Series Intro: Jesus said that He will build His church, but does anyone care as to “how” He has done so? In an effort to help myself and online readers better understand the “Early Church,” I will be sharing brief research done in coordination with my graduate school work (as well as personal enrichment) on 10 important men and women in Christian history: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. Join me in traveling back in time almost two millennia to encounter some of the most intriguing people you will ever meet, Christians who have left an indelible mark on church history.
– Irenaeus –
If you have been following this series in order, it may be helpful to retrace a few steps back to Polycarp. As you may remember, Polycarp was mostly likely the protégé to the Apostle John in Smyrna (which, to give some geographical perspective, is in the East – as distinct from the Christians we’ve studied in the West in the last few posts such as Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, and Tertullian). It was in that very city of Smyrna that sometime in the early-mid 2nd century that a man named Irenaeus was born.
Unlike some of our observed Christians who grew up with pagan parents, Irenaeus was raised up in a home where both parents were Christians. While he was from the East, he is actually sometimes referred to as “Irenaeus of Lyons.” Lyons is in the West, modern-day France, which became Irenaeus’s new home and place of ministry. He was a presbyter (elder) at Lyons and it is sometimes assumed that Irenaeus was martyred around A.D. 200, though he may have died of natural causes. “However,” Tixeront notes, “the silence of ancient authors may be explained by the small notice which would be taken of the violent death of Irenaeus if he had been put to death under Septimus Severus in the general massacre of the Christians of Lyons.”
Really, there isn’t a lot known about the life of Irenaeus. In fact, Jonathan Hill notes, “[He] appears to have made virtually no impact on his contemporaries and immediate successors” (History of Christian Thought, pg. 26). Why, then, would Irenaeus be included as an important church father? Well, his close connection to Polycarp (who, in turn, knew the Apostle John) is an interesting historical observation. But I think what really makes Irenaeus important is his well-known publication of Against Heresies. The full title of Against Heresies is On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis.
The subject of Against Heresies is, as the full-length title suggests, about the errors of Gnosticism. A rather interesting quote on the nature of error comes from Book 1, “Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.” Evidently, Irenaeus was very passionate to know and teach truth. One of the strongest dangers to Christianity at this time was indeed Gnosticism. Thus, his work was timely, though, as already by Hill, he certainly wasn’t a “celebrity pastor.” Still, that we have the Latin translations (originally written in Greek) preserved for the Church has been a treasure for many centuries.
As Tixeront states, “The first book is devoted to the detection (elegcoV) or exposure of the errors of the different Gnostic sects. The Bishop of Lyons seems to have in view particularly the system of Ptolemaeus. He then passes to the other forms of Valentinianism, and from Valentinianism to the other forms of the Gnosis.” He continues from Book 1 to Book 5 in attempting to argue against Gnosticism and uphold Christianity. Specifically, and rather significant I believe, he argues in Book 3 that Christianity is founded on the doctrines of the Apostles — which have been public all along — and are manifested in the continuously public teachings of the bishops among the orthodox Christians (non-Gnostic). This flies in the face of Gnosticism, since Gnosticism believes in a private, secret “knowledge” (from the Greek word gnosis) for salvation. This has monumental significance for contemporary application. If someone were to attend your local church, could you appeal to the doctrines of the Apostles? Could you say, “What we do is based upon the Apostles, which are preserved in the Scriptures”? Or is your defense like the Gnostics, appealing to something extra-biblical?
Perhaps you’re reading this and have lived a life like Irenaeus. You didn’t have the dramatic conversion experience like St. Augustine (to use an anachronistic illustration), but were taught the Scriptures from Christian parents and were born again at a young age; perhaps you can’t even remember your conversion experience that well. You serve faithfully in your church, but don’t get a lot of attention. Your defenses of the Christian faith in your writings, although intensely articulated, have gotten into the hands of like 15 people (note: we don’t really know how long it took for Irenaeus’s works to circulate). I believe that 1 Corinthians 15:58 speaks rather applicably to your situation: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” You may wind up in the history books despite living a “normal” Christian life, like Irenaeus. But then again, you might not. And that’s perfectly okay, because your labors as a Christian are not in vain.
Church History Tip: Irenaeus was especially influential to the Eastern Orthodox Church (Greek Orthodox). He came from the East (Smyrna) before traveling to Lyons, with many doctrinal matters from his writings being repeated or further developed from Christians in the East. Jonathan Hill notes (HoCT, pg. 30), “Irenaeus anticipates the views of Gregory of Nyssa,” in relation to what seems to be an early idea of “theosis.” Thus, Irenaeus was a forerunner of some Eastern Orthodox theology. However, remember that Irenaeus also ministered in the West, and confronted a very significant problem in the West in Against Heresies, namely, Gnosticism. What we have in the person of Irenaeus is someone who would be very important for both the East and the West – you might say there was “peace” between the two regions at this time (theologically). Interestingly, the name “Irenaeus” comes from the Greek word that means “peaceful.” So, as you progress in your studies of church history, remember that Irenaeus was both Eastern and Western.