Today’s Saint: St Irenaeus, Bishop & Martyr

Born: c. 115 AD, Smyrna
Died: 202 AD, Lyons, Gaul (France)
Feast day: June 28

St. Irenaeus was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is now Lyons, France. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who himself was a disciple of John the Evangelist.

He is recognized as a saint by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, and his writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology. His most famous work is Against Heresies, a lengthy description and refutation of Gnosticism.

Biography of Irenaeus

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, is the most important witness to ecclesiastical tradition before Eusebius. He came originally from Asia Minor, which was connected in many ways with the Church of Gaul, and died after 190.

We know little about his life until 177, when the imprisoned Christians of Lyons chose him as the bearer of a letter to Eleutherus of Rome concerning the Montanist controversy. If the fact that the confessors call him not only their brother, but their “companion,” is partly a reminiscense of Rev. 1:9, it still seems probable that he did not wholly escape the persecution; and it may have been a design to save his valuable life that inspired the choice of him to go to Rome.

Irenaeus had probably then been a presbyter of the church at Lyons for several years, since immediately after his return he was chosen bishop, to succeed Pothinus, who had perished in the persecution. In this capacity he wrote his principal work, Against Heresies, about 185, and sent a letter about 190 to Victor of Rome, who had broken off communion with the churches of Asia Minor over the Quartodeciman controversy, as well as to other bishops.

There is no further definite knowledge of his later years. Jerome is the first to mention him as a martyr, and then only incidentally, and not improbably on the basis of the expression quoted above from the letter of the confessors. Hippolytus, Tertullian, Eusebius, and other writers who would have been likely to mention the fact of his martyrdom, say nothing about it.

There has been a prolonged controversy, which is still unsettled, as to the date of his birth and the length of Irenaeus’ life. The principal data may be briefly summarized as follows: If Irenaeus became bishop in 177, he must have been at least forty, and was therefore probably born before 137 rather than after. His implication (5.30.3) that the Apocalypse was written “almost in his own lifetime” is, all things considered, irreconcilable with the theory that he was born 40 or 50 years after the probable date of its composition (before the death of Domitian in 96).

In his letter to Florinus (Eusebius, Hist. eccl., 5.20.5), Irenaeus speaks of having seen Polycarp at Smyrna in the emperor’s train when he himself was still but a boy. The date of the death of Polycarp is now practically settled for 155. For various reasons, this emperor must have been Hadrian, who visited Asia Minor in 123 and 129, in the latter of which years the meeting must have taken place. All that Irenaeus tells of his recollections of Polycarp at this period shows that he must have been at least 12 or 15, and thus was probably born about 115. He implies distinctly that his intercourse with and instruction by Polycarp lasted for a number of years, very likely from about 129 to 150; and the same conclusion follows from what he tells of the teaching received in Asia Minor from certain disciples of the apostles.

There are two further passages (4.27.1-32 and 5.33.3-4) which can be understood only as asserting that he had this oral instruction from more than one of such disciples and when he was of an age to take it in and be deeply impressed by it. Neither he nor any tradition mentions the reaching of an unusually great age by any member of this group except Polycarp; if the others died considerably earlier, say before 145, he must before that date have been of an age to profit by their teaching.

Finally, in an appendix to the Martyrium Polycarpi (found in a manuscript at Moscow), which is almost certainly written by the Pionius who was the author of a Vita Polycarpi before 400, the statement is found, based upon Irenaeus’s own works, that he was teaching in Rome at the time of the death of Polycarp, and that a voice like a trumpet told him, at the very hour, of the death of his master in Smyrna. Whatever may be thought of this last assertion, there is no reason to doubt the general statement; and the account which he himself gives of Polycarp’s visit to Rome in 154 evidently comes from one who was there himself at the time. The chronological results indicated above may thus be taken as fairly established.

As mentioned above, Irenaeus is remembered as a martyr although there is no evidence for how he died. He was buried under the church of Saint John’s in Lyons, which was later renamed St. Irenaeus. His tomb and his remains were destroyed in 1562 by the Calvinist Huguenots. The remains of Leonardo da Vinci and Kepler, among others, also were lost in the religious wars of those times.

Works of Irenaeus

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 Knowledge , normally referred to as Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies). Only fragments in its original Greek exist, but a complete copy exists in a wooden Latin translation, made shortly after its publication in Greek, and Books IV and V are present in a literal Armenian translation.

The great work of Irenæus is unfortunately no longer extant in the original. It has come down to us only in an ancient Latin version, with the exception of the greater part of the first book, which has been preserved in the original Greek, through means of copious quotations made by Hippolytus and Epiphanius. The text, both Latin and Greek, is often most uncertain. Only three manuscripts of the work Against Heresies are at present known to exist. Others, however, were used in the earliest printed editions put forth by Erasmus. And as these codices were more ancient than any now available, it is greatly to be regretted that they have disappeared or perished.

The purpose of Against Heresies is to refute the teachings of various gnostic groups. Until the discovery of the Library of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Against Heresies was the best surviving description of Gnosticism.

Irenaeus cites from most of New Testament canon, as well as the noncanonical works 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas, however he makes no references to Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John and Jude. Irenaeus was the first Christian writer to list the four canonical Gospels as divinely inspired, possibly in reaction to Marcion’s edited version of the Gospel of Luke, which he asserted was the one and only true gospel.

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

Thought of Irenaeus

Irenæus had clearly taken great pains to understand the various heretical systems which he describes. His mode of exposing and refuting these is generally very effective. It is plain that he possessed a good share of learning, and that he had a firm grasp of the doctrines of Scripture. Not unfrequently he indulges in a kind of sarcastic humour, while inveighing against the folly and impiety of the heretics.

A central point of Irenaeus’ theology is the unity of God, in opposition to the Gnostics’ division of God into a number of divine “Aeons”, and their distinction between the “High God” and the wicked “Demiurge” who created the world. Irenaeus uses the Logos theology he inherited from Justin Martyr, but prefers to speak of the Son and the Spirit as the “hands of God.” Christ, for him, is the invisible Father made visible.

Irenaeus’ emphasis on the unity of God is reflected in his corresponding emphasis on the unity of salvation history. Irenaeus repeatedly insists that God created the world and has been overseeing it ever since. Everything that has happened is part of his plan for humanity. The essence of this plan is maturation: Irenaeus believes that humanity was created immature, and God intended his creatures to take a long time to grow into his likeness. Thus, Adam and Eve were created as children. Their Fall was thus not a full-blown rebellion but a childish spat, a desire to grow up before their time and have everything now.

Everything that has happened since has therefore been planned by God to help humanity overcome this and grow up. The world has been designed by God as a difficult place, where human beings are forced to make moral decisions – only in this way can they mature. Irenaeus likens death to the whale that swallowed Jonah: it was only in the depths of the whale’s belly that Jonah could turn to God and do his will. Similarly, death and suffering appear evil, but without them we could never come to know God.

The high point in salvation history is Jesus. Irenaeus believes that Christ would always have been sent, even if humanity had never sinned; but the fact that they did sin determines his role as a saviour. He sees Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did: thus, where Adam was disobedient about the fruit of a tree, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of a tree. Irenaeus is the first to draw comparisons between Eve and Mary, contrasting the faithlessness of the former with the faithfulness of the latter. In addition to reversing the wrongs done by Adam, Irenaeus thinks of Christ as “recapitulating” or “summing up” human life. This means that Christ goes through every stage of human life, and simply by living it, sanctifies it with his divinity. This idea led Irenaeus to some unusual opinions, including that Jesus lived to be an old man, and his public ministry lasted at least ten years.

Irenaeus thus thinks that our salvation comes about, essentially, through the incarnation of God as man. He characterises the penalty for sin as death and corruption. God, however, is immortal and incorruptible, and simply by becoming united to human nature in Christ he conveys those qualities to us: they spread, as it were, like a benign infection. Irenaeus therefore understands the atonement of Christ as happening through his incarnation rather than his crucifixion, although the latter is an integral part of the former.


This article incorporates some public domain text from Philip Schaff, ed., “Irenaeus.” New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. VI: Innocents – Liudger (Baker Books, 1953). <;
This article incorporates some public domain text from “Irenaeus.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 2004. <;
“Irenaeus, Saint.” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004). <;
Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol. 1: Beginnings to 1500, 4th ed. (Prince Press, 2000), 143.