The early church writer Irenaeus is often seen as something of a poster boy for one view of the atonement. That view is known as "Christus Victor", after Aulen's 1931 book of the same name. Aulen is so influential that his reading of Irenaeus is often assumed. All too frequently Irenaeus himself is ignored, and Aulen is allowed to speak for him.
This matters, of course, because Aulen argues that the early church universally supported Christus Victor, and any kind of propitiatory language was a much later innovation. If this were true, then a degree of suspicion would rightly fall on the idea that the church only perceived the correct interpretation of Scripture some hundreds of years after it was written—an idea that is of course not impossible, but is also not a position to assume lightly.
Jeffery, Ovey & Sach (2007) give an excellent survey of early church writers, arguing that all of those surveyed, "without exception, believed the doctrine of penal substitution" (p. 163—penal substitution involves propitiation). They ably demonstrate this point. Aulen claimed that penal substitution arose as one result of a process of theological development whose trajectory was more dominated by Latin thinking than reference to the Scriptures. This claim is clearly inaccurate, and arguably more the product of Aulen's time and a general desire to identify a "primitive" Christianity, than careful study of the texts available.
Irenaeus, though, seems to be generally regarded as speaking only of Christus Victor.
But Irenaeus has not been fairly represented by Aulen. The primary source for reading Irenaeus as a proponent of Christus Victor is Against Heresies, written to oppose the errors of the Gnostics. The purpose of the book appears to have been unappreciated by Aulen in his reading: he treated Against Heresies as if it were a systematic theology, and ignored those sections which did not match his hypothesis. In fact, Irenaeus did explicitly speak of the death of Jesus as a propitiatory act, even though the main direction of his argument was in a different direction.
Against Heresies (AH) was written to combat heresies troubling the church at the time Irenaeus was writing. Those gnostic heresies have little support today, and so it is not always evident to a modern reader what Irenaeus was opposing. One prominent heresy Irenaeus opposed was the idea that the Christ joined Jesus, the two lived combined for one year, and then the Christ abandoned Jesus ("flew away"). So, in AH 3 we have:
The Gospel, therefore, knew no other son of man but Him who was of Mary, who also suffered; and no Christ who flew away from Jesus before the passion; but Him who was born it knew as Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that this same suffered and rose again... (AH 3.16.5)
In AH 3, whenever Irenaeus discussed the passion (the death of Jesus), it was in the context of demonstrating the necessity of the coexistence of the divine nature from Jesus' birth, throughout his life, at his death, and in his resurrection. He was carefully demonstrating why a temporary Christ-infusion of Jesus would have failed to achieve God's purpose in achieving and demonstrating victory.
But in AH 4, where the focus had shifted, Irenaeus was quite able to point out a very different aspect of the atonement—one quite incompatible with Aulen's Christus Victor view:
For He did not make void, but fulfilled the law, by performing the offices of the high priest, propitiating God for men, and cleansing the lepers, healing the sick, and Himself suffering death, that exiled man might go forth from condemnation, and might return without fear to his own inheritance. (AH 4.8.2, emphasis mine)
The language here (ἱλασκόμενος ὑπὲρ τῶν ἀνθρώπων τὸν Θεὸν), and the mention of the high priest immediately points us to Hebrews 2.17. The reference is fascinating because Heb 2.14 speaks of victory over the devil (notably in the Hebrews passage a personalised figure, not Aulen's objective power)—but shortly afterwards links that victory to Christ's propitiatory sacrifice.
Lawson (1948, p. 193) does at least acknowledge the existence of this passage in AH, but wishes to retain Aulen's monochromatic reading of Irenaeus. To do so, he resorts to asserting that in Scripture, "...the appeasement of an angry God is probably absent", and that because Irenaeus was so close to the apostolic age, he used a term which precisely means turning away divine anger by sacrifice, to instead mean something quite different! This is special pleading in the face of unpalatable evidence.
Again, in AH 5, we have same the language of propitiation, more clearly linked with God's enmity towards sinners:
Now this being is the Creator, who is, in respect of His love, the Father; but in respect of His power, He is Lord; and in respect of His wisdom, our Maker and Fashioner; by transgressing whose commandment we became His enemies. And therefore in the last times the Lord has restored us into friendship through His incarnation, having become the Mediator between God and men; propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned, and cancelling our disobedience by His own obedience; conferring also upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker. (AH 5.17.1, emphasis mine)
Notice here two important points: transgressing the Lord's commandments has made us His enemies, and the Lord has propitiated the Father. In fact, as the section continues, it becomes clear that Irenaeus holds a finely nuanced view of propitiation, making it clear that God himself in the incarnation is both the one being propitiated by the death of the Jesus, and the one doing the propitiation—hence it is not the unjust propitiation which often features in caricatures. Here the significance of the real incarnation of God in Jesus is again important, and it is noteworthy that Aulen greatly weakens the necessity for the incarnation in his own argument.
Irenaeus also linked the death of Jesus to the passover. In the passover, a lamb was sacrificed so that the angel of the LORD would spare the lives of the Israelite households. The death of the lamb took the place of the death of the Israelites in the house. This is a vivid substitutionary picture—entirely ignored and unacknowledged by Aulen (and again, of course, in AH 4):
Of the day of His passion, too, he was not ignorant; but foretold Him, after a figurative manner, by the name given to the passover; and at that very festival, which had been proclaimed such a long time previously by Moses, did our Lord suffer, thus fulfilling the passover. (AH 4.10.1)
The point is that at any given part of AH, Irenaeus emphasised that facet of the atonement which suited his apologetic purpose. In book 3, his purpose was to emphasise the importance of the continued deity of Jesus throughout his life and death, and so he emphasised the victory of God in Christ. The propitiation that Jesus achieved in his death was of little or no significance in that argument, and so Irenaeus did not mention it.
But to claim, with Aulen and his disciples, that propitiation was foreign to Irenaeus is to ignore both the content of Against Heresies and its rhetorical function. In AH, Irenaeus is responding to heresy, not writing a systematic theology. A monochromatic reading of AH does not do justice to its form or content.
This is not to suggest that Irenaeus was a proponent of propitiation as the only, or even primary, model of the atonement. In fact, it is difficult to be certain what his systematic view of the atonement would be.
But I am arguing that Irenaeus recognised the propitiatory language of the Scriptures, and appropriated that language and theology himself when it made sense in his argument. When heretics denied the real and continued divinity of Jesus, he appealed to the victory of God. But, when it made sense in his argument, he was equally capable of referring the propitiatory nature of the death of Jesus.
The only inference one can reliably draw is that the propitiatory death of Jesus was a far less contentious idea when Irenaeus lived and wrote than it is now. And of course, this makes sense—Christians were hardly alone in recognising the need for an angry god to be propitiated by sacrifice. Everyone knew that! What Irenaeus does do is point out a distinctive feature of Christian propitiation: that the same God offended by sin is the one who died and bore the punishment due.
Aulén, Gustaf. Christus victor : an historical study of the three main types of the idea of atonement. Reprint. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2003.
Jeffery, Steve, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Pierced for our transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution. Nottingham: IVP, 2007.
Lawson, John. The Biblical theology of St. Irenaeus. Epworth Press, 1948.