He was raised as a Christian and was a student of Polycarp, an early Christian leader who had been a disciple of John the apostle. On account of persecution by the Roman emperor, he relocated to Rome and then finally to Lyons (in present day France). Here he became an elder in the church and, eventually, the Bishop. He is believed to have died around 202 AD.
He wrote several books clarifying and defending Christian beliefs and ideas, of which the most significant was the one titled Against Heresies. In this work he rose to meet a serious challenge to the Christian faith during his time, namely, Gnosticism.
Gnosticism was a heresy that threatened to destroy the Church in the second century. It was an outlook held by various sects and groups whose ideas gradually seeped into the Church. The central beliefs were the following:
- There are two worlds: a spiritual world in which God dwells and a material world created by a lesser god or ‘demiurge’. There is an opposition between this spiritual world, which is good, and the evil and imperfect material world. And this earthly realm is a domain that man needs to have the least possible involvement with. Unfortunately, man’s soul is, as it were, trapped within it. For he has a material body which ties him to this world and its sensual pleasures. To be free and ascend to God is therefore the goal.
- How then can man be freed? Gnostics hold that salvation is realized through a special mysterious knowledge. And he attains to this knowledge by, among other things, denying himself of several physical pleasures (e.g. food and sex) and participating in several rituals. In this way one can progress unto enlightenment, knowledge or ‘oneness with God’.
- Some groups even held that Jesus was not really a human person, much like the view of another group, the Docetists.
Irenaeus countered this movement by emphasizing the unbroken tradition which connected the churches of his day with the apostles. The teachings of Christ and the apostles are preserved in the scriptures and are transmitted via tradition and the leaders of the churches. Therefore, no group could claim to possess some ‘secret’ knowledge which was not available to the entire Christian community through their bishops.
In his defense, Irenaeus also emphasized the following:
- We do not have two Gods: God and a ‘demiurge’, as the Gnostics held. The NT scriptures form a continuity with those of the Old. Both are one revelation from the same God.
- Contrary to what some of the Gnostics held, Jesus Christ is the true eternal Son of God who took on human nature in order to redeem us. His physical manifestation was not an appearance. It was real. He lived and died among human beings. Jesus was buried, he was raised from the dead, and he was seen by many eyewitnesses.
His importance today
Irenaeus stood against a worldview which was widespread in his day, just as the church must be on guard against false ideas in our own day. Gnostic ideas find some similarity in Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Neo-Platonism. His significance for the Church today relates to his fight against a false view of the world and a false view of salvation.
A false view of the world
The Christian doctrine of Creation implies the goodness of the material world. This realm was created by God Himself. And far from being an imperfect creation, He himself declared it to be ‘good’. Therefore, to hold that the material universe is inherently evil is to deny the truth.
A false view of salvation
His writings helped to undermine the basic worldview of the Gnostics. For if God, the spiritual eternal and holy God could take on human nature, it show s that the physical realm was not a domain to flee from. The universe is good for it was designed and created by God. However, the universe has been corrupted through man’s sin. We therefore need restoration and renewal. And this has been accomplished through Christ’s work of redemption. Salvation is therefore not an escape or rejection of the material world. Rather it is a transformation of it.
This kind of thinking permeates the church today. And Irenaeus’s legacy can help point us in the right direction.