The Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism
Part 5: Dispensational Concepts in the Polemicists: Irenaeus
Conservative Theological Journal [CTJ 03:8 (Apr 99) pp. 26-52]
Larry V. Crutchfield
Professor of Early Christian History & Culture
Columbia Evangelical Seminary, Longview, WA

Video Planned


    As the scene of the closing years of the Apostle John’s ministry, Asia Minor produced a steady stream of expounders of early dispensational features. It was home to the apostolic fathers Polycarp, and Papias, and the apologists, Apollinaris of Hierapolis, and Melito of Sardis. Though not his home, the brief visit to Asia Minor seems nevertheless to have had a profound and lasting influence upon the doctrine of Justin Martyr. But for Irenaeus (c.120–202), the last and greatest of the Asiatic fathers, it was the birthplace of his theology.
    As is generally the case with the fathers, what we know of Irenaeus is sketchy. As stated previously, he was the disciple of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and appears himself to have been a native of that city.[1] Thus Irenaeus was a third generation Christian. He was a disciple of a disciple of the Apostle John. Concerning his association with Polycarp, Irenaeus related:

    "For when I was a boy, I saw thee [Florinus] in lower Asia with Polycarp, moving in splendor in the royal court, and endeavoring to gain his approbation. I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it; so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the 'Word of life,' Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures."[2]

    Irenaeus went on to say that as he listened attentively to Polycarp he took note of his words in his heart and then faithfully recalled them through the grace of God.[3] Those vivid memories “of early youth”[4] could only have come from one who was a resident of the see of Polycarp’s ecclesiastical responsibility. It should be noted that as a resident of the city of Smyrna, it is not unlikely that Irenaeus would also have had occasion to fall under the influence of Papias, “a companion of Polycarp…”[5]
    Following his education in Asia Minor under Polycarp and others, at some point, the reason for which is unknown, Irenaeus set up residence in the Gallican city of Lyons. At the martyrdom of Pothinus in a.d. 177, Irenaeus succeeded him as bishop of that see. According to later tradition, Pothinus also was a product of Asia Minor and had been sent to Gaul by Polycarp.[6] Perhaps Irenaeus had known Pothinus in Smyrna and had been commissioned by the home church there to assist him in his labors in Lyons. We know from Eusebius that prior to Irenaeus’ appointment as bishop, he had already served under Pothinus as a presbyter.[7]
     Philip Schaff characterizes this most important theologian of the second century as follows:

    "Irenaeus is the leading representative of catholic Christianity in the last quarter of the second century, the champion of orthodoxy against Gnostic heresy, and the mediator between the Eastern and Western churches. He united a learned Greek education and philosophical penetration with practical wisdom and moderation. He is neither very original nor brilliant, but eminently sound and judicious."[8]

    Irenaeus was possessed of unflagging missionary zeal for Gaul, equaled only by his tirelessness in combating the heresies of Gnosticism with his pen. As to how and when this “light of the western Church,” as Theodoret termed him, was extinguished, we cannot say. According to later tradition, Irenaeus died a martyrs death,[9] but this is without any early support.
    Of the several works ascribed to Irenaeus by Eusebius[10] and Jerome,[11] only two survive. But in value, these two are of the highest rank. The first work, Against Heresies, is in five books. On the one hand, it is a detailed statement and refutation of the many forms of the Gnostic heresy prevalent in Irenaeus’ day. Yet on the other hand, it naturally sets forth a statement and defense of what was regarded as the true catholic and orthodox faith of the church. These two elements together constitute a storehouse of information on both the heterodox and orthodox views of that age.
    The second extant work by Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, is available only in an Armenian version. It is essentially apologetic in nature and presents the basics of the Christian faith. In the introduction to the Proof in the Ancient Christian Writers series, it is suggested that while the content of this work adds little new information to that contained in Against Heresies, its importance is seen in the fact that “it is the earliest document we have [and this in compendious form] that professes to give an exposition of the basis on which the apostolic preaching rests.”[12]

Tradition as a Source in Irenaeus

    Something should be said here about Irenaeus’ use of tradition in his writings. He believed that there was a body of “tradition which originate[d] from the apostles, [and] which [was] preserved by means of the successions of presbyters in the Churches…”[13] He referred to “elders” or “presbyters” who “were disciples of the apostles…”[14] And he made special note of “the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord…”[15] Of these, Irenaeus specifically mentioned Polycarp[16] and Papias.[17] That Irenaeus held this tradition in high regard is evidenced by the frequency with which he drew from it and by the honor he bestowed upon those who transmitted it.

The Polemicists

The Nature of Their Writings

    The literature of the polemicist[18] Irenaeus was only slightly removed in time from that of the apologists. But while the latter group met challenges to the church from the pagans and Jews from without, the former faced those who tried to pervert the message of Christ from within. It was the tedious task of the polemicist to refute point by point the distortions of the truth taught by those who claimed the name of Christ. Thus Irenaeus, at a friend’s request, first expounded and then dismantled the Gnostic teachings of Marcion and Valentinus. His pupil Hippolytus, followed in his footsteps in the treatise Refutation of All Heresies. While his mentor had taken Victor of Rome to task for threatening to excommunicate the churches of Asia for their Quartodecimanian practices,[19] Hippolytus unflinchingly excoriated popes Zephyrinus and Callistus for their unethical conduct and heretical doctrines. Those were unquestionably hard times for papal infallibility!

The Substance of Their Views

Irenaeus (c.120–202)


    In Irenaeus’ writing, we find the strongest statements to that time regarding proper interpretation of Scripture. Irenaeus insisted upon correct method, and looked to the authority of the church as the vehicle by which the truth expounded by the inspired writers should be delivered unto the saints. But as A. Berkeley Mickelsen rightly says “Although he pointed out the failures of the heretics in their treatment of Scripture, Irenaeus’ own performance is not free of arbitrary procedures.”[20]
    Whatever his failings, Irenaeus was a staunch supporter of the literal, plain method of biblical interpretation—especially with respect to eschatological matters. Furthermore, he espoused principles which today are regarded as essential to any sound hermeneutical method. For example, Irenaeus stressed the importance of context, and the necessity of interpreting that which is ambiguous in Scripture under the illumination of that which is clear.
    Irenaeus accused the Gnostics of constructing their system of theology by “weaving ropes of sand.”[21] He cited by way of example their practice of employing ambiguous passages of Scripture to support their views. Regarding this procedure, Irenaeus wrote:

    "For no question can be solved by means of another which itself awaits solution; nor, in the opinion of those possessed of sense, can an ambiguity be explained by means of another ambiguity, or enigmas by means of another greater enigma, but things of such character receive their solution from those which are manifest, and consistent, and clear."[22]

    Elsewhere, on the same theme but with special reference to parables, Irenaeus maintained that a person possessed of sound mind and who endeavors to avoid danger will devote himself to piety and truth, and will find advancement in understanding by meditating “upon those things which God has placed within their power…rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study. These things are such as fall [plainly] under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures.” If parables are not adapted to ambiguous expressions, explained Irenaeus, then they will receive a common and harmonious interpretation by all and thus the “body” or “rule of truth” will remain intact.[23]
    On the other hand, warned Irenaeus, to reject this “method of discovery”—the application of expressions which are clear and evident to interpretation of the parables—will result in a distortion and obscuring of the truth and in a myriad of antagonistic doctrines. Irenaeus insisted that Christ, “by His plain announcements freely imparts gifts to all who come to Him…” and that “the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all, although all do not believe them…”[24]
    Irenaeus also chided the Gnostics for their inattention to context. They built support for their system, he said, by gathering information from extrabiblical sources. However, to further bolster their position, they also adapted the teachings of the Lord, prophets, and apostles “to their own peculiar assertions…” But Irenaeus pointed out that by so doing, “they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth.” Irenaeus stated further that “these persons patch together old wives’ fables and then endeavor, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.”[25] What they have done in effect, Irenaeus maintained, was to twist Scripture “from a natural to a non-natural sense.”[26]
    While Irenaeus placed great emphasis upon a plain, clear, natural interpretation of Scripture throughout his writing, it is evident that he also made a distinction between figurative (or symbolic) and nonfigurative elements in the biblical narrative. For instance, in reference to end-time events (e.g., resurrection, millennium, new Jerusalem, etc.), Irenaeus insisted on a non-allegorical interpretation. He said, “and nothing is capable of being allegorized, but all things are steadfast, and true, and substantial, having been made by God for righteous men’s enjoyment.” “And this,” he concluded, “is the truth of the matter.”[27]
    Yet Irenaeus’ interpretive approach was not one that ignored symbolic language in Scripture. He said of the law and prophets, that they “contain many parables and allegories that can frequently be drawn into various senses, according to the kind of exegesis to which they are subjected.”[28] For example, regarding Isaiah’s words, “To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance …” (61:2, NASB), Irenaeus explained that “the prophet neither speaks concerning a day which includes the space of twelve hours, nor of a year the length of which is twelve months. For even they themselves [the Gnostics] acknowledge that the prophets have very often expressed themselves in parables and allegories, and [are] not [to be understood] according to the mere sound of the words.”[29]
    Irenaeus and others of the fathers could justly be charged with excesses in their search for types and symbolism in the Old Testament. It is nevertheless true that Irenaeus upheld the basic premise that one should look for the plain, natural, literal meaning conveyed by what was (rightly or wrongly) taken to be symbolic language. Irenaeus was in essential agreement with Ryrie’s statement that,

    "Symbols, figures of speech, and types are all interpreted plainly in this method, and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation. After all, the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved. Figures often make the meaning plainer, but it is the literal, normal, or plain meaning that they convey to the reader."[30]

    Thus Irenaeus, as with the modern dispensationalist, cannot fairly be charged with a slavishness to wooden literalism—even with regard to the prophets.[31]

Israel and the Church

    Irenaeus’ position on the relationship between Israel and the church was essentially the same as that found in Justin. God’s chosen people Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham, were permanently cut off because of their idolatry and their rejection of Christ. Irenaeus explained that in the Old Testament, Israel had chosen Baal over God, and in the New, Barabbas and Caesar over Christ. Irenaeus concluded that because of this, “God was pleased to grant His inheritance to the foolish Gentiles, and…has restored again in us Abraham’s faith in Him…”[32]
    As with Justin, for Irenaeus church-age believers are the seed of Abraham and as such the new inheritors of covenant promise. The church has completely supplanted national Israel. Irenaeus’ line of reasoning is as follows. Contrary to the teachings of Marcion and his followers, God did indeed promise Abraham an inheritance which he himself would personally participate in the coming kingdom (Rom. 4:3; Matt. 8:11).[33] As to the nature of that inheritance, Irenaeus clearly understood it to involve the literal possession of the promised land. After affirming that “the promise of God, which he gave to Abraham remains steadfast,” Irenaeus quoted Genesis 13:13, 14, 17 and 15:13 in support of this belief, and as giving the boundaries of the promised land.[34]
    Irenaeus continued this conclusion by saying it is true that the promise was not fulfilled in Abraham’s lifetime, for he remained a pilgrim and stranger in the land. He was even forced to purchase a burial site for Sarah (Gen. 23:11). Thus, if Abraham did not receive the promised inheritance of land, Irenaeus pointed out, “it must be, that together with his seed, that is, those who fear God and believe in Him, he shall receive it at the resurrection of the just.”[35]
    Irenaeus identified Abraham’s seed as “those who fear God and believe in Him.” A little further on in the same paragraph, he included as Abraham’s seed, “those who are justified by faith…”[36] This terminology obviously left the way open to include within the category, “seed of Abraham,” all the faithful from Abraham to the coming kingdom. However, in the same place, Irenaeus stated pointedly that, “his seed is the Church, which receives the adoption to God through the Lord…” And in support of this position, he quoted Luke 3:8 and Galatians 3:6–9, 16; 4:28.[37]
    Did Irenaeus believe that the church began with Abraham as covenant theology suggests? This cannot be, for elsewhere he unquestionably held that the church was “founded and built up” by “the blessed apostles.”[38] It seems safe to say, that while Irenaeus was less precise in his discussion of the matter, like Justin, he made a distinction between the spiritual seed of Abraham (the church), and a spiritual seed of Abraham (believing physical descendants of Abraham). Precisely how the pre-Abrahamic righteous should be classified is no clearer in Irenaeus than in Justin. But certainly they are among “those who fear[ed] God and believe[d] in Him…” Thus they must in some sense, as looking forward, be a (prototypical) spiritual seed of Abraham, “justified by faith.”[39] It goes without saying that Irenaeus recognized the unbelieving physical seed of Abraham, national Israel, as having been rejected by God.
    Like Justin, in his zeal for the church of Christ, Irenaeus made the mistake of essentially ignoring those saints who lived between Adam and Abraham, and between Abraham and Christ. While there are veiled references to them in expressions like “those who fear God and believe in Him,” and “those who are justified by faith,” details concerning their relationship to the church and the coming kingdom are totally lacking. With almost complete focus on Abraham and the church, one is left only to make assumptions about the lot of saints who lived before the church age.
    Concerning the church itself, however, Irenaeus’ position is clear. He explained that as Moses wrote in Deuteronomy, “the Gentiles [the Church] are to become the head, and an unbelieving people [Israel] the tail …”[40] This “holy people” prophesied by Hosea (Hosea 2:23; cf. Rom. 9:25, 26), and affirmed by John the Baptist (Matt. 3:9), having rejected idol worship in favor of belief in Christ, “have become sons of Abraham” and thus subjects of his inheritance.[41]
    Irenaeus stated that in this way, God has fulfilled his promise to Abraham to make his seed like the stars of heaven. Christ, descended from Abraham and born of a virgin, has “justifi[ed] the Gentiles through the same faith with Abraham.” For as Abraham was justified by faith (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:13), so too are we justified[42] by the same faith which was “prefigured in Abraham… the patriarch of our faith, and, as it were, the prophet of it [Gal. 3:5–9; Gen. 12:3] …”[43] Irenaeus wrote:

    "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."[44]

    Irenaeus saw in Isaac’s twin sons the type of the two nations, or two peoples of God to come. But it would be the latter people (the Gentile church) typified by Jacob, who would supplant and “snatch away the blessings of the former” people (Israel), identified with Esau.[45]

Year-day or Sex-/Septa-millennialism

    In Irenaeus, as in the Epistle of Barnabas, we once again have a full and clear affirmation of the year-day tradition. After commenting on the number 666 in Revelation 13:14f, Irenaeus maintained that this is given “as a summing up of the whole of that apostasy which has taken place during six thousand years." He then explained how the number six thousand was arrived at. He said:

    "For in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded…This [Genesis 2:2] is an account of the things formerly created, as also it is a prophecy of what is to come. For the day of the Lord is as a thousand years [2 Peter 3:8]; and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the sixth thousand year."[46]

    Elsewhere, Irenaeus made some additional observations about the significance of the number of the beast’s name (666), and events which, in his view, prefigured it. He believed it was fitting that the beast’s name should possess this number, “since he sums up in his own person all the commixture of wickedness which took place previous to the deluge, due to the apostasy of the angels.” Irenaeus pointed out that Noah was six hundred years old when an exceedingly wicked generation of men were washed away by the flood.[47]
    Irenaeus observed too that the image erected by Nebuchadnezzar was sixty cubits high by six cubits wide. That image, explained Irenaeus, prefigured the coming of Antichrist, who will set himself up as the sole object of worship by men. For Irenaeus, just as Antichrist summed up in himself all the wickedness which preceded the deluge, so also all idolatry, and persecution of the just (e.g., Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), will be summed up in this evil one to come. Irenaeus concluded these matters by saying:

    "Thus, then, the six hundred years of Noah, in whose time the deluge occurred because of the apostasy, and the number of the cubits of the image for which these just men were sent into the fiery furnace, do indicate the number of the name of that man in whom is concentrated the whole apostasy of six thousand years, and unrighteousness, and wickedness, and, false prophecy, and deception for which things’ sake a cataclysm of fire shall also come [upon the earth]."[48]

    In another place, Irenaeus taught that at the conclusion of the six thousand years and after the reign of Antichrist, Christ will come and “[bring] in for the righteous the times of the kingdom, that is the rest, the hallowed seventh day; and restoring to Abraham the promised inheritance…”[49] Speaking on the same subject in a different place, Irenaeus suggested that the kingdom is “the seventh day, which has been sanctified, in which God rested from all the works which He created, which is the true Sabbath of the righteous…”[50]
    There is an interesting passage in Irenaeus which refers to the meaning of the cycle of days and the deaths of Adam and Christ. The whole discussion revolves around the meaning of the warning to Adam that the day in which he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he would die (Gen. 2:16, 17). Does “day” here mean a twenty-four hour period of time, or is it symbolic of a thousand years in accord with II Peter 3:8? Irenaeus acknowledged that, “there are some…who relegate the death of Adam to the thousandth year [e.g., Justin Martyr]; for since ‘a day of the Lord is as a thousand years’ [II Pet. 3:8], he did not overstep the thousand years, but died within them, thus bearing out the sentence of his sin.”[51]
    Irenaeus himself seemed to favor the twenty-four hour interpretation of day, for he suggested the possibility that on “one and the same day on which they ate they also died…”[52] By death, however, he apparently meant something akin to spiritual death, for he said that “disobedience to God entails death,” and spoke of “disobedience, which is death…”[53] On this same subject, Justin obviously had physical death in mind because, as he said, “we know that he [Adam] did not complete a thousand years.”[54] Irenaeus concluded that whichever view is taken, the result is the same—God is true, while Satan is a liar.[55]
    In any case, Irenaeus maintained that “according to the cycle and progress of the days, after which one is termed first, another second, and another third, if anybody seeks diligently to learn upon what day out of the seven it was that Adam died, he will find it by examining the dispensation of the Lord.”[56] He suggested that Christ summed up in Himself the history of the entire human race, including its death. Irenaeus explained that,

    "The Lord…recapitulating in Himself this day [day of Adam’s death], underwent His sufferings upon the day preceding the Sabbath, that is, the sixth day of the creation, on which day man was created; thus granting him a second creation by means of His passion, which is that [creation] out of death."[57]

Dispensational distinctions

    Like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus saw human history, not merely as parcels of time patterned after the six plus one days of creation, but in terms of the dispensational arrangements of God.[58] However, his presentation of the dispensations is not as full as Justin’s. But we do find in Irenaeus some interesting statements about and arguments for God’s ordered program for humanity’s salvation. Irenaeus’ four dispensations can be summarized as follows: (1) Creation to the deluge (or Adam to Noah); (2) Deluge to the Law (or Noah to Moses); (3) Law to the Gospel (or Moses to Christ); (4) Gospel to eternal state? (or Christ to Eternal state?).
    The method by which Irenaeus arrived at the number of dispensations is most interesting as it is based upon “quadriform” prototypes, both in nature and in Scripture.[59] He reasoned that the Gospels can be neither greater nor fewer than four in number because of the analogy of the quadriform structure of creation. Irenaeus explained that there are four zones of the world inhabited by humankind and four principal winds. He concluded therefore that,

"…while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” [1 Tim. 3:15] of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars [1 Tim. 3:15], breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, he who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit."[60]

    Irenaeus developed this reference to Christ sitting upon the cherubim (Psalm 80:1) in conjunction with the “four living creatures” of Revelation 4:7 in further support of his thesis. Observing that the cherubim were four-faced, Irenaeus contended that “their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God.” We offer the following outline of his position,[61] and ask the reader to note especially how Irenaeus summed up all the dispensational arrangements of God in that final dispensation brought in by Christ.[62]

1. First living creature: like a lion = “His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power” (characterized by the Gospel of John).
“And the Word of God Himself used to converse with the ante-Mosaic patriarchs, in accordance with his divinity and glory…“ (reference to first and second dispensations).

2. Second living creature: like a calf = “[His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order” (characterized by the Gospel of Luke).
“ …but for those under the law he instituted a sacerdotal and liturgical service …”(reference to third dispensation).

3. Third living creature: like a man = “His advent as a human being” (characterized by the Gospel of Matthew).
“Afterwards, being made man for us…” (reference to fourth dispensation).

4. Fourth living creature: like a flying eagle = “pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church” (characterized by the Gospel of Mark).
“He sent the gift of the celestial Spirit over all the earth, protecting us with His wings” (reference again to fourth dispensation).

    Irenaeus went on to say that just as the living creatures and the Gospel are quadriform, so also is “the course followed by the Lord.” He contended that that was the reason for the giving of four principal covenants to humankind. The reader should keep in mind that Irenaeus often employed the term “covenant” in a broad sense as that which represents some specific economy in God’s program of salvation. Thus in this sense, in some contexts the terms “covenant” and “dispensation” signify essentially the same thing. Since there is some variation in the dispensational system of Irenaeus as contained in the Latin and Greek versions of the text under consideration, we shall present both in parallel and summary fashion. The four principal covenants/dispensations as set down by Irenaeus are:[63]

1. First, “prior to the deluge, under Adam;”
Greek version: “first covenant as having been given to Noah, at the deluge, under the sign of the rainbow …”

2. Second, “that after the deluge, under Noah;”
Greek version: “the second as that given to Abraham, under the sign of circumcision …”

3. Third, “the giving of the law, under Moses;”
Greek version: “the third, as being the giving of the law, under Moses …”

4. Fourth, “that which renovates man [under Christ], and sums up all things in itself by means of the Gospel, raising and bearing men upon its wings into the heavenly kingdom.”
Greek version: “the fourth, as that of the Gospel, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    It is interesting to observe that in the Greek version, which our source says is the least authoritative of the two,[64] the outline is exactly the same as that found in Justin.
    Irenaeus held firmly to the belief that the divine program of salvation for humanity was worked out in an orderly fashion by the triune God. And this orderly system he cast in dispensational terms. Irenaeus spoke of the various gifts, “adapted to the times,” which have been bestowed upon the human race by the “prophetic Spirit.” “Thus, therefore,” he concluded, “was God revealed; for God the Father is shown forth through all these [operations], the Spirit indeed working, and the Son ministering, while the Father was approving, and man’s salvation being accomplished.”[65] For Irenaeus, Christ is especially prominent in this dispensational drama. It was the eternal Son, he says,

"…who did also show to the human race prophetic visions, and diversities of gifts, and His own ministrations, and the glory of the Father, in regular order and connection, at the fitting time for the benefit [of humankind]. For where there is a regular succession, there is also fixedness; and where fixedness, there suitability to the period; and where suitability, there also utility. And for this reason did the Word become the dispenser of the paternal grace for the benefit of men... revealing God to men through many dispensations, lest man, falling away from God altogether, should cease to exist."[66]

    Of Irenaeus’ four dispensations, there is relatively little information about the first two—creation to the deluge, and the deluge to the Law. But the available data is reminiscent of Justin’s teaching on the subject. Irenaeus explained that circumcision (Gen. 17:9–11) and Sabbath observance (Ex. 21:13; Ezek. 20:12) were both given as signs. The former was given in order that the “race of Abraham might continue recognizable.” But Irenaeus explained further that these signs had symbolic meaning and real purpose beyond the sign. Physical circumcision, for example, was a type of the circumcision of the heart performed by the Holy Spirit (Col. 2:11; Deut. 10:16 in LXX). Sabbath observance, on the other hand, taught continual service to God (Rom. 8:36; Matt. 6:19). It spoke too of the millennial rest to come after the type of the seventh day of rest following the creation.[67]
    Like Justin, Irenaeus insisted that no man was justified by these rites. As proof of this, he offered as examples Abraham, Lot, Noah, and Enoch, all of whom were uncircumcised but pleased God. Not only that, Irenaeus added, but “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 [Deut. 5:2].” Here Irenaeus obviously followed the Greek version of the dispensational system outlined above, and was in agreement with Justin’s dispensational arrangement.[68]
    At this point, Irenaeus asked the important question, “Why, then, did the Lord not form the covenant [Law given to Moses] for the fathers?” His answer was to the effect that the fathers prior to Moses had the Law (meaning here primarily the Decalogue) written in their hearts and the righteousness of the Law in their souls, and they lived by it. Therefore, there was no need for an external Law written on stone. However, said Irenaeus,

"…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 it [the Decalogue] enjoined love to God, and taught just dealing towards our neighbour, that we should neither be unjust nor unworthy of God…"[69]

    In this passage, we encounter the principle of a new dispensation precipitated by failure. The principle is also set down that with the new dispensation is an attendant new revelation. The purpose of which, is to assist man in gaining justification before God.
    In another place, on the theme of failure and differing covenants, Irenaeus pointed out that one person may be able to explain more accurately than another,

"…the operation and dispensation of God connected with human salvation; and show that God manifested longsuffering in regard to the apostasy of the angels who transgressed, as also with respect to the disobedience of men; and set forth why it is that [by] one and the same God… more covenants than one were given to mankind; and teach what was the special character of each of these covenants."[70]

    Irenaeus blamed the error of the likes of Simon Magus, Marcion, and Valentinus on their “Ignorance of the Scriptures and of the dispensation of God…” He, on the other hand, promised in the progress of his treatise to address the cause of the differences between covenants and to touch upon their unity and harmony. Irenaeus maintained that those “were…perfected who knew one and the same God, who from beginning to end was present with mankind in the various dispensations…”[71]
    In speaking of the various covenants, especially that under Moses (the legal dispensation) and that under Christ (the Gospel dispensation), Irenaeus emphasized the fact that throughout history, there is but one God and one means of salvation. But at the same time, Irenaeus manifested a belief in the progressive nature of both revelation and the precepts by which salvation is understood and God approached. In the first place, said Irenaeus, “the Lord is the good man of the house, who rules the entire house of His Father…” It is He, according to Irenaeus, who delivers that which is suited to man in each dispensation. For example, He established the old covenant, the giving of the Law, which was suited to those who were slaves and undisciplined. But it was the same householder who brought forth a new covenant, the Gospel, as fitting for free men, justified by faith. This, according to Irenaeus, is “the new dispensation of liberty, the covenant, through the advent of His Son.”[72]
    Irenaeus explained that the former covenant, the legal dispensation,[73] resulted in bondage. But the new covenant under Christ, the greater of the two dispensations, brought forth liberty and multiplied grace.[74] This new covenant and He who was to carry it out, Irenaeus continued, were both preached by the prophets and revealed to men as it pleased God. This was done, said Irenaeus, in order that, “they might always make progress through believing in Him, and by means of the [successive] covenants, should gradually attain to perfect salvation. For there is one salvation and one God; but the precepts which form the man are numerous, and the steps which lead man to God are not a few.”[75]
Just as failure was the cause for which the Mosaic or legal dispensation was substituted for that under Abraham, here too failure resulted in another change in the divine economy. Humankind, Irenaeus pointed out,

"…enter[ing] 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 [reference to Gnostic teaching], because in truth there is but “one God, who justifieth the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith” [Rom. 3:30].[76]

    Irenaeus employed the imagery of the vineyard to explain the reason for replacing the former dispensation with the present one. After explaining that it is the same God who called those of the former dispensation of Law (which involves bondage), and those of the latter dispensation (by means of adoption), he went on to say, “For God planted the vineyard of the human race when at the first He formed Adam and chose the fathers; then He let it out to husbandmen when He established the Mosaic dispensation.” Irenaeus observed that God then “hedged it round about” (i.e., gave special instructions for worship), “built a tower” (i.e., chose Jerusalem), and “digged a winepress” (i.e., prepared a medium for the prophetic Spirit). First God sent the prophets to seek the fruits of righteousness, said Irenaeus, then He sent His own Son. But these wicked husbandmen killed His Son and cast Him out of the vineyard. Thus God, having justly rejected those evil men, unhedged the vineyard, thereby throwing it open to husbandmen (i.e., Gentiles) throughout the world. Now the beautiful “elect tower,” the church, is being raised everywhere and the winepress is being digged everywhere, for everywhere there are those who are receiving the Spirit.[77]
    This last dispensation, the “dispensation of His coming,” said Irenaeus, was clearly announced by Moses (Num. 24:17) as being from Jacob and from among the Jews.[78] But there are some, wrote Irenaeus, who “despise the coming of the Son of God and the dispensation of His incarnation, which the apostles have transmitted to us…”[79] And further, there are “certain persons, because of the disobedient and ruined Israelites, do assert that the giver…of the law was limited in power, they will find in our dispensation that ‘many are called, but few chosen” (Matt. 20:10). Nevertheless, concluded Irenaeus, “those who have obeyed and believed on Him should be honoured with immortality.”[80]


    While Irenaeus did not seem to consider the millennium to be a separate dispensation per se, he is nevertheless a firm believer in premillennialism. No previous church father presented a fuller expression of that doctrine.[81] Irenaeus taught that at the conclusion of the six thousand years of human history, Christ will come to raise the righteous dead (first resurrection). He will then reign with the saints of all ages for a thousand years. Only at the conclusion of that thousand-year earthly reign will the wicked dead be raised (second resurrection) to face judgment. In his millennial expectation, Irenaeus indicated that he was following in the footsteps of “the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord,” and he especially cited Papias and Polycarp. He wrote:

"The predicted blessing … belongs unquestionably to the times of the kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon their rising from the dead; when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food, from the dew of heaven, and from the fertility of the earth; as the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times…"[82]

    At this point Irenaeus repeated the “grape story” referred to in our discussion of Papias.[83] Then he pointed out that “these things are borne witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp…” And finally, he insisted that, “these things are credible to believers.”[84]
    Something should be said here about Irenaeus’s understanding of the millennial kingdom in regard to its material or physical manifestation. Both he and Papias received a great deal of criticism for their “sensual” notions about the coming kingdom. Papias was accused of weak-mindedness by critics of millennialism, while Irenaeus was supposed to have been deceived and led astray because of Papias’ antiquity.[85]
    A careful reading of Irenaeus, however, reveals that he drew support for his millenarian views, including some of the material notions, directly from Scripture itself. Irenaeus saw Papias’s description of the kingdom, which he assumed to have been handed down from the Apostle John, to be merely corroboration of the biblical data.[86] In proof of the millennial fertility, for example, Irenaeus quoted Isaiah 11:6–9 and 65:25. He understood these verses to teach that when creation is restored to its original state, animals will be in subjection to man and once again eat only that food which is produced by the earth. Irenaeus wrote:

    "But some other occasion, and not the present, is [to be sought] for showing that the lion shall [then] feed on straw. And this indicates the large size and rich quality of the fruits. For if that animal, the lion, feeds upon straw [at that period], of what a quality must the wheat itself be whose straw shall serve as suitable food for lions?"[87]

    The reader is reminded that part of the “grape story” contains the claim that “a grain of wheat would produce ten thousand ears, and that every ear should have ten thousand grains, and every grain would yield ten pounds…of clear, pure, fine flour…”[88]
    After quoting other passages of Scripture which promise vineyards and lands (Ezek. 37:12f; 28:25, 26; Jer. 23:6, 7), Irenaeus concluded “That the whole creation shall, according to God’s will, obtain a vast increase, that it may bring forth and sustain fruits such [as we have mentioned]” in Isaiah 30:25, 26. In this context, Irenaeus referenced to sitting down to meat in the kingdom and being served by the Lord (Luke 12:37, 38), and of all the good things which will be available in the promised land according to Jeremiah 31:10f. Finally, Irenaeus affirmed that “Promises of such a nature, therefore, do indicated in the clearest manner the feasting of that creation in the kingdom of the righteous, which God promises that He will Himself serve.”[89]
    The most that Irenaeus can be charged with is perhaps an over zealous literalism. Immediately after his description of these kingdom blessings, he warned against “endeavour[ing] to allegorize [prophecies] of this kind…”[90] But critics of premillennialism saw an opportunity here to cast that orthodox belief of the early church in an unfavorable light. As J. A. Seiss’ writes:

    "That the earth will be extraordinarily fruitful in the good days to come, is distinctly declared in the Scriptures…Yet the excessive exaggerations of the matter by some enthusiastic persons were precious morsels for those who wished to destroy the millenarian hopes. On other subjects, wild caricatures furnished no ground for their rejection; but upon this no allowances could be made. And then, as now, these innocent extravagances were most unjustly, but still effectively, paraded around by the opposers of our doctrine, to bring it into disrepute, and to defame it as a mere fancy of over-credulous and weak people."[91]

    Closely related to the foregoing discussion, is the important question of the purpose for which the millennial kingdom will be established. For Irenaeus, that purpose seems to have had three facets. In the first place, his literal understanding of the nature of the coming kingdom naturally included the concept of literal fulfillment of covenant promise, much of which has already been touched upon in the section on Israel and the church. In five consecutive chapters, Irenaeus expressed the belief no fewer than seven times that the resurrection of the just is for the purpose of receiving the inheritance—promised to Abraham and the fathers—in the millennial kingdom.[92] In this connection, Irenaeus wrote:

    "If, then, God promised him the inheritance of the land, yet he did not receive it during all the time of his sojourn there, it must be, that together with his seed that is, those who fear God and believe in Him, he shall receive it at the resurrection of the just. For his seed is the Church, which receives the adoption to God through the Lord…"[93]

    As noted previously, Irenaeus believed that the church supplanted national Israel and thus became the spiritual seed of Abraham. It is nevertheless clear, both here and elsewhere, that Irenaeus envisioned a joint participation in the promised inheritance. He maintained “that the promises were not announced to the prophets and the fathers alone, but to the Churches united to these from the nations…”[94]
    Secondly, according to Irenaeus, the millennial kingdom will serve as a prep school of sorts for eternity. In this regard, Irenaeus wrote:

"…the opinions of certain [orthodox persons] are derived from heretical discourses, they are both ignorant of God’s dispensations, and of the mystery of the resurrection of the just, and of the [earthly] kingdom which is the commencement of incorruption, by means of which kingdom those who shall be worthy are accustomed gradually to partake of the divine nature; and it is necessary to tell them respecting those things, that it behoves the righteous first to receive the promise of the inheritance which God promised to the fathers, and to reign in it, when they rise again to behold God in this creation which is renovated, and that the judgment should take place afterwards."[95]

    Further on, Irenaeus again expressed the idea that because the just will be raised to reign on earth with Christ they will “[wax] stronger by the sight of the Lord: and through Him they shall become accustomed to partake in the glory of God the Father…”[96]
    A third purpose of the millennium given Irenaeus concerns the conclusion of earthly history. With reference to the inheritance of the saints in the earthly kingdom prior to eternity, Irenaeus maintained:

"…it is just that in that very creation in which they toiled or were afflicted, being proved in every way by suffering, they should receive the reward of their suffering; and that in the creation in which they were slain because of their love to God, in that they should be revived again; and that in the creation in which they endured servitude, in that they should reign. For God is rich in all things, and all things are His. It is fitting, therefore, that the creation itself, being restored to its primeval condition, should without restraint be under the dominion of the righteous [Rom. 8:19f] …"[97]

    Lawson says that Irenaeus often spoke of the kingdom of God, which shows that in some sense he thought of it as already here, yet also future. Thus, says Lawson, for Irenaeus, “The coming Millennial Kingdom is the climax of that which is already at work in the world since the coming of Christ.”[98] In this regard, Millard J. Erickson says Irenaeus’ position indicates that, “the victory of Christ would be incomplete if it were only within the world to come. It is necessary that this world also realize God’s intentions. The Lord’s victory must be celebrated in time before He rules in eternity.”[99]
    It should be almost self-evident from all that has gone before that Irenaeus believed that the resurrection program would be carried out essentially in two phases. In book five of Against Heresies, between chapters XXVI and XXXVI, there are some nine references to the “resurrection of the just,” and one mention of the “first resurrection.”[100] All of these references place the resurrection of the righteous dead before the millennial kingdom. Then in chapter XXXV of the same book, Irenaeus said that John places “after the times of the kingdom,” the “general resurrection” and judgment associated with the great white throne. Irenaeus seemed to limit the subjects of this judgment to those whose names are not found in the book of life.[101]
    Irenaeus stated in even stronger terms than Justin, that this premillennial doctrine is “traditional orthodoxy.”[102] He referred to “certain orthodox persons” whose opinions are “derived from heretical sources,” and asserted that “they are both ignorant of God’s dispensations, and of the mystery of the resurrection of the just, and of the [earthly] kingdom…”[103] Twice Irenaeus insisted that the prophecies related to these events cannot be allegorized away.[104]
    It is suggested in the Ancient Christian Writers edition of the Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, that in this work, Irenaeus departed from or at least softened his support for the millenarian doctrine. We read, “There is…a reference to the Millenarian tradition so phrased…that it cannot be concluded with certainty that Irenaeus still upheld the truth of that tradition.”[105] The passage in question is chapter 61, which deals with the harmony of animals in the kingdom spoken of in Isaiah 11:10. This is interpreted by Irenaeus as a “parable” teaching that “men of different nations and like character” will be “chang[ed] in their wild and untamed nature.” This is already proven, said Irenaeus, by the change brought about even now by faith in Christ.
    In the first place, it should be noted that there is very little data in the Proof on eschatology in general. For instance, there are scarcely two passing references to the resurrection of humankind.[106] Does this suggest that Irenaeus’ conviction about that doctrine had softened? There is no evidence to that effect.
    In the second place, observe that after making mention of the concord which will exist among the animals in the kingdom, Irenaeus stated that “the elders say, that it will really be even so at the coming of Christ…” That what these elders taught was a pointedly literal fertility and harmony among real animals in the kingdom, a position to which Irenaeus undeniably subscribed in Against Heresies, we have already shown. We can only assume that in the passage disputed passage from the Proof of Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus was simply adding a parabolic explanation to the literal one already expounded in his previous work. It cannot be fairly assumed that he had either softened or rejected his position on the millennial kingdom.
    In support of this thesis, we would remind the critic that the Proof was indeed known to the ardent antimillenarians Eusebius and Jerome. Yet both men still grudgingly affirmed that Irenaeus was a millenarian after the likes of Papias.[107] Had Irenaeus indeed moved away from his former belief, can there be any doubt that antimillenarians would have claimed new found support from this one who was so close in time and teaching to the apostles? Irenaeus undoubtedly continued to “expect [Christ] to re-establish the kingdom”[108] on earth.


    The centerpiece of Irenaeus’ teaching on the time of the tribulation and the relationship of the church to it, seems to be the prophecies of Daniel 7:7–8, 23–25 (cf. Dan. 2) and Revelation 17:12.[109] Irenaeus taught that in the last days of the sixth millennium, the Roman Empire will be partitioned into ten separate kingdoms. Into the midst of this arrangement, Antichrist will suddenly appear out of the tribe of Dan. He will kill three of the ten kings and subjugate the rest. After this, he will rule for three and a half years.[110]
    According to Irenaeus, during Antichrist’s reign, he and his followers will “lay Babylon waste, and burn her with fire…and put the Church to flight.”[111] Irenaeus explained that “the wrath against the righteous which shall arise towards the [time of the] end,” will be “the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome, they are crowned with incorruption.”[112] Irenaeus suggests that this ordeal is after the type of that endured by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and is “useful and serviceable to the just, as stubble conduces towards the growth of the wheat, and its straw, by means of combustion, serves for working gold.”[113] The purifying nature of persecution is explained by Irenaeus in these terms:

    "And therefore throughout all time, man, having been moulded at the beginning by the hands of God, that is, of the Son and of the Spirit, is made after the image and likeness of God: the chaff, indeed, which is the apostasy, being cast away; but the wheat, that is, those who bring forth fruit to God in faith, being gathered into the barn. And for this cause tribulation is necessary for those who are saved, that having been after a manner broken up, and rendered fine, and sprinkled over by the patience of the Word of God, and set on fire [for purification], they may be fitted for the royal banquet."[114]

    That Irenaeus was referring here to persecution under the Romans in his day is evident from the context. He went on to quote Ignatius’ as saying, “I am the wheat of Christ, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.”[115] Irenaeus made a direct connection between the Roman persecution endured by Christians and the persecution to come under Antichrist. At the conclusion of that final stage of persecution, according to Irenaeus, Christ would come to destroy Antichrist, raise the righteous, and establish His kingdom on earth.[116]
    Irenaeus held to a type of remote/imminent, intra/posttribulationism. He definitely spoke of a future three and a half year reign of Antichrist, during which time the saints would be persecuted. He also indicated that those within the church should look for the division of the Roman Empire into the prophesied ten parts, followed by Antichrist’s takeover.[117] For Irenaeus, clearly “the resurrection of the just…takes place after the coming of Antichrist, and the destruction of all nations under his rule [at the second advent of Christ]…”[118] Thus we have posttribulational elements.
    At the same time, however, Irenaeus saw Antichrist’s persecution of the saints taking place within the context of the Roman persecution. In essence, the persecution under Antichrist was viewed as an extension of the persecution under Rome. Thus we see the intratribulational element. In addition to this, Irenaeus made comments which suggested a belief in imminency, at least of a remote nature if not any-moment, and he even mentioned avoiding Antichrist.
    After speaking of a fiery purification of the saints, Irenaeus said, “And therefore, when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, ‘There shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be [Matt. 24:21].’” Then he made reference to the “last contest of the righteous” which will result in a crown of incorruption when they overcome.[119] Shortly after this, Irenaeus referred to “the wrath against the righteous which shall arise towards the [time of the] end.”[120]
    Both of the foregoing suggests perhaps some interval between the rapture of the saints and the final venting of Antichrist’s wrath upon earth. Further on, Irenaeus even suggested that the value in knowing the number of the name of Antichrist is that “when this man comes we may avoid him, being aware who he is…”[121] The reference to the church being “suddenly caught up,” as well as that to Antichrist’s “sudden coming,” provide at least a remote (i.e., after the ten kingdoms are established and the appearance of Antichrist) sense of imminency. While the evidence is certainly not conclusive, it seems sufficient to suggest at least the possibility that Irenaeus held to a remote/imminent, intratribulational rapture of the church.

Eschatological outline

    In Irenaeus, the outline of things to come is substantial. According to Irenaeus, following the “last kingdom,” the tenfold division of the Roman empire at the close of the sixth millinary of humankind’s history, Antichrist will suddenly appear our of the tribe of Dan. The three and a half years of his reign will include the devastation of the world and persecution of the saints. At the end of this time, the wicked one will be ejected from his seat in the temple in Jerusalem by the One who is legal heir to the throne of David in that city.
    Irenaeus maintained that after Christ destroys Antichrist and his regime, the first resurrection and rapture of the saints will take place in preparation for the millennial Sabbath rest. During the millennium, the inheritance promised to Abraham “and to his seed,” will be received as the righteous embark upon their thousand-year joint reign with Christ. At the conclusion of this sabbatical, the wicked dead will be raised (second resurrection) to face judgment before the great white throne. Following this event, the eternal state will begin.

Hippolytus (died c.236)

    Irenaeus was the greatest of the polemicists and left the most substantial record of his teachings. However, Hippolytus must be mentioned in order to round out an evaluation of the polemicists and to touch bases with the fourth generation of church leaders after Pentecost. As the disciple of Irenaeus (who was the disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of John), it is not surprising to find that this polemicist and bishop carried on the teachings of his mentor.
    Perhaps the most remarkable advance made by Hippolytus over his predecessors, however, was his exposition of the prophecies of Daniel. These are contained primarily in his Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, and the Fragments from Commentaries, On Daniel. Regarding the Treatise, LeRoy Edwin Froom says, “[it] contains the most remarkable contemporary exposition of the prophecies [of Daniel] left on record from the third century.”[122]
    One of the most striking dispensational elements of Hippolytus’ exposition of Daniel, is the placement of a chronological gap between the first sixty-nine weeks of Daniel’s prophecy in chapter nine, and the seventieth week (see Daniel 9:24–27). That final week was reserved by Hippolytus for the “end of the whole world”[123] and “the last times.”[124] In this, Hippolytus appears to have been the first to reach the conclusion that the first sixty-nine weeks of Daniel’s seventy weeks extended from Darius the Mede to Christ’s first advent. He believed that only after a gap of approximately 500 years, would the final week of years take place, just prior to Christ’s second advent.


[1] See the appendix, “The Apostle John, the Fathers, and Premillennialism in Asia Minor” in Larry V. Crutchfield, “The Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism, Part II—The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias,” Conservative Theological Journal 2 (June 1998), p. 141.
[2] Eusebius Church History V, XX, 5–6. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from and references to Irenaeus’ Against Heresies and to other fathers in this study, are from: Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.); or Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.).
[3] Ibid, V, XX, 7.
[4] Irenaeus Ag. Her. III, III, 4. Here, speaking of Polycarp, Irenaeus said “whom I also saw in early youth …”
[5] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXXIII, 4.
[6] The background of this tradition is given by J. B. Lightfoot in The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, 5 vols. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1889–1890; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), Pt. 2, Ignatius and Polycarp, 1: 446.
[7] Eusebius Ch. Hist. V, IV, 2.
[8] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), 2:750.
[9] See Gregory of Tours (c.538–594), Historia Francorium 1, p. 27.
[10] Eusebius Ch. Hist. IV, XXI (see note 9 in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series); V, XXVI.
[11] Jerome Lives of Illustrious Men XXXV.
[12] Quasten and Plumpe, p. 44.
[13] Irenaeus Ag. Her. III, II, 2.
[14] Ibid, V, V, 1; cf. V, XXXVI, 1-2. In the first reference, the term “elders” is used, whereas in the second, it is “presbyters.” Irenaeus also made mention of having received information, “from a certain presbyter, who had heard it from those who had seen the apostles, and from those who had been their disciples.” Here the source of information appears to be one twice removed from the apostles (Ag. Her. IV, XXVII, 1; see also IV, XXVII, 2 and IV, XXXII, 1, for references to what seems to be the same presbyter). Who this bishop was is beyond finding out. However, of those set forth, Pothinus (c.87-177), as a disciple of Polycarp and Irenaeus’ close associate seems the best candidate.
[15] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXXIII, 3.
[16] Irenaeus Ag. Her. III, III, 4; Fragment III; Eusebius Ch. Hist. V, XX, 6. Irenaeus was probably referring to Polycarp when he spoke of “a presbyter, a disciple of the apostles [who] reason[ed] with respect to the two testaments, proving that both were truly from one and the same God” (IV, XXXII, 1.
[17] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXXIII, 4.
[18] The early fathers unofficially known as polemicists include Irenaeus and his pupil Hippolytus (c.170-c.236), anti-pope bishop in Rome. Though Hippolytus has much to bring to our discussion, in the interest of time and space our focus is on Irenaeus, the last of the great Asiatic divines after the apostles.
[19] See Eusebius Ch. Hist. V, XXIV, especially para. 11.
[20] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963),. p. 31. See also F. W. Farrar, History of Interpretation (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1886), pp. 174–77.
[21] Irenaeus Ag. Her. I, VIII, 1; II, X, 1;
[22] Ibid, II, X, 1 (Italics added).
[23] Ibid, II, XXVII, 1 (Italics added). In this and the paragraph following, we are reminded of Charles C. Ryrie’s philosophical reason for literal interpretation. Here Irenaeus assumed the position taken by Ryrie, that “If God is the originator of language and if the chief purpose of originating it was to convey His message to humanity, then it must follow that He…would use language and expect people to understand it in its literal, normal, and plain sense” (Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), p. 81.
[24] Irenaeus Ag. Her. II, XXVII, 1 (Italics added).
[25] Ibid., I, VIII, 1; cf. I, III, 6. Several examples of this Gnostic practice are set forth in paragraph 2 of book I, chapter VIII.
[26] Irenaeus Ag. Her. I, IX, 4 (Italics added). In this passage, Irenaeus cited the way in which the Gnostics quoted Homer out of context for their own purposes.
[27] Ibid, V, XXXV, 2.
[28] Ibid, I, III, 6.
[29] Ibid, II, XXII, 1.
[30] Ryrie, 80–1.
[31] The usual criticism of Irenaeus’ approach to interpretation is inaccurate. C. A. Briggs’ suggests, among other things, that because of his battle with Gnosticism and the allegorizing method of interpretation prevalent in his day, Irenaeus was “inclined to the other extreme of literalism in interpretation” [C. A. Briggs, “Origin and History of Premillenarianism,” Lutheran Quarterly 9 (April 1879):230.]. This indictment is of course directed primarily toward Irenaeus’ views on eschatology generally and the millennium specifically. In any case, in light of Irenaeus’ position on symbols and types in Scripture, it hardly seems justified to accuse him of excessive literalism, even with regard to eschatology.
    We have shown, Irenaeus clearly contended that Scripture—including parables, etc.—has a clear, plain, natural meaning, which is evident to all. This is a far cry from the position of an Origen who reserved the lofty allegorical fruits of Scripture for the scholar-saint, but left the lowly seeds of literalism for the unlearned layman. While it is certainly true that Irenaeus’ method of interpretation does not approximate that of the contemporary dispensationalist, he should nevertheless be regarded as a forerunner of the dispensational method. In no real sense can it be said that Irenaeus was a son of Alexandrian allegorism.
[32] Irenaeus Proof 95.
[33] Ibid, Ag. Her. IV, VIII, 1.
[34] Ibid, V, XXXII, 2.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid; see also IV, VIII, 1, for the statement, “his seed, that is, the Church.”
[38] Ibid, III, III, 3; see also III, I, 1 and III, III, 2, for references to Peter and Paul as “laying the foundations of the Church.”
[39] Irenaeus Ag. Her. XXXII, 2.
[40] Ibid, Proof 95.
[41] Ibid, Chaps. 91 and 93. Cf. Ag. Her. IV, VIII, 1.
[42] Irenaeus Proof 35.
[43] Irenaeus Ag. Her. IV, XXI, 1.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Ibid, IV, XXI, 2-3.
[46] Ibid, V, XXVIII, 3.
[47] Ibid, V, XXIX, 2
[48] Ibid.
[49] Ibid., V, XXX, 4.
[50] Ibid, V, XXXIII, 2.
[51] Ibid, V. XXIII, 2.
[52] Ibid.
[53] Ibid, V, XXIII, 1-2.
[54] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho LXXXI.
[55] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXII, 2.
[56] Ibid.
[57] Ibid.
[58] For a comparison of the dispensational systems of the early church fathers, see Larry V. Crutchfield, “Ages and Dispensations in the Ante-Nicene Fathers: Part 2 of Rudiments of Dispensationalism in the Ante-Nicene Period” Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (October-December 1987):400, and for Justin Martyr in particular see 401.
[59] Irenaeus Ag. Her. III, XI, 8–9.
[60] Ibid.
[61] Ibid, III, XI, 8. Compare portions of the entire paragraph.
[62] Irenaeus definitely believed that all the dispensations culminate in Christ. He said, “For those things which have been predicted by the Creator alike through all the prophets has Christ fulfilled in the end, ministering to His Father’s will, and completing His dispensations with regard to the human race” (Ag. Her. V, XXVI, 2).
[63] Irenaeus Ag. Her. III, XI, 8. Our source for both versions is Roberts and Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:429 (for the Greek version see their note 3).
[64] Note three of the reference just cited, says, “A portion of the Greek has been preserved here, but it differs materially from the old Latin version, which seems to represent the original with greater exactness, and has therefore been followed.” This note goes on to give what “seem[s] the complete system” of Irenaeus. How the writer arrived at this is not stated, but it provides data for an instructive comparison to the seven-fold dispensational system taught by C. I. Scofield. Irenaeus’ outline, with Scofield’s dispensations in brackets, is as follows: 1. Paradise [Innocence] - “with the tree of life”; 2. Adam [Conscience] - “with the Shechinah”; 3. Noah [Government] - “with the rainbow”; 4. Abraham [Promise] - “with circumcision”; 5. Moses [Law] - “with the ark”; 6. Messiah [Grace] - “with the sacraments”; 7. Heaven [Kingdom] - “with the river of life.” For Scofield’s dispensations see Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (Fincastle, Va.: Scripture Truth Book Co., n.d.), 12–16, or some version of the Scofield Reference Bible.
[65] Irenaeus Ag. Her. IV, XX, 6.
[66] Ibid, IV, XX, 7.
[67] Ibid, IV, XVI, 1.
[68] Ibid, IV, XVI, 1-2 (Italics added in direct quote).
[69] Ibid, IV, XVI, 2.
[70] Ibid, I, X, 3.
[71] Ibid, III, XII, 12-13.
[72] Ibid, III, X, 4. For other references to the “covenant of liberty,” see Ag. Her. III, XII, 14 and IV, XXXIV, 3.
[73] For references to the “legal dispensation,” or “dispensation of the Law,” see Ag. Her. III, X, 2; III, X, 4; III, XI, 7; III, XII, 15; and III, XV, 3.
[74] Irenaeus Ag. Her. IV, IX, 1–2.
[75] Irenaeus Ag. Her. IV, IX, 3..
[76] Irenaeus Ag. Her. III, X, 2.
[77] Ibid, IV, XXXVI, 2.
[78] Irenaeus Proof 58. In a note appended to this chapter, the reader is told that the Armenian word tnawrenut’iwn is equivalent to the Greek, ???????”?Ža. See Quasten and Plumpe, text on p. 86 and note 263 on p. 194.
[79] Irenaeus Proof 99.
[80] Ibid, Ag. Her. IV, XV, 2.
[81] Lawson makes this important statement regarding Irenaeus’ premillennialism: “It is a simple task to reconstruct the millenarian scheme of S. Irenaeus. Millenarianism is one of the most robust elements in his thought and piety. The subject of the Christian Hope is treated fully and emphatically, with a wealth of quotation from the apocalyptical portions of the Old and New Testaments. No part of his theology is more plainly of directly Biblical and Hebraic inspiration than this” (The Biblical Theology of St. Irenaeus, p. 279).
[82] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXXIII, 3.
[83] See Larry V. Crutchfield, “The Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism, Part II—The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias.” Conservative Theological Journal 2 (June 1998):138.
[84] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXXIII, 3–4.
[85] See Eusebius Ch. Hist. III, XXXIX, 13, where the reader is told that, “he [Papias] appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses.”
[86] It is a serious error to assume that Irenaeus merely derived his millenarian ideas from oral tradition. In two chapters of Against Heresies alone (see book V, chapters XXXIII and XXXIV), the following prophetic texts (listed in the order given) are marshaled by Irenaeus in support of his millenarian doctrine: Matt. 26:27; Lk. 14:12, 13; Matt. 19:29; Lk. 18:29, 30; Gen. 27:28, 29; Isa. 11:6–9; 65:25; 26:19; Ezek. 37:12–14; 28:25, 26; Jer. 23:7, 8; Isa. 30:25, 26; 58:14; Lk. 12:37–40; Rev. 20:6; Isa. 6:11; Dan. 7:27; Jer. 31:10–15; Isa. 31:9; 32:1; 54:11–14; 65:18–28.
[87] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXXIII, 4.
[88] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXXIII, 3; cf. Papias, Fragment IV.
[89] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXXIV, 2–3.
[90] Ibid., V, XXXV, 1.
[91] J. A. Seiss, The Last Times (Baltimore: T. Newton Kurtz, 1859), p. 252.
[92] See Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXXII, 1; V, XXXII, 2 (twice); V, XXXIII, 1–4; V, XXXIV, 1–2; V, XXXV, 1; and V, XXXVI, 3.
[93] Ibid., V, XXXII, 2.
[94] Ibid, V, XXXIV, 3.
[95] Ibid, V, XXXII, 1 (brackets in original).
[96] Ibid, V, XXXV, 1.
[97] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXXII, 1.
[98] Lawson, p. 284.
[99] Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 95.
[100] See Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXVI, 2 (“resurrection of just,” associated with introduction of eternal kingdom); V, XXXII, 1–2 (three times: once, “resurrection of just” associated with commencement of earthly kingdom; twice, “resurrection of just” associated with promised inheritance of land in kingdom); V, XXXIII, 4 (“resurrection of the just” associated with harmony and fertility in kingdom); V, XXXIV, 1–2 (“resurrection of just” and “first resurrection,” both associated with fertility of kingdom); V, XXXV, 1 (“resurrection of just” associated with destruction of Antichrist’s empire and commencement of earthly kingdom of the Lord); V, XXXVI, 3 (twice, “resurrection of the just,” once with reference to inheritance in the kingdom, and once with reference to the promises for the kingdom).
[101] Irenaeus Ag. Her. XXXV, 2.
[102] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, Pub., 1978), p. 469.
[103] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXXII, 1.
[104] Ibid, V, XXXV, I and 2.
[105] Quasten and Plumpe, p. 42.
[106] See Irenaeus Proof 38 and 42. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus was combating the Gnostic denial of resurrection and the kingdom. The Proof, on the other hand, was addressed to a Christian, a friend of the truth.
[107] See Eusebius Ch. Hist. V, XXVI and III, XXXIX, 13; Jerome Lives XXXV and XVIII.
[108] Irenaeus Proof 57.
[109] See Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXV, 3; V, XXVI, 1; and V, XXX, 2; cf. V, XXX, 3, for the name of Antichrist, and V, XXX. 4 for the sequence of events associated with his reign.
[110] For the length of Antichrist’s reign, see Ag. Her. V, XXV, 3–4 and V, XXX, 4.
[111] Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXVI, 1
[112] Ibid, V, XXIX, 2 and 1.
[113] Ibid.
[114] Ibid, V, XXVIII, 2.
[115] Ibid, V, XXVIII, 4; cf. Ignatius Epistle to the Romans IV.
[116] See Irenaeus Ag. Her. IV, VII, 2; V, XXV, 3; V, XXVI, 1–2; V, XXX, 4; and V, XXXV, 1.
[117] Ibid, V, XXX, 2.
[118] Ibid, V, XXXV, 1.
[119] Ibid, V, XXIX, 1.
[120] Ibid, V, XXIX, 2 (Italics added).
[121] Ibid, V, XXX, 4.
[122] LeRoy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1950), I:271.
[123] Hippolytus Treatise on Christ and Antichrist 43.
[124] Hippolytus Appendix to the Works of Hippolytus XXI; cf. XXXVI.