Irony in Irenaeus

Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is one of the treasures of the early Church, but there are some things in it which will strike the modern reader as a bit odd or even ironic. One of Irenaeus’ major lines of argumentation is that the heretics slink around in obscurity, playing word games with parables or employing bizarre numerology to prove their Aeons and Pleroma and such, or simply wresting Scripture out of context. Irenaeus, however, takes his stand upon the plain and well-known Apostolic Tradition, derived from the clear meaning of Scripture. In fact, according  to Irenaeus, it is obvious that the four Gospels are authoritative and in line with the rest of the teaching of Scripture. He proceeds to defend them thus:

“For it is impossible that the Gospels should be in number either more or fewer than these. For since there are four regions of the world wherein we are, and four principal winds, and the Church is as seed sown in the whole earth, and the Gospel is the Church’s pillar and ground, and the breath of life: it is natural that it should have four pillars, from all quarters breathing incorruption, and kindling men into life. Whereby it is evident, that the Artificer of all things, the Word, Who sitteth upon the Cherubims, and keepeth all together, when He was made manifest unto men, gave us His Gospel in four forms, kept together by one SPIRIT. As David, imploring His Presence, saith, Thou that sittest upon the Cherubims, shew Thyself. For indeed the Cherubim had four faces, and their faces are images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it saith, was like a Lion, denoting His real efficiency, His guiding power, His royalty: and the second like a Calf, signifying His station as a Sacrificer and Priest: and the third having the face of a man, most evidently depicting His Presence as Man: and the fourth like an eagle in flight, declaring the gift of the Spirit flying down upon the Church.

Now then the Gospels are in unison with these, upon which Christ sitteth. For first, that according to John relates His princely and efficacious, and glorious birth from the Father…. On this account this Gospel is also full of all confidence; for that is his Character.

But the Gospel of Luke, as being of a priestly stamp, began from Zacharias the priest burning incense unto God. For now the fatted Calf was a preparing, about to be sacrificed for the finding of the younger Son.

Matthew, for his part proclaims His Birth as a Man, saying, The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ…as it is written in the Prophet Esaias: implying the winged image of the Gospel. And for this cause he hath also made his narrative concise and rapid: for this is the stamp of Prophecy….

Such, then, as were the dealings of the Son of God, such also is the form of the Living Creatures; and such as is the form of the Living creatures, such also is the stamp of the Gospel. For the living creatures are of four forms, of four forms also is the Gospel, and the dealing of the Lord. And therefore four general covenants were given unto mankind: the first, of Noe’s deluge, on occasion of the Bow: and the second, Abraham’s, with the sign of Circumcision: and the third, the giving of the Law under Moses: and the fourth that of the Gospels, by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now such being the case, they are all vain and ignorant, and daring withal, who set at nought the true notion of the Gospel, and privily bring in either more or fewer individual Gospels, than have been mentioned.”

If only Gleason Archer had thought of that argument, how much shorter would have been his NTI! It’s interesting to see how long some of this sticks around. I remember in high school hearing about how the Gospels corresponded to certain animals and perhaps even the four faces of the cherubim. The details were a little different, though.

Well, I don’t want to throw stones at Irenaeus. He did Christianity a great service by refuting the heretics. It’s worth considering, though, whether our beliefs are the clear teaching of Scripture, or whether we think something is the clear teaching of Scripture because that’s what we believe. Also, our methods may not always be so far removed from those we seek to refute.

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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