Irenaeus and the Defeat of Gnosticism
Note: This is posting #16 in a series on historical theology within the Christian church. To view other postings, please click here.
As the second century drew to a close, there emerged one other great figure that must be looked at before moving forward in our series on historical theology. Over the course of the previous 16 weeks we have explored the Early Church Fathers who emphasized the need for Christian moralism before moving on to the Apologists who began the art of defending the Christian faith. Amidst the rise and fall of montanism, standing firm in persecution, and enduring the attacks of the gnostics, the early defenders set forth a faith that was defendable and definable. Yet, there is one remaining figure to explore before moving into the third century. With Gnosticism going strong, it was Irenaeus who stood firm to defeat it.
An Enduring Life
Born sometime around AD 120 near Smyrna, Irenaeus was different than most of his contemporaries in that he avoided the philosophical arguments of many. Instead, he sought to simply offer alternative defenses that were logical and flowed from the teachings of the apostles. He was brought to the Lyons areas as a presbyter and eventually rose to the rank of bishop over the region in and around Lyons. It was Irenaeus who was over the area when Marcus Aurelius began brutal persecution of Christians in AD 177 in the Rhone Valley. Ironically, he escaped this persecution because he was in Rome defending his people from the false accusations being thrown at them by the Romans.
It was in this new role that Irenaeus launched an attack against. Recognizing this damaging teaching and being confronted with on a regular basis, he saw the need to crush it. He was thus compelled to write is 5-volume work “Adversus haereses” or literally “Against Heresies.” This was the first major defense against the Gnostics and is credited with defeating Gnosticism (although we still see versions of it pop up today).
Sadly, Irenaeus did not escape another round of persecution in AD 202. He lost his life and is counted a martyr as a result….although nothing else is known of the event of his death.
An Enduring Defense
Irenaeus’ defense against Gnosticism became his legacy. He was recognized as an authority on the subject for two reasons:
- Because Gnostics claimed a higher knowledge that was known only through John, Irenaeus was positioned well to refute them. As a disciple of Polycarp (who was discipled by John) Irenaeus would have surely been privy to any ‘additional’ teaching that John would have passed to Polycarp.
- Secondly, Irenaeus studied Gnosticism to great lengths. He studied more than 20 schools of thought and this lead him to formulate his defense.
As a result of his studies, he recognized the most prominent as being the Valentinian Gnosticism. His attack centered on this form with the idea that if he defeated this group, the others would fall in succession afterwards. One of the major issues of Gnostics is that they were divisive, and as such others did not look kindly upon them. This was to their detriment but to Irenaeus’ advantage. It was a point that he exploited well in his defense as he tried to show its incompatibility with the teachings of Christ and the apostles. With such a masterful flair, God used Irenaeus to set Gnosticism in its place so that it lost its footing and eventually toppled during this era.
An Enduring Theology
While it was his defense that defined his legacy, Irenaeus’ defense lead to a highly developed theology regarding the incarnation. His “Theory of Recapitulation” was his alternative to gnosticism. Focusing on the impact the incarnation had on redemption, Irenaeus taught that as Christ was the second Adam, he demonstrated the reverse of Adam (i.e. as Adam brought death into this world, Christ brought life). This teaching goes in great depth and there is more too it than we have time to explore.
While his contemporaries emphasized right morality, Irenaeus emphasized right theology. While his contemporaries emphasized argument through philosophy, Irenaeus emphasized argument through rationality. He set himself apart from his contemporaries by accomplishing the same tasks, but doing so differently. Well-defined arguments, well-defined theology, Irenaeus left a formidable teaching that impacts our doctrine today. His readings are worth the time, but require diligence in getting past some of the ‘heavy’ parts. You will be rewarded by seeing him at work through his writings.