Window on the Past Defenders of the Faith: Irenaeus & Tertullian

Window on the Past Defenders of the Faith: Irenaeus & Tertullian

American President Theodore Roosevelt once said that "it is not the critic that counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds." Roosevelt was right, and, as we look into the lives and legacies of Irenaeus and Tertullian, we will find that these, some of the earliest defenders of the faith, deserve the credit of our study and imitation.

Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus grew up in Smyrna, one of the greatest cities in Asia Minor. He was the son of Christian parents, who at an early age placed him under the tutelage and discipleship of Polycarp of Smyrna. The influence of this stalwart of the Christian faith upon this young man was remarkable. Polycarp was the disciple of John, the disciple of Christ, and author of three New Testament epistles, the Gospel according to John, and Revelation. Irenaeus' bold mentor was martyred in Smyrna in 166, burned at the stake for refusing to blaspheme Christ. Irenaeus would have been in the prime of life when he heard his mentor say to his persecutors--facing lions and fire--"I have served him these fourscore and six years, and he never did me any harm, but much good, and how can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?"

As an inheritor of a great spiritual ancestry, Irenaeus carried on a continuum of Christian discipleship and a legacy of personal investment. A modern reader might be astonished to read his works, and other works of the age, and recognize that Christian leaders invested in young leaders in a personal way. Everyone from Luke to Paul, Barnabas to John, and Polycarp to Athanasius, addressed their works of theology, polemics, or apologetics to their sons in the faith--Theophilus, Timothy, John Mark and others. Ancient letters were written to specific people in a specific community, not for a "market" as is often done in the present age in both Christian and secular letters.

Scholars place Irenaeus' birth anywhere from 120 to 140 AD. In 177, eleven years after the martyrdom of Polycarp, Irenaeus went to Gaul and became the Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is today Lyons, France. One French church historian, Gregory of Tours, in his History of the French Church tells us that Irenaeus' preaching and ministry alone quickly converted almost the whole of Lyons. It is most assured that the sheep of his flock in Lyons suffered persecution from Marcus Aurelius, and it is legended that Irenaeus also died a martyr in 202. His remains were buried under the church of St. John in Lyons, and the church was renamed the church of St. Irenaeus. The matter of his martyrdom has been debated since neither his disciple, Hippolytus, or other contemporaries note the details of his death. In all honesty, little is known of his life, yet much is made of his writings and legacy, which is as rich biblically as it is relationally.

Irenaeus was one of the first theologians to give "a full confutation of the heresies that had been broached since the introduction of Christianity, as historian William Cunningham wrote, "he knew and understood them." Cunningham further notes that Irenaeus used more Scripture than any other apologist up until his time. The master apologist Justin Martyr was an elder contemporary of Irenaeus, yet even his works do not bleed so much Bible. Cunningham calculates that Irenaeus quoted nine-hundred scripture texts in his works and many other scholars note that Irenaeus was one of the first patristic writers to make full use of the New Testament Scriptures. His extant works alone, which are few in comparison to those referenced by Eusebius, reference all of the New Testament books save Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude. Fittingly, then, he was one of the first Christian writers to insist that all four Gospels were divinely-inspired against the heretic Marcion's claims for Lukan inspiration alone. 

Therefore, Irenaeus has been called, perhaps anachronistically, 'a biblical theologian'. For the purpose of our view into the past, we should note that his works rejoice in the marvelous metaphors of the New Testament to speak of redemption in Jesus Christ. Irenaeus called such metaphors as the Body, the Bride, a Living Temple, and the Commonwealth of Israel the "glory of the New Testament." His two major works Against Heresies and Proof of the Apostolic Preaching stressed biblical doctrines that were challenged by Gnostics. The many Gnostic groups that Irenaeus addressed denied that Christ died on the cross as well as the notion that He was the Son of God and yet one with God as Creator. Of course, this was the result of the Gnostic thought that all things material are evil and all things spiritual are good. Against this disdain of the body, Irenaeus insisted that a false philosophy drive the Gnostic view of Scripture, and thus refuted them by referring to the resurrection of the body. Against Gnosticism, he further emphasized that it was covenants, bonds sovereignly administered by the Lord God Himself, which structure Scripture in the progressive revelation of the will of God in Christ, and, that it is in Christ--not in a secret knowledge--that all the covenant promises are yes and amen.

Of course, Irenaeus bears the battle scars of his age. His understanding of Mary as a second Eve to correspond with Christ as the second Adam was, although biblically-considerate, not biblically-founded. This parallel has been referenced as one of the triggers toward Mariolatry, though we find in Irenaeus no full-fledged error of this sort. This parallel was rooted in his teaching of Recapitulation, the idea that Christ as the second Adam passed through all the stages of life and sanctified every stage. Irenaeus cited the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 1:10, Romans 5, and 1 Corinthians 15 to establish his idea of Recapitulation and explained the Atonement and Justification on that basis. But more than stages of one man's life, Irenaeus insisted that Christ retraced the steps of Adam, saying that because Christ passed through every age of life, all humanity was sanctified. Statements like these make us wonder how far away Irenaeus would have been from claiming the incarnation as the basis for the atonement--an issue which evangelicals still consider through the influences of certain theologians. But, Irenaeus as well as most evangelicals, while embracing Christ as the Second Adam (or even Federal Head), did not take this view to the extreme of universalism. Irenaeus held to his view Recapitulation without holding the incarnation over the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension and in an orthodox soteriology.

Irenaeus name comes from the Greek word for "peace", and he was true to his name to those within the flock of God. Though fierce in his assault against Gnosticism and other heresies, Irenaeus was a kind shepherd. One does not have to be a pushover to be irenic. He stood fast in the face of Gnosticism and did not propose another Gnosticism (as Clement would), but rather proposed the Gospel itself. He has sustained criticisms of being a Christian Platonist in some of the works of church history and historical theology, which is perhaps the result of his constant engagement with particular Platonistic heresies. Yet in defense of Irenaeus, it should be said that he constantly asserted that Christianity consists in more than the possession of knowledge, but in partaking in a life which is to be lived in the world and beyond. In the face of the Gnostics, he insisted that the God of the Bible is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--of real, sinful men--and that He is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Gnostics thought that God would not defile Himself in the creation of matter, nor in the lives of human flesh, but Irenaeus insisted that the Christ, the Logos of God, the Savior, is true man and true God. Gnostics said the Lord's body was a phantasm and a reactionary sect called the Ebionites said Jesus was merely the last of the Jewish prophets. In opposition, Irenaeus insisted that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate, in whom "the fullness of deity lives in bodily form." (Col 2:9)

While perhaps displaying what the Encyclopedia Britannica notes as, "the Greek tendency of overemphasizing the incarnation over the crucifixion and ascension," Irenaeus was a champion in the defense of the faith. He highly prized the regula fidei, the "rule of faith" which is what any convert received from the teaching of his church as a standard for his subsequent life and for the testing of all doctrines presented to him. Some have identified this rule as a baptismal creed or a nucleus of the teaching of the Gospels, but it can be simply called 'the faith once-delivered to the saints' from Christ through the Apostles.

Both Irenaeus and Tertullian come together here. They were both, from the standpoint of the regula fidei, extremely important for the development of an economic doctrine of the Trinity. While not quite contemporaries, the life of this "calm river" (Irenaeus) met with the life of the "foaming torrent" (Tertullian) for a little more than a decade.

Tertullian of Carthage

Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus was born around 150 AD to a wealthy family. His father was a captain of a Roman legion, an esteemed citizen of North African culture. Sadly, this culture proved to be a fierce world of Christian persecution. As a boy, Tertullian received a pagan classical education, in which he studied all the philosophers of the classical age, and embarked on a career in law. In his mid to upper thirties, a married man and a practicing jurist, Tertullian met the converting power of the the Holy Spirit in the Gospel in the year 190. The details of his conversion are largely lost, but much like Augustine, the Apostle Paul, and other Christians converted in their prime of life, Tertullian made up for lost time. He imbibed the scriptures and works of theology, cutting his theological teeth on Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, the masters of apologetics and theology, men whose shoulders he would soon be standing upon.

Tertullian is commonly known as founder of Latin theology. He is the earliest Latin father, flourishing between the time of Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Cyprian was Tertullian's disciple, and bears the marks of his genius mentor. In addition, church historians resound with the judgment that Tertullian was "the greatest mind til Augustine" and the foundation upon which Augustine would build. Though Tertullian follows a host of Roman church writers--Clement, Hermas, Irenaeus, Hippolytus--who wrote all in Greek, it was Tertullian whom David F. Wright says, "gave the Latin West a theological vocabulary that has hardly been bettered." The old Encyclopedia Britannica notes that, "among all the fathers of the first three centuries Tertullian has given the most powerful expression to the terrible earnestness of the Gospel." He started writing in Greek just after his conversion but quickly changed to Latin. His works abound in Latinized-Greek words and even altogether new words. Wright again says that this was necessary, for "he had to create the church language of the Latin tongue".

His great activity as a Christian writer falls between 190 and 220. Many scholars note that it was Tertullian's theology that backed up the Western church against the Arians in the fourth century, his vocabulary being crucial in the formulation of an acceptable doctrine. Words such as "substance", "persons", "nature", and even "trinity" were used in the winsome work of Tertullian as he defended the doctrine of the Trinity. He was also the first theologian to write against Pelagianism, an early foundation for the Protestant Reformers to draw from almost a millenium and a half later. And if that weren't enough, it was Tertullian who provided the clearest patristic voice on the office and work of Christ and the Atonement.

Historian Everett Ferguson says that Tertullian had three main emphases: 1) the relationship of Christianity toward the Roman state and society, 2) a defense of orthodoxy against heresies, and 3) and the moral behavior of Christians.

His work, Against Praxeas, addressed a figure who was the opponent of the Montanists in an earlier generation. Tertullian had two things against him: his opposition to the Montanists and his view of God. Between 199-203, Tertullian had actually joined the Montanists, a group strongly against capitulation to culture and characterized by a belief in asceticism, severe discipline, martyr enthusiasm, and chiliasm. In addition, Montanists believed that a Christian could lose his salvation and that Christians should seek persecution. It is the second issue against Praxeas, though, in which Tertullian's biggest theological contribution comes. Against Praxeas' view of God, Tertullian defended the Triune God, using the word "trinity" to speak of one "substance" and three "persons". He hammered out that Christ had two natures, neither intermixed nor confused.

Against the Gnostics, who said that a secret knowledge would reveal all answers to all of life's questions, Tertullian championed the foolishness of the Gospel and the ordinary Christian. Tertullian proved himself not only to be an astute theologian but a theologian for ordinary people. He was precise for the sake of clarity, a lesson which many evangelicals should remember today. His theology abounds with the great Pauline antithesis of sin and grace and his writings cover all of religious life. In his Apologeticus, he pled for religious liberty amongst other religions as an "inalienable right". In his ascetic writings, he contrasted the moral life of the Christian with the pagan. In his Montanistic (or anti-catholic) writings, he argued against the restoration of the lapsed, flight in persecution, and second marriage. He wrote On the Soul, as the first Christian work of psychology. He argued in On Baptism against infant baptism. He was stringent because he believed the issue at stake was not merely being right, but being holy. Tertullian was convinced--though, like ours, his age was not--that the Christian faith is not to be lived lightly, but rather to be lived faithfully. He insisted that the blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the faith.

Many evangelicals note that Tertullian has been misunderstood in his remarks about philosophy. The famous quotes, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" and, speaking of Christianity, "I believe because it is absurd" did come from his pen. But rather than being thoughtless, the context of Tertullian's remarks display his brilliant defense of the faith. Rather than debunking rigorous thought, Tertullian calls for Christians to think by asserting that Christianity doesn't depend on philosophy. When he said that he had no use for a Stoic, Platonic, or dialectic Christianity, Tertullian conveys that much like his predecessor, Irenaeus, he was against the idea of "Christianity plus something else". In the accusation that Tertullian was against philosophical thought, it should be noted that he had been well-trained in pagan philosophy. Though he might have considered it rubbish in comparison to the Gospel, his education suited him well in taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

Tertullian died between 220 and 240. His followers, the ordinary people for whom he wrote, prayed, and invested his life called themselves Tertullianists until the time of Augustine. Tertullian was the crowning achievement towards which Irenaeus was working. He stood on the shoulders of giants and remains one of the greatest giants in church history upon whose shoulders Augustine and the whole Western church stands.

Both Tertullian and Irenaeus convey to our age one of the great lessons of church history, the lesson that David Wright says is how "paradoxically, heretics contributed to the way in which Christianity developed. The pioneering challenge of heresy did much to shape Christian orthodoxy--a rounded, systematic exposition of the implications of basic Christian convictions."

And they were fit for their task, to serve the purpose of God in their generation.

Despite their differences, I have been surprised by two things in this small study of these defenders of the faith. The first is that they were stringent doctrinally. Irenaeus' doctrine of recapitulation may raise eyebrows, but his insistence upon the truth of Scripture in the face of religious confusion was stalwart. The second thing is the importance of discipleship to their legacy. Loving the truth and loving people should never be sundered. We see a dichotomy between the two everyday, however. In fact, these are two characteristics that we would probably put apart if we could. It seems to us that strident theologians need to do their theological work and disciplers need to spend time with people. After all, churches even hire two different types of men to do two different types of ministry. Yet in Irenaeus and Tertullian, I think we find both qualities. These men are not held captive by a head/heart dichotomy, for they, to use a metaphor from C.S. Lewis, both cut down the jungles of error and irrigate the deserts of ignorance. Tertullian and Irenaeus were two burning lights, both whom were needed in their age for the defense of the faith and the development of orthodox theology. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that, "in tracing back the history of a doctrine, it is common to find it first taking shape in the writings of one or both of these early theologians," an assessment which undergirds the legacy of truth and discipleship in the lives of these defenders of the faith.

After gazing into this window on the past, consider, as David Wright says, that "Tertullian and most early Christian writers believed truth was older than error..." for "heresy came later than orthodoxy like some corrupting parasite." As we shut this window, it is this conviction with which we must go into our arena and strive valiantly. Truth is indeed older and more exciting than error. Let us stand for it, disciple one another in it, and actually strive to do the deeds.


Cunningham, William. Historical Theology. Vol 1. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979

Wright, David F, Everett Ferguson, etc. A Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity. Elgin: Lion Publishing, 1990

Bray, Gerald. Holiness and the Will of God: Perspectives on the Theology of Tertullian. Atlanta: John Knox, 1979

Warfield, Benjamin Breckenridge. The Works of B.B. Warfield: Studies in Tertullian and Augustine. Vol 4. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church: Ante-Nicene Christianity AD 100-325 Vol 2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Development of Christian Doctrine. New Haven: Yale, 1969

--. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Vol 1. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971

Berkhof, Louis. The History of Christian Doctrines. London: Banner of Truth, 1969

Various authors. The Encyclopedia Britannica. Vols. 8 & 23. Chicago: Werner, 1897

A great online link to the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian is provided by Calvin College's classic Christian literature website: