Against Heresies and Irenaeus
In defense of gnosis, or errors of Gnostics and Orthodoxy
For some time already, I wondered where Christianity lost its way. Traveling back in time, I encountered Irenaeus¹, a Greek man born in Smyrna who later became the bishop of Lyon². To be precise, I found his work Against Heresies³ consisting of five books of attacks on Gnostics of his time (c. 180 AD).
As Irenaeus writes, his opus magnum is based on “reading some of the Commentaries, as they call them, of the disciples of Valentinus, and after making myself acquainted with their tenets through personal intercourse with some of them […] I refer especially to the disciples of Ptolemaeus, whose school may be described as a bud from that of Valentinus” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, Preface, verse 2).
Irenaeus then spends eight chapters by describing the complex, convoluted Gnostic cosmology. A brief look at Gnostic texts, e.g. Gospel of Truth, and comparison of the two accounts reveals that Irenaeus understood the doctrines of his ideological enemies pretty well, and Gnostics obviously understood their tenets, too.
The rest of Against Heresies, four and a half books, Irenaeus dedicates to rebuttal of Gnosticism in all shapes and forms, and the defense of tradition that orthodox apostolic church “have learned from none others […], than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 1, verse 1).
The same verse then mentions these pillars as Matthew, Peter, Paul, Mark, Luke, and John. If you also consider that Irenaeus mentions Revelation in other parts of the text, it’s obvious that by c. 180 AD the Christian canon was already roughly in the shape as we know it today.
In this way Irenaeus’ work is an invaluable window into the late 2nd century AD. It also reveals the main doctrines of the day which Against Heresies was meant to defend. Namely that “there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 1, verse 2), and “if the flesh were not in a position to be saved, the Word of God would in no wise have become flesh” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter 14, verse 1).
In other words — uniqueness of Jesus as a sole Son of God and his physical life, death, and resurrection.
Irenaeus was also quite displeased that Gnostics accused orthodox church of lack of “perfect knowledge”, because, as he says (Book III, Chapter 1, verse 1), “it is unlawful to assert that [apostles] preached before they possessed ‘perfect knowledge,’ […] For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge.”
One may rightfully wonder — why was orthodox church under that specific attack? Were Gnostics just arrogant lunatics who reveled in some erroneous and confused cosmology, or was there something else?
The clues may be found in “Pauline epistles,” which were, ironically, one of the most important Irenaeus’ sources.
First, as I’ve written elsewhere, Saul’s “meeting” with Jesus has a very close resemblance to a standard “out of body” experience (2 Corinthians 12:2–4). Second, his vision is obviously on par with experiences of other witnesses of resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3–8) which is further confirmed by the fact that apostles allegedly confirmed Saul’s “conversion incident” when they agreed with Saul preaching Gospel to Gentiles (Galatians 6:2–8). Third, Saul argues in quite a large chunk of text (1 Corinthians 15:35–58) that Jesus was reborn into “spiritual body”. Considering Saul’s nature, if apostles believed in something else, he would certainly criticize their views, and he would hardly accept their “right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9) or consider himself equal to them (1 Corinthians 9:1–6).
I must repeat that it’s ironical, because Saul’s clear departure from Pharisaic thought is in stark contrast with Irenaeus’ position. If you are unfamiliar with what Pharisees have though about afterlife, “[they] believed that human spirits existed after death and would, on the last day, be bodily resurrected.”
Also consider that all Gospels were written after Saul’s letters. And the oldest of Gospels ends with several women visiting an empty tomb, a mysterious guy in white, but no resurrection accounts whatsoever (Mark 16, c. 66–70 AD).
So, it’s c. 180 AD, and here we have two groups. First one claims with absolute certainty to be the guardian of the original tradition, which, however, in the course of c. 150 years basically reverted back to Pharisaic thought plus Jesus, and the second one doubts even whether apostles had a direct insight into the nature of Jesus Christ. First thinks of transfiguration (whatever that means), the second advocates asceticism, especially in sexual and dietary practice — in short, “flesh is bad”, and tries to explain “Pauline dualism” by spinning elaborate cosmologies⁴, drawing support from Plato’s ideas and Jesus’ sayings (present also in Gospels), while putting enormous stress on direct gnosis as the means of salvation.
Well, as they say, a crazy mixed-up mess — honestly, where to start.
If I should point out errors in Gnosticism, the main would certainly be their asceticism based on the wrong view that physical body is somehow lesser or bad. That would also mean some polemics with Saul’s idea of various bodies (1 Corinthians 15:39–40). It’s also funny to think how convoluted would Christianity be, if Gnostics would “win the battle” back in the day.
If I should point out errors in Orthodoxy, the main would be that their pride in inheriting and guarding the original apostolic tradition (remember that Irenaeus was from Smyrna) prevented them from spotting that merely parroting apostles without direct gnosis erodes that very tradition they should protect. They obviously, too, could not wrap their heads around Saul.
Then again, as seen above, Saul’s view seems to be the consensus view among apostles. If that is really the case, Gnostics rightfully asked whether apostles even possessed “perfect knowledge”, i.e. gnosis (but then why would they use Saul’s epistles to begin with is beyond me).
All in all, it seems to me, that in times of Irenaeus (and probably even earlier) neither Orthodoxy nor Gnostics had their understanding confirmed by direct gnosis of unity, even though both groups were aware of the concept. Otherwise, why would they defend a literal physical resurrection of personal body on one side and the evil of anything physical (and inevitable dualism) on the other?
There is a beautiful part in Hindu opus Ramayana:
Once Lord Rama asked Lord Hanuman, “How do you see me?”
And Lord Hanuman replied, “When I see myself as a body, then I see myself as your faithful servant. When I see myself as the soul, I see myself as a part of you. And when I see myself as Absolute, you and I, my Lord, are one and the same.”
You may use it as a litmus test for a fully realized being.
¹ Irenaeus lived c. 130 — c. 202 AD
² Irenaeus was bishop of Lyon 161 — 180 AD
³ Against Heresies was written sometime between 174 — 189 AD
⁴ You can find similar cosmologies in Buddhism and Hinduism. E.g. Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora makes a distinction that closely parallels Hindu concepts of Brahman (Absolute) in relationship with Brahma (creator god, that forgets that he is “created”, too).