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

5 Biographical Summaries of Early Church Fathers

 


Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp lived through the second half of the first century AD and the first half of the second century.  From a statement he is recorded to have made at his martyrdom, it is assumed that Polycarp was baptized as a child and didn’t have a moment in his life where he did not know the Lord.   He had great influence in the early Christian Church, largely because he was a disciple of the Apostle John.  His apostolic connection helped land him the Bishop office of Smyrna, and it also placed him in a very important role of preserving the orthodox teachings of the Apostles, which he did with tenacity.  It is reported that he called Marcion out to his face in Rome, calling him “the first born of Satan.”  He also pulled believers away from Gnosticism.  His willingness to die as a 2nd generation Church Father was another way in which he carried on like the apostles (all except John that is).  Today his writings only have survived through a letter he wrote to the Philippians, which is an important text for the modern church since it is one of the earliest writings we have from Christendom outside of the Biblical texts.

Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus was born in Smyrna in the first half of the second century AD and he lived to see the close of that century.  Having been a student of Polycarp in his youth, becoming the Bishop of Lyons late in his life, he carried on a chain of successive leadership tracing back to the apostles.  In fact, Irenaeus prescribed such connection to apostolic succession for all bishops, stressing that they all taught what the apostles had received from Christ and passed on to followers such as his teacher, Polycarp.  It is on this authority that he spoke against the Gnostics who claimed to have a knowledge from outside of direct revelation from Jesus.  His refutation of the Gnostics, in particular the flavor of Gnosticism that derived from the followers of Valentinus, has been preserved in his work Against Heresies.  It is from this work that the modern Church had the most information about Gnosticism before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  His writings also prove helpful to demonstrate the early formation of the New Testament Canon, since Irenaeus’s writings provide the first record of acknowledging a four-fold Gospel in Church writing and he references every text of the New Testament, except 3 John, in Against Heresies.  He may, or may not have died as a martyr.

Jerome

Jerome, AKA Eusebius Hieronymus, was born in Stridon just prior to the middle of the fourth century AD, dying around 420 AD.  In is lifetime he practiced monasticism as a desert hermit, was ordained a priest, served as a secretary to Pope Damascus, and helped found a monastery in Bethlehem.  Jerome was a prolific translator, translating numerous sermons and commentaries of Church Father Origen, for instance.  His greatest and most long-lasting impact on the Church was his translation of the Vulgate (Latin) Bible.  His translation work, in particular on revisions of the Septuagint (Greek version of the New Testament) led him to the understanding that the only inspired text of the Bible is that of the original text.  In addition to his translations, he added much to the Church’s collection of exegetical commentaries as well as throwing his hat into to the arguments of doctrinal discussion in his day concerning the value of virginity compared to marriage, the ever-virgin state of Mary, the value of asceticism, defending the use of the work of Origen, and writing against Pelagianism (though Jerome was likely a synergist himself).

The Cappadocian Fathers

Arius was an early fourth century priest who taught that Jesus was not eternal.  He taught that Jesus was a created being.  To formulate a catholic response to the teachings of Arius was the main reason Emperor Constantine I called the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  This council rejected Arius’ teachings (Arianism) and formulated the Nicene Creed as a proper Trinitarian statement, which adopted the term “of one substance” to refer to describe the oneness in divinity that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all shared.  After the council, not every church bishop kept to Nicene Creed and fell back to Arianism.  Soon after the Nicene Creed, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, and Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, were born.  All three were from Cappadocia and they were friends and worked together to advance and cement the formed language of the Trinity that God exists as three persons in one essence.  Their preaching and writing was significant in putting an end to Arianism in the fourth century and was crucial in the Council of Constantinople in 381 that re-affirmed the Nicene Creed.  Together these three men are known as the Cappadocian Fathers.

John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom (347–407 AD) was born John in Syrian Antioch.  He was appointed as the Bishop of Constantinople in 398. Chrysostomos means “golden-mouth” and is added to his given name as a result of his powerful sermons.  His homilies focused on living the crucified life and railed against the excesses and sinful indulgences of his day that were woefully present in the upper-echelon of the secular world and even the Church. Many loved his proclamations, but those on high did not appreciate his pointed applications at them, so he was deposed from this position and then sent into exile where he died.  Around 600 of his homilies survive today.