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Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons: Gnostic Fighter and Unifying Theologian

Pastor Derek Vreeland gives a brief introduction to an important early church father.


Early Life

Irenaeus, from the Church of St. Irenaeus, Lyon, France.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Little is known about the early life of Irenaeus (c. 130-202). He was born into a Christian home in Asia Minor in modern-day Turkey. Most Catholic histories claim that he was born in Smyrna. (The dates of his birth and death have been debated.)

As a boy he sat under the teaching of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. Polycarp was martyred in 156 AD. The death of Polycarp is legendary. It is recorded that Polycarp was tied to a stake and asked to renounce his faith in Christ. He replied, “For 86 years I have been His servant and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” Polycarp was sentence to be burned at the stake by the Roman government. According to tradition, when the fire was lit, Polycarp was not consumed by the flames. A Roman guard stabbed him in the side and according to one eyewitness a dove flew out. So much blood poured out from his side that it put the fire out.

As a young man, Irenaeus was quite influenced by Polycarp. Irenaeus wrote,

I can tell the very place in which the blessed Polycarp used to sit when he preached his sermons, how he came in and went out, the manner of his life, what he looked like, the sermons he delivered to the people, and how he used to report his association with John and the others who had seen the Lord, how he would relate their words, and the things concerning the Lord he had heard from them, about His miracles, and teachings. Polycarp had received all this from eyewitnesses of the Word of life, and related all these things in accordance with the Scriptures. I listened eagerly to these things at the time, by God’s mercy which was bestowed on me, and I made notes of them not on paper, but in my heart, and constantly by the grace of God I mediate on them faithfully.[i]

His connection to Polycarp puts Irenaeus in a special category. Irenaeus was discipled by Polycarp who was discipled by John who was discipled by Jesus himself.

At sometime during Irenaeus’ early years he moved to Lyons in South France. Lyons was the capital of the Roman occupied France. It was a booming city known for its many merchants. The church in Lyons was planted by missionaries from Asia Minor. So for Irenaeus the church in South France was a kindred spirit with the church in Asia Minor.


Days of ministry

Location of Lugdunum in Gaul, renamed Lyons in the Medieval Period.

The Bishop of the church in Lyons was Pothinus, a native of Asia Minor. At sometime during the early 170s, Irenaeus became a presbyter at the church in Lyons. In 177, Pothinus sent Irenaeus on a mission trip to Rome. This was during the brutal persecution of the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius. The emperor was infuriated by the confidence and faith of Christians who had a greater peace than that of his Stoic mentors. Often Aurelius would crucify Christians along the roadsides through the Roman Empire. On one occasion, he surrounded his palace garden with crucified Christians and lit them on fire to light the garden at night.

Pothinus was martyred during 177 or 178 AD during a time of persecution in Lyons. Irenaeus was spared while he was away. When he returned in 178, he was installed as the second bishop of Lyons. From there he taught and wrote until his death sometime between 200 and 206 A.D.) As bishop, Irenaeus had that heart of a pastor. He was also a unifier. He was often called upon as a moderator when debates broke out in the Church. For example, there was a debate over whether Easter should be celebrated on Nisan 14 according to the Jewish Passover or on a Sunday, the day of the resurrection. Irenaeus continually submitted that the dates of religious holidays where not more important than maintaining the bond of love and unity in the Church.

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Category: Church History, Spring 2017

About the Author: Derek Vreeland, MDiv (Oral Roberts University), DMin (Asbury Theological Seminary), is the Discipleship Pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He is the author of Shape Shifters: How God Changes the Human Heart: A Trinitarian Vision of Spiritual Transformation (Word & Spirit Press, 2008), Primal Credo: Your Entrance into the Apostles' Creed (Doctrina Press, 2011), and Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Reader's Guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Doctrina Press, 2015). Twitter: @DerekVreeland

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