Saint Irenaeus, Bishop, Doctor and Martyr

Information on the life of Irenaeus is sparse, and what is known may be inexact. Irenaeus was born in Proconsular Asia or in one of the bordering provinces in the first half of the 2nd century – about 100 years after the death of Christ. The exact date is disputed. We do know that, while he was still young, he had seen and heard the famous bishop, St Polycarp at Smyrna. Polycarp died in 155 AD and was in direct touch with some of those who knew Jesus.

During the persecution of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Irenaeus was a priest of the Church of Lyons in Gaul. The church leaders of that city, many of whom were suffering imprisonment for their Christian faith, sent him in 177 or 178 AD to Rome with a letter to Pope Eleutherius concerning Montanism and giving testimony to Irenaeus’ good qualities.

Montanism, called after its founder Montanus, was a widespread heresy of the 2nd century AD. It was a kind of extreme Pentecostalism. Montanists believed, for instance, that their prophecies replaced the teachings of the Apostles and that God spoke in and through them. They encouraged ecstatic prophesying, and claimed those who sinned could not be saved. They emphasized chastity and forbade remarriage. For them, Easter had to be celebrated on 14 Nisan, irrespective of the day of the week.

Returning to Gaul from Rome, Irenaeus succeeded the martyr St Pothinus as Bishop of Lyons. During the peace which followed the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the new bishop was both pastor and missionary. His writings were mostly directed against Gnosticism, another widespread and troublesome heresy in the early Church. It was deeply philosophical, anti-material and influenced by the thinking of Plato. The Catholic Encyclopedia gives the following brief definition:

“A collective name for a large number of greatly-varying and pantheistic-idealistic sects, which flourished from some time before the Christian Era down to the fifth century, and which, while borrowing the phraseology and some of the tenets of the chief religions of the day, and especially of Christianity, held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all being to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter and the return to the “Parent-Spirit”, which return they held to be inaugurated and facilitated by the appearance of some God-sent Saviour.”

We do not know when Irenaeus died, but it must have been at the end of the 2nd century or the beginning of the 3rd. In spite of accounts to that effect, it is not certain that he died a martyr’s death. His feast is celebrated on 28 June in the Latin Church, and on 23 August in the Greek.

Irenaeus is remembered for the many works he wrote in Greek and which have earned him a special place in Christian literature. As one who had been in contact with Polycarp, who himself had been in direct contact with the Apostolic Church, Irenaeus’ testimony, especially in disputed matters, is of special value.

None of his writings has come down to us in the original text. We have them through citations by later writers including Hippolytus and Eusebius. Two of his complete works, however, have come down to us in translation. The first of these, in Latin, is Adversus haereses (Against heresies), which is mainly a refutation of Gnosticism and some other current heresies. It is regarded as a very important source of information on the thinking of the Church at the time. Some of the most important passages are on the origin of the Gospel of John, the Eucharist and the primacy of the Roman Church. The second work, which we have in an Armenian translation, is more a positive presentation of the Christian faith rather than a polemic. Of his other works only scattered fragments exist; many, indeed, are known only through the mention made of them by later writers, not even fragments of the works themselves having come down to us.

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