Asia Minor, France
St Irenaeus is one the greatest of the early theologians of the Church. His life tells the story of how the Gospel travelled from the churches of the Eastern Mediterranean to the pagans in western Europe.
We know very little about Irenaeus’s early years, but we know that he was influenced by St Polycarp, who himself had been close to the Apostles and their followers. Irenaeus – which means ‘man of peace’ – was probably born around 125 in Asia Minor, somewhere near the border between modern day Turkey and Syria, where many early Christian communities flourished. He was sent from there as a missionary to Lyons, in the south of France, where he served as a priest under the first Bishop of Lyons, St Pothinus.
St Pothinus was martyred during the persecution under Marcus Aurelius in the year 177, at a time when Irenaeus had been sent to Rome to petition the Pope. When Irenaeus returned to Lyons he was made bishop. He had to confront a threat from the heretical Gnostic Christians, who argued against the humanity of Jesus and the goodness of creation, thus denying the humanity of Christ. Irenaeus wrote a comprehensive five-volume refutation of the Gnostic heresies in Greek. It was soon translated into Latin, and the combined force of his Against Heresies put an end to the Gnostic threat. He famously wrote:
The glory of God is a human being fully alive; and to be alive consists in beholding God. For if the manifestation of God which is made by means of the creation, affords life to all living in the earth, much more does that revelation of the Father which comes through the Word, give life to those who see God.
Irenaeus wrote many other important works. In particular he was a significant influence on settling the canon of the New Testament, deciding which books belonged to Scripture and which did not. He was especially insistent that there are exactly four gospels, no more and no less. Little else is known of his work as a bishop, though there is report that around the year 190 he pleaded with Pope Victor I not to excommunicate the churches of Asia Minor because they continued to celebrate Easter at a different time to the rest of the Church. Though he was celebrated as a martyr, nothing is known of his death.
He is thought to have died around the year 200. He was buried under the Church of St John in Lyons, later named the Church of St Irenaeus. His tomb and remains were utterly destroyed by Calvinist in 1562.
His feast day is celebrated on 28 June in the Latin Church and on 23 August in the Greek Church.