Orthodox Christian Theology

"Fight to the death for the truth and the Lord God will fight for you." (Sir 4:28)

Church History

Commentary on Irenaeus’ Against Heresies Book III

Irenaeus is considered by many the first systematic theologian of the Church. Being the first at something makes it is easy to ascribe to him the qualities of unerring thought and perfect insight. As much as my learning allows I am undergoing a thorough reading of his books. I already finished Books I through III and will soon, by God’s grace, finish Book IV. In order to make these books more easily understandable, I am annotating them like a study Bible.

Ed: This article was made when I was a Protestant and upon greater learning and reflection my thoughts may have evolved.

Click here in order to read Book I of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, with my annotations.

Click here in order to read Book II of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, with my annotations.

Click here in order to read Book III of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, with my annotations.

While this post will not contain a thorough summary of everything about Book III of Against Heresies, I will give the following synopsis:

  • Book I covers the specifics of different Gnostic heresies. Irenaeus does this in order to show that he is an expert of what Gnostics teach. This lends credibility to his works as a whole, in his eyes, as he is better able to disprove Gnostic heresies than his predecessors such as Justin Martyr.
  • Book II covers how Gnostic teachings are internally inconsistent. The central premise is that the law on non-contradiction holds universally true. Gnostic teachings, based upon their own sources (allegedly), are self-contradictory. Therefore, Gnosticism is not true Christianity.
  • Book III Irenaeus seeks to prove that the teaching of the Apostles disproves Gnostic doctrines. He spends the first four chapters proving that the orthodox Scriptures are the only dependable authority of true Apostolic teaching. The remained of the book is dedicated to how their letters disprove Gnostic doctrines. Generally, Irenaeus does this by going between books in no particular order, responding to random objections over interpretations of narrow passages. He also disproves certain Gnostic views of particular Scriptures (as they did not uphold an orthodox doctrine) along the way.
    • The majority of Irenaeus’ focus is that the Scripture proves that Christ is God, that there is one God, and that the Scriptures and Apostles only attest to there being one true God. The clear implication is that the Scriptures disallow there being numerous Aeons. Hence,  Irenaeus makes a Scriptural, and not traditional, argument that orthodox doctrine is correct and that the Gnostics are innovators.

The following are some interesting tid-bits that I picked up reading Book III:

  • Irenaeus, when he writes from memory, is sometimes embarrassingly off. He regularly misquotes and alters Scriptures unless he quotes beginning with the formula “X writes in the book of Y.” When he simply says “Paul wrote,”or simply “it is written,” quite often it is obvious that he is quoting from memory. This is understandable being that the Bible was not all in one book back then. He might have read books in a different city, such as Rome, and does not ahve them at his disposal where he is writing his book. Because of this, sometimes Irenaeus makes egregious mistakes. For example, in AH 3.5.1 he blatantly ascribes a Psalm of the sons of Korah and Is 7:14 to “David.” It is worth noting that the LXX lacked ascriptions to their Psalms.)
    • Being that Irenaeus’ memory is imperfect, and understanbly so, this may explain how he misunderstood the traditions that perhaps only loosely pertained to Jesus’ age in Book II. However, it also calls into question how accurately he is relating Gnostic doctrines, though he does mention the fact that he gets them from their writings.
  • Chapter 7 argues that God directly hardens wicked men’s hearts and He prays for God to enlighten the understanding of his readers (something not possible if men have autonomous free will).
  • In Chapter 10 we may glean that the longer ending of Mark is older than the earliest Greek manuscripts containing the shorter ending. Irenaeus writes in Against Heresies 3.10.5: “Also, towards the conclusion of his Gospel, Mark says: So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God.”
  • Chapter 10, Par 2 is often quoted by the Theosis crowd in support of divinization. The problem with this is that Irenaeus is speaking about men being adopted of God, not men literally becoming godlike. Irenaeus’ whole view of salvation is that those who are in union with Christ partake in His eternal life.
  • Chapter 12 Par 5 appears to teach forensic justification: “For this was the knowledge of salvation, which renders those who acknowledge His Son’s advent perfect towards God.”
  • Chapter 16, Par 7 affirms Christ’s full humanity and divinity. This is because the recapitulation theory of the atonement in his mind made it necessary.
  • Chapter 24 is suggestive of a nodding approval of the doctrine of the invisible Church in that Irenaeus views church membership as adhering to explicitly Biblical doctrines.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: