Christian History Home > Issue 96 > One God, One Christ, One Salvation
One God, One Christ, One Salvation
Irenaeus the "peacemaker" was the early church's best warrior against Gnostic heresy.
[The Gnostics] wander from the truth, because their doctrine departs from Him who is truly God, being ignorant that His only-begotten Word, who is always present with the human race, united to and mingled with His own creation, according to the Father's pleasure, and who became flesh, is Himself Jesus Christ our Lord, who did also suffer for us, and rose again on our behalf, and who will come again in the glory of His Father, to raise up all flesh, and for the manifestation of salvation, and to apply the rule of just judgment to all who were made by Him. —Irenaeus, Against Heresies
In the year 177, Pothinus, the 90-year-old bishop of Lyons (in modern France), died after Romans beat him for two days. Pothinus' crime: insisting that Christ was the Christian God. Terrible persecution had come upon the Christians of Lyons and the neighboring city of Vienne, some 16 miles south on the east bank of the Rhone River. Christians were burned alive in the amphitheater. The young servant girl Blandina, after many tortures, was finally gored to death by a bull. Each martyr sacrificed himself or herself in imitation of the passion of Christ, their Incarnate God, in the hope of resurrection. So fundamental and pervasive was their resurrection-faith that the Romans cremated the martyrs' corpses and dispersed the ashes in the river to defeat any notion that the Christians would be raised bodily from their graves.
Pothinus's successor was named Irenaeus, meaning "man of peace," and the early Christian historian Eusebius honored Irenaeus as a peacemaker in keeping with his name. But this irenic pastor and diplomat was also the second-century church's most informed, prolific, and theologically profound opponent of Gnosticism.
Earlier Christian leaders such as Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr had argued against false teachings that resembled Gnosticism, but Irenaeus was unique in his careful study of Gnostic myths (especially those taught by Valentinus) and in his immense, tireless reply.
Irenaeus was born sometime between 130 and 140 in Smyrna—today the city of Izmir in Turkey. As one strolls through the ruins of the ancient marketplace with its impressive colonnades, it is not hard to imagine the boy Irenaeus skipping by the altar of Zeus or observing Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, in theological discussion with the future Roman presbyter, Florinus, who later embraced the Gnostic ideas of Valentinus. In his youth, Irenaeus learned the key components of the Christian faith under Polycarp, who had been taught by the apostle John and others who had seen Christ.
Martyrdom was never far from Irenaeus. Polycarp was killed in February of 155/56. An account left by the church of Smyrna, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, provides a window into the faithfulness of an old man who saw himself as sharing in the sufferings of Christ and hoped for the resurrection of the body.
Irenaeus moved from Smyrna to Lyons (then called Lugdunum) and became a presbyter there. He was a trusted emissary of peace and on at least two occasions represented the church in doctrinal and liturgical controversies. The great persecution of Christians in Lyons occurred during one of his diplomatic missions to Rome, and so, when he returned, he became bishop in Pothinus' place.
Irenaeus wrote a number of books in his pastoral role, including Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, a short presentation of Christian faith. But his greatest literary work was the five-volume Against Heresies, written around 180 in response to the Gnostics and also the heretic Marcion. It is still valued today, not only because it is an early example of Christian biblical interpretation and theology, but also because it gives a careful account of a variety of Gnostic beliefs. Irenaeus broke new ground by consulting the Gnostic teachers and reading their literature in order to understand their teachings. He occasionally exaggerated his descriptions for the sake of argument, but now that we have access to many Gnostic writings from the Nag Hammadi collection, we know that his representations of Gnosticism were generally quite accurate.
Browse More ChristianHistory.net
Home | Browse by Topic | Browse by Period | The Past in the Present | Books & Resources