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St. Irenaeus of Lyon: the legacy of the early Church father and doctor of unity

Much of Irenaeus’ work was lost for a time until he was brought back into the view of the Church by Erasmus in 1526, just after the start of the Protestant Reformation. 

He likely died near the year 202 A.D., and though he is sometimes known as a martyr, there is little evidence to suggest that he was martyred. The Roman Catholic Church celebrates his feast day on June 28, while Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate it on Aug. 23. 

Legacy and writings 

In his best-known work “Against Heresies,” Irenaeus countered Gnosticism, an esoteric sect that believed that people are saved by acquiring secret knowledge, that creation was inherently bad, and that Christ was not truly God but a created being.

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But in “Against Heresies,” Irenaeus also gave a coherent summary of the Christian faith that provides modern Christians with an understanding of what the early Church believed at about 160 years after the death of Christ from someone who knew a disciple of the apostle John. 

Irenaeus was also the first on record to cite all the books in the Church’s current New Testament with the exception of three small books: Jude, 3 John, and Philomen.  

Ireneaus also developed Paul’s conception of pedagogy, the idea that through the Old Testament, God prepared humanity for the coming of Christ, gradually teaching the Israelites in view of the fullness of his plan, which would be revealed later. 

In “Against Heresies,” he wrote on the Eucharist as well, saying: “For since we are his members, and are nourished by [his] creation … he declares that the cup, [taken] from the creation, is his own blood, by which he strengthens our blood, and he has firmly assured us that the bread, [taken] from the creation, is his own body, by which our bodies grow.”

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