Saint Irenaeus (Greek: Ειρηναίος), (b. 2nd century; d. c 200) was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, now Lyons, France. He was an early church father and apologist, and his writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology. He was a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna, who was said to be a disciple of John the Evangelist.
Irenaeus's best-known book, Against Heresies, (c 180) is a detailed attack on Gnosticism, which was then a serious threat to the Church, and especially on the system of Valentinus. Against the Gnostics, who said that they possessed a secret oral tradition from Jesus himself, Irenaeus maintained that the bishops in different cities are known as far back as the Apostles — and none of them was a Gnostic — and that the bishops provided the only safe guide to the interpretation of Scripture. His writings, with those of Clement and Ignatius, are taken to hint at papal primacy. Irenaeus is the earliest witness to recognition of the canonical character of all four gospels.
Irenaeus is recognized as a saint by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. His feast day is 28 June.
BiographyBorn in the first half of the 2nd century (the exact date is disputed: between the years 115 and 125 according to some, or 130 and 142 according to others), Irenaeus is thought to have been a Greek from Polycarp's hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, now İzmir, Turkey. Unlike many of his contemporary Christians, he was raised in a Christian family rather than converting as an adult.
During the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161-180, Irenaeus was a priest of the Church of Lyon. The clergy of that city, many of whom were suffering imprisonment for the faith, sent him (in 177 or 178) to Rome with a letter to Pope Eleuterus concerning the heresy Montanism, and that occasion bore emphatic testimony to his merits. Returning to Gaul, Irenaeus succeeded the martyr Saint Pothinus and became the second Bishop of Lyon.
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 (as to which we have but brief data, late and not very certain). Almost all his writings were directed against Gnosticism. The most famous of these writings is Adversus haereses (Against Heresies). In 190 or 191, he interceded with Pope St. Victor I to lift the sentence of excommunication laid by that pontiff upon the Christian communities of Asia Minor which persevered in the practice of the Quartodeciman celebration of Easter.
Nothing is known of the date of his death, which must have occurred at the end of the second or the beginning of the third century. In spite of some isolated and later testimony to that effect, it is not very probable that he ended his career with martyrdom. He was buried under the church of Saint John's in Lyons, which was later renamed St. Irenaeus in his honour; the tomb and his remains were destroyed utterly in 1562 by the Calvinist Huguenots. His feast is celebrated on 28 June in the Latin Church, and on 23 August in the Greek.
WritingsIrenaeus 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 by the Latin title Adversus Haereses ("Against Heresies"). In Book I, Irenaeus talks about the Valentinian Gnostics and their predecessors, who go as far back as the magician Simon Magus. In Book II he attempts to provide proof that Valentinianism contains no merit in terms of its doctrines. In Book III Irenaeus purports to show that these doctrines are false, by providing counter-evidence gleaned from the Gospels. Book IV consists of Jesus' sayings, and here Irenaeus also stresses the unity of the Old Testament and the Gospel. In the final volume, Book V, Irenaeus focuses on more sayings of Jesus plus the letters of Paul the Apostle.
The purpose of Against Heresies was to refute the teachings of various Gnostic groups; apparently, several Greek merchants had begun an oratorial campaign praising the pursuit of "gnosis" in Irenaeus' bishopric. Until the discovery of the Library of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Against Heresies was the best-surviving description of Gnosticism. According to some biblical scholars, the findings at Nag Hammadi have shown Irenaeus' description of Gnosticism to be largely inaccurate and polemic in nature. Though correct in some details about the belief systems of various groups, Irenaeus's main purpose was to warn Christians against Gnosticism, rather than accurately describe those beliefs. He described Gnostic groups as sexual libertines, for example, when some of their own writings advocated chastity more strongly than did orthodox texts.
Irenaeus also wrote The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, an Armenian copy of which was discovered in 1907. This work seems to have been an instruction for recent Christian converts. Various fragments of other works by Irenaeus have been found, and many lost works by him are attested by other ancient writers. These include On the Subject of Knowledge, On the Monarchy, or How God is not the Cause of Evil, On the Ogdoad, an untitled letter to Blastus regarding schism, and others. All these works are attested by Eusebius.
ScriptureIrenaeus pointed to Scripture as a proof of orthodox Christianity against heresies, classifying as Scripture not only the Old Testament but most of the books now known as the New Testament, while excluding many works, included a large number by Gnostics, that flourished in the second century and claimed scriptural authority.
Before Irenaeus, Christians differed as to which gospel they preferred. Christians of Anatolia preferred the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Matthew was the most popular overall. Irenaeus asserted that all four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were canonical scripture. Thus Irenaeus provides our earliest witness to the assertion of the four canonical Gospels, possibly in reaction to Marcion's edited version of the Gospel of Luke, which he (Marcion) asserted was the one and only true gospel. The four canonical gospels are all different from each other, with significantly different theological interpretations of the meaning of Jesus' life and death according to some authors.
Based on the arguments Irenaeus made in support of only four authentic gospels, some interpreters deduce that the fourfold Gospel must have still been a novelty in Irenaeus's time. Against Heresies 3.11.7 acknowledges that many heterodox Christians use only one gospel while 3.11.9 acknowledges that some use more than four. The success of Tatian's Diatessaron in about the same time period is "...a powerful indication that the fourfold Gospel contemporaneously sponsored by Irenaeus was not broadly, let alone universally, recognized."
Irenaeus is also our earliest attestation that the Gospel of John was written by John the apostle, and that the Gospel of Luke was written by Luke, the companion of Paul. All four gospels themselves are anonymous.
The apologist and ascetic Tatian had previously harmonized the four gospels into a single narrative, the Diatesseron (c 150-160).
Apostolic authorityIn his writing against the Gnostics, who claimed to possess a secret oral tradition from Jesus himself, Irenaeus maintained that the bishops in different cities are known as far back as the Apostles — and none of them was a Gnostic — and that the bishops provided the only safe guide to the interpretation of Scripture. He emphasized the unique position of authority of the bishop of Rome, though in an obscure passage.
With the lists of bishops to which Irenaeus referred, the later doctrine of the apostolic succession of the bishops could be linked. This succession was important to establish a chain of custody for orthodoxy. Irenaeus' point when refuting the Gnostics was that all of the Apostolic churches had preserved the same traditions and teachings in many independent streams. It was the unanimous agreement between these many independent streams of transmission that proved the orthodox Faith, current in those churches, to be true. Had any error crept in, the agreement would be immediately destroyed. The Gnostics had no such succession, and no agreement amongst themselves.
Irenaeus' theology and Contrast with GnosticismThe 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 the Logos theology he inherited from Justin Martyr. Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, who was said to have been tutored by John the Apostle 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 (see above).
Irenaeus conceives of our salvation as essentially coming about through the incarnation of God as a 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 event is an integral part of the former.
By comparison, according to the Gnostic view of Salvation, creation was perfect to begin with; it did not need time to grow and mature. For the Valentinians, the material world is the result of the loss of perfection which resulted from Sophia's desire to understand the Forefather. Therefore, one is ultimately redeemed, through secret knowledge, to enter the pleroma of which the Achamoth originally fell.
According to the Valentinian Gnostics, there are three classes of human beings. They are the material, who cannot attain salvation; the psychic, who are strengthened by works and faith (they are part of the church); and the spiritual, who cannot decay or be harmed by material actions. Essentially, ordinary humans--those who have faith but do not possess the special knowledge--will not attain salvation. Spirituals, on the other hand--those who obtain this great gift--are the only class that will eventually attain salvation.
In his article entitled "The Demiurge," J.P. Arendzen sums up the Valentinian view of the salvation of man. He writes, "The first, or carnal men, will return to the grossness of matter and finally be consumed by fire; the second, or psychic men, together with the Demiurge as their master, will enter a middle state, neither heaven (pleroma) nor hell (whyle); the purely spiritual men will be completely freed from the influence of the Demiurge and together with the Saviour and Achamoth, his spouse, will enter the pleroma divested of body (húle) and soul (psuché)."
Irenaeus is also known as one of the first theologians to use the principle of apostolic succession to refute his opponents.
In his criticism of Gnosticism, Irenaeus made reference to a Gnostic gospel which portrayed Judas in a positive light, as having acted in accordance with Jesus's instructions. The recently discovered Gospel of Judas dates close to the period when Irenaeus lived (late 2nd century), and scholars typically regard this work as one of many Gnostic texts, showing one of many varieties of Gnostic beliefs of the period.http://your.sydneyanglicans.net/indepth/a_spectators_guide_to_the_gospel_of_judas_john_dickson/
Irenaeus mariologyIrenaeus of Lyons is perhaps the earliest of the Church Fathers to develop a thorough mariology. In his youth he had met Polycarp and other Christians who had been in direct contact with the Apostles. Irenaeus sets out a forthright account of Mary's role in the economy of salvation.
- Even though Eve had Adam for a husband, she was still a virgin... By disobeying, Eve became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race. In the same way Mary, though she had a husband, was still a virgin, and by obeying, she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.
According to Irenaeus, Christ, being born out of the Virgin Mary, created a totally new historical situation. This view influences later Ambrose of Milan and Tertullian, who wrote about the virgin birth of the Mother of God. The donor of a new birth had to be born in a totally new way. The new birth being that what was lost through a women, is now saved by a women.
Prophetic ExegesisThe first four books of Against Heresies constitute a minute analysis and refutation of the Gnostic doctrines. The fifth is a statement of positive belief contrasting the constantly shifting and contradictory Gnostic opinions with the steadfast faith of the church. He appeals to the prophecies to demonstrate the truthfulness of Christianity.
Rome and Ten HornsIrenaeus shows the close relationship between the predicted events of Daniel 2 and 7. Rome, the fourth prophetic kingdom, would end in a tenfold partition. The ten divisions of the empire are the "ten horns" of Daniel 7 and the "ten horns" in Revelation 17. A "little horn," which is to supplant three of Rome's ten divisions, is also the still future "eighth" in Revelation. Irenaeus climaxes with the destruction of all kingdoms at the Second Advent, when Christ, the prophesied "stone," cut out of the mountain without hands, smites the image after Rome’s division.
AntichristIrenaeus identified the Antichrist, another name of the apostate Man of Sin, with Daniel's Little Horn and John's Beast of Revelation 13. He sought to apply other expressions to Antichrist, such as "the abomination of desolation," mentioned by Christ (Matt. 24:15) and the "king of a most fierce countenance," in Gabriel's explanation of the Little Horn of Daniel 8. But he is not very clear how "the sacrifice and the libation shall be taken away" during the "half-week," or three and one-half years of Antichrist's reign.
Under the notion that the Antichrist, as a single individual, might be of Jewish origin, he fancies that the mention of "Dan," in Jeremiah 8:16, and the omission of that name from those tribes listed in Revelation 7, might indicate Antichrist's tribe. This surmise became the foundation of a series of subsequent interpretations by others.
Time, Times and Half a TimeLike the other early church fathers, Irenaeus interpreted the three and one-half "times" of the Little Horn of Daniel 7 as three and one-half literal years. Antichrist's three and a half years of sitting in the temple are placed immediately before the Second Coming of Christ.
They are identified as the second half of the "one week" of Daniel 9. Irenaeus says nothing of the seventy weeks; we do not know whether he placed the “one week” at the end of the seventy or whether he had a gap
666Irenaeus is the first of the church fathers to consider the mystic number 666. While Irenaeus did propose some solutions of this numerical riddle, his interpretation was quite reserved. Thus, he cautiously states: "''But knowing the sure number declared by Scripture, that is six hundred sixty and six, let them await, in the first place, the division of the kingdom into ten; then, in the next place, when these kings are reigning, and beginning to set their affairs in order, and advance their kingdom, [let them learn] to acknowledge that he who shall come claiming the kingdom for himself, and shall terrify those men of whom we have been speaking, have a name containing the aforesaid number, is truly the abomination of desolation.''" Although Irenaeus did speculate upon three names to symbolize this mystical number, namely Euanthas, Teitan and Lateinos, nevertheless he was content to believe that the Antichrist would arise some time in the future after the fall of Rome and then the meaning of the number would be revealed
Millenniumsee also Millennialism Irenaeus declares that the Antichrist's future three-and-a-half-year reign, when he sits in the temple at Jerusalem, will be terminated by the second advent, with the resurrection of the just, the destruction for the wicked, and the millennial reign of the righteous. The general resurrection and the judgment follow the descent of the New Jerusalem at the end of the millennial kingdom.
Irenaeus calls those "heretics" who maintain that the saved are immediately glorified in the kingdom to come after death, before their resurrection. He avers that the millennial kingdom and the resurrection are actualities, not allegories, the first resurrection introducing this promised kingdom in which the risen saints are described as ruling over the renewed earth during the millennium, between the two resurrections.
Irenaeus held to the old Jewish tradition that the first six days of creation week were typical of the first six thousand years of human history, with Antichrist manifesting himself in the sixth period. And he expected the millennial kingdom to begin with the second coming of Christ to destroy the wicked and inaugurate, for the righteous, the reign of the kingdom of God during the seventh thousand years, the millennial Sabbath, as signified by the Sabbath of creation week.
In common with many of the fathers, Irenaeus did not distinguish between the new earth re-created in its eternal state--the thousand years of Revelation 20--when the saints are with Christ after His second advent, and the Jewish traditions of the Messianic kingdom. Hence, he applies Biblical and traditional ideas to his descriptions of this earth during the millennium, throughout the closing chapters of Book 5. This conception of the reign of resurrected and translated saints with Christ on this earth during the millennium-popularly known as chiliasm--was the increasingly prevailing belief of this time. Incipient distortions due to the admixture of current traditions, which figure in the extreme forms of chiliasm, caused a reaction against the earlier interpretations of Bible prophecies.
St. Irenaeus was not looking for a Jewish kingdom. He interpreted Israel as the Christian church, the spiritual seed of Abraham.
At times his expressions are highly fanciful. He tells, for instance, of a prodigious fertility of this earth during the millennium, after the resurrection of the righteous, "when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food." In this connection, he attributes to Christ the saying about the vine with ten thousand branches, and the ear of wheat with ten thousand grains, and so forth, which he quotes from Papias.
ExegesisIrenaeus’ exegesis does not give complete coverage. On the seals, for example, he merely alludes to Christ as the rider on the white horse. He stresses five factors with greater clarity and emphasis than Justin: 1) the literal resurrection of the righteous at the second advent, 2) the millennium bounded by the two resurrections, 3) the Antichrist to come upon the heels of Rome's breakup, 4) the symbolic prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse in their relation to the last times, and 5) the kingdom of God to be established by the second advent.
- Early Christian Writings Irenaeus
- Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Irenaeus
- Against Heresies
- Fragments from his lost works
- A nineteenth-century translation of Irenaeus' work
- Book II, ch. 22, where Irenaeus argues his unconventional views about the age of Jesus and the length of his ministry.
- Excerpts from Irenaeus
- EarlyChurch.org.uk Extensive bibliography.
- Gregory S. Neal: "The Nature of Evil and the Irenaean Theodicy" Grace Incarnate (1988)
- Irenaeus: Against heresies
- Critique of Irenaeus, Gnosticism scholar Elaine H. Pagels
- Critique of Pagel's article by Father Paul Mankowski
- Opera Omnia by Migne Patrologia Graeca with analytical indexes
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