St. Irenaeus is a giant. Pay no mind to the modern academics who portray him as a meanie nun out to rap gnostic knuckles with a crozier-sized ruler. St. Irenaeus was a scholar’s scholar, a biblical theologian of the first rank. He was a global diplomat who actually succeeded at making peace. And he was a holy, plain-speaking, and truth-telling bishop. If today’s gnostic resurgents don’t like him, it’s because, after eighteen centuries and more, his critique is still right as rain and still raining all over the gnostic parade.
Irenaeus deserves a posthumous Purple Heart for having read all the available gnostic writings in their entirety. I have six children, but I cannot imagine that kind of patience. And most of the time he was able to address the gnostic arguments (I use the term loosely) in an even tone. Sometimes they raised his ire. Once their cosmology got so flaky that it inspired the saint to compose a parody. There are times when only satire will do.
St. Irenaeus is an important link in tradition’s golden chain. He probably composed his works when he was very old, in the late 100s in the land we now know as France. When he was a young man, though, he lived in Asia Minor, where he studied under the holy bishop Polycarp, who had himself converted to Christianity under St. John the Apostle. Irenaeus treasured the stories of John that he had learned from his master. His few, small anecdotes are a precious witness to the life of the apostle.
And all of Irenaeus’s life gave witness to the teaching of the apostles. The man was steeped in Scripture, steeped in liturgy, in love with the Church and all of its glorious structures of authority. In Irenaeus’s voluminous writings we find it all: the Mass, the papacy, the office of bishop, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the condemnation of heresy. One of my favorite lines from his work is this, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.” This is the most primitive form of the axiom that later Fathers would state as “Lex orandi, lex credendi.” The law of prayer is the law of belief. The liturgy is the place where living tradition truly lives.
The old Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that the biographical information we have about Irenaeus is shaky. But there are a few things we know for sure. He was born in or near Proconsular Asia in the first half of the second century. He sat at the feet of the holy Bishop Polycarp (d. 155) at Smyrna. During the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, Irenaeus was a priest of the Church of Lyons. The clergy of that city, many of whom were suffering imprisonment for the faith, sent him (177 or 178) to Rome with a letter to Pope Eleutherius concerning the Montanist heresy, and on that occasion bore emphatic testimony to his merits. Returning to Gaul, Irenaeus succeeded the martyr St. Pothinus as Bishop of Lyons. 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 and his writings, almost all of which were directed against gnosticism, the heresy then spreading in Gaul and elsewhere. In 190 or 191 he interceded with Pope Victor to lift the sentence of excommunication laid by that pontiff upon the Christian communities of Asia Minor that celebrated Easter on a day different from the rest of the Church’s feast. 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. Tradition holds that he died as a martyr, so the priests wear red vestments today.
Irenaeus wrote many works. None of these writings has come down to us in the original text, though a great many fragments of them survive as citations in later writers (Hippolytus, Eusebius, etc.). Two works, however, have reached us in their entirety: The first and most important is a treatise in five books commonly titled “Adversus Haereses,” devoted to the “Detection and Overthrow of the False Knowledge.” A second work is the “Proof of the Apostolic Preaching.” The author’s aim here is not to refute heretics, but to confirm the faithful by expounding the Christian doctrine to them, and notably by demonstrating the truth of the Gospel by means of the Old Testament prophecies. It is a magnificent testimony to the deep and lively faith of Irenaeus.
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