St. Irenaeus on JustificationJul 31st, 2012 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
In most cases when St. Irenaeus comes up in Protestant-Catholic discussion, the focus is on the papacy, apostolic succession, or the relation of Scripture and Tradition. Here, however, I examine what St. Irenaeus has to say about justification. His teaching on this subject is ecumenically relevant not only because the doctrine of justification was at the center of what divided Protestants from Catholics in the sixteenth century, but also because St. Irenaeus was only one generation removed from the Apostles. Therefore his understanding of justification provides insight into the way the Apostles understood and taught the doctrine of justification.
I. Who Was St. Irenaeus?
II. St. Irenaeus on Justification By Faith
III. Protestant and Catholic Conceptions of Justification By Faith
IV. St. Irenaeus on Love as the Fulfillment of the Law
V. St. Irenaeus on the Nature of Justification
St. Irenaeus was born around AD 130 in the city of Smyrna, in modern-day Turkey, about thirty years after the Apostle John died. He became a priest in Lyon, in Gaul (present day France) and later became the second bishop of the Church in Lyon when that Church’s first bishop, St. Pothinus, was martyred under the persecution of Marcus Aurelius. As a young man St. Irenaeus would listen to St. Polycarp describe his conversations with the Apostle John. St. Polycarp was martyred sometime around the year AD 155, at the age of eighty six.1 In a letter to Florinus, St. Irenaeus writes the following about his memories of St. Polycarp:
For I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events … so that I can even describe the place where the Blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse — his going out, too, and his coming in— his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures. These things, through, God’s mercy which was upon me, I then listened to attentively, and treasured them up not on paper, but in my heart; and I am continually, by God’s grace, revolving these things accurately in my mind. (Letter to Florinus)
In his most well-known work Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus writes something similar concerning his experience with St. Polycarp as a young man:
But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,— a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles — that, namely, which is handed down by the Church. (Against Heresies III.3.4)
And in another place St. Irenaeus makes reference to a different presbyter who had learned from those who had been the immediate disciples of the Apostles why God allowed the sins of the patriarchs to be recorded in Scripture. St. Irenaeus writes:
“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 Scripture has thus sufficiently reproved him, as the presbyter remarked, in order that no flesh may glory in the sight of the Lord.” (Against Heresies, IV.27.1)
Here we see how St. Irenaeus’s proximity to the Apostles informed his theology, because he understood himself to be the recipient of teaching handed down from the mouth of the Apostles, through men whom he know personally, who either knew the Apostles themselves, or knew men who knew the Apostles immediately. Not only that, but he was in communion with others in the Church who had similarly received such Apostolic testimony, and their shared understanding of the faith confirmed his confidence that what he had received truly had its origin in the Apostles. His proximity to the Apostles thus gives testimonial weight to his exposition of the gospel and his doctrine of justification. He wrote his most important work, Against Heresies, around the year AD 180, and in it he articulates a doctrine of justification that I examine below.
In this work St. Irenaeus sets out to refute the various gnostic heresies, among which is the belief that the God who created the world is not the Father of Jesus. As part of his argument against that error, St. Irenaeus seeks to show that those who were justified prior to the incarnation of Christ were justified by faith, just as those justified after the incarnation are also justified by faith. To that effect he is keen to cite Romans 3:30, as he does in Against Heresies III.10, where he writes,
For all things had entered upon a new phase, the Word arranging after a new manner the advent in the flesh, that He might win back to God that human nature (hominem) which had departed from God; and therefore men were taught to worship God after a new fashion, but not another god, because in truth there is but “one God, who justifies the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith.” (Against Heresies III.10)
He quotes the passage again in IV.22, where he writes:
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, that is, in the Church, and receive the recompense for those things which they accomplished. (Against Heresies IV.22)
And again in V.22, where he writes:
Thus then does the Lord plainly show that it was the true Lord and the one God who had been set forth by the law; for Him whom the law proclaimed as God, the same did Christ point out as the Father, whom also it behooves the disciples of Christ alone to serve. By means of the statements of the law, He put our adversary to utter confusion; and the law directs us to praise God the Creator, and to serve Him alone. Since this is the case, we must not seek for another Father besides Him, or above Him, since there is one God who justifies the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith. (Against Heresies V.22.1)
In each case he uses this passage from Romans to show that there are not two gods, but one and the same God who justified men by faith under the Old Covenant, and justifies men by faith under the New Covenant. In Against Heresies IV.25 St. Irenaeus writes:
For thus it had behooved the sons of Abraham [to be], whom God has raised up to him from the stones, (Matt. 3:9) 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 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” (Eph. 2:20) 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. (Against Heresies IV.25)
In Abraham, both the Old and New Covenants were prefigured, because he was justified by faith even before he received the sign of membership in the Old Covenant, namely, circumcision of the flesh. The circumcision of the flesh under the Old Covenant foreshadowed the circumcision of the spirit (the heart) under the New Covenant. In the New Covenant, Christ gathers into the one faith of Abraham those who possessed this faith under the Old Covenant, and those who now possess this faith without the circumcision of the flesh, namely, the Gentile believers. Both groups, those circumcised according to the flesh, and those uncircumcised according to the flesh, are made one through Christ, through the justifying faith Abraham had before he was circumcised according to the flesh. Hence St. Irenaeus says:
Thus, then, they who are of faith shall be blessed with faithful Abraham, and these are the children of Abraham. Now God made promise of the earth to Abraham and his seed; yet neither Abraham nor his seed, that is, those who are justified by faith, do now receive any inheritance in it; but they shall receive it at the resurrection of the just. (Against Heresies, V.32 )
Though those having circumcision in the flesh are children of Abraham according to the flesh, those having circumcision of the heart are children of Abraham according to the spirit. The promise God made to Abraham and his seed is fulfilled in the resurrection, when those having the faith of Abraham shall inherit the earth. When St. Irenaeus says “those justified by faith,” he does not mean that those under the Old Covenant were not justified by faith. He is picking out those, whether circumcised in the flesh or uncircumcised in the flesh, who are children of Abraham by possessing the faith of Abraham, by which he was justified.
In another place St. Irenaeus also mentions justification by faith, when explains that God gave a law to His people under the Old Covenant, and He has given a new and better law to His people under the New Covenant:
For the Lord is the good man of the house, who rules the entire house of His Father; and who delivers a law suited both for slaves and those who are as yet undisciplined; and gives fitting precepts to those that are free, and have been justified by faith, as well as throws His own inheritance open to those that are sons. … But one and the same householder produced both covenants, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who spoke with both Abraham and Moses, and who has restored us anew to liberty, and has multiplied that grace which is from Himself. (Against Heresies, IV.9.1)
The plan of God included the Old Covenant as a preparation for the New Covenant. In this way St. Irenaeus appeals to the ordered unity (without fusion) of the two covenants as indicating that they were made by one and the same God.
This leaves unanswered the question at the heart of the Protestant-Catholic disagreement concerning justification: What is justification by faith, according to St. Irenaeus? In order to answer that question, it is worth reviewing briefly the essential differences between the Protestant and Catholics conceptions of justification.
In the traditional Protestant account, God justifies us not by infusing righteousness into our hearts but by immediately swapping our account with Christ’s, such that our sins are imputed to Him as if He had committed them, and all His acts of obedience during His earthly life are imputed to us, as if we had lived His perfectly sinless life. This account swapping is called extra nos [i.e. outside of us] imputation. Because of this account swapping, God counts us as righteous even though we are in this life still unrighteous in our hearts, sinning in every thought, word, and deed, and each sin deserving eternal punishment. Faith is the instrument through which God justifies the sinner by transferring Christ’s obedience to the sinner’s account, and transferring the sinner’s sin to Christ’s account. The faith that justifies is not informed by the virtue of agape but is necessarily followed by agape and a life of progressive sanctification.
By contrast, according to the Catholic Church, God justifies us by infusing righteousness into our hearts. Righteousness, according to Catholic doctrine, is agape. Infused agape by its very presence as a supernatural virtue of the will, is the fulfillment of the law, because the purpose of the law is to show us how to love; the law mimics externally what love is internally. So the person who has love has that to which the law points and attempts to show. In that respect he has the spirit of the law. The person who has the law, but not love, does not fulfill the spirit or purpose of the law, even if it were possible for him to fulfill the letter of the law. This is what St. Paul means when he teaches that love fulfills the law (Rom. 13:8, 10; Gal. 5:14). Faith is made living by the presence of agape in the heart. Without agape in the heart, faith is dead, and does not justify. The faith that justifies is faith informed by the virtue of agape, which at baptism is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5), and by which we are immediately justified. When the Holy Spirit pours agape into our hearts, He is thereby infusing righteousness into our hearts. By growing in grace and agape, we grow in righteousness, and thus grow in justification.
Summarizing the difference as simply as possible, we can say that the Protestant conception of justification is that of an extra nos imputation of Christ’s righteousness, through faith uninformed by agape but necessarily followed by agape, while the Catholic conception of justification is by the infusion of faith informed by agape, the presence of which is the righteousness that is the fulfillment of the law.2
Before treating justification, St. Ireanaeus first shows that love is the fulfillment of the law, and is the righteousness by which we are made perfect:
But that this [i.e. to love God] 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. 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, (1 Cor. 13:2) 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.
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; the author of the law and the Gospel is shown to be one and the same. 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. (Against Heresies, IV.12.2-3)
Love, says St. Irenaeus, makes man perfect; by love the law is fulfilled. He who loves God is perfect, both in this world and in that which is to come. In the Protestant system of doctrine no one is perfect in this life, because no one loves perfectly. But for St. Irenaeus, love itself (i.e. agape) is the perfection we can have in this life, and without which salvation “cannot be attained.”3 This law of love is included in both the Old and New Covenants, and shows that they come from the same God. St. Irenaeus continues:
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 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.” (Matt. 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 honours 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.” (Is. 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 every one that believes.” (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.
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 you will enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matt.19:17-18, etc.) 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 you shall love your neighbour as yourself,”— 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. 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 you will be perfect, go, sell all that you have, and distribute to the poor; and come, follow me;” promising to those who would act thus, the portion belonging to the apostles (apostolorum partem). 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. 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 any one, I restore fourfold.” Luke 19:8 (Against Heresies IV.12.4-5)
Why were the scribes and Pharisees unrighteous, according to St. Irenaeus? Because they did not have love for God. They honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him. They were ignorant of God’s righteousness, and were going about to establish their own righteousness, not knowing that agape in the heart is the righteousness of God. Christ is the “end” (telos) of the law for righteousness, that is, that to which the law is ordered. According to St. Irenaeus, the purpose of the law is to teach us how to follow and love Christ. When He answered the man who asked Him what he must do to inherit eternal life, by telling him to obey the commandments, Christ showed that the law [i.e. the Decalogue] indicates the way to love God and be perfect. The law itself teaches both that we are to love God and how to love God. But the law as external only, is not able to transform our hearts.
The question that I set out to answer, when examining St. Irenaeaus’s account of justification, was whether his understanding of justification is closer to the Protestant or Catholic conception of justification.4 St. Irenaeus lays out his understanding of justification primarily in chapters 13-17 of Book IV of Against Heresies, so below I examine each of these in some detail.
First in chapter 13 of Book IV, he writes:
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. “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 has looked upon a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28) And again: “It has been said, You shall 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.” (Matt. 5:21-22) And, “It has been said, You shall not forswear yourself. But I say unto you, Swear not at all; but let your conversation be, Yea, yea, and Nay, nay.” (Matt. 5:33), etc. 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, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 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. 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. (Against Heresies IV.13)
Notice the very first line, “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.” This is something that makes no sense from a Protestant point of view. From the Protestant point of view, no one is justified by keeping the natural precepts of the law, nor does anyone one please God by keeping the precepts of the law. In the Protestant system, our keeping of the natural precepts would amount to “filthy rags.”
According to the Catholic understanding, however, St. Irenaeus’ statement makes sense. Man is justified by keeping the natural precepts of the law only when he is doing so out of living faith. To keep the precepts of the law because of living faith in God is to do so out of love [i.e. agape]. This love is the fulfillment of the law, and is that by which the law is fulfilled in our lives. According to St. Irenaeus, under the New Covenant we must not only say the words of the law, as the Pharisees did, we must do them. We must not even desire evil, in our heart. Only by infused agape do we fulfill the law, because only by love for God is the heart made righteous — “implanting in us the varied righteousness of the law,” as St. Irenaeus puts it. Christ did not abrogate the law by making it such that we no longer need to keep it, having kept it already in our place. Rather, Christ fulfills the law by implanting in us the love which fulfills the law, and is therefore a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
In that same chapter St. Irenaeus says:
Now all these [precepts], as I have already observed, were not [the injunctions] of one doing away with the law, but of one fulfilling, extending, and widening it among us; just as if one should say, that the more extensive operation of liberty implies that a more complete subjection and affection towards our Liberator had been implanted within us. For He did not set us free for this purpose, that we should depart from Him (no one, indeed, while placed out of reach of the Lord’s benefits, has power to procure for himself the means of salvation), but that the more we receive His grace, the more we should love Him. Now the more we have loved Him, the more glory shall we receive from Him, when we are continually in the presence of the Father. (Against Heresies IV.13.3)
Christ sets us free from the law not by removing its obligations, but by “implanting within us” love, through which we delight in His law, no longer under its yoke, but having it in our hearts, as agape. Christ in the New Covenant did not lower the moral bar, in relation to the Old Testament law; He raised it, as can be seen in what He says about divorce. More is required of us under the New Covenant, but a greater portion of agape has been implanted in us by the Spirit.
Here too St. Irenaeus presents a very Catholic principle: He says that the more we have loved Him in this life, the more glory we shall receive from Him in heaven. This is not the Protestant notion that God loses glory if man receives glory, as if glory is a limited commodity. This is the Catholic principle that God is most glorified in His saints when His saints are made glorious through Him. As St. Irenaeus says in the following chapter, “we do participate in the glory of the Lord, who has both formed us, and prepared us for this, that, when we are with Him, we may partake of His glory.” (Against Heresies IV.14.1)
The infused love by which the law is fulfilled in us is that by which we become the friends of God:
For in that which He says, “I will not now call you servants,” (Jn 15:15) 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. And in that He says, “For the servant knows not what his lord does,” He points out, by means of His own advent, the ignorance of a people in a servile condition. But when He terms His disciples “the friends of God,” He plainly declares Himself to be the Word of God, whom Abraham also followed voluntarily and under no compulsion (sine vinculis), because of the noble nature of his faith, and so became “the friend of God.” (James 2:23) But the Word of God did not accept of the friendship of Abraham, as though He stood in need of it, for He was perfect from the beginning (“Before Abraham was,” He says, “I am” (John 8:58), but that He in His goodness might bestow eternal life upon Abraham himself, inasmuch as the friendship of God imparts immortality to those who embrace it. (Against Heresies IV.13.4)
What made Abraham’s faith of a “noble nature”? Why did Abraham’s faith lead him to “follow [God] voluntarily and under no compulsion”? Why did Abraham’s faith make him to be “a friend of God”? Because it was informed by agape. There is no true friendship without love, and therefore there is no true friendship with God without agape. The evidence here indicates that for St. Irenaeus, the faith by Abraham was justified was a faith informed by agape.
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. … But further, in another place he says: “That Satan tempt you not for your incontinence.” (1 Cor. 7:5) If, therefore, even in the New Testament, the apostles are found granting certain precepts in consideration of human infirmity, because of the incontinence of some, lest such persons, having grown obdurate, and despairing altogether of their salvation, should become apostates from God—it ought not to be wondered at, if also in the Old Testament the same God permitted similar indulgences for the benefit of His people, drawing them on by means of the ordinances already mentioned, so that they might obtain the gift of salvation through them, while they obeyed the Decalogue, and being restrained by Him, should not revert to idolatry, nor apostatize from God, but learn to love Him with the whole heart.
Notice first that according to St. Irenaeus, if anyone does not keep the Decalogue, he has no salvation. A Protestant could not say such a thing, because in Protestant theology, no one keeps the Decalogue or can keep it; hence the need for the extra nos imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ, without which no one would be saved. Second, notice also that for St. Irenaeus, the purpose of the law, both in the Old Covenant and in the New Covenant, is not to show us that we cannot keep it, but to teach us how to love God “with the whole heart,” so that through these precepts of the law we might obtain salvation. For Protestantism, such a notion would be anathema, a mixture of faith and works rather than by faith alone. In Protestantism, the notion of obtaining the gift of salvation through keeping precepts of the law is “works-righteousness,” precisely what the Pharisees were doing. But according to St. Irenaeus, keeping the law is what the Pharisees were not doing. For St. Irenaeus the law is a means to receiving the gift of salvation for those who by love learn through the law to love Him with the whole heart, and thereby avoid mortal sin, and the loss of heaven.
In chapter 16 of Book IV, St. Irenaeus argues that the Hebrews were not justified by circumcision of the flesh, but that this circumcision typified the circumcision made without hands:
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. … 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.” (Col. 2:11) And the prophet declares, “Circumcise the hardness of your heart.” But the Sabbaths taught that we should continue day by day in God’s service.
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.” (James 2:23) 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. (Against Heresies IV.16.1-2)
Rather, all those righteous men who preceded Abraham were justified by the living faith by which the law was written on their hearts:
Why, then, did the Lord not form the covenant for the fathers [who lived before Abraham]? 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 (correptoriis literis), because they had the righteousness of the law in themselves. 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 (uti rationalem acciperent escam); as also Moses says in Deuteronomy: “And fed you with manna, which your fathers did not know, that you might know that man does not live by bread alone; but by every word of God proceeding out of His mouth does man live.” (Deut. 8:3) 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—matters which did certainly profit man himself; God, however, standing in no need of anything from man. (Against Heresies IV.16.3)
Although the righteous men prior to Abraham needed no divine revelation of the law, having the law written on their hearts through living faith, as man became more wicked, God saw need to give the Decalogue by way of divine revelation. Again, however, for St. Irenaeus the purpose of the law was not to condemn men, or drive them to trust in an extra nos imputation of an alien righteousness by which it ultimately did not matter to what degree they kept the law or fell short of the law. Such a notion is entirely foreign to St. Irenaeus’s soteriology. Rather, for St. Irenaeus the purpose of the Decalogue is to teach the people to love God and neighbor, preparing them for friendship with God through faith informed by agape, by which the law is fulfilled. Hence St. Irenaeus said earlier:
To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink … Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom (Against Heresies III.4.2)
Here he is speaking of the persons who in many nations of the world already, by AD 180, had believed in Christ, but “without paper or ink,” believing only by the word or presence of persons who had been sent to preach to them. Yet, says St. Irenaeus, salvation was written on their heart by the Spirit. What is this salvation written on their heart? It is not justification by extra nos imputation of an alien righteousness. Rather it is by the infusion of a righteousness through which they, in their doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, pleased God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, having chastity and wisdom. This is not simul iustus et peccator; this is the infusion of sanctifying grace, agape and the other gifts of the Spirit.
In Book IV, St. Irenaeus continues:
And again Moses says: “And now Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul?” (Deut. 10:12) 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 you may live, and your seed, to love the Lord your God, to hear His voice, to cleave unto Him; for this is your life, and the length of your days.” (Deut. 30:19-20) 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. (Against Heresies IV.16.4)
What is lacking in man, according to St. Irenaeus, is friendship with God. The requirement for friendship with God is to fear the Lord, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and serve Him with all our heart and with all our soul. For St. Irenaeus this requirement is not abrogated under the New Covenant; it is not removed through Christ having done it for us in our place. That would play right into Marcion’s hand, who claimed that the Old Testament law was abrogated because it did not come from the Father of Jesus. Rather, for St. Irenaeus this requirement for friendship with God is extended and increased under the New Covenant, because greater grace has been given under the New Covenant. The agape poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit implants this law into our hearts, and grants us friendship with God, so that we may truly fear Him and love Him with our whole hearts.
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.” (Deut. 4:14) 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. And therefore the Lord says, “As to every idle word that men have spoken, they shall render an account for it in the day of judgment.” (Matt. 12:36) And, “he who has looked upon a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery with her already in his heart;” (Matt. 5:28) and, “he that is angry with his brother without a cause, shall be in danger of the judgment.” (Matt. 5:22) [All this is declared,] that we may know that we shall give account to God not of deeds only, as slaves, but even of words and thoughts, as those who have truly received the power of liberty, in which [condition] a man is more severely tested, whether he will reverence, and fear, and love the Lord. And for this reason Peter says “that we have not liberty as a cloak of maliciousness,” 1 Peter 2:16 but as the means of testing and evidencing faith. (Against Heresies IV.16.5)
According to St. Irenaeus, in the New Covenant God cancelled the ceremonial “laws of bondage,” such as circumcision and animal sacrifices under the Old Covenant. But God, through Christ, has in the New Covenant granted to us “to know God the Father, and to love Him with the whole heart, and to follow His word unswervingly, while [we] abstain not only from evil deeds, but even from the desire after them.” No Protestant could say this. This is, according to Protestantism, precisely what Christ has not granted to us in this life, but only in the life to come. But for St. Irenaeus, God has granted to us the power of the Spirit and the fullness of infused righteous which is agape by which we love God above ourselves, and walk in a way that is pleasing to Him. This is not imputation of an alien righteousness; this is the infusion of the power of righteousness into the heart. For St. Irenaeus the salvific work of Christ does not provide a back-stage pass by which we avoid having to give an account for our deeds, words, and thoughts on Judgment Day, or, having disclosed our unrighteousness, being allowed into heaven by way of an alien righteousness imputed to our account. Rather, the work of Christ prepares us for the Judgment by granting to us the agape by which the God who sees the secrets of men’s hearts may truly say to us on that Day, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”
According to the Catholic doctrine, Christ saves us not by covering us with an alien righteousness at the Judgment, but by infusing agape into our hearts at our baptism and subsequently increases that agape within us through the other sacraments, through works of charity, and through prayer, so that with confidence and without fear we may approach the throne of grace, because agape is the fulfillment of the law. The Protestant solution to the problem of sin and Judgment is to set up a bypass, such that on Judgment Day we are ultimately judged by the alien righteousness imputed to our account rather than by what we did, said, and thought in this present life. In the Reformed system, no one can keep the commandments; man sins in every good work, and every sin is worthy of eternal damnation. But it is obvious that this is not St. Irenaeus’s position. He holds that Christ has given us the grace to fulfill the law, through the infusion of agape by which the law is written on our hearts. In this way, St. Irenaeus’s position corresponds to Chapter XI of Session Six of the Council of Trent, which teaches that by the grace of God it is possible to keep the commandments.
Finally, in IV.17, St. Irenaeus writes:
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 You did not desire, but my ears have You perfected; burnt-offerings also for sin You have not required.” 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. … 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 your vows to the Most High; and call upon Me in the day of your trouble, and I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me;” 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 near to God. This same declaration does Esaias make: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? Says the Lord. I am full.” (Is. 1:11) 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 my eyes: cease from your evil ways, learn to do well, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow; and come, let us reason together, says the Lord.”
For it was not because He was angry, like a man, as many venture to say, that He rejected their sacrifices; but out of compassion to their blindness, and with the view of suggesting to them the true sacrifice, by offering which they shall appease God, that they may receive life from Him. … 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. (Against Heresies, IV.17.1-4)
Here St. Irenaeus speaks of doing “those things by which man is justified and draws near to God.” Man is not justified by burnt offerings and the sacrifices of animals, because these are worthless before God, if man does not have love for God. This is why “obedience is better than sacrifice,” because the obedience in view is that which flows from love in the heart. The prophet Samuel’s statement that God prefers obedience over sacrifice is, according to St. Irenaeus, a prophecy concerning the New Covenant, under which God would bring about this obedience through the infusion of agape. What then are the things the people are enjoined to do, by which they are to be justified? They are to cease from their evil ways, take away wickedness from their hearts, learn to do well, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow, offer the sacrifice of praise,5 pay their vows, and call upon the Lord in the day of trouble. Here St. Irenaeus is speaking not about initial justification (i.e. the translation from a state of mortal sin into a state of grace) but rather about what the Council of Trent refers to as the increase of the justification received (see Chapter X of Session Six). But a Protestant could never say what St. Irenaeus here, because in Protestantism there is no such thing as an increase in justification. Of course a Protestant could propose that here St. Irenaeus means something quite different by the term — namely, that here he is saying that by such works man is justified in the eyes of other men. But there is nothing in the text to indicate such an equivocation; everything in the text indicates that St. Irenaeus is speaking of justification before God, i.e. being truly righteous.
The doctrine of justification St. Irenaeus articulates is not the Protestant doctrine of justification by extra nos imputation of an alien righteous. Nor is it a doctrine of justification by a faith uninformed by agape. The faith by which man is justified, according to St. Irenaeus, is the living faith through which the law is written on the heart, and fulfilled in those who believe. Justification is by the infusion of righteousness, that is, the pouring out of agape into our hearts, because agape is the fulfillment of the law. This agape-informed-faith is counted [i.e. imputed] by God as righteousness, because it is righteousness. It is not a covering over persisting damnable wickedness, but a true cleansing of the heart, and freedom from sin, not merely freedom from the punishment for sin. Moreover, St. Irenaeus’s doctrine distinguishes between initial justification, and an increase in justification through acts of obedience done in agape and through participation in the Eucharist. In these respects St. Irenaeus’s doctrine of justification is in agreement with that taught by the Council of Trent, even though not as developed as that articulated by Trent.
The question I set out to answer regarding St. Irenaeaus’s account of justification, was whether his understanding of justification was closer to the Protestant or Catholic conception of justification. The evidence is quite clear that St. Irenaeus’s doctrine is fully compatible with, and we might even say in full agreement with, a Catholic conception of justification. But in multiple respects his doctrine of justification is incompatible with a Protestant conception of justification. So what does this imply?
Notice what St. Irenaeus says about the state of the faith of the Church at the time he is writing (c. AD 180):
Now all these [heretics] are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the Churches; which fact I have in the third book taken all pains to demonstrate. It follows, then, as a matter of course, that these heretics aforementioned, since they are blind to the truth, and deviate from the [right] way, will walk in various roads; and therefore the footsteps of their doctrine are scattered here and there without agreement or connection. But the path of those belonging to the Church circumscribes the whole world, as possessing the sure tradition from the apostles, and gives unto us to see that the faith of all is one and the same, since all receive one and the same God the Father, and believe in the same dispensation regarding the incarnation of the Son of God, and are cognizant of the same gift of the Spirit, and are conversant with the same commandments, and preserve the same form of ecclesiastical constitution, and expect the same advent of the Lord, and await the same salvation of the complete man, that is, of the soul and body. And undoubtedly the preaching of the Church is true and steadfast, in which one and the same way of salvation is shown throughout the whole world. For to her is entrusted the light of God; and therefore the “wisdom” of God, by means of which she saves all men, “is declared in [its] going forth; it utters [its voice] faithfully in the streets, is preached on the tops of the walls, and speaks continually in the gates of the city.” (Prov. 1:20-21) For the Church preaches the truth everywhere, and she is the seven-branched candlestick which bears the light of Christ. (Against Heresies V.20.1)
St. Irenaeus had been raised in Smyrna, in modern day Turkey. He was sent to Rome around AD 177 and lived there at least two years during St. Eleutherius’s papacy. While at Rome St. Irenaeus undoubtedly encountered Christian travelers and pilgrims from all over the world. He subsequently wrote Against Heresies from Lyon, in modern day France, as the second bishop of the Church at Lyon. At the time he was writing, according to St. Irenaeus, the Church throughout the whole world possessed the sure tradition of the Apostles, and this was demonstrated by the unity of the faith throughout the entire Catholic Church, something St. Irenaeus was in a good epistemic position to know, given his travels and his stay in Rome. Surely the doctrine of salvation and justification is central to the faith. How are we to be saved? How are we to be justified before God? These are absolutely essential questions in relation to the mission of Jesus Christ and His Apostles, and therefore these were absolutely central doctrines to the Christian faith.
If, as St. Irenaeus claims, “one and the same way of salvation” was being “shown throughout the whole world,” and St. Irenaeus’s own explication of salvation and justification is representative of this “way of salvation” that was being preached throughout the whole Church all over the world at that time, then either the doctrine of justification St. Irenaeus lays out is the doctrine handed down by the Apostles, or the apostolic doctrine concerning justification was lost very shortly after the Apostles, and corrupted everywhere in the very same way throughout the Catholic Church around the whole world. Of course embracing the latter option presupposes (at least implicitly) ecclesial deism. But it also faces historical difficulties as well. St. Clement was a bishop of Rome toward the end of the first century. His soteriology, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, corresponds to that of St. Irenaeus. So does that of the Didache, which is also probably a first century work.6 That would require that the great corruption of the apostolic doctrine of justification took place even while the Apostle John, who died around AD 100, was still alive. It would require that this great and universal corruption of the central doctrine of the Christian faith occurred without any protest from those bishops, presbyters, deacons, and laymen who though willing to lay down their lives for Christ, refused to speak up while the apostolic doctrine of justification was being corrupted and distorted throughout the whole Church. The silence of the Church throughout the world during the first two centuries regarding some spreading corruption of the doctrine of justification within the Church, the piety and zeal of the early Christian martyrs who by their death showed themselves to be faithful to Christ and courageously willing to die for the truth He handed down to them through the Apostles, along with the uniformity of belief throughout the whole Catholic Church in AD 180 concerning the central doctrine of the way of salvation, are three pieces of evidence that in conjunction weigh against the thesis that the way of salvation St. Irenaeus taught was a corrupted version of what the Apostles had handed down. The only plausible alternative is that the doctrine of justification taught by St. Irenaeus is the Apostles’ doctrine.
Christ our Peace, please reconcile all Christians in one faith and full visible unity in your holy Church, so that the world may believe that the Father sent You. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
- The account of his martyrdom can be read here. [↩]
- I have discussed this difference in a previous post titled “Does the Bible Teach Sola Fide?” [↩]
- This truth that agape is perfection grounds the possibility of the distinction between mortal and venial sin. [↩]
- Previously I briefly examined a single passage from St. Irenaeus, in my post titled “Ligon Duncan’s “Did the Fathers Know the Gospel?”.” [↩]
- St. Irenaeus goes on in sections 5-6 of Book IV, Chapter 17 and Chapter 18.1-5 to explain what is the sacrifice of praise under the New Covenant. This sacrifice, he explains, is the Eucharist, which is the fulfillment of Malichi 1:10-11. Other early Church Fathers also wrote about the Eucharist as a sacrifice. Cf. Didache 14; 1 Clement 44; St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 41; St. Cyprian, On the Lapsed, 26; and St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures V.18. [↩]
- See also “Ligon Duncan’s “Did the Fathers Know the Gospel?”.” [↩]