Irenaeus was not the typical bishop in the early Christian Church. He had been born in the early second century in what they knew as Asian Minor and what we call Turkey. Specifically, he was born in Smyrna to Greek parents. Yet the oddity in his pedigree was that he was the son of Christian parents in a time when most of the Church’s leaders were adult converts. Irenaeus was raised in the Faith in which he became a spiritual leader and teacher and was able to take that which had been passed onto him by his parents and teachers and give it to others. Irenaeus was the study of Polycarp in Smyrna. In fact, Irenaeus was considered one of Polycarp’s prize students. Polycarp,himself, had been the student of John the Apostle. Thus, Irenaeus understood his faith to be founded directly in the teachings of Jesus though his teacher and his teacher’s teacher. The education he received from his teachers, his family, and his congregation was a gift that he treasured and handled carefully. But Irenaeus knew that the gift of truth could not simply be kept for himself but belonged in the hands of those who had ears to hear and eyes to see.
Irenaeus was an opponent of heresy but a lover of heretics. The particular heresy that Irenaeus resisted so avidly was that of the gnostics. They insist that the material nature of humanity and creation is by its very definition corrupt and evil. They go so far as to assert that Jesus only appeared to be human because the physical and the spiritual could have no union if the being was to be called “good.” But, Irenaeus insisted that there was no salvation if Jesus was not fully human because the power of Jesus’ blood-bought redemption was in the incarnation and theincredible physicality of the event. About the heretics he opposed he wrote:
“Such are the adversaries with whom we have to deal, my very dear friend, endeavouring like slippery serpents to escape at all points. Where-fore they must be opposed at all points, if per-chance, by cutting off their retreat, we may succeed in turning them back to the truth. For, though it is not an easy thing for a soul under the influence of error to repent, yet, on the other hand, it is not altogether impossible to escape from error when the truth is brought alongside it.”
So, Irenaeus opposed the heretics in an attempt to bring the Truth alongside their errors so that they might escape the way of death and destruction and begin the journey of conversion that Irenaeus walked with the help of his teachers.
Irenaeus lived in a period of time when being Christian had a steep cost. Martyrs were being made among those who professed faith in Jesus and the ministers of the early Church were constantly working to avoid detection and execution. He was sent from Smyrna to Lyons where he was made a bishop and leader in the Church. He was relatively safe in Lyons in the late second century but he was still forced to deal with both severe persecution and public distrust. He wrote prolifically and intelligently so that others could benefit from his teachings and reasoning but he did not value philosophy over the teaching of the Holy Spirit. In fact, he often insisted that, though philosophy had its place, there was no faith without the movement of the Spirit. Therefore, even though he was a contemporary of Justin Martyr he was not, necessarily, in total agreement with him. About the Kingdom to which he aspired and which the world misunderstood he wrote:
“And when you hear that we look for a kingdom, you suppose, without making any inquiry, that we speak of a human kingdom; whereas we speak of that which is with God, as appears also from the confession of their faith made by those who are charged with being Christians, though they know that death is the punishment awarded to him who so confesses. For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.”
Irenaeus didn’t need to say anything more about the Kingdom they sought to a world that so easily misunderstood it, its teachings, and its values–a Kingdom growing quickly by the teachings of those intimately connected to Jesus through a line of teachers and leaders.
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