I reflect in amazement of how it is impossible that the Bible has any other source other than God. The Bible is so internally consistent, even though it was written by different men over the course of centuries, that it defies imagination.When I read what some of the ancients believed and got wrong, even the defenders of the faith, I have an even greater appreciation of God’s written word.
Ed: This article was made when I was a Protestant and upon greater learning and reflection my thoughts may have evolved.
So, in reference to the title of the article I am still reading Book II of Against Heresies. It is a hard slog for two reasons:
- The Gnostics believed in something that is absolutely moronic. Its a belief system that is a hodge podge of ancient views on mathematics, mythology, and Scripture. Sometimes I have to remind myself that “there are none who seek for God” (Rom 3:11) because I cannot believe anyone can be stupid enough to believe such garbage, especially when Gnosticism was considered “smart” in its day. It shows how desperately wicked and deceitful our hearts are.
- Irenaeus is far from an erudite writer. In fact, it is quite a shame that because he wrote the earliest really long book with a semblance of systematic theology in it, he is put on this sort of pedestal when he is in certain respects a lousy thinker. He quotes the Bible (sometimes wrongly) and the Gnostics from memory, so he is not copious in his writings. Further, he makes statements whose logic is so bad, that he either disproves his own arguments or calls into question his own expertise to be defending the faith.
If more people actually took time to read Irenaeus, instead of reading about Irenaeus, they would realize that the previous two points are true. So, why invest so much time reading Irenaeus and about the Gnostics? Simply, I want to know what early Christians believed. It does not mean that everything they believed was right, nor could it be, as clearly these men made some obvious errors in their thinking.
Botched Apologetics. Irenaeus in his crusade against Gnosticism makes a few less than convincing arguments.
And if, as is maintained, [the Supreme Being,] inasmuch as He is benignant, did at last take pity upon men, and bestow on them perfection, He ought at first to have pitied those who were the creators of man, and to have conferred on them perfection. In this way, men too would verily have shared in His compassion, being formed perfect by those that were perfect. For if He pitied the work of these beings, He ought long before to have pitied themselves, and not to have allowed them to fall into such awful blindness (Book II, Chap 4 Par 4).
Irenaeus point is clear. If the Gnostic chief diety, the Propator, took pity upon men who could not save themselves so he made a way for them to achieve Gnosis and be saved, then surely he would have been compassionate to the lesser deities, the Aeons, in enlightening them before their ignorance created the fallen material creation we have today.
Now, while this seems like a good argument (especially so if you know a lot about Gnosticism), it is known to be false in an obvious way. God, who made a way of salvation through Jesus Christ, could have prevented the need for such a thing if Adam’s fall could have been prevented (or if he we annihilated and the human race started over again.)
Irenaeus might respond that man has free will and God let’s man be, but then cannot the Gnostic say the same about Aeons? He may also respond that God has a good purpose in allowing the Fall, but can the Gnostics also say the same. Irenaeus tried hitting a homerun out of the park, but the bat missed the pitch and swung around hitting him in the back of the head.
In Book II, Chapter 7, Par. 2 Irenaeus argues that the Gnostic Pleroma must be defective (in a state of ignorance) because ignorance exists in creation (particularly in the Demiurge):
For if these things [below] were made by the Saviour after the similitude of those which are above, while He (the Demiurge) who was made after such similitude was in so great ignorance, it necessarily follows that around Him, and in accordance with Him, after whose likeness he that is thus ignorant was formed, ignorance of the kind in question spiritually exists.
Now, if we permit such logic to hold, because evil exists in men and they are made in the image of God, then the God must be evil too. Obviously, Irenaeus is trying to get a jab in there, but such arguments are little more than empty rhetoric. We may all agree that something can be made in similitude to something else, but also not attain to the same greatness of what it copies.
There are more examples of bad apologetics, but I recommend actually reading the commentary to get more. Book I is already up and Book II will be done soon. As you can tell, in order to understand what Irenaeus got wrong it is necessary to have a good background in what he is even talking about.
Jesus was 50 Years Old? The actual age of Jesus is a bit of a mystery. Scholars say he was in his mid 30s. The Italian artists seem to go with the low 30s. From what we know from the Scripture, Jesus was born when Herod was still alive (4 BC at the latest) and the first Census of Quirinius (sometime between 12 BC to 4 BC). Being that Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt appears to be very short, we have reason to believe the events described were probably between 8-4BC.
Jesus’ baptism occurred during the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign (29-30AD) and Luke 3:23 says Jesus was “about 30 years old.” This requires a date between 4-5 BC for his birth, as if it were any earlier Jesus would no longer be “about 30,” as a birth date in 5 BC would thrust Him between the ages of 34-35. As for the length of Christ’s ministry the events in Acts 4 could have not occurred later than 36 AD, the last year Caiphas was high priest. This put’s Jesus age at an absolute maximum of about 41 years old at His death if we presume that Acts 4 happened almost immediately after Pentecost. Being that this was probably not the case, it is more likely He was still in His late 30s when He died.
What’s Irenaeus’ take on it? Perhaps not knowing the chronology of Roman Emperors and governors, he taught that Jesus reached about 50 years old. For some reason, Catholic apologists are embarrassed of it.
BiblicalCatholic.com, in an article criticizing James White, claims:
So far, Irenaeus’ point is that some say that Jesus died at age 30…His point is that Jesus lived past the first stage of life, and was in the stage of life between 31 and 50, which extends into “old age” (as they saw it in Roman times).
A detail BiblicalCatholic glossed over is that the “some” who “say that Jesus died at thirty” were Gnostic heretics. As for his remark about age, the Jewish practice of counting age by decades is both unheard of in Irenaeus’ writings and anywhere else for that matter. In fact, as we will cover in a bit, Irenaeus writes that the “first stage of life…extends onwards to the fortieth year,” in direct contradiction of BiblicalCatholic’s claims.
In A.H. Book 2, Chapter 22, Paragraph 3, Irenaeus counts three Passovers in the Gospel of John. Some Catholic apologists take this to mean that Irenaeus believed that Christ preached only three years. The problem is that Irenaeus nowhere makes this claim. In fact, he explicitly makes the point that Jesus’ ministry was far longer.
First, he makes the point that Jesus lived through every age group so that he can sanctify all men:
He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise (Par 4).
As we can see in the above, Irenaeus is unequivocal. Jesus was not “merely as respects the setting for of the truth” and example to all ages, but he literally became the age of all men.
This is assumed by Irenaeus as we read on:
They [the Gnostics], however, that they may establish their false opinion…maintain that He preached for one year only, and then suffered in the twelfth month. [In speaking thus,] they are forgetful to their own disadvantage, destroying His whole work, and robbing Him of that age which is both more necessary and more honourable than any other; that more advanced age, I mean, during which also as a teacher He excelled all others (Par 5).
Obviously, Irenaeus is saying that Jesus was literally an old guy. It robs Jesus the dignity of old age by saying that He was not. Just in case someone were to debate that Irenaeus considered the mid 30s “old,” he goes on to explain himself so that we know this is not the case:
Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, everyone will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed (Par 5).
As we can see, Irenaeus writes that Jesus literally possessed an age between 40 and 50. Again, this is not impossible as the math we showed above shows that Jesus could have lived to be 41 years old depending upon how close to the resurrection the events in Acts 4 were. However, as we shall see, Irenaeus favors an age near 50 (in agreement with the ancient consensus that 49 is the epitome of one’s life) and he quotes authorities to prove it:
He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher [at an advanced age], even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information…Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement (Par. 5).
This is one of our earliest mentions of oral tradition in church history. While it would be going beyond what Irenaeus was passing comment on to say that oral tradition was considered equivalent with Scripture, it does appear that Irenaeus believes that oral tradition helps us interpret a question that the Scripture supposedly answers. Ironically, the question pertains to the age of Jesus, and the oral tradition leads Irenaeus to apply John 8 in a way much different than pretty much anyone today.
“You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” John 8:56-57 Now, such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period. But to one who is only thirty years old it would unquestionably be said, “You are not yet forty years old.” For those who wished to convict Him of falsehood would certainly not extend the number of His years far beyond the age which they saw He had attained; but they mentioned a period near His real age (Par 6).
Irenaeus clearly uses John 8 as evidence that Jesus had to be at least 40 years old when the events in question had taken place. Further, if we had to guess where in his 40s Jesus was, Irenaeus appears to favor the late 40s, an age that we now know is historically impossible. But, let’s continue:
[T]hey observed that He was above forty years old, and that He certainly was not one of only thirty years of age. For it is altogether unreasonable to suppose that they were mistaken by twenty years…He did not then want much of being fifty years old (Par 6).
Irenaeus in the clearest possible terms reiterates that Jesus was more than 40 years old and that it is impossible Jesus was in his low 30s. In fact, Jesus was not much shy of fifty.
What Do We Make of the Actual Oral Tradition? What was Irenaeus talking about? Was he just off his rocker, like he was when he emphatically denied the correct month of the Passover? Was he quoting oral traditions pertaining to the idea that. Jesus was all things for all men in a more profound way than Paul in 1 Cor 9:22 and egregiously misapplied it? Was the oral tradition perhaps bungled in an inter-generational game of telephone? Did Irenaeus believe several years passed between each Passover event or that a long period of time elapsed before Jesus came to Jerusalem as an aged master? Was Irenaeus perhaps making it up as he went along or “misremembering” something he heard?
So, why won’t a bunch of people jump on the “Jesus was almost 50 in John 8” bandwagon? Other than the difficulty of pushing all of those artistic representations of Christ and realities pertaining to secular history out of our minds, I think even Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox know that there is a major problem with oral tradition. It can be misremembered, misapplied, and made up.
Even if we concede there was a time when the Apostles were alive and shortly thereafter that Christians’ had submitted themselves to oral Apostolic authority, we must admit that the written Apostolic authority (the New Testament) allows us to avoid many of the pitfalls of a vacuous oral tradition in which the Apostles who made, being long dead, cannot correct the record.
So, this forces us to ask important questions. When Catholics say that Tertullian called the Lord’s Supper a sacrifice in the third century, do we have complete confidence that he was accurate in saying this is what the Apostles taught? How about traditions such as the Assumption of Mary, which was not mentioned in the affirmative by an orthodox source until the sixth century? If Irenaeus was bungling things in the 170s AD, almost a century after most of the Apostles other than John were dead, what realistic hope do we have that an otherwise unmentioned tradition five centuries after the Apostles is accurate?
The Scripture remains for us the only God-breathed Apostolic testimony that we have any normative expectation is actually accurate. If this does not convince you of Augustine’s position that, “For among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book 2, Chap 14), which is the Sola Scriptura position, nothing will.
In Closing. So, I will keep reading Irenaeus. I am interested to see what insights I can get into the ancient church. However, Irenaeus, nor any other ancient, is my authority. Men like him make gross, obvious, errors. This is unlike the Scripture, which we know comes from the Apostles, was breathed out by God, and unlike vacuous claims to oral tradition there is no debate as to its unadulterated nature. This is why the Scripture is inimitable and the writings of those men who read it, like me and the ancients, are moronic in comparison.