The First Centuries – Part 5 // Irenæus
The historical record is pretty clear that the Apostle John spent his last years in Western Asia Minor, with the City of Ephesus acting as his headquarters. It seems that during his time there, he poured himself into a cadre of capable men who went on to provide outstanding leadership for the church in the midst of difficult trials. Men like Polycarp of Smyrna, Papias & Apolinarius of Hierapolis, & Melito of Sardis. These and others were mentioned by Polycrates, the bishop of Ephesus in a letter to Victor, a bishop at Rome in about AD 190.
These students of John are considered to be the last of what’s called The Apostolic Age. The greatest of them was Irenæus. Though he wasn’t a direct student of the Apostle, he was influenced by Polycarp, & is considered by many as one of the premier and first Church Fathers.
Not much is known of Irenæus’ origins. From what we can piece together from his writings, he was most likely born and raised in Smyrna around AD 120. He was instructed by Smyrna’s lead pastor, Polycarp, a student of John. He says he was also directly influenced by other pupils of the Apostles, though he doesn’t name them. Polycarp had the biggest impact on him, as evidenced by his comment, “What I heard from him, I didn’t write on parchment, but on my heart. By God’s grace, I bring it constantly to mind.” It’s possible Irenæus accompanied Polycarp when he traveled to Rome and engaged Bishop Anicetus in the Easter controversy we talked about last episode.
At some point while still a young man, Irenæus went to Southern Gaul as a missionary. He settled at Lugdunum where he became an elder in the church there. Lugdunum eventually became the town of Lyon, France. In 177, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the church in Lugdunum was hammered by fierce persecution. But Irenæus had been sent on a mission to Rome to deal with the Montanist controversy. While away, the church’s elderly pastor Pothinus, was martyred. By the time he returned in 178 the persecution had spent itself and he was appointed as the new pastor.
Irenæus worked tirelessly to mend the holes persecution had punched in the church in Southern Gaul. In both teaching and writing, he provided resources other church leaders could use in faithfully discharging their pastoral duties, as well as refuting the various and sundry errors challenging the new Faith. During his term as the pastor of the church at Lyon, he was able to see a majority of the population of the City converted to Christ. Dozens of missionaries were sent out to plant churches across Gaul.
Then, about 190, Irenæus simply disappears with no clear account of his death. A 5th C tradition says he died a martyr in 202 in the persecution under Septimus Severus. The problem with that is that several church fathers like Eusebius, Hippolytus, & Tertullian uncharacteristically fail to mention Irenæus’ martyrdom. Because martyrs achieved hero status, if Irenæus had been martyred, the Church would have marked it. SO most likely, he died of natural causes. However he died, he was buried under the altar St. John’s in Lyons.
Irenæus’ influence far surpassed the importance of his location. The bishopric of Lyon was not considered an important seat. But Irenæus’ impact on the Faith was outsized to his position. His keen intellect united a Greek education with astute philosophical analysis, and a sharp understanding of the Scriptures to produce a remarkable defense of The Gospel. That was badly needed at the time due to the inroads being forged by a new threat – Gnosticism, which we spent time describing in Season 1.
Irenæus’ articulation of the Faith brought about a unanimity that united the East & Western branches of the Church that had been diverging. They’d end up reverting to that divergence later, but Irenæus managed to bring about a temporary peace through his clear defense of the faith against the Gnostics.
Irenæus admits he had a difficult time mastering the Celtic dialect spoken by the people where he served but his capacity in Greek, in which he composed his writings, was both elegant & eloquent without running to the merely flowery. His content shows he was familiar with the classics by authors like Homer, Hesiod, & Sophocles as well as philosophers like Pythagoras & Plato.
He shows a like familiarity with earlier Christian writers such as Clement, Justin Martyr, & Tatian. But Irenæus is really only 1 generation away from Jesus and the original Apostles due to a couple long life-times; that of John, and then his pupil, Polycarp. We find their influence in Irenæus’ remark impugning the appeal of Gnosticism, “The true way to God, is through love. Better to know nothing but the crucified Christ, than fall into the impiety of overly curious inquires & silly nuances.” Reading Irenæus’ work on the core doctrines of the Faith reveal his wholehearted embrace of Pauline theology of the NT. Where Irenæus goes beyond John & Paul was in his handling of ecclesiology; that is, matters of the Church. Irenæus wrote on things like the proper handling of the sacraments, and how authority in the church ought to be passed on. A close reading of the 2nd C church fathers reveals that this issue was of major concern to them. It makes sense it would. Jesus had commissioned the Apostles to carry on His mission and to lay the foundation of the Faith & Church. The Apostles had done that, but in the 2nd C, the men the Apostles had raised up were themselves aging out. Church leaders were burdened with the question of how to properly pass on the Faith once for all delivered to the saints, to those who came next. What was the plan?
We’ll come back to that later . . .
Irenæus was a staunch advocate of what we’ll call Biblical theology, as opposed to a theology derived from philosophical musing, propped up by random Bible verses. He’s the first of the church fathers to make liberal use of BOTH the Old & New Testaments in his writings. He uses all four Gospels and nearly all the letters of the NT in the development of his theology.
His goal in it all was to establish unity among believers. He was so zealous for it because of the rising popularity of Gnosticism, a new religious fascination attractive an increasing number of Christians.
Historians have come to understand that like many emergent faiths, Gnosticism was itself fractured into different flavors. The brand Irenæus dealt with was the one most popular in his region; Valentinian Gnosticism, or, Valentinianism.
While several writings are attributed to Irenæus, by far his most important and famous was Against Heresies, his refutation of Gnosticism. Written sometime btwn 177 & 190, it’s 5 volumes is considered by most to be the premier theological work of the ante-Nicene era. It’s also the main source of knowledge for historians on Gnosticism and Christian doctrine in the Apostolic Age. It was composed in response to a request by a friend wanting a brief on how to deal with the errors of both Valentinus & Marcion. Both had taught in Rome 30 yrs earlier. Their ideas then spread to France.
The 1st of the 5 volumes is a dissection of what Valentinianism taught, and more generally how it differed from other sects of Gnosticism. It shows that Irenæus had a remarkable grasp of a belief system he utterly & categorically rejected.
The 2nd book reviewed the internal inconsistencies and contradictions of Gnosticism.
The last 3 volumes give a systematic refutation of Gnosticism from Scripture & tradition which Irenæus makes clear at that time were one and the same. He shows that the Gospel which was at first only oral, was subsequently committed to writing, then was faithfully taught in churches through a succession of pastors & elders. So, Irenæus says, The Apostolic Faith & tradition is embodied in Scripture, and in the right interpretation of those scriptures by pastors (AKA as bishops). And the Church ought to have confidence in those pastors’ interpretations of God’s Word because they’ve attained their office through a demonstrated succession. Of course, the succession Irenæus referred to was manifestly evident by virtue of the fact he wrote in the last quarter of the 2nd C & was himself, as we’ve seen, just a generation removed from the Apostle John.
Irenæus set all this over against the contradictory opinions of heretics who fundamentally deviated from this well-established Faith & simply could not be included in the catholic, that is universally agreed on, faith carved out by Scripture and its orthodox interpretation by a properly sanctioned teaching office.
The 5th and final volume of Against Heresies includes Irenæus’ exposition of pre-millennial eschatology; that is, the study of Last things, or in modern parlance – the End Times. No doubt he does so because it stood in stark contrast with the muddled teaching of the Gnostics on this subject. It might be noted that Irenæus’ pre-millennialism wasn’t unique. He stood squarely with the other writers of the Apostolic & post-apostolic age.
Irenæus’ view of the inspiration of Scripture is early anticipation of what came to be called Verbal plenary inspiration. That is, both the writings and authors of Scripture were inspired, so that what God wanted expressed was, without turning the writers into automatons. God expressed His will through the varying personalities of the original authors. He even accounts for the variations in Paul’s style across his epistles to his, at times, rapid-fire dictation & the agency of the Holy Spirit’s urging at different times and in different situations.
Irenæus’ emphasis on both Scripture and the apostolic tradition of its interpretation has been seen as a boon to the idea of establishing an official teaching magisterium in the Church. Added to that is his remarks that the church at Rome held a special place in providing leadership for the Church as a whole. He based this on Rome being the location of the martyrdom of both Peter & Paul. While Irenæus acknowledges they did not START the church there, he reasoned they most certainly were regarded as its leaders when they were there. And there was a tradition that Peter appointed the next bishop, one Linus, to lead the Church when he was executed. While it’s true Irenæus did indeed suggest Rome ought to take the lead, he said it was the CHURCH there that ought to do so; not its bishop. The point may seem minor, but it’s important to note that Irenaeus himself resisted positions taken by the Bishop at Rome. In our last episode, we noted his chronicle of Polycarp’s & Anicetus’ disagreement over when to celebrated Easter. Anicetus’ successor was Bishop Victor, who took a hardline approach with the Quartodecamins and wanted to forcefully punish them. While as the bishop of the church in Lyon, Irenaeus was ready to follow the policy of the Church at Rome, he objected to Victor’s heavy-handedness and reminded him of his predecessor’s more fair-minded policy.
So while Irenaeus does indeed urge a role of first-place for the Church at Rome, we can’t go so far as to say he establishes the principle of the primacy of the bishop of Rome. He’s not an apologist for papal primacy.
Nor does he advocate apostolic succession as it’s come to be defined today. What Irenaeus does say is that the Scriptures have to be interpreted rightly; meaning, they have to align with that which the Apostles consistently taught, and that the people who were to be trusted to that end were those linked back to the Apostles because they’d HEARD them explain themselves.
He argued this because the Gnostics claimed a secret oral tradition given them from Jesus himself. Irenaeus maintained that the pastors & elders of the Church were well-known and linked to the Apostles and had always maintained the same message that wasn’t secret at all. Therefore, it was those pastors who provided the only safe interpretation of Scripture.
For Irenaeus, apostolic authority was only valid so long as it actually squared with apostolic teaching, which itself was codified in the Gospels and epistles of the NT – along with what the direct students of the Apostles said they’d taught. Irenæus didn’t concoct a formula for the passing of apostolic authority from one generation to the next in perpetuity.
Irenaeus became a treasured authority for men like Hippolytus and Tertullian who drew freely from him. He also became a major source for establishing the canon of the NT. He regarded the entire OT as God’s Word as well as most of the books our NT while excluding a large number of Gnostic pretenders. There’s some evidence that before Irenaeus, believers lined up under different Gospels as their preferred accounts of the Life of Jesus. The Churches of Asia Minor preferred the Gospel of John while Matthew was the most popular overall. Irenaeus made a convincing case that all 4 Gospels were God’s Word. That made him the earliest witness to the canonicity of M,M,L & J. This stood over against the accepted writings of a heretic named Marcion who only accepted portions of Luke’s Gospel.
Irenaeus cited passages of the NT about a thousand times, from 21 of the 27 books, including Revelation. Inferences to the other books can be found as well.
Irenaeus provides a perfect bridge from the Apostles to the next phase of Church History presided over by the Fathers, of which he’s considered among the first.