Praying for Heretics: Irenaeus of Lyons' First Prayer for the Gnostics

Article by   May 2016
How should we respond to heresy? As we have seen in our previous article, the early Christian theologian Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-c.200) is a great model here. There must be a robust theological response based on Scripture. And confessional parameters must be emphasized. But there must also be prayer. And again Irenaeus is a good model to follow. Dealing in his monumental Against Heresies (c.180) with the Gnostics and their errors in vital matters, he not only deftly employs Scripture against his opponents and repeats the Church's confessional heritage, but he also prays for them. 

There are two main prayers in Against Heresies. Both occur in Book III of this work. The first can be found in Against Heresies 3.6.4, and will be considered in this article--the second prayer will be treated in our next article. 

The background to the first prayer 

In the earlier chapters of Book III, Irenaeus has been arguing that the plan of salvation has been uniquely revealed in the "Scriptures, the ground and pillar of our faith," for the Scriptures are the work of men who were given "perfect knowledge" so as to write the Scriptures.1  However, his Gnostic opponents, who denied the identity of the God of the Old and New Testaments, essentially refused to acknowledge the authority of God's Word. They claimed that they were the recipients of secret knowledge that had been passed down to them orally and that this superseded the written word.2  Irenaeus' response to this argument was to demonstrate that the Apostles' words in the Scriptures were in full agreement with the tradition of teaching that had come down to the church leaders of his day.3

At the heart of this early Christian pattern of teaching were two clear affirmations: the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament are one and the same,4  and Jesus Christ is to be rightly called God since he is the visible manifestation of God: "God, he who is, has been revealed through the Son, who is in the Father and has within himself the Father."5  All others whom unbelievers call gods are not gods at all, as various Scriptures that Irenaeus cited clearly showed, passages like Psalm 96:5, Jeremiah 10:11, and 1 Kings 18. 

Calling upon God 

The text in 1 Kings 18, which deals with the show-down of Elijah with the prophets of Baal, now becomes the springboard for Irenaeus' first prayer. Just as Elijah had called upon the "Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel [to] let it be known" that he alone was the true God (1 Kings 18:36),6  so this pastor-theologian of the Ancient Church now called upon the identical God to do the same for the men and women of his day: 

"Therefore I myself also call upon you, Lord God7  of Abraham, and God of Isaac, and God of Jacob and Israel, you who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, is well pleased with us (bene sensisti in nobis), that we might know you, who have made heaven and earth, who rules over all things, who are the sole and true God, besides whom there is no other God; also grant, through our Lord Jesus Christ, the gift (donationem) of the Holy Spirit; and give to every reader of this book to know you, that you are God alone, and to be strengthened in you, and to shun every heretical, godless, and impious opinion."8

Against the Gnostic denial of the unique and sovereign deity of the God who revealed himself in the Old Testament as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--the very One Elijah prayed to--Irenaeus identified this God as also "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." His prayer was thus grounded in the theological conviction that he had derived from reading Holy Scripture and from hearing those very same Scriptures preached by Polycarp when but a young man in Smyrna: the Father of the Lord Jesus is none other than the God of Israel. And it is this God who alone has created the entire material universe--a cardinal truth denied by the Gnostics, who argued that the material universe had come into existence through a lesser being than the true God--and who thus rules over it in complete sovereignty. 

The true God, a God of mercy 

Irenaeus further identified this one, true God as a God of abundant mercy--one of the Bible's favorite descriptions of our God--mercy shown in the salvation of sinners like himself. The way that Irenaeus referred to the reception of this mercy is noteworthy: it meant that such recipients like himself were now well pleasing to God. Moreover, those who are now well-pleasing to God know him. For Irenaeus, to know God was inseparable from being a recipient of his mercy. It is noteworthy that Gnostic jargon did not normally bind together the knowledge of God and the mercy of God in the way that Irenaeus does here. 

Yet, Irenaeus was also clearly confident that God's mercy was more than sufficient for even heretics like his Gnostic adversaries. Near the beginning of Book III, he had likened his Gnostic opponents to "wriggling serpents" (serpentum lubrici) seeking to escape from the force of truth however they can.9  As he went on to note regarding these "wriggling serpents:" "even if it is not easy for a person in the grip of error to come to his senses, yet it is not at all impossible to escape from error when the truth is set over against it."10  The entire project of Against Heresies was to so present the truth that it would lead to the spiritual liberation of some of these adherents of Gnosticism. But Irenaeus was also quite aware that for this to happen he, and other believers, needed to pray for their escape from Gnostic error. 

The gift of the Spirit 

A second request that Irenaeus made of God was that he might lavish upon all who love the truth, the "gift" (donationem) of the Holy Spirit. In a recent scholarly study of Irenaeus' doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Anthony A. Briggman, assistant professor of history of Early Christianity at Candler School of Theology, has argued for the authenticity of a different reading of this request in the Latin. According to a number of Latin manuscripts of this text, Irenaeus asked God to bestow the "governing power" (dominationem) of the Holy Spirit upon his people. As Briggman points out, in the preceding chapters of Book III Irenaeus has been asserting that, in the economy of salvation, the Holy Spirit plays a key role in both the creation of the New Testament Scriptures11  and the preservation of the truth.12  Briggman suggests it is not surprising that Irenaeus would ask the Father to grant "the governing power" of the Holy Spirit: he and his readers need the Spirit to enable them to shun "every heretical, godless, and impious opinion."13  But the Greek has "gift (dōrean) of the Holy Spirit," and this is almost definitely the original wording.14  The idea behind the request, though, is similar: the Spirit is needed to embrace the truth and reject error--hence Irenaeus' prayer that both he and his readers will be given the Spirit. 

It is also noteworthy that the request for the gift of the Spirit is linked to Christ. Just as Peter on the day of Pentecost tied the gift of the Spirit back to the risen and ascended Christ (Acts 2:33), so Irenaeus recognized that the giving of the Spirit is the prerogative of the Lord Jesus: it is only "through our Lord Jesus Christ" that the Spirit is given. 

The power of the written word 

Finally, Irenaeus asked that God use his book, his written words, to strengthen those believers who read it in their knowledge of the true God and so help them shun heresy, godless thinking and impiety. Irenaeus appears to assume that God can work through the means of a written text--an assumption that also underlies the biblical writings. God bestows grace and strength by means of written words. 

Not all in Antiquity had such confidence in writing. The Greek philosopher Plato, for example, has a phonocentric critique of writing in his dialogue Phaedrus and in his Seventh Letter. According to these texts, writing is lifeless and static, while oral speech is "living and breathing" and able to respond to the questions of the hearer.15  The very paradox of this critique of writing is that was being made through the medium of a written text--an indication that Plato was not oblivious to the benefits of writing.16  On the other hand, Irenaeus, like other early Christians, knew the power of the Scriptures to change hearts and minds as they were read17 --and therefore they had a confidence that God would use their own writings--along with their prayers--to edify the people of God and convert heretics.


1. Against Heresies 3.1.1. See also Against Heresies 3.5.1: "The Apostles, being disciples of the truth, are beyond every falsehood."
5. Against Heresies 3.6.2, trans. Michael A.G. Haykin. 
6. Against Heresies 3.6.3. 
7. The Latin at this point is Deus, which, despite its nominative form, is to be read as a vocative. See John Rauk , "The Vocative of Deus and Its Problems", Classical Philology, 92, no. 2 (April 1997): 138-149. 
8. Against Heresies 3.6.4, trans. Michael A.G. Haykin.   
10. Against Heresies 3.2.3, trans. Michael A.G. Haykin. 
13. See Anthony Briggman, Irenaeus of Lyons and the Theology of the Holy Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 46-47. 
14. Irénée de Lyon, Contre les hérésies, Livre III, trans. and ed. Adelin Roussea and Louis Doutreleau (2nd ed.; Sources Chrétiennes, no.211; Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2002), 74-77. 15. Phaedrus (274b-278b); Seventh Letter (341c-e). 
16. See Graeme Nicholson, Plato's Phaedrus: The Philosophy of Love (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1999), 75-88. 
17. Michael Green puts it well when he writes of evangelism in the Early Church: "From the Acts of the Apostles down to... Origen we find the same story repeated time and again. Discussion with Christians, arguments with them, annoyance at them, could lead enquirers to read these 'barbaric writings' [i.e. the Scriptures] for themselves. And once they began to read, the Scriptures exercised their own fascination and power. Many an interested enquirer like Justin and Tatian, Athenagoras and Theophilus, came to Christian belief through finding, as he read, that 'the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword', and that 'the sacred Scriptures are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ'." (Evangelism in the Early Church [Rev. ed.; Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004], 352). 


Michael A.G. Haykin is the Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has written widely on the Ancient Church and eighteenth-century Dissent.


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