Book Write-Up: Irenaeus of Lyon, by Simonetta Carr

Simonetta Carr.  Irenaeus of Lyon.  Christian Biographies for Young Readers.  Reformation Heritage Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Irenaeus was a Christian leader and thinker in the second century C.E.  This book is a biography of him for children ages 7-12.  Matt Abraxas contributed illustrations, and the book also contains maps and photographs.  Many of the photographs are of representations of the people discussed in this book, and the book provides the disclaimer that the people may not have actually looked like that.

Simonetta Carr explores the controversies in which Irenaeus participated and what was at stake.  Such controversies include the debate over which day to observe Easter, Passover or Easter Sunday, which is known as the Quartodeciman controversy, as well as Irenaeus’ polemics against Gnosticism.  Carr’s treatment of the latter is especially impressive, as she lucidly lays out Gnostic beliefs and Irenaeus’ specific arguments against them.  Carr also tells stories about the Roman treatment of Christians, explaining the rationales behind the Romans’ tolerance and intolerance.  Moreover, Carr paints a picture of what life was like in Irenaeus’ time, on such topics as education (i.e., who was educated, how they were educated, and what they were taught) and seafaring.

Carr occasionally sifts through historical sources, evaluating what is historical and non-historical.  Some may claim that she does not do this enough.  At least in this book, she seems to accept uncritically the traditional story of Polycarp’s martyrdom, which scholar Candida Moss argues is anachronistic.  Carr also accepts uncritically Irenaeus’ claim that his teachings can be traced back to the apostles, when Gnostic Christians made the same claim.  And, on page 38, Carr, as she relays Irenaeus’ argument, asks, “More importantly, why would Jesus teach something to the apostles and then reveal a different secret knowledge to others?”  That is an excellent question, but perhaps Gnostic Christians can be pardoned for concluding that Jesus had such a modus operandi, as Jesus in the synoptic Gospels often shares with his disciples information that he does not share with the general public.

Another question that came to my mind in reading this book is whether Carr’s Protestant perspective influences her portrayal of Irenaeus.  Carr emphasizes the centrality of Scripture in the second century Christian church and Irenaeus’ polemics, whereas a Catholic might stress instead the centrality and authority of the church.  Ecclesiology still looms large in Carr’s book, however, as she discusses the apostolic heritage of Irenaeus’ beliefs, Irenaeus’ argument from the widespread Christian acceptance of the Rule of Faith, and Irenaeus’ endorsement of the bishops.

The book would have been better had it gone more deeply into Irenaeus’ view of recapitulation, his belief that Christ succeeded where Adam failed and renewed humanity through the incarnation.  This topic occurred to me as I read Irenaeus’ summary of the Christian Rule of Faith, which Carr includes near the end of the book.  In reading the Rule, I noticed the absence of doctrines that are central to conservative Christianity today, such as penal substitution (which is not to suggest that ancient Christians did not hold to such a doctrine).  More discussion of Irenaeus’ view of salvation may have enhanced the book.  The book also should have been more specific in its citation of primary sources, using endnotes so as not to distract young readers.

Would children ages 7-12 appreciate this book, or would it be too deep for them?  I think that many Christian children would appreciate it.  Carr builds on basic Christian doctrines, such as the idea that God created the world, and she clearly explained a Gnostic objection to that doctrine, namely, that the world has imperfections.  The Quartodeciman controversy may not interest most Christian children (though it interested me when I was a child, since I grew up in a Christian church that observed the Jewish Passover).  Still, they can be edified and instructed by the church’s tolerance of differing perspectives, out of love for fellow believers (not that the church has always done this).

Critiques notwithstanding, this book deserves five stars.  It is educational and, at times, nuanced.  Christian children reading this book will receive a solid foundation to study patristics.  Also, the physical appearance of the book is beautiful, such that it would make a good decoration.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews.  My review is honest.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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