Seasonal Reflection: St. Irenaeus

Stephen Lynch, OFM Features

Friar Stephen Lynch, OFM, shares some background about St. Irenaeus whose feast is commemorated on June 28. This bishop of Lyons was known for his place in Christian literature. He is known in Holy Name Province as the namesake for Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain retreat in Western New York which, this year, commemorates 25 years since its founding. The name Mt. Irenaeus also honored Irenaeus Herscher, OFM, St. Bonaventure University librarian who died in 1981.

St. Irenaeus was a second century bishop of Lyons, and a renowned Father of the Church. The circumstances and details about his death, like those of his birth and early life in Asia Minor, are not at all clear. We do know that he was associated with St. Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John, and who, in a manner, belonged to the Apostolic Age.

Information as to his life is both scarce, and in some measure inexact. It is said that he was born in Proconsular Asia, or at least in some province bordering thereon, in the first half of the second century; the exact date is controverted, between the years 115 and 125, according to some, or, according to others, between 130 and 142. He was probably born about the year 125, in one of those maritime provinces of Asia Minor where the memory of the apostles was still cherished, and where Christians were numerous. He was most influenced by Bishop Polycarp, who had known the apostles or their immediate disciples

The Church is fortunate that Irenaeus was involved in many of its controversies in the second century. He was a student, well trained, no doubt, with great patience in investigating, tremendously protective of apostolic teaching, but prompted more by a desire to win over his opponents than to prove them in error. A prolific Christian writer and theologian, Irenaeus had seen and heard the Bishop Polycarp (d. 155) at Smyrna. During the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the clergy of Lyon many of whom were persecuted for the Faith, sent him (177 or 178) to Rome with a letter to Pope Eleutherius concerning current heresies which were disturbing the people of Gaul. Irenaeus returned from Rome to become Bishop of Lyons.

HERSCHERIHis most famous writing in Latin, Adversus haereses, was directed against Gnosticism, the heresy then spreading in Gaul and elsewhere. As bishop of Lyons he was especially concerned with the Gnostics, who took their name from the Greek word for “knowledge.” Claiming access to secret knowledge imparted by Jesus to only a few disciples, their teaching was attracting and confusing many Christians. After thoroughly investigating the various Gnostic sects and their “secret,” Irenaeus showed to what logical conclusions their tenets led. In five books, Irenaeus contrasted Gnostic teaching with the teaching of the apostles and the text of Holy Scripture. He left the Church with a system of theology of great importance to subsequent times. His theology and detailed knowledge of church history has left the church with exceptional commentaries, concerning the origin of the Gospel according to St. John, the Holy Eucharist, and the primacy of the Roman Church. Moreover, his work, widely used and translated from Greek into Latin and Armenian, gradually ended the influence of the Gnostics.

Irenaeus wrote mostly in Greek and his writings have secured him an exceptional place in Christian literature, because in controverted religious questions of capital importance they exhibit the testimony of a contemporary of the early Church. Two of these works, however, have reached us in their entirety in a Latin version: Adversus haereses and Refutation of Gnosticism. Of these two works we possess very ancient Latin translations, the scrupulous fidelity of which is beyond doubt. Adversus haereses is the chief work of Irenaeus and truly of the highest importance; it contains a profound exposition not only of Gnosticism under its different forms, but also of the principal heresies which had sprung up in the various Christian communities of Gaul, and thus constitutes an invaluable source of information on the most ancient ecclesiastical literature from its beginnings to the end of the second century. In refuting the heterodox systems, Irenaeus often opposes to them the true doctrine of the Church, and in this way furnishes positive and very early evidence of Christian theology.

The writings of St. Irenaeus entitle him to a high place among the fathers of the Church, for they not only laid the foundations of Christian theology but, by exposing and refuting the errors of the gnostics, they delivered the Catholic Faith from the real danger of the doctrines of those heretics.

The date of death of St. Irenaeus is not known, but it is believed to be around the year 202.

— Fr. Stephen, a resident of Butler, N.J., writes frequently for both religious and secular publications.

NOTE: a photo of Irenaeus Herscher appears “behind” the photo above.