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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Harmony of the Testaments: Irenaeus of Lyons

The most famous fighter against Gnosticism (especially the followers of Valentinus) in the second half of the second century was Irenaeus, bishop of Lugdunum (Lyons). His book against the Gnosis (preserved only in Latin translation: Adversus haereses, Against Heresies) combats the Gnostics on the battlefield of both testaments. In his time the four gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul were already widely read and accepted as holy scriptures, though the official close of the canon in the western churches cannot be dated before the end of the fourth century. As the Gnostics founded their theories above all on New Testament texts, focusing on the letters of Paul, also the anti-Gnostic apologetics had to be based on their authority.

By permission of the British Library.

Though developing a theory of redemption was the first aim of the Gnostics, Irenaeus' central intention is to prove the unity of God against them. This he does on the basis of the scriptures, especially of the New Testament in the making. Two-thirds of his biblical quotations are taken from this part of the Bible. This proof is concentrated in book III of his work. Here he shows first that there is only one God, the creator of all things (chs. 6–15), and secondly that there is just one Christ, son of God become man and word become flesh (chs. 16–23). He stresses the apostolic origin of the four gospels against the selection of one, shortened to fit the heretical opinions of the Gnostics, and stresses their harmony. He also proves the harmony between both testaments. Against the Gnostic division of the one Christ into two he stresses that the human Jesus and the ‘Christ’ belong to the divine pleroma. The proofs are taken from John 1: 14 and 18 and other texts showing that it was Jesus who became son of man as the Christ and son of God. In the passage about the first and second Adam (III, 21: 10–23: 8 ) the catchword ‘recapitulation’ marks Irenaeus' idea of a salvation history: the history of mankind, described in the Old Testament as a history of disaster, is started by Jesus anew with his coming, now as a history of salvation. The criticism of the Old Testament ethics by the Gnostics is answered by the thesis of the two ‘economies’: granted that people of Old Testament times were still imperfect—humans could just learn by experience, and this took time! (IV, 38: 1.; 39: 1 ). Therefore the word of God became a child with the childhood of humankind (IV, 38: 2 ). Accommodation and education (IV, 14: 2 ) characterize God's acts in history. The triune God (the ‘word’) was already present in paradise and appeared to the patriarchs and the prophets. The same God proclaimed the law; the gospel is its fulfilment. Irenaeus understands the commands in the Sermon on the Mount as the better law and can even speak of the ‘law of the gospel’ (IV, 16: 1–4 ). But he mentions also the temporal end of the law in the time of John the Baptist (IV, 4: 2 ). He accepts also the traditional view that the Holy Spirit acts in the scriptures (II, 28: 2 ). He uses allegorical forms of exegesis, detecting ‘spiritual’ meanings. All in all, his well-rounded theological system, based on the scriptures, being forced upon him by the struggle life or death against the Gnostics, characterizes Irenaeus as the first systematic but also biblical theologian.

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