Irenaeus: Brief Look at an Early Father

About the Man

Irenaeus of Lyons is an ante-Nicene[1] Church Father whose impact upon Christian
orthodoxy is still being felt today. His contributions through writing, both in Against Heresies and Demonstrations of Apostolic Preaching, have helped define the basic tenets of the Christian faith and ward off heresy—a remarkable achievement to come from Gaul[2] in pre-creedal, 2nd century Christianity. For Irenaeus, Scripture clearly interpreted in the tradition of the Apostles brought about the unifying Christian doctrines of the Father, Son, and Spirit [3]. Irenaeus saw all these basic orthodox Christian beliefs as being built on the writings of the Apostles and Prophets, which Irenaeus called the “order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation” [4]. His emphasis upon biblical authority and exegesis as the standard for Christian doctrine have helped to anchor the Christian mind close to the Apostles, and subsequently, to the Logos[5] of God.

Irenaeus was born around the year 140AD in the area of Smyrna, and spent his early teen years sitting under the teaching of the Bishop in Smyrna, Polycarp[6]. The time spent under Polycarp was formational to Irenaeus, both in his understanding of orthodoxy and in his view of the Church itself. Irenaeus records in Against Heresies that Polycarp “was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna” and continues to say that Polycarp taught him “the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true” [7]. Irenaeus saw truth as that which the Apostle’s handed down upon Christ’s authority, and that to which the writings of the Prophets testified. Little else is known about the childhood and early years of Irenaeus’ life, yet from this recalling it is clear how influential those years were upon Irenaeus. It almost could be said that the church in Smyrna acted as an incubator for the rest of Irenaeus’ ministry and work.

After his time in Smyrna, Irenaeus, after studying in Rome, decided to become a missionary to Gaul in the city of Lyons, specifically to the Celts.[8] The reasons why Irenaeus chose Lyons has been lost to history, yet his passion for the spread of the gospel of Christ is what obviously marks this Father. There have been various speculations throughout Church history regarding the rest of Irenaeus’ life; Gregory of Tours speculated in the sixth century that Irenaeus had been martyred after he “converted practically the whole city to Christianity” [9]. There is no historical evidence to support either the martyrdom of Irenaeus or the mass conversion at Lyons, but such has the tradition been. Irenaeus did become the bishop of Lyons upon the martyrdom of Pontinus, the previous bishop, amidst intense Roman persecution [10]. Lyons would be the home of Irenaeus, as far as can be known, for the rest of his life.

Contemporary Perspective

There has always been a desire to understand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament within the Church, and many doctrinal differences among Protestants can be traced back to that very issue. Some argue that the Testaments should be seen in greater continuity with one another, and others would stress a greater discontinuity. These disagreements over the continuity of the Testaments generally arise within orthodox, Trinitarian circles. During the time of Irenaeus, however, he was concerned with showing that the “Scriptures are internally consistent” against the “myths of a demiurge’s creation and providence in the Old Testament” [11]. Irenaeus was arguing for the consistency of Scripture in order to defend the true character of God from heretics. The world Irenaeus lived in was one where persecution of Christians was rampant, both through force and falsehood. So while there is not a direct correspondence, the spirit of these issues is still alive and well in contemporary Christianity, especially as Old Testament and New Testament hermeneutics are discussed and refined. During these discussions, Irenaeus’ body of work serves to remind everyone of the importance of having a Christ-centered, gospel defending hermeneutical approach. Much can be learned from Irenaeus, both about the faith being sought and defended, and how the Scriptures themselves do that work. The Christian must never allow the Testaments of Scripture to be set off from one another, antithetical. Irenaeus taught just how it is the Church is built upon the Apostles and Prophets, with Christ Jesus “being the cornerstone” (cf. Ephesians 2:20).

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. This means that he lived before (ante) the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene are categories that Church historians generally refer to when discussing the ancient Church.
  2. Modern day France.
  3. See sections 5 and 100 in Demonstrations of Apostolic Preaching.
  4. Quote taken from section 5 in Demonstrations of Apostolic Preaching.
  5. “Logos” is the Greek term for “Word.” cf. John 1:1
  6. See page 2. Grant, Robert M. Irenaeus of Lyons. London: Routledge, 1997. Print
  7. Section 3.3.4.
  8. See page 4. Grant, Robert M. Irenaeus of Lyons. London: Routledge, 1997. Print
  9. See page 5. Grant, Robert M. Irenaeus of Lyons. London: Routledge, 1997. Print
  10. See page 18. Green, Bradley G. Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. Print.
  11. See page 33. Green, Bradley G. Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. Print.
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