Defender of the Faith: Irenaeus

As an inheritor of a great spiritual ancestry, Irenaeus carried on a continuum of Christian discipleship and a legacy of personal investment.

Scholars place Irenaeus’ birth anywhere from 120 to 140 AD. In 177, eleven years after the martyrdom of Polycarp, Irenaeus went to Gaul and became the Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is today Lyons, France. One French church historian, Gregory of Tours, in his History of the French Church tells us that Irenaeus’ preaching and ministry alone quickly converted almost the whole of Lyons. It is most assured that the sheep of his flock in Lyons suffered persecution from Marcus Aurelius.

 

Irenaeus grew up in Smyrna, one of the greatest cities in Asia Minor. He was the son of Christian parents, who at an early age placed him under the tutelage and discipleship of Polycarp of Smyrna. The influence of this stalwart of the Christian faith upon this young man was remarkable. Polycarp was the disciple of John, the disciple of Christ, and author of three New Testament epistles, the Gospel according to John, and Revelation. Irenaeus’ bold mentor was martyred in Smyrna in 166, burned at the stake for refusing to blaspheme Christ.

Irenaeus would have been in the prime of life when he heard his mentor say to his persecutors–facing lions and fire–“I have served him these fourscore and six years, and he never did me any harm, but much good, and how can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

As an inheritor of a great spiritual ancestry, Irenaeus carried on a continuum of Christian discipleship and a legacy of personal investment. Everyone from Luke to Paul, Barnabas to John, and Polycarp to Athanasius, addressed their works of theology, polemics, or apologetics to their sons in the faith—Theophilus, Timothy, John Mark and others. Ancient letters were written to specific people in a specific community, not for a “market” as is often done in the present age..

Scholars place Irenaeus’ birth anywhere from 120 to 140 AD. In 177, eleven years after the martyrdom of Polycarp, Irenaeus went to Gaul and became the Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is today Lyons, France. One French church historian, Gregory of Tours, in his History of the French Church tells us that Irenaeus’ preaching and ministry alone quickly converted almost the whole of Lyons. It is most assured that the sheep of his flock in Lyons suffered persecution from Marcus Aurelius.

It is rumored that Irenaeus himself died a martyr in 202. His remains were buried under the church of St. John in Lyons, and the church was renamed the church of St. Irenaeus. The matter of his martyrdom has been debated, since neither his disciple, Hippolytus, or other contemporaries note the details of his death. In all honesty, little is known of his life. Yet much is made of his writings and legacy, which is as rich biblically as it is relationally.

Irenaeus was one of the first theologians to give “a full confutation of the heresies that had been broached since the introduction of Christianity, as historian William Cunningham wrote, “he knew and understood them.” Cunningham further notes that Irenaeus used more Scripture than any other apologist up until his time. The master apologist Justin Martyr was an elder contemporary of Irenaeus, yet even his works do not bleed so much Bible.

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