Irenaeus: A Saint for Then and Now

Oh, things were so confusing in the earliest days of Christianity!

St. Irenaeus—the second-century bishop of Lyons, France, whose feastday we celebrate on June 28—had to explain and defend the Faith both from within the Church and from outside critics.

As a young boy, Irenaeus was dedicated by his mother to the service of the Church; and he was placed in the care of Polycarp, a bishop and apologist who had learned the faith directly from St. John the Evangelist.  From Polycarp, he attained a good education in the Catholic Faith.

And what were the burning issues which divided followers of Christ, and which Irenaeus helped to clarify?

  • Canon of Scripture – For one thing, the canon of scripture had not yet been firmly set; some (such as the heretic Marcion) believed that only the writings of Paul and the Gospel of Luke could be trusted, while denying the inspiration of the other gospels.  No, said Irenaeus—all four of the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were divinely inspired; while each tells us something different about the life of Christ and about the faith, all should be read with reverence and with faith.  Because of his clear teaching on this, Irenaeus became known as the defender of the four-fold Gospel.
  • Dating of Easter – It’s difficult to understand how this simple issue could have so divided the Church as to threaten schism.  That’s what happened, though!  The Church of Rome, following tradition established by Peter, always celebrated Easter on a Sunday.  The Eastern churches, however, celebrated according to the date of the Passover on the Jewish calendar.  Irenaeus respected apostolic diversity, and persuaded the Pope not to excommunicate the leaders of the churches in Asia Minor.  Rather, he encouraged, the wisdom of each should be respected.
  • Strong Defense Against Gnosticism – And Irenaeus is known especially for his clear teaching against the Gnostics, who claimed that that they possessed a secret oral tradition received from Jesus himself.  Irenaeus wisely pointed them back to the teaching magisterium—the bishops in different cities, all of whom drew their ordination back to the Apostles.  None of the early bishops, Irenaeus pointed out, were gnostics; and the only safe way to protect the Church which Christ founded from heresy was to follow the bishops in interpreting and understanding the Scripture.

Irenaeus remains an inspiration for unity today.  He is considered a saint not only by Roman Catholics, but also by the Eastern Orthodox, by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and by the Episcopal Church in the United States.

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  • Michael

    Mrs. Schiffer:
    Thank you for your article on St. Irenaeus. We need his example, wisdom, and intercession as much today as in his own era. So many of the chattering classes (the litterati) – those in high profile positions in universities and with connections to the media, as well as many recently published works call into question the Canon of Scripture in our own day. Between the pulp fiction of Dan Brown, and writers and such as Elaine Pagels who are given forums on the History Channel as “experts” and present themselves as an alternative magisterium, the gnostic “gospels” and the calling into question of the rectitude of the Apostle’s competency / magisterium to determine which epistles were spurious and which authentic attempts to challenge the authenticity of the Sacred Scriptures again in our own day. The respect and honor that Irenaeus lived with regards to the authority of the bishops in communion with the successor of Saint Peter as the living Word of God (i. e. the authoritative teaching Magisterium), embodied in apostolic succession and the guarantee of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in matters of faith and morals is exemplary. Similarly, to this day the importance of the reverent celebration of the sacred liturgy in accordance with established liturgical norms and the ecumenical respect given to the variety of forms (e. g. the Chaldean, Marionite, extraordinary/Tridentine, Anglicanorum, and Roman) perseveres to this day. The generosity, respect, and tolerant restraint in the face of a variety of liturgical traditions, as well as the deference that he showed to the See of Peter in his counsel and his filial obedience to its decisions is refreshing and much needed in our day and age as well (here I’m thinking of SSPX on the one hand, and clown / dancing masses on the other). Finally, in an age that appreciates “spirituality”, but demurs at “formal religion”, too many youth find theire doctrine and worship on the internet in the millions of bloggers and YouTubers who each set themselves up “ex cathedra” as their own self actualizing popes. The very idea that truth matters and that it is not relative is anathema. Each and every person discovers their own gnosis and no one’s subjectivity is closer or farther away from absolute Truth than anyone else’s. Irenaeus, I believe, would agree that every one’s faith journey is unique but still maintained, Adversus Haereses, that the very idea of subjective truth implies, or rather, participates in absolute Truth in greater or lesser degree as it agrees with the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We would do well to follow his example, make his wisdom our own, and seek his intercessory prayer.

    • Michael

      I know it’s self serving to reply to my own post, but I felt I was pushing the limit on length and I forgot to share my favorite St. Irenaeus quote. I hope you will forgive me.
      “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”
      Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) paragraphs 456-483.

  • Carl

    My wife Beverly Irene considers him to be her patron saint. She regrets that dispite his well deserved noteriey she has never been able to find a medal or holy card respresenting him.


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