Church History

St. Irenaeus of Lyons – The Gnostic Fighter

Today we celebrate the memorial of the Early Church Father, Bishop, and declared Doctor of the Church, St. Irenaeus of Lyons. St. Irenaeus lived between the years of 125-203 A.D. and was a disciple of St. Polycarp of Smyrna who was a disciple of St. John the Apostle. St. Irenaeus lived at a time when many of the Gnostic sects that developed were trying to undermine Christianity with distorted views of theology and philosophy. During the first centuries, the Church had to defend and clarify the truth of faith against the heresies that falsified her.

Gnosticism emerges in the second century as the Church’s major internal threat.  Gnostic writings claim to be revelation. They claimed to have the true knowledge. Gnosticism was rooted in “dualism” – good and evil are “forces” that combat one another. Many Gnostic “religions” claimed that the spirit was good but the material world was evil. Docetism claimed that Christ is seen as a pure spirit, only appearing to be human. Many of the false gospels like Thomas, Judas, and the Acts of Peter and Paul were based in Docetism. These false gospels were not written as eyewitness accounts but were written during the second century. Gnosticism also claimed that salvation was an escape from matter through “secret knowledge” (gnosis). The material order was created from a demi-god according to the Gnostics.

Along with Docetism, other Gnostic heresies were: Arianism, Nestorianism (see previous post on St. Cyril of Alexandria), and Monophysitism. At the time of St. Augustine (4th century), we would also see the rise of Manicheism. St. Augustine before his conversion to Christianity was a member of this sect.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons could be rightly called the “Gnostic fighter.” His greatest work, Against Heresies, is five volumes of sound theological doctrine against those who opposed and stood against the Christian Church. As translator and editor of the text, Early Christian Fathers, Cyril C. Richardson says about St. Irenaeus, “His main purpose in writing is to establish in clear simplicity the belief in one God which Christianity inherited from Judaism, and the faith in the redemption of the human race through Jesus Christ his only son…he wrote as a pastor and teacher of the Church, and addressed himself to other pastors to assist them in protecting their flocks from teachings that seriously perverted the gospel…”

St. Irenaeus refutes the leading Gnostics such as Marcion who claimed that there are two different Gods in the Scriptures. The Old Testament God is angry while the God of the New Testament is love. Marcion rejected the Old Testament, many of the books of the New Testament, however, accepted certain texts from the Gospel of Luke (by this time the Scriptures were established, it was not canonical yet – the Canon had not been formed by the Catholic Church). Marcion set up his own canon of Scripture. He looked liked a Christian, however, his Christianity was watered down. St. Irenaeus also takes on Valentinus and Basilides.

St. Irenaeus establishes a true authority against the Gnostics by saying – first, Apostolic Succession is key! We teach what has been handed down to us the Apostles and this is truth. It’s open to all to receive, understand and accept with obedience, unlike the Gnostics who claimed that the Apostles gave them “secret knowledge.” St. Irenaeus lists the successors of Peter. He says don’t listen to the Gnostics, but follow Apostolic Succession.

Second, he says to follow the Canon of Scripture, which does not include Gnostic texts. The Canon of the Scriptures (the Bible) was established at the Council of Hippo and then fully supported by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent. It was the Catholic Church in the fourth century that canonized the Scriptures and decided what books would go into the Canon. The primary purpose the Canon was established was for use in the Liturgy (the Holy Mass).

Third, St. Irenaeus said that “Rules of Faith” or Creeds are normative. A creed is short summary of the faith. The creeds are there to list our beliefs, such as with the Nicaea Creed that we recite at Mass every Sunday. The Development of Doctrine began here as well. The doctrines of the Catholic faith organically developed over the centuries through the apostolic authority of the Pope and in line with the Bishops (a.k.a. Magisterium). Karl Adam in his book, The Spirit of Catholicism says, “There is no revealed doctrine proclaimed by the Church which is not contained in its exact substance in the sources of revelation, that is, in Scripture and Tradition…as the history of dogma shows, it sometimes needed a long process to free such truths from their wrappings and to make them plain and visible.”

According to Richardson in the above-mentioned text, “To Irenaeus the refutation of Gnosticism was primarily a practical and pastoral matter. The background of his writings is the rivalry between sound religion and the vagaries of the esoteric and the occult for the souls of men and also of women.”

As I conclude this post on St. Irenaeus of Lyons, I leave you with words from the great “Gnostic fighter” himself. This quote should ring home with many of us, especially during this Fortnight for Freedom, as we celebrate the many martyrs who gave their lives for the love of Jesus Christ and his Church. In Book 4, Chapter 33 of Against Heresies, he says, “Wherefore the Church does in every place, because of that love which she cherishes towards God, send forward, throughout all time, a multitude of martyrs to the Father; while all others not only have nothing of this kind to point to among themselves, but even maintain that such witness – bearing is not at all necessary.”

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