Saints for Our Times: St. Irenaeus fought growing Gnosticism in 2nd century
By Mary Lou Gibson
Sometimes it’s the people we meet when we’re just beginning our work career or family life whose influence stays with us the longest. And so it was with St. Irenaeus, a second century priest, who studied Holy Scripture under the guidance of St. Polycarp, a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. Years later, Irenaeus wrote that he remembered the very spot where Polycarp sat when he “recounted the conversation with John and with another who had seen the Lord.”
Irenaeus was born in about 130. His parents were Christians and were living in Smyrna, Asia Minor (known today as Izmir, Turkey).
After Irenaeus finished his priestly formation at Rome, he was ordained and sent as a missionary to the church of Lyons in Gaul (France). Lyons was called Lugdonum in the second century and was a flourishing trade center and most populous city in east central France. Editor Michael Walsh writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that priests and missionaries came with the traders and brought the Gospel to the pagan Gauls. Irenaeus served the church in Lyons under its first bishop, Pothinus.
In 177 or 178, Irenaeus was sent to Rome by his bishop to deliver a letter to Pope St. Eleutherius urging leniency toward a heretical sect of Christians in Phrygia (in Asia Minor) for the sake of peace and unity. While Irenaeus was in Rome, the church in Lyons suffered vicious persecution under Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Upon his return to Lyons, Irenaeus found that his bishop, Pothinus, was among the martyrs.
He was elected to succeed the bishop and spent the next 20 years preaching and traveling rebuilding the church in the Rhône valley and evangelizing adjoining areas.
Irenaeus found his greatest challenge to the church came not from the Roman persecutions, but from the rapid spread of Gnosticism, the first major Christian heresy. He became a fierce opponent of this heresy, which denied the goodness of the flesh and held that revelation or saving knowledge was available only to an elite few. Bernard Bangley writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that Irenaeus produced the concept of apostolic succession to oppose the Gnostics. He traced true Christian doctrine back to the original apostles. He argued that there is nothing inherently evil about God’s creation. Human sin is the source of its corruption, he wrote, not as the Gnostics claimed, evil in itself.
Irenaeus produced a treatise in five books, “Adversus Haereses” (“Against the Heretics”) that set forth fully the inner doctrines of the various sects and contrasted them with the teaching of the apostles and text of the Holy Scripture. He underscored the links between the God of creation and the God of salvation. Irenaeus was convinced that a great part of the attractiveness of Gnosticism lay in the veil of secrecy with which it surrounded itself according to Bangley.
He wrote his books in Greek and they were translated into Latin and widely circulated. After his books were published, Gnosticism lost its appeal. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that although Irenaeus’ treatises destroyed Gnosticism as a serious threat to Christianity, it has resurfaced in various guises in later centuries.
In 190, Irenaeus again acted as peacemaker when he urged Pope Victor I to take a more moderate stance toward the Quartodecimans of Asia Minor who observed Easter on a different day than Rome. They followed their own traditions and celebrated Easter on the day of the Jewish Passover instead of on the following Sunday with all other Christians. According to editor Michael Walsh writing in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints,” there was a real danger of schism before Irenaeus intervened on behalf of the Christians in Asia Minor. Good relations were restored and after the Council of Nicaea in 325, the Quartodecimans voluntarily conformed to the Roman usage.
Rosemary Guiley writes in the “Encyclopedia of Saints” that Irenaeus was the first great Christian theologian. Many other biographers agree and say he was the first systematic theologian in the church. Biographer Richard McBrien writes in “Lives of the Saints” that his work was not fully appreciated until early in the 20th century when one of his principal works, “The Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching” was discovered in 1904.
Another of his writings is the “Account of Apostolic Doctrine,” a simple and direct presentation of Christian beliefs. Even though Irenaeus wrote passionately and vigorously defended his beliefs against the heretics, he continued to treat them charitably. Omer Englebert writes in “Lives of the Saints” that to those against whom he fought, he wrote: “We hold out our hand to you with all our hearts and will never cease to offer it to you.”
Irenaeus died in 200 and is usually venerated as a martyr but there is no reliable evidence for this belief. His feast on June 28 is on the General Roman calendar; the Russian Orthodox Church commemorates his feast on Aug. 23.