of Should Old Aquinas Be Forgotten? Many Say Yes but the Author Says No. (Bastion Books:2013), What Augustine Says (Bastion Books:2013), Is the Pope Infallible: A Look at the Evidence (Bastion Books:2012), Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim (Crossway Books:2008), and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker Academic:1995). For additional resources by Dr. Geisler on Roman Catholicism, please visit