Irenaeus was born around 130 A.D., probably in Asia Minor. As a young man, he was in St. Polycarp’s church in Smyrna. He had strong memories of Polycarp for the rest of his life. Biographer Eric Osborn wrote that Polycarp may have been the unnamed source of St. Irenaeus’s statement that a person’s free will extends to choosing his second set of parents, because obedience to a teacher makes the teacher our second father. Irenaeus reported that he learned by heart what Polycarp taught him, including things that Polycarp had heard from St. John and from others who had known Jesus before and after the crucifixion.
Irenaeus then moved to Rome, where he may have been one of Christian philosopher St. Justin Martyr’s students. Justin’s writings were among the foremost influences on Irenaeus’s thought. Irenaeus then settled in Celtic Gaul, where churches began in the mid-second century. Gaul’s churches were in Lyons and Vienne, on the Rhone River. That was the furthest edge of the church then, and Irenaeus became one of the region’s earliest pastors.
In 177 A.D., Irenaeus left Gaul briefly with several members of the church, to carry a letter to the bishop of Rome. While he was gone, a persecution broke out, and 48 Christians were martyred in Lyons. A letter reporting the details told of heroic deaths of both men and women. It described a female slave as the most heroic, and scarcely mentioned her mistress who died with her.
Lyons’ 90-year old bishop was among those martyred. In his place, Irenaeus then became the bishop of Lyons. Thus, by the prime of his career, Irenaeus had known the martyrdom of his two foremost mentors (Polycarp and Justin), his most recent bishop, and 47 others from his own community.
Soon after the martyrdoms of 177, Irenaeus began to write his major work, Against Heresies, completed by 185. His writing has the edginess of a man who probably never felt sure whether the next day would be his turn for martyrdom. He believed that by writing about heresies, he could bring heretics back to the truth (Against Heresies, 3.2.3). Although his primary topic is the false teaching of the Valentinian Gnostics and others, his work covers the story of salvation from creation through the final resurrection of the Church. As described by Jean Daniélou:
“His work is essentially catechetical, whether it be the Adversus Haereses or the Demonstration. He does not claim to be an original theologian but sets forth the generally held doctrine; his sources are chiefly catechetical tradition and scripture. But he expresses this doctrine with a profundity that shows its spiritual riches and itself provides evidence of divine authenticity. It is not for nothing that Irenaeus came from Asia, the land of charismata. His teaching is animated by the Spirit.”
Irenaeus was an artistic genius as well as a theologian, whose concept of truth included both “imagery and logic, poetry and argument” (Osborn). He wrote about the beauty of God’s creation, and about the creation of man in His image and likeness. By the work of the incarnate Christ, all things are recreated and set free, and are brought to perfection in Him, achieving their purpose, restored to the perfect image of God in eternity. Even before we are resurrected, we have joy in the earnest of the Holy Spirit, drawing us to God, and enabling us to call Him “Father,” whom we will one day see face to face.
St. Irenaeus encouraged daily study and meditation in the scriptures and a love of truth. Eric Osborn’s biography says that, in contrast with earlier writers whose scripture citations were mostly to the Old Testament, Irenaeus quoted from New Testament scriptures 1,065 times in Against Heresies, even placing the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles at a higher level of authority than the Old Testament.
Against Heresies reflects an egalitarian attitude toward women, although Irenaeus also wrote that women should be in subjection to their husbands (Against Heresies, 3.23.3); see also Fragments from Lost Writings, XXXII). He wrote that both men and women received prophetic gifts and prophesied in the church (Against Heresies, 3.11.9). He equated the punishment of Adam in toiling by tilling the earth to the punishment given to Eve in “similarly” toiling in labour pains and subjection to her husband (Against Heresies, 3.23.3). Satan would not have been fully vanquished unless Jesus had been born of a woman who conquered Satan, because it was by means of a woman that Satan had gained advantage over the first man (Against Heresies, 5.21.1). In one fragment of a lost work, with questionable authenticity (with humor that may have been intentional), Irenaeus reportedly wrote that Eve was stronger than Adam in that she was conquered by a demon, and only after she held out and made opposition for a time, while Adam was conquered by mere Eve, giving in immediately without a fight (Fragments from Lost Writings, XIV).
Irenaeus’s name means “Solomon” or “peacemaker”. Eusebius described him as a peacemaker by nature. Around 195 A.D., Irenaeus became involved in mediating a dispute over the correct time to celebrate Easter. He was directly involved not only in conflicts with the heretical schools, but also in the center of the Church, among the bishops.
Irenaeus perhaps died around 202 to 203 A.D. during the persecution of Septimius Severus. His writings greatly influenced the thinking of the following generation.
Chadwick, Henry, The Early Church
Daniélou, Jean, and Henri Marrou, The First Six Hundred Years
Eusebius, The History of the Church
Frend, W.H.C., The Rise of Christianity
Osborn, Eric, Irenaeus of Lyons