Saint Irenaeus (Greek: Ειρηναίος), (2nd century AD - c. 202) was Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, Roman Empire (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 Saint Polycarp, who was said to be a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist.
St Irenaeus's best-known book, Adversus Haereses or 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 the Gnostic Valentinus. As the first great Catholic theologian, he emphasized the traditional elements in the Church, especially the episcopate, Scripture, and tradition. Irenaeus wrote that the only way for Christians to retain unity was to humbly accept one doctrinal authority--episcopal councils. 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 celebrated on June 28. In the 1962 calendar, his feast day is on July 3rd. This is only the case in this calendar. In earlier calendars, his feast day was the same as today (June 28th). The 1962 movement of the day was to accommodate a Vigil Mass of the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul.
During the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161-180, Irenaeus was a presbyter 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 in Lyons, which was later renamed St Irenaeus in his honour. The tomb and his remains were utterly destroyed in 1562 by the Huguenots. His feast is celebrated on June 28 in the Roman Catholic Church, and on August 23 in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
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. However, at least one scholar, R. Stark, claims that it is the same Nag Hammadi library that proves Ireneaus right.
It seemed that Ireneaus critics against the gnostics were exaggerated, which led to his dismissal for a long time. For example, he wrote: "They declare that judas the traidor was throughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no other did, accomplished the mystery of betrayal; by him all things were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas. These claims turned out be truly mentioned in the Gospel of Judas where Jesus asked Judas to betray him. Regarding Ireneaus' innacuracies about the sexual liberties amongst the gnostics, the gnostics were not a single group, but a wide array of sects. Some groups were indeed libertine. Some other of them praised chatity more strongly than standard christianity, to the point of excess by banning marriage and all sexual activity.
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.
Irenaeus' works were first published in English in 1885 in the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection.
Before Irenaeus, Christians differed as to which gospel they preferred. The Christians of Asia Minor 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 Marcion asserted was the one and only true gospel.
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."
St 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).
Scholars contend that Irenaeus quotes from 21 of the 27 New Testament Texts:
Matthew (Book 3, Chapter 16)
Mark (Book 3, Chapter 10)
Luke (Book 3, Chapter 14)
John (Book 3, Chapter 11)
Acts of the Apostles (Book 3, Chapter 14)
Romans (Book 3, Chapter 16)
1 Corinthians (Book 1, Chapter 3)
2 Corinthians (Book 3, Chapter 7)
Galatians (Book 3, Chapter 22)
Ephesians (Book 5, Chapter 2)
Philippians (Book 4, Chapter 18)
Colossians (Book 1, Chapter 3)
1 Thessalonians (Book 5, Chapter 6)
2 Thessalonians (Book 5, Chapter 25)
1 Timothy (Book 1, Preface)
2 Timothy (Book 3, Chapter 14)
Titus (Book 3, Chapter 3)
1 Peter (Book 4, Chapter 9)
1 John(Book 3, Chapter 16)
2 John (Book 1, Chapter 16)
Revelation to John (Book 4, Chapter 20)
He may refer to Hebrews (Book 2, Chapter 30) and James (Book 4, Chapter 16) and maybe even 2 Peter (Book 5, Chapter 28) but does not cite Philemon, 3 John or Jude.
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.
His emphasis on the unity of God is reflected in his corresponding emphasis on the unity of salvation history. Irenaeus repeatedly insists that God began the world and has been overseeing it ever since this creative act; everything that has happened is part of his plan for humanity. The essence of this plan is a process of maturation: Irenaeus believes that humanity was created immature, and God intended his creatures to take a long time to grow into or assume the divine likeness. Thus, Adam and Eve were created as children. Their Fall was thus not a full-blown rebellion but rather a childish spat, a desire to grow up before their time and have everything with immediacy.
Everything that has happened since has therefore been planned by God to help humanity overcome this initial mishap and achieve spiritual maturity. The world has been intentionally designed by God as a difficult place, where human beings are forced to make moral decisions, as only in this way can they mature as moral agents. Irenaeus likens death to the big fish that swallowed Jonah: it was only in the depths of the whale's belly that Jonah could turn to God and act according to the divine will. Similarly, death and suffering appear as evils, but without them we could never come to know God.
According to Irenaeus, the high point in salvation history is the advent of Jesus. Irenaeus believed that Christ would always have been sent, even if humanity had never sinned; but the fact that they did sin determines his role as a savior. He sees Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did: thus, where Adam was disobedient concerning God's edict concerning the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of a tree. Irenaeus is the first to draw comparisons between Eve and Mary, contrasting the faithlessness of the former with the faithfulness of the latter. In addition to reversing the wrongs done by Adam, Irenaeus thinks of Christ as "recapitulating" or "summing up" human life. 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.
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 woman, is now saved by a woman.
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.
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
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.
Irenaeus’ 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.