Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Irenaeus - Contender for the Faith

If the idea of an apologist has become dubious in recent times, the idea of a contender for the faith has fallen into even more disrepute. Such a person is frequently characterized, whether fairly or unfairly, as a heresy-hunter. Often there have been those who have gone overboard, being caustic and critical and arguing over minor details. But there is a clear basis in Scripture for dealing with those in doctrinal error, though with an attitude of gentleness (Jude 3; 2 Timothy 2:23-26; Romans 16:17). And if the Christian faith means anything that someone wants it to mean, it will soon mean nothing.

Irenaeus is an early example of someone fulfilling this function, though there were earlier people, including the apostles, who were involved in this. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. He goes through the various doctrinal contentions of his time and speaks in response to them. He is not caustic, though he is occasionally pointed. He shows evidence of trying to carefully study and understand those he was speaking against. (It may be argued whether he represented them completely fairly. It is difficult to tell at this point. But he did try to understand where they came from.) He also does not argue over minor issues and defends Polycarp, who opposed Victor, bishop of Rome, because he wanted to legislate the date of Easter.

Irenaeus strongly argues for the truth that Jesus was both God and Man against those who would deny it. In upholding this, he overdid a few things, such as claiming that Jesus must have died as an old man to identify with humans of every age. It is claimed he held unusual ideas regarding the atonement, but I believe this is reading in, though it was unclear in his time whether the ransom should be considered as paid to God or Satan. He defends there being only four genuine gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and gives a detailed description of their content and those of the books of Acts and Romans. He also mentions other New Testament books as authoritative. I am convinced his great error came from trying to make things simple, especially for the unlearned. He argued that the faith had been passed down from the apostles, and therefore the faith that had been passed down in the church that descended from the apostles must be the correct one. This has some justice, as one thing to consider when somebody is bringing in something new out of left field. But it became, over time, the idea that the teaching passed down historically by the church leadership was true and must not be questioned. Other than that, I am convinced Irenaeus did a great service by defending the Christian faith in a competent and reasonable way. 


  1. I wonder how many would have, after our month long discussion, call me a heretic? ツ

    1. I am in favor of contending for the faith, but I have found the word "heresy" to have so much emotional baggage it generates more heat than light when used today outside very specialized contexts.