I’ve been reading Irenaeus’ great work Against Heresies. I’ve just finished the second of five books and I thought I would write a bit about this important work. Much of this will be bullet-point reflections rather than a comprehensively organized essay.
1. Irenaeus wrote in the latter part of the second century. Against Heresies is dated around AD 180. The full title of his work is actually A Refutation and Subversion of Knowledge Falsely So Called and is taken up with a refutation of the Gnostics.
2. For those attempting to read Irenaeus it is important to get perspective on his big project. I’m also reading Mary Ann Donovan’s One Right Reading?: A Guide to Irenaeus (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1997). Donovan’s book walks through Against Heresies in a section-by-section manner. In doing this her book acts as a map for Irenaeus. One should be wary, however, of some of Donovan’s perspectives and interpretations. At times Donovan’s rhetoric regarding the Gnostics is a bit too positive for my tastes. Here is one example:
The face of the adversary [the Gnostics] begins to emerge as the face of a fellow Christian who is far more at ease with plurality of interpretation in many areas of life than is Irenaeus. The Gnostic is intellectually adventuresome in terms of both doctrine and interpretation, and given to the development of new liturgical forms. (p. 46)
Notice the language—“plurality of interpretation;” “intellectually adventuresome”—doesn’t that sound so much superior than some stuffy orthodoxy? As I read Irenaeus he is the one wearing the “white hat” and the Gnostics are the villains. This simple reading of mine comes from the fact that Irenaeus points people to the Jesus of the canonical Gospels and the Gnostics point away from him.
3. Second century Gnosticism was a serious threat to the Christian faith. Although reading about the Gnostic system today can be tedious and mind-boggling, in its day it was seen as a progressive and sophisticated movement. James Thomas Carlyon, in his essay “The Impact of Gnosticism on Early Christianity,” writes:
It was a species of mental culture, perhaps the most vigorous cultural factor in the life of antiquity. Gnostics were the thinkers of the time, serious-minded men who combined genuine religion and piety with healthy intellectuality.
Carlyon quotes S. Angus in this same vein:
It was the religious reaction of the syncretistic centuries to the intellectual forces of the time. It was a long-sustained attempt to reconcile religion and culture and to make religion at once rational and uplifting and enthusiastic.
Gnostic Christianity was the “progressive” theology of its day. It was trendy and “advanced” in its thinking. It was also a grave threat to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Gnoticism ultimately leads people away from Jesus and into vain philosophical speculations that pander to pride.
4. In his introduction Irenaeus speaks of the deceptive nature of error:
Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by it outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself. (AH I. preface, 2)
The heretics of Irenaeus’ time were just like the one’s today. They use the language of orthodoxy but in profoundly unorthodox ways—“because their language resembles ours while their sentiments are very different.” (AH I. preface, 2)
5. In Book One of Against Heresies Irenaeus goes into extensive detail—almost excruciating detail!—regarding the teachings of the Gnostics. Irenaeus has obviously mastered their system. He not only knows the truth but he also knows the intricacies of the Gnostic teaching. He takes the time and energy to lay out their system so that he can accurately and effectively contrast the Gnostic teaching with orthodox teaching of the apostolic gospel. In this Irenaeus provides an example for today’s defenders of the faith. There is a place for some defenders to immerse themselves in the error of their time so as to defend the eternal truth of the gospel. This will, at times, render their work time-specific in that the details of false systems are transitory and, usually, do not have generational “staying-power.” So, although, this kind of work is “seasonal” in nature it is still crucial for the health of the Church.