A Second Century Defender of the Faith: Irenaeus

As of late, I have become increasingly fascinated with prominent figures from the first few centuries of the church, men often referred to as “early church fathers.” Who were these guys, and why are they considered particularly authoritative? Over the next few months, I will occasionally devote a blog post to profiling one of these figures who lived, taught, and contended for the Christian faith during the church’s infancy.

Irenaeus (c. 130-200 A.D.)

Irenaeus (usually pronounced “ear-uh-NAY-us”) was born in Asia, in the region that is now Turkey. He moved to Lyons, a city in the region we now know as France. This is why he is sometimes referred to as Irenaeus of Lyons. He became Bishop of Lyons in 180 A.D.

The twelve apostles, who lived alongside Jesus and were specially discipled by him during his earthly ministry, went on to disciple other men in the Christian faith after Jesus’ ascension. These “second generation” disciples mentored “third generation” church leaders. The important point here is that these men of the third generation had access to a very short, unbroken chain of authoritative teaching anchored in the very words and deeds of Christ himself. Irenaeus was one of the third generation students of Christianity. Here’s how it went. The Apostle John (almost certainly the author of the Gospel of John and 1, 2, and 3 John) taught a man by the name of Polycarp, a bishop of Smyrna. While Irenaeus was young, he was instructed in the faith by Polycarp.

These early church fathers were ardent defenders of the traditions carefully taught to them by the Apostles themselves or by direct students of the Apostles. These early traditions were sometimes called the “rule of faith” or the “canon” (Greek for “measuring stick”) which all teachings could be compared to for authentication. These traditions existed in both oral and written form, and included the apostolic writings; in fact, Irenaeus had the four written gospels we have today (claims that the gospels were written in later centuries are unfounded).  Irenaeus’ writings further indicate that canonical recognition had also been given to Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation by that time. These writings and oral traditions were regularly and meticulously studied so that church doctrine could be protected from corruption.

During the second century A.D. (the one hundreds), Irenaeus was arguably the most important defender of essential Christian doctrine; he wrote a treatise entitled Against Heresies. Specifically, he spoke out against the heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were promoting other “gospels” that contained unorthodox teaching, and they claimed that salvation came by a secret knowledge (gnosis) that only a select few were privy to. Another teacher by the name of Marcion ( identified by some as a Gnostic), who was a contemporary of Irenaeus, taught that the Old Testament and New Testament revealed two totally different gods. According to this heresy, the Old Testament god was the creator of matter, which was regarded as inherently evil. The New Testament god was the god of love and was unknown before the coming of Jesus. Irenaeus discredited this teaching by demonstrating the direct relationship between the two Testaments, using evidence such as the fulfilled Christological prophecies of the Old Testament.  He also refuted the idea of physical matter being evil; Jesus’ physical body was not evil and was resurrected for our salvation.

For further reading, I suggest downloading the e-book version of Irenaeus- Against Heresies and Fragments (you don’t have to have a Kindle–just download the free reader application for your computer or smartphone). F.F. Bruce has also written on the importance of the early church fathers. I especially like his work, The Canon of Scripture.