June 28: Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, c. 202

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, and then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

About this commemoration

If theology is “thinking about faith” and arranging those thoughts in some systematic order, then Irenaeus has been rightly recognized by Catholics and Protestants alike as the first great systematic theologian.

There is considerable doubt about the year of Irenaeus’ birth; estimates vary from 97 to 160. It is certain that he learned the Christian faith in Ephesus at the feet of the venerable Polycarp, who in turn had known John the Evangelist. Some years before 177, probably while Irenaeus was still in his teens, he carried the tradition of Christianity to Lyons in southern France.

His name means “the peaceable one”—and suitably so. The year 177 brought hardship to the mission in Gaul. Persecution broke out, and a mounting tide of heresy threatened to engulf the Church. Irenaeus, by now a presbyter, was sent to Rome to mediate the dispute regarding Montanism, which the Bishop of Rome, Eleutherus, seemed to embrace. While Irenaeus was on this mission, the aged Bishop of Lyons, Pothinus, died in prison during a local persecution. When Irenaeus returned to Lyons, he was elected bishop to succeed Pothinus.

Irenaeus’ enduring fame rests mainly on a large treatise, entitled The Refutation and Overthrow of Gnosis, Falsely So-Called, usually shortened to Against Heresies. In it, Irenaeus describes the major Gnostic systems, thoroughly, clearly, and often with biting humor. It is one of our chief sources of knowledge about Gnosticism. He also makes a case for Christianity which has become a classic, resting heavily on Scripture, and on the continuity between the teaching of the Apostles and the teaching of bishops, generation after generation, especially in the great see cities. Against the Gnostics, who despised the flesh and exalted the spirit, he stressed two doctrines: that of the creation as good, and that of the resurrection of the body.

A late and uncertain tradition claims that he suffered martyrdom, about 202.


I  Almighty God, who didst uphold thy servant Irenaeus with strength to maintain the truth against every blast of vain doctrine: Keep us, we beseech thee, steadfast in thy true religion, that in constancy and peace we may walk in the way that leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

II  Almighty God, you upheld your servant Irenaeus with strength to maintain the truth against every blast of vain doctrine: Keep us, we pray, steadfast in your true religion, that in constancy and peace we may walk in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Psalm 145:8–13


Proverbs 8:6–11

2 Timothy 2:22b–26

Luke 11:33–36

Preface of the Epiphany

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.


16 thoughts on “June 28: Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, c. 202

  1. Bio: He needs a ‘Who he is’ and ‘Why he is important’ statement.

    And today completes a wonderful year of comment to the SCLM. Thank you for the privilege of offering comments to you via this blog. It has been a wonderful year and I will miss the virtual community and the daily routine of writing to you.

  2. I find the narrative helpful in several regards, but I wish the “guess-timates” on his birth year were dropped and the references to Polycarp and date of death left to indicate time frame. Saying “estimates vary from 97 to 160” for his birth creates a situation, given the death year of 202, where he lived anywhere from 42 to 105 years of age. It makes me wonder how old he must have been when “he learned the Christian faith in Ephesus at the feet of the venerable Polycarp” (and how old Polycarp must have been when he himself learned the faith from “John the Evangelist” — itself a critical “who-dat?” — and then how old Polycarp was when Irenaeus was learning at those venerable feet).

    We have a cognitive disconnect when we say we’re not sure if he was born in 97 or six decades later, but stipulate probability to the statement, “Some years before 177, … Irenaeus was still in his teens.” If he were born in 97, “some years” would be about 67 years or so before. And the death year has him mapictures him martyred, as we said, at somewhere between 42 and 105 years old — the latter far exceeding what might be considered “old age.”

    I know I over-press my point at times, but the point is it can all be avoided by saying, “There is considerable doubt about the year of Irenaeus’ birth” — putting the period there, and leaving off the pointless addition of, “estimates vary from 97 to 160.”

    End of rant. Farewell, fellow bloggers!

  3. First, I am not sure that the reference to Polycarp should be dropped. I think there is some value is stressing the “heritage” of Irenaeus’ teachings: John the Evangelist, Polycarp who died c. 155, Irenaeus. Would it not be easier to simply say that the dates of Irenaeus’ birth and death are unknown but he lived in the 2rd century? June 28th is the date for celebrating his life in the western or Latin church tradition.

    In addition to all the comments on his treatise, Against Heresy, should something be said about his influence of the canonical New Testament including the four gospels, Acts, and most of the leters of Paul, etc?

    This write-up is not new but it would benefit from some revision.

    As the above commentors have said, “Thank you for the opportunity to read, reflect and comment upon the proposed additions in Holy Women, Holy Men.” Also it has been a useful exercise to review the older write-ups some of which need revision to correct factual errors as well as improve the focus and writing style.

    For me personally it has been a wonderful exercise and I will miss the insight and thoughtfulness which the other writers have brought to this site.

    • Hi Suzanne — I hope my comment doesn’t sound like “drop Polycarp.” I wouldn’t want that. I found the vastness of the possible birth year “estimates” to be nothing more than distracting in several ways, and not helpful. But all it would take to do what I’m suggesting is to drop the specific phrase, “estimates vary from 97 to 160.” That’s all.

      • I share your concern that the dates are so uncertain, that one is more likely to spend time
        considering whether he was an old man or a relatively young one at the time of his death, than
        listening to the rest of the biography. Or maybe that is just a comment on how my mind can
        be led astray from the point of the commentary by the addition of numerical information. I did
        misunderstand your comment until the clarification. THANK YOU!

  4. He is in the BCP Calendar and the bio and propers are in LLF. I can see no reason not to simply contuine him.
    The OT reading seems to work.

  5. Oh, I am so sorry to see this blog wind down. Really, must we? Couldn’t we revisit the previous round of comments? No, I suppose not, though I think it would probably prove helpful to improving and tightening up some of the inevitable “slips.” Thank you so much, all, for your thoughtful comments and suggestions, your wide-ranging knowledge (from which I have enjoyed learning so much), and certainly your humor. Dominus vobiscum!

  6. As is the case with many others in HOLY WOMEN,HOLY MEN, the biography of Irenaeus appears to be written by a seminary church history professor for other seminary church history professors. What about the rest of us for whom ecclesiastical jargon is not our primary language?

  7. The fact that he was a bishop is not the reason why Irenaeus is commemorated: I suggest as a subtitle “Peacemaker, c. 202”.

    Last line, fourth paragraph: add a final sentence “He is reported to have died in Lyons.” (The French call it “Lyon”, but this bio uses the English version of the name)

  8. I would repeat an earlier comment, remembering Chas P Price and a lecture in Liturgics class at
    VTS in 1962/63, ” We tend to fill up the calendar and then, later, we review and remove much of
    what we added.” So, it seems ,we are are filling it up at the present. A later generation will likely do a review and removal. It would be my earnest hope that prior to setting the “new” schedule that we determine, better than I think we have, what consitutes “holy, holiness” and its related
    elements. And I hope that after a review by Gen Convention we might do this blog exercise again . It has been interesting. Thank you to all who have participated, my heart and mind have benefitted greatly.

  9. I’m not sure the first sentence in the bio is correct; I can’t think of anyone who has suggested Irenaeus was a systematic theologian, and what I remember of his writings (which it would take me some days to dig out and read again) wouldn’t be called systematic theology. What I think he is most famous for is his description of the apostolic succession as it existed in his time, although for him it was clearly a succession of teachers who listened carefully and passed on faithfully the original apostolic teaching, and not the tactile transmission of authority to use or misuse that we are familiar with today.

    His Against Heresies is directed against the gnostic teachings that many people today argue have as valid a claim to be apostolic as what was until recently thought of as historic Christianity. There is something very ironic about the Episcopal Church of today commemorating this faithful Biblical man, but perhaps someone one day will be moved by the commemoration to read his wiritings, and will be convinced by his clear, compelling arguments for what is the faith once delivered to the saints, and call Episcopalians back to it.

    It is in any case an encouraging note on which to end this year of thinking together about who the Episcopal Church honors and who it doesn’t, and why. I’ve enjoyed it a lot, and appreciated the chance to join the discussion. I’ve learned a lot, and been very impressed with the depth of thought that has gone into many of the comments. It’s been great to see some people weigh in when the commemorand has been someone about whom they have more knowledge than most, and certainly more than whoever wrote the bio, although also a bit discouraging that the SCLM didn’t seek out someone with that depth of knowledge in the first place.

    The collects have been the biggest disappointment. Too many of them appear to have been written by people who were fans of the commemorand, but had little feeling for liturgy, or even good prose. I know I’ve criticised many of them, but at least as many times I’ve kept quiet, not wanting to be always harping on about the same thing. (And all praise to Michael Hartney for never displaying such weakness with his ‘this needs a “who he is” and “why he is important” statement’!)

    I hope the blog stays up for a while. I’ve tried to keep up with the pace of the postings, which means that even under the best of circumstances there’s been little time to do any serious reading about the commemorand or thinking and praying about the collect. Now that the ‘race’ is over (with me only two days behind the leaders!) there’s some commemorations I hope to go back to and think about more deeply, and perhaps even try to improve on the collect. I hope others will do the same.

    Thanks to the SCLM for the opportunity to participate, to its individual members who struggled valiantly with all the typing and hunting for illustrations, and to all who have commented; but especially to the regulars, whom I have really felt I have begun to know personally. I shall miss our interactions—God bless you all!

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