The first theologian I will talk about from my Theologian Trading Card set is Irenaeus.
Persecution, Gnosticism, and Marcionism are the enemies that Irenaeus would have to wage war against when he took up the bishopric in 177. Fortunately for him, he was an inheritor of a great spiritual legacy. He was the son of Christian parents who placed him under the discipleship of Polycarp. This is the same Polycarp who was the disciple of John, the disciple of Christ. This is also the same Polycarp who was martyred in Smyrna in 166, uttering at his death the well known line, “I have served him eighty and six years, and he never did me any harm, but much good, and how can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
Irenaeus primarily spent his life doing two things: taking care of his people at Lyons, France, and refuting Gnosticism and Marcionism. Irenaeus’ two major works, On the Apostolic Preaching and Against Heresies, reflect this defense. They both use Scripture to sustain his arguments. Irenaeus
quoted or referred to about nine hundred texts [of Scripture], and his work thus forms an important link in the chain of evidence for the authenticity and integrity of the canonical books.
Irenaeus is the first person to fully articulate the extent of God’s Word. He classified Scripture as the entire Old Testament and most of the New Testament. He recognized 21 of the 27 New Testament books, save Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude. He did not include the Gnostic books that were circulating in the 2nd century.
Gnosticism had reared its head in the churches during the second century. Gnosticism is difficult to define in any satisfactory way. Gnosticism receives its name in that humans are freed by gnosis, which is the Greek word for knowledge. For Gnostics who used Christian writings and thought, this knowledge is esoteric and you need it in addition to the Bible to be freed. The reason is thus: The Supreme God is too great to know. A sub-god, the Demiurge created the world, and everything he created is evil. The Demiurge is also known as Yahweh, the same from the Old Testament. However, the Supreme God had placed good spirits on evil Earth known as Aeons. Aeons would reside inside evil bodies and could be turned on to allow people to escape the evil world. These “seeds of light” could be turned on through the Son. Christ is another sub-god sent to enlighten the elect Aeons. Christ temporally joined with the man Jesus in order to give people the esoteric knowledge they would need to be freed. No one could come to the Supreme unknowable God unless they came through Christ.
It was primarily this form of Gnosticism that Irenaeus would be writing against, although he would apply it to all of the heresy of Gnosticism, no matter the form it took. His reasoning was:
It is not necessary to drink up the ocean in order to learn that its water is salty.
Irenaeus would attack this school of thought, which was propagated by Valentinus and his followers. It was no easy task, for Valentinians maintained that they accepted the Christian creeds of God and Christ, and they protested against being labeled heretics. This indicates that Valentinians were probably not clearly separated from other Christians, but were part of the same community. Valentinus even rose to prominence in Rome between 135 and 160 A.D. and Tertullian writes that Valentinus himself almost became the bishop of Rome. In later centuries Valentinus was identified as one of three arch heretics in the early church.
A key issue of debate between Irenaeus and Valentinian Gnostics is that of apostolic tradition. Valentinians claimed that their secret tradition was passed from the Apostle Paul, to Theodas, and from Theodas to Valentinus. Irenaeus would argue against this line of reasoning. He said that the apostolic tradition the Gnostics were arguing for could not be empirically verifiable. Who was this unknown Theodas? Irenaeus said an unknown person could pass down any kind of information, especially fictional information.
Furthermore, Irenaeus could point to a list of bishops that were empirically verifiable. He could point to Smyrna, to Rome, and to Antioch. He could cite earlier writers such as Clement, Polycarp, Justin, and Ignatius. Any tradition that was passed down through this line of writers could be publicly checked, unlike the Gnostic’s esoteric claims. Furthermore, none of the previous writers Irenaeus cited, recognized or even acknowledged the Gnostic’s claims. This is because, as Irenaeus correctly understood, no one can change the Word of God.
For Irenaeus, the Bible was not a collection of proof-texts, but it is a continuous record of God disclosing Himself to man. This disclosure reaches its climax in the person and work of Christ. Thus, the incarnation and resurrection of Christ was also a key refutation, since Gnostics believed all things material were evil, and that Christ’s work did not require incarnation. Irenaeus viewed the entirety of Scripture as a testament to the incarnational Son of God. This is why he was so adamant to defend against claims of rejections and distortions of Scripture. To do so threatened the incarnation, and therefore threatened salvation.
Irenaeus For Today
Finally, Irenaeus has special relevance today for a few main reasons.
- His recognition of most of the books of the New Testament in the second century refutes the argument that the church “created” the New Testament in the 4th century. This an implicit attack on the legitimacy and reliability of the New Testament.
- He argues against the idea in many Christian circles that the God of the Old Testament is wrath, but Jesus is love. This idea tries to downplay and give license to sin, since Jesus will forgive everyone anyways.
- He provides arguments against Gnosticism, which yes is still around. See the movie Noah (2014).
- He shows that Christianity is a public faith from the beginning, and those faiths that have esoteric beginnings are suspect (Islam, Mormonism), because they cannot be empirically verified.
- He defends the person and work of Christ as disclosed in Scripture, both of which are constantly misunderstood or under attack.