Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

By Everett Ferguson | Go to book overview

18. Irenaeus

Irenaeus was the first major literary opponent of the Gnostics whose work survives. His material on their views about baptism was presented in chapter 17, and his treatment of the baptism of Jesus was considered in chapter 6. His two major works, both surviving in translation, are Against Heresies and Demonstration (or Proof) of the Apostolic Preaching. Irenaeus’s brief statements about baptism summarize the “orthodox” practice and understanding of baptism in contrast to the views surveyed in the preceding chapter.1

Because of the polemical concerns of his Against Heresies and the instructional purposes of his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus has little about the ceremony of baptism. He assumes a period of preparation for baptism and so must explain the accounts of immediate baptism in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter would not have given baptism so readily to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10) if he had not heard them prophesying when the Holy Spirit came on them; and if the Holy Spirit had not rested on them, someone could have raised objection to the baptism of Gentiles.2 Similarly Philip baptized the Ethiopian treasurer because only baptism was lacking to one who, from his reading of scripture, “was previously instructed [praecatechisatus] by the prophets.”3 Paul had to labor (1 Cor. 15:10) in teaching Gentiles, but instruction (catechisatio) of Jews was relatively easy because of their knowledge of the scriptures.4 It is not clear whether Irenaeus is dealing with a question raised about a long preparation that prompts a defense of catechesis or he is merely explaining why there were immediate baptisms in scripture.

1. André Benoit, Le baptême chrétien au second siècle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1953), pp. 186–218; A. Houssiau, “Le baptême selon Irénée de Lyon,” Ephemerides theologicae lovanienses 60 (1984): 45–59. David N. Power, Irenaeus of Lyons on Baptism and Eucharist (Nottingham, 1991).

2. Against Heresies 3.12.15.

3. Against Heresies 4.23.2.

4. Against Heresies 4.24.1-2.

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