Denis MINNS, Irenaeus: An Introduction. New York: Continuum, 2010. pp. 160. ISBN 978-0-567-03366-6.
Reviewed by Jeffrey KIRCH, C.PP.S., Saint Joseph’s College, Rensselaer, IN 47978

Irenaeus of Lyons has occupied a interesting place in the history of Western theology. He is regarded by many as the “first great Catholic theologian,” yet his theology has had very little influence on the subsequent development of Christian theology. In this text, Minns offers the reader a concise, readable introduction to the major components of Irenaeus’ thought. His text follows a logical progression. First he begins by discussing the heresies Irenaeus was confronting, and then moves to exploring Irenaeus’ understanding of God and the economy of salvation.

The strength of Minns’ work rests on placing Irenaeus into context. Primarily drawing from two of Irenaeus’ texts, Adversus Haereses (AH) and Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (AP), Minns highlights the polemical nature of Irenaeus’ work. This is an important consideration since at times Irenaeus can seemingly be contradictory throughout portions of the work. After briefly introducing the life and times of Irenaeus, Minns moves to Irenaeus’ use of scripture in his theology. Minns points out that Irenaeus utilized an “aesthetic criterion” in his understanding of scripture. It was by this “criterion” or “rule of truth” which the heretics theology was to be measured (10-11).

In a short fifteen pages Minns outlines the various heresies which Irenaeus was attempting to refute. Quoting extensively from AH, Minns accurately relates to the reader the primary positions of both the broadly defined gnostics and the Marcionites. Minns draws the chapter to a close when he succinctly writes, “Irenaeus overcame this difficulty (refuting each individual heresy) by choosing one doctrine that most of the major heresies he opposed did have in common: the complete disjunction between the creator God of the Old Testament and the God revealed by Jesus” (29). It is in the refutation of this position that Irenaeus’ own theology becomes clear.

In the following chapters, Minns presents the substance of Irenaeus’ thought concerning the doctrine of God. Again, the presentation is clear, concise and approachable to someone without much experience dealing with the doctrine of God. Minns explains specific terminology, such as immanent and economic Trinity, and outlines Irenaeus’ major positions. Minns is able to zero in on the specific differences in theology between the heretics and Irenaeus such as when he writes, “As profound as the gnostics’ sense of the transcendence of God was, Irenaeus’ was deeper still. For the gnostics, the transcendence of God over this world is ultimately relative: a matter of distance. For Irenaeus it is absolute” (41). Minns is also clear that Irenaeus’ primary concern was the refutation of the heretics. So questions about the nature of God, which would perplex later theologians, was of little concern to Irenaeus.

The remaining chapters are concerned with the economy of salvation. Minns covers such topics as creation, original sin, free will, the relationship between the body and soul, and the Kingdom of God. He highlights two interesting facets of Irenaeus’ thought: the creation of humanity and recapitulation. First, Irenaeus offers an understanding of creation and sin which is significantly different than Augustine’s later interpretation. Minns writes, “The notion that Adam was not created perfect, but rather created in the image of God and intended to come to be in the likeness of God at the end of the process of development, is Irenaeus’ most characteristic understanding of Gen. 1.26, and the one that most coheres with the rest of his theological scheme” (75). Minns also offers a clear reading of recapitulation. Quoting extensively from AH, Minns sets Irenaeus’ understanding of recapitulation squarely within its scriptural roots and demonstrates how it is the linch-pin of Irenaeus’ theology (108).

Minns’ conclusion should not be overlooked. In it he explains that despite the fact that Irenaeus’ theology was overshadowed in time, there are two reasons to appreciate it today. First, the scope of his work in refuting 2nd century heretics offers the modern reader a “remarkably comprehensive picture of what was believed by Christians who thought themselves orthodox in the late second century” (152). Secondly, Irenaeus offers us a “fresh and different outlook” on the central issues of theology; an outlook that subsequently was overshadowed by Augustine (152).

One of the primary strengths of Minns’ text is his ability to quote sufficiently from AH and AP while at the same time not bogging the reader down in lengthy passages. Minns’ text is an excellent introduction to the thought of Irenaeus which is at the same time comprehensive and accessible to the first year theology undergraduate.

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