Today Catholics celebrate St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 125-203). Out of the research for my book, How the Saints Shaped History, which (I am happy to announce) just won an Honorable Mention award from the Catholic Media Association), he has become one of my favorite saints (if saying such a thing is not too trite!). It is noteworthy that this great early Christian scholar, known for, among many other things, being a unifier and settler of disputes, can still be a source of unity for Christians today. That is because Irenaeus was one of the most significant early Christians in the development of the Bible as we know it. Thus all Christians can look with gratitude to Irenaeus for his crucial contributions toward acceptance of the Sacred Scriptures that we all share.

   Much can be said of this remarkable man. Before getting to his contributions to the use and acceptance of the Bible, some background on his overall contributions to the Christian faith is worthy of mention. In a phrase, Irenaeus was a great and holy man – a scholar, a bishop in a faraway area, possibly a martyr, a defender of orthodox belief, a dispute settler. He was likely born in Asia Minor, in the East, and might well have been a protégé of the great bishop and martyr, St. Polycarp. It was Polycarp who scholars say encouraged him to “go west, young man.” He did, settling in Lyons, and old Roman town in the interior of Gaul, where he became bishop. Lyons (today’s Lyon, France) was nearly 2,000 miles from Jerusalem. Think of it: not much more than 100 years after the Resurrection of Christ, a community of Christians existed in the interior of Gaul, well north of the Mediterranean Sea. I find that remarkable!

   Irenaeus became a learned scholar, arguably the first great theologian in Church history. As such, he tangled with the Gnostics, an amorphous group of pseudo-Christians who did not believe in the humanity of Christ and did believe that one needed special knowledge in order to reach salvation. This was heretical, denying that salvation is from the life and death of Jesus, the eternal Son of God. His primary treatise defending apostolic Christianity, Against Heresies, is directed at the Gnostics and was instrumental in fending off the Gnostic challenge. But it was how he argued that concerns us here. He used “Scripture” before it was Scripture.

   In the late 100s, Christian leaders were in the midst of a remarkable process of discerning the canon of Scripture. While the apostles and other first-generation Christians were alive, no “New Testament” existed. It was just beginning to be written and “it” was not even recognized. It had not dawned on the earliest Christians that a “Bible” was in store. It was mostly an oral culture and many, if not most of the early Christians expected that Jesus’s return was imminent. But the first generation died. Jesus had not returned. And a series of writings began to circulate around the Christian communities, including the letters of St. Paul and what began to be called “gospels.” But it was a big leap, without 21st century hindsight, to perceive that, in their midst, writings composed by their contemporaries, were divinely inspired. That “leap” in discernment came over time, and, without a doubt, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s letters were the first to be recognized as special, followed by the first three of today’s gospels. Other writings were debated, including the gospel of John and other gospels, and other letters. And it took time for Church leaders to move from recognizing many of these writings as “special” to seeing them as “divinely inspired.” Not until the fourth century did the church settle on the canon of Scripture that constitutes today’s Bible. And this includes settling the debates over the “Old Testament” or Hebrew Scriptures. These were not automatic either. But in time it came together.

   As the process unfolded, it was vital that respected leaders and scholars step up and vouch for the authenticity of the Scriptures as the Word of God. Enter St. Irenaeus, one of the most respected scholars of his day. He, along with St. Justin Martyr, acknowledged and vouched for the four gospels – not three, but including John, yet not others beyond these four. This was a huge step in moving forward the idea that God had given the Church a particular canon of Sacred Scripture. Not only did Irenaeus vouch for the authenticity of most of the New Testament to be, but he walked the walk. In his writings, especially against the Gnostics, Irenaeus quoted from these new writings over a thousand times! This included about twenty of what became the twenty-seven books of our New Testament, including the four gospels, and the Hebrew Scriptures. He used them much the way we do today, as authority on Christian doctrine, as divinely inspired, as a teaching tool for the Christian communities. He made these writings more important than they had been. He drew attention to them. He treated them as a body of sacred writings, paving the way for others in the decades ahead to close the deal and recognize the Old and New Testaments as God’s Word.

   Irenaeus moved the bar forward on Scripture in a way that was essential for its later acceptance as our Bible. The Holy Spirit used him – among a number of others – for this vital task. In my opinion, no one in his time was more important to the formation and development of the Scriptures than St. Irenaeus. All Christians today – Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox – can thank St. Irenaeus for his role in the creation of the Bible.

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