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An engraving of St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyon, France)
An engraving of St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyon, France)

Saint Irenaeus (Greek: Εἰρηναῖος), (2nd century AD - c. 202) was a Christian Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, then a part of the Roman Empire (now Lyons, France). He was an early church father and apologist, and his writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of John the Evangelist.

Irenaeus' best-known book, Adversus Haereses or Against Heresies (c. 180) is a detailed attack on Gnosticism, which was then a serious threat to the Church, and especially on the system of the Gnostic Valentinus.[1] As one of the first great Christian theologians, he emphasized the traditional elements in the Church, especially the episcopate, Scripture, and tradition.[1] Irenaeus wrote that the only way for Christians to retain unity was to humbly accept one doctrinal authority—episcopal councils.[2] Against the Gnostics, who said that they possessed a secret oral tradition from Jesus himself, Irenaeus maintained that the bishops in different cities are known as far back as the Apostles — and none of them were Gnostics — and that the bishops provided the only safe guide to the interpretation of Scripture.[3] His writings, with those of Clement and Ignatius, are taken to hint at papal primacy.[1] Irenaeus is the earliest witness to recognition of the canonical character of all four gospels.[4]

Irenaeus is recognized as a saint by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Church celebrates his feast day on June 28 and July 3. June 28 is the date recorded in the earliest Roman calendars and so adopted by the 1969 calendar. However, as that date is also the Vigil of the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Tridentine calendar (including the 1962 calendar) transfers his feast to July 3.



Irenaeus wrote a number of books, but the most important that survives is the five-volume On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, normally referred to by its Latin title "Adversus Haereses" ("Against Heresies") which is an important source regarding the Gospel according to the Hebrews. In Book I, Irenaeus talks about the Valentinian Gnostics and their predecessors, who go as far back as the magician Simon Magus. In Book II he attempts to provide proof that Valentinianism contains no merit in terms of its doctrines. In Book III Irenaeus purports to show that these doctrines are false, by providing counter-evidence gleaned from the Gospels. Book IV consists of Jesus' sayings, and here Irenaeus also stresses the unity of the Old Testament and the Gospel. In the final volume, Book V, Irenaeus focuses on more sayings of Jesus plus the letters of Paul the Apostle.[5]

The purpose of "Against Heresies" was to refute the teachings of various Gnostic groups; apparently, several Greek merchants had begun an oratorial campaign praising the pursuit of "gnosis" in Irenaeus' bishopric. Until the discovery of the Library of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Against Heresies was the best-surviving description of Gnosticism. According to some biblical scholars, the findings at Nag Hammadi have shown Irenaeus' description of Gnosticism to be largely inaccurate and polemic in nature.[6][7] Though correct in some details about the belief systems of various groups, Irenaeus' main purpose was to warn Christians against Gnosticism, rather than accurately describe those beliefs. He described Gnostic groups as sexual libertines, for example, when some of their own writings advocated chastity more strongly than did orthodox texts.[8][9] However, at least one scholar, Rodney Stark, claims that it is the same Nag Hammadi library that proves Ireneaus right.[10]

It seemed that Irenaeus's critique against the gnostics were exaggerated, which led to his scholarly dismissal for a long time. For example, he wrote: "They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no other did, accomplished the mystery of betrayal; by him all things were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas."[11] These claims turned out to be truly mentioned in the Gospel of Judas where Jesus asked Judas to betray him. Regarding Ireneaus' inaccuracies about the sexual liberties amongst the gnostics, the gnostics were not a single group, but a wide array of sects. Some groups were indeed libertine. Some other of them praised chastity more strongly than standard Christianity, to the point of banning marriage and all sexual activity.[12]

Irenaeus also wrote "The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching," an Armenian copy of which was discovered in 1907. This work seems to have been an instruction for recent Christian converts.[13] Various fragments of other works by Irenaeus have been found, and many lost works by him are attested by other ancient writers. These include "On the Subject of Knowledge," "On the Monarchy," or "How God is not the Cause of Evil," "On the Ogdoad," an untitled letter to Blastus regarding schism, and others. All these works are attested by Eusebius.[14][15]

Ireneus exercised wide influence on the immediately following generation. Both Hippolytus and Tertullian freely drew on his writings. But his literal hope of an earthly millenium made him uncogenial reading in the Greek East and it is only in the Latin translation that his work as a whole has been preserved.[]

Irenaeus' works were first published in English in 1885 in the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection.


Irenaeus pointed to Scripture as a proof of orthodox Christianity against heresies, classifying as Scripture not only the Old Testament but most of the books now known as the New Testament,[1] while excluding many works, a large number by Gnostics, that flourished in the second century and claimed scriptural authority.[17]

Before Irenaeus, Christians differed as to which gospel they preferred. The Christians of Asia Minor preferred the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Matthew was the most popular overall.[18] Irenaeus asserted that four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were canonical scripture.[19] Thus Irenaeus provides our earliest witness to the assertion of the four canonical Gospels, possibly in reaction to Marcion's edited version of the Gospel of Luke, which Marcion asserted was the one and only true gospel.[4][13]

Based on the arguments Irenaeus made in support of only four authentic gospels, some interpreters deduce that the fourfold Gospel must have still been a novelty in Irenaeus' time.[20] "Against Heresies" 3.11.7 acknowledges that many heterodox Christians use only one gospel while 3.11.9 acknowledges that some use more than four.[21] The success of Tatian's Diatessaron in about the same time period is "...a powerful indication that the fourfold Gospel contemporaneously sponsored by Irenaeus was not broadly, let alone universally, recognized."[22]

Irenaeus is also our earliest attestation that the Gospel of John was written by John the apostle,[23] and that the Gospel of Luke was written by Luke, the companion of Paul.[24]

The apologist and ascetic Tatian had previously harmonized the four gospels into a single narrative, the Diatesseron (c 150-160).

Scholars[specify] contend that Irenaeus quotes from 21 of the 27 New Testament Texts:

Matthew (Book 3, Chapter 16) Mark (Book 3, Chapter 10) Luke (Book 3, Chapter 14) John (Book 3, Chapter 11) Acts of the Apostles (Book 3, Chapter 14) Romans (Book 3, Chapter 16) 1 Corinthians (Book 1, Chapter 3) 2 Corinthians (Book 3, Chapter 7) Galatians (Book 3, Chapter 22) Ephesians (Book 5, Chapter 2) Philippians (Book 4, Chapter 18) Colossians (Book 1, Chapter 3) 1 Thessalonians (Book 5, Chapter 6) 2 Thessalonians (Book 5, Chapter 25) 1 Timothy (Book 1, Preface) 2 Timothy (Book 3, Chapter 14) Titus (Book 3, Chapter 3) 1 Peter (Book 4, Chapter 9) 1 John(Book 3, Chapter 16) 2 John (Book 1, Chapter 16) Revelation to John (Book 4, Chapter 20)

He may refer to Hebrews (Book 2, Chapter 30) and James (Book 4, Chapter 16) and maybe even 2 Peter (Book 5, Chapter 28) but does not cite Philemon, 3 John or Jude.[citation needed]

Apostolic authority

In his writing against the Gnostics, who claimed to possess a secret oral tradition from Jesus himself, Irenaeus maintained that the bishops in different cities are known as far back as the Apostles — and none of them was a Gnostic — and that the bishops provided the only safe guide to the interpretation of Scripture.[25] He emphasized the unique position of authority of the bishop of Rome.[26][27]

With the lists of bishops to which Irenaeus referred, the later doctrine of the apostolic succession of the bishops could be linked.[26] This succession was important to establish a chain of custody for orthodoxy. Irenaeus' point when refuting the Gnostics was that all of the Apostolic churches had preserved the same traditions and teachings in many independent streams. It was the unanimous agreement between these many independent streams of transmission that proved the orthodox Faith, current in those churches, to be true.[28] Had any error crept in, the agreement would be immediately destroyed.[citation needed] The Gnostics had no such succession, and no agreement amongst themselves.

For more article, see External Link below.

See also

  • 3rd century papyrus portion of Against Heresies


  • 1. Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  • 2. Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972
  • 3. Encyclopaedia Britannica: Saint Irenaeus
  • 4. Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 14. Anchor Bible; 1st edition (October 13, 1997). ISBN 978-0385247672.
  • 5. Grant, Robert M, "Irenaeus of Lyons," p.6. Routledge 1997.
  • 6. Pagels, Elaine. Beyond Belief, Pan Books, 2005. p. 54
  • 7. Robinson, James M., The Nag Hammadi Library, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990. p. 104.
  • 8. Pagels, Elaine. "The Gnostic Gospels," Vintage Books, 1979. p. 90.
  • 9. Ehrman, Bart D., "Lost Christianities," Oxford University Press, 2005. p.121.
  • 10. Stark, Rodney. Discovering God, HarperCollins, 2007. p. 325-327
  • 11. Ireneaus. Against Heresies, I:31.1.
  • 12. Stark, Rodney. Cities of God, HarperCollins, 2007. chapt. 6
  • 13. Glenn Davis, The Development of the Canon of the New Testament: Irenaeus of Lyons
  • 14. Poncelet, Albert. The Catholic Encyclopedia vol. VII, St. Irenaeus, 1910.
  • 15. Rev. J. Tixeront, D.D. A Handbook of Patrology. Section IV: The Opponents of Heresy in the Second Century, St. Louis, MO, by B. Herder Book Co. 1920.
  • 16. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, Pinguin Group, 19932, p. 83
  • 17. Encyclopaedia Britannica: Saint Irenaeus
  • 18. Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
  • 19. "But it is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the church has been scattered throughout the world, and since the 'pillar and ground' of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life, it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing incorruption on every side, and vivifying human afresh. From this fact, it is evident that the Logos, the fashioner demiourgos of all, he that sits on the cherubim and holds all things together, when he was manifested to humanity, gave us the gospel under four forms but bound together by one spirit." Against Heresies 3.11.8
  • 20. McDonald & Sanders, The Canon Debate, 2002, page 277
  • 21. McDonald & Sanders, page 280. Also page 310, summarizing 3.11.7: the Ebionites use Matthew's Gospel, Marcion mutilates Luke's, the Docetists use Mark's, the Valentinians use John's
  • 22. ibid
  • 23. ibid, p. 368
  • 24. ibid, p. 267
  • 25. "Wherefore we must obey the priests of the Church who have succession from the Apostles, as we have shown, who, together with succession in the episcopate, have received the certain mark of truth according to the will of the Father; all others, however, are to be suspected, who separated themselves from the principal succession." Adversus Haereses (Book IV, Chapter 26). read online.
  • 26. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • 27. "Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere."read online Adversus Haereses (Book III, Chapter 3)
  • 28. Adversus Haereses (Book V, Chapter 33:8)
  • 29. AH 3.18.7; 3.21.9-10; 3.22.3; 5.21.1; see also, Klager, Andrew P. "Retaining and Reclaiming the Divine: Identification and the Recapitulation of Peace in St. Irenaeus of Lyons' Atonement Narrative." Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ, eds. Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007., esp. p. 462 n. 158.
  • 30. Grant, Robert M., "Irenaeus fo Lyons," p,23. Routledge, 1997.

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