One of my favorite early Christian leaders is Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, a city in modern-day France. Tradition indicates that Irenaeus was a “spiritual grandson” of John the Evangelist. It is beleived that Irenaeus was born around 130 CE in Smyrna (modern-day Turkey) and trained under the leadership of Polycarp, bishop of Lyon, who was believed to be a student of John the Evangelist (who may have been the same person as the Apostle John). Irenaeus is most known for his defense of traditional orthodox theologies—he wrote extensively against heretical topics in his time.
One specific sect called Montanism, was a heresy that Irenaeus specifically wrote against. Montanism was a belief system that put a high value on personal spiritual revelation (i.e. God speaks to people directly and that revelation is greater than other previous revelations). As you can imagine, this theology was dangerous in the sense that it elevated “personal revelation” above the bishops, church theological tradition, and Scripture. The direct revelation or phopecies of Montanus (founder of Montanism) were known to be strange and even ecstatic, with convulsions and claims of being bodily seized by God himself.
It’s important to highlight that by this time a New Testament biblical canon had not been fully developed. The Scriptures of the 2nd century were still being compiled. While there was a generally accepted list of the four gospels and several other letters circulating—to which Irenaeus referred—the current canon was likely not officially decided until the 4th century. Prior to that, many bishops and scholars were using a canon nearly identitical to the canon of today. The issue of canon development is incredibly complex and warrants an entire blog-series of itself.
I share this all to reference the Gospel of John, which was largely accepted as part of the developing canon. The other Johannine documents—1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation—were still up for debate at this time among different leaders. The Montanists looked to the writings of John as inspirtation for their theolgical beliefs. Ironically, Irenaeus beind at a completely opposite side of the spectrum from the Montanists was believed to be a “spriritual grandson” of John. If Irenaeues was in fact a student of Polycarp, and Polycarp a student of John, then it would make Irenaeus much more closely related to the teachings and writings of John—thus making him an expert of Johannine theology.
Irenaeus later became a priest in Lyon. During his ministry in Lyon he was sent to Rome and during his trip to Rome, there was a devastating massacre of the Christians in Lyon. Irenaeus returned to Lyon and was appointed the bishop. Little is known about Irenaues’ ministry after becoming a bishop. It is likely that he worked to speak out against Gnosticism and led some missionary work. Irenaeus’ leadership was focused on preserving and defending the doctrines and order of the church—whether it was opposing Montanism or converting Gnostics to an orthodox view of Christianity. He held firmly to the belief that the Scriptures (at least the four Gospels) and church tradition through the interpretation of the bishops were the best source for doctrine.
While apostolic succession is certainly an aspect of this conversation, it is a part of this conversation that I want to mostly avoid. I do want to note that I believe there is some validity to apostolic succession. However, at some point along the way, the Roman Catholic Church became intertwined with governmental pressures—politicians were appointed as bishops that had no place holding those offices. As such, I believe that apostolic succession of today is likely to not be completely “successive” without corruption throughout the lines. With all of this in mind, Irenaeus’ commitment to seeking after and defending truth was rooted in Christ who gave this admonition to the apostles.
Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray.” — Matthew 24:4–5 NRSV
Irenaeus was trying to uphold the teachings of Jesus. In this passage in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking specifically about the end of this age and Jesus warns his disciples about false techers who will lead people astray. Although Montanus was not himself claiming to be the Messiah, he was doing so nonetheless through his prophetic visions that would often envoke God, claiming to be him. Irenaeus knew that the work on the Montanists was clearly oppositional to the teachings of Jesus. We look to Jesus as the source of truth—today the Scriptures are our clearest understanding of the truth of Jesus—not some sort of direct personal revelation. Does that mean that God doesn’t speak through direct revelation? No. But it does mean that we have to hold our personal revelation against the litmus tests of Scripture, tradition, and ration—the other pieces of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” — John 14:6, NRSV
The leadership of Irenaeus was remarkable and an integral part of church history. His work helped develop a strong foundation of truth, focusing on the written words of Jesus as a place to point to truth. Irenaeus was a source of inspirtation and still is today in his pursuit to defend orthodoxy—right teaching.