Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Church History 101: Irenaeus

Read the Introduction to this series – 50 people you need to know: Church History 101

[Guest post by Josh Strickland]

Irenaeus (130-200; pronounced eer-uh-NAY-us) was the bishop of Lyons (in modern day France) during the last quarter of the 2nd century. Irenaeus was a follower of Polycarp, who was already covered in this series.

Bishop, author, and missionary, Irenaeus led the push to solidify unity within the church: recognizing which books were divinely inspired as Scripture, defending the faith against the heresy of Gnosticism, and setting up doctrinal foundations to hold the faithful for centuries to come.

Irenaeus is someone you definitely need to know.

Who was Irenaeus?

Very little is known about the life of Irenaeus; much more is known about him through his writings. Accounts relate that Irenaeus grew up in a Christ-following family in or near Smyrna, where Polycarp was bishop.

The opportunity to hear Polycarp was commonplace for Irenaeus, who joyfully recounts listening to Polycarp's teaching and preaching. Over some time, Irenaeus became one of the elders of the church in Lugdunum, or Lyons.

The church suffered through heavy persecution under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, yet the church still sent Irenaeus to Rome with a letter concerning Montanism. This trip changed his life, as the rest of the elders in Lyons were killed from the persecution while Irenaeus was still in Rome. After returning to Lyons, Irenaeus was made bishop of Lyons, where he served for most (if not all) of the rest of his life.

Irenaeus wrote two major books: Against Heresies, a five book volume which was a mixture of an defense against Gnosticism (particularly against the Valentinian sect) with a systematic and doctrinal theology, and Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, a much shorter work that was mostly a summary of the theology portions from Against Heresies.

He wrote several other works, but most of what we know about these works is solely from other early Church Fathers references to them. Jerome and others claim that Irenaeus was martyred under the persecution of Septimus Severus (ca. 202), but no evidence has been found to verify the claim. We don't know how, but he died and was buried under the church building in Lyons.

Why do you need to know Irenaeus?

If Polycarp is Obi-Wan Kenobi, then Irenaeus is Luke Skywalker. The ever faithful defender of the church, there was no one else so pointedly staunch and able to defend Christianity from the growing heretical sects in the region. And where Polycarp began the idea of codifying the New Testament books together, Irenaeus finished the claim.

The central aspect of Irenaeus' legacy is assuredly his most important impact in the church: the regula fidei. Translated as "rule of faith," the regula fidei is the Christ-centered summary of the grand narrative of Scripture. While these ideas or phrases may be familiar to modern Christians, they originated with Irenaeus.

This rule of faith wasn't secret by any means; the rule of faith was the summation doctrines that every Christian believed and publicly proclaimed. These publicly-claimed oral traditions formed the basis for right teaching, defense of the faith, proclamation of new belief and apostolic succession.

When Marcion decided to cut the entire Old Testament and most of the current apostolic writings from his "scripture," the alarm sounded that it was not only necessary to determine which books and letters were to be included in the canon of Christian Scripture, but also why they were to be included.

It is here where the regula fidei stands its ground. Irenaeus was adamant that the four Gospels we currently have – and only those four, compared to other "Gospels" – were divinely inspired.
"The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men. From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit." Against Heresies 3.11.8 
The regula fidei served as the baseline for weeding through the entirety of books and letters to draw out and hold together the inspired books we have today, even if the canon of New Testament books wasn't finalized during Irenaeus' time.

As Valentinus grew his sect of Gnosticism, he claimed that only the Gnostics had acquired a secret oral tradition from the apostles that proved Gnosticism to be correct. However, this was in direct conflict with the regula fidei, and Irenaeus proved through public knowledge that the appointments of all of the current bishops could be traced back to the apostles or those associated with the apostles, that no one in those succession lines had taught anything differently than what was agreed upon in the regula fidei, and that any secret oral tradition smacked against the whole purpose and mission of Christ Jesus.

Irenaeus added that even more important than the actual line of succession of bishops and elders from the apostles was the succession of the rule of faith from the apostles – their teaching and preaching.
"But the followers of Valentinus, putting away all fear, bring forward their own compositions and boast that they have more Gospels than really exist. Indeed their audacity has gone so far that they entitle their recent composition the Gospel of Truth, though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the apostles, and so no Gospel of theirs is free from blasphemy. For if what they produce is the Gospel of Truth, and is different from those which the apostles handed down to us, those who care to can learn how it can be show from the Scriptures themselves that [then] what is handed down from the apostles is not the Gospel of Truth." Against Heresies 3.11.9 
The rule of faith also found itself the basis for oral and written creeds. The Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed have been profoundly popular and useful over the centuries, and both of these are heavily grounded in what was agreed to be the rule of faith considered by Irenaeus.

Odd Trivia Fact: The Protestant Huguenots in Southern France, completely destroyed both Irenaeus' tomb and remains in 1562. Oops.

Today's post was written by Josh Strickland. If you would like to write a guest post for the Church History 101 series, check out the list of 50 people and let me know via email, Twitter or Facebook.

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