On June 28, the Memorial of Saint Irenaeus, Bishop and Martyr, is celebrated in the Church. Irenaeus is an important figure in the development of Christian theology. He was an early church father who was instrumental in defining church doctrines during a time when other religious movements—such as Gnosticism, Montanism, and Marcionism—sought to pull the church apart. His best-known work, Against Heresies, was a direct attack on Gnosticism, particularly the school of Valentinus.
Irenaeus was born in Smyrna circa AD 130. While a young man, he became a pupil of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna. He would in later years be appointed the second Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (present-day, Lyons, France), succeeding the martyred Pothinus. While little is known about Irenaeus after he became Bishop, we do know that it was his relationship with Polycarp that helped him develop the foundational teachings of apostolic tradition that supported his fight against heresies, as well as his defense of papal primacy, canonical scripture, and the role of the Virgin Mary in the Church.
Polycarp and Pothinus
We remember Polycarp (AD 69–c.155) for his relationship with the apostle John, his role in what would be known as the Quartodeciman Controversy, and the extraordinary events surrounding his death. (See February 23 blog post). His only surviving epistle, Letter to the Philippians, emphasizes his closeness to John regarding Church traditions, and it was those teachings that were handed down to his student, Irenaeus.
Irenaeus was teaching in Rome when Polycarp fell victim to anti-Christian sentiments that swept through Smyrna during a Roman celebration. Philip the Asiarch ordered Polycarp to be burned at the stake. However, once lit, the fire arched over and above Polycarp, never touching him. An executioner finally stabbed Polycarp with a dagger, killing him instantly.
One of the few sources for the life of Polycarp was Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, which contains passages that speak of the martyred Bishop. The work was produced around AD 180, three years after the massacre in Lugdunum, where Irenaeus had been a priest. In 177, renewed hatred for the Christian community, ignited by the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, led to the tortures and deaths of Pothinus, Bishop of Lugdunum, the woman Blandina, and many other members of the clergy. Before his death, Pothinus sent Irenaeus to Rome with a letter of introduction to the new Pope, Eleutherius, as well as letters for the clergy in Phrygia, where Montanism was growing. Irenaeus was in Rome when the massacre at Lugdunum occurred. Upon his return to Gaul he was named the Bishop of Lugdunum.
Due to the other religious movements of the time that deviated from what he believed to be the true apostolic tradition passed on to him from John the Evangelist through Polycarp, Irenaeus wrote the first great defense of orthodoxy. Believing that the early church needed an authoritative voice in matters of doctrine, he identified prevalent errors in the other belief systems, especially Gnosticism, and then pointed to the Bishop of Rome as the ultimate source of authority on doctrinal and theological issues. The pope, he asserted, was the only way Christians could obtain the answers they needed on the road to salvation. His most famous passage spoke to this ultimate Christian authority:
By pointing out the apostolic tradition and creed which has been brought down to us by a succession of bishops in the greatest, most ancient and well-known church, founded by the two most glorious Apostles Peter and Paul at Rome, we can confute all those who in any other way, either for self-pleasing or for vainglory or blindness or badness, hold unauthorized meetings. For with this church [at Rome], because of its stronger origin, all churches must agree, that is to say, the faithful of all places, because in it the Apostolic tradition has always been preserved.
Irenaeus then listed the line of popes, from the apostle Peter to the then reigning pope, Eleutherius, to support his argument. Thus, as the ultimate authority was the pope, supreme authority in the Church rested in Rome.
One of Irenaeus’ major arguments with the Gnostics was regarding scripture. Irenaeus believed that he had a direct connection to Jesus—from John the Evangelist through Polycarp— whereas Gnosticism did not. Hence, he could trace his authority in scriptural interpretation of the Old Testament and the texts that would become the New Testament.
In Irenaeus’ time, no New Testament existed. The four gospels were in use, but they were used singularly and not as canonical scripture. While the Gospel of Matthew was the most widely used, other Christians referred to the Gospel of John. A version of the Gospel of Luke, edited by Marcion of Sinope, the leader of the Marcionite movement, was used in Asia Minor.
It was Irenaeus who asserted that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, collectively, be the foundation of canonical scripture. In Against Heresies, he wrote:
But it is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church has been scattered throughout the world, and since the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life, it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing incorruption on every side, and vivifying human afresh. From this fact, it is evident that the Logos, the fashioner demiourgos of all, he that sits on the cherubim and holds all things together, when he was manifested to humanity, gave us the gospel under four forms but bound together by one spirit.
In his works, Irenaeus quoted 21 of 27 of the books that would eventually comprise the New Testament. In all, he cited the New Testament texts over 1,000 times, one-third of those referencing Paul’s letters.
Mary, the New Eve
In Against Heresies, Irenaeus emphasized the importance of Christ’s reversal of Adam’s action—that is, through his obedience, Christ undid Adam’s disobedience and saved humanity. In similar fashion, he presented a parallel between Eve and Mary, the mother of Jesus, which offers an account of Mary’s role in the economy of salvation.
Irenaeus presented Mary as the New Eve: It was her obedience during the Annunciation that countered Eve’s disobedience. He wrote:
“Even though Eve had Adam for a husband, she was still a virgin… By disobeying, Eve became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race. In the same way Mary, though she had a husband, was still a virgin, and by obeying, she became the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race.”
Irenaeus was one of the first church fathers to develop the theological nature of Mary, connecting teachings about Jesus with traditions of the Church. His presentation of her helped to counter arguments by other religious movements, with, once again, the Gnostics at the forefront of conflict.
It is believed that Irenaeus died in Lugdunum around AD 200 and was buried in the Church of Saint John, which was later renamed in his honor. In March 1562, his tomb and remains were destroyed by the Huguenots.