James R. Payton Jr. (PhD, University of Waterloo, Canada) is emeritus professor of history at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. He received his undergraduate and M.A. from Bob Jones University and Th.M and M.Div at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition and Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (both published by InterVarsity). He is also the editor of A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, which won the Word Guild’s First Place award in the Devotional category in 2014.
Irenaeus on the Christian Faith is James Payton’s condensation of the church father’s magnum opus, Against Heresies. Irenaeus, a theologian of the second century, presents a defense and presentation of the Christian faith against Gnosticism. In Book I of Against Heresies, Irenaeus painstakingly describes the gnostic teaching. He responds negatively in Book II by offering a thorough refutation. He then responds positively in Books III-V by presenting what Christians believe from the Apostles’ Teachings (Book III) and from the words of Christ (Book IV). Book V serves as an addendum, where Irenaeus adds “further teaching” from Christ and the Apostles. James Payton finds Irenaeus’ presentation of the Christian faith beneficial and edifying even for believers who are a couple millennia removed from the dangers of first century Gnosticism.
Payton Jr., James. Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011. xix + 214 pp.
Book I surveys Gnostic teaching. For Irenaeus, Gnostic teachers misinterpret Scripture and destroy the faith of many under a pretense of superior knowledge (p. 27). His goal is to demonstrate the absurdity and inconsistency of gnostic teaching. He exposes the flawed hermeneutic of the Gnostics who force parts of Scripture to agree with their speculations by rearranging passages and inventing new meanings to words of Scripture. This includes their denial of the incarnation and maintaining good works as the necessary means of salvation. By claiming to be “spiritual” and incapable of corruption, Gnostics argue that they can pursue any kind of indulgence to the extent that the “most perfect” among them are those who are addicted to the very things forbidden in Scripture.
Gnostics divide people into three classes: material, animal, and spiritual. The material people are destined to ultimate corruption. The animal people, if they live well will experience rest in an intermediate place; if not, they too will perish. But the spiritual people “will ultimately be made perfect and be given as brides to the angels” (p. 30).
Gnostic teachers disagree among themselves. Saturninus taught that the Savior had no real birth nor body since procreation is from Satan himself. Basilides presents his own version of “first-begotten Nous”, who is also called Christ. This “Christ” appeared to be man and did miracles, but he did not die. Simon of Cyrene was the one crucified while Jesus escaped, transformed into the appearance of Simon, stood nearby, and laughed (p. 37). Carpocrates claimed that Jesus was just an ordinary man who received power from the Father to escape the angels who created the world. Cerinthus taught that “Christ” descended upon the ordinary man, Jesus, during his baptism. Lastly, Marcion taught that the God of the OT was evil, removed many passages in Scripture, and persuaded many that he was more trustworthy than the apostles.
In Book II, Irenaeus attempts a thorough refutation of Gnosticism. He argues that God is the creator of heaven, earth, and everything in them. Irenaeus charges the heretics of “impiety against the creator” by blaspheming his created work. Secondly, Gnostic heretics are also blaspheming Christ by teaching that he was produced by a defective world. Irenaeus argues that Christ truly became human, suffered, died, and rose again to destroy death and grant eternal life. Christ did not appear to be human, but “sanctified every stage of human development by participating in it himself” (p. 47). Third, other Gnostics claim that the Old Testament prophets proclaimed their teaching under the inspiration of other gods, but the fact is that all the prophets proclaimed one God—the maker of heaven, earth, and everything in them.
In Books III—V, Irenaeus presents the biblical teaching of the Christian faith. In Book III, he focuses on the Christian faith based from the apostle’s teachings. Irenaeus warns about associating with heretics based on Paul’s admonition to have nothing to do with them (Tit 3:10). He illustrates this with two interesting anecdotes. One time while at the baths at Ephesus, the Apostle John saw the heretic Cerinthus and exclaimed,“Let us flee, in case the bathhouse falls down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside” (p. 59). On another occasion, Polycarp saw Marcion and said, “I know who you are: you are the first-born of Satan!” (p. 59). Furthermore, the apostles taught that Jesus Christ “redeemed us…with his own blood so that we could become a holy people” (p. 61). Christ came from David’s body. Christ was not one and Jesus another. The Word of God became flesh and was anointed by the Spirit from the Father so that humans might become the children of God. The Son did not begin to exist since he was with the Father from the beginning (John 1:1), but became human in the incarnation for our salvation. Paul knew no other Christ but the one that suffered, died, and rose again (I Cor 15:3–4). When Paul refers to the passion of our Lord, he uses the name “Christ,” which is contrary to the idea that the Christ departed from the human Jesus at the crucifixion (cf. Rom 14:15; Eph. 2:13; Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor 8:11). In order to be a mediator between God and man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5), Christ necessarily must be human and God. The Christ born of Mary is the seed promised in Gen 3:15. The preaching of the church is consistent with this teaching from the prophets, the apostles, and all the disciples.
In Book IV, Irenaeus presents the Christian faith from the Words spoken by Christ. By “words spoken by Christ,” Irenaeus was referring to how the Old Testament Scriptures point to Jesus. For Irenaeus, the writings of Moses and the prophets are the words of Christ (John 5:46-47; Luke 16:31). Jesus said that Abraham, who believed God the creator, rejoiced to see Jesus’ day (John 8:56). It is through Jesus that God introduces Abraham and his seed, the church (Gal 3:29), to the kingdom of heaven (p. 94). Moses was not ignorant of Jesus’ passion since Christ is the fulfillment of the Passover. The prophets also have foreseen Christ’s advent and prayed for it to come. Christ is the end of the law because in him the law finds its meaning (p. 99) by extending and fulfilling it (cf. Matt 5:21-37; Rom 10:3-4). Christ declared the new covenant when he took the cup—which is also part of creation—and “acknowledge it as his blood” (p. 109). The bread—which is a product of the land—consists of two realities in the Eucharist: earthly and heavenly. Irenaeus concludes that
so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, since they now have the hope of the resurrection to eternity”p. 112
Irenaeus finds other symbolic significance in Jacob’s life. By grasping the heel of his brother, he demonstrated victory which symbolizes the coming victory of Christ as written in the Apocalypse. Irenaeus adds that when the Old Testament is read to the Jews, it sounds like fables to them, who do not embrace its Christo-centric explanation; but it is a treasure to Christians who read it in light of the cross of Christ. The Old Testament proclaims the advent of Christ who suffered (Isa 53), sat upon a donkey (Zech 9:9), was the stone rejected by builders (Ps 118), was led as sheep to slaughter (Isa 53), but will come again on the clouds (Dan 7:13) to strike the earth with the rod of his mouth in judgment (Isa 11:4; Matt 3:12; Luke 3:17). At that time, he will judge the doctrine of Marcion, Valentinus, the Ebionites, and all false prophets. Unlike the heretics who have diverse opinions, Christianity—since Moses and the prophets—speaks the same message about the suffering of Christ, proclaiming one God and one Christ.
In Book V, Irenaeus presents further proofs from the Lord’s teaching (Old Testament) and the letters of the apostles to persuade and convert the lost and confirm the minds of the newcomers (p. 155). The Lord redeemed us through his own blood, uniting humanity to God and bestowing immortality to man. All this wouldn’t be possible if Christ was only man in appearance; he has to be man in actuality, possessing flesh and blood. The Eucharist depicts the real body and blood of the Lord that was crushed and poured at the cross; this was no invisible body with no bones or flesh. Our bodies also, after suffering decomposition, will later rise at the appointed time to the glory of God (1 Cor 15:53). Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul prayed for entire sanctification so that soul, body, and spirit might be preserved until the Lord’s coming, sharing the same salvation (p. 160). Paul calls our bodies the temple in which the Spirit dwells (1 Cor 3:16; cf. 6:15). The Spirit leads believers to perfection and prepares them for incorruption. The Spirit gives life to mortal bodies in order for believers not to live according to the flesh (Rom 8:13). By “living according to the flesh,” Paul does not mean living with a physical body, for he was in the flesh when he wrote this; rather, he meant living in the “lusts of the flesh” or carnality (p. 163). Irenaeus cites “the works of the flesh” in Gal 5:19-21 as evidence of this usage (cf. Col 3:5). Irenaeus ends with an eschatological discussion, harmonizing 2 Thessalonians, Daniel, and Revelation to argue that the Gnostic teachers (Marcion and Valentinus) are agents of Satan against God. Those who refused to love the truth and believed falsehood will be condemned along with the Antichrist who leads apostates to himself (2 Thess 2:10-12; Rev 19:20). Yet as Isaiah prophesied, creation—including animals—will be in harmony with the righteous and will yield fruit (Isa 11:6–9) after the destruction of the nations and the Antichrist. In this new heaven and new earth (Rev 21; Isa 65:17-18), neither the substance nor the essence of creation will be annihilated but will be free from bondage (Rom 8:21).
James Payton has helped today’s audience to understand and recapture the classic work of Irenaeus through his condensation of Against Heresies. Before analyzing Irenaeus’ work, a few observations can be made regarding Payton’s work. First, Payton must be appreciated for reading through a difficult work for us so the readers of his condensation will not have to. The difficult writing style preserved in the abridged version was made easier through Payton’s selectivity and condensation. Second, perhaps another step for improvement will be adding headings to help readers follow Irenaeus’ argument. This may be difficult due to Irenaeus’ circular structure, but it can certainly be done though imperfectly. Lastly, Against Heresies was written long before chapter and verse divisions were standardized. Yet, through painstaking effort, Payton offers his readers Scripture references to Irenaeus’ plethora of biblical quotations and allusions, correcting misquotations and overlooked passages from previous editors (p. xiii).
Doctrinal Fidelity with a Sense of Urgency
Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, abridged by Payton, offers helpful insights regarding the importance of doctrinal fidelity in church life. Irenaeus has demonstrated a sense of urgency, careful scholarship, and skillful biblical exegesis to combat the false teaching of his time. The sense of urgency is seen in the serious tone of Against Heresies. Irenaeus’ lament on the false teaching of Gnosticism was replete with Scripture passages. Strings of passages are either quoted or alluded. Irenaeus gives today’s church an example of how to combat false teaching: unleashing the two-edged sword of the Word.
According to Payton, Books I and II are longer than the other works. The sheer volume of Book I (though the shortest in the abridged version) demonstrates Irenaeus’ careful scholarship. In order for him to refute Gnostic teaching, he skillfully and methodically gathered and examined their diverse teachings. He analyzed the hermeneutical method of the Gnostics. He discerned that different teachers actually teach different things, and he examined how each one differs from the other.
Saturated with Scripture
Though the writing style is difficult, with many repetitions of ideas, Irenaeus’ saturation of Scripture is greatly appreciated. Irenaeus exemplified in Against Heresies a method of Bible study that is even employed today. He applied canonical study by looking into the Old Testament and examined how passages point to Christ. Without the use of a concordance or Bible software, he listed passages that point to God as the creator, that use the name Christ when referring to the shedding of blood for our redemption (refuting the Gnostic teaching that the man Jesus died, but not the spirit of Christ), the passages on the incarnation, and the use of “flesh” in Paul to mean “carnality” or “lusts of the flesh,” not being immaterial.
Irenaeus has also used “historical theology” available to his time by quoting or alluding to the teachings of Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Clement, and Papias. He also offers some biblical theology of how the four Gospels differ in the presentation of Christ based on how each Gospel begins. He argues that John shows Christ’s “original, effectual, and glorious generation from the Father” (p. 65); Luke focuses on Christ’s priestly character by beginning with Zechariah the priest. Matthew starts with a genealogy focusing on Christ’s humanity, and Mark concentrates on Christ’s “prophetic spirit coming down from on high,” declaring the good news written by the prophet Isaiah (p. 66). Finally, Irenaeus even dived into eschatology, harmonizing 2 Thessalonians, Daniel, and Revelation, to point out the punishment of the false teachers along with the Antichrist and God’s future plan of restoring creation—the very thing that Gnostics identify as inherently evil—in the new heaven and new earth.
Allegory and Inaccuracy
Certainly, Irenaeus is skillful in the Word, but like anyone else, his work is not free from a misunderstanding of Scripture. He occasionally falls into allegorical interpretation, which was common in his time. The need to interpret allegorically, however, leads to adjustment on the text itself. For example, he cites the passage where Rahab received three spies, which are the type of the Father, Son, and Spirit (p. 119), yet the spies received by Rahab were only two. He also takes Jacob as a type of Christ. He says that “it was necessary that Jacob beget children from the two sisters, even as Christ did fro m the two laws…. Similarly, Jacob had children by the handmaids, indicating that Christ would raise up children of God, both from those who are free and from those who are slaves” (pp. 120-121).
Occasionally, Irenaeus would also make arguments based on less accurate grounds. For example, he argues that there are only four gospels based on the observation that there are only four zones of the world, four principal winds, and four covenants (Adamic, Noahic, Mosaic, and New; excluding Abrahamic and Davidic). While the Gnostic Gospels need to be rejected (and were rejected and deemed non-canonical early on), it is not based on the number four; rather, they are to be rejected because of its heretical content and spurious authorship.
Classic works are books that everyone talks about but never reads. Not everyone can muscle up to read Against Heresies, but James Payton Jr. has helped us by publishing an abridged version, Irenaeus on the Christian Faith. Though reading it takes some serious effort, the results will inspire believers to guard the gospel and contend for the faith. Irenaeus, by his example, teaches today’s Christians that responding to false teachers that undermine the Gospel must be done with urgency and with deep biblical understanding. Irenaeus encourages believers of any era that doctrinal fidelity and a thorough mastery of Scripture is vital for Christian living.