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Irenaeus made an impact on christianity by being both a mediator within the church, and a defender of orthodoxy from outside heretics. His theology placed an emphasis on unity, and authority. Influencial in a time of dispute between eastern and western churches, and a gnostic uprising, Irenaeus of Lyons served as a link that held christianity together, and controlled the growth of gnosticism. According to Irenaeus, gnostics particularily Valentinus gnostics, were considered Heretics. Their belief in dualism was in his view, a perverted twist on true faith. His most known work is a five part refutation of gnosticism entitled Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies). Untill the discovery of gnostic documents at Nag Hammadi near Egypt in 1945, Adversus Haerses was the main source of information about gnosticism. Most of the writings discovered gave accounts very similar to those by Irenaeus, and reinforced the religious and historical validity of his writings. Irenaeus is known as the first great catholic theologian, and played a vital role in the succession of the christian faith.
Irenaeus was born around 140 in Symnra (Asia Minor), to Greek parents. Not much is known about his younger life, except that he was taught by Christian bishop of Symnra, Polycarp. Polycarp was a great influence on Irenaeus, although he was not a theologian himself, he was dedicated to authentic orthodoxy until he was martyred in 155. Polycarp was known for his stance against heretic Marcion, and his defense of the Asia Minor tradition of celebrating Easter. (Chadwick, 100)
Around 177, Irenaeus moved to the Rhone Vally. His writings of this time are perserved in Eusebius Church History, in which he gives a moving account of violent persecutions against Lyon and Vienne christians ordered by Marcus Aurelius. Towards the end of the persecutions he served as a church priest, and met with other members of the church to discuss the New Prophecy. (Frend,244) In 178, after the bishop Pothinus of Lyons (Southern Gaul) was martyrd, he was choosen by the people to succeed him.
Irenaeus was immediately faced with two major conflicts. The first, was the continuing debate between Rome and Asia Minor about the date of Easter. Rome celebrated Easter Friday through Sunday after 14 Nisan, while Asia Minor considered the 14 Nisan the single holy day. (Frend, 245) The second problem facing Irenaeus, was the rise of Valentinian Gnosticism. To address the first, Irenaeus wrote a letter to Pope Victor asking for toleration of diversity. He believed that internal unity of the church was more important than petty arguments. To address the second problem, Irenaeus dedicated a large portion of his life and works refuting the gnostics. He believed that gnostic teachings were false readings of the true faith, and set out to refute its teachings, and promote his own theology.
As demonstrated by his letter to Pope Victor, Irenaeus main concepts in church behavior were peace and unity. His Rule of Faith also showed his empasize on authority. Throughout his writings he maintained that the bible alone had authority, and because of that there could be no hidden messages or secert truths, as the gnostics claimed. (Chadwick, 103) Although he was not a strong advocate of philosophy he admitted that it was somewhat necessary. He did not believe that humans were ment to find the answers typically being sought in philosophy. He believed that life was godÐ²Ð‚™s plan, and the bible was the source of the lifes answers that human were ment to have.
Irenaeus also wrote somewhat extensively on the subject of creation and orginal sin. He proposed that God created the world immature, to allow us time to make mistakes and grow by overcoming moral challenges. Original sin was located in the first of these mistakes, the abuse of free will by the angels in the fall of Adam and Eve. He maintained that god was one single entity, acting on a linear timeline. He did not separate the trinity in distinct beings, but refers to the Son and the Holy Spirit as his Ð²Ð‚Ñštwo handsÐ²Ð‚Ñœ.
His concept of human growth to maturity on a linear timeline explains the much debated decrepanicies between the portrayl of god in the New and Old testaments. It was not God who became better, or kinder, it was humans increased ability to accept gods Ð²Ð‚ÑšrevelationÐ²Ð‚Ñœ. (Unger, 10) Irenaeus also believed there is a parrallel between Adam and Christ, and Eve and Mary. Christ reversed the sins committed by Adam in the original fall. MaryÐ²Ð‚™s faith and dedication to god reversed EveÐ²Ð‚™s original lack of faith and falling away from god.
Irenaeus saw dualistic theology, especially that followed by Valentinian gnostics, as heresy. He believed in finding answers through tradition, and strict interpretation of the scriptures. (Pagels, 330) He believed that gnosticism twisted scriptures and taught false interpretations, for this, he refuted them as heretics.
Major heretic groups of the second century were: Marcion and his followers, Montanism, and gnostics (particularly those led by Valentinus). Marcion began a strongly ascetic heretic movement in Rome around 140. He believed that the flaws in the world, show the flaws of the maker. The Marcionites believed that pregnancy was revolting, and that Jesus could not have had a human birth, but rather was an illusion.(Chadwick, 90) As previously stated, Irenaeuss teacher Polycarp defended Orthodoxy against the Marcionites, and worked against Marcion.
Montanism (also known as New Prophecy), began in Phrygia in Asia Minor, mid second century. This heretic sect was founded by Montanus, and prophetesses Maximillis and Prisca. They believed that the end was near, and the new Jerusalem was to be in Phrygia, not Palestine. A major characteristic of Montanis was that oracles talked about god in the first person, as if they were possessed. (Chadwick, 115)
Gnostic sects began mainly in Alexandria, and spread to Italy, Rome, Asia Minor, and had some influence in the Rhone Valley. (Frend, 195) Simon and Helen of Troy are considered some of the first teachers of early gnostic ideas, which were a collaboration of many other traditions. His student Menander taught that the world was evil, and christ would save his followers from it. Gnostics claimed to know secret knowledge about the world and the creator. The basic theory was, that by combining aspects of all beliefs, they had found true way.
As gnosticism progressed, many different sects were formed from variations of basic gnostic principles. Valentinian gnosticism posed the most threat to christianity because