- Life (§ 1).
- His Principal Literary Work, "Against Heresies" (§ 2).
- Other Writings (§ 3).
- His Theology and Polity (§ 4).
- His Position as a Practical Churchman (§ 5).
(§ 1). Life. 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. Little that is certain is known about him until 177, in which year the imprisoned confessors 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. i. 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. He 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 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 his life. While Bodwell, Grabe, and more recently Zahn have put his birth near the beginning of the second century, Massuet, Lipsius, Ziegler, and Harnack have attempted to fix it near the middle. It must be remembered that the date of the death of Polycarp is now practically settled for 155. 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 (V., xxx. 3) that the Apocalypse was written "almost in his own lifetime" is, all things considered, irreconcilable with the theory that he was born forty or fifty years after the probable date of its composition (before the death of Domitian in 96). Again, in his letter to Florinus (Eusebius, Hist. eccl., V., xx. 5), he speaks of having seen him at Smyrna in the emperors train when he himself was still but a boy. Now, 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 twelve or fifteen, 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 name conclusion follows from what he tells of the teaching received in Asia Minor from certain disciples of the apostles. After all necessary sifting has been applied to the passages referring to this, there remain two (IV., xxvii. 1-32 and V., xxxiii. 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 (q.v.) who was the author of a Vita Polycarpi before 400, the statement is found, based upon Irenaeuss 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 decease 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 Polycarps 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.
(§ 2). His Principal Literary Work, "Against Heresies." It is impossible to assign all of Irenaeuss multifarious literary activity to the different periods of his life as long as so much of his work is lost. His principal work is the "Refutation and Subversion of knowledge Falsely so Called," generally referred to as "Against Heresies." It consists of five books, and is preserved in its entirety only in a Latin version, the date of which requires further investigation; there is sufficient evidence that the original was still extant in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There are, however, long extracts in the original Greek in Epiphanius, numerous smaller quotations in other writers, and considerable portions incorporated without acknowledgment in the "Refutation" of Hippolytus. The occasion of the work was given by the official position of Irenaeus at Lyons. Some disciples of Marcus, who himself belonged to the school of Valentinus, had come into the Rhône country, and the Church of that region was troubled by the writings of Florinus, the Roman presbyter who had embraced the Valentinian teachings. The immediate cause of the work was the request of a friend and colleague at a distance for precise information about these same teachings and help in refuting them. The work was not originally intended to be so large; but it grew under his hand. Even in its present extent, it does not fully carry out the plan promised; and Grabes hypothesis that the complete work is not extant is not without foundation, especially since the present conclusion of v. 32 is wanting in some Latin manuscripts. With great clearness of thought and expression, Irenaeus takes no trouble in the main outline to keep within the narrow bounds of a preconceived plan, but allows himself to be carried swiftly forward by the current of his thought. There is no attempt at literary art; the subject is everything to him. Although he is prepared to find a wide circle of readers, he writes in the first instance for his brother in the faith. The latter was chiefly concerned with the teaching of Valentinus, and it is this which accordingly occupies the leading place, both in the exposition and the refutation. Others, however, are touched on and traced back to their sources, as far as Simon Magus; and the doctrines of Valentinus can not be controverted without at least incidental discussion of the contemporary one of Marcion. For his facts he depends not only upon his personal intercourse with disciples of Valentinus, but also upon their writings, which he sometimes quotes verbally, but more often summarizes freely. He is acquainted with the older church treatises against heresy, but is dissatisfied with their insufficient knowledge of the Valentinian position; in his treatment of other heresies, he may have borrowed from these treatises to some extent, as he quotes incidentally from Justins treatise against Marcion and from a polemical poem directed against Marcus.
(§ 3). Other Writings. Of a considerable number of other works of Irenaeus what is known is gathered from scattered citations in Eusebius and others. They may be briefly enumerated as follows: (1) An admonition to Florinus "On the Divine Sovereignty, or God not the Author of Evil," written when Florinus was still in the communion of the Church, for he is warned that his teachings are irreconcilable with its doctrine, and that "not even heretics outside the Church have ventured to assert such things." (2) A "Treatise on the Ogdoad," occasioned by Florinus, but not addressed to him. The loss of this work is specially regrettable, since Irenaeus seems in it to have dwelt in detail on his relation to the first post-apostolic generation. (3) An epistle to a certain Blastus in Rome "On Schism." According to the pseudo-Tertullian this man was a Quartodeciman, according to Pacian a Greek by birth and a Montanist. (4) Among, or connected with, the letters which Irenaeus wrote to various bishops at the time of the paschal controversy may be placed that which, according to a Syriac fragment, "he wrote to an Alexandrian, showing that it was right to celebrate the feast of the Resurrection on Sunday." (5) The letter to Victor of Rome concerning this same controversy. (6) A letter "On Faith" to Demetrius, a deacon of Vienne. (7) According to Eusebius (v. 26), an apology, addressed to the Greeks, "On Knowledge." (8) A treatise, mentioned in Eusebius, Hist. eccl., V. xxvi., dedicated to a certain Marcianus, possibly the author of the Martyrium Polycarpi, on the apostolic preaching. [This work, which is of the nature of a dogmatic discussion of the apostolic teaching, and is quite an extensive work, has been discovered in Armenian translation in the Church of the Mother of God in Eriwan, and edited with German translation by Ter-Mekerttschian and Ter-Minassiantz in TU, xxxi. 1 (1907). The manuscript dates from the second half of the thirteenth century, and contains about two-thirds of the entire work. From what language the translation was made is not clear, but Syriac is indicated.] (9) A book of various discourses. (10) Oecumenius gives an extract from a work in which Irenaeus is supposed to relate the martyrdom of Sanctus and Blandina. Allowing for a confusion of Blandina and Biblias, this agrees with the letter of the church of Lyons on the martyrdoms of 177, of which he may well have been the author, though Eusebius (V., xiv.-xix. 25) did not think it necessary to mention the fact. (11) A treatise against the theory that matter is eternal. The exposition of Canticles, of which a Syriac fragment exists, is of doubtful authenticity, while the four fragments published in 1715 by Pfaff, chancellor of Tübingen, have been finally shown by Harnack to be forgeries of Pfaffs. It is not known whether Irenaeus carried out his intention (expressed III., xii. 12) of writing a special treatise against Marcion.
(§ 4). His Theology and Polity. The extent and variety of the interests of which a glimpse has been given renders it impossible to attempt here a complete exposition of the theology and church polity of Irenaeus. It is unfortunate that, outside of scanty fragments, only a single polemical work of his is extant, and that for the most part not in the original. Here he appears as a stout defender of church doctrine against Gnosticism. If he is compared with the other members of the school to which he belonged, with Papias or with Polycarp, the manner appears striking in which he combines with firm adhesion to the faith of these simple men a remarkable accessibility to the most varied elements of culture that were within his reach. He makes no parade of secular learning; he declines to be a teacher of "barbaric philosophy" like other apologists from Aristides to Clement; but he surpasses them all in soundness of judgment, acuteness of perception, and clearness of exposition. In fact, he is the first writer of the post-apostolic period who deserves the title of a theologian. In pure theology he stands far above Athanasius and Cyril, and can be compared only with Origen and Augustine. The balanced security of his attitude is remarkable. When the Phrygian peasants disturbed first the scene of his early years, and then the whole Church with their fanatical prophecies and their preaching of a gloomy penance, he did not lose his head. In union with the Church of Lyons and its imprisoned confessors, he warned Eleutherus of Rome not to condemn without examination a religious movement which linked itself to the age of the apostles by valuable inheritances. When the Alogi, in opposition to Montanism, attempted to banish from the Church all prophecy, and the Apocalypse with it, he took a firm stand against them; but he did not become a Montanist. Again, in his judgment of the pagan polity, he did not desert the line marked out by Christ himself and by Paul, and followed (as he points out) by John in the Apocalypse. The Roman Empire is to him no more Antichrist than the world and the flesh necessarily belong to the devil.
(§ 5). His Position as a Practical Churchman. As a practical churchman he was no less admirable than as a theologian. His sermons are lost; but that a collection of them should have been in existence 150 years after his death is enough to show that he deserves a prominent place in the history of homiletics. He learned Celtic in order to speak to the heathen about Lyons, and thus has a place also in the history of missionary effort. His devotion to the immediate duties of his restricted and outlying diocese did not prevent him from having much at heart the welfare of the Church at large, from feeling at home in Rome or Ephesus. His evident love for the ancient Church of his native home did not blind him to the special significance and vocation of the Church at Rome, based upon the position and history of the city. In the paschal controversy he deserted the traditional custom of the Church of his boyhood, because he saw that the Western practise was more appropriate to the essential center-point of the Easter celebration; but he stood out firmly against over-emphasizing such differences, and against the combined ignorance and assumption of Pope Victor. The unity of the Church, for whose sake he prizes the tradition carried on by the episcopal succession in the great apostolic churches, is according to him perfectly consistent with large freedom and diversity in ecclesiastical customs and with mutual independence of the autonomous bodies which compose the universal Church. After the perversion of doctrine by the Gnostics, he saw the greatest peril to this unity in a rigidity that strove for constrained uniformity whether it manifested itself in the refusal of the Quartodeciman Blastus to yield in Rome to prevalent custom in regard to Easter, or in the attitude of the Roman bishop, with whom he nevertheless agreed. Polemical theologian though he was, he yet verified his name (Irenaeus, "Peaceful") by seeking the peace of the Church amid all his controversies. His actual influence upon the development of the Church was greater than that of perhaps any other teacher of the first three centuries. He did much to protect it, first against the dissolution threatened by the Valentinian speculations, which came in largely under the cover of external conformity; then against provincial narrow-mindedness and ignorant fanaticism; and finally against the ambition of the Roman see to grasp at a despotic universal monarchy.