August 23, 2022

Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (St. Justin Popovich)

By St. Justin Popovich
Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, is one of the most famous fathers and teachers of the Church. He lived and practiced asceticism in the second century, devoting his whole life to the struggle with Gnosticism [1]. His importance for the Christian Church of the second century can be compared with the importance of Saint Athanasius the Great [2] for the Christian Church of the fourth century. Both of them appear in their life and work primarily as protectors of pure, unaltered Church teachings against the false heretical teachings of their time: Saint Irenaeus - against Gnosticism, Saint Athanasius - against Arianism. [3]

Saint Irenaeus was born in the city of Smyrna, in Asia Minor; from an early age he dedicated himself to the thorough study of Hellenic wisdom, and became an excellent connoisseur of Greek poetry, philosophy and other Hellenic sciences. However, worldly knowledge did not impress young Irenaeus. Hearing about spiritual wisdom, Christian wisdom, and starting to get acquainted with it, he was delighted with it and wanted to adopt it wholeheartedly, because he felt its salutary and immeasurable importance.

The truths of the Christian faith were first learned by the young Irenaeus from Saint Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna. Saint Polycarp was a disciple of the holy apostle and evangelist John the Theologian, who appointed him bishop of the city of Smyrna. As a bishop, he labored much for the Church of Christ, because he took care not only of his flock in Smyrna, but also wrote epistles to neighboring churches. According to the testimony of blessed Jerome [4], Polycarp was "the leader of Christianity in all Asia."

A student of such a holy and divinely-wise teacher, Irenaeus loved soul-beneficial Christian teachings more than any secular science. Having become a disciple of Polycarp, Saint Irenaeus seemed to become a disciple of the Lord Christ Himself, because he wholeheartedly adopted the truths of the Christian faith with his mind and gave himself completely to the service of God. Since Saint Polycarp was a disciple of the holy apostle and evangelist John the Theologian, he passed on to Saint Irenaeus all that he had heard from eyewitnesses and servants of Christ - the holy apostles.

Because of his virtuous life and humble gospel learning, Saint Irenaeus was ordained by Saint Polycarp as a presbyter and sent to Gaul to preach the word of God. At that time, Saint Pothinus was the bishop in Lyon, who later sealed his preaching of the gospel with martyrdom for Christ. Arriving in Lyon, Saint Irenaeus began to work hard, helping Saint Pothinus in his archpastoral affairs. After some time, a fierce persecution of Christians arose in Lyon, and Saint Irenaeus proved to be a brave protector of Christians and a strong pillar of the Church. From Lyon, Saint Irenaeus was sent by Bishop Pothinus to Rome, to take the letter of the confessor to Bishop Eleutherius.

After his return from Rome, Saint Irenaeus ascended to the episcopal throne of Saint Pothinus, since the latter was martyred [5]. As bishop, Saint Irenaeus wisely led his flock of Lyons in difficult times, because many troubles attacked the Church of Christ: heathen idolaters persecuted Christians, and impious heretics began to create confusion and discord in the Church of God. Saint Irenaeus patiently endured for the sake of the name of Christ the pressures and inconveniences caused to him by the idolaters, and he fought fearlessly against heretics with his word and his books. The archpastoral activity of Saint Irenaeus was not limited to Lyon, whose citizens he converted to Christianity, but extended to all of Gaul. In addition, Saint Irenaeus maintained lively ties with the Roman Church and with the Churches of Asia Minor, as evidenced by his epistles addressed to the bishops there.

Saint Irenaeus showed great zeal in overthrowing and refuting the heretical teachings of that time. To this end, he wrote many books, in which he wisely refuted the heretics' errors and presented and defended the truths of the Christian faith. Of all his works, the most significant is the one titled: "Against Heresies", or more precisely: "The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called", in five books. Saint Irenaeus began writing this work at the request of one of his friends in order to refute the Valentinian heresy [6], who at that time had greatly spread their false teaching not only in Rome but also in Gaul. Then, wanting to show the falsity and essence of the Valentinian heresy, which repeats the errors of earlier heretics, Saint Irenaeus describes the old heresies that had previously appeared and entered into conflict with Christianity, with true Christian wisdom refuting all the heretics' errors and revealing the only saving teaching of the Christian Church. At the same time, the guiding thought of the godly father, Saint Irenaeus, is this: "Everyone who wants to know the truth should turn to the Church, because the apostles communicated the divine truth to her alone, and, like a rich man in a treasury, deposited in her all that relates to the truth. Only the Church is the door of life." [7]

Saint Irenaeus bases this meaning of the Church, as the only infallible guardian and bearer of the true apostolic tradition, on the fact that the Holy Spirit constantly resides in the Church and divine gifts and powers are constantly at work. The Spirit of God, according to the teaching of Saint Irenaeus, dwells in the Church since its foundation. He is like the life and soul of the Church; He moves and governs it as the soul moves and governs the members of our body. Everything is given in the Church, by which our salvation is accomplished. Because the Spirit of God resides in the Church constantly and immediately, the Church can never make a mistake or fall into error. Hence the divine truth, handed down to her orally or in writing by the holy apostles, will always remain in her one and the same, as pure and divine as it was with the apostles, because the same Holy Spirit worked in the apostles and is working now in the Church - in the person of their recipients. The inheritance of the apostolic vocation is preserved in the Church everywhere and continuously, and at the same time the apostolic tradition is preserved in its pure and undamaged form. In general, says Saint Irenaeus, the Church, although scattered throughout the world, preserves everywhere one and the same teaching through the presence in it of one and the same Spirit of God and the continuity in it of one and the same apostolic vocation. She believes equally, having as one soul and one heart; she equally preaches, teaches and exhorts, having as one mouth. They believe equally and have one and the same tradition of the Church in Germany, and in Spain, and in Gaul, and in the East, in Egypt and Libya. Just as the sun is one and the same in the whole world, so the preaching of the truth shines and enlightens all one and the same in the whole Church. [8]

Thus teaching and instructing everyone, Saint Irenaeus saved many from heathen idolatry and from heretical errors; he continued many Christians on the path of salvation, and some were encouraged to martyrdom. Finally, he himself suffered for the name of Christ at the time of Emperor Severus [9]:  his head was cut off. And so Saint Irenaeus received the glorious crown of martyrdom in the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.


[1] Gnosticism is a common name for many heretical teachings that arose during the first two centuries of the Christian era.

[2] His memory is celebrated on January 18 and May 2.

[3] See about it in the Life of St. Athanasius the Great under January 18.

[4] One of the greatest Fathers of the Christian Church in the West; lived from 330 to 419; highly educated and learned, he undertook many exploits, traveled a lot, and wrote many valuable books. In addition, he translated the Holy Scriptures into the Latin language; that translation known as the Vulgate.

[5] Saint Pothinus was martyred in 177. We commemorate him today.

[6] We got this name from the name of the main founder of this heresy - Valentinus.

[7] "Against Heresies", Book 1, Chapter 10.

[8] "Against Heresies", Book 1, chapter 10.

[9] Emperor Severus reigned from 193 to 211. Saint Irenaeus was martyred in 202. 

Source: Lives of the Saints. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.