Early Christianity: St. Iranaeus of Lyons

December 11, 2010 at 3:50 pm 4 comments

St. Iranaeus (pr. Ear-uh-nay-oose) of Lyons was born in the first half of the second century in a Christian family, something unusual for theologians and priests of his time, most of whom were adult converts. He was the Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is where modern day Lyon, France exists now.

Iranaeus is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and the Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church in America. Iranaeus first came to the spotlight as a leader among Christian leaders when several priests were imprisoned during their persecution under the Roman leader Marcus Aurelius. Iranaeus delivered a letter to the Pope of the time, concerning the heresy of Montanism.

Iranaeus’ writings were very contemptuous of Gnosticism, and his views on the subject were influential in forming early church doctrine. He was very opinionated on the subject of Gnostics, and his prejudice sometimes led him to record inaccuracies.

For instance, there actually was a written Gospel of Judas; a copy that surfaced in Egypt in the 1970s partially survives to this day. Iranaeus had railed against the oral tradition of a secret document that purported to show Judas’ betrayal as a calculated piece of the Lord’s plan for Jesus, not a treachery but a humble obedience.

Also, Iranaeus claimed that Gnostics were sexual libertines. The truth is that Gnosticism was all over the map. Some Gnostics were promiscuous; others were stricter in their sexual abstention than was the official church. Later, he lost some credibility when these inaccuracies were brought to light.

His most important work was a book called Adversus Haereses, Latin for Against Heresies. It is from Iranaeus that we get the first inkling of a canon. He believed that the Old Testament and most of what has survived to be the New Testament should be considered scripture. He famously argued for the fourfold Gospel.

The fourfold Gospel was the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that we know to be the gospel today. In Iranaeus’ time there were many gospels. The gospels tended to each be more popular in certain geographical areas. As an example, there was a Gospel of Philip, a Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel of the Virgin Mary, a Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the previously mentioned Gospel of Judas, to name a few.

The canon wouldn’t be officially deliberated or decided upon until many years later, but undoubtedly Iranaeus’ views were influential in shaping the Christian bible. His vehement argument in favor of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John being the only recognized gospels suggests that it was a novel idea for the time. However, one might also conclude that they were the most popular and widely read gospels for the time, whereas the gospels that didn’t survive were lesser known, less widely read, and also possibly contained Gnostic views.

In Iranaeus’ writings against Gnosticism he introduced the concept of apostolic succession. He argued that the bishops of the early church could be linked all the way back to the Lord’s first twelve disciples and that none of these church leaders were Gnostics. It is from the concept of apostolic succession that the concept of papal supremacy further emerged.

Iranaeus had many other fascinating insights, much too many to expound upon in a blog post. But his most important contributions to early Christianity were his denunciation of Gnosticism and his contributions of the fourfold gospel and the doctrine of apostolic succession. He undoubtedly greatly influenced the future solidification of the Roman Catholic Bible many years before its eventual canonization.

He died in the year 202 A.D. and was later buried under the church he served, St. John in Lyons, which was renamed for St. Iranaeus after his death. The church and his remains were later destroyed by the Hugenots in 1562. Some church traditions hold that he died a martyr’s death, although there is no evidence to support this fact.

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Entry filed under: Chrisitanity, Faith, History, Spirituality, The Holy Bible, Theology. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kashif Shahzada  |  December 11, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    Interesting to see how faith is effected by personalities like St Iranaeus. That raises a question in my mind that I was hoping you could answer. Given your Christian specialism, how would you respond to alternate views on Jesus Christ in other parts of the world? E.g. such as in this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9Yj8o9NYcQ

    Best wishes & happy holidays

  • 2. popsdumonde  |  December 11, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks for the education Gooseberry. Looks like you’re being drawn into some possible spirited debate.

  • 3. Kashif Shahzada  |  December 18, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    Interfaith conversations, while being divergent can also eventually result in finding common grounds.

  • 4. Is Rodney a Gnostic Heretic? | Unsettled Christianity  |  March 7, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    […] Early Christianity: St. Iranaeus of Lyons (gooseberrybush.wordpress.com) […]


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