Church History for Dummies #2: Irenaeus

Irenaeus was born in Asia Minor, likely between the years AD 115–140 and lived till around AD 202 with some believing that he was martyred. Living in these regions afforded him the opportunity to study under the Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp. Later in his life, Irenaeus moved to Gaul to become the Bishop of Lyons in AD 177, succeeding Pothinus who suffered Martyrdom.

Irenaeus’ teaching focused on several, core Christian truths and a lot of his efforts were spent countering the rise and presence of Gnosticism, among other heresies that arose from Rome in the secondary century. The two most notable contributions are his two works Against Heresies and Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. In the former, Irenaeus seeks to undermine and overthrow the Gnosticism present in his day; and the latter work presented instructions for proving that the Christian faith brings the Old Testament to its fulfillment. It must be noted that Ireneaus’ efforts against Gnosticism were successful: he would not let Gnosticism be in any way confused with Christianity, nor did he wish for the twisted system of Gnosticism to prevail. His fight against these heresies is said to have been the weapon that God wielded to banish its unwanted presence.


Irenaeus’ teaching focused on several, core Christian truths and a lot of his efforts were spent countering the rise and presence of Gnosticism.


His work, Against Heresies consists of five books, with the first two coverings a detailed description of heresies and their absurdities proven, both briefly and in depth, and the remaining three serving as Irenaeus’ attempt to clearly lay out the true doctrines of revelation. Although addressing the prevailing heresies, Against Heresies afford us with insight into the church of the second century.

Scholars admit that the translation and interpretation of Against Heresies is at best difficult as his style and use of Greek is both complex and verbose, not to mention the strangeness of the heresies that Irenaeus engages with. This body of work does present a man well learned, with a firm grasp of the Scriptures. This is in spite of a few odd peculiarities indebted to Irenaeus, such as the length of Jesus ministry, which according to him lasted upward of ten years. The first printed copy of Against Heresies was produced by Erasmus in 1526 and has enjoyed several reprints since then with varying sources. Some editions have included additions of fragments, which have helped to aid our reading of this important patristic text.

Over and above these two major works, Irenaeus’ teachings affirmed core Christian doctrines such as God has sole creator of all things, Christ as the one sent to die in order to save humanity, as well as the hope of the resurrection. Additional significant contributions from Irenaeus include his paradigm for interpreting the Bible through the ‘canon of truth,’ and the emphasis of the covenantal framework driving the Bible’s story line. Connected to this is the relationship between Christ and Adam, with the former coming to retrace the latter’s steps, a development that is credited to Irenaeus.


Irenaeus’ teachings affirmed core Christian doctrines such as God has sole creator of all things, Christ as the one sent to die in order to save humanity, as well as the hope of the resurrection.


Irenaeus’ ministry in and around Lyons of Gaul is equally matched with his fight against heresies. His ministry included the evangelisation of surrounding regions as well as the sending out of missionaries into uncharted territories of modern day France. Irenaeus is also attributed as having laboured in preserving unity among the church, between the East and West.


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