Irenaeus (Circa 130-202) was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is now Lyon, France. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, who was a disciple of Jesus Christ. Irenaeus wrote extensively on the nature and unity of God, fighting bitterly against heresies and the integration of paganism into Christianity. Irenaeus also corrected the church in Rome on occasion, and testified that supernatural signs accompanied his ministry and all the believing church, including the raising of the dead, healing of the sick, prophecies, and visions.
Surprisingly little is known about Irenaeus, compared to what is known of his teachings, as he did not disclose much of his personal story or testimonies in his own writings. The exact date of Irenaeus' birth is unknown (dates between 115 - 142 have been suggested), and he is thought to have been a Greek from Polycarp's hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, now Izmir, Turkey, raised in a Christian family rather than converting as an adult.
Irenaeus recalls a small portion of his youth in a fragment of his writings:
- For I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events (inasmuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it); so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse--his going out, too, and his coming in--his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures. These things, through, God's mercy which was upon me, I then listened to attentively, and treasured them up not on paper, but in my heart; and I am continually, by God's grace, revolving these things accurately in my mind. (Vol. I Ante-Nicene Fathers 568)
Some time later Irenaeus joined Pothinus, another disciple of Polycarp, in Gaul to assist with his evangelism of that area. It was during this time that the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius severely persecuted the early Christian Church. In 177, with much of the church of Lyons in prison, Irenaeus was sent by the Church in Gaul with a letter to Eleutherus, the Bishop of Rome, informing him of heresies arising against the church, and with testimony of the persecutions. Irenaeus, however, found that Eleutherus himself was patronizing certain heresies, including Montanism, rather than fighting them with the zeal of John and Polycarp.
Disturbed by what he saw at Rome, Irenaeus returned to Gaul only to find that Pothinus had been martyred. Irenaeus then became the second Bishop of Lyon, and the Church in Gaul flourished under his guidance. During the religious peace which followed the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the new bishop divided his activities between the duties of a pastor and of a missionary. Irenaeus wrote of the activities of the church, and their strength in Jesus Christ:
- Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform miracles, so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe in Christ, and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, scattered throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practicing deception upon any, nor taking any reward from them on account of such miraculous interpositions. For as she has received freely from God, freely also does she minister to others. (Vol. I Ante-Nicene Fathers 409)
In his writings, Irenaeus cites from most of the New Testament canon, as well as the noncanonical works 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas; however, he makes no references to Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John or Jude. Irenaeus was also the first Christian writer to list all four of the now canonical Gospels as divinely-inspired.
Polycarp and Anticles (an earlier Bishop in Rome) had reached a compromise regarding the date of the celebration of Easter that let each church decide for itself. However, a subsequent Bishop in Rome named Victor suddenly excommunicated all the churches in Asia Minor for disagreeing with his interpretation regarding the date of the celebration of Easter (the Sunday after the passover vs. the Jewish date of the Passover). As a result, Irenaeus addressed Victor in a letter (only a fragment of which remains), warning him that if he persisted in the course on which he had entered, the effect would be to rend the Catholic Church in pieces. In 190 or 191, Irenaeus travelled to Rome to meet with Victor, who received and accepted the rebukes of Irenaeus. The debate of the date of the passover was treated independently by each Church intil the Council of Nicea.
Nothing is known for certain about the date or circumstances of Ireneaus death. Some speculate he died of old age, and other speculate that he was martyred in the persecutions under the Roman Emperor Severus. Irenaeus was said to have been buried under the church of Saint John's in Lyon, but the tomb was destroyed in 1562 by the Calvinist Huguenots.
Irenaeus wrote the following about John and Polycarp's approach to heretics, which explains his own zeal:
- John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, "Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within." (Vol. I Ante-Nicene Fathers 416)
- Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, "Dost thou know me?" "I do know thee, the first-born of Satan." Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, "A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; (Vol. I Ante-Nicene Fathers 416)
Almost all of his writings were directed against Gnosticism. The most famous of these writings, being the only major surviving writing of Irenaeus, is Adversus Haereses (against heresy). The purpose of Against Heresies was to refute the teachings of various Gnostic groups, and establish the true doctrine of the Christian Church and its reliance on scriptures, rather than pagan mythology.
Irenaeus asserts that:
- they have apostatized in their opinions from Him who is God, and imagined that they have themselves discovered more than the apostles, by finding out another god; and maintained that the apostles preached the Gospel still somewhat under the influence of Jewish opinions, but that they themselves are purer in doctrine, and more intelligent, than the apostles. (Book III, ch. 12, par. 12)
Irenaeus also noted that spiritual gifts were absent in the heretical churches:
- For they can neither confer sight on the blind, nor hearing on the deaf, nor chase away all sorts of demons--[none, indeed,] except those that are sent into others by themselves, if they can even do so much as this. Nor can they cure the weak, or the lame, or the paralytic, or those who are distressed in any other part of the body, as has often been done in regard to bodily infinity. Nor can they furnish effective remedies for those external accidents which may occur. And so far are they from being able to raise the dead, as the Lord raised them, and the apostles did by means of prayer, and as has been frequently done in the brotherhood on account of some necessity--the entire Church in that particular locality entreating [the boon] with much fasting and prayer, the spirit of the dead man has returned, and he has been bestowed in answer to the prayers of the saints--that they do not even believe this can be possibly be done, [and hold] that the resurrection from the dead(3) is simply an acquaintance with that truth which they proclaim.(Vol. I Ante-Nicene Fathers 407)
The central point of Irenaeus' theology is the unity of God, in opposition to the Gnostics' division of God into a number of divine "Aeons", and their distinction between the utterly transcendent "High God" and the inferior "Demiurge" who created the world. Irenaeus uses theology similar to that found in the Gospel of John and book of 1 John (which makes sense, as Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, who was tutored by John the Apostle). Irenaeus speaks of the Son and the Spirit as the "hands of God". The concept of the trinity is absent from Irenaeus' writings.
- The Spirit, therefore, descending under the predestined dispensation, and the Son of God, the Only-begotten, who is also the Word of the Father, coming in the fulness of time, having become incarnate in man for the sake of man, and fulfilling all the conditions of human nature, our Lord Jesus Christ being one and the same, as He Himself the Lord doth testify, as the apostles confess, and as the prophets announce,
- Now this being is the Creator (Demiurgus), 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;"(4) propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned, and cancelling (consolatus) our disobedience by His own obedience; conferring also upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker.
Irenaeus, in speaking against heresies, also firmly established what it takes to be saved, and the importance of understanding the Godhead. Speaking of those heretics who deny the Jesus is Lord, Christ or God, Irenaeus wrote:
- But, being ignorant of Him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they are deprived of His gift, which is eternal life;(7) and not receiving the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life.
Irenaeus was also continued in the Apostle's doctrine of comparing Eve to Mary:
- And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience. For in the same way the sin of the first created man (protoplasti) receives amendment by the correction of the First-begotten, and the coming of the serpent is conquered by the harmlessness of the dove, those bonds being unloosed by which we had been fast bound to death. (Vol. I Ante-Nicene Fathers 547)
Irenaeus also wrote against the heresy that Cain was the offspring of Eve and the Serpent.
Irenaeus taught that the world has been intentionally designed by God as a difficult place, where human beings are forced to make moral decisions, as only in this way can they mature as moral agents. Irenaeus likens death to the whale that swallowed Jonah: it was only in the depths of the whale's belly that Jonah could turn to God and act according to the divine will. Similarly, death and suffering appear as evils, but without them we could never come to know God.
According to Irenaeus, the high point in salvation's history is the coming of Jesus Christ. Irenaeus believed that Christ would always have been sent, even if humanity had never sinned; but the fact that they did sin determines his role as a savior. He sees Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did: thus, where Adam was disobedient concerning God's edict concerning the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of a tree. In addition to reversing the wrongs done by Adam, Irenaeus thinks of Christ as "recapitulating" or "summing up" human life. This means that Christ goes through every stage of human life, from infancy to old age, and simply by living it, sanctifies it with his divinity. Irenaeus argues that Christ did not die until he was older than conventionally portrayed.
Irenaeus and Rome
One method Irenaeus used to attack the heretics who had left the established Churches to form their own theology is the argument of Apostolic succession, or the continuence of Bishops in the Churches, with the purpose that this succession most accurately represents the apostolic truth. Irenaeus wrote:
- Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority,(3) that is, the faithful every-where, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those faithful men who exist everywhere.
Irenaeus writes that this succession of Bishops in Rome is as follows: Peter and Paul, Linus, Anacletus, Clement, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, Telephorus, Hyginus, Pius, Anicetus, Sorer, and Eleutherius being the 12th from the apostles.
While the Roman Catholic Church has used this succession to highlight these men as Popes, and to establish the succesion of future Popes and the universal authority of the Church, some important factors are missing from this conclusion.
- Irenaeus was only the third from the Apostles, through John and Polycarp only.
- Irenaeus used the Church at Rome as an example only, as it would have been "tedious to reckon up the successions of all the Churches". Elsewhere, he refers to the perpetual succession of bishops in "various churches", and especially of the church at Ephesus "founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles."
- Irenaeus reproved two Bishops of the Church of Rome in person (much like Paul did to Peter), and both submitted to his rebuke.
- The Church of Rome was often sustained by envangelism from Greece. This occurred as during the persecutions of the Roman Emperors, Jews (including Jewish Christians) were expelled from Rome and many re-established in Greece.
- Finally, the apostolic tradition was preserved in Rome by "those faithful men who exist everywhere" - not by the Bishops of Rome themselves. Another translation of this last line of Irenaeus supporting the apostolic succsession is as follows: "On account of the chief magistracy(2) [of the empire], the faithful from all parts, representing every Church, are obliged to resort to Rome, and there to come together; so that [it is the distinction of this Church that], in it, the tradition of the apostles has been preserved by Christians gathered together out of all the Churches."
Once the Church in Rome began exerting its influence over the other churches, it lost its Apostolic succession. This was attempted by the Bishop Victor, but he was corrected by Irenaeus, never to attempt this heresy again.