St Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-c.200)


“If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.” Luke 11.36

The scriptures today all point beyond themselves to the words that will proceed from the mouth of this most venerable Father of the Church. Proverbs tells us “Hear for I will speak noble things and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truthProverbs 8.6-7 Today the Church intentionally uses the Scriptures to tell us to pay attention to a non-scriptural authority. Look to him who we honour this day and not to us! Many will find this deeply troubling. Yet I put it to you that Saint Irenaeus is worthy of such treatment and that this treatment is fitting. The Church allows Scripture to give him voice because his voice gives to the church Scripture.

To a church with various customs ranging from the reading from only one Gospel or several, or using the Diatesseron (a combination in one book of the four) Irenaeus attested to the authority of the four Gospel of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. It was Irenaeus that challenged the churches that used only one Gospel to use all Four and to those who used other Gospels besides the Four to abandon them. It was Irenaeus that gave us the first canon of Scripture that later formed the core of what we as Christians would come to know as Holy Scripture. He gave voice to the truth that God’s plan of salvation is to be found in both of the Old and New Testaments and that they cannot be separated.

This is not all that St Irenaeus gave us. Against the heresies of Gnosticism and Montanism he gave the Church stability and strength in the threefold cord of the Episcopate, Scripture, and Tradition. He laid down the concept of the Apostolic Succession. He himself was a student of St Polycarp who was a Disciple of St John. He knew the importance of the Apostolic Tradition – and stressed it at a time when the infant church faced disaster from various competing authorities. He emphasized the Councils of the Church for doctrinal assurance and yoked the church to the backs of the Apostles on which it is still supported today.

There is much more wisdom that proceeded from his mouth that we could give thanks for today: his insistence of the unity and goodness of God’s creation; his laying down the central myth of Christ as the new Adam and Mary as the new Eve in the plan of God’s salvation; and the emphasis that Christ as the Logos.

However it is his insistence that the heart of the atonement is found in the love of God in His Incarnation that has much to commend itself to us today. For Irenaeus the crucifixion was simple the outworking of God’s love in the Incarnation – the direct result of man’s sinfulness. Yet God’s love was to be found fully in Bethlehem and not just in Jerusalem. One of his most quoted sayings from Book 4 of Against the Heresies is “The Glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God” More commonly it is quoted as “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive”. The Word became flesh so that Flesh may become Word. “It was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God”. In a world of alienation this hope that there is something that will makes us truly alive as we instinctively know we are called to be still needs to be heard.

For his protection of the infant church by insistence on; the Historic Episcopacy; The Apostolic Succession; the Doctrinal Authority of Ecumenical Councils; the Vision of the Love of God in the Manger and the Hope of union with Him; but above all for the Authority of the four Gospels and the canon of Scripture - the voice of the Bible as we have received it, we give God thanks today for our Holy Father Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons.