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Church Fathers: St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Part II

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 29, 2015 | In Fathers of the Church

The previous article introduced the figure of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, “father of Catholic theology,” and gave an overview of his surviving texts, most notably the five-volume work known as Against Heresies. We examined the grounding principle of his theology: the rule of faith, guaranteed by the apostolic tradition. Now we are ready to look briefly at the major points of Irenaeus’s theology.

The Trinity

Irenaeus does not give a precise definition of the relation between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Writing against the Gnostics, he is concerned primarily to show that the Father revealed by Jesus is one and the same with the God of the Old Testament, who created the world. He proves this over and over again throughout the five volumes of Against Heresies. Likewise, the Christ, the Son of God, the Logos, the Savior and Jesus are one and the same, though we use different names and titles.

He finds ample evidence in the Old Testament not just of the Father but of the Son and the Holy Spirit, whom he calls “the hands of God.” When God said “Let us make man after our image and likeness,” this was the Father speaking to the Son and the Holy Spirit. When God appeared in various forms to people in the Old Testament, it was the Logos whom they saw. And it was the Holy Spirit who, by command of the Father, filled the prophets with inspiration.

Irenaeus considers the generation of the Son by the Father beyond human understanding. Yet he writes, “God has been declared through the Son, who is in the Father and has the Father in himself” (Against Heresies 3, 6, 2). Thus he teaches what would come to be called the perichoresis or circumincession: the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity.


The central conceit of Irenaeus’s theology is recapitulation. Christ draws together in Himself every stage of mankind’s development and redeems it all. He was sent by the Father to “make all things new," to restore and complete God’s original plan of salvation. Since the human race fell by the sin of Adam, a man of flesh, the Son of God came as a man of flesh to restore men to God’s image and likeness. So that no age of man would be left unredeemed, he experienced every stage of life from infancy to adulthood.

Christ recapitulates not only the past but the future by continuing as head of the Church until the end of the world: “He takes the primacy to himself and by making himself the head of the Church, he will draw all things to himself at the appointed time” (3, 16, 6).

The idea of recapitulation was already introduced by St. Paul, but Irenaeus extends it. As Quasten describes it:

The procedure of redemption follows exactly the course of events of the fall of man. For every faulty step which man took, having been seduced by Satan, God exacts from him a compensation in order to make his victory over the seducer complete. [Patrology Vol. I, p. 298]

Every element of God’s work is regenerated, as it were, in reverse.

On the other hand, even the powers of evil are given a chance to do some recapitulating of their own, before finally being destroyed. The anti-Christ will be, “when he comes, a recapitulation made of all sorts of iniquity and of every deceit, in order that all apostate power, flowing into and being shut up in him, may be sent into the furnace of fire” (5, 29, 2).

Irenaeus’s erroneous chiliasm (millennialism) also finds some basis in his idea of recapitulation, since he thinks the righteous should receive the reward for their suffering by ruling over the same creation in which they suffered, prior to the final judgment.


No better example can be found of Irenaeus’s robust development of recapitulation than his discussion of something first touched on by St. Justin: Mary as the new Eve. He writes:

In accordance with this design, Mary the Virgin is found obedient, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” But Eve was disobedient; for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin. And even as she, having indeed a husband, Adam, but being nevertheless as yet a virgin (for in Paradise “they were both naked, and were not ashamed,” inasmuch as they, having been created a short time previously, had no understanding of the procreation of children: for it was necessary that they should first come to adult age, and then multiply from that time onward), having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race. And on this account does the law term a woman betrothed to a man, the wife of him who had betrothed her, although she was as yet a virgin; thus indicating the back-reference from Mary to Eve, because what is joined together could not otherwise be put asunder than by inversion of the process by which these bonds of union had arisen; so that the former ties be cancelled by the latter, that the latter may set the former again at liberty. And it has, in fact, happened that the first compact looses from the second tie, but that the second tie takes the position of the first which has been cancelled. For this reason did the Lord declare that the first should in truth be last, and the last first. And the prophet, too, indicates the same, saying, “instead of fathers, children have been born unto thee.” For the Lord, having been born “the First- begotten of the dead,” and receiving into His bosom the ancient fathers, has regenerated them into the life of God, He having been made Himself the beginning of those that live, as Adam became the beginning of those who die. Wherefore also Luke, commencing the genealogy with the Lord, carried it back to Adam, indicating that it was He who regenerated them into the Gospel of life, and not they Him. And thus also it was that the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith. (3, 22, 4)

Not only does Irenaeus call Mary the causa salutis (“cause of salvation”), he also calls her the advocate Evae:

And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience. (5, 19, 1)

Yet, glory of glories, Irenaeus does not stop there. He boldly proclaims Mary the new and universal mother of all mankind. He calls her womb the womb of mankind; the birth of Christ is “the pure one opening purely that pure womb which regenerates men unto God” (4, 33, 11). If Mary is the “cause of salvation,” if it is Mary’s womb which “regenerates men unto God,” then Irenaeus has as good as said that she is, in subordination to Christ, the Coredemptrix of the human race. And all this before 200 AD!

The Eucharist

Irenaeus's faith in the real presence of Jesus’s body and blood in the Eucharist is such that, taking it for granted as something believed even by the heretics he is refuting, he uses it as proof of the resurrection of the body:

When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?—even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that "we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones." He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones,—that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father, who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible incorruption, because the strength of God is made perfect in weakness, in order that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, and exalted against God, our minds becoming ungrateful; but learning by experience that we possess eternal duration from the excelling power of this Being, not from our own nature, we may neither undervalue that glory which surrounds God as He is, nor be ignorant of our own nature, but that we may know what God can effect, and what benefits man receives, and thus never wander from the true comprehension of things as they are, that is, both with regard to God and with regard to man. And might it not be the case, perhaps, as I have already observed, that for this purpose God permitted our resolution into the common dust of mortality, that we, being instructed by every mode, may be accurate in all things for the future, being ignorant neither of God nor of ourselves? (5, 2, 3)

Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity. (4, 18, 5)

Irenaeus sees the Eucharist as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy of the pure and universal sacrifice:

I take no pleasure in you, says the LORD of hosts; and I will not accept any offering from your hands! From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the nations; incense offerings are made to my name everywhere, and a pure offering. (Malachi 1:10-11)


A human being, according to Irenaeus, is composed of body, soul and spirit. The soul, between the body and the spirit, can tend toward and be dominated by either. Though it is not always clear what Irenaeus means by “spirit,” it seems to be the supernatural life of the Holy Spirit in man. Human nature is not complete or perfect before it has received the spirit.

Irenaeus distinguishes between the image and the likeness of God. Man is made in God’s image as a rational being, but is created in His likeness only when he has received the spirit, which requires a free choice of disposition on his part. For Irenaeus, the creation or perfection of man is still in progress, and a fundamental part of that progress is man’s capacity for choice, including the possibility of choosing evil. Without the initial ability to see and choose evil, man as a finite creature would not be able to participate fully, freely and rationally in goodness. This response to the problem of evil, developed and varied upon by later thinkers, is sometimes called the “Irenaean theodicy.”

Redeemed by Christ, man receives the likeness of God and becomes a participant in God’s glory. The most famous quote attributed to Irenaeus is “The glory of God is man fully alive.” A closer rendering is “The glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God” (4, 20, 7). But as Irenaeus points out more than once, a man does not consist of a soul alone or a body alone or a spirit alone, but all three. It is the complete man that is redeemed and participates in God’s glory; hence Irenaeus’s insistence on the essential goodness of the body and its eventual resurrection.


Irenaeus’s account of the origins of the canonical Gospels is as follows:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (3, 1, 1)

It is important to him in symbolic terms that there are four and only four Gospels. There are four regions of the world, and four principal winds which spread the seed of the Church throughout the world. The four Gospels are the four pillars of the Church. Also, Irenaeus is the first to draw the connection between the four evangelists and the four Cherubim or “living creatures,” which became an important association in Christian art. (In the later form of this tradition, Matthew is the human or angel, Mark is the lion, Luke is the ox, and John is the Eagle. Irenaeus, however, makes John the lion and Mark the eagle.)

As with everything else in Irenaeus’s theology, the canonicity and interpretation of Scripture is ultimately referred to the authority of the Church. He compares the books of the Bible to trees in the garden of the Church:

It behooves us, therefore, to avoid their doctrines, and to take careful heed lest we suffer any injury from them; but to flee to the Church, and be brought up in her bosom, and be nourished with the Lord's Scriptures. For the Church has been planted as a garden (paradisus) in this world; therefore says the Spirit of God, “Thou mayest freely eat from every tree of the garden,” that is, Eat ye from every Scripture of the Lord; but ye shall not eat with an uplifted mind, nor touch any heretical discord. (5, 20, 2)

Previous in series: St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Part I
Next in series: The Third Century and the School of Alexandria

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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