Review: Irenaeus, On Apostolic Preaching (180 AD).

New this year – given this blog is focused on the history of the Early Church, and on book reviews, it made sense to combine the two. This ‘review’ is of Irenaeus’ 180 AD text, On Apostolic Preaching.

Introduction

Addressed to Marcianus, this short tract immediately strikes a pastoral tone. Irenaeus seeks to encourage his recipient in the (1) “way [which] leads to the kingdom of heaven, uniting man to God.” This is achieved (3) by holding to the famous “rule of faith.” Faith, which is produced by a discernment of truth, and rests on the great truth of who God is. And for Irenaeus, that truth is handed down to believers by the writings and teachings of the Apostles.

As such, Irenaeus begins to work through a catechetical text – spelling out the truth of the Gospel through Scripture. His first point of faith is our Creator God, his second, the Son. And so he goes on.

Irenaeus details how God made man as the pinnacle of creation, blessing him with a partner in Eve, before these two humans rebelled against him (11-16). For this they were put out of the garden (17). Irenaeus moves on to discuss the cursed experience of a broken world, working his way through an exposition of the book of Genesis, taking in Noah, Babel, Abraham and Moses. The history of Israel is quickly covered, from the wanderings in the desert to the Temple of Solomon (28-29).

The Heart of the Work

But the focus of Irenaeus’ treatise is Christ. And thus it is the Son of God who dominates his discussion. Christ is shown to be the fulfilment of Old Testament hope (30-37), the promised Messiah pictured in David, foretold in Scripture. And this Jesus Christ (39) “He gloriously achieved our redemption, and fulfilled the promise of the fathers, and abolished the old disobedience.” Having examined the coming and saving work of this Christ, Irenaeus returns to his initial comment on putting our faith in what is true, and he concludes (43) “so then we must believe God in all things, for in all things God is true.”

Irenaeus continues to use Scripture to drive home his conclusion that God is alone the true God, and that the Son is God and Lord with Him. Isaiah and David are among the voices who testify to this truth, and it is important to note that the church father here recognises the pre-existence of the Son – something that will become a huge issue in the global church only a hundred or so years after he writes. (51) “Here, first of all, is seen that the Son of God pre-existed, from the fact the Father spoke with Him, and before He was born revealed Him to men, and [so on]…”

Returning to this particular work, however, and Christ continues to be the focus. His birth, life and kingly status are evaluated in light of Scripture (55-66), before his healings (67) and finally his death are considered (68).

Here, two thirds of the way through the work, Irenaeus reaches the climax of the Gospel. (69) “Now what follows in Isaiah is this: By his stripes we were healed. All we like sheep went astray: a man in his way went astray: and the Lord delivered him up to our sins. It is manifest therefore that by the will of the Father these things occurred to Him for the sake of our salvation.” As the words of Isaiah are considered, Irenaeus brings his reader to the simple truth of the Gospel: Christ died for our salvation. The death and resurrection of Christ are then discussed by the author, as further lengthy OT references are brought in to support his presentation of the Gospel. The wealth of scriptural quotations, especially in this discussion, attests to the clear understanding of the Bible that Irenaeus possessed. Even in a time before the canon had been fully clarified, Irenaeus was clearly discerning truth from the books of Scripture that he had been taught in.

Finally, the glory of Christ is considered (83-85), now (85) Christ “awaits the time appointed by the Father for the judgement, when all enemies shall be put under Him.” Thus the reader, and all believers, are encouraged to go out with this Gospel message. For (87) “by the brevity of faith and love, men were to be saved.” We are to love our God and our neighbour, sharing this good news of the Gospel.

New Life in the Truth

Irenaeus ends his work by discussing what happens to believers, how we are given over to Christ, free from the bonds of the law. He notes how we need Christ alone as our tutor, how we have a new heart and a new mind. Irenaeus makes it clear that this new people, gathered in Christ, live differently in response to the saving faith they now have. They have a new life.

And so at last, Irenaeus concludes his discussion (98). “This, beloved, is the preaching of the truth, and this is the manner of our redemption, and this is the way of life, which the prophets proclaimed, and Christ established, and the apostles delivered, and the Church in all the world hands on to her children. This must we keep with all certainty, with a sound will and pleasing to God, with good works and right-willed disposition.” Believers must cling to this Gospel truth, never wavering from it, but seeking to live in it for all their days.

Conclusion

Irenaeus, through a heavy reliance on the truths of Scripture, has laid out the Gospel to his reader. His final two paragraphs (99-100) challenge the heretic to accept the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, indicating a clear and early understanding of the triune God. Irenaeus has made it clear through his work that Scripture is his source, Christ is his saviour, and that his identity, and the identity of all believers, is now in this eternal God. This is a short, and wonderfully readable early Christian text. It would be a great benefit to any reader, as it simply and clearly lays out the truth of the Gospel. It is remarkable that such a work has survived over 1800 years, but it is yet another testament to the unchanging God we hope in, and His unchanging message of saving faith for all who put their trust in Him.

If you wanted to buy your own copy, John Behr’s translation by SVS Press is very readable.

Alternatively, you can read the work online for free with several easily accessible versions. J Armitage Robinson’s old translation is available here for example.

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