For Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.), Christian faith is biblical faith

Last week I commented on a beautiful passage by the second-century Christian theologian Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.) showing his belief in both the full humanity and the full divinity of Christ.

One of the things that comes across loud and clear in that passage is that, for Irenaeus, Christian faith is biblical faith.

Before we consider this, let us remind ourselves again of part of the passage I shared last time.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.19.2

Note: The wording presented here is my modernization of the text presented in Alexander Roberts and Arthur Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, repr (Edinburgh: Clark, 1993), p.449.

For this reason [it is written], “Who shall declare his generation?”[1] since, “He is a man, and who shall recognize him?”[2] But the person to whom the Father who is in heaven has revealed him,[3] [also] knows him. [Such a person] understands that he who “was born neither by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man,”[4] is the Son of Man, the Christ, the Son of the living God.[5]

“But the divine Scriptures do testify both these things of him: that he had in himself that pre-eminent birth that is from the Most High Father; and also that he experienced that pre-eminent generation which is from the Virgin. Also, they testify that he was a man without comeliness, and liable to suffering; that he sat upon the foal of a donkey; that he was given vinegar and gall to drink; that he was despised among the people, and humbled himself even to death…”

Irenaeus, ‘Against Heresies’, 3.19.2

For I have shown from the Scriptures,[6] that no-one of the sons of Adam is, absolutely and in every respect, called ‘God’ or named ‘Lord.’ But that he [i.e., Christ] is himself, in his own right, and beyond all men who ever lived, God and Lord and King eternal, and the incarnate Word, proclaimed by all the prophets and by the Spirit himself — this may be seen by everyone who has attained even to a small portion of the truth.

Now the Scriptures would not have testified these things about him, if, like others, he had been a mere man. But the divine Scriptures do testify both these things of him: that he had in himself that pre-eminent birth that is from the Most High Father; and also that he experienced that pre-eminent generation which is from the Virgin.[7] Also, [they testify] that he was a man without comeliness, and liable to suffering;[8] that he sat upon the foal of a donkey;[9] that he was given vinegar and gall to drink;[10] that he was despised among the people,[11] and humbled himself even to death;[12] and that he is the holy Lord, the Wonderful, the Counsellor, the one Beautiful in appearance, and the Mighty God,[13] coming on the clouds as the Judge of all men.[14] All these things did the Scriptures prophesy about him.

For Irenaeus, Christian faith is biblical faith

What the above passage shows us very clearly is that, for Irenaeus, Christian faith is — and must be — based on Scripture.

One of things Irenaeus is doing in this particular part of his Against Heresies is showing that Jesus Christ is both fully human (which the Gnostic heretics denied) and fully God.

“Notice in the above passage how many times Irenaeus quotes from Scripture. For Irenaeus, if we want to know that Christ is both fully human and fully God, where are we to look? — in the Scriptures!”

For Irenaeus, if we want to know that Christ is both fully human and fully God, where are we to look? — in the Scriptures!

So notice from the footnotes to the above passage how many times Irenaeus quotes from Scripture. I make it fourteen separate quotations from, or references to, Scripture in the space of one section of one chapter of his work.

Because in this particular section Irenaeus is demonstrating the humanity and divinity of Jesus from the Old Testament writings, his quotations in this passage mainly come from there. However, for him Christian faith is just as much based on the New Testament writings. Thus in the passage just before this one, we find him quoting from the New Testament books of John, Romans and 1 Corinthians.

Irenaeus lived a couple of generations after the last of the apostles. By his own account, in his youth he knew Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who in turn knew the apostles.[15] Clearly, then, Irenaeus did not have the apostles on hand to ask them about Jesus. So where was he going to go to learn about Jesus? — to the Scriptures!

Why is this important to us?

Firstly, because it gives us confidence that the New Testament that we have is the New Testament as it was written.

A lot of nonsense has been written, in books such as The da Vinci Code, about the Emperor Constantine ‘tampering’ with the Bible in order to make Jesus ‘divine.’

“When Christians are described in the media or by celebrities as having ‘antediluvian’ beliefs, as Christians we should rejoice. Our ‘antediluvian beliefs’ are evidence that our consciences are captivated by the word of God, and not by the shaky value systems of the world.”

We know that such assertions are nonsense because Constantine lived a century and a half after Irenaeus, and in Irenaeus we have an orthodox Christian writer clearly setting forth the humanity and divinity of Jesus.

Secondly, however, when people say to us that Christianity should adapt to the 21st century — in other words, that we should relegate the beliefs of the past to the past and re-think the Christian faith (“How can you live by a document that was written 2,000 years ago?”) — Irenaeus shows us that the Christian faith is absolutely rooted and anchored in the Bible.

We may well therefore say of Irenaeus those great words spoken by Martin Luther when he was challenged to deny what he believed from the Bible: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

So when Christians are described in the media or by celebrities as having ‘antediluvian’ beliefs, as Christians we should rejoice. Our ‘antediluvian beliefs’ are evidence that our consciences are captivated by the word of God, and not by the shaky value systems of the world.

For Irenaeus, the Old Testament is all about Jesus

“What comes across loud and clear from the above passage, is that for Irenaeus the Old Testament was all about Jesus — it was all pointing forward to him.”

Another observation which comes across loud and clear from the above passage, is that for Irenaeus the Old Testament was all about Jesus — it was all pointing forward to him.

So notice again how much of the facts of Jesus’ life he demonstrates from the Old Testament: Jesus’ being both God and Lord; his birth from a virgin; his suffering for us; his entry into Jerusalem; his being given vinegar and gall to drink; his being despised by the people; his death; and his Second Coming as Judge.

Of course, in viewing the Old Testament as a document whose primary purpose was to point forward to Jesus, Irenaeus was taking his cue from the New Testament writers themselves. For example, when Paul writes at the beginning of Romans:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son…
Romans 1:1-3[16]

Or when Luke recounts Jesus, after his resurrection, explaining the Old Testament to two disciples:

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Luke 24:27[17]

That the Old Testament was all pointing forward to Jesus was important to Irenaeus for at least two reasons:—

  1. It confirmed his faith in the risen Jesus.
  1. It showed that the God who wrote the Old Testament was the same God who sent the Saviour Jesus into the world — a doctrine flatly denied in the second century by the heretic Marcion.

As Christians today, that means that when we look at the Old Testament, we can be confident that it really is all about Jesus — as Christians down the centuries have always believed.

In Irenaeus we see the canon of the New Testament emerging

Irenaeus’ faith as a scriptural faith is important to us for another reason.

“When we talk about Irenaeus quoting from the New Testament writings, we need to understand that the exact limits of the New Testament canon were not yet defined, and would not be finally defined for approximately another two hundred years. However, already in the writings of Irenaeus we see the broad outlines of the final New Testament canon already in place.”

When we talk about Irenaeus quoting from the New Testament writings, we need to understand that the exact limits of the New Testament canon — the 27 books we regard as the New Testament today — were not yet defined, and would not be finally defined for approximately another two hundred years.

However, already in the writings of Irenaeus we see the broad outlines of the final New Testament canon already in place.

We see, for example, that he clearly regards the writings of the Apostle Paul as Scripture (see, e.g., Against Heresies 3.19.1 in which he quotes from Romans and 1 Corinthians).

He also quotes frequently from Paul’s First Letter to Timothy — in fact, the title he himself gives to his ‘Against Heresies’ is ‘The Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called,’[18] alluding to 1 Timothy 6:20.

And we find him quoting frequently (as indeed did his heretical opponents) from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Indeed it is Irenaeus who insisted that there were only four canonical Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — and denied the apostolicity of the other ‘Gospels’ which had emerged during the succeeding decades.[19]

Indeed, so much was Irenaeus quoting as Scripture the writings which were later confirmed as the New Testament, and not (with a few exceptions) from others which were later excluded, that his writings must have exerted a huge influence, by way of precedent, over the eventual emergence of the canon of 27 books.

This, too, has considerable significance for us. Even if the New Testament canon of 27 books wasn’t finally decided until the fifth century, reading Irenaeus gives us confidence that the broad outlines of the canon were already in place from an early date.

When we read the New Testament, therefore, we are not reading somebody’s arbitrary selection of ‘inspired’ writings; no, we are reading the writings which were always regarded as divinely inspired Scripture by the universal Christian Church. And this gives us much cause to rejoice.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Isaiah 53:8 (AV, etc.)

[2] Jeremiah 17:9 (Septuagint)

[3] Cf. Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22; Matthew 16:17

[4] John 1:13

[5] Matthew 16:16

[6] Earlier, in A.H. 3.6. See http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.vii.html

[7] Isaiah 7:14

[8] Isaiah 53:2-3

[9] Zechariah 9:9

[10] Psalm 69:21

[11] Psalm 22:6

[12] Cf. Philippians 2:8

[13] Isaiah 9:6

[14] Daniel 7:13

[15] Against Heresies 3.3.4. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.iv.html

[16] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+1%3A1-3&version=ESVUK

[17] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+24%3A27&version=ESVUK

[18] See http://www.ntcanon.org/Irenaeus.shtml

[19] See, e.g., Against Heresies 3.11.8 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xii.html)

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