Irenaeus of Lyon, and the Early Church’s Teaching of Adam and Eve (Part 1)

Over the past year and a half, I have been doing quite a lot research and writing about the young earth creationist movement of Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. In the book I am in the midst of writing, I am arguing that at a fundamental level, young earth creationism is not simply unscientific, but, when seen in the light of Church history, it is ultimately heretical. While merely believing the earth is 6,000 years old is certainly not a heresy (although I would argue it is certainly wrong), making that claim the foundation of the Gospel itself certainly is.

Now I have written quite a lot about the specific claims of Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis, but perhaps the most deceptive thing Ken Ham claims is that his interpretation of Genesis 1-11 (namely that it is “God’s eyewitness account” of the creation of the material universe, and that therefore Genesis 1-11 is both literal history and God’s “historical science textbook”) has been the orthodox Christian position throughout Church history. Anyone familiar with Church history, especially early Church history, knows this claim to be utterly false.

Even though it is true that some no doubt assumed the historicity of Adam and Eve, or that the earth was a few thousands of years old, they assumed those things in the same way they assumed that the sun and moon were hung in the sky and rotated around the earth. They realized that the truth that was being revealed in the early chapters of Genesis was theological, philosophical, and existential, not scientific fact.

Those things were never seen as major tenants of the Christian faith, and it is quite clear that the early Church Fathers were not addressing scientific/historical questions in the first place. They were interacting with the prevailing philosophical claims of the day. It is pure speculation on my part, but I think that if the early Church Fathers were transported to this day and age, and the theory of evolution was explained to them, they’d be amazed, and wouldn’t see it as a threat to the faith at all.

Irenaeus the Man


There is one early Church Father in particular that I find most fascinating: Irenaeus of Lyon. I’ve recently read the book, Irenaeus, by Denis Minns, and am just in awe of the insight Irenaeus had into the human condition. With all the more or less “negative writing” I’ve had to do in order to show that what AiG is teaching is not the traditional Christian teaching regarding Genesis 1-11, reading Irenaeus is a refreshing breeze, because his take, specifically on Adam and Even in Genesis 2-3, is full of an optimistic understanding of God’s creation and purpose for mankind. Reading Irenaeus on Adam and Eve, far from making one cower in fear and shame, makes one want to engage in worship of the genius of God’s “economy of salvation.”

Irenaeus lived during the 2nd century (130-202 AD), and provides one of the earliest witnesses of the faith of the early Church outside of the first century. He was a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna, who was in turn a disciple of the Apostle John himself. His most famous work was entitled Against Heresies, in which he analyzed and refuted the various growing false teachings that were already cropping up and threatening the Christian faith. His other work we have is entitled, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, which, as the title suggests, explains some of the basic teachings of the Apostolic Tradition.

The reason why Irenaeus is so important is largely due to his proximity to Christ himself. Think about it: Irenaeus studied under a man who studied under a man who was a disciple of Jesus Christ himself. That means that when Irenaeus goes about articulating the Christian faith and tradition that had been handed down to him, that tradition was a mere two degrees of separation from Jesus himself. Therefore, if you want to get a handle on what the early Church after the apostolic age taught, you’re not going to be able to do much better than Irenaeus.

Irenaeus’ Problems with the Heretics

The prevailing theological threat to the early Church was that of Gnosticism. It was a heavily dualistic philosophy that viewed the physical, material world as second rate at best, and outright evil at worst, and non-material spirit as good. Now, it wasn’t like Gnosticism was a formalized religion—you didn’t go to any local gnostic temple or church. It really was a sort of worldview that could, and in fact was, applied to any number of things, in particular, Christianity.

In general, Christian Gnostics taught that this material creation was made by a second rate being, that we are spirits trapped within this filthy creation, and imprisoned in these mortal, physical bodies. Christ, therefore, was a spiritual savior who came here in the “likeness” of human flesh (of course, he wouldn’t really be in flesh, because he’s the spiritual savior, and wouldn’t be tainted with such sordid flesh), and he came to save us—the imprisoned spirits—from this material world. He came to reveal “secret knowledge” that acted essentially as access to passwords and “spirit keys” that allowed spirits to break through the various levels of material bondage.

There is a lot more to it, but that should give you a basic understanding. In any case, Gnosticism threatened some of the most basic tenants of Christianity: namely that there is one God, that He created this creation as a good creation, and that Christ was physically resurrected because God’s plan all along was to redeem his good, material creation. Simply put, the fundamental conflict between Gnosticism and Christianity was the view of creation itself. The various forms of gnostic thinkers (the heretics Irenaeus confronts) saw creation, and everything associated with creation, as bad, dirty, and undesirable. Irenaeus, on the other hand, showed that Christianity’s understanding of creation was overwhelming positive and good, even in light of the pain and suffering that we inevitably experience in the world.

Therefore, it is in the context of his argument against heretical groups that Irenaeus describes what the traditional Christian view of not only creation, but ultimately of humanity in general, had always been. And given within that context of discussing humanity, Irenaeus elaborates on how traditional Christianity not only viewed the figures of Adam and Eve, but also the role of Christ within the God’s purposes of humanity as a whole.

What that means is pretty simple: Irenaeus reveals that the way the early Church viewed Adam and Eve, Christ’s work, and the purpose of creation was vastly different than the way the modern American Evangelical Church has come to understand them. And, not surprisingly, once you understand Irenaeus, you simply will not be able to see the young earth creationism of Ken Ham has anything other than heresy. Understanding Irenaeus will also challenge you to do a little more thinking about Adam and Eve, humanity, and God’s purpose for creation yourself.

In my next post, I will specifically look at how Irenaeus understands Adam and Eve, their relationship to humanity in general, and to Christ in particular.


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