Irenaeus was born in Asia, most probably in the city of Smyrna, in the first part of the 3rd century; in 177, he went to the Roman region of Gaul in Western Europe. As a young man he was a disciple St Polycarp, who had learned the Gospel from St John the Apostle.
St Irenaeus was a true witness of the Gospel in a time of harsh persecution. In order to evangelize the Celtic and Germanic tribes, he learned the languages of the people, whom the Romans considered barbarians. As a pastor he was distinguished on account of his missionary zeal and the richness of his doctrines. He confronted the heresy of “gnosticism,” a philosophical/religious movement that said the faith taught in the Church was only symbolic. Two of Irenaeus’ major writings have come down to us: Against Heresies and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.
Defender of the Faith
Irenaeus’ life was marked by the defence of doctrine and missionary zeal. In Against Heresies he writes:
“The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.”
Immortality and the Vision of God
For Irenaeus, who explained the truths of the faith with clarity and force, the Apostle’s confession of faith is the key for interpreting the Gospel:
“But [God’s] splendour vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life. And for this reason, He, [although] beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered Himself visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might vivify those who receive and behold Him through faith. For as His greatness is past finding out, so also His goodness is beyond expression; by which having been seen, He bestows life upon those who see Him. It is not possible to live apart from life, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness. Men therefore shall see God, that they may live, being made immortal by that sight, and attaining even unto God.”