1902 Encyclopedia > Irenaeus

Theologian of the ante-Nicene church
(2nd century AD)

IRENAEUS, bishop of Lyons in the end of the 2d century, was one of the most distinguished of the theo-logians of the ante-Nicene church. Very little is known of his early history, and the accounts given in various biographies are for the most part conjectural. He himself has informed us that in his youth he was acquainted with Polycarp, the disciple of John (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., v. 20), and from this fact, together with his Greek name, his early and thorough Christian training, and his great acquaintance with Greek literature, it has been conjectured that he belonged to the neighbourhood of Smyrna in Asia Minor, and that he was the child of Christian parents. It is most probable that he died in the year 202, but the date of his birth is quite uncertain; the best authorities place it between 120 and 140. How he, born and educated in Asia Minor, came to spend his life in Gaul is also unknown. Eusebius tells us that he was a presbyter of Pothinus, bishop of Lyons, and it has been inferred from that passage that he was ordained by that bishop. In 177 the persecu-tion under Marcus Aurelius reached Gaul, and the members of the churches of Lyons and Vienne suffered severely (see the letter of these churches to the brethren in Asia Minor and Phrygia, quoted by Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., v. 1). Pothinus the bishop was one of the first martyrs. Irenaeus was called to succeed him and to fill the honourable but dangerous post in the following year (178). Gregory of Tours has recorded his wonderful success in the city of Lyons, which in a short time became almost wholly Christian (Hist. Eccl. Franc., i. 27), and tradition tells us of many scholars of Irenaeus who were notable missionaries among the Pagan Gauls. Irenaeus, however, was best known by his endeavours to counteract the teachings of the Gnostics, and his attempts to mediate between the bishops of Rome and the churches of Asia Minor in their disputes about the proper time at which to keep Easter. The Gnostic teacher whose views spread to Gaul was Valentinus. He had come to Rome some time about the middle of the 2d century, and disciples had tried to propagate his opinions among the Christians in Gaul. It is said that the efforts of Irenaeus resulted in a council held at Lyons, where the opinions of these Gnostics were con-demned ; but, as the evidence for this statement is not pro-bably older than the 9th century, it may be considered doubtful. The Easter controversy, which lasted on to the council of Nicaea in 325, and assumed various forms, had a very simple origin,—the question whether, in reckoning the days on which our Lord died and rose again, Christians should keep by the day of the month simply, or so arrange it that the day to be observed in commemoration of our Lord's resurrection should always be a Sunday. The sacrament of the Lord's Supper was instituted on the 14th day of the Jewish month Nisan, and it was the opinion of the churches of Asia Minor that that day should always be observed ; on the other hand, our Lord was crucified on a Friday and rose again on a Sunday, and the churches of Alexandria and Rome held that the two events should always be commemorated on a Friday and a Sunday respectively. In the time of Irenaeus, Victor, bishop of Rome, made strenuous endeavours to bring about uniformity of celebration ; and, when he failed to convince the churches of Asia Minor that the Western usage was right, he proposed to declare these churches heterodox, and to cut them off from ecclesiastical fellowship. The interference of Irenaeus was intended to dissuade the pope from this hasty action, and his letter is interesting, not merely for its peace-loving sentiments, but because of the valuable information it gives upon the usages of the churches of the East and of the West (cf. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl.,, v. 24). Gregory of Tours is our authority for saying that Irenaeus died a martyr in the persecution under Severus; but, as this fact is not mentioned by Tertullian, Augustine, Eusebius, Theodoret, and other early writers, it is considered doubtful by most modern scholars. His death, whether crowned with the honour of martyrdom or not, must have taken place near the beginning of the 3d century. Gregory tells us that the bones of Irenaeus were buried under the altar of the church at Lyons. The story that they were dug up and thrown into the street by the Calvinists in 1562 has been abundantly refuted.

Irenaeus holds the same relation to the theology of the Greek fathers that Tertullian does to the doctrinal system of the Church of the West. In tracing back the history of a doctrine, it is common to find it first taking shape in the writings of one or both of these early theologians. Hence the great value of his writings. It is from Irenaeus also that we get the earliest form of the creed which after-wards, through the labour of councils and theologians, became what we now know as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed (Luxnby's History of the Creeds, p. 14, cf. Schaff, The Creeds cf the Latin and Greek Churches, p. 40). The only writing of Irenaeus which has come down to us, with the exception of fragments, is his work Against Heresies, and for this reason his opinions are all expressed by way of controversy. The treatise is divided into five books : of these the first two contain a minute description and criticism of the tenets of various heretical sects, both Gnostic and Ebionite; the other three set forth the true doctrines of Christianity, and it is from them that we find out the theological opinions of the author. Irenaeus as a Christian theologian lays great stress on the existence of the Christian church, and on the necessity of life within the church. Christianity does not consist merely in the possession of knowledge, but in partaking in a life which is to be lived in the world and beyond it. Believers have a common religious experience, and this rests both upon facts outside them and upon their association together within the church, while it implies a community of know-ledge. The church rests upon the common facts contained in the gospel history; her historical succession of pastors places her in direct and outward relation to Christ, to whom her pastors ought to be inwardly related also by spiritual consanguinity. Her common knowledge—the true Gnosis, and not the false of the Gnostic—comes from the Holy Scriptures, which in Old Testament and New are inspired by the Holy Spirit and contain the truth of God. The church has also got, coming to her from apostolic times, and giving authoritatively the interpretation of the Scripture, certain forms of sound words or rules of faith which keep her from heresy. In speaking of God Irenasus is careful to insist that the God of the Christian church is the maker of heaven and earth, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; for it was a Gnostic inference from the supposed sinfulness of matter that the good God could not defile Himself with matter in a work of creation, and some carried their antipathy to the Old Testament so far as to make the Hebrew Jehovah a malignant deity whom Christ had come to destroy. Irenseus is at pains to explain that Christ, the Logos of God, the Saviour, is true man and true God, in opposition to the Gnostic Docetae who taught that our Lord's body was only an assumed phantasm, and in contradiction to the Ebionites, who acknowledged Christ to be the last of the prophets, and looked upon Christianity as Judaism with a new prophet, but refused to confess him true God of true God. Irenseus also lays great stress upon the doctrine of the Trinity. His exposition is by no means either so full or so precise as that of theologians who write after the council of Nicaea, but he insists on the equality in divinity of the three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The plan or method of salvation is commonly represented under the idea of a covenant, which word is used more in the sense of promise than of bargain. Sometimes the covenant is represented as twofold,—that given to the favoured nation and symbolized in the Mosaic economy, and that given to those who are not the descendants of Abraham and promised in the gospel; sometimes it is fourfold, and Irenaeus speaks of a covenant given to Noah, and renewed through Abraham and Moses, and lastly in the gospel of our Lord. It is difficult to state with any precision what Irenaeus holds about the nature of the effect of Christ's work of reconcilia-tion upon man. He makes great use of metaphor, and evidently had not learnt to express himself otherwise. The doctrine was still in its pictorial state in his mind. Still, traces appear of that tendency afterwards common in the Greek Church to make the incarnation rather than the crucifixion and ascension of our Lord the most important part of his work, and to look upon the effect of that work as a transfusion of the incarnation through redeemed humanity. The doctrine of the sacraments is also too metaphorically expressed to admit of precise statement; but Irenaeus seems to believe that in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper it is the heavenly body of Christ which is actually partaken of in the elements, and that such parti-cipation gives immortality.

Our knowledge of the writings of Irenseus comes principally from Eusebius. That church historian tells us that Irenseus wrote a Letter to Florinus, and a tract On the Valentinian Octave (of jEons), both against Gnostic theories ; a Letter to Pope Victor, and another to Blastus, also at Rome, both on the Easter controversy ; a work, probably on apologetic, called Tipos "'EW-nvas Aóyos . . . irepi em-ffT^/urji iinyi-ypa.jip.eyos; a Picture of Apostolic Preaching; and a book of aphorisms. According to Photius, Irenseus wrote also on the Substance of the World. Fragments from these lost works and perhaps from others have been recovered from Eusebius, from Maximus of Turin, from Leontius of Byzantium, from John of Damascus, and from several collections of fragments, some of which were discovered in European libraries, and others came to the British Museum among Syriac MSS. from the Nltrian convents. The only work of Irenseus which has come to us entire is the treatise Against Heresies. The original Greek text, except the greater part of the first book, which has been preserved in quota-tions in Hippolytus and Epiphanius, has been lost, and the treatise has been preserved in a somewhat barbarous Latin version. The first edition was published by Erasmus in 1526. He used three MSS. which have since been lost. In 1570 Gallasius, a Calvinist pro-fessor in Geneva, published a new edition. He had before him the Greek text as far as given in the quotations in Epiphanius. The next important edition was that of Feuardent in 1596, and frequently reprinted. Feuardent used a Vatican MS. In 1702 Grabe pub-lished at Oxford a new edition, greatly better than preoeding ones. He used the Arundel codex. In 1710 the Benedictine Massuet published at Paris another edition, in which three new MSS. were used. It long continued the standard, and forms the 5th volume of the Abbe Migne's Patrologia Greeca, Paris, 1857. A valuable edition was published in 1849-53 by Adolph Stieren, which really superseded the others. The fragments discovered among the Syriac MSS., however, are only to be found in the Cambridge edition of 1857, edited by the Rev. W. Wigan Harvey. The extant writ.ng of Irenseus, including the fragments, have been translated and published in Clark's Ante-Nicene Library. The facts of Irenaeus's life and his dogmatic teaching and ecclesiastical position may be learnt from the prefaces of Feuardent, Massuet, and Stieren, as well as from such church historians as Tillemont, Schrook, Neander, and Fr. Chr. Baur. There is a very valuable monograph upon Irenseus in Ersch and Gruber's Encyclopadie, II. section, vol. xxiii., written by Stieren, the editor of the German edition. This was written, how-ever, before the Syriac versions were discovered. (T. M. L.)

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries