Who is Saint Irenaeus of Lyons?

Who is Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, and what was his contribution to the Church?

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In my past two Register articles (“What is Heresy?” and “A Martyr, But Not Yet a Doctor”) I began to reflect on the call by some episcopal conferences in the Catholic Church, including our own here in the United States, to request that the Church Universal recognize Saint Irenaeus of Lyons as a Doctor of the Church.

According to Bishop Kevin Rhodes of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the acclamation of Saint Irenaeus (A.D. 140-202), a martyr for the faith and an early Church Father, as a Doctor of the Church, would be “perhaps a way to correct an oversight of history.”

In my first article on this issue, I commended Bishop Rhodes on his insight and on this proposal and I addressed the issue of what is a heresy and what is not a heresy and, perhaps more pertinent in our age of “hot takes,” what we should suddenly declare heretical or schismatic, using definitions provided for us by the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as some reflections by solid contemporary Catholic theologians like Dr. Alyssa Pitstick and the late Jesuit Father Edward Oakes.

In my second contribution on this issue, I added a “sed contra,” an objection to the possibility of the declaration of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons as a Doctor of the Church, namely on the grounds that Saint Irenaeus was a martyr — which is actually a higher designation, at least liturgically, than that of “Doctor of the Church.”

With that, I did say that as the designation of Doctor of the Church has changed over the years, to include not only clerics, but also, at this time, women religious, so perhaps the Church could recognize Saint Irenaeus as not only as a martyr but also as a Doctor of the Church due to his eminens doctrinainsignis vitae sanctitasEcclesiae declaration, (eminent teaching, great holiness, and the declaration of the Church).

Is it necessary for Irenaeus to be declared a Doctor of the Church? Certainly not. But will it help in both giving recognition to a saint whose import is not widely known and to bring awareness to the reality of the still-present heresy that exists in our world today — Gnosticism — and how we, as a Catholic people, might best address this issue? I wholeheartedly believe so.

With that being stated, I think it is high time now for me to address exactly who Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (A.D. 140-202) is and what is contribution to the Church actually is.

I must admit that I have a special devotion to Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, whose feast day we celebrate on June 28. My ordination to the sacred priesthood of Jesus Christ as a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn was on June 27. My first Mass of Thanksgiving was on June 28, which fell on a Sunday that year but would have been celebrated as the feast of Saint Irenaeus had it been a weekday.

Having studied his writings in class and having gotten to know his thought even more in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours, I think that Saint Irenaeus is, by far and away, one of the more important Fathers of the Church.

Theologian Richard M. Grant summarized well, stating the importance of Saint Irenaeus:

Irenaeus of Lyons was the most important Christian controversialist and theologians between the apostles and the third-century genius Origen. He gathered up and combined the traditions of predecessors from Asia Minor, Syria, and Rome and used them to refute the Gnostics who were subverting the Gospel. He built up a body of Christian theology that resembled a French Gothic cathedral, strongly supported by columns of biblical faith and tradition, illuminated by vast expanses of exegetical and logical argument, and upheld by flying buttresses of rhetorical and philosophical considerations from the outside. In his own person, he united that major traditions of Christendom from Asia Minor, Syria, Rome, and Gaul, although his acquaintance with Palestine, Greece, and Egypt was minimal. We cannot say that he represents the whole of second-century Christianity, but he does represent the majority views outside Alexandria, where Christian speculative thought was closer to the Gnosticism he fought. He represents the literary categories of his predecessors as well as the areas through which he has passed (Irenaeus of Lyons, The Early Church Fathers, London: Routledge, 1997, 1).

Yes, Irenaeus is no obscure saint, nor is he a lightweight. Although there are not many Churches named after him and, to my knowledge, not a huge popular devotion (outside of Lyons, France), Irenaeus is a major saint and one of the most important thinkers of the Christian community, especially in that time period between the death of the last of the Apostles of our Lord, Saint John the Evangelist, and the time when Christianity was more widely permitted after the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313.

It is important for us to recognize what theology was like in this early period of the Church. There really wasn’t much time for clear, systematic reflection on deep issues of Christian theology.

Recall that it was rather difficult for those early Christians to reflect on whether Christ has one will or two wills, one intellect or two intellects, whether he has one operation of the will or two, etc., when they were literally running for their lives because they confessed believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. It really wasn’t until times of relative peace from persecution that systematic theology could really be established.

With this being stated, what do we know about Saint Irenaeus of Lyons? We know that he was born around the year A.D. 120, that he spoke Greek, and that he would have lived somewhere in what is known as Asia Minor.

As a young man it is thought that he would have been a student of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (A.D. 69-155). What makes this particularly interesting is that Saint Polycarp was a follower of the Beloved Disciple, Saint John the Evangelist, who was the last of the Apostles to die, and was in fact the only Apostle to not die a martyrs’ death, having entered into eternal life while in exile on the Island of Patmos. It is there at Patmos that most scholars believe that Saint John the Apostle wrote his Apocalypse, which we have today in the Holy Bible as the Book of Revelation.

The fact that Saint Irenaeus was so close in time to the Apostles and thus, to the Lord Jesus Christ himself, is what makes him so particularly important.

Irenaeus, even in the course of his lifetime, was known by many other Christian thinkers. He bravely decided to preach the faith in modern-day France, the region of Gaul. There, he attempted to assist the local bishop, Saint Pothinus in the preaching of the Gospel, and it is there that he witnessed the martyrdom of Pothinus in A.D. 177.

At this time, Irenaeus was asked to assume the office of bishop and was leading the persecuted Christians of his diocese, constantly persecuted, always under the threat of martyrdom.

It is in his role of bishop that Irenaeus began to write his major theological works. Perhaps it is important for us to recall that Saint Irenaeus was not writing as an academic theologian. He was addressing, as a local shepherd of souls, as a bishop, the very real needs of the flock which had been given to him by the Lord’s providence.

It is as bishop of a local Christian community that he suffered martyrdom and it is as a pastor that he wrote his most famous work, the incredibly important work Adversus Haereses (Against the Heretics) [written perhaps between A.D. 174-189). Here, he begins to address the serious issues doctrinally that his congregation was facing.

In my next article, I intend to examine what it was that Saint Irenaeus was addressing in his major work, Adversus Haereses, and to demonstrate some of his theology, which is still pertinent to us today. Irenaeus is a saint and a martyr, and in his writings, shows himself to be a true teacher, a Doctor of the Church. Our guides in our study of Saint Irenaeus will be the aforementioned Robert M. Grant, as well as Dominican Father Denis Minns and (most especially) Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.