Irenaeus of Lyons: A KeyFigure
Today (28 June) in the church year marks the martyrdom of Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130-200? CE). Likely born in Smyrna (in the Greek-speaking eastern area of the Roman Empire), at some point he moved to Roman Gaul, to Ludunum (Lyons). He became prominent in the church there, and after the martyrdom of its elderly bishop (among the martyrs of Lyons) Ireneaus was elected bishop of the church. (The site of the martrydom of the Lyons Christians is known today and can be visited.)
He claims to have learned from Polycarp of Smyrna, who was martyred as well. But he became an influential writer, most known today for his large work, Against Heresies, although Eusebius (4th century CE) mentions some eight works by Irenaeus. None of Irenaeus’ works are preserved in Greek. Against Heresies survives in a Latin translation, but is itself not complete.
He is the earliest extant figure to name the familiar four NT Gospels and to confine the number of scriptural Gospels to these four. Indicative of interest in his works, we have a scrap of Against Heresies (in Greek) found at Oxyrhynchus (P. Oxy 405) that is dated palaeograghically to the late second century. If correct, this would mean that the work had reached Egypt within only a few years after its composition (ca. 180 CE).Against what he called “false gnosis,” Irenaeus advocated a doctrine of salvation in which the material body was central. Contra those who believed that salvation involved only the soul or spirit, Irenaeus argued that it involved the whole person, particularly the flesh.
But his views were complex and not always clearly coherent with one another, and scholars still probe what we have of his writings to try to understand this important figure in the consolidation of early Christianity. As one place to begin for those wishing some introduction, consider the volume of essays from a conference on Irenaeus held here in Edinburgh in 2009 under the auspices of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins: Paul Foster and Sara Parvis, ed., Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012).