Saint Irenaeus: The Peacemaker Who Hated Heresy

Saint Irenaeus’ name comes from the Greek word for “peace”: εἰρήνη (eirēnē). Catholic authors often mention that he fulfilled his beautiful name when he made peace between the Christian East and Rome: “In 190 or 191 he interceded with Pope Victor to lift the sentence of excommunication laid by that pontiff upon the Christian communities of Asia Minor which persevered in the practice of the Quartodecimans in regard to the celebration of Easter.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

The peacemaker was also quite doctrinaire, as his principal work is a refutation of heresies. Here, for instance, is what he has to say about the necessity of the Church for salvation:

[The Church] is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account we are bound to avoid them… We hear it declared of the unbelieving and the blinded of this world that they shall not inherit the world of life which is to come… Resist them in defense of the only true and life giving faith, which the Church has received from the Apostles and imparted to her sons. (Against Heresies , Book III)

In the article The Church of History, I wrote the following on Saint Irenaeus, whom I now ask to pray that the Prince of Peace will confer on His Church both that peace that the world cannot give, and a holy hatred of heresy tempered with zeal for the conversion of all non-Catholics to the one, true, and saving Faith:

St. Irenaeus of Lyons very happily unites the East and the West in his person. He was born in Asia Minor in 140, either in or near the city of Smyrna. He tells us himself (Against Heresies, III, 3, 4) that he listened to the discourses of the aged St. Polycarp, the Bishop of that city, and disciple of St. John the Apostle. Irenaeus moved to the West, to Lyons in France, where he functioned as a priest during the persecution of Marcus Aurelius. During this persecution, the clergy of Lyons, most of whom were in prison, sent him with a letter to see Pope Elutherius regarding the heresy of the Montanists. When he returned from this mission, he was made bishop of Lyons, succeeding Pothinus, who died a martyr. As bishop he spent a great deal of time fighting the Gnostic heresy, which was ravaging the Church at the time. Though the exact date of his death is unknown, St. Jerome tells us that he was martyred in the persecution of Septimus Severus (193-211).

Greek Icon of Saint Irenaeus

His principal work was that to which we have referred several times already, Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies ). The full title of the work was, Detection and Overthrow of the pretended but false Gnosis . As the name suggests, it was an anti-Gnostic polemic.

A passing familiarity with this heresy would be helpful to put the Saint in his context. The Gnostic heretics claimed that all matter was evil because it was created by the evil god, the Devil, while the good god created only spiritual realities. From this principal error, which denies among other things, the omnipotence of God, many others issued. Various sects, each more perverse than the other, sprang up doing damage to faith and morals wherever they spread their poison.

There are two elements of Irenaeus’ refutation of these errors that concern us here. First, in order to confound the heretics, he established (much as this article sets out to do) that the source and standard of faith is the apostolic tradition that comes from the Church. 2 That tradition is transmitted through a succession of bishops, the first of whom were selected by the Apostles as “very perfect and blameless men” (III, 3,1). These, in turn, passed on the teaching they had received. Thus we see an unbroken continuity of doctrine from Christ to that time, which was the 170′s or 180′s. To establish this continuity, he gives only one example, the Church at Rome:

But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the Churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles.

We could stop the quote here and say that this proves our point, calling the Church of Rome the “greatest and most ancient Church known to all.” But the Saint goes further: “For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition.” (III, 3, 2, emphasis ours). Thus St. Irenaeus establishes the very principle of the Roman Catholic Faith that is rejected by both the schismatics in the East, and the Protestants in the West.

The second element that is of interest to us in Against Heresies is the Catholic doctrine concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary that it contains. Because the Gnostics attacked flesh as being evil, they naturally denied the Incarnation, God taking flesh. In so doing, they minimized, as do today’s Protestants, the tremendous role of Our Lady in the salvation of men. This is how he stated the greatness of the Virgin:

As Eve, the wife of one man (Adam), though herself yet a virgin, was through her disobedience the cause of death to herself and the entire human race, so Mary, the wife of one man (foreordained for her), and yet herself a virgin, was through her obedience the source of salvation for herself and the whole human race. (III, 22, 4).

In a later book, he says, again comparing the Blessed Virgin to Eve: “If the former had been disobedient to God, the latter was persuaded to obey Him, that the Virgin Mary might be the advocate of the Virgin Eve. And as the human race fell into the slavery of death through a virgin, so should it be saved by a virgin; the balance is made even when virginal obedience is weighed against virginal disobedience” (V, 19, 1).

What Evangelical Protestant, who claims to have the “Faith of the early Church” would dare to say that?

Addendum (July 3, 2021). In the Collect for the Mass and Divine Office of this saint’s feast, we see wordplay that incorporates both of the themes in the headline of this post:

Deus, qui beáto Irenǽo Mártyri tuo atque Pontífici tribuísti, ut et veritáte doctrínæ expugnáret hǽreses, et pacem Ecclésiæ felíciter confirmáret: da, quǽsumus, plebi tuæ in sancta religióne constántiam; et pacem tuam nostris concéde tempóribus.

That is:

O God, who enabled blessed Irenaeus thy Martyr, and Bishop, to overcome heresy by the truth of his teaching, and happily to establish peace in the Church, give to thy people, we pray, steadfastness in holy religion, and grant us thy peace in our days.