Irenaeus is remembered today for just one famous line: “the glory of God is man, fully alive!” It is a sentence potent with meaning, but it does not do justice to the man who was not only a great bishop and theologian, but who finally gave his life for the faith.
Irenaeus – his name means ‘lover of peace’ – was born in the year 130 AD in Smyrna, now known as Izmir in Turkey. As a boy he was a disciple of Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of John the Evangelist. So Irenaeus stood in a direct line of discipleship to Jesus himself. As a young priest he was sent toLyons, at that time a major city inGaulto help the local bishop there. It was a time of persecution under the emperor Marcus Aurelius, which the local church bore courageously and without flinching.
But Irenaeus was not only a pastor, he was a theological writer of great repute. His most famous work, Against Heresies, confronted the Gnostic heresy that perceived salvation as a secret doctrine, reserved only for a small number of the elect. Irenaeus had studied the Scriptures as well as eastern philosophy, and he challenged the Gnostic heretics with the truth that, in Jesus, salvation is available to all. Another of his writings, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, was a presentation of the doctrines of the faith for use by ordinary Christian lay people. It is the ancestor of our later catechisms. No wonder Irenaeus is considered “the father of Catholic theology”.
In the end, it was not just his writings but his whole life which gave witness to the Lord, for Irenaeus died a martyr’s death around the year 200, in another great wave of persecutions.