Bonus Saint of the Show: Irenaeus of Lyon – The Torch


On January 21, 2022, Saint Irenaeus of Lyon became both the last and oldest doctor of the Church, with Pope Francis bestowing on him the title Unit Doctor. I had only heard of him last December and was captivated by his towering legacy.

As a boy in Smyrna in the 2nd century, Saint Irenaeus witnessed the preaching of the city’s bishop, Saint Polycarp, who himself was personally trained and ordained by Saint John. He grew up to become Bishop of Lugdunum, now Lyon, and wrote several works defending Christian orthodoxy. His connection with Saint Polycarp gave him increased authority. This became, in part, the basis of his call to apostolic succession and living tradition. His death has conflicting accounts, but the Roman Martyrology promotes his martyrdom. His tomb and his relics were destroyed by the Huguenots in 1562.

Saint Irenaeus is most famous for his anti-gnostic masterpiece Elenchus and Reversal of Gnosis Pseudonymbetter known by its Latin title Against heresies. The voluminous work exposes the errors propagated by men like Valentinus, Marcion and Cerinthus, claiming that their alleged secret knowledge was a distortion of Scripture and true tradition. The central intention of Saint Irenaeus was to maintain the doctrinal communion of the Church, which was becoming increasingly strained due to Gnostic defection.

However, Saint Irenaeus also respected liturgical diversity, as can be seen in his involvement in the Quartodeciman controversy (whether Easter should be tied to Passover, or always fall on a Sunday). Even though he observed Easter on Sunday, Saint Irenaeus defended the Asiatic church against excommunication by citing how Saint Polycarp learned Quartodecimism from Saint John. He noted that the forty-day fast was more important than the exact date of the celebration and that Pope Saint Anicetus, himself a Sunday observant, still allowed Saint Polycarp to continue his practice.

Only two of Saint Irenaeus’ works survive entirely: Against heresies and Epideixis of the apostolic kerygma, a short catechetical work that makes direct reference to the first. The latter survives in a single Armenian translation discovered in 1904.

Now why is he a Doctor of the Church? In Against heresies, Saint Irenaeus is the first recorded Christian to state several important traditions: that the serpent of Eden is Satan; that Luke and John were evangelists; that the Gospels were written in the order Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; that the four living creatures of Ezekiel and Revelation symbolize the evangelists; and the recapitulation theory of the atonement. He is also the namesake of a “pressure makes diamonds” theodicy which says that suffering refines and completes the spiritual development of man. Saint Irenaeus was already the patron saint of apologists and catechists.

Against heresies also has considerable archaeological value. For centuries before the recovery of the Nag Hammadi library, Against heresies was the main extant account of Gnostic beliefs. It is also one of the first witnesses to the authenticity of the long end of Mark, Lc. 22:43-44, the thirteen Pauline epistles, the second epistle of John and Revelation. It also extracts two lost works, St. Justin Martyr’s Against Marcion and Saint Papias’ Exegesis of the Sunday Logion. For a time, a fragment of Against heresies the quote from Matthew was the oldest text in the New Testament.

Now, all the conjectures of Saint Irenaeus were not valid; he was a literal millenarian and believed that Christ lived to his forties. In Against heresies 4.6.1 he claims that Mt. 11:27 appears verbatim in Mark, but there are no extant witnesses to this. In Epideixislike several early Church Fathers, he seems to take the angelic view of Genesis 6:4″Elohim” in the literal sense. Yet there is no denying his importance as an early witness to the apostles only twice. He is “the spiritual grandson of John,” as Diane Severance, Ph.D. puts it. His overall legacy is that of one who works against schism, further ideologically uniting the churches of East and West as a Greco-Roman bishop, hence his title. Unit Doctor. May his fervent example help us in our own ecumenism.

Saint Irenaeus, pray for us!

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