You Should Know Irenaeus

You Should Know Irenaeus

Irenaeus is thus a key architect of Christian thought. As such it is unsurprising that his influence spread so rapidly and so far (a fragment of Against Heresies, dating from when Irenaeus was still alive, has been found at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, at the other side of the known world from where he wrote the work). We actually have no idea when or how Irenaeus died, though later tradition has it that he was martyred on June 28, 202.

Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus once wrote,

Thou wilt not expect from me, who am resident among the Keltae, and am accustomed for the most part to use a barbarous dialect, any display of rhetoric, which I have never learned, or any excellence of composition, which I have never practiced, or any beauty and persuasiveness of style, to which I make no pretensions.1

As a result, Irenaeus has become a somewhat forgotten theologian, quickly dismissed as blundering and confused. Certainly, he is difficult to access, and hard-going theologians tend to incite the wrath of the critics. However, Emil Brunner’s reassessment of Irenaeus has become increasingly standard:

In spite of the fact that in the formal sense Irenaeus was not a systematic theologian, yet—like Luther—he was a systematic theologian of the first rank, indeed, the greatest systematic theologian: to perceive connections between truths, and to know which belongs to which. No other thinker was able to weld ideas together which others allowed to slip as he was able to do, not even Augustine or Athanasius.2

Who, then, was Irenaeus?

Irenaeus was born somewhere around AD 130 and grew up in Smyrna in Asia Minor, where the then bishop, Polycarp, became his mentor and passed on his memories of the apostle John and others who had seen the Lord. It was to be extremely important to Irenaeus that he had such a direct link back to the apostles. It is possible that he went with Polycarp to Rome—at any rate, both visited Rome. There Irenaeus seems to have learned from men such as Justin (he clearly borrowed much from him), as well as seeing how endemic the problem of heresy was there. He then traveled to Gaul and settled where a church had been founded quite recently in the capital city of Lugdunum (Lyons).

Then in 177 he was sent back as the church’s delegate to Eleutherus, then bishop of Rome, perhaps to discuss the problem of false teaching in Gaul. At any rate, while he was away, a ferociously violent wave of persecution swept through Lyons; many of Irenaeus’s friends and fellow-believers were horrifically tortured and killed, including the old bishop, Pothinus.

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