June 28 – Irenaeus

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Irenaeus, Christian thinker

Irenaeus of Lyons (Lugdunum) in Roman Gaul, one of the foremost apologists of the early church, came from Smyrna on the coast of Asia Minor where, as a boy, he heard his lifelong hero, the great Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Given that Polycarp died a martyr in 155 CE it is assumed that Irenaeus was born c. 140. As a relatively young man he went to Lugdunum, apparently as a missionary to the Celts. Lugdunum, founded in 43 BCE near the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers, was the capital city of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis and one of the most important cities, after Rome, in the Western part of the Empire. It included a thriving community of traders from Asia Minor and, indeed, the martyr lists from the 177 persecution reflect many Greek and some Latin names but no Celtic. Following the martyr’s death of Pothinus, bishop or at least senior presbyter of Lyon and the nearby town of Vienne, Irenaeus became himself bishop or at least senior presbyter. He certainly styled himself as bishop and that is how he is now recognised. He first came to prominence beyond Gaul when he went to Rome early in his episcopate and developed a reputation as a mediator in a number of disputes, the best known perhaps that between the Roman church and the churches of the east over the dating of Easter. His very name reflected his reputation in the early church.
His extant apologetic writings, for which he is most widely known and appreciated, are the five books of the On the Detection and Refutation of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (better known as Against Heresies) – which survives only in a Latin translation from the 3rd or 4th century – and Epideixis or Proof of the Apostolic Preaching – which exists only in an Armenian translation of unknown date. The former is directed against the so-called Gnostics of his time, particularly those belonging to the school of Valentinus. The Valentinians are regarded now – and were possibly so regarded by Irenaeus himself and this is perhaps why he regarded them as particularly dangerous – as the closest to ‘orthodoxy’ on the orthodox-heterodox scale. The first book outlines the beliefs of the Valentinians and their predecessors while the second offers rational proofs against these. The third offers proofs from the Apostles (the canonical Gospels) and the fourth those from the sayings of Jesus, particularly the parables. The fifth offers proofs to be used against the claims of the Gnostics drawn from others sayings of Jesus and the writings of the Apostle and includes some eschatological reflections. Irenaeus was himself a convinced millenarian. It is in the fourth book that Irenaeus offers some of his most important theological writing on the unity of the Old and New Covenants (Testaments) and of the necessary and critical relationship between Creation and Redemption, between God as Creator and as Redeemer. The Epideixis, a much shorter book and only discovered in 1903, was written for converts and offers a simple summary of the Rule of Faith with supporting biblical texts. Irenaeus also wrote on the biblical canon, on the succession of bishops as a guarantee of orthodoxy – he was a doctrinal conservative and literalist biblical commentator whose motto was semper eadem – and on apostolic authority. While not always given his due perhaps as an important apologist and theologian in his day, the preservation of his major work in Latin indicates that he was appreciated not only in the East but also in the West.  His feast day is celebrated in the East on 26 August and in the West on 28 June.

David Mackay-Rankin