We possess only scanty accounts of the personal history of Irenaeus. It has been generally supposed that he was a native of Smyrna, or some neighboring city, in Asia Minor. He himself tells us (3. 3, 4) that he was in early youth acquainted with Polycarp, the noted bishop or overseer of Smyrna. A sort of clue is thus furnished as to the date of his birth. The general date assigned to his birth is somewhere between A.D. 120 and A.D. 140.
It is certain that Irenaeus was bishop or overseer of Lyons, in France, during the latter quarter of the second century. The exact period or circumstances of his ordination cannot be determined. Eusebius states (Hist. Eccl.,5. 4) that he was, while yet a presbyter or elder, sent with a letter, from certain members of the Church of Lyons awaiting martyrdom, to Eleutherus, bishop of Rome; and that (5.5) he succeeded Pothinus as bishop or overseer of Lyons, probably about A.D. 177.
The primary work of Irenaeus, Against Heresies, is one of the most precious remains of early Christian antiquity. It is devoted, on the one hand, to an account and refutation of those multiform Gnostic heresies which prevailed in the latter half of the second century; and, on the other hand, to an exposition and defense of the orthodox faith.
In the prosecution of this plan, the author divides his work into five books. The first of these contains a minute description of the tenets of the various heretical sects, with occasional brief remarks in illustration of their absurdity, and in confirmation of the truth to which they were opposed. In his second book, Irenaeus proceeds to a more complete demolition of those heresies which he has already explained, and argues at great length against them.
The three remaining books set forth more directly the true doctrines of revelation, as being in utter antagonism to the views held by the Gnostic teachers. In the course of this argument, many passages of Scripture are quoted and commented on; many interesting statements are made, bearing on the rule of faith; and much important light is shed on the doctrines held, as well as the practices observed, by the Church of the second century.
Irenaeus had manifestly taken great pains to make himself acquainted with the various heretical systems which he describes. His mode of exposing and refuting these is generally very effective. It is plain that he possessed a good share of learning, and that he had a firm grasp of the doctrines of Scripture. Not unfrequently he indulges in a kind of sarcastic humor, while inveighing against the folly and impiety of the heretics.
The following article on Irenaeus was written by Philip Schaff, the nineteenth century church historian:
Almost simultaneously with the apology against false religions without arose the polemic literature against the heresies, or various forms of pseudo-Christianity, especially the Gnostic; and upon this was formed the dogmatic theology of the church. At the head of the old catholic controversialists stand Irenaeus and his disciple Hippolytus, both of Greek education, but both belonging, in their ecclesiastical relations and labors, to the West.
Asia Minor, the scene of the last labors of St. John, produced a luminous succession of divines and confessors who in the first three quarters of the second century reflected the light of the setting sun of the apostolic age, and may be called the pupils of St. John. Among them were Polycarp of Smyrna, Papias of Hierapolis, Apolinarius of Hierapolis, Melito of Sardis, and others less known but honorably mentioned in the letter of Polycrates of Ephesus to bishop Victor of Rome (A. D. 190).
The last and greatest representative of this school is Irenaeus, the first among the fathers properly so called, and one of the chief architects of the Catholic system of doctrine.
I. Life and Character
Little is known of Irenaeus except what we may infer from his writings. He sprang from Asia Minor, probably from Smyrna, where he spent his youth. He was born between a.d. 115 and 125. He enjoyed the instruction of the venerable Polycarp of Smyrna, the pupil of John, and of other "Elders," who were mediate or immediate disciples of the apostles. The spirit of his preceptor passed over to him. "What I heard from him" says he, "that wrote I not on paper, but in my heart, and by the grace of God I constantly bring it afresh to mind." Perhaps he also accompanied Polycarp on his journey to Rome in connexion with the Easter controversy . He went as a missionary to Southern Gaul which seems to have derived her Christianity from Asia Minor. During the persecution in Lugdunum and Vienne under Marcus Aurelius , he was a presbyter there and witnessed the horrible cruelties which the infuriated heathen populace practiced upon his brethren. 1394 The aged and venerable bishop, Pothinus, fell a victim, and the presbyter took the post of danger, but was spared for important work.
He was sent by the Gallican confessors to the Roman bishop Eleutherus (who ruled a.d. 177–190), as a mediator in the Montanistic disputes.
After the martyrdom of Pothinus he was elected bishop of Lyons , and labored there with zeal and success, by tongue and pen, for the restoration of the heavily visited church, for the spread of Christianity in Gaul, and for the defence and development of its doctrines. He thus combined a vast missionary and literary activity. If we are to trust the account of Gregory of Tours, he converted almost the whole population of Lyons and sent notable missionaries to other parts of pagan France.
After the year 190 we lose sight of Irenaeus. Jerome speaks of him as having flourished in the reign of Commodus, i.e., between 180 and 192. He is reported by later tradition (since the fourth or fifth century) to have died a martyr in the persecution under Septimus Severus, a.d. 202, but the silence of Tertullian, Hippolytus, Eusebius, and Epiphanius makes this point extremely doubtful. He was buried under the altar of the church of St. John in Lyons. This city became again famous in church history in the twelfth century as the birthplace of the Waldensian martyr church, the Pauperes de Lugduno.
II. His Character and Position
Irenaeus is the leading representative of catholic Christianity in the last quarter of the second century, the champion of orthodoxy against Gnostic heresy, and the mediator between the Eastern and Western churches. He united a learned Greek education and philosophical penetration with practical wisdom and moderation. He is neither very original nor brilliant, but eminently sound and judicious. His individuality is not strongly marked, but almost lost in his catholicity. He modestly disclaims elegance and eloquence, and says that he had to struggle in his daily administrations with the barbarous Celtic dialect of Southern Gaul; but he nevertheless handles the Greek with great skill on the most abstruse subjects. He is familiar with Greek poets (Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Sophocles) and philosophers (Thales, Pythagoras, Plato), whom he occasionally cites. He is perfectly at home in the Greek Bible and in the early Christian writers, as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Papias, Ignatius, Hermas, Justin M., and Tatian. His position gives him additional weight, for he is linked by two long lives, that of his teacher and grand-teacher, to the fountain head of Christianity. We plainly trace in him the influence of the spirit of Polycarp and John. "The true way to God," says he, in opposition to the false Gnosis, "is love. It is better to be willing to know nothing but Jesus Christ the crucified, than to fall into ungodliness through over-curious questions and paltry subtleties." We may trace in him also the strong influence of the anthropology and soteriology of Paul. But he makes more account than either John or Paul of the outward visible church, the episcopal succession, and the sacraments; and his whole conception of Christianity is predominantly legalistic. Herein we see the catholic churchliness which so strongly set in during the second century.
Irenaeus is an enemy of all error and schism, and, on the whole, the most orthodox of the ante-Nicene fathers. We must, however, except his eschatology. Here, with Papias and most of his contemporaries, be maintains the pre-millennarian views which were subsequently abandoned as Jewish dreams by the catholic church. While laboring hard for the spread and defense of the church on earth, he is still "gazing up into heaven," like the men of Galilee, anxiously waiting for the return of the Lord and the establishment of his kingdom. He is also strangely mistaken about the age of Jesus from a false inference of the question of the Jews, John 8:57.
Irenaeus is the first among patristic writers who makes full use of the New Testament. The Apostolic Fathers reëcho the oral traditions; the Apologists are content with quoting the Old Testament prophets and the Lord's own words in the Gospels as proof of divine revelation; but Irenaeus showed the unity of the Old and New Testaments in opposition to the Gnostic separation, and made use of the four Gospels and nearly all Epistles in opposition to the mutilated canon of Marcion.
With all his zeal for pure and sound doctrine, Irenaeus was liberal towards subordinate differences, and remonstrated with the bishop of Rome for his unapostolic efforts to force an outward uniformity in respect to the time and manner of celebrating Easter. We may almost call him a forerunner of Gallicanism in its protest against ultramontane despotism. "The apostles have ordained," says he in the third fragment, which appears to refer to that controversy, "that we make conscience with no one of food and drink, or of particular feasts, new moons, and sabbaths. Whence, then, controversies; whence schisms? We keep feasts but with the leaven of wickedness and deceit, rending asunder the church of God, and we observe the outward, to the neglect of the higher, faith and love." He showed the same moderation in the Montanistic troubles. He was true to his name Peaceful ( Gr. ) and to his spiritual ancestry.
III. His Writings
(1.) The most important work of Irenaeus is his Refutation of Gnosticism, in five books. It was composed during the pontificate of Eleutherus, that is between the years 177 and 190. It is at once the polemic theological masterpiece of the ante-Nicene age, and the richest mine of information respecting Gnosticism and the church doctrine of that age. It contains a complete system of Christian divinity, but enveloped in polemical smoke, which makes it very difficult and tedious reading. The work was written at the request of a friend who wished to be informed of the Valentinian heresy and to be furnished with arguments against it. Valentinus and Marcion had taught in Rome about a.d. 140, and their doctrines had spread to the south of France. The first book contains a minute exposition of the gorgeous speculations of Valentinus and a general view of the other Gnostic sects; the second an exposure of the unreasonableness and contradictions of these heresies; especially the notions of the Demiurge as distinct from the Creator, of the Aeons, the Pleroma and Kenoma, the emanations, the fall of Achamoth, the formation of the lower world of matter, the sufferings of the Sophia, the difference between the three classes of men, the Somatici, Psychici, and Pneumatici.
The last three books refute Gnosticism from the Holy Scripture and Christian tradition which teach the same thing; for the same gospel which was first orally preached and transmitted was subsequently committed to writing and faithfully preserved in all the apostolic churches through the regular succession of the bishops and elders; and this apostolic tradition insures at the same time the correct interpretation of Scripture against heretical perversion. To the ever-shifting and contradictory opinions of the heretics Irenaeus opposes the unchanging faith of the catholic church which is based on the Scriptures and tradition, and compacted together by the episcopal organization. It is the same argument which Bellarmin, Bossuet, and Möhler use against divided and distracted Protestantism, but Protestantism differs as much from old Gnosticism as the New Testament from the apocryphal Gospels, and as sound, sober, practical sense differs from mystical and transcendental nonsense. The fifth book dwells on the resurrection of the body and the millennial kingdom. Irenaeus derived his information from the writings of Valentinus and Marcion and their disciples, and from Justin Martyr's Syntagma. 1404
The interpretation of Scripture is generally sound and sober, and contrasts favorably with the fantastic distortions of the Gnostics. He had a glimpse of a theory of inspiration which does justice to the human factor. He attributes the irregularities of Paul's style to his rapidity of discourse and the impetus of the Spirit which is in him.
(2.) The Epistle to Florinus, of which Eusebius has preserved an interesting and important fragment, treated On the Unity of God, and the Origin of Evil. It was written probably after the work against heresies, and as late as 190. Florinus was an older friend and fellow-student of lrenaeus and for some time presbyter in the church of Rome, but was deposed on account of his apostasy to the Gnostic heresy. Irenaeus reminded him very touchingly of their common studies at the feet of the patriarchal Polycarp, when he held some position at the royal court (probably during Hadrian's sojourn at Smyrna), and tried to bring him back to the faith of his youth, but we do not know with what effect.
(3.) On the Ogdoad against the Valentinian system of Aeons, in which the number eight figures prominently with a mystic meaning. Eusebius says that it was written on account of Florinus, and that he found in it "a most delightful remark," as follows: "I adjure thee, whoever thou art, that transcribest this book, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by his gracious appearance, when he shall come to judge the quick and the dead, to compare what thou hast copied, and to correct it by this original manuscript, from which thou hast carefully transcribed. And that thou also copy this adjuration, and insert it in the copy." The carelessness of transcribers in those days is the chief cause of the variations in the text of the Greek Testament which abounded already in the second century. Irenaeus himself mentions a remarkable difference of reading in the mystic number of Antichrist (666 and 616), on which the historic interpretation of the book depends (Rev. 13:18).
(4.) A book On Schism, addressed to Blastus who was the head of the Roman Montanists and also a Quartodeciman. It referred probably to the Montanist troubles in a conciliatory spirit.
(5.) Eusebius mentions several. other treatises which are entirely lost, as Against the Greeks (or On Knowledge), On Apostolic Preaching, a Book on Various Disputes, and on the Wisdom of Solomon. In the Syriac fragments some other lost works are mentioned.
(6.) Irenaeus is probably the author of that touching account of the persecution of 177, which the churches of Lyons and Vienne sent to the churches in Asia Minor and Phrygia, and which Eusebius has in great part preserved. He was an eyewitness of the cruel scene, yet his name is not mentioned, which would well agree with his modesty; the document breathes his mild Christian spirit, reveals his aversion to Gnosticism, his indulgence for Montanism, his expectation of the near approach of Antichrist. It is certainly one of the purest and most precious remains of ante-Nicene literature and fully equal, yea superior to the "Martyrdom of Polycarp," because free from superstitious relic-worship.
(7.) Finally, we must mention four more Greek fragments of Irenaeus, which Pfaff discovered at Turin in 1715, and first published. Their genuineness has been called in question by some Roman divines, chiefly for doctrinal reasons. The first treats of the true knowledge, which consists not in the solution of subtle questions, but in divine wisdom and the imitation of Christ; the second is on the eucharist; the third, on the duty of toleration in subordinate points of difference, with reference to the Paschal controversies; 1416 the fourth, on the object of the incarnation, which is stated to be the purging away of sin and the annihilation of all evil.