Defenders of the faith: Irenaeus of Lyons and the threat of Gnosticism

Defenders of the faith: Irenaeus of Lyons and the threat of Gnosticism
Michael Haykin
Michael Haykin Born in England of Irish and Kurdish parents, Michael Haykin is professor of church history and biblical spirituality, holding a Th.D. in Church History from Wycliffe College / University of Toronto.
01 March, 1998 6 min read

Although Irenaeus of Lyons is the most important Greek-speaking theologian of second-century Christianity, materials for his life story are meagre at best. But what we do know of him makes us eager to find out more about this winsome author and pastor.

Irenaeus was born in the Roman province of Asia, now on the western coast of modern Turkey, around the year 130. There in the city of Smyrna he grew to know the revered Polycarp, the leading elder in the church of Smyrna. According to Irenaeus, Polycarp ‘would tell of his conversations with John and with others who had seen the Lord’. In his early twenties Irenaeus appears to have left Asia and gone west: first to Rome and then later to Gaul (France), settling at Lyons, a bustling cosmopolitan centre of seventy thousand or so in Irenaeus’ day. Here, he devoted himself to the twin ministry of church planting and shepherding the church in Lyons. It says much for his passion for planting mature, biblical churches that he learned the language of the native people, Gaulish, a Celtic tongue now extinct. According to his own report Irenaeus so concentrated on mastering this language that he later felt that he had lost much of his facility with his own language.

Lyons today

Knowledge falsely so called

When Pothinus, the pastor of the Christian community at Lyons, was martyred in 177, Irenaeus was chosen to succeed him. He appears to have served in this capacity with much distinction until his death around 202, but it was in his theological work that he left a truly lasting mark. The most important work of his literary heritage is undoubtedly the monumental Against Heresies, a work of five volumes written in Greek between the years 180 and 185. This work is primarily a refutation of a heresy known as Gnosticism, which derived its name from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis.

Gnosticism took many different forms, but common to nearly all of them was the belief that salvation came though knowledge, not faith. This saving knowledge entailed a recognition of the supposedly divine element within one’s being which constituted the real self, the realization that within one’s being is a divine spark. It is fascinating to note that this line of thinking is not too dissimilar from that of some modern New Age devotees. For most Gnostics, though not all, this work of enlightenment is the work of Jesus. But the Gnostic Jesus is quite a different person from the incarnate Son of God of the New Testament. Christ’s incarnation, his death and resurrection are down played, even rejected, and emphasis placed on Jesus as a teacher. Finally, there was a great concern with freedom: freedom from biblical morality, which resulted in either strict asceticism or libertine indulgence; freedom from what the Gnostics regarded as the tyranny of creation, which was based upon a completely pessimistic view of the created realm as inherently evil; and freedom from the Old Testament and the God of creation who is proclaimed therein.

Paul writing an epistle, by Valentin de Boulogne 1619

The roots of Gnosticism

Now, the roots of this heresy stretch back to the very period in which the New Testament Scriptures were being written. Before the ink on these inerrant texts was dry, Gnosticism was assailing the church. For instance, there is little doubt that the opponents of sound doctrine squarely refuted by Paul in the Pastoral Epistles, and by John in 1 and 2 John, were men and women of this perspective. For more than a century and a half, the church found herself waging a life-and-death struggle with this heretical persuasion.

Irenaeus spends the first two books of Against Heresies describing the various Gnostic groups of his day. What is especially valuable about this section of his work is that he quotes a significant amount of Gnostic literature. Up until the 1940s, when a large cache of Gnostic manuscripts were discovered in the Egyptian desert, this was the main source for scholars of Gnostic views and beliefs. In Book III of Against Heresies, Irenaeus establishes the basis of Christian doctrine, namely Scripture and teaching in accord with God’s Word. He also details what Scripture teaches about the nature of God and the plan of redemption through the incarnate Son of God. Book IV focuses on the unity of the Testaments; and the final book, Book V, has more to say about redemption. It also outlines Irenaeus’ understanding of the end of history and the world to come.

The truth of Scripture

Prominent in Irenaeus’ refutation of this heresy are the Scriptures, the Old and the New Testaments which, in the view of the pastor of Lyons, were both the work of the one true God. For Irenaeus, these Scriptures are perfect texts because they had been spoken by the Word of God and his Spirit (Against Heresies 2.28.2). The human authors of the various books of Scripture had been given perfect knowledge by the Holy Spirit (Against Heresies 3.1.1) and thus were incapable of proclaiming error.

Image by congerdesign/Pixabay

‘Our Lord Jesus Christ’, Irenaeus writes, ‘is the Truth and there is no falsehood in him, even as David also said when he prophesied about his birth from a virgin and his resurrection from the dead, “Truth has sprung from the earth” (Psalm 85:11). Now the Apostles, being disciples of the Truth, are free from all falsehood. For falsehood has no fellowship with the truth, just as darkness has no fellowship with the light, but the presence of the one drives away the other’ (Against Heresies 3.5.1).

Here Irenaeus bases the fidelity of the apostolic writings upon the absolute truthfulness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as it is impossible to conceive of Christ ever uttering falsehood, so the writings of his authorized representatives are incapable of error. This quality of absolute truthfulness can also be predicated of the authors of the books of the Old Testament, since the Spirit who spoke through the Apostles also spoke through the Old Testament authors. Thus the Scriptures form a harmonious whole: ‘All Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found to be perfectly consistent … and through the many diversified utterances [of Scripture] there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things’ (Against Heresies 2.28.3). So, due to their perfection, fidelity and harmony, the Scriptures are to be the normative source for the teaching of the Christian community.

The mysteries of God

Irenaeus is, of course, aware that not everything within the Scriptures can be adequately explained. This early theologian traces this situation back to the finite nature of man and his inability to comprehend fully the mysteries of God. Such mysteries should be left in the hands of God, so that not only in this world, but also in the one to come, ‘God should for ever teach, and man should for ever learn the things taught him by God’ (Against Heresies 2.28.3).

Irenaeus also stressed the importance of a ‘confessional’ Christianity. In Against Heresies 1.10.1, for instance, he reproduced an early Christian creed, very possibly the statement of faith of his local church. It begins by stressing that, contrary to Gnosticism’s view of the world, there is ‘One God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them.’ Creation is not evil, because it comes from a good God.

This confession goes on to stress that there is also ‘One Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation,’ who suffered and died, was raised from the dead, ascended ‘into heaven in the flesh’, and will come again ‘from heaven in the glory of the Father’. Gnosticism denied all these points that are absolutely central to biblical Christianity.

The Lord feeds his people

Irenaeus’ defence of a confessional Christianity, that is rooted in the perfection and fidelity of the Scriptures, well reveals that modern defenders of scriptural inerrancy are not innovators, as some historians have claimed, but have a distinguished predecessor in the second-century elder of Lyons. As Irenaeus rightly realized, the Lord feeds his people through all of the Scriptures: ‘For the Church has been planted as a garden in this world. Therefore, the Spirit of God says, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden” (Genesis 2:16), that is to say, “Eat from every Scripture of the Lord”’ (Against Heresies 5.20.2). Irenaeus likens the church to the Garden of Eden: just as the trees which the Lord planted in that garden provided food for Adam and for Eve, so the entirety of Scripture contains nourishment necessary for all believers to experience true growth in Christ.

Michael Haykin
Born in England of Irish and Kurdish parents, Michael Haykin is professor of church history and biblical spirituality, holding a Th.D. in Church History from Wycliffe College / University of Toronto.
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