Saint Irenaeus of Lyon was a 2nd-century bishop of the city of Lugdunum in Roman Gaul, which today is known as Lyon in France. He was a disciple of Saint Polycarp, who was a disciple of Saint John the Apostle, who was one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ. Saint Irenaeus lived at a time when the Christians who had known Jesus during his earthly ministry had all just passed, and so there were emerging many distortions and misinterpretations of Chritian teaching by determined heretics. Saint Irenaeus was known for writing an important text, Against Heresies, that defended orthodox Christian theology against these heresies, and laid down principles for how Christians could determine what is true. He affirmed that true Christian teaching was passed down from Jesus to us through scripture and the tradition passed down from the apostles , and emphasised the role of the Christian church the apostles established as a repository of truth. In this episode, we discuss Saint Irenaeus' influence, and read from passages of his book, Against Heresies.
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Irenaeus of Lyons
Saint Irenaeus was born around the years 120-130 AD in Smyrna, in modern-day Turkey. He was a Greek from a Christian family, who provided for him a good education, and placed him under the care of Saint Polycarp. Polycarp himself was a disciple of the Apostle John, who was one of Jesus Christ’s 12 disciples. So in some sense, Ireneaus was only three generations removed from Christ. Saint Ireneaus would later write some recollections of his time with Polycarp, in this letter to a friend.
When I was still a boy, I knew you... in Polycarp’s house.... I remember what happened in those days more clearly than what happens now.... I can describe for you the place where blessed Polycarp usually sat and conversed, the character of his life, the appearance of his body, and the discourses which he spoke to the people, how he spoke of the conversations which he had with John and others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what he heard from them about the Lord ... I listened eagerly to these things, by the mercy of God, and wrote them, not on paper, but in my heart.”
This idea of learning truth passed down from Christ through the apostles would be a major theme in St Ireneus’s writings, since he himself learned from St Polycarp, who learned from the Apostle John, who learned from Jesus himself.
Saint Ireneus would end up as the Bishop of Lugdunum, in Roman Gaul. This city is known as Lyons today, in France. Not much is known about his life, beyond these details. Saint Ireneus is known and celebrated today mainly for his writings, particularly his defense of the Christian faith against heretics.
Saint Ireneus lived in a time shortly after the generation that knew Jesus Christ in person had died, so there were emerging all kinds of distortions and misinterpretations about the Christian faith. Saint Ireneus wrote his most important book “Against Heresies”, to dissect and explain the Christian heresies of his time, and argue why they are wrong.
This book is long, written in 5 volumes, but I think it is really amazing, and all Christians should gain at least some familiarity with it. Parts of it are difficult for the modern reader however. Large chunks of the book have him analyzing the beliefs of various heretical sects of the time, and explaining how they have manipulated and misinterpreted the words of scripture to deceive people. Almost all of these heresies have long died out in our day, so those parts of the book are hard for us to read and appreciate today. But there are also large parts of Against Heresies which talk about how Christians should discern truth from falsehood, how to read scripture correctly, and the role of the church in preserving the gospel truth. These parts of the book are as relevant today as they were in the 2nd century AD, as we too live in an age where there is a lot of confusion about what Christian truth is, and many charlatans misinterpret and twist the words of the Bible and lead people astray. Let me quote from the book’s introduction, where St Ireneus explains his purpose:
Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain
genealogies, which, as the apostle says, minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in
faith, and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the
inexperienced and take them captive, [I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the
following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations.] These men falsify the
oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also
overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge,
from Him who rounded and adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, they had something more
excellent and sublime to reveal, than that God who created the heaven and the earth, and all
things that are therein. By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the
simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them, while
they initiate them into their blasphemous and impious opinions
The main heresy that Saint Ireneus had to deal with were forms of gnosticism. Gnostic cults often lured follwers by promises of secret knowledge. Another important heresy addressed in his book, Montanism taught that the Holy Spirit was giving them new knowledge directly (called the “New Prophecy) that superceded what Christ and the apostles taught.
Thus Ireneus’ book thus contains a lot of meditations on the nature of knowledge, including this wonderful section entitled “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies”- a quote from one of Apostle Paul’s letters to the Corinthians
Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.
1. It is therefore better and more profitable to belong to the simple and unlettered class, and by
means of love to attain to nearness to God, than, by imagining ourselves learned and skilful, to
be found [among those who are] blasphemous against their own God, inasmuch as they conjure
up another God as the Father. And for this reason Paul exclaimed, Knowledge puffs up, but love
edifies: 1 Corinthians 8:1 not that he meant to inveigh against a true knowledge of God, for in
that case he would have accused himself; but, because he knew that some, puffed up by the
pretence of knowledge, fall away from the love of God, and imagine that they themselves are
perfect, for this reason that they set forth an imperfect Creator, with the view of putting an end to
the pride which they feel on account of knowledge of this kind, he says, Knowledge puffs up, but
love edifies. Now there can be no greater conceit than this, that any one should imagine he is
better and more perfect than He who made and fashioned him, and imparted to him the breath of
life, and commanded this very thing into existence. It is therefore better, as I have said, that one
should have no knowledge whatever of any one reason why a single thing in creation has been
made, but should believe in God, and continue in His love, than that, puffed up through
knowledge of this kind, he should fall away from that love which is the life of man; and that he
should search after no other knowledge except [the knowledge of] Jesus Christ the Son of God,
who was crucified for us, than that by subtle questions and hair-splitting expressions he should
fall into impiety.
St Ireneus expands on this theme of knowledge later in the book, and reminds us that knowledge comes from God, and that we should be humble in our lack of knowledge and ignorance, and not confuse wild speculations with truth:
. If, therefore, even with respect to creation, there are some things [the knowledge of] which
belongs only to God, and others which come within the range of our own knowledge, what
ground is there for complaint, if, in regard to those things which we investigate in the Scriptures
(which are throughout spiritual), we are able by the grace of God to explain some of them, while
we must leave others in the hands of God, and that not only in the present world, but also in that
which is to come, so that God should for ever teach, and man should for ever learn the things
taught him by God? As the apostle has said on this point, that, when other things have been done
away, then these three, faith, hope, and charity, shall endure. 1 Corinthians 13:13 For faith,
which has respect to our Master, endures unchangeably, assuring us that there is but one true
God, and that we should truly love Him for ever, seeing that He alone is our Father; while we
hope ever to be receiving more and more from God, and to learn from Him, because He is good,
and possesses boundless riches, a kingdom without end, and instruction that can never be
exhausted. If, therefore, according to the rule which I have stated, we leave some questions in the
hands of God, we shall both preserve our faith uninjured, and shall continue without danger; and
all Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and
the parables shall harmonize with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements
the meaning of which is clear, shall serve to explain the parables; and through the many
diversified utterances [of Scripture] there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising
in hymns that God who created all things. If, for instance, any one asks, What was God doingbefore He made the world? we reply that the answer to such a question lies with God Himself.
For that this world was formed perfect by God, receiving a beginning in time, the Scriptures
teach us; but no Scripture reveals to us what God was employed about before this event. The
answer therefore to that question remains with God, and it is not proper for us to aim at bringing
forward foolish, rash, and blasphemous suppositions [in reply to it]; so, as by one's imagining
that he has discovered the origin of matter, he should in reality set aside God Himself who made
Naturally, Against Heresies also contain long discussions on how to properly interpret scripture. He lists down specific Bible verses which are read out of context and twisted by the heretics. He also has general instructions on how to properly read the scriptures, such as this passage here, which I think is relevant still today:
Proper mode of interpreting parables and obscure passages of Scripture.
1. A sound mind, and one which does not expose its possessor to danger, and is devoted to piety
and the love of truth, will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed within the
power of mankind, and has subjected to our knowledge, and will make advancement in
[acquaintance with] them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study.
These things are such as fall [plainly] under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously
in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures. And therefore the parables ought not to be
adapted to ambiguous expressions. For, if this be not done, both he who explains them will do so
without danger, and the parables will receive a like interpretation from all, and the body of truth
remains entire, with a harmonious adaptation of its members, and without any collision [of its
several parts]. But to apply expressions which are not clear or evident to interpretations of the
parables, such as every one discovers for himself as inclination leads him, [is absurd. ] For in this
way no one will possess the rule of truth; but in accordance with the number of persons who
explain the parables will be found the various systems of truth, in mutual opposition to each
other, and setting forth antagonistic doctrines, like the questions current among the Gentile
One of the most important passages deals with the role of the church in preserving Christian truth. When there are so many conflicting and confusing ideas about what Christian truth is, and so many different interpretations and misinterpretations of scripture, we must ultimately look at the church established by Christ and the apostles as the repository of truth. These passages, in the third volume of Against Heresies, had an enormous influence on how Christians understand doctrine today, and how we use the teachings of the apostles, through scripture and church tradition, to discern what is true:
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom
the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later
period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our
faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed perfect knowledge, as
some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our
Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy
Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they
departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to
us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually
possess the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their
own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the
Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down tous in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a
book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had
leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to
contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we
are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches,
and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor
knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden
mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to the perfect apart and privily from the rest,
they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the
Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and
blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up
their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions
honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.
2. Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the
successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner,
whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in
unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles,
of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at
Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith
preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For
it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its
preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been
preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
. Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it
is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a
bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man,
whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. Revelation 22:17 For she is the entrance to
life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make
choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the
tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some
important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with
which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in
regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left uswritings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which
they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?
Saint Ireneus’ book was largely successful. Against heresies was widely distributed, and the heresies he condemned in that book ceased to become a threat to the Christian church in his time. Saint Ireneus would be killed in one of the Roman Empires’ persecutions of Christians around the year 202with many others in Lyons. After his martyrdom, Saint Ireneus was buried in a crypt in Lyons. Sadly, in 1562 his relics were destroyed by Calvinists during one of the many wars that followed the protestant reformation. Saint Ireneus is commemorated on August 23 in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and on June 28 in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Christian saints podcast. Look for the Christian Saints podcast page on Facebook or Instagram, or look for us on Twitter at podcast_saints. All music in this episode was composed by my good friend, James John Marks of Generative sounds. Please check out his music at https://generativesoundsjjm.bandcamp.com/
Let us end with this wonderful prayer, attributed to Saint Ireneus:
O Lamb of God,
who takes away the sin of the world,
look upon us and have mercy upon us;
You who art Yourself, both victim and Priest,
Yourself, both Reward and Redeemer,
keep safe from all evil
those whom You have redeemed,
O Saviour of the world.