Notes on St Irenaeus

Apparently Christians in the second century debated whether Adam had been saved by the death and resurrection of Christ. Read through this passage:

Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.

For this end did He put enmity between the serpent and the woman and her seed, they keeping it up mutually: He, the sole of whose foot should be bitten, having power also to tread upon the enemy’s head; but the other biting, killing, and impeding the steps of man, until the seed did come appointed to tread down his head, — which was born of Mary, of whom the prophet speaks: “Thou shalt tread upon the asp and the basilisk; thou shalt trample down the lion and the dragon;” — indicating that sin, which was set up and spread out against man, and which rendered him subject to death, should be deprived of its power, along with death, which rules [over men]; and that the lion, that is, antichrist, rampant against mankind in the latter days, should be trampled down by Him; and that He should bind “the dragon, that old serpent” and subject him to the power of man, who had been conquered so that all his might should be trodden down. Now Adam had been conquered, all life having been taken away from him: wherefore, when the foe was conquered in his turn, Adam received new life; and the last enemy, death, is destroyed, which at the first had taken possession of man. Therefore, when man has been liberated, “what is written shall come to pass, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” This could not be said with justice, if that man, over whom death did first obtain dominion, were not set free. For his salvation is death’s destruction. When therefore the Lord vivifies man, that is, Adam, death is at the same time destroyed.

All therefore speak falsely who disallow his (Adam’s) salvation, shutting themselves out from life for ever, in that they do not believe that the sheep which had perished has been found. For if it has not been found, the whole human race is still held in a state of perdition. False, therefore, is that man who first started this idea, or rather, this ignorance and blindness — Tatian. As I have already indicated, this man entangled himself with all the heretics. This dogma, however, has been invented by himself, in order that, by introducing something new, independently of the rest, and by speaking vanity he might acquire for himself hearers void of faith, affecting to be esteemed a teacher, and endeavoring from time to time to employ sayings of this kind often [made use of] by Paul: “In Adam we all die;” ignorant, however, that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” Since this, then, has been clearly shown, let all his disciples be put to shame, and let them wrangle about Adam, as if some great gain were to accrue to them if he be not saved; when they profit nothing more [by that], even as the serpent also did not profit when persuading man [to sin], except to this effect, that he proved him a transgressor, obtaining man as the first- fruits of his own apostasy. But he did not know God’s power. Thus also do those who disallow Adam’s salvation gain nothing, except this, that they render themselves heretics and apostates from the truth, and show themselves patrons of the serpent and of death. (AH 3.23.6-8)

Clearly Irenaeus thought the salvation of Adam was of paramount import but why? Might it be that for Irenaeus Adam was not just an individual human being but was, is, humanity itself? Hence to deny Adam’s salvation would be to deny our salvation.  If this guess is on the mark, then I wonder about its universalist implications, even though Irenaeus does not appear to have espoused the greater hope.

(Go to next note)

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8 Responses to Notes on St Irenaeus

  1. DLW says:

    Hello Father Aidan!

    I have your current series of blogs on St Irenaeus “queued up” in my list of blogs to read, but haven’t started it yet, so forgive me if I ask something you’ve already touched upon in one of them. I tried to read “About Heresies” a number of years ago from a PDF file on my laptop. The one thing that made it really hard to slog through was that a lot of what he wrote about was specific details of the heresies he was trying to refute, with gems about Christ sprinkled throughout. One thing I have always hoped is that someone would go through the five volumes and extract all the “good stuff”, and omit the detailed descriptions of the heretics, and publish that. Are you aware of anything like that? I’d really like to reread “Against Heresies”, but it would be really nice to read an “abridged” version.



  2. Dana Ames says:

    Another book recommendation request:
    For someone who does not read Greek or Latin, is there a good modern translation of AH that you (or Fr John B) would recommend? Thank you.



    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I know that books 1-3 have been translated in the Ancient Christian Writers series, but I do not know anything about them. Fr Behr has us reading from the older translation, perhaps because it’s the only one that contains books 4-5.


  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    Likely the concern was about the scope of salvation – could those that had died prior to Christ’s incarnation receive salvation? A huge debate along those lines was in progress about this issue and became particularly pronounced about questions related to the harrowing of hades. Some held that only a select few OT saints were saved, others believed all OT righteous were redeemed, whereas others held that salvation was (made available) to all in the OT.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It would be good to see a tabulation of the arguments for these various positions. Might a heretical gnostic proposition of a ‘redeemed redeemer’ include the contention that he could only influence contemporaries and successors by his teaching to similar ‘redemptive knowledge’? Is that one of the things St. Irenaeus is rejecting?

      But how is “man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God”, presented as working? And, extending to a historical monogenetic Adam? With what implications, and why?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Robert Fortuin says:


        It is interesting to note that the positions for a wide(r) and broad(er) scope of salvation did endure and prevail over time – the position that Christ’s resurrection made salvation available to all in the OT (and not merely as select few of the righteous) became more accepted as the theology developed. I do believe this was a result of a maturation of sorts – a realization of the implications, wrought in the process of contending against rival accounts, that God himself secured the Paschal triumph. The accounts of what Christ’s harrowing of Hades entailed became more developed into the 3rd and 4th centuries to a point where the emptying of Hades was explicitly employed to demonstrate the deity of Christ.


  4. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I have recently read 1 Timothy 2:15. I don’t know if this is an original idea, but it seems to me that this has more to do with the salvation of Adam and Eve than women in childbearing: it says “she” (singular) will be saved by bearing children if “they” (plural) remain in faith etc. This suggests what Paul is saying is that Eve is saved by her offspring (ultimately Jesus) which Adam therefore is, too.


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