Irenaeus’ Argument Against Gnosticism Still Works Today

Irenaeus was a 2nd century apologist for the Christian faith who was born in Smyrna, Asia Minor, in the first part of the century.  His death date is not certain, but it is likely that he lived until the end of the 2nd century.  Irenaeus became the bishop of Lyons, France, and he serves as an important church father for several reasons: he was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, he is an early and reliable external source that verifies who wrote the four Gospels, he wrote against the Gnostic religion that had infiltrated all of Rome by the 2nd century, and through his writing helped establish apostolic tradition and the early formation of the New Testament canon.  It is on these last two points that this paper will focus.  Gnosticism was an esoteric religion that assumed Christianity into its teachings.  It spoke of God, Jesus, and salvation, yet due to its esoteric nature, Gnosticism contained “wisdom” as its name suggests (since gnosis is wisdom in Greek) that was new and true, even though it was secretly obtained.  These doctrines contradicted the doctrines of Jesus’ apostles, the founders of the Church.  In Irenaeus’ excerpt, “Priority of the Apostolic Tradition,” from his work Refutation and Overthrow of the “Knowledge” Falsely So Called, he makes the argument that the teachings of the apostolic tradition are authoritative over and beyond any other religious source that might take hold of Jesus’ name and work.

Seeking the truth, recognizing the truth, proclaiming the truth, and defending the truth is at the heart of why Irenaeus is writing.  Gnosticism is abounding all over the Roman world and in many regards it uses the same language as the Church and even incorporates Jesus into its heretical teachings, while distorting the true nature of Christ and his work.  In this excerpt of his argumentation against Gnosticism, Irenaeus focuses on apostolic tradition as the basis to reject Gnosticism  The Church in the 2nd century in which Irenaeus is writing is on its third and fourth rounds of leadership, in other words, they’re not sitting very far from the apostles.  Irenaeus says that he and others can enumerate the bishops that the apostles placed in charge, giving their names and cities, and they can also do the same for the bishops that those bishops placed up to the present.  He ensures them that the apostles didn’t keep any secrets hidden.  They passed on all there was to pass on concerning the teachings Jesus handed to them.

The apostles are so vital to knowing the truth in Irenaeus’ argumentation, because as I just stated, they got their teachings from Jesus.  Jesus, as Irenaeus reminds his readers, is the Son of God.  He reminds them of the teachings of the apostles, that Jesus stepped down from heaven and was incarnate, made man, born of the virgin Mary, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, but came back to life!  He reminds them that Jesus is coming back to save those who are saved, and to cast everyone else into eternal fire.  Jesus is not the guy you want to be on the wrong side of in history.  You want to be in right standing with Jesus, and the way to do that is to be in right standing with the teaching of the apostles.  Jesus gave everything he wanted us to know to them, they passed it on to their disciples, who passed it on to their disciples.  Why, oh why, would anyone want to hear or entertain the teachings of the heretics, “For they had no Church or form of doctrine.”  He then names a couple of big wig heretics that his readers would have known, Valentinus (a Gnostic theologian) and Marcion (a dualist who was close to being a Gnostic).  His point here is that these two men’s teachings had no origin before them.  What weight does their teaching have to be considered true?  None!  What weight does the teachings of the apostles and their succession of bishops have?  Jesus!  They got Jesus!  Case closed.

This argumentation from Irenaeus still proves helpful for us today.  At the start of the 20th century, all we knew about Gnosticism was preserved from the writings of Irenaeus.  Then the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s and they resurrected the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, because within the collection of codices found in the caves of Qumran were a slew of Gnostic Gospels discovered for the first time.  Peter Jones has written extensively on how the Dead Sea Scroll discoveries have relaunched Gnosticism, pointing out how many of the tenants of Gnosticism are found in the New Age Movement, whose leaders have been known to have read these newly discovered Gnostic texts (Jones, The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back).  These newly discovered Gnostic texts have brought about a need for a reaffirmation of apostolic tradition and succession to counter why the Gnostic Gospels are not in the Bible. It is often claimed that they were intentionally removed from the Bible by the Church leaders because their teachings contradicted that of the Church.  This charge against the Bible is so simple to answer, but few Christians today seem to know how to respond to this attack.  Irenaeus’ argument remains more than sufficient: the Gnostic Gospels all emerged out of thin air, arriving chronologically after the teachings of the apostles, contradicting the teachings that Jesus personally and historically handed down to them.  The apostles have Jesus, the Son of God, upon which their teachings stand.  The Gnostic Gospels stand on nothing except the thin air from which they are derived.  Case closed.

Bibliography

Bai, Han Gook. Apostolicity as a Church Response to Gnosticism in Irenaeus. St. Louis,  Missouri: Concordia Seminary, 1970.  BV4070.C69 M3 1970 no.1

Hochban, J. I. “St. Irenaeus on the Atonement.” Theological Studies, 7 no. 4 (1946). Accessed Dec. 11, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1177/004056394600700402

Jones, Peter. The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back: An old Heresy for the New Age. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1992.  BP605.N48 J67 1992

Kerr, Hugh T. Readings in Christian Thought. 2nd ed. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1990.

Olson, Mark Jeffrey. Irenaeus, the Valentinian Gnostics, and the Kingdom of God (A.H. Book V): The Debate about 1 Corinthians 15:50. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen Biblical Press, 1992. BR65.I63 A39 1992

Ware, James. “Paul’s Hope and Ours: Recovering Paul’s Hope of the Renewed Creation.” Concordia Journal. 35, no. 1 (Spring 2009). Accessed Dec. 11, 2018. https://issuu.com/concordiasem/docs/cjspring091

Wingren, Gustaf. “Saint Irenaeus” In Encyclopedia Britanica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. 2013. Accessed Dec. 11, 2018.  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Irenaeus

Soren Kierkegaard – Christianity is Dead.

KierkegaardSoren Kierkegaard lived a short live in the first part of the nineteenth century.  He was born in Denmark in 1813 and died there in 1855.  In this lifetime, he was largely unknown to most of Europe and he only wrote in Danish, yet in the mid-twentieth century his writings became more influential.  His writing was too hard hitting against the culturally norms of his day and the church authorities and the state of Christendom to ever grow wings in his lifetime.  In writing his unpulled critiques against Hegel’s philosophy which emphasized the collective of the masses working together to usher in a better and better world and humanity, Kierkegaard focused on truth being found in the individual and even a questioning denial of one absolute dogmatic religious truth which later gave way to existentialism, a view that places existence over essence (Karr, 266).  The other element of his writings that stands out is his views that being Christian comes from being a contemporary with Christ in one’s own living.  This emphasis on Christian living gave way to another important, enduring teaching of his, which is that the Christianity of the New Testament no longer exists despite Denmark being a Christian nation!  Before Friedrich Nietzsche would write, “God is Dead” in the back half of the nineteenth century, Kierkegaard essentially proclaimed, “Christianity is Dead.”  It is on this last emphasis of his writings that his work, Christendom, falls. In an excerpt of that text entitled, “Whether Christianity Exists,” Kierkegaard lays out all the many reasons why the Christendom of his day in Denmark was not true Christianity.

Kierkegaard found himself in a “Christian nation,” Denmark.  But on close examination, he could not see what he thought was true Christianity, and Kierkegaard seemed think he was the only one with this realization, so he wrote to convince others of this with the aim to get people away from the worst of sins, hypocrisy, which is to say everyone in Denmark was just “playing Christianity.”  They were actors merely engaged in “Sunday Christianity.”  Sure, Denmark had the vast list of churches with all the great inventory that goes along with them: candles, bells, organs, sepulchers to the prophets, garnished tombs for the righteously departed in their communities, and of course a gang of priests to play the leads in this drama, but what was lacking was a true New Testament Christianity of the first century that saw a body of Christians denying themselves, shirking the world, and in fact dying from it.  Kierkegaard saw in himself and in his countrymen the opposite of that New Testament example; he saw an ever increasing value and seeking after the temporal joys of this earthly world in himself and others year after year.

Again, hypocrisy, is the root problem for Kierkegaard.  He saw that priests were living for the world in their vocations.  They were constantly seeking job raises and promotions within their profession. They weren’t denying the world or their earthly ambitions and desires as they were calling others to do.  The people showing up every week to church to hear such messages weren’t doing that either. Kierkegaard saw that people had compartmentalized their lives.  Sunday was for the Christian stuff and Monday through Saturday were for their earthly pursuits and passions.  The two were not in-synch with each other.  People were content with the numbers – everyone identifies as a Christian, so we must all be Christian.  People were content with their Christianity and thus were happy to live in the lie of being Christian, knowing in their heart of hearts, it wasn’t true Christianity; it wasn’t the true calling of Christ to his people, the true calling to pick up your cross and follow him, to partake in his suffering and death – now!
This message seems to ring very true of a good number of big name modern day church writers and speakers.  In particular, I’m thinking of Francis Chan and his book, Crazy Love, and Daivd Platt and his book, Radical – both authors are New York Times Bestsellers.  The following is part of the description of the book Radical found on the book’s website:

It’s easy for American Christians to forget how Jesus said his followers would actually live, what their new lifestyle would actually look like. They would, he said, leave behind security, money, convenience, even family for him. They would abandon everything for the gospel. They would take up their crosses daily . . . (radical.net)

The follow up question in the description is, “But who do you know that lives like that?  Do you?”  The answer is no one, except Platt is inviting you to live like that by committing to a one-year experience called the Radical Experiment.  Unlike Kierkegaard who said he and everyone in Denmark wasn’t a Christian based on the life Jesus called his disciples to live and so should stop being hypocrites, Platt says, “You can do it!”  And if one listens to Platt enough that doing is the sign that you are a true Christian.  It’s what can let you sleep at night, knowing that if you die before you wake, your soul God will take.

Francis Chan in his book, Crazy Love, start out well, proclaiming the “crazy love” that God has for us, but then the rest of the book is about how we should reciprocate that love by being “crazy in love” – or “radical” as Platt would label it.  Chan says that the term “lukewarm Christian” is an oxymoron, because we all know God spits out the lukewarm from the letter to the Laodiceans in Revelation.  When he describes the sorts of things Christians should be doing based on Jesus’ teachings or morality and generosity, for instance giving away your coat if you have two, we find that no one lives up.  Chan even admits at one point that we all have some elements in our lives that our lukewarm, but if that’s the case, then no one is a Christian since he says it’s an oxymoron to be a lukewarm Christian.  Chan is the worst at this sort of exhortation, because he also admits in his writings that he doesn’t want anyone to doubt their salvation who is lukewarm – too late Chan, I know someone who has doubted their salvation from reading your book.

It’s clear to me that what Kierkegaard and most recently Chan and Platt have written about concerning the Church by and large not looking like the Church in the New Testament Scriptures is for the most part true.  However, I think this shortcoming arises more when we focus on the book of Acts.  When we read the letters Paul and others wrote, we see that the churches in the first century had some rampant sins to be contested, such as the man who very knowingly by all in the community was having sex with his mother-in-law with no church discipline or repercussions.  All except one of the seven churches to receive letters in Revelation got chastised for their lack of works or zeal or misplaced trust in worldly possessions and remedies.  The author of the book of Hebrews had to even exhort the Christians to not give up meeting together as many were in the habit of doing.  Those first century Christians didn’t even have the excuse of being able to listen to the sermon online if they played hooky from the Sunday gathering.  For sure, we’re not all living the “radical” “sold out for Jesus” lifestyle, but we can’t all do that.  It’s not everyone’s calling. Someone needs to earn the money to be able to host the house church gatherings, someone needs to earn the money to sponsor the missionary journeys, someone needs to earn the money to feed the kids (the next generation of Church leadership).

The other large problem here is that Kierkegaard’s assessment is only valid for himself.  He cannot see into the hearts of the men and women he is judging.   If such New Testament living is the standard of being a Christian, then many of us are not saved.  Where would David or Solomon fit with this standard?  Where would the chief of all sinners, Paul, who did not do the good he desired to do, but instead did the evil he hated, stand before an almighty God?  Would they be called friend?  Will they receive the praise, “Well done, good and faithful servant?”  Will any of us? This leads to the biggest problem with this type of judgment, especially when shared completely void of the Gospel message: judging our salvation by our adherence to the Law of God is devastating to one’s faith in Christ.  It takes our trust off of Jesus Christ crucified.  Instead of boasting in Christ, we are turned inwards toward our own deeds.  We must point to our works to demonstrate our justifying love to God and our neighbor.  However, Scripture demonstrates that it’s from God’s love for humanity that he sent Christ who demonstrates that love for us by dying for all of our sins.  The penalty for all of our sins is paid in full.  That’s where our assurance of salvation comes, from an alien righteousness, a righteousness from outside ourselves that is imputed on us.  It is not an infused righteousness.

God Trumps Trump – from the Writings of John Calvin

John Calvin.  This is the man that stands next to Martin Luther as being the main leader of the Reformation.  Today if someone speaks of Reformed Theology, he or she is referring to the teachings of Calvin, not Luther.  That’s how influential Calvin’s teachings were and still are.  Calvin was French, and much younger than Luther.  He wasn’t even ten years old when Luther nailed his theses to the church door in Wittenberg.  He also took a similar, but opposite, route to education than Luther.  Luther started out to be a lawyer, but ended a priest.  Calvin began his studies to be ordained, but switched to studying law, though he never went on to practice law after finishing his studies.  His magnum opus is his systematic theology book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which underwent five editions before it was completed.  Though I can’t find it being a confessional text for any Reformed denominations, it is a work that still holds much authority in their circles. From this text, I will discuss an excerpt of his writing on “Church and State.”

The following is an excerpt from The Institutes of the Christian Religion Book 4, Chapter 20, Sections 22, 23, and 32:

“The first duty of subjects towards their rulers, is to entertain the most honorable views of their office, recognizing it as a delegated jurisdiction from God, and on that account receiving and reverencing them as the ministers and ambassadors of God….

I speak not of the men as if the mask of dignity could cloak folly, or cowardice, or cruelty, or wicked or flagitious manners, and thus acquire for vice the praise of virtue; but I say that the station itself is deserving of honor and reverence, and that those who rule should, in respect of their office, be held by us in esteem and veneration.

From this, a second consequence is, that we must with ready minds prove our obedience to them, whether in complying with edicts, or in paying tribute, or in undertaking public offices and burdens, which relate to the common defense, or in executing any other orders…

But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offence of Him for whose sake you obey men! The Lord, therefore, is King of kings. When he opens his sacred mouth, he alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates—a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God.”

Calvin is writing to address the question of what the relationship should be between the Church and the State.  At Calvin’s time of writing, the two institutions are being unbound from one another in Western civilization.  Such rapid disconnect left many questions for the leaders of congregations and for laypeople on what their role was now to the State.  Questions such as, “If the Church is no longer married to the State due to the ramifications of the Reformation, do Christians still owe any allegiance to the State, or just to the Church?” were common place.  Though Calvin wasn’t directly writing to the Christians who found themselves under the rule of the Islamic Turks, such a position wasn’t entirely implausible or completely out of mind for many 16th century Christians after the end of the Crusades just a couple of centuries before the start of the Reformation.

The answer Calvin gives to this question is that a subject’s first duty to his magistrate is to honor his office, recognizing that his authority to rule and govern is directly established by God.  If this is the first disposition a subject has of his governing ruler, then the appropriate response would be to honor the person holding that established office of authority as being a minister and representative of God.  He makes clear that the honor doesn’t go to the particular man in the office on account of that man’s virtue, because the man will almost certainly fall short of deserving such high honor, first because he’s a sinner, but also since the maxim “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” does ring true so often throughout history.  Instead, the honor goes to the man in response to the honor due to the office the man holds.  The response that should then follow from respecting the man by respecting the office he holds is that subjects will in turn be obedient to the lord’s decrees and properly pay any taxes required and aid in any offices of the common defense that arise to be necessary for the common good.

Such a calling to submit to all rulers is challenging to the core.  Bending the knee to orders from leaders that sided with Rome would be a tough pill to swallow for a Christian of the Reformation in Calvin’s day.  Or, if a Christian submitted to a Muslim ruler that believer’s allegiance to Christ and his Church could be questioned, raising doubt for that person’s salvation.  Calvin knew these questions and objections would follow his plea to revere and respect the rulers of men, so he provided the following solution: only be obedient to a ruler insofar as that obedience does not cause one to be disobedient to the God who placed that ruler in the office of authority.  If the command of a ruler goes against the command of the one who put him in the position to rule, let the law go unfollowed, in fact break it without hesitation, since the rule of God trumps the rule of men.

One Nation Under God

Speaking of one authority trumping the authority of another, we should consider the presidency of Donald Trump in America.  Applying Calvin’s teachings to President Trump, offering reverence to him and holding him in high respect, doesn’t mean a Christian must agree with his “America First” policies, or ignore his numerous divorces, or approve of his (at times) vulgar language or his speech that has been interpreted to be racist, Islamophobic, or misogynistic, or condone his frequent ad hominem arguments and late night tweets.  The Christian response to Trump’s presidency should be the same as that given to other presidents of America, a life of submission, as long as one isn’t required to go against God’s law through any of the president’s executive orders or signed bills.  The Christian should recognize that President Trump is their president and wish him to be successful in his calling and offer him the grace afforded to all men through Jesus Christ.  The Christian should also pray for President Trump, asking that God give him wisdom and capabilities to fulfill the high calling and duties of the office he holds with humility.  In closing, it is apparent that Calvin’s teachings in regard to the State and the Church are a difficult calling for the subjects, as much as for the man in authority to fulfill the calling God has given him.

5 Leaders of the Reformation Era

Erasmus of Rotterdam

ErasmusErasmus was born in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1466, and he died in 1536.  He was a reformer, but one that stayed loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and the supremacy of the pope.  His reformation work focused on fixing the abuses of the clergy.  Erasmus is famously remembered by modern day reformers for his exchange with Luther in which he sought to defend humanity’s freewill in conversion against the predestination teaching (faith alone is a work of God) espoused by many of the Reformers.  Erasmus’ writing and rhetorician skills, Luther claimed was far superior to his own in the opening of Bondage of the Will, Luther’s response to Erasmus’ apology for freewill.  Apart from his role in this famous debate with Luther, Erasmus has had a long lasting influence on the Church by his emphasis to returning to the original languages of the texts of Scripture. For almost a millennium the Bible was largely published in Latin in the Western Church, but Erasmus took it upon himself to publish a Greek text of the New Testament compiled from the best manuscripts available to him.  It is from future editions of Erasmus’ Greek text of the New Testament that Luther translated the New Testament into German and Tyndale translated the New Testament into English.  Today it is expected to learn Greek for a M.Div. degree, instead of Latin, and this educational and hermeneutical emphasis can be traced back to Erasmus of Rotterdam.

 Ulrich Zwingli

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1534) was a Swiss priest who founded the Swiss Reformed Church.  ZwingliHe was as reformer much like Luther, from the start arguing against not just abuses in the Church, but also against accepted practices that he found to be unbiblical, such as the ordinance that priests are not to marry and many of the required fasts of the Roman Catholic Church during Lent.  To such ends, he didn’t just write; Zwingli actively demonstrated his teaching by being married in public and chowing down on sausages for all to see during the Lenten fasts.  It would seem that such a brazen man who proclaimed Christ’s work to save and who actively broke unbiblical mandates would have found unity in their reformation movements, but Luther and Zwingli butted heads to the extreme over the Lord’s Supper.  Zwingli didn’t just reject transubstantiation as Luther did; he reduced the meal down to a symbolic remembrance meal, that flew in the face of Luther who was still very much a sacramentarian, who recognized that all the grace of God was given in the meal to all who partook of it.  An obvious stain in history for Zwingli for the eyes of the modern day Christian is the militant force he exerted against the Anabaptists within his area of jurisdiction.  Zwingli died on a battlefield as a chaplain in a fight against the Roman Catholic Church.

Martin Bucer

Martin BucerMarin Bucer (1491-1551) was a German Reformer who was forced to center his work in Strassburg, Germany, after his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church for his work in Wissembourg.  He is remembered most for his uniting work in his attempts to bring agreement between Luther and Zwingli, as well as his longstanding hope and work to see Roman Catholics join the Reformation.  When Strasbourg accepted the Augsburg Interim after a defeat to the Roman Emperor in the Schmalkaldic Wars, Bucer was exiled to England for his remaining dissension against the terms of the interim agreement.  Bucer was welcomed in England and was even asked to work on a revision of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayers.  Due to his work and agreement in so many different factions of the Reformation Movement, Bucer is claimed as being a member of multiple camps of the Reformation today.

Johann Brenz

Born in Germany in 1499, Johann Brenz was a young man studying in Heidelberg and Brenzwas present to hear Luther’s 1518 Heidelberg Disputation theses.  Brenz was soon won over by Luther’s teachings and at his first preaching assignment in 1522 at St. Michael’s in the Franconian city of Schwäbisch-Hall, he set about reforming the Church in that territory, which became a 26-year endeavor.  In addition to his reforming work in Schwäbisch-Hall, Brenz became a leader in further formulating, clarifying, and advancing of Luther’s teachings, most notably in the Luther and Zwingli debate over the Eucharist.  Brenz wrote Syngramma Suevicum, a text that defined the Lutheran position of the sacrament of the altar, and he was a voice for the Lutheran position of the Lord’s Supper at the 1529 Marburg Colloquy.  Later in his life. Brenz picked up the debate again against the Swiss position on the Eucharist that reduced the meal to a symbolic memorial with his 1561 writing, De personali unione duarum naturarum in Christo. Aside from this major focus of this teachings, Brenz was an influential voice for religious tolerance, calling for debate and not bloodshed over doctrinal differences, as was the typical response to religious disagreement in the 16th century.

Thomas Muntzer

Thomas Muntzer

Thomas Muntzer (1489-1525) was a German priest who had separated himself from the Roman Catholic Church before Luther’s Reformation Movement had started.  This meant he wasn’t entirely against Luther’s work, but to Muntzer, salvation by grace through faith alone wasn’t enough.  One couldn’t simply trust in Christ from the words of the Bible for salvation, or have assurance from participating rightly in the sacramental system of the Roman Church, one had to suffer personally to partake in the benefits of Jesus’ crucifixion.  In addition to this off kilter view of salvation among all the camps of the Church in his day, Muntzer held that the end of the world and the return of Christ were imminent, and that the work of true Christians would usher in this return.  In as much the same way that many Shiite Muslims believe the last imam will return in a moment of immense chaos (war), Muntzer rallied many peasants into an uprising against the feudal system of Germany seeking an overthrow of both of the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers led by Luther’s teachings.  Through their fighting, God would cleanse the world.  That was Muntzer’s radical belief at least, and in 1525 the peasants who followed him followed him to their deaths in what is known as the Peasants War.  Muntzer was captured, tortured, yet he refused to recant.  His head was put on a pike as a warning for others who might entertain the thoughts of forcefully overthrowing the feudal system in the name of God.