Today the Church honors Irenaeus for the way he insisted that we hold to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. As a boy born in Smyrna in 202 he often heard stories about John, the Beloved Apostle, who had died in Smyrna about fifty years before. It was an old man named Polycarp, who had known the Apostles John well, from whom Irenaeus heard about the teachings of Jesus.
Irenaeus, who imported merchandise had dealings with the French city of Lyons. And when business called him there, the Christians of Lyons asked for help in clarifying just what the Apostles had taught on important issues. They were confused by a group of holy people who believed they were receiving new gospel messages from heaven. Irenaeus, as a kindly man, showed respect for those people, but he had to repeat what St. Paul had said against preaching any new Gospel.
Before long the Christians at Lyons began insisting that Irenaeus should become their bishop; and after he had given in to their requests, he began receiving pleas from Rome to come and deal with people there who claimed they were receiving new gospels.
I once had a three-year-old niece who insisted she already knew anything I told her. She’d just say, “I know. I know.” The people in Rome who thought they had new Gospels were like my niece. The Greek for “I know” is “Gnosco,” And that had Christians applying the name of Gnostics to people who said they had heard everything from their heavenly sources.
The Gnostics were similar to the Astrologists who say they learn secrets from the position of the planets. Going beyond that, the Gnostics thought they were in communication with the spirits who moved those planets about.
Irenaeus had the whole Church believing that there were no new gospels after the death of the Apostles. He said that to get at Christ’s authentic teachings we could travel around the Mediterranean to the churches founded by each of the Apostles; but he went on to say, “Since it would be tedious to reckon up the succession of all the churches, we will indicate that tradition derived from the apostles of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. It is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church.”