Blog Archives

Defining Heresy: Irenaeus

We’ve looked at some broad–and some specific–defintions of heresy.  Now I want to start looking a bit at the history of the concept and start examining it and its many ramifications.

The word “heresy” is from the Greek αἵρεσις (hairesis).  According to Liddle and Scott’s Lexicon, the root meaning is “taking”.  From this by extension comes the meaning “choice” or “opinion”–whence “school of thought”, “sect”.  In none of these definitions is there any derogatory implication, or any implied standard against which the choice or opinion is judged.  The first person to use the term in the now-standard way was St. Irenaeus of Lyon.

His biography in brief:  He was born in the early 2nd Century AD in Smyrna, Asia Minor (now İzmir, Turkey).  He is said to have been a disciple or at least hearer of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and an early martyr.  Polycarp, born around 70 AD, is said to have been a disciple of St. John the Apostle  himself.  Irenaeus became the second bishop of Lugudunum, Gaul (Lyons, France).  In this capacity he wrote many letters, commentaries, and polemics, and he is one of our earliest, and therefore most important, sources of knowledge about the early Church.  Irenaeus was eventually martyred, and is celebrated as a saint in both Eastern and Western Churches.  For scholars and theologians, his claim to fame is authorship of On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, better known as Against Heresies (Adversus haereses in Latin).  Read the rest of this entry