Justification in the Early Church – 05 – Ireneaus of Lyons

200 Early Church picWelcome to this series of posts giving a survey of what the early church fathers have written about justification and works of law with reference to Paul. Click this link to go to the first post with the contents of the whole.

In today’s post we look at Ireneaus of Lyons (c.e. 125-202). Ireneaus is famous for writing Against Heresies which comes in four parts. Part three has some good stuff on the gospel. He wrote a few statements concerning justification and they require an outline of the context to see how they relate.

Its a long post. Its long because he says a lot of good stuff.

Irenaeus, another early apologist who was highly regarded by the early church was born approximately c.e. 120 and wrote a four part treatise called ‘Against Heresies’ around c.e. 185.

Irenaeus’ statements are better put in the wider context of his discussion. The letter is long so I will extract the more relevant statements.

Christ, the traditions of the elders and the law of Moses

In this first passage Ireneaus is arguing Christians believe in the same God as the Jews. He makes this argument pointing to Christ and what he commanded. Jesus expresses agreement with some of the commands in the law of Moses.

CHAP. XII.—IT CLEARLY APPEARS THAT THERE WAS BUT ONE AUTHOR OF BOTH THE OLD AND THE NEW LAW, FROM THE FACT THAT CHRIST CONDEMNED TRADITIONS AND CUSTOMS REPUGNANT TO THE FORMER, WHILE HE CONFIRMED ITS MOST IMPORTANT PRECEPTS, AND TAUGHT THAT HE WAS HIMSELF THE END OF THE MOSAIC LAW.

1. For the tradition of the elders themselves, which they pretended to observe from the law, was contrary to the law given by Moses. Wherefore also Esaias [Isaiah] declares:

“Thy dealers mix the wine with water,” (Isa 1.22)

showing that the elders were in the habit of mingling a watered tradition with the simple command of God; that is, they set up a spurious law, and one contrary to the [true] law; as also the Lord made plain, when He said to them,

“Why do ye transgress the commandment of God, for the sake of your tradition?” (Mt 15.3)

For not only by actual transgression did they set the law of God at nought, mingling the wine with water; but they also set up their own law in opposition to it, which is termed, even to the present day, the pharisaical. In this [law] they suppress certain things, add others, and interpret others, again, as they think proper, which their teachers use, each one in particular; and desiring to uphold these traditions, they were unwilling to be subject to the law of God, which prepares them for the coming of Christ.

But they did even blame the Lord for healing on the Sabbath-days, which, as I have already observed, the law did not prohibit. For they did themselves, in one sense, perform acts of healing upon the Sabbath-day, when they circumcised a man [on that day]; but they did not blame themselves for transgressing the command of God through tradition and the aforesaid pharisaical law, and for not keeping the commandment of the law, which is the love of God. (Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 475–477). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company)

The passage starts recalling the incident Jesus had with the Pharisees when they asked why his disciples do not observe the tradition of the elders (Mt 15.1-9). This serves to introduce in Ireneaus’ mind what commands are truly important.

2. But that this is the first and greatest commandment, and that the next [has respect to love] towards our neighbour, the Lord has taught, when He says that the entire law and the prophets hang upon these two commandments.

Moreover, He did not Himself bring down [from heaven] any other commandment greater than this one, but renewed this very same one to His disciples, when He enjoined them to love God with all their heart, and others as themselves.

But if He had descended from another Father, He never would have made use of the first and greatest commandment of the law; but He would undoubtedly have endeavoured by all means to bring down a greater one than this from the perfect Father, so as not to make use of that which had been given by the God of the law. (ibid)

Here is his main point. We want to see what he says about justification. That will follow but we need the context to understand.

And Paul in like manner declares,

“Love is the fulfilling of the law:” (Rom 13.10)

and [he declares]

“that when all other things have been destroyed, there shall remain faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of all is love;” (1 Cor 13.13)

and that apart from the love of God, neither knowledge avails anything, nor the understanding of mysteries, nor faith, nor prophecy, but that without love all are hollow and vain;

moreover, that love makes man perfect; and that he who loves God is perfect, both in this world and in that which is to come. For we do never cease from loving God; but in proportion as we continue to contemplate Him, so much the more do we love Him

3. As in the law, therefore, and in the Gospel [likewise], the first and greatest commandment is, to love the Lord God with the whole heart, and then there follows a commandment like to it, to love one’s neighbour as one’s self (cf. Mk 12.29-31); the author of the law and the Gospel is shown to be one and the same. (ibid)

Ireneaus reminds us the early church believed the story of Jesus, as recorded in the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is the gospel.

For the precepts of an absolutely perfect life, since they are the same in each Testament, have pointed out [to us] the same God, who certainly has promulgated particular laws adapted for each; but the more prominent and the greatest [commandments], without which salvation cannot [be attained], He has exhorted [us to observe] the same in both. (ibid)

Ireneaus says something that will probably take a few people back. He believes obedience to the more prominent commandments are necessary for salvation. Bear in mind he is familiar with Paul and Romans as he has quoted above.

4. The Lord, too, does not do away with this [God], when He shows that the law was not derived from another God, expressing Himself as follows to those who were being instructed by Him, to the multitude and to His disciples:

“The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. All, therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens, and lay them upon men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not so much as move them with a finger.” (Mt 23.2-4)

He therefore did not throw blame upon that law which was given by Moses, when He exhorted it to be observed, Jerusalem being as yet in safety; but He did throw blame upon those persons, because they repeated indeed the words of the law, yet were without love. And for this reason were they held as being UNRIGHTEOUS as respects God, and as respects their neighbours. As also Isaiah says:

“This people honoureth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me: howbeit in vain do they worship Me, teaching the doctrines and the commandments of men.” (Mt 29.13)

He does not call the law given by Moses commandments of men, but the traditions of the elders themselves which they had invented, and in upholding which they made the law of God of none effect, and were on this account also not subject to His Word. For this is what Paul says concerning these men:

“For they, being ignorant of God’s RIGHTEOUSNESS, and going about to establish their own RIGHTEOUSNESS, have not submitted themselves to the RIGHTEOUSNESS of God. For Christ is the end of the law for RIGHTEOUSNESS to everyone that believeth.” (Rom 10.3-4)

And how is Christ the end of the law, if He be not also the final Cause of it? For He who has brought in the end has Himself also wrought the beginning; and it is He who does Himself say to Moses,

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have come down to deliver them;” (Ex 3.7-8)

it being customary from the beginning with the Word of God to ascend and descend for the purpose of saving those who were in affliction.

5. Now, that the law did beforehand teach mankind the necessity of following Christ, He does Himself make manifest, when He replied as follows to him who asked Him what he should do that he might inherit eternal life:

“If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” But upon the other asking “Which?” again the Lord replies: “Do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honour father and mother, and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” (Mt 19.17-18)

setting as an ascending series (velut gradus) before those who wished to follow Him, the precepts of the law, as the entrance into life; and What He then said to one He said to all. (ibid)

Ireneaus is in agreement with Jesus, that people must observe these commands to enter into life.

But when the former said, “All these have I done” (and most likely he had not kept them, for in that case the Lord would not have said to him, “Keep the commandments”), the Lord, exposing his covetousness, said to him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell all that thou hast, and distribute to the poor; and come, follow me;” promising to those who would act thus, the portion belonging to the apostles.

And He did not preach to His followers another God the Father, besides Him who was proclaimed by the law from the beginning; nor another Son; nor the Mother, the enthymesis of the Æon, who existed in suffering and apostasy; nor the Pleroma of the thirty Æons, which has been proved vain, and incapable of being believed in; nor that fable invented by the other heretics. (ibid)

These are examples of some of heresies Ireneaus was combating.

But He taught that they should obey the commandments which God enjoined from the beginning, and do away with their former covetousness by good works, and follow after Christ. But that possessions distributed to the poor do annul former covetousness, Zaccheus made evident, when he said, “Behold, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone, I restore fourfold.” (ibid)

Clearly Jesus has instituted change. But not to the point where Christians serve another God. Jesus constantly affirms the more important commands in the law of Moses. Ireneaus is keen to point this out arguing the God of the Christians is the same as that of the Jews.

Bearing in mind Ireneaus affirms the role of several commands in the life of Christians. Look what he now says about justification.

Justified by the precepts of the law and Justified by faith

CHAP. XIII.—CHRIST DID NOT ABROGATE THE NATURAL PRECEPTS OF THE LAW, BUT RATHER FULFILLED AND EXTENDED THEM. HE REMOVED THE YOKE AND BONDAGE OF THE OLD LAW, SO THAT MANKIND, BEING NOW SET FREE, MIGHT SERVE GOD WITH THAT TRUSTFUL PIETY WHICH BECOMETH SONS.

1. And that the Lord did not abrogate the natural [precepts] of the law, by which man is JUSTIFIED,

which also those who were JUSTIFIED by faith, and who pleased God, did observe previous to the giving of the law,

but that He extended and fulfilled them, is shown from His words.

(Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 477-478). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company)

Ireneaus main point here is about the continued observance of the ‘natural’ [precepts] of the law throughout the ages.

Ireneaus says man is justified by these precepts. I assume he means this is how the righteous are identified in the sight of God and man throughout these ages.

He also says those who were ‘justified by faith’, a uniquely Pauline expression, observed previous to the giving of the law. People like Enoch, Noah, and Abram. Justin Martyr you may remember made a very similar point in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew.

His use of ‘justified by faith’ is compatible with being justified by the natural precepts. One is not the antithesis of the other in his mind. So those who are justified by faith, also observe the precepts of the law and are justified by them as well. James’ statement ‘a man is justified by works and not by faith alone’ (Jas 2.24) comes to mind.

“For,” He remarks, “it has been said to them of old time, Do not commit adultery. But I say unto you, That every one who hath looked upon a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Mt 5.27-28)

And again:

“It has been said, Thou shalt not kill. But I say unto you, Every one who is angry with his brother without a cause, shall be in danger of the judgment.” (Mt 5.21-22)

And,

“It hath been said, Thou shalt not forswear thyself. But I say unto you, Swear not at all; but let your conversation be, Yea, yea, and Nay, nay.” (Mt 5.33)

And other statements of a like nature. For all these do not contain or imply an opposition to and an overturning of the [precepts] of the past, as Marcion’s followers do strenuously maintain; but [they exhibit] a fulfilling and an extension of them, as He does Himself declare:

“Unless your RIGHTEOUSNESS shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5.20)

For what meant the excess referred to? In the first place, [we must] believe not only in the Father, but also in His Son now revealed; for He it is who leads man into fellowship and unity with God. (ibid)

Its interesting to note Marcion, one of the heretics Ireneaus is arguing against argued for the overturning of the natural precepts Ireneaus says justify all men.

Importantly, Ireneaus affirms there is no salvation outside of Christ.

In the next place, [we must] not only say, but we must do; for they said, but did not. And [we must] not only abstain from evil deeds, but even from the desires after them. Now He did not teach us these things as being opposed to the law, but as fulfilling the law, and implanting in us the varied RIGHTEOUSNESS of the law.

That would have been contrary to the law, if He had commanded His disciples to do anything which the law had prohibited.

But this which He did command—namely, not only to abstain from things forbidden by the law, but even from longing after them—is not contrary to [the law], as I have remarked, neither is it the utterance of one destroying the law, but of one fulfilling, extending, and affording greater scope to it. (ibid)

Jesus fulfills, extends and gives greater scope to the law.

2. For the law, since it was laid down for those in bondage, used to instruct the soul by means of those corporeal objects which were of an external nature, drawing it, as by a bond, to obey its commandments, that man might learn to serve God. (ibid)

Those in bondage refer to the people of Israel under the law. Ireneaus is implying they were in slavery under the law (cf. Gal 5.1-4).

But the Word set free the soul, and taught that through it the body should be willingly purified. Which having been accomplished, it followed as of course, that the bonds of slavery should be removed, to which man had now become accustomed, and that he should follow God without fetters:

Moreover, that the laws of liberty should be extended, and subjection to the king increased, so that no one who is converted should appear unworthy to Him who set him free, but that the piety and obedience due to the Master of the household should be equally rendered both by servants and children; while the children possess greater confidence [than the servants], inasmuch as the working of liberty is greater and more glorious than that obedience which is rendered in [a state of] slavery. (ibid)

This is a wonderful statement. Ireneaus is saying those who are freed from the law, follow God of their own accord. Because they observe Jesus’ commands freely, they have a greater confidence and obedience.

4. Inasmuch, then, as all natural precepts are common to us and to them (the Jews), they had in them indeed the beginning and origin; but in us they have received growth and completion. For to yield assent to God, and to follow His Word, and to love Him above all, and one’s neighbour as one’s self (now man is neighbour to man), and to abstain from every evil deed, and all other things of a like nature which are common to both [covenants], do reveal one and the same God.

But this is our Lord, the Word of God, who in the first instance certainly drew slaves to God, but afterwards He set those free who were subject to Him, as He does Himself declare to His disciples:

“I will not now call you servants, for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth; but I have called you friends, for all things which I have heard from My Father I have made known.”

For in that which He says,

“I will not now call you servants,”

He indicates in the most marked manner that it was Himself who did originally appoint for men that bondage with respect to God through the law, and then afterwards conferred upon them freedom. (ibid)

Overall in this passage Ireneaus affirms the role of the natural precepts in the lives of Christians. His reference to justification shows he believes men are justified by these commands and by faith.

He adjusted the human race to an agreement with salvation

CHAP. XIV.—IF GOD DEMANDS OBEDIENCE FROM MAN, IF HE FORMED MAN, CALLED HIM AND PLACED HIM UNDER LAWS, IT WAS MERELY FOR MAN’S WELFARE; NOT THAT GOD STOOD IN NEED OF MAN, BUT THAT HE GRACIOUSLY CONFERRED UPON MAN HIS FAVOURS IN EVERY POSSIBLE MANNER.

2. Thus it was, too, that God formed man at the first, because of His munificence; but chose the patriarchs for the sake of their salvation; and prepared a people beforehand, teaching the headstrong to follow God; and raised up prophets upon earth, accustoming man to bear His Spirit [within him], and to hold communion with God: He Himself, indeed, having need of nothing, but granting communion with Himself to those who stood in need of it, and sketching out, like an architect, the plan of salvation to those that pleased Him.

(Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 478-479). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company)

God chose the patriarchs for the salvation of man. He was working through men for a long time with the intention of accustoming him to bear his Spirit.

And He did Himself furnish guidance to those who beheld Him not in Egypt, while to those who became unruly in the desert He promulgated a law very suitable [to their condition]. Then, on the people who entered into the good land He bestowed a noble inheritance; and He killed the fatted calf for those converted to the Father, and presented them with the finest robe.

Thus, in a variety of ways, He adjusted the human race to an agreement with salvation. (ibid)

God is portrayed as the one working salvation in men. The law of Moses was given specifically to the Jews, ‘suitable to their condition’.

On this account also does John declare in the Apocalypse,

“And His voice as the sound of many waters.”4 For the Spirit [of God] is truly [like] many waters, since the Father is both rich and great. And the Word, passing through all those [men], did liberally confer benefits upon His subjects, by drawing up in writing a law adapted and applicable to every class [among them].

3. Thus, too, He imposed upon the [Jewish] people the construction of the tabernacle, the building of the temple, the election of the Levites, sacrifices also, and oblations, legal monitions, and all the other service of the law. (ibid)

Ireneaus introduces the law of Moses and the Jewish people.

He does Himself truly want none of these things, for He is always full of all good, and had in Himself all the odour of kindness, and every perfume of sweet-smelling savours, even before Moses existed. (ibid)

God does not want mankind to obey or do good as if he cannot survive without it. I take it to mean God can be pleased or angered by mans behaviour. But his being is unharmed and unaffected either way.

Moreover, He instructed the people, who were prone to turn to idols, instructing them by repeated appeals to persevere and to serve God, calling them to the things of primary importance by means of those which were secondary; that is, to things that are real, by means of those that are typical; and by things temporal, to eternal; and by the carnal to the spiritual; and by the earthly to the heavenly; (ibid)

Two kinds of instructions. Those of primary and secondary importance. We should be reminded of Jesus, emphasising the importance of love, over the sacrifices and offerings (cf. Mk 12.28-34).

as was also said to Moses,

“Thou shalt make all things after the pattern of those things which thou sawest in the mount.”

For during forty days He was learning to keep [in his memory] the words of God, and the celestial patterns, and the spiritual images, and the types of things to come; as also Paul says:

“For they drank of the rock which followed them: and the rock was Christ.”

6 And again, having first mentioned what are contained in the law, he goes on to say:

“Now all these things happened to them in a figure; but they were written for our admonition, upon whom the end of the ages is come.”

For by means of types they learned to fear God, and to continue devoted to His service. (ibid)

Ireneaus has again demonstrated knowledge of Paul and his writings. He uses them in part to explain how God was working through the various laws to accommodate the Jews towards salvation and against their hard heartedness.

If anyone does not observe the natural precepts he has no salvation

CHAP. XV.—AT FIRST GOD DEEMED IT SUFFICIENT TO INSCRIBE THE NATURAL LAW, OR THE DECALOGUE, UPON THE HEARTS OF MEN; BUT AFTERWARDS HE FOUND IT NECESSARY TO BRIDLE, WITH THE YOKE OF THE MOSAIC LAW, THE DESIRES OF THE JEWS, WHO WERE ABUSING THEIR LIBERTY; AND EVEN TO ADD SOME SPECIAL COMMANDS, BECAUSE OF THE HARDNESS OF THEIR HEARTS.

1. They (the Jews) had therefore a law, a course of discipline, and a prophecy of future things. For God at the first, indeed, warning them by means of natural precepts, which from the beginning He had implanted in mankind, that is, by means of the Decalogue (which, if any one does not observe, he has no salvation), did then demand nothing more of them. As Moses says in Deuteronomy,

“These are all the words which the Lord spake to the whole assembly of the sons of Israel on the mount, and He added no more; and He wrote them on two tables of stone, and gave them to me.”

(Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 479). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company)

Ireneaus describes the Decalogue as a set of natural precepts. He believes Moses is distinguishing these precepts from the other commands in the law of Moses.

He believes the Decalogue is so important, salvation depends on it’s ongoing observance.

For this reason [He did so], that they who are willing to follow Him might keep these commandments. (ibid)

At this point its probably helpful to consider whether he believes man can keep these commandments. I believe he thinks some can. But not all. The early church had an optimistic view on man’s ability to keep the God’s commands. It makes it all the worse for those who refuse to.

But when they turned themselves to make a calf, and had gone back in their minds to Egypt, desiring to be slaves instead of free-men, they were placed for the future in a state of servitude suited to their wish,—[a slavery] which did not indeed cut them off from God, but subjected them to the yoke of bondage; (ibid)

At the end Ireneaus implies God gave them their wish to go back into slavery. He did it in the form of giving the entirety of the law of Moses.

Circumcision and the Sabbaths given as a sign, not for righteousness

Ireneaus now begins to contrast a Christian’s attitude to the legal ceremonies and the natural precepts.

CHAP. XVI.—PERFECT RIGHTEOUSNESS WAS CONFERRED NEITHER BY CIRCUMCISION NOR BY ANY OTHER LEGAL CEREMONIES. THE DECALOGUE, HOWEVER, WAS NOT CANCELLED BY CHRIST, BUT IS ALWAYS IN FORCE: MEN WERE NEVER RELEASED FROM ITS COMMANDMENTS.

1. Moreover, we learn from the Scripture itself, that God gave circumcision, not as the completer of righteousness, but as a sign, that the race of Abraham might continue recognisable. For it declares:

“God said unto Abraham, Every male among you shall be circumcised; and ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, as a token of the covenant between Me and you.” (Gen 17.11)

(Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 481–482). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company)

Ireneaus uses this passage to argue against the need for Gentile Christians to be circumcised. This is one of the laws he refers to as ‘legal ceremonies’.

He says circumcision is a sign. That is it was intended to distinguish God’s people from others.

The naming convention ‘ceremonies’ will be used for many centuries later and used to distinguish various commands of the law of Moses from the natural precepts. In this case the Decalogue.

This same does Ezekiel the prophet say with regard to the Sabbaths:

“Also I gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord, that sanctify them.”

14 And in Exodus, God says to Moses:

“And ye shall observe My Sabbaths; for it shall be a sign between Me and you for your generations.” (ibid)

Ireneaus includes observance of the Sabbaths in what he calls the ceremonies as well. He means all the days of rest which include the feasts and festivals commanded in the law of Moses.

Again he argues the Sabbaths were a sign. Used to distinguish God’s people from other nations.

These things, then, were given for a sign; but the signs were not unsymbolical, that is, neither unmeaning nor to no purpose, inasmuch as they were given by a wise Artist; but the circumcision after the flesh typified that after the Spirit. For “we,” says the apostle,

“have been circumcised with the circumcision made without hands.”

2 And the prophet declares,

“Circumcise the hardness of your heart.” (ibid)

Ireneaus recognizes two types of circumcision. Circumcision of the flesh and of the heart. Circumcision of the heart is by the Spirit.

But the Sabbaths taught that we should continue day by day in God’s service.

“For we have been counted,” says the Apostle Paul, “all the day long as sheep for the slaughter; ”

that is, consecrated [to God], and ministering continually to our faith, and persevering in it, and abstaining from all avarice, and not acquiring or possessing treasures upon earth.

Moreover, the Sabbath of God, that is, the kingdom, was, as it were, indicated by created things; in which [kingdom], the man who shall have persevered in serving God shall, in a state of rest, partake of God’s table. (ibid)

Ireneaus explains the role of the Christian service relating it to the Sabbaths and the ‘Sabbath’ or Kingdom of God.

Abraham believed God and it was imputed to him for righteousness

In the context of talking about circumcision and the Sabbaths (including the feasts and festivals) Ireneaus says;

2. And that man was not JUSTIFIED by these things, but that they were given as a sign to the people, this fact shows,—that Abraham himself, without circumcision and without observance of Sabbaths,

“believed God, and it was imputed unto him for RIGHTEOUSNESS; and he was called the friend of God.” (Gen 15.6) (ibid)

Up to this point Ireneaus is comparing Gentile believers with Jews, saying Gentile believers do not observe, or have to observe fleshly circumcision and the Sabbaths. Here he says man is not justified by these things, rather they serve as a sign (some might say a ‘boundary marker’). He quotes Gen 15.6 as evidence saying Gentile believers are considered to be righteous by God even though they don’t observe these rites.

Then, again, Lot, without circumcision, was brought out from Sodom, receiving salvation from God.

So also did Noah, pleasing God, although he was uncircumcised, receive the dimensions [of the ark], of the world of the second race [of men].

Enoch, too, pleasing God, without circumcision, discharged the office of God’s legate to the angels although he was a man, and was translated, and is preserved until now as a witness of the just judgment of God, because the angels when they had transgressed fell to the earth for judgment, but the man who pleased [God] was translated for salvation.

Moreover, all the rest of the multitude of those RIGHTEOUS men who lived before Abraham, and of those patriarchs who preceded Moses, were JUSTIFIED independently of the things above mentioned, and without the law of Moses. (ibid)

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Not only Abraham, but Lot, Noah, and Enoch as well are asumed to be righteous in God’s sight, even though they are not circumcised, observe the sabbaths or the law of Moses.

Justin Martyr, you might remember made the same observation.

The laws of bondage were suited for their instruction or for their punishment

As also Moses himself says to the people in Deuteronomy:

“The LORD thy God formed a COVENANT in Horeb. The LORD formed not this COVENANT with your fathers, but for you.

3. Why, then, did the Lord not form the COVENANT for the fathers? Because

“the law was not established for RIGHTEOUS men.” (1 Tim 1.9)

But the RIGHTEOUS fathers had the meaning of the Decalogue written in their hearts and souls, that is, they loved the God who made them, and did no injury to their neighbour.

There was therefore no occasion that they should be cautioned by prohibitory mandates, because they had the RIGHTEOUSNESS of the law in themselves. (ibid)

Quoting from Paul to reinforce his argument, Ireneaus says the original fathers of Israel had no need for the law because they had the Decalogue written in their hearts and the righteousness required by the law in themselves. These statements should infer something about how he views some humans since the fall.

But when this RIGHTEOUSNESS and love to God had passed into oblivion, and became extinct in Egypt,

God did necessarily, because of His great goodwill to men, reveal Himself by a voice, and led the people with power out of Egypt,

in order that man might again become the disciple and follower of God;

and He afflicted those who were disobedient, that they should not contemn their Creator; and He fed them with manna, that they might receive food for their souls;

as also Moses says in Deuteronomy:

“And fed thee with manna, which thy fathers did not know, that thou mightest know that man doth not live by bread alone; but by every word of God proceeding out of His mouth doth man live.”

And it enjoined love to God, and taught just dealing towards our neighbour, that we should neither be unjust nor unworthy of God, who prepares man for His friendship through the medium of the Decalogue, and likewise for agreement with his neighbour, (ibid)

Ireneaus sees God working through various events in the Old Testament maturing his people and drawing them to himself.

matters which did certainly profit man himself; God, however, standing in no need of anything from man.

4. And therefore does the Scripture say,

“These words the Lord spake to all the assembly of the children of Israel in the mount, and He added no more;”

for, as I have already observed, He stood in need of nothing from them. And again Moses says:

“And now Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul?”

Now these things did indeed make man glorious, by supplying what was wanting to him, namely, the friendship of God;

but they profited God nothing, for God did not at all stand in need of man’s love. For the glory of God was wanting to man, which he could obtain in no other way than by serving God. And therefore Moses says to them again:

“Choose life, that thou mayest live, and thy seed, to love the LORD thy God, to hear His voice, to cleave unto Him; for this is thy life, and the length of thy days.”

Preparing man for this life, the Lord Himself did speak in His own person to all alike the words of the Decalogue; and therefore, in like manner, do they remain permanently with us, receiving by means of His advent in the flesh, extension and increase, but not abrogation. (ibid)

In all this Ireneaus says a lot of good things about the Decalogue and God’s purposes in giving it to his people. However these aren’t the only laws Moses handed down. Hence the significance in Ireneaus’ thought of ‘he added no more’.

5. The laws of bondage, however, were one by one promulgated to the people by Moses, suited for their instruction or for their punishment, as Moses himself declared:

“And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments.”

These things, therefore, which were given for bondage, and for a sign to them, He cancelled by the new COVENANT of liberty. But He has increased and widened those laws which are natural, and noble, and common to all, granting to men largely and without grudging, by means of adoption, to know God the Father, and to love Him with the whole heart, and to follow His word unswervingly, while they abstain not only from evil deeds, but even from the desire after them. But He has also increased the feeling of reverence; for sons should have more veneration than slaves, and greater love for their father. (ibid)

Ireneaus continues comparing the Decalogue and natural precepts with the ceremonies in the law of Moses. He calls the ceremonies the ‘laws of bondage’. A form of slavery imposed on a people who wanted to go back to slavery.

These laws had two purposes. To instruct and to punish. The laws that instructed them perhaps gave them moral guidelines and reminded them of the LORD and his works. Those that punished them, perhaps a chore, a burden and in some cases involved sacrificing something dear to them.

David advises them about the things by which man is justified

CHAP. XVII.—PROOF THAT GOD DID NOT APPOINT THE LEVITICAL DISPENSATION FOR HIS OWN SAKE, OR AS REQUIRING SUCH SERVICE; FOR HE DOES, IN FACT, NEED NOTHING FROM MEN.

1. Moreover, the prophets indicate in the fullest manner that God stood in no need of their slavish obedience, but that it was upon their own account that He enjoined certain observances in the law. And again, that God needed not their oblation, but [merely demanded it], on account of man himself who offers it, the Lord taught distinctly, as I have pointed out. For when He perceived them neglecting RIGHTEOUSNESS, and abstaining from the love of God, and imagining that God was to be propitiated by sacrifices and the other typical observances, Samuel did even thus speak to them:

“God does not desire whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices, but He will have His voice to be hearkened to. Behold, a ready obedience is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.”(1 Sam. 15.22)

David also says:

“Sacrifice and oblation Thou didst not desire, but mine ears hast Thou perfected; (Ex 21.6; Heb 10.7-9)

burnt-offerings also for sin Thou hast not required.” (Ps. 40.6)

He thus teaches them that God desires obedience, which renders them secure, rather than sacrifices and holocausts, which avail them nothing towards RIGHTEOUSNESS; and [by this declaration] he prophesies the new COVENANT at the same time. Still clearer, too, does he speak of these things in the fiftieth Psalm:

“For if Thou hadst desired sacrifice, then would I have given it: Thou wilt not delight in burnt-offerings. The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart the Lord will not despise.” (Ps. 51.17)

Because, therefore, God stands in need of nothing, He declares in the preceding Psalm:

“I will take no calves out of thine house, nor he-goats out of thy fold. For Mine are all the beasts of the earth, the herds and the oxen on the mountains: I know all the fowls of heaven, and the various tribes of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is Mine, and the fulness thereof. Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” (Ps. 50.9)

Then, lest it might be supposed that He refused these things in His anger, He continues, giving him (man) counsel:

“Offer unto God the sacrifice of praise, and pay thy vows to the Most High; and call upon Me in the day of thy trouble, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me;” (Ps. l. 14,15)

rejecting, indeed, those things by which sinners imagined they could propitiate God, and showing that He does Himself stand in need of nothing; but He exhorts and advises them to those things by which man is JUSTIFIED and draws nigh to God.

This same declaration does Esaias make:

“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the Lord. I am full.” (Isa 11.1)

And when He had repudiated holocausts, and sacrifices, and oblations, as likewise the new moons, and the sabbaths, and the festivals, and all the rest of the services accompanying these, He continues, exhorting them to what pertained to salvation:

“Wash you, make you clean, take away wickedness from your hearts from before mine eyes: cease from your evil ways, learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow; and come, let us reason together, saith the Lord.” (Isa 11.16-17)

4. From all these it is evident that God did not seek sacrifices and holocausts from them, but faith, and obedience, and RIGHTEOUSNESS, because of their salvation.

(Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 482). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company)

Again Ireneaus makes a distinction between the works of the law which were not sought by God and the true ‘faith’, ‘obedience’ and ‘righteousness’ by which man is justified.

Abraham’s faith was identical to ours

CHAP. XXI.—ABRAHAM’S FAITH WAS IDENTICAL WITH OURS; THIS FAITH WAS PREFIGURED BY THE WORDS AND ACTIONS OF THE OLD PATRIARCHS.

1. But that our [Gentile Christian] faith was also prefigured in Abraham, and that he was the patriarch of our faith, and, as it were, the prophet of it, the apostle has very fully taught, when he says in the Epistle to the Galatians:

“He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, [doeth he it] by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?

Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted unto him for RIGHTEOUSNESS (Gen 15.6).

Know ye therefore, that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. But the Scripture, foreseeing that God would JUSTIFY the heathen through faith, announced beforehand unto Abraham, that in him all nations should be blessed. So then they which be of faith shall be blessed with faithful Abraham.” (Gal 3.5-9; Gen 12.3)

For which [reasons the apostle] declared that this man was not only the prophet of faith, but also the father of those who from among the GENTILES believe in Jesus Christ, because his faith and ours are one and the same:

for he believed in things future, as if they were already accomplished, because of the promise of God; and in like manner do we also, because of the promise of God, behold through faith that inheritance [laid up for us] in the [future] kingdom. (ibid, 492–493)

Ireneaus alludes to Gen 15.6 and Rom 4.3 in the context of discussing whether Jews or Gentiles are the people of God and are saved.

God justified the circumcised by faith, and the uncircumcised through faith

CHAP. XXII.—CHRIST DID NOT COME FOR THE SAKE OF THE MEN OF ONE AGE ONLY, BUT FOR ALL WHO, LIVING RIGHTEOUSLY AND PIOUSLY, HAD BELIEVED UPON HIM; AND FOR THOSE, TOO, WHO SHALL BELIEVE.

1. Now in the last days, when the fulness of the time of liberty had arrived, the Word Himself did by Himself “wash away the filth of the daughters of Zion,” when He washed the disciples’ feet with His own hands.

For this is the end of the human race inheriting God; that as in the beginning, by means of our first [parents], we were all brought into bondage, by being made subject to death; so at last, by means of the New Man, all who from the beginning [were His] disciples, having been cleansed and washed from things pertaining to death, should come to the life of God.

For He who washed the feet of the disciples sanctified the entire body, and rendered it clean. For this reason, too, He administered food to them in a recumbent posture, indicating that those who were lying in the earth were they to whom He came to impart life. As Jeremiah declares,

“The holy Lord remembered His dead Israel, who slept in the land of sepulture; and He descended to them to make known to them His salvation, that they might be saved.”

For this reason also were the eyes of the disciples weighed down when Christ’s passion was approaching; and when, in the first instance, the Lord found them sleeping, He let it pass,—thus indicating the patience of God in regard to the state of slumber in which men lay; but coming the second time, He aroused them, and made them stand up, in token that His passion is the arousing of His sleeping disciples, on whose account

“He also descended into the lower parts of the earth,”

to behold with His eyes the state of those who were resting from their labours, in reference to whom He did also declare to the disciples:

“Many prophets and RIGHTEOUS men have desired to see and hear what ye do see and hear.”

2. For it was not merely for those who believed on Him in the time of Tiberius Cæsar that Christ came, nor did the Father exercise His providence for the men only who are now alive, but for all men altogether, who from the beginning, according to their capacity, in their generation have both feared and loved God, and practised justice and piety towards their neighbours, and have earnestly desired to see Christ, and to hear His voice.

Wherefore He shall, at His second coming, first rouse from their sleep all persons of this description, and shall raise them up, as well as the rest who shall be judged, and give them a place in His kingdom. For it is truly “one God who” directed the patriarchs towards His dispensations, and

has JUSTIFIED the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith.” (Rom 3.30)

For as in the first we were prefigured, so, on the other hand, are they represented in us [Gentile Christianity], that is, in the Church, and receive the recompense for those things which they accomplished.

(Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 493–494). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company)

Ireneaus refers to a key justification text in Romans. Romans 3.30. He associates this with God identifying the Jews of the former dispensation and the Christians of the new dispensation as righteous in his sight.

Both covenants prefigured in Abraham

CHAP. XXV.—BOTH COVENANTS WERE PREFIGURED IN ABRAHAM, AND IN THE LABOUR OF TAMAR; THERE WAS, HOWEVER, BUT ONE AND THE SAME GOD TO EACH COVENANT.

1 For thus it had behoved the sons of Abraham [to be], whom God has raised up to him from the stones, and caused to take a place beside him who was made the chief and the forerunner of our faith

(who did also receive the COVENANT of circumcision, after that JUSTIFICATION by faith (Gen 15.6) which had pertained to him, when he was yet in uncircumcision, so that in him both COVENANTS might be prefigured, that he might be the father of all who follow the Word of God, and who sustain a life of pilgrimage in this world, that is, of those who from among the circumcision and of those from among the uncircumcision are faithful, even as also “Christ is the chief corner-stone,” sustaining all things);

and He gathered into the one faith of Abraham those who, from either COVENANT, are eligible for God’s building. But this faith which is in uncircumcision, as connecting the end with the beginning, has been made [both] the first and the last. For, as I have shown, it existed in Abraham antecedently to circumcision, as it also did in the rest of the RIGHTEOUS who pleased God: and in these last times, it again sprang up among mankind through the coming of the Lord. But circumcision and the law of works occupied the intervening period. (ibid, 495–496)

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Ireneaus says Abraham received the covenant of circumcision after he was justified by faith. He associates justification by faith with both covenants. His thought works along historical dispensations.

  1. Abrahamic faith (Creation to Circumcision)
  2. Circumcision and Law (Circumcision to the gospel)
  3. Gospel faith (Christ onwards)

All men come short of the glory of God

CHAP. XXVII.—THE SINS OF THE MEN OF OLD TIME, WHICH INCURRED THE DISPLEASURE OF GOD, WERE, BY HIS PROVIDENCE, COMMITTED TO WRITING, THAT WE MIGHT DERIVE INSTRUCTION THEREBY, AND NOT BE FILLED WITH PRIDE. WE MUST NOT, THEREFORE, INFER THAT THERE WAS ANOTHER GOD THAN HE WHOM CHRIST PREACHED; WE SHOULD RATHER FEAR, LEST THE ONE AND THE SAME GOD WHO INFLICTED PUNISHMENT ON THE ANCIENTS, SHOULD BRING DOWN HEAVIER UPON US.

1 As I have heard from a certain presbyter, who had heard it from those who had seen the apostles, and from those who had been their disciples, the punishment [declared] in Scripture was sufficient for the ancients in regard to what they did without the Spirit’s guidance. For as God is no respecter of persons, He inflicted a proper punishment on deeds displeasing to Him.

2 It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also, and [declaring] the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him.

Now all those believed in Him who had hope towards Him, that is, those who proclaimed His advent, and submitted to His dispensations, the RIGHTEOUS men, the prophets, and the patriarchs, to whom He remitted sins in the same way as He did to us, which sins we should not lay to their charge, if we would not despise the grace of God.

For as these men did not impute unto us (the Gentiles) our transgressions, which we wrought before Christ was manifested among us, so also it is not right that we should lay blame upon those who sinned before Christ’s coming.

For “all men come short of the glory of God,” (Rom 3.23) and are not JUSTIFIED of themselves, but by the advent of the Lord, they who earnestly direct their eyes towards His light.

And it is for our instruction that their actions have been committed to writing, that we might know, in the first place, that our [Christian] God and theirs [Jews] is one (cf. Rom 3.29-30), and that sins do not please Him although committed by men of renown; and in the second place, that we should keep from wickedness. (ibid, 498-500)

Ireneaus quotes from Romans 3.23 and alludes to the next verse v24. He is writing about how people become righteous in the first place. Starting off as sinners, they look to Jesus as revealed in the gospel describing his advent (first appearing) and become righteous in God’s sight. This applies to both Jews and Gentiles.

In the next post we look at a letter written by someone named ‘Mathetes’. The letter provides some interesting historical context regarding a comparison between the different observances of Jews and Christians.


Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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