Irenaeus of Lyons: A Faithful Church Father

A Man Worthy of Consideration and Imitation (Heb. 13:7)

After surveying Irenaeus Against Heresies it is evident that the Bishop of Lyons is a man committed to Scriptures and thus worthy of emulation in many ways. His vehement opposition to Gnostic heresies, his unwavering commitment to the Word of God as authoritative, inerrant, and sufficient, and his robust biblical theology are examples worthy of ponder and imitate. In his grasp of the Bible and in his bold proclamation thereof, Irenaeus incarnates Titus 1:9 admonition to elders, “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.”

Nevertheless, there are things that Irenaeus did in his exposition of Scripture that modern expositors should be cautious to repeat. First, Irenaeus’ habit of allegorizing details within narrative passages is not a legitimate hermeneutic procedure. Finding more than three allegorical meanings to the ax head in Elisha narrative, and comparing the three spies sent to Jericho to the Trinity[1] are spurious interpretations at best and potentially harmful.

Second, his pattern of making typology fit the most intricate detail of the event is problematic (i.e. Lazarus’ clothes, clean and unclean animals). Though Irenaeus was constrained from major error because of a strong apostolic doctrine, those who have weak doctrine and strong imaginations will be the next generation of Gnostics, or liberals, or postmoderns. Patience, humility to admit we don’t know everything,[2] and increasing textual evidence based on ongoing exegesis must be required for all typological interpretations.

Finally, there is wisdom in focusing on the main details of the Gospel and not on peripheral non-essentials. In a handful of instances, Irenaeus taught peculiar doctrines (i.e. Christ living to the age of 50; six days of creation correspondent to six millennia) by defining one passage of Scripture with another, that in all likelihood should not have been combined. The causes of this are manifold, but the principle lesson is that doctrinal formulation should be founded on the clearest and most abundant biblical evidence. Such Scriptural data must recognize the unfolding nature of progressive revelation and form its doctrines in accordance with the canonical shape of the Bible.

Today, the church stands on the shoulders of men like Irenaeus, and benefits from his stalwart commitment to the truth and the right interpretation of Scripture. Yet, there is one other aspect of his theological enterprise that should not go unnoticed. At the end of Books III and IV, Irenaeus prays for his opponents. He was not cold theologian, but a doctrinally-committed pastor whose theology shaped his prayer and his polemics.  This too, and perhaps, this most is worthy of emulation.  I fear too much pugilism and too little prayer is offered today in debates that surround interpretation of the Bible.

So, as we close our evaluation of Irenaeus of Lyons, may we give thanks to God for this faithful saint and consider his life and imitate his biblical faith.[3]

Sola Deo Gloria, dss


[1] Ibid., 4.20.12.

[2] Something that Irenaeus demonstrated in his own position of ecclesial authority (see. Adversus haereses 2.28.3).

[3] For the Gnostics, Irenaeus prays, “We do indeed pray that these men may not remain in the pit which they themselves have dug, but separate themselves from a Mother of this nature, and depart from Bythus, and stand away from the void, and relinquish the shadow; and that they, being converted to the Church of God, may be lawfully begotten, and that Christ maybe formed in them, and that they may know the Framer and Maker of this universe, the only true God and Lord of all. We pray for these things on their behalf, loving them better than they seem to love themselves” (Adversus haereses 3.25.7).

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