Irenaeus was a second century Bishop and theologian. Born c.125, Irenaeus heard the teaching of Polycarp (more on him can be found here), who in turn had heard the Apostle John teaching the Gospel. Irenaeus was converted as a young man, and after taking this defining and challenging decision to follow Christ in a hostile ancient world, Irenaeus ended up in Lyons.
The then bishop of the city, the local church leader Pothinus, sent the young Christian to Rome, where Irenaeus was on mission for the cause of the Gospel. During this time away from Lyons, a fierce persecution broke out, and Pothinus was among the many Christians in and around the city to be put to death.
The Lyons that Irenaeus returned to was a different town to the one he had left only a few years before. But shortly after his return in c.180, Irenaeus was made Bishop of the small surviving church there, and it is in this role he would remain till his death in c.202 AD.
Irenaeus is remembered as a teacher, writer and theologian, whose most famous work was his Refutation Of Heresies.
Irenaeus’ Refutation primarily challenged the heresy of Gnosticism.
The gnostics arose during the first century, and operated on the fringes of Christian and Jewish groups. They taught transcendence and enlightenment, not sin and salvation. The gnostic considered the way to salvation being a personal understanding of the supreme divine, a mysterious force that they taught superseded the Christian God. Christ, sin and repentance were all concepts discarded by the gnostic, instead their writings deal with spiritual forces, transcendence and wisdom. Such wisdom made them an elite sect, only the enlightened could access their spirituality, and understand the role their gods and powers played in the world
Clearly, these gnostics had moved far away from the Gospel, and rightly, Irenaeus challenged them on this.
Irenaeus rightly taught the wonderful Gospel message, that God so loved the world He had made, He sent His one and only Son to pay the penalty that fallen, sinful men and women deserved, so that we could know Him, and life afresh. And Irenaeus taught that this was a message for everyone. That it did not matter how clever or elite or rich you were. All you had to do was come to Christ in repentance. He refuted the elitist, transcendent claims of the gnostics, instead offering a Gospel that clung to Scripture, and rested wholly on who Christ is and what He had done.
Three Things Irenaeus Taught
In response to the Gnostics, Irenaeus wrote his Refutation. I just want to pull out three things he taught within it, very briefly.
Irenaeus emphasised the importance of the Local Church. He was perhaps the first writer to speak of the catholic church – the universal church to which all Christians are members. But Irenaeus recognised that the true importance for the Christian was the Local Church. Churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Lyons and Rome were all local congregations. Part of this wider body of the bride of Christ, but in themselves manifestations of that body in their local communities. He recognised this universal true church of believers, but saw that this wider church was seen in the local church. He wasn’t speaking of a Catholic Church, subservient to one particular figurehead, but instead a catholic church, Local Churches united in the Gospel the world over.
And this universality extended to the second point I want to draw out, Irenaeus urged his readers to recognise that the Gospel was for everyone. It was not the property of the intellectual or social elite, nor of the slaves and paupers. It was for everyone. Irenaeus contrasted the Gospel to Judaism. The latter preserved the purity of a single nation, but the former? Well “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28.) The Gospel is an appeal for all and to all. Jesus commanded His discples, go and make disciples of all nations! (Matthew 18:19) Go out with the Gospel said Irenaeus, and preach without reservation to all you meet.
Off the back of that: my final point. Irenaeus taught that the Gospel offer was a challenge. Christianity claimed the truth for all nations. But it claimed the truth. Not a truth, the Truth. Jesus said quite plainly. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6.) Irenaeus rallied against gnostics who taught that personal enlightenment could bring about divine peace and understanding. This simply isn’t the Gospel message.
Irenaeus reminded his readers that the Local Church held out a Gospel for all men, but not everyone would accept it. It necessitated a choice. An acceptance or rejection of the truth of Christ. A choice that each and every individual had to make, and still does today.