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.
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