Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus was born sometime around AD 130 and grew up in Asia Minor under the ministry of Polycarp in Smyrna, who was himself a disciple of the apostle John according to tradition. Irenaeus recounts his memories of sitting under Polycarp’s teaching, hearing the accounts of the apostles to the life of Jesus. These experiences only strengthened his conviction of the apostolic nature of the Christian faith.

Later, Irenaeus made his way to Rome and was influenced by the teaching of Justin Martyr as he sought to confront the many heresies there. From Rome, he eventually made his way to the western province of Gaul and settled in the capital of Lugdunum, which is modern-day Lyons. Living among the Celts in a provincial city, Irenaeus was far from the refinement and civilization Rome, and he lamented the influence of the barbarous Celts on him and his own lack of training in rhetoric or composition. However, Christianity had grown vibrant in Gaul, so that when persecution broke out in 177, many brave believers from Gaul went to their deaths and their heroic testimonies went out to churches across the Roman empire. Prior to the persecutions, Irenaeus had been sent as part of a delegation to Rome, and upon his return to Lugdunum, Irenaeus was chosen to be the bishop where he would serve for the rest of his life.

Irenaeus’ writings reveal that a significant aspect of his ministry was defending the faith against false teachers. Two of his writings remain. The Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching is a summary of the Christian faith drawn from the Scriptures. His other work is Against the Heresies, five books refuting the false teachings of Valentinus, Marcion, and others. From these writings, Irenaeus saw the tenuous future of Christianity if it were allowed to splinter into countless sects under these false teachers. Therefore, he sought to defend the Christian faith by establishing a unified church under the teaching of the apostles.

The last glimpse we have of Irenaeus is in writing to Victor, the bishop of Rome, encouraging him not to excommunicate the churches of Asia Minor for observing various divergent practices associated with Easter. In many ways, this letter demonstrates Irenaeus’ concern for the unity of the church, founded not in secondary matters, but in the essentials of the faith. According to tradition, Ireneaus went on to be martyred for his faith around AD 200. Though Irenaeus spoke his own lack of training and skill as a teacher, his work would go on to shape the Christian understanding of the Scriptures and the church for many more centuries, so that his influence remains discernible even today. - GC

Where to Begin

The Breeze of the Centuries by Michael Reeves

Getting to Know the Church Fathers by Bryan Litfin

Against Heresies by Irenaeus