Book Review: Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity By Fr John Behr

Deacon Daniel Malyon of the British Orthodox Church- April 2015

Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity
By Fr John Behr
Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press (2015)
ISBN: 0199214638
PricE: £18.99 (Amazon uk)

Being a Philosophy teacher, I run discussions and evaluations into ‘The Theodicy of Irenaeus’ on a regular basis and when I do so, it is always interesting to discover that those who write of this Theodicy know little to nothing of the Saint himself and tend to echo more the works of John Hick and other modern thinkers who appropriated what they saw as the works and ideas of Irenaeus.

Dr John Behr’s work on St Irenaeus came highly recommended as an introduction to the life and work of this saint, who has suffered a great deal of neglect through the years due to being deemed as irrelevant to the later theological debates by early modern writers and as a mere polemicist by the more liberal voices in modern Theology. It is for this reason that such research as that of Fr John Behr opens his life and work up to further research in a fair manner, without simply using this Saint as a sidenote in a larger discussion.

The book begins with an overview of the life of St Irenaeus and the place of his work within the wider context of the Roman Christian community at the time. This section is extremely detailed and beneficial to understanding the life of Irenaeus and his relationships with other Christian groups and writers of the time The structure of this section allows for readability, splitting into sections to describe the various players in the roman stage as well as Irenaeus’ interactions with them. This allows the reader to come to grips with what was a highly complex and fragmented community at the time.

Following this detailed overview, we are treated to an in depth analysis of the first 2 books of Irenaeus’ most known text, Against Heresies. In this section, Fr John Behr opens this famed work and breaks down its structure in a way that allows the reader to understand its natural flow. This is supported with excerpts from the text itself and an explanation of any irregularities or ambiguities therein. After this section the same is done with the last 3 books, demonstrating the natural split within the text. Both of these sections contain detailed Theological analysis of the text and its context, as well as a fair review of the work as a piece of personal writing which allows us a greater understanding of Irenaeus himself as a Christian writer of his period.

The book ends with a conclusion in which Fr John Behr demonstrates his passion for Saint Irenaeus and emphasises his importance in our understanding of the development of Orthodox Christianity and the Roman Christian community of its time. It is at this point that you really come to grips with the text and just how underplayed the Saint has been with regards to his role in identifying Christianity and its progression.
A key strength of the book lies in the depth of Fr John Behr’s analysis into the life and work of St Irenaeus. One only needs to look at the author’s previous writing to see that this is Fr John’s labour of love. The text itself contains a myriad of key historical and theological points which are brought to light in the way that only someone who knows and appreciates his topic can do. This made the book thoroughly readable on a personal level, as it brought the Roman Christian life and the works of Irenaeus to life and caused me to forget at times that I was reading a contextual study of a 2nd century Christian writer.

A down side that I would put on this text is that it is not a light read. Though extremely readable to someone who understands the historical context of the work, it could not be recommended to someone who simply wishes to know about St Irenaeus. This point is a fairly obvious one due to the text being labelled ‘A contextual study’ though it needs to be said that the text looks at this context at such a depth that someone simply looking to find facts about Irenaeus may well miss them.

Overall, I would recommend this text to anyone with an interest in the period or who wishes to take on the works of Irenaeus with a suitable guide to assist them on every step of the way.