Monday, July 30, 2007
Church History 1 Post 1
How did the position of Irenaeus' Against Heresies undermine the Valentinian Gnostic explanation of the meaning of salvation (Soteriology)?
Irenaeus’ Defense of Orthodoxy
The first centuries of the Church were filled with opposition; opposition from not only outside of the church’s ranks but inside as well. Ireneaus, an early church father living from 130 to 202 AD, is known for combating one of the heretical movements called Gnosticism. This essay will address the major points of difference between the orthodox and Gnostic views of doctrine during that day. Ireneaus was known to combat all sorts of Gnosticism from his home in Gaul. Perhaps one of the most prolific Gnostics during his time was a man by the name of Valentinus. The beliefs of these two men will be addressed.
“Gnosticism as a philosophy of religion was based on the radical dualism of spirit and matter.” Valentinus taught that the material world is evil. The material world consists of all things on this earth which includes our created bodies. The universe, or Pleroma, is spiritual in nature and is encapsulated by the unknowable Forefather. It is from this Forefather that over 30 Aeons, or lower gods, follow in corresponding levels. Among one of the lowest levels is the Aeon called Sophia who is the motherly figure of the Aeons. At some point in the cosmos the goddess Sophia is “seized by an inordinate desire to fathom the mystery of the Forefather” which leads her to “disrupt the Pleroma.” It is from this disruption of the Pleroma that Sophia bears and births a demigod. This demigod, out of ignorance, created the world in which we now live. Because of this belief, the Gnostics viewed the god of the Old Testament as evil for creating this material world. They held to scripture that this god of the Old Testament breathed souls into the creatures to cause life. However, what this god did not know was that the goddess Sophia also breathed Spirits into these living creatures. Gnostic teaching even went as far to say that the serpent, represented in the Garden of Eden story found Genesis, was an agent of the goddess Sophia sent to help with the process of freeing the trapped Spirits from their material imprisonment.
The purpose of salvation for Gnosticism is the spirit’s release from this evil material world followed by a progressive ascension through the different levels of Aeons found in the Pleroma. Valentinus teachings differentiated between Jesus and Christ. Irenaus tells us that, “The Valentinians say that it was the Jesus of the dispensation who passed through Mary, and upon her the Saviour, who is called Christ, descended from above, and that he shared with the former his power and his name; so that death was destroyed by the former and the Father revealed by the Saviour who descended.” So we see that Christ is a separate figure who passes through Mary to impart wisdom and knowledge to the earthly creature Jesus. It is then through the teachings and knowledge secretly passed down that salvation is granted.
Irenaeus’ work Refutation and Overthrow of the “Knowledge” Falsely So Called, better known as Against Heresies, seeks to refute the Gnostic teachings and bring to light the orthodox, Apostolic witness that has been passed down through the scripture and tradition. Kerr tells us, “Unlike Justin, who used philosophy and dialectic in the service of Christianity, Irenaues appealed against the novelties of the Gnostic doctrine to the unity and priority of the apostolic message (“kerygma” in Greek).” Irenaues thus stuck to the underlying and undergirding claims of the gospel message. Namely, it is imperative to interpret scripture in light of the whole story, when God created this world he stated that it was good and through the consequences of the fall humanity is now tainted, and lastly through the ministry, personhood, and sacrifice of Christ we are now restored or saved to be in right relationship with God.
Irenaeus first begins by appealing to the apostolic witness to scripture. He states,
“Such, then, is their [the heretics’] system, which the prophets did not announce, our Lord did not teach, and the Apostles did not hand down; but which they boastfully declare that they understand better than others, reading it in the Agrapha [non-Apostolic writings.] And, as the saying is, they attempt to make ropes out of sand in applying the parables of our Lord, or prophetic utterances, or Apostolic statements to their plausible scheme, in order that they may have foundation for it. But they alter the scriptural context and connection, and dismember the truth as much as they can.”
So, the Gnostics of the time were appealing to books which did not have the overall universal stamp of approval, so to speak, by the entirety of the church. Apparently, they were prone to mix and match verses and misinterpret well known passages to suit their own systems and purposes.
Using the formula of scripture and apostolic teaching, Irenaeus continues to attack the false assertions of the Gnostics. Pertaining to humanity and creation Irenaeus appeals to the book of John which states, “All things were made through Him, and without him was not any thing made.” He then goes on to state, “There is no exception; but the Father made all things by Him, both visible and invisible, objects of sense and intelligence, temporal, eternal and everlasting.” For Irenaeus, this God is known through the revelation of the prophets, the personhood of Christ, and the apostolic witness. We are to take the account of the fall of man as truthful. Scripture is not trying to deceive us into believing that there is indeed more than one deity. Genesis also states that man has fallen. As mentioned before, the Gnostics’ interpretation of the Genesis story is quite different thus directing their entire system of belief. Irenaeus implores people to stick with the tradition that has been passed down from the prophets. That is, there was a time when man was in right relationship with God, and that time has passed. Christ has now come to restore the relationship between God and man. This brings us to our final subject.
“For we have shown that the Son of God, who was always existent with the Father, did not begin to be then; for when he became incarnate and man, he summed up in himself the long roll of humanity, supplying us in a concise manner with salvation. So that what we lost in Adam, namely the being in the image and likeness of God, we might recover in Christ Jesus,” states Irenaeus. Salvation for Irenaues is not found in secret knowledge, but rather the universal knowledge which is available to all mankind. We as humanity are able to participate in the life of Christ because of the incarnation. It is the very fact that God took on flesh and became like us that we are able to draw close to Him. This position is a far cry from the Valentinian perspective. Ireneaus states, “And had not man been joined to God, he could never have shared in incorruptibility.” Christ, then, is working to recapitulate humanity and all things to Him.
Irenaeus’ appeal to the apostolic witness and the “kerygma” tradition that had been handed down from the apostles was his primary weapon to combat the known Gnostics of his day. Scripture and tradition ultimately undermined the Gnostic position by destroying their foundational bricks one by one.
I have a minor nit. You say that, "Sophia bears and births a demigod." I believe you meant to say "Demiurge" rather than demigod. The Demiurge is not a demigod. A demigod is part human, part divine.
There is much support in the sacred literature for the Gnostic perspective on salvation. You may think that the Church has dismantled the foundation of the Gnostics, but it still uses Gnostic literature and Gnostic concepts in its liturgy.