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The second century of the Christian era saw the church emerging from the shadows and beginning to take up arms in the world of ideas.

The beginning was not easy. Early in the century, the Emperor Trajan (98–117), one of the four “good emperors” (along with his successors Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius), made it his policy not to look for Christians and to reject anonymous denunciations. Thus, Christians were persecuted only when they made themselves known. This policy may have been intended as tolerant and benevolent, but the result, of course, was the martyrdom of precisely those Christians who were not willing to keep silent about their faith.

It was not only the imperial authorities who harassed the Christians. Pagan animosity to Christianity grew during the course of the century, and a number of pagans wrote harshly against it. The most famous were Lucian of Samosata and the philosopher Celsus, whose anti-Christian diatribe, True Doctrine, inspired the apologetic work of Origen of Alexandria, Contra Celsum.

However, it was a movement within the church itself, a movement that cast itself as elite, with a superior understanding of Christianity, that presented the most significant challenge to the growing church. This movement was known as Gnosticism.

Ironically, the martyrdom of Pothinus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul, who was put to death under the “philosopher emperor” Marcus Aurelius in about A.D. 177, brought to prominence the man who most ably answered the Gnostics. Irenaeus succeeded Pothinus as bishop and became one of the most effective early defenders of Christian truth, giving clear definition to the church in the face of the most dangerous of early departures from Christian orthodoxy.

Irenaeus became one of the most effective early defenders of Christian truth.

At one time it was believed that Gnosticism arose from within Christian circles, due to the fact that it had been noticed chiefly from orthodox Christian attempts to refute it. More recently it has come to light that Gnosticism, by which is meant a subversive phenomenon existing within the Christian camp, was the Christian aspect of a much larger gnostic movement, which affected Judaism and the pagan world as well. There is a distinct parallel to the second-century gnostic movement today. It is called New Age, and, like ancient Gnosticism, has representatives within Christendom as well as outside it.

Gnosticism, as well as the broader gnostic movement outside of the church, was too many-sided a phenomenon to characterize with a few paragraphs—as is New Age today—but a few salient features were common to most Gnostics. As the name (taken from the word gnosis, Greek for “knowledge”) implies, Gnostics considered knowledge, a particular kind of knowledge, to be the key to the understanding of all truth and the source of salvation. The “Christian” Gnostics taught that the Christ of the gospels and the gospels themselves were indeed revelation, but of a lower level, suited to the simple-minded (rather as the intellectual world and the media elite look on evangelical religion today).

Thus, Gnosticism was elitist, considering only a portion of the human race, the truly spiritual, able to receive the saving gnosis, or hidden knowledge, which was handed down secretly and was not available to the wide mass of people. The least spiritual people, hopelessly mired in the material world, were dismissed as “earthy.”

In terms both of content and attitude, the gnostic movement represented a recurring human tendency; as already suggested, it has reappeared in our own era as the New Age movement, with its incredible variety of fantastic ideas. For this reason, it is useful to look at quasi-Christian Gnosticism and to see how the church avoided being subverted by it, with Irenaeus as a leading figure in the struggle.

The struggle was not only on the intellectual plane; part of the reason for the church’s success in self-defense lay in the promptness with which leaders of individual congregations took steps against Gnostic infiltrators or converts. They were speedily identified, denounced as false believers, and expelled. Most truly Christian leaders instinctively recognized the danger of tolerating their ideas, claiming as they did to offer a higher kind of knowledge to the intellectual elite or would-be elite in their congregations. Still, the prompt disciplinary action by congregational leaders would not have been enough without the work of the early theologians, who countered the Gnostic menace by dealing in detail with both its general principles and its particular errors.

Reading Irenaeus, we might even say that Gnosticism was a boon to Christianity because it stimulated good Christian theology.

One of the Gnostics’ favorite approaches was the claim that they believed and respected the teachings of the gospel, and that they were simply bringing greater and secret truths to those who were spiritual enough to receive them. Consequently, one of the chief tactics of opponents such as Irenaeus was to insist that the canonical gospel message was entirely sufficient and that other pretended truths were not enhancements but were, in fact, a real danger to salvation, for salvation comes through believing the gospel, not by accepting an elite gnosis.

The need to define, clarify, and justify straightforward Christian belief over against the fanciful notions of Gnosticism led Irenaeus to produce one of the first important works in Christian theology, Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies). Reading Irenaeus, we might even say that Gnosticism was a boon to Christianity because it stimulated good Christian theology.

Irenaeus succeeded Pothinus as bishop of Lyons in about A.D. 177, after Pothinus was martyred. Earlier, he had been a disciple of Polycarp, who also had been martyred as an old man about A.D. 167, during the reign of the same “good emperor,” Marcus. Thus, Irenaeus knew first-hand the danger of standing up for Christ in the otherwise religiously tolerant, multicultural world of the philosopher-emperor. Christians of twenty-first century America probably face no greater danger than being scorned and possibly losing jobs for holding forth the exclusivistic teaching that salvation is to be found only in Jesus Christ. But if Irenaeus could stand up for Christian truth against Gnosticism in the days when to attract public notice as a Christian could lead to death, certainly we ought to be able to reject its modern variants when the worst danger we run is being denounced as politically incorrect or intolerant. From the perspective of twenty-first century orthodox Protestants, Irenaeus’ exaltation of the sufficiency of the gospel against the pretended enhancements of the Gnostics also offers a helpful example of how to handle the claim of Roman Catholicism that tradition is an essential source of doctrine in addition to Scripture.

Gnosticism presented three major threats to early Christians. First, secret Gnostic “truths” were added to the gospel record, diluting the fundamentals of biblical faith with strange and often fantastic teachings. Second, the claim of the Gnostic teachers to have access to secret truths undermined the authority of bishops and presbyters. Third, the imparting of the gnosis only to a select or self-selected body of seekers divided congregations and gave the neophyte Gnostics a reason to exalt themselves as truly “spiritual,” members of an elite class far above the common herd of those who had only “simple faith.”

In addition to New Age, second-century Gnosticism has a parallel in our own day in another kind of gnostic temptation, namely a fascination with theological expertise and an accompanying readiness to take what “experts” tell us at their word. Some who have earned doctorates and other distinctions in the study of Scripture and theology act as though they know something new and truly essential, to which simpler Christians can gain access only by listening to them. Naturally, such gullible “simpler Christians” inadvertently feed these teachers’ self-infatuated elitism by deferring to their higher learning even when they question or contradict plain teachings of Scripture.

As a bishop, Irenaeus began by insisting on the authority of the community of bishops, claiming that one can be sure of the truth only if one is in fellowship with the leaders who have been appointed to defend it. His insistence on the authority of the bishops as a group rather than on the bishop of Rome as sole head of the church often has been used as an argument against papal primacy. In a controversial passage in Against Heresies, Irenaeus speaks of Rome as the place where the churches gather and attest their unity, but not the place to which they submit.

No one of Irenaeus’ generation was better rooted in tradition or could have had better access to secret knowledge, if it was to be had, for Irenaeus had been Polycarp’s student, and Polycarp had been a pupil of the apostle John. This heritage gives his writings the unusual authenticity of a distant connection to the last of the original disciples of Christ. If Christ really imparted secret knowledge to his innermost circle during the forty days after the Resurrection—one of the alleged sources of gnosis—Irenaeus would have been in a good position to learn of it.

Irenaeus ranks among the foremost theologians of early Christianity.

Like Luke in his gospel and in Acts, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies for a friend. The friend had asked him about the system of Valentinus, an attractive teacher who wanted to be considered a true Christian, only more knowledgeable (gnostic) than the common herd. Valentinus, the most important second-century Gnostic, was a highly educated, sensitive man filled with religious pathos and zeal. Unfortunately, his doctrines transformed the simple gospel faith into something quite different. We might liken Valentinus to a modern-day theologian whose brilliance and charm cause us to miss the erroneous nature of his teachings.

In several chapters of Book I, Irenaeus describes the elaborate system of Valentinus in some detail; in fact, Against Heresies is one of our best sources for Valentinus and for his typical Gnostic rejection of the biblical doctrine of Creation. For Gnostics, the ultimate spiritual entity was too exalted to contaminate himself (itself) by interaction with or production of base matter. (The contemporary commitment of most of the educational world to naturalistic evolution is just as much of a presupposition as the Gnostic idea that the spirit cannot affect matter.) In Gnostic eyes, matter was evil, and the unique spiritual “Proarche” from which all things came could not be contaminated by contact with it. Valentinus, therefore, conceived of a descending order of spiritual entities, called aeons, an immense number with many exotic names, grouped into formations with other exotic names, including, for example, Pleroma (fullness), Ogdoad (group of eight), Decad (10), and Duodecad (12). Finally, at the end of a long and confusing list of less and less pure spiritual entities, the crass world of matter is generated.

Of course, Valentinus really did not succeed in explaining how the creation ex nihilo of Scripture could be bypassed by spiritual aeons gradually devolving into matter, because he never really solved the question of how matter can come into existence through the degeneration of that which is spiritual. The proliferation of his aeons simply concealed the contradiction.

However, Irenaeus exposed it with brilliance, as well as with humor. After going into Valentinus’system of aeons, with their imaginative and fascinating names, Irenaeus penned a parody that exposes the absurdity of evading the doctrine of Creation better than any description that we might devise:

Nothing hinders anyone, in dealing with the same subject [the origin of matter from spirit] to affix names after such a fashion as the following: there is a certain Proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd, and along with this Gourd there exists a Power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves), a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus.

Irenaeus deserves respect for the comprehensiveness and clarity of his thought, and he ranks among the foremost theologians of early Christianity. He did far more than refute Gnosticism, contributing to our understanding of the incarnation, of the work of Christ, and of human nature. Nevertheless, his successful defense against Gnosticism may have done more for future generations than his other work. Can we follow his example of the delirious melons in dealing with the myriad absurdities of the New Age?

Getting to Know Me

Witness for the Persecution

Keep Reading The Church Takes Shape: The Acts of Christ in the Second Century

From the July 2002 Issue
Jul 2002 Issue