Gateway Church Old Brooklyn

A Voice from the Past: The Life and Times of Irenaeus of Lyon, Part 1


In his examination of historical figures from the patristic era of Christianity, A. Cleveland Coxe said, “those were times of heroism, not of words; an age, not of writers, but of soldiers; not of talkers, but of sufferers. Curiosity is baffled, but faith and love are fed by these scanty relics of primitive antiquity” (1). That is surely what Christians find in examining the life of Irenaeus of Lyon.

Irenaues is a relatively well-known church father in Christian history and much can be gained from studying the details of his life and ministry. The benefit in doing so lies in the fact that though times change and our circumstances vary, “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” remains the same and needs to be “contended for” in every age (Jude 3). “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” (Hebrews 13:8) and a historical figure like Irenaeus serves as an example for us of what it means to not only believe the truth about Jesus, but to live in light of it to the very end of our lives.   

What follows is a brief summary of Irenaeus’ life and some suggestions for how he can impact us today.  Irenaeus proved to be a follower of Jesus Christ who, under God, preserve, protected, and promoted the faith with such zeal that centuries have passed, his legacy still speaks.

Irenaeus of Lyon is believed to have been born in the year 130AD and lived until 202AD when he was likely martyred for his Christian faith under the reign of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (2).  Not much is known about the early years of Irenaeus’ life, but a portrait comes together from examining the sources available to us. He was from Asia Minor, likely the city of Smyrna, now in modern day Turkey. It seems that Irenaeus both learned the Christian faith from and was discipled by a man named Polycarp, who was himself a Christian discipled by John the Apostle.  In a fragment from a now lost writing of Irenaeus he says he could:

even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse—his going out, too, and his coming in—his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures. These things, through, God’s mercy which was upon me, I then listened to attentively, and treasured them up not on paper, but in my heart; and I am continually, by God’s grace, revolving these things accurately in my mind (3).

Here, Irenaeus helps by giving us insight to the transmission of the Christian faith in the early church; first from the Apostles and their Holy Spirit inspired New Testament writings (2 Timothy 3:15-16), then to the apostolic fathers after them, and further still to the generation following into the later half of the second century AD.   Christianity is not the clever invention of people over the centuries, but has and always will be the Word of God about Jesus Christ faithfully and reliably passed on to us, then and now.  The gospel preserved by God, is to be the gospel passed on by us.

Irenaues would go on to migrate from Asia Minor to the city of Lyon in the region of ancient Gaul, today southern France. A brief description of the region is as follows:

It was a prosperous region, particularly important as a center of trade and Celtic religious rites. Every year, Lyon hosted a meeting of the 60 tribes from the area and a popular festival in honor of the sun god Lugh (equivalent of the Roman Mercury) (4).

Here we learn that Irenaeus was sent out both as a Christian missionary to the people of the region and to be a Christian pastor for Greek Christians who were migrating to Gaul at this time (5).  Polycarp had sent a man named Pothinius ahead of him to be bishop at Lyon and Irenaeus joined later as a presbyter (6). Irenaeus, in fact, learned the language of the people of Gaul in order to reach them with the gospel of Jesus Christ (7).  During his time as presbyter, Irenaeus was dispatched to Rome to deal with the Montanist heresy adopted by even the very bishop of Rome, Elethereus (8). Commenting on this, Coxe writes:

“But let it be noted here, that, so far from being “the mother and mistress” of even the Western Churches, Rome herself is a mission of the Greeks; Southern Gaul is evangelized from Asia Minor, and Lyons checks the heretical tendencies of the Bishop at is a striking example of this divine economy, that the see of Rome was allowed to exhibit its fallibility very conspicuously at this time, and not only to receive the rebukes of Irenaeus, but to accept them as wholesome and necessary; so that the heresy of Eleutherus...have enabled reformers ever since, and even in the darkest days of pontifical despotism, to testify against the manifold errors patronized by Rome (9) (italics added).

From as early a time in church history as the life of Irenaeus, the Church as needing to be subordinate to the Word of God in doctrinal authority has been clearly evident. This should lead all Christians in every age and category to have an openness to biblical reformation wherever and whenever needed.  Then as now, there can be no higher authority or source of truth that the Word of God.  Irenaeus’ reforming spirit would impact the lives of people living even hundreds of years later. “Erasmus, whose work many argue paved the way for the Protestant Reformation, identified so strongly with the theologian’s passion for biblical truth that he called him “my Irenaeus” (10).

While Irenaeus was on his assignment in Rome, persecution arose, and Photinius died in prison under the persecution of Christians in the city of Lyon (11). When Irenaeus returned, he received the role of bishop of Lyon and stepped into the role having his work cut out for him (12). “As Pothinus’s successor, he was faced with all the questions of a tragic aftermath: how to care for widows and orphans, console the suffering, encourage the defectors, relieve fears, and promote unity” (13).  In addition to the weight of persecution upon his congregation, Irenaeus was also concerned for the dangerous pull that Gnostic false teaching could have upon believers to draw them away from the gospel of Christ. Into these challenges, Irenaeus threw himself and labored faithfully to preserve the faith of Christians by refuting the errors of various Gnostic beliefs while at the same time seeking to lead these false teachers to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus. “He hoped to help not only those who were attracted by their message but the Gnostics themselves, because he loved them “better than they seem to love themselves” (14). This is an insightful look into the motivations of Christian missions as being others-oriented rather than self-interested.

Irenaeus embodied the combination of a pastor, “missionary (and) theologian” (15).  He truly is a timeless example for us of one who preserved, protected, and promoted the faith of Christianity.

Stay tuned for part 2 coming soon!


(1) A. Cleveland Coxe. Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Fathers down to AD 325, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1885. p.viii

(2) Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity: Volume 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the

Reformation. New York NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. p84, 97-98

(3) A. Cleveland Coxe. Ante-Nicene Fathers. p.569

(4) Simonetta Carr. Irenaeus of Lyon: Passionate Apologist to the Gnostics. Christianity Today (June 17, 2019):  Accessed November 22, 2021.

(5) Ibid.

(6) A. Cleveland Coxe. Ante-Nicene Fathers. p.309-310

(7) Michael A.G. Haykin. Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2011. p.191

(8) A. Cleveland Coxe. Ante-Nicene Fathers. p.309-310

(9)  Ibid. 309-310

(10) Simonetta Carr. Irenaeus of Lyon.  Accessed November 22, 2021.

(11) Ibid.  Accessed November 22, 2021.

(12) Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity. p84

(13)  Simonetta Carr. Irenaeus of Lyon.  Accessed November 22, 2021.

(14)  Ibid.  Accessed November 22, 2021.

(15) Michael A.G. Haykin. Rediscovering the Church Fathers. p.191