When it comes to orthodox theology, there is probably no human teacher more profound than Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. He represented Christianity at a time when to even profess the name of Christ put one in danger of one’s life. True to his calling, he suffered martyrdom at the beginning of the third century. And yet he left behind a collection of five books which set forth the orthodox faith of the Christian church. These comprise his magnum opus, Against Heresies.
In my studies of theology, I’ve come to believe that the weakness and confusion witnessed throughout modern-day Christendom is due largely to a rejection of pre-Nicene standards. If men would return to the faith of the early church, they would return to the very roots of historic Christianity; and find rest therein (Jeremiah 6: 16). But because the doctors of sectarianism hold sway, they are unwilling or unable to do this. The problem is actually twofold. On the one hand, the average Christian remains ignorant of what the early church taught and believed. And this ignorance may be justifiably laid at the door of those whose business is to teach Christian truth. For on the other hand, the rabbis of Christendom are hooked on novelties, and have no taste for the old wine of orthodoxy. True to the inspired prophecy, they have left sound doctrine and been turned unto fables. Whether these fables come in the form of Tim Lahaye’s “Left Behind” series, or in the Preterism of Ken Gentry, doesn’t really matter, because it all amounts to the same thing: a rejection of historic orthodoxy.
Unlike the rabbis of modern-day Christendom, what Irenaeus taught regarding Christian truth came directly from the presbyters who knew the apostles. Without any apology whatever, we receive these teachings as authoritative. Friends, it did not take the church 2,000 to arrive at the truth. It did not even take 1,500 years to arrive at the truth. The truth was faithfully handed down from the very beginning and preserved by the pre-Nicene church: the same church which gave Christians our New Testament Bibles we are so fond of quoting. Wherefore it is evident that any doctrine which deviates from pre-Nicene standards should be considered erroneous at best, and heretical at worst.
At any rate, this is how I sift the merits of Christian doctrine. Because of the relativism rampant in Christendom, many hold to an “umbrella” approach; teaching that there are five or six orthodox views of any one doctrine. Yet if that is the case, then there is no one view that can be called heretical. The theory makes it easy for heresy to sneak its way into the church. And, of course, the umbrella gets bigger and bigger every year. Seminarians hold staunchly to this view, because they are the primary teachers of heresy. In fact, every formidable heresy that now exists within Christendom was birthed by some seminary.
Mind, I am not speaking rashly, or from lack of knowledge on these issues. I am one who formerly embraced heretical doctrine, becoming a Hyper-Calvinist, then a Preterist, and later on a Dispensationalist. Now I am simply “orthodox.” I have thankfully come to realize the errors underlying my past mentality, and am beginning to point others back to the paths of historic orthodoxy. In fact, during 2011 I plan on speaking out more and more upon these issues. My intention is not to lord over people’s consciences; but to speak of the dangers of heresy and to make men see that there is but one ancient faith, which has had a constant presence from the get-go, and which it is needful for all Christians to accept today.
In a sense, historic orthodoxy has become like the lost axe-head of Elisha (2 Kings 6: 1-8). As the builders were busy building, it fell into the water. Yet it only needed the man of God — that one who speaks according to the oracles of God (1 Peter 4: 11) — to draw it back out. The recovery would have been necessary in any event, because the axe had been borrowed. This is what we as ‘builders’ must ever keep in mind. The word of God is not ours, to do with as we like. It does not belong to us. It was committed to our keeping by way of sacred trust. Listen to how Irenaeus interpreted the historic account of Elisha and the axe-head:
“When his fellow prophets were hewing wood for the construction of a tabernacle, and when the iron, shaken loose from the axe, had fallen into the Jordan and could not be found by them, upon Elisha’s coming to the place and learning what had happened, he threw some wood into the water. Then when he had done this, the iron part of the axe floated up, and they took up from the surface of the water what they previously had lost.
By this action the prophet pointed out that the sure word of God, which we had negligently lost by means of a tree, and were not in the way of finding again, we should receive anew by the dispensation of a tree [viz., the cross of Christ]. For that the Word of God is likened to an axe, John the Baptist declares in reference to it, ‘but now also is the axe laid to the root of the trees.’ Jeremiah also says to the same purport: ‘The word of God cleaveth the rock as an axe’ (Jer. 23: 29). This word then, what was hidden from us, did the dispensation of the tree make manifest, as I have already remarked. For as we lost it by means of a tree, by means of a tree again it was made manifest to all, showing the height, the length, the breadth, and the depth in itself” (Against Heresies, 5: 17: 3).
Irenaeus is alluding to the fact that from the fall of man until the coming of Christ, the counsel of God was wrapped up in types and parables — even to the extent that man’s need for redemption became illustrated by the slaying of bulls and goats; but that in these last times the signification of all things has been made manifest by Christ and His inspired apostles. This is very similar to something Lactantius wrote early in the fourth century:
“And there [Christ] opened to His disciples again assembled the writings of Holy Scripture, that is, the secrets of the prophets; which before His suffering could by no means be understood, for they told of Him and of His passion. Therefore, Moses and the prophets themselves, call the law which was given to the Jews a testament: for unless the testator shall have died, a testament cannot be confirmed; nor can that which is written in it be known, because it is closed and sealed. And thus, unless Christ had undergone death, the testament could not have been opened; that is, the mystery of God could not have been unveiled and understood” (Divine Institutes, 4: 20).
As the reader will notice, both Irenaeus and Lactantius hold that the truth, which had been concealed in times past, has now been made manifest by the New Testament Scriptures. This is what the heterodox cannot seem to grasp. While some of them maintain that the meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures is opened by the New, they plunge into heresies innumerable in their assertions that the meaning of the New Testament can only be opened by themselves; that 2,000 years of Christian teaching has been mistaken on the most basic themes of salvation; and that Christians who hold to historic orthodoxy are just trying to bring the church under bondage to mother Rome.
But the Word of God which was lost, hath been recovered — just as the iron did swim under the influence of Elisha’s stick of wood. Friends, the buck of Christian doctrine does not stop with the latest seminarian or his newfangled views of doctrine. It did not stop at the Protestant Reformation. It stopped long ago, when the final book was added to the New Testament canon. The teachers who collated these books together for the edification of later centuries knew what these Scriptures meant and understood them properly. It is for Christians today to accept that fact humbly, rejoice in the ancient faith, and do whatever they can to publish the Gospel to the whole of creation and glorify God‘s name on earth.