One of Irenaeus’ lesser known works is  his Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching. The work, found only in an Armenian manuscript, preserves for us many second century interpretations of the Scripture and oral Apostolic traditions. What we find is that some oral traditions were a bit zany (or at least their interpretations were, as Irenaeus himself taught that Jesus was about 50 years old, see here and here). Further, we find that Irenaeus took a more nuanced view of several issues, such as baptism, than we would otherwise think.

Ed: This article was made as a catechumen and upon greater learning and reflection my thoughts have evolved.

In part I, we cover the following:

  • Faith versus works.
  • Baptismal regeneration
  • Trinitarian theology
  • The role of the Jewish Law
  • Interesting “apostolic” interpretations and doctrines

Faith Needs Good Works. How are we saved according to Irenaeus?

This way [abiding by the truth] leads to the kingdom of heaven, uniting man to God…it is needful for you and for all who care for their own salvation to make your course unswerving, firm and sure by means of faith, that you falter not, nor be retarded and detained in material desires, nor turn aside and wander from the right…it is needful for you and for all who care for their own salvation to make your course unswerving, firm and sure by means of faith, that you falter not, nor be retarded and detained in material desires, nor turn aside and wander from the right…For what profit is it to know the truth in words, and to pollute the flesh and perform the works of evil? Or what profit can purity of the flesh bring, if truth be not in the soul? (1, 2).

Salvation is union with Christ, which is attained by walking by faith. This requires right belief and must not be diminished through sinfulness (“detained in material desires.”) In short, Irenaeus took a firm Theosis view of salvation.

The Issue of Baptismal Regeneration. In paragraph 3, Irenaeus makes mention of the words “baptism,” “remission of sins,” and “seal” in the same breath. Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Orthodox would cite this passage as proof of the early adherence to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. I, an Orthodox catechumen, want to be careful saying this but we need to look at Irenaeus’ whole corpus of writings to understand what he meant by the terms in the following paragraph.

[W]e have received baptism for the remission of sins, in the name of God the Father, and in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was incarnate and died and rose again, and in the Holy Spirit of God. And that this baptism is the seal of eternal life, and is the new birth unto God, that we should no longer be the sons of mortal men, but of the eternal and perpetual God (3).

To understand things in context, we need to look at Against Heresies. In AH 1.9.4 Irenaeus speaks of baptism as follows:

In like manner he also who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them.

It appears that in Irenaeus’ time the person baptized was catechized with instructions similar to those found in the Demonstration. Hence, it can be said that “the rule of the truth” is received by means of baptism. “The rule of the truth” is not understood and kept by getting wet, but is received before getting wet, is consummated in baptism, and is efficacious when lived out in continued faith and repentance in a way similar to Archbishop Michael’s discussion of the said topic in his 2017 Pascha Letter (see third last paragraph.)

It is possible that Irenaeus took a view similar to Terullian, who taught that the remission of sins is received before baptism by assent to the teaching of the Apostles concerning Christ. This does not preclude there being grace, sealing, and regeneration in the literal sacrament, but in what sense is this true when “we have been bathed already” before literal baptism (On Repentance, Chapter 6)? We do not get a firm answer for this.

What we do see is that Irenaeus gives details as to what the Christian ought to believe before being baptized beginning in paragraphs 4 through 6.

When Irenaeus addresses the idea that baptism “regenerates us” in paragraph 7, it is probable thar he is referencing the immediately preceding paragraph which speaks of the roles of each Person in the Godhead in salvation. The idea is that baptism demonstrates “the rule of the truth” (AH 1.9.4)–the metaphysical reality of the God the catechumen has declared his belief in:

6. This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father: through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.

7. And for this reason the baptism of our regeneration proceeds through these three points: God the Father bestowing on us regeneration through His Son by the Holy Spirit. For as many as carry (in them) the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son; and the Son brings them to the Father; and the Father causes them to possess incorruption. Without the Spirit it is not possible to behold the Word of God, nor without the Son can any draw near to the Father: for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and the knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit; and, according to the good pleasure of the Father, the Son ministers and dispenses the Spirit to whomsoever the Father wills and as He wills.

Simply reading the underlined and then the emboldened should make clear to the reader that the regeneration of baptism is accomplished by the action of the Spirit which enables the believer to behold the Son. Being that one cannot receive this “rule of the truth” apart from the action of the Spirit, it would be true to say that the process of regeneration presented in paragraph seven in some sense had already occurred when the catechumen had believed the Apostolic teaching. The rite itself does not effect the preceding, but demonstrates/seals/consummates the preceding. It is a visual presentation of a reality that has already occurred in the believer. In what sense is grace conferred, other than in a figurative sense, is hard to understand strictly by going by Irenaeus’ written view of the sacrament.

The Trinity Affirmed.

One God, the Father, not made, invisible, creator of all things; above whom there is no other God, and after whom there is no other God. And, since God is rational, therefore by (the) Word He created the things that were made; and God is Spirit, and by (the) Spirit He adorned all things… rightly and fittingly is the Word called the Son, and the Spirit the Wisdom of God. (5).

The above differs with Athanasius, as he interpreted Wisdom to also be the Son.

Efficacy of the Law. The Law merely was put in place because the unrighteousness of the Jews required a regimented lifestyle that redirected their lives towards worshiping God:

…in the intermediate times, when man forgat God and departed and revolted from Him, He brought them into subjection by the Law, that they might learn that they had for Lord the maker and creator, who also gives the breath of life, and whom we ought to worship day and night (8).

Odd, Esoteric Mysteries. While it is unlikely the Apostles actually taught in any detail the construction of the heavens and mysteries outside of the Bible, Irenaeus apparently believed that they did:

…the sublimity and greatness of this God is unspeakable. Now this world is encompassed by seven heavens, in which dwell powers and angels and archangels, doing service to God, the Almighty and Maker of all things (8, 9).

The number seven as it pertains to heavens was mentioned by Clement of Alexandria and Origen, who probably were relayed the idea from first century Jewish mysticism (Bereshith Rabba, 19, fol. 19, col. 3 contains a later Jewish presentation of the idea, but being that the seventh heaven contains the Shekinah [Sophia] glory of God, the Jewish mysticism was ironically Gnostic in nature–the Quran also contains a similar reference in Surah 67). The Scripture itself taught differently. Paul wrote of a “third heaven” in 2 Cor 12:2, which appears to be the actual dwelling place of God (2 Cor 12:4), as unspeakable mysteries were there.

It is worth pointing out that Irenaeus did not view this belief to be extra-bibilical, but rather the rightful interpretation of Is 11:2 preserved only by presbyters with proper succession. Being that this idea has not prevailed anywhere, either succession as Irenaeus knows it has ended or the tradition he was relayed was mistaken as Apostolic.

Other mysteries Irenaeus relays tend to be standard Christian interpretations, but among the zanier ones are as follows:

  • The Cherubim and Seraphim are in fact different names for the Son and Spirit (10).
  • Adam was just a child in the garden of Eden (12) as was Eve (their marriage not physically consummated–“kissing and embracing each other in purity after the manner of children,” 14).
  • Angels had children with women who became giants (18), and these same Angels taught man the idolatries of making love potions and wearing makeup (18) .