Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Gnostic Medusa

Most who are familiar with the history of the Christian church are familiar with the ideas inherent in gnosticism. Soundly refuted both in Scripture and by many early church fathers, the basic ideas inherent in it still resurface and cause no end of confusion. As with all heresies, the source is demonic.

The latest thing coming down the pike to resurrect intereest in erroneous gnostic ideas is the upcoming film "The DaVinci Codes" and its bogus tale of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Below, I offer an article by Dr. David Poe about Irenaeus, who wrote a strong refutation of gnosticism in the early days of the church. It is important to note that the writings of the early church fathers are not canonical Scripture, and some had theological concepts that were not in keeping with Scripture. Irenaeus was not without error. Be that as it may, when the early church fathers were spot on...they were spot on!

I will no doubt have more to say on this subject myself in days and weeks to come, but this will do for starters.


Cloud of Witnesses: Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, Part II
by Dr. David C. Noe, January 2005

Born around 125, Irenaeus was sent to Lyon in the south-central part of the province of Gallia, modern day France. There, though late in his career at the age of 55, he helped establish a beachhead for the growing Christian presence in Gaul, furthering the work of Pothinus and others who had gone before.

Irenaeus spoke Greek as his native tongue, and confessed that he learned the Celtic dialect of Gaul with difficulty. Though of little eloquence, this did not prevent him from preparing the most complete catholic account of the faith written to his time, providing not the vain and heady speculations of his Gnostic opponents Valentinus or Marcion, but a solid and nuanced approach to the doctrines of the faith.

His works remain only in tattered pieces. Most letters are lost, as well as his shorter treatises on Greek philosophy and narrative accounts of the persecutions afflicting the Gallic churches in his day. What has remained are his five books refuting Gnosticism, written between 177 and 190. Although a Greek copy, the language in which it was written, it attested as late as the sixteenth century, all we have now is a clumsy and literal Latin translation. Thankfully this is sufficient to give us a clear idea of his teachings and doctrines.

In 140, two persuasive teachers were gaining in popularity at Rome, Valentinus and Marcion whom I have mentioned. Though the two differed in some respects, they shared an emphasis on the importance of developing speculative knowledge and the denigration of the Scriptures as mere folklore and fable. These concerns eventuated in a complex series of doctines which taught that the material world was made not by God the Creator, but by a Demiurge (a notion misappropriated from Platonic philosophy) who could freely mingle with matter and not be contaminated. God himself, they said, must remain aloof from the crassness of all physical interaction. Gnostic doctrines breathed an air of scientific sophistication, and provided for a three-tiered system of human society through which one could move by acquiring special knowledge. The first level was that of the somatic, the state characterized only by a stupid and drone-like focus on physical needs. Those who had been enlightened by philosophy were the psychical men, having their reason refined and perfected. By employing the tenets of Gnostic learning, Valentinus taught, one may advance to the pneumatic man, the life of the spirit in which all bodily interactions are despised and almost unnoticed.

When a friend asked Irenaeus to write against these teachings, which were quickly infiltrating the churches of southern Gaul, the bishop realized both that these heady speculations served to flatter human vanity, and that they were opposed to the plain teachings of the Scriptures. The occasion of this heresy, in God's singular providence, called forth from Irenaeus a dazzling defense of orthodoxy.

Irenaeus recognized that the core of Gnosticism was not the work of God in Jesus Christ, but the acquisition of secret knowledge. Confession of sin, the inward work of regeneration, repentance and self-denial played little part in the Gnostic teaching. Instead Valentinus and his associates taught that one must learn the order of the heavens, the grossness of physical creation, and a quasi-magical set of formulas. In sharp contrast, Irenaeus wrote: "The true way to God is love. It is better to be willing to know nothing but Jesus Christ the crucified, than to fall into ungodliness through over-curious questions and paltry subtleties" (Schaff 2.13).

Though not averse to Greek learning (Irenaeus could quote Homer and Plato with ease), the father grounded his doctrines on Scripture, and a mature reading of them. As Schaff says, Irenaeus was the first writer we have who utilizes the New Testament canon in its fullness. Though the Apostles' immediate successors report oral traditions, and individuals like Justin Martyr quote the Old Testament, Irenaeus alone showed the close inter-reliance of the two testimonies. In his reading of the New Testament, we find not the pick-and-choose method of Marcion heresy, but a full selection from all four Gospels and nearly every Epistle.

Irenaeus also anticipates the important doctrine of organic inspiration. Writing in Book III of Refutation of Gnosticism, he shows that the Gnostics do not know how to read Paul in II Corinthians because they are ignorant of Paul's style and customary manner of speaking:

Paul does not say, "the God of this world," as if recognizing any other beyond Him; but he confessed God as indeed God. And he says, "the unbelievers of this world," because they shall not inherit the future age of incorruption. I shall show from Paul himself, how it is that God has blinded the minds of them that believe not, in the course of this work, that we may not just at present distract our mind from the matter in hand, [by wandering] at large. From many other instances also, we may discover that the apostle frequently uses a transposed order in his sentences, due to the rapidity of his discourses, and the impetus of the Spirit which is in him." (III.7.2)

The contributions of Irenaeus to catholic doctrine are too numerous to list, but we may also mention his focus on inner spirituality over the asceticism and legalism that was rising at the time in the Montanistic controversy, as well as his teaching on proper church structure and government. When heretics would dodge his attacks and change their opinions readily, Irenaeus would calmly return to the biblical teachings and show that indeed all true believers had always grounded their faith upon them.

If you wish to explore the writings of Irenaeus further, may I encourage you to consult the following resources online:




crownring said...

Interesting reading, Sola. Interesting that Gnosticism is still a troubling presence today. Shouldn't be surprised though. The devil hasn't had a new idea since the beginning of time.

Sigurd said...

interesting..... i like what the guy above me said about Satan not having any new ideas? yeah, but the thing is? Humans are dumb enough that he doesn't have to think up anything new to have them follow him...

yeah.. just a thought.. great blog. keep it up!!!


Campisi said...

Gnosticism is not a creation of Satan, as those of the orthodox tradition often claim. In reality, Christian Gnosticism is sourced from a reasoned study of Christian texts of the period, some of which made it into the Bible. Those who wish to learn about Gnosticism from a source other than Bishop Iraneus of Lyons or Tertullian can visit http://www.gnosis.org at their leisure. Of course, it has some pro-Gnosticism "bias," but it lacks the severity of the anti-Gnosticism rhetoric from the orthodox church.

SolaMeanie said...

What is your authority for making statements like this, Campisi? Theological errors such as Gnosticism deserve the severity they get. Gnosticism is NOT Christian, no matter how many (and how loudly) its advocates insist that it is. Do you think Irenaeus (that's the proper spelling) and Tertullian picked their refutations of Gnosticism off of a bush? This is exactly the kind of arrogance that I have been pointing out here and elsewhere. You guys seem to assume that we haven't read a book beyond Dick and Jane in elementary school.

The charge of bias always amuses me. It's one of those words that can cut both ways. If I and others are biased against Gnosticism, it is because Gnosticism is wrong.

Campisi said...

My authority to say what I did is just as solid as the authority you use to say what you will. Gnosticism is only a "theological error" when viewed through the tinted lenses of orthodox Christianity. I personally view much of the orthodox Christian practices and ideas to be "theological errors," but I in no way feel the need to slander your beliefs as such. I will believe what I will, and you will believe what you will; the fact that Irenaeus (thanks for the correction) and Tertullian placed their beliefs in multi-volume refutations gives them no additional weight.

Just as bias is a double-edged sword, arrogance can go both ways as well. In my book, it comes across as arrogant of you to criticize me for not agreeing with your "correct" ideology. Neither ideology can be deemed "correct" with any authority, because there is no absolute value in existence to measure them against (both orthodox and Gnostic Christianity use the canonized Bible). Just because you follow a moral compass that I view as "misguided" doesn't give me permission to consider you uneducated or ignorant, and therefore I have and will continue to avoid doing so.

SolaMeanie said...


I will reply here once to your posts on the other entries so I don't have to keep jumping all over the place.

First, an explanation of my tone, which I will admit can be sharp from time to time when I encounter false teachers or people being condescending. I do so following the example of both the Lord and the Apostles who commanded that error be rebuked sharply. In that context, I am not being arrogant but am speaking with biblical authority and in defense of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Paul, Peter, Jesus etc. did not sugarcoat false doctrine and neither will I. Gnostics view themselves as having superior knowledge and view orthodox Christians as the great unwashed or uninitiated. Now, if you did not intend to be condescending, great. We can try to lower the heat a bit.

I disagree completely with you about the subject of authority and who has the "correct" ideology. The Christian faith is not a smorgasbord where one can cherrypick what they'll believe or not. I am speaking here of core doctrine/truth, not secondary issues where you will find differences i.e. mode of baptism.

You have the right to believe whatever you wish, just don't call it Christianity. Truth in labeling. The church reserves the right to define itself and has done so throughout her history. The Gnostics were rejected by the church because they were teaching false doctrine, pure and simple. This includes the so-called Gnostic gospels. I do not need to re-argue the particulars of the battle over Gnosticism here exhaustively as there has been ample scholarship done on this subject. As I told you earlier, this blog is not a doctoral dissertation. It is commentary. There will be times when I might do a more in-depth analysis (Dr. Ron Gleason's blog shows examples of this), but that will be an exception to the rule.

It is common for those who teach false doctrine to use terms such as "slander" etc. I am not surprised since our culture is increasingly of the mind that all beliefs are equally valid. Ridiculous, of course. There is truth and there is error. There is legitimate and there is counterfeit. Gnosticism is counterfeit Christianity, trying to impose things on Scripture that are not there.

I will agree with you that the early church fathers do not carry the authority of Scripture, nor do they carry the authority of Jesus and the Apostles. Several in the post-apostolic period (100 A.D. to 400 A.D.) advocated unbiblical doctrines along with ones that would be biblical. The best of the early church fathers merely reaffirmed what was already recognized as correct doctrine. This is one of the principles of canonicity. No one voted on the canon as is commonly believed. The books accepted as canonical were recognized because of their apostolic authority and consistency. The Catholic Church didn't even accept the Apocrypha formally until the Reformation came along and they found it necessary to justify unbiblical doctrines.

The long and short of it is...orthodox Christians do have an absolute authoritative standard in Scripture. There is one correct interpretation, yet many applications. Again, Gnostics might use Scripture, but they impose meanings on the text not intended by the authors.

I wish you well, and urge you to re-evaluate this issue. Our eternal destiny is determined by what we believe.