Irenaeus #

Introduction #

by Joseph Smith and Fr. John Behr

Εἰρηναῖος, Իրենեոս, saint.

Life of Irenaeus #

St. Irenaeus (end of 2nd century) comes in the history of patrology after the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists. He may be said to belong to the third generation of Christian teachers, for in his youth in Asia Minor he had known the celebrated Polycarp, and the latter had himself known our Lord’s own disciples, in particular the apostle St. John, who made him bishop of Smyrna. In the reign of Marcus Aurelius, when persecution was raging at Lyons, Irenaeus was a presbyter in that city, and about the years 177-8 succeeded the martyr St. Pothinus as its bishop. The year of Ireaneus’ death is unknown; in tis commonly put at about 202, at the time of the renewed persecution under Septimius Severus, and he is venerated as a martyr; but the evidence for his martyrdom is unsatisfactory.

His works #

Eusebius of Caesarea, to whom we are ultimately indebted for all we know about Irenaeus (apart of course from what may be gathered of him from his own writings), mentions as his works a treatise against Marcion, various letters of which the most celebrated in the one written to Victor of Rome on the Paschal controversy, sundry other treatises, including the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, and — his principal work — the five books of his treatise against the Gnostics, commonly known under the title Against the Heresies. This work is of especial importance for the understanding of several passages of the Demonstration. Irenaeus wrote in Greek, but his works have not come down to us, as such, in the original. We have, however, in addition to numerous fragments in various languages, much of the original Greek as quoted by later writers, and the complete text, in an early Latin version, of Against the Heresies, and also an Armenian version of the last two of the five books of that work, and of the Demonstration. The Demonstration was long supposed to have been irretrievably lost, but in 1904 an Armenian version of it was found, in a manuscript belonging to the church of Our Lady at Erevan by the Most Rev. vardapet of Etchmiadzin Karapet Ter Mkrtchian, who was at the time acting as Vicar to the Catholicos, and later become bishop of Azerbaijan. The Armenian text of the *Demonstration was first published, by the finder of the manuscript, in 1907, along with a German translation, and with annotations by Adolf von Harnack, who also divided the text into a hundred “chapters”.

The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching #

The aim of The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching is straightforward. In the opening lines Irenaeus states that he intends to provide Marcianus with a “summary memorandum,” a handbook or manual, by means of which Marcianus may be able to “understand all the members of the body of truth.” As such, it is the earliest summary of Christian teaching, presented in a non-polemical manner, that we now have. For this reason its discovery at the beginning of this century generated much excitement: here was a work from a bishop, who claimed to have known those who had themselves known the apostles, describing the teaching of the apostles. It was described as a “catechetical treatise,” outlining Chrsitianity as it was then expounded by a bishop to his flock. The value of such a document is clearly inestimable.

However, it is all too easy to miss the real significance of this work. The first reading of the Demonstration will probably result in surprise and perhaps disappointment. Irenaeus does not present Christianity, in the way we have come to think of it, as a system of theological beliefs. Moreover, very little place is given to the ecclesiastical or sacramental dimensions of Christianity, nor does he describe the mystical life of prayer. Instead, Irenaeus follows the example of the great speeches in Acts, recounting all the various deeds of God culminating in the exaltation of His crucified Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the bestowal of His Holy Spirit and the gift of a new heart of flesh. Most striking, however, is that in recounting this history, the New Testament writings are not utilized by Irenaeus as the foundation for his presentation. He clearly knows these writings, and regards them as Scripture, as is amply demonstrated by his other work, Against the Heresies, and by the fact that when, in the Demonstration, he cites a verse from the Old Testament, attributing it to its Old Testament source, it is often, nevertheless, given in the form used by the New Testament (e.g., the passage attributed to Jeremias in Mt 27:9-10, cited in ch. 81). However, in the Demonstration, that Jesus was born from the Virgin and worked miracles is shown from Isaias and others; while the names of Pontius Pilate and Herod are known from the Gospels, that Christ was bound and brought before them is shown by Osee; that he was crucified, raised and exalted is again shown by other prophets. The whole content of the apostolic preaching is derived, for Irenaeus, from the Old Testament, which, in turn, implies a recognition of the scriptural, that is, ultimate authority of the apostolic preaching. This texture of the Demonstration clearly calls for further comment.

The Logic of the Demonstration

Building upon the work of the earlier Christian writers, and taking a deliberate stand against both Marcion and the Gnostics, Irenaeus is the first patristic writer to make full use of the apostolic writings as Scripture. He knows and uses practically the full range of New Testament texts that we now recognize, and, for the Gospels, insists that there can be neither more nor less than four, or rather, one Gospel in four forms. In his great work, Against the Herseies, after describing the systems of the Gnostics in book 1, and demonstrating their inconsistencies in book 2, Irenaeus turns, in books 3 to 5, to “the demonstration from Scripture, of the apostles who wrote the Gospel in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth and that no ile is in Him.” He then skillfully interweaves passages from the Old Testament and the New, to demonstrate that there is but one God, who has made Himself known in his one Son, Jesus Christ, through the one Holy Spirit, to the one human race, through one all-encompassing divine economy or history.

In the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, howver, as already noted, Irenaeus does not explicitly make any great use of the apostolic writings. He does refer to the apostles (chs. 3, 41, 46, 47, 86, 98, 99), and he cites Paul three times, once referring to him as “His [Christ’s] apostle” (chs. 5, 8, 87), and also cites “His [Christ’s] apostle John” twice (chs. 43, 94). Apart from these few references, Irenaeus simply expounds the apostolic preaching within the framework of the christocentric reading of the Old Testament that characterized second-century Christianity; it is this primitive utilization of Scripture in the Demonstration, compared to that of Against the Heresies, that has prompted the suggestion that it was in fact written first, and that it is Against the Heresies which marks a decisive step in the history of Christianity—“le tournant irénéen.” Be that as it may, when considered from the perspective of the writings of the apostolic fathers and the apologists, it is now possible to see the project undertaken by Irenaeus in the Demonstration: to relate the content of the apostolic preaching by outlining the history narrated in Scripture, culminating in the apostles’ proclamation that what is prophesied therein is now fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and thereby, in reverse, recognizing the scriptural authority of this preaching of the apostles.

The particular logic of Irenaeus’ undertaking is clearly foreshadowed by Ignatius and Justin, and, indeed, is attributed to the risen Christ Himself, who “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24:27) Moreover, a large number of texts used by Irenaeus had already been put to the same purpose by Justin, often in the same combination and order: Irenaeus either borrowed much of his material from Justin, or from a source common to the two, perhaps some kind of “Book of Testimonies.” The uniqueness of Irenaeus’ Demonstration lies, therefore, not in the logic of the enterprise itself, but in the clear and comprehensive presentation he achieves. While Justin wanders from topic to topic in no apparent order, Irenaeus takes us effortlessly through a demonstration of the apostolic preaching concerning the activity of God, from the creation to the exaltation of His Son.

From what has been said concerning the presentation of the Christian revelation in the second century, it is clear that there were two interrelated projects: first, to demonstrate or unfold the content of Scripture, the Old Testament, as it pertains to the revelation of Jesus Christ as preached by the apostles; second, to recognize the scriptural authority of that preaching by demonstrating that the apostles’ proclamation of what hs been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, shaped as it is by Scripture, was indeed so prophesied. These two tasks are both conveyed by the one word which Irenaeus uses to describe this work—an ἐπίδειξις: a “demonstration” both in the sense of an “exposition” as well as a “proof.”

In writing The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus, who more than any earlier writer identified Scripture as we now know it as established it in its rightful, foundational, place, has given us an unparalleled example of how to approach and understand the truths revealed by Scripture. In this lies the immense significance of this otherwise modest and unassuming work.

The present edition #

The present edition of The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching presents the Classical Armenian text with word-by-word grammatical parsing, English gloss, and a parallel English translation by J. Armitage Robinson.

References #

  1. Ter Mkrtchian, K., & Wilson, S. G. (1919). The proof of the Apostolic preaching. In R. Graffin & F. Nau, Patrologia Orientalis (Vol. 12). Paris.

  2. Robinson, J. A. (1920). St Irenaeus: The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. In W.J. Sparrow Simpson, & W. K. Lowther Clarke, Translations of Christian Literature (Series IV: Oriental Texts). London.

  3. Smith, J. P. (1952). St Irenaeus: Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. In J. Quasten & J. C. Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation. London.

  4. Behr, J. (1997). St. Ireaneus of Lyons: On the Apostolic Preaching. St Vladimir’s Press: New York.