Irenaeus & Early Church Leaders on Dispensational Futurism

  • Who is Iranaeus? What Did Iranaeus teach? Was he a dispensational futurist?
  • This is a question that I found coming up onto on various blogs. Facebook, YouTube, chat rooms, things of that nature.
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Transcript continues… And one pastor in particular is insisting that Iranaeus taught Dispensational Futurism. That the early church held exactly the same view of Antichrist as does he and most of his church.

I’m going to show you that that is false. One of the reasons I think this is important is because we often hear pastors, very poorly equipped and ignorant of Iranaeus picking out a verse or two of Scripture and a couple of quotes from Iranaeus to try and prove that futurism is not a product of the Jesuits. So what they do is they turn to Iranaeus and his book Adversus Haereses or in English Against Heresies, and try and find support for their modernist doctrines.

That modernism is in the realm of eschatology. The reformers were so very scholarly and well educated. They understood what Aaron has taught and they understood the position of the early church on Antichrist. They wrote prolifically about it. In order to overcome what the great Reformers taught these dispensational eschatology teachers, like this pastor, try to skip over the Reformers and jump back to the early church and then try to undo everything that the Reformation set forth regarding the matter of Antichrist. But let’s return to Iranaeus. He wrote, John and Daniel have predicted the dissolution and desolation of the Roman Empire which shall precede the end of the world and the eternal kingdom of Christ. You can find that in Against Heresies – book five. Those are the words of Iranaeus. What was Iranaeus saying when he refers to John and Daniel predicting the dissolution of the Roman Empire which shall proceed the end of the world. Well, first of all, was Iranaeus alive to see the dissolution of the Roman Empire? No. It happened perhaps 400 years or so after Iranaeus died. So he didn’t know when the Roman Empire would dissolve. But he knew that the Roman Empire would dissolve. He knew that that was taught in Scripture and he believed that that would usher in this time of the end. In fact, when you read Iranaeus it sounds like he believed that that was going to happen at any time, perhaps within his lifetime. But it didn’t happen 400 years later.

The Roman Empire Dissolves. And so we know that the Roman Empire crumbled. And we know it was replaced by papal Rome. The Roman Empire dissolves. Now we have papal Rome emerging. This is what Iranaeus was talking about. All right, let’s remember, Iranaeus lived in the second century primarily, and a little bit into the third. He was part of contemporary thought on this subject. For example, Tertullian, who lived in the second and third centuries commented on 2 Thessalonians. He had a similar view to that of Iranaeus. Tertullian wrote

For the mysterie of iniquitie doth alreadie worke: onely he who now letteth, will let, vntill he be taken out of the way

Okay, that’s a quote from 2 Thessalonians 2. This is what Tertullian said. Remember, he’s a contemporary of Iranaeus. What obstacle is there but the Roman state, the falling away of which by being scattered into ten kingdoms, shall introduce Antichrist upon its own ruins. That is consistent with what Iranaeus said. The crumbling of the Roman state introduces Antichrist and that is an indication of the time of the end. Now, how long the time of the end would last, they had no idea. They thought it would be short. They couldn’t know that there would be more than 1000 years of papal Rome persecuting the Church. They couldn’t know that. They couldn’t know that that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. They couldn’t know any of those things. But they knew for certain that when Rome crumbled then antichrist emerged. So you see, this is not consistent with what many of these pastors teach regarding the early church in its view of Antichrist. They’ll take quotes out of context like they do with Iranaeus, and then say, see, he teaches the same thing as we do, when in fact, to understand what the early Church thought and taught, you have to get an idea of what their worldview was like and what was going on with them at the very time. And Tertullian gives us some insights into that. He says in chapter 32 of his Apology and I quote there is also another and greater necessity for our offering prayer in behalf of the emperors. Nay, for the complete stability of the Empire and for Roman interests in general. Now just stop and think about that. Tertullian is endorsing that the Church pray for the stability of the Roman Empire and its emperors. And this is disturbing in a sense because the Roman Empire and the Roman Caesars were horrible persecutors of the Church. Yet Tertullian and the early Church believed that what was coming was worse and it would be something that emerged from the ashes of the Roman Empire.

He goes on, he writes, for we know that a mighty shock pending over the whole earth. In fact, the very end of all things threatening dreadful woes. This is Tertullian now expressing the common idea that the Church had and Iranaeus had that when this Roman Empire dissolved, then things would come to a close very quickly because they felt that they were already under such horrible persecution that it couldn’t get much worse. But when it did get worse it would be obvious and it would be short. They didn’t know that papal Rome would persecute the Church for a long, long time. So you see, they weren’t teaching an Antichrist at the end of the age. They were teaching the dissolution of the Roman Empire and the emergence of this Antichrist and this Antichrist dynasty. And I think if you look at what John wrote in chapter two, he gives us a clue even now there are many Antichrists.

Little children, it is the last time: and as yee haue heard that Antichrist shall come, euen now are there many Antichrists, whereby wee know that it is the last time.

19They went out from vs, but they were not of vs: for if they had beene of vs, they would no doubt haue continued with vs: but they went out that they might be made manifest, that they were not all of vs.

I’m paraphrasing, but this is the general idea that John says there are many Antichrists. And he gives us that clue that perhaps this Antichrist kingdom will go on for a period of time. Tertullian continues we have no desire then to be overtaken by these dire events, implying that they sensed and felt and believed that they could possibly be the generation that would see the return of Christ. But there would be this period after the dissolution of the Roman Empire that would precede the coming of Christ and that would be a period that perhaps they would be alive to witness. Now that’s not what happened. They couldn’t know. They weren’t prophets. So Tertullian then says, and in praying that they’re coming may be delayed we are lending our aid to Rome’s duration. So now if we look at Iranaeus speaking of the dissolution of the Roman Empire and the emergence of this Antichrist kingdom and we look at history now we line the two up we see that pagan Rome, caesarean Rome, crumbled in the maybe six, 7th, 8th century. Somewhere in that period of time it’s debatable and was replaced by the very thing that Tertullian and Iranaeus were worried about. And Tertullian said that the early Church prayed against that is they prayed against the dissolution of the Roman Empire because they knew what was coming was far worse. That’s why he says that their coming may be delayed, that we are lending our aid to Rome’s duration.

So I bring this to your attention because one particular pastor that I have actually confronted on this matter and showed him the historic context of Iranaeus’ writing and what the contemporary thought was of the early Church and that of Iranaeus, that they were not teaching something that would happen in the far distant future that in fact, they taught that as 2 Thessalonians chapter two declares that there is a restraining force. And Paul uses the term a what and a he restraining. See? So there are two the impersonal and the personal restraining. And we know that Polycap taught that Paul was referring to the Roman Empire as restraining a man of sin. This is consistent with what we just read of Tertullian and of Iranaeus. Also Hippolytus. He lived in the third century. He wrote treatise on Christ and antichrist. Item number 28 states, and I quote Hippolytus the legs of iron and the beast dreadfully and terrible expressed the Romans, who hold the sovereignty at present. The toes of the feet which were part clay and part iron and the ten horns were emblems of the kingdoms that are yet to rise. In Hippolytus time pagan Rome had not yet crumbled and these kingdoms had not risen. He goes on to say the other little horn that grows up among them meant the Antichrist in their midst.

Now let’s remember, Hippolytus was an Antonysean church leader. He was of that period when Iranaeus and Tertullian wrote, and he again was consistent with that belief that these ten kingdoms rose out of the Roman Empire as Rome crumbled and Antichrist rose among those ten empires. Now, that’s exactly what happened when Rome fell. Ten kingdoms emerged from it. And this little horn, Hippolytus says, that’s your Antichrist right there. Now, let me return to the point of this message. The pastor and other pastors who are teaching Iranaeus in the early Church held the same view as dispensational futurists, or as the Reformers referred to them, as Jesuit Futurists. To insist that the early Church and Iranaeus held a similar view as dispensational futurists is not supported by the facts and it’s not supported by logic.

They lived in a time when persecution from Rome was great. They knew that Paul was teaching the dissolution of the Roman Empire would be the emergence of Antichrist. They knew that that’s what Daniel was teaching. Hippolytus makes that clear. And so let’s return to Iranaeus. When we read those early writings of Iranaeus we have to filter it through the understanding that Iranaeus and the early Church had. They were consistent. The dissolution of Caesarean Rome opened up the floodgates for the Antichrist to emerge. The little horn that’s what Iranaeus was teaching did not teach that this Antichrist would be a single individual way off in the distant future. There’s no support for that. I heard one pastor say that their church’s teachings are consistent with the Bible and what Iranaeus and the early church taught on this matter. Yet he turned around and said that some of those writings of Iranaeus were fraudulent. Yet he insisted that his church was consistent with these particular teachings of Iranaeus.

So I caution you. There are many pastors who have not properly studied the early church writings. They don’t understand the context. They don’t understand the worldview of the early Church leaders. They don’t understand what was happening to the church at that time. And they don’t understand that they all believe the dissolution of the Roman Empire and the fall of the Caesars would be replaced by the little horn that is Antichrist. That is what they taught. And we know that happened in the fifth, 6th, 7th, 8th centuries. Rome crumbled slowly. The historic view of Antichrist is consistent with the early Church. They just weren’t around to see the fall of Rome and the emergence of Antichrist but they taught that doctrine. So there’s no Rome in the teachings of Iranaeus and Hippolytus to extrapolate some distant single individual rising up at the end of time when that already happened. Don’t let anybody deceive you on this. Do your homework. Read, read read study thoroughly. Trust no pastor that has an agenda or a dogma that they want to force down your throat. Do your own research. Find these documents online. Find these writings. Read them. Get a sense of what the early church was experiencing. And you’ll see that what I’ve just told you is consistent with what scripture teaches. And it gives you the perspective by which you need to understand. The early church were not dispensational futurists. They were not Jesuit futurists. They did not teach anything common to dispensational eschatology.


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