June 28, 2011 16 Comments
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If theology is “thinking about faith” and arranging those thoughts in some systematic order, then Irenaeus has been rightly recognized by Catholics and Protestants alike as the ﬁrst great systematic theologian.
There is considerable doubt about the year of Irenaeus’ birth; estimates vary from 97 to 160. It is certain that he learned the Christian faith in Ephesus at the feet of the venerable Polycarp, who in turn had known John the Evangelist. Some years before 177, probably while Irenaeus was still in his teens, he carried the tradition of Christianity to Lyons in southern France.
His name means “the peaceable one”—and suitably so. The year 177 brought hardship to the mission in Gaul. Persecution broke out, and a mounting tide of heresy threatened to engulf the Church. Irenaeus, by now a presbyter, was sent to Rome to mediate the dispute regarding Montanism, which the Bishop of Rome, Eleutherus, seemed to embrace. While Irenaeus was on this mission, the aged Bishop of Lyons, Pothinus, died in prison during a local persecution. When Irenaeus returned to Lyons, he was elected bishop to succeed Pothinus.
Irenaeus’ enduring fame rests mainly on a large treatise, entitled The Refutation and Overthrow of Gnosis, Falsely So-Called, usually shortened to Against Heresies. In it, Irenaeus describes the major Gnostic systems, thoroughly, clearly, and often with biting humor. It is one of our chief sources of knowledge about Gnosticism. He also makes a case for Christianity which has become a classic, resting heavily on Scripture, and on the continuity between the teaching of the Apostles and the teaching of bishops, generation after generation, especially in the great see cities. Against the Gnostics, who despised the ﬂesh and exalted the spirit, he stressed two doctrines: that of the creation as good, and that of the resurrection of the body.
A late and uncertain tradition claims that he suffered martyrdom, about 202.
I Almighty God, who didst uphold thy servant Irenaeus with strength to maintain the truth against every blast of vain doctrine: Keep us, we beseech thee, steadfast in thy true religion, that in constancy and peace we may walk in the way that leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
II Almighty God, you upheld your servant Irenaeus with strength to maintain the truth against every blast of vain doctrine: Keep us, we pray, steadfast in your true religion, that in constancy and peace we may walk in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
2 Timothy 2:22b–26
Preface of the Epiphany
From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.