The only information we have regarding Irenaeus’ life comes from his own writings as well as Eusebius’ Church History. In the latter, a letter from Irenaeus to a certain Florinus is reproduced. From the contents of the letter, we can surmise that Irenaeus and Florinus are old friends, both of whom are natives of Smyrna (modern day Turkey) in the Aegean Sea. Where have we heard of Smyrna before? If you recall, it was one of the seven churches mentioned in the book of Revelation, which reads:
And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. I know your tribulation and poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches. He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death. (Rev 2:8-11)
Having grown up in Smyrna and, as is evident from his writings, being familiar with John’s Apocalypse, these words must have had a special significance for Irenaeus. In fact, while it would be a stretch to say that this scripture was literally fulfilled in the martyrdom of Irenaeus’ bishop, Polycarp, nevertheless the tribulation alluded to in this passage to the church of Smyrna seems to have persisted for more than one generation. Regardless, given his experience of the suffering church and the value that such suffering placed on remaining faithful to what had been handed on in the apostolic preaching and teaching, we can see where our writer gets his characteristic zeal for the truths of the faith.
Returning to his letter to Florinus mentioned in Eusebius’ History, Irenaeus attempts to confirm his friend in the faith and to dissuade him from heretical teaching. He reminds Florinus of their childhood experience of seeing the great St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Recounting these vivid memories, Irenaeus recalls Polycarp’s discourses on the apostolic teaching as well as Polycarp’s personal acquaintance with the Apostle John. He also calls to mind that Polycarp’s testimony was confirmed by miracles and works of power. Assuming that Irenaeus was in his late childhood or early teens at the time of these memories of the Bishop Polycarp, scholars, based on their knowledge of the date of Polycarp’s martyrdom, have surmised that Irenaeus was born around the year 140. If we grant that this was the birth of our writer, placing him a couple generations from the Apostles, and given that, as we shall see, his travels and personal history made him familiar with many disparate parts of the Christian world, we have in Irenaeus a writer who carries a special authority, even among the other earlier Church fathers.
This letter of Irenaeus to his friend is an example of what would become characteristic of Irenaeus’ work in general. That is, it is primarily an appeal to tradition and an earlier age in order to demonstrate the truth of the orthodox faith. We see this characteristic aspect of Irenaeus’ writings in Against Heresies, portions of which you all (hopefully) read, as well as his other work, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, also known as The Demonstration, which was only recently discovered in 1904.
As was alluded to earlier, Irenaeus was familiar with many parts of the Christian world, notably with the churches in Asia Minor, Rome, and Gaul. This gave him a breadth of vision and understanding that other Christian leaders at the time, who may have spent their entire lives predominantly in one place, would not have. His familiarity with the church in Asia Minor is obvious: as has already been mentioned, this was the locality of Irenaeus’ youth. At some point, probably in his young adulthood, Irenaeus joined and became a leader of the Christian community in Gaul, specifically Lyons, which is in the East and Central part of modern day France. There seems to have been a close connection between the churches of Gaul and Asia Minor, probably due to robust trade between these two parts of the Mediterranean world. As Dr. Mary Ann Donovan mentions in her guide to the writings of Irenaeus, there is much evidence supporting strong ties between cities and churches in Asia and Gaul. For instance, in a letter, also preserved in Eusebius’ History, from Irenaeus to Eleutherius, the bishop of Rome, Irenaeus gives a list of names and the stories of many martyrs who had recently given their lives for the faith in the Gallic church. Of these names, there are many which are clearly of Asiatic origin. Moreover, it is not uncommon, in the ruins of ancient Lyons, to find inscriptions relating to residents of Asiatic origin. (One Right Reading? A Guide to Irenaeus, 9)
Lastly, to fill out this brief biography of our author, we need to examine the precise nature of his leadership in Lyons. Later tradition ascribes to him the title of bishop. However, Irenaeus never uses that precise terminology. Rather, he refers to himself as a presbyter of the church of Lyons. At the very least, we can say he was one of the principle leaders in that Church, as we read in a letter of the Gallic Church to Eleutheris, bishop of Rome, which has been preserved in Eusebius’ History. This letter reads:
Again and always we great you in God, Father Eleutheris. We have urged our brother and colleague Irenaeus to bring this letter to you and we ask you to hold him in esteem, for he is zealous for the covenant of Christ. For if we had known that rank confers righteousness on anyone, we should especially have commended him as a presbyter of the church, which in fact he is.
Regardless of the fact that Irenaeus does not call himself a bishop, many scholars have concluded with later tradition that, because of his relation to Polycarp, the evident respect given him by members of his church and also his role as a key arbiter of disputes between different churches that he was probably, at some point, bishop of Lyons.
Having examined the main points of Irenaeus’ biography, we can turn to this week’s readings. First of all, I apologize if the readings were longer than usual. This week’s readings are a bit shorter. I hope the length didn’t dissuade anyone from reading them. The vast majority of book one of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is taken up with describing in great detail the different systems of pre and post Valentinian Gnosticism. Because you have, over the past couple weeks, been studying Gnosticism in greater detail, I chose only a couple representative passages that deal with Irenaeus’ description and taxonomy of the Gnosticisms of his day. Rather than focusing on the particulars of the Gnosticism that he was combating, I want to focus on the shape and charater of his response to the Gnostics. Therefore, the readings from Chapter’s 6 and 8 which I gave you, give you some general information about the beliefs and practices of the Gnostics of Irenaeus’ day as well as the way they attempted to justify their beliefs using the Christian Scriptures. The rest of the readings from chapters 9, 10 and 22 of Book I, deal with Irenaeus’ response to these teachings and practices.
The person in particular against whom the bishop of Lyon is writing is Valentinus and his followers, the Valentinians. We know even less about Valentinus then we do about Irenaeus. He and his followers were, however, the subject polemical writings from many of the early Church fathers. Tertullian relates that at one time Valentinus was in good standing, and in fact was a teacher and catechist for, the church in Rome. Such was his reputation that he was considered to be a viable candidate for the episcopacy of that city. However, his beliefs would continue to evolve to the point were he would be expelled from the Roman church and declared a heretic. Modern scholars believe that while Valentinus evidently deviated from orthodox Christian belief and experienced strife with the Christian community during his life, he nevertheless didn’t espouse many of the doctrines that would be attached to his name by those who would follow in his wake. In this regard, he may have suffered a similar fate on account of his less orthodox and more esoteric disciples that Origin later would.
Regardless of whether the beliefs of the Valentinians can be laid at the feet of Valentinus, these readings give us some ideas regarding the character of Valentiniansim. These Gnostics believed that there were three kinds of substances that were correlated, in turn, with three kinds of persons. First, there were material (hylic) substances. Persons of a material nature cannot receive and are totally opposed to what is spiritual. As such they are destined to perish. The Valentinians took these persons to be those who were referred to in Matthew, Chapter 25, when Christ, at the last judgement, will say to those on his left “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” As such, they referred to hylic persons as “those of the left” or “on the left hand” as our translation has it. There were also animal (or psychic) substances or persons. These are those for whom Christ took on an animal (or psychic), but not material, nature. The Incarnation then, for the Gnostics, was the Words decent into the psychic and, as such, he was able to save psychic substances but not material substances. These, are also known as those “on the right” or “of the right hand”, with the Valentinians taking these to refer to those on Christ’s right in Matthew 25. However, thought these are called those “or the right hand”, this does not mean that these would be infallibly saved. Rather, they would tend toward salvation or damnation depending on their primary and overriding orientation. If they were more psychic than not, they would be saved, otherwise they would tend toward evil works and thus damnation. These, according to the gnostics were the “ordinary Christians” and these would be saved by their faith in Christ and good works. These was also a third category of persons, the spirituals (or pneumatics). This brings us to the first question on our study sheet: according to the Valentinian Gnostics, can a pneumatic be lost or condemned? Answer: No, these lucky persons are not saved by faith, but are irresistibly drawn to salvation and knowledge by their spiritual nature. Because they cannot be lost and their nature cannot be corrupted, the spirituals can live without the moral norms which govern the rest of the Christian community. Irenaeus gives a brief catalogue of the pneumatics chief sins. Unsurprisingly, they are mostly sexual in nature.
One thing that this chapter makes clear is that the Gnostics didn’t sharply distinguish themselves from orthodox Christianity. In fact, the Gnostics that Irenaeus was combating in Against Heresies, were present, and not separate from, the overall Christian community. This is one reason that Irenaeus finds the Gnostic teachers so dangerous. They live and move in the Christian community. In fact, if one were to go back in time and meet such a Gnostic, they might not be able to distinguish them from an ordinary Christian. The reason for this is that the Gnostics used Christian language, on the face of it, as Christians did and they were familiar with and quoted Christian Scripture, but their way of understanding and reading these Scriptures was vastly different from the orthodox. If one didn’t ask them deeper questions about their understanding and interpretation of Scripture, one would never know they deviated from the standard Christian message. There is a message here for contemporary Christians. There are schools of thought in philosophy and theology which say that the meaning of the words we use, for instance the words we use in theology and philosophy, can be exhaustively explained by how we use those words. With regard to the Gnostics, we can see this is not true. A Christian could live side by side with a Gnostic, talk about the basics of scripture and theology with them, and never know that they meant something entirely different by their words. Anyway, Irenaeus is determined to expose their erroneous interpretations of Scripture and unmask the Valentinians as dangerous heretics. Therefore, in Chapter 8, Irenaeus gives examples of standard Gnostic interpretations of Scripture. You have hopefully read Irenaeus’ expose of Gnostic biblical interpretation and I will not repeat the particulars of that system here. You will probably be familiar with much of it from your previous discussions.
So what distinguished the way Christians read and interpreted Scripture from the way the Gnostics read and interpreted Scripture? The difference is not methodological per se. For instance, both the early Christians and the Gnostics relied heavily on allegory and numerology, as readers of Augustine and Origen can attest. Rather, what distinguished the two is that Christians read Scripture in accordance with and through the lens of what Irenaeus calls the “rule of truth” or the “rule of faith”. This brings us to our second question: What is the “rule of truth”?
The ‘rule of truth’ is the interpretive or hermeneutic key by which all true interpretations of Scripture are to be judged. Irenaeus, in Chapter 9, says that we receive the rule of truth by way of baptism. By this he probably means that the rule of faith is a creedal formula that adult Christians profess before their baptism. The earliest creedal professions are found in scripture itself. Examples would be simple Kerygmatic statements such as “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9), or more complex summations of the gospel such as 1 Cor 15: 3-9
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
This biblical “rule” is Paul’s brief summary of the gospel message which he had received and was handing on to the Corinthian community. Irenaeus’ rule too, is narrative in character. (read 10.1) However, unlike Paul’s simple proclamation, his ‘rule’ is also more dogmatic and Trinitarian in nature. The reason for this is that, as the Church encountered threats to the integrity and unity of the faith, it needed to make more explicit exactly what was meant by the Gospel. Such evolution should be seen as a deepening of the Church’s understanding of the Gospel and not as unneeded complexity added to that message (Donovan, 11)
Ireneaus’ thoughts regarding the ‘rule of faith’ are crucial for understanding his critique of the Gnostic use of scripture in Chapter 9. If you remember, Irenaeus gives a humorous illustration of the way the Gnostics quote scripture to justify their heterodox beliefs. The illustration is that of fragments of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which have been patched together to form a narrative that Homer never actually wrote. On first reading this, one might surmise that the point of the critique is to show how verses of Scripture, in themselves, should not be taken out of their own context. This isn’t, however, what Irenaeus means. After all, the Fathers, who of course were not familiar with modern methods of exegesis, took individual quotes of Scripture out of its own context all the time. They saw the Christian Scriptures as essentially unified and, as such, able to be brought out of and isolated from their contexts when arguing from the Scriptures. The context in question isn’t that of the verses themselves, but the entire story, which is summed up in the ‘rule of faith’. It is familiarity with the ‘rule of faith’ that gives the Christian the power to discern between a true and false interpretation of Scripture. Skipping for a moment to the last question in your study guide: According to Irenaeus, how does one with a greater degree of intelligence interpret difficult sayings in Scripture?
Finally, discuss the rule of faith as the principle of the Church’s unity.
Why do you think Irenaeus emphasizes the unity of the Church’s faith in Chapter 10?
How all embracing is this unity? (Mention Irenaeus’ arbitration of the dispute between the Church of Asia Minor and Rome –Victor of Rome.