The Hieromartyr Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-202) was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is now Lyons, France. His writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology. He was a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna, who himself was a disciple of the Apostle John the Theologian. Saint Irenaeus is commemorated August 23.
Irenaeus is thought to have been a Greek from Polycarp’s hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, now Izmir, Turkey. He was brought up in a Christian family, rather than converting as an adult, and this may help explain his strong sense of Orthodoxy. Irenaeus was one of the first Christian writers to refer to the principle of apostolic succession to refute his gnostic opponents.
Irenaeus is remembered as the second bishop of Lyons, the first bishop, Pothinus, having been martyred around 177 during persecutions under Marcus Aurelius, while Irenaeus was visiting Rome.
Irenaeus is remembered as a martyr. He was buried under the church of Saint John in Lyons, which was later renamed St. Irenaeus. His tomb and his remains were destroyed in 1562 by the Calvinist Huguenots.
Irenaeus wrote a number of books, but the most important that survives is the five-volume On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, normally referred to as Adversus Haereses (in English, Against Heresies). Only fragments in its original Greek exist, but a complete copy exists in a Latin translation, made shortly after its publication in Greek, and Books IV and V are present in a literal Armenian translation.
The purpose of Against Heresies is to refute the teachings of various gnostic groups. Until the discovery of the Library of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Against Heresies was the best surviving description of Gnosticism. Additionally, Irenaeus’ descriptions of Gnostic teachings had long been doubted by scholars as the product of polemical hyperbole, but the find at Nag Hammadi confirmed Irenaeus’ descriptions in the words of the Gnostics themselves.
Irenaeus cites from most of the New Testament canon, as well as works from the Apostolic Fathers, 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas (not surprising, since the canon of the Holy Scriptures had not yet been set.) Irenaeus was the first Christian writer to list all the four canonical Gospels as divinely inspired — possibly in reaction to Marcion’s edited version of Luke, which Marcion asserted was the one and only true gospel.
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 “High God” and the wicked “Demiurge” who created the world. Irenaeus uses the Logos theology he inherited from Johannine commnities of Asia Minor, but prefers to speak of the Son and the Spirit as the “hands of God,” using figures for the Trinity which antedate the more precise language of the Cappadocians. Christ, for him, is the invisible God made visible.
His emphasis on the unity of God is reflected in his corresponding emphasis on the unity of salvation history. Irenaeus repeatedly insists that God created the world and has been overseeing it ever since. Everything that has happened is part of his plan for humanity. The essence of this plan is maturation: Irenaeus believes that humanity was created immature, and God intended his creatures to take time to grow into his likeness. Thus, to Irenaeus, Adam and Eve were essentially children; their Fall was a childish spat, a desire to grow up before their time and have everything now.
Everything that has happened since, Irenaeus asserts, has therefore been directed by God to help humanity overcome this and grow up. The world has been designed by God as a difficult place, where human beings are forced to make moral decisions; only in this way can they mature. 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 do his will. Similarly, death and suffering appear evil, but without them we could never come to know God.
The high point in salvation history is Jesus Christ. Irenaeus believes that Christ would always have been sent, even if humanity had never sinned; but the fact that they did sin determines his role as Savior. Echoing St. Paul’s thoughts, he sees Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did: thus, where Adam was disobedient about the fruit of a tree, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of a tree. Irenaeus is the first to draw comparisons between Eve and the Theotokos, contrasting the faithlessness of the former with the faithfulness of the latter. In addition to reversing the results of 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 adulthood and infirmity, and simply by living it, sanctifies it with his divinity.
Irenaeus thus thinks that our salvation comes about, essentially, through the incarnation of God as man. He characterises the penalty for sin as death and corruption. God, however, is immortal and incorruptible, and simply by becoming united to human nature in Christ he conveys those qualities to us: they spread, as it were, like a benign infection. Irenaeus therefore understands the atonement of Christ as happening through his incarnation rather than his crucifixion, although the latter is an integral part of the former.
The Lord of all gave to His apostles the power of the gospel, and by them we also have learned the truth, that is, the teaching of the Son of God — as the Lord said to them, “He who hears you hears Me, and he who despises you despises Me, and Him Who sent Me” [Lk.10:16].
For we learned the plan of our salvation from no other than from those through whom the gospel came to us. The first preached it abroad, and then later by the will of God handed it down to us in scriptures, to be the foundation and pillar of our faith. For it is not right to say that they preached before they had come to perfect knowledge, as some dare to say, boasting that they are the correctors of the apostles. For after our Lord had risen from the dead, and they were clothed with the power from on high when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were filled with all things and had perfect knowledge. They went out to the ends of the earth, preaching the good things that come to us from God, and proclaiming peace from heaven to all men, all and each of them equally being in possession of the gospel of God. — Against Heresies, III:1