By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Apostolic Fathers

  • Irenaeus was born in Smyrna in Asia Minor (ca 125-202 CE).
  • Not much is certain about his early life, but it is believed that he was born into a Christian home.
  • He was a student of Polycarp, who was a bishop in that city. Polycarp was supposedly a disciple of John the Apostle. Irenaeus was apparently very enamored with his teacher and referred to his wisdom throughout his own ministry in later years.
  • It is not known why Irenaeus left Asia, but at some point he moved to Gaul, specifically Lugdunum (modern-day Lyons in France).
  • He served in Lyons as a priest under Pothinus, who was the bishop.
  • In 177 CE, the church at Lyons sent him to hand-carry a letter to Pope Eleutherius about problems they were having with the Montanists. That was the same year Marcus Aurelius ordered a severe persecution of Christians.
  • Because he was traveling between Gaul and Rome, Irenaeus escaped martyrdom.
  • Unfortunately, Bishop Pothinus did not. Upon his return, Irenaeus was made bishop (178 CE).
  • With the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE, Irenaeus pursued three main goals in his work as bishop: he opposed Gnosticism, he evangelized the area around Lyons, and he worked with the Pope to maintain peace among the Christian churches.
  • His writings were instrumental in the formation of early Christian theology.
  • Most notably, he wrote an extensive work entitled, Against Heresies, which was a defense of orthodoxy.
  • Against Heresies is a five-volume treatise that has been preserved in its entirety in Latin.
  • He was not the only one writing on orthodoxy, but his writings are the only ones that have been preserved.
  • Some scholars think this seminal work was written to combat the influence of Valentinianism. He was opposed to the Valentians' structure of the cosmos and their rationale for having greater and lesser gods. His focus on this one heresy provided a template for refuting many others. He was quoted as saying, "It is not necessary to drink up the ocean in order to learn that the water is salty."
  • Until the Nag Hammadi documents were publicized, Irenaeus' writings describing Gnosticism were taken at face value. Since then, scholars have determined that his description was not only inaccurate, but also argumentative. His whole purpose was to convince Christians not to believe, rather than to explain, what Gnosticism was all about.
  • Gnostics believed that a lesser (evil) god created the material world, and the secret knowledge imparted by Jesus to his disciples provided the only route to escape from this world. Irenaeus countered that the only way to salvation was to understand the redeeming Christ.
  • He was relentless in his writings against Gnosticism. When the Gnostics claimed to have secret knowledge from Jesus, Irenaeus referred to apostolic authority. None of the apostles were Gnostics, and they alone provided the only sure interpretation of Scripture.
  • These arguments were instrumental in the developing notion of the primacy of Rome.
  • Later on, he wrote another piece, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, which is mostly concerned with Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
  • The entirety of this text was preserved in the Armenian language.
  • One of his core beliefs was to meld the unity of Scripture with the unity of God. Since the Garden of Eden, things had been unfolding to the eschatological moment of the person and work of the Christ. In these revelations, God was calling humanity to participate with him. According to Irenaeus, "humanity is like a child growing from the womb or a stalk growing from the ground." God not only fashioned the world, but also the womb and the stalk.
  • His works have been invaluable for providing a glimpse of the struggles of the early church – the opponents that they faced, the heresies they dealt with, and the attacks against the Roman Church.
  • He was also the first of the Church Fathers to recognize the canonical status of the four gospels. He was the first to assign authorship of the Gospel of John to John the Apostle and the Gospel of Luke to Luke, who was the companion of Paul.
  • Many people have quoted from his writings over the centuries. In so doing, scholars are aware he wrote many other things that did not survive. These texts are only known through the quotes of others.
  • Needless to say, Irenaeus' writings have been used by scholars to support a whole variety of less than orthodox positions.
  • Circumstances surrounding his death are somewhat obscure.
  • One tradition has it that he was martyred by Septimus Severus, the reigning Roman Emperor from 193-211 CE. This, however, is the only reference to any martyrdom the emperor caused.
  • Nothing more was said about his death until Gregory of Tours mentioned it in the sixth century.
  • The Greek Church celebrates the feast of his sainthood on August 23; the Latin Church celebrates it on June 28.

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