It seems that most Christians who study the early church love Irenaeus. It’s probably because he battled the gnostic heresies so well in his 5-volume work Against Heresies in the 180s A.D. Since there are no more Valentinians or Marcionites (at least not purposefully) we can all look to him as a hero of the faith and cheer at most of what he wrote.
However, within Christian circles the main question is whether Irenaeus was more Catholic or Protestant. Now it didn’t take me long to sense that he was more Roman Catholic than Protestant. Yet many Protestants claim him too and do their best to show his words to be in line with Reformation doctrines.
Probably the main quote they love is in 3, 1, 1. Irenaeus says,
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith…. When, however, they [the heretics] are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and assert that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For they allege that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world.”
Protestants use this passage of Irenaeus to prove that he believed in sola scriptura. I’m not so sure because he still goes on to approve of traditions passed down by the apostles through the bishops.
But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, and which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. (3, 2, 2)
So he still believes in the traditions passed down straight from the apostles and in the next several chapters he shows how the heretics are not part of the apostolic succession and therefore cannot have a “secret” tradition from the apostles. Irenaeus does not condemn traditions of the apostles but rather shows how the heretics can’t have it because they do not have apostolic succession.
However, for the sake of argument, what if Irenaeus did actually believe in sola scriptura the same way Protestants do? If we trust him enough as a source to believe this passage we musn’t stop there, right? We must continue on and find out what else he said and take it seriously.
So what else did Irenaeus say?
What did Irenaeus consider Scripture?
For example, in 4, 26, 3 Irenaeus quotes from Daniel 13 (which is not in Protestant Bibles) and in 5, 35, 1 quotes the entire chapter of Baruch 5. Both times he did this alongside other Scripture without making any distinction.
Even other Protestants agree that Irenaeus considered the deuterocanonical books as Scripture.
Anglican J.N.D. Kelly said that in the first couple centuries “the deuterocanonical writings ranked as Scripture in the fullest sense” and gives multiple examples including Irenaeus who “refers to Wisdom, the History of Susannah, Bel and the Dragon and Baruch.” (Early Christian Doctrines ch. 3)
Protestant Evangelical F.F. Bruce also said, “Irenaeus is well able to distinguish ‘the writings of truth’ from ‘the multitude of apocryphal and spurious writings.’ The Old Testament writings are indispensable witnesses to the history of salvation; the Septuagint version was divinely inspired, the writings which we call the Apocrypha being evidently invested with the same authority as those translated from the Hebrew Bible.” (The Canon of Scripture ch. 13).
So Irenaeus considered the deuterocanonical books to be Scripture. Therefore, even if he did believe in sola scriptura, his Bible includes books that the Reformers removed. Protestants do not believe these books are inspired but Roman Catholics do.
What did Irenaeus say about the Eucharist?
Again, giving directions to His disciples to offer to God the first-fruits of His own, created things — not as if He stood in need of them, but that they might be themselves neither unfruitful nor ungrateful — He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said, “This is My body.” And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world, to Him who gives us as the means of subsistence the first-fruits of His own gifts in the New Testament, concerning which Malachi, among the twelve prophets, thus spoke beforehand: “I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord Omnipotent, and I will not accept sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun, unto the going down [of the same], My name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is My name among the Gentiles, saith the Lord Omnipotent;” — indicating in the plainest manner, by these words, that the former people [the Jews] shall indeed cease to make offerings to God, but that in every place sacrifice shall be offered to Him, and that a pure one; and His name is glorified among the Gentiles. (4, 17, 5)
So Ireaneus saw the Eucharist as a sacrifice and a fulfilment of Malachi 1:10-11 which prophesied a “pure offering” that would one day be offered by all nations. That’s still Roman Catholic doctrine, not Protestant. (CCC 1330, 1350)
Inasmuch, then, as the Church offers with single-mindedness, her gift is justly reckoned a pure sacrifice with God….And the Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, offering to Him, with giving of thanks, the things taken from His creation. (4, 18, 4)
So the only place we can offer this oblation is in the Church. Not just anyone can offer this sacrifice to God. That’s still Roman Catholic doctrine, not Protestant (CCC 1330, 1350). Protestants just don’t talk like this.
What did Irenaeus say about Mary?
Though he didn’t use the phrase, Irenaeus saw Mary as the New Eve. Just as Jesus is a type of Adam so Mary is a type of Eve. Adam and Eve disobeyed and brought destruction upon mankind but Jesus and Mary obeyed and brought salvation to mankind.
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….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 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)
Protestants just don’t talk like this about anyone and certainly not about Mary. Meanwhile, Roman Catholics still see Mary as the New Eve and a Mediatrix.
Scripture, the Eucharist, and Mary are three very big and contentious issues between Protestants and Catholics and yet it seems Irenaeus is far closer to Roman Catholicism than to Protestantism.
So what do we do? It seems there are three options.
- Accept his quote about the Scripture being the “ground and pillar of our faith” as more truthful than his other doctrines and therefore the others can be safely ignored.
- Explain away many of his other doctrines to mean something other than what they actually sound like.
- Accept that he was just not a Protestant.