St. Irenaeus and the Gnostics
by BRIAN KRANICK
How common is it to hear someone say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” A very Gnostic-esque statement. One need only to glance at your local bookstore’s religion shelves to see that Gnosticism, that ancient heresy and foe of Christianity, is alive and well in the modern world. There you would find a smorgasbord of spirituality, with topics on “New Age,” transcendentalism, astrology, reincarnation, and ways of attaining a “secret knowledge.” Cults and belief systems for attaining secret knowledge, or gnosis, were all the rage back in the second century as well. Gnostic sects were in direct competition with the nascent Christian Church. It was amidst the threat of Gnosticism that perhaps the greatest Church Father of the second century emerged, Saint Irenaeus.
Irenaeus was born in 130 A.D. in Smyrna (modern day Turkey), and died in 202 A.D. in Lyons, France, where he had become the bishop. In his youth Irenaeus was a disciple of Saint Polycarp, who was martyred in 155 A.D, but who had himself been a disciple of the Apostle Saint John the Evangelist. Thus, Irenaeus’ close historical connection to John lends a distinct apostolic credence and weight to all his writings. His greatest work is the massive five-volume set of books Adversus Haereses, or Against Heresies, a refutation of the doctrines of Gnosticism. In addition to his close proximity to John and the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus’ writings are all thoroughly Catholic. It is as if we are reading the modern Catechism (on such topics as the Real Presence of the Jesus in the Eucharist, the Sacrifice of the Mass, Apostolic succession, and Mariology) inserted within the second century.
The heretical Gnostic movements led Irenaeus to develop Church sacramental theology and Christology, or an understanding of exactly who Christ is. Irenaeus developed the idea of the necessity of a bodily atonement and redemption through Jesus’ sacred humanity. This is simply the “Recapitulation theory of Atonement.” In order to understand this better, we should first look at the false teachings of Gnosticism.
The Gnostic sects emphasized a secret, pseudo-mystical knowledge that had to be gained for salvation, and generally reserved only for the few who were deemed spiritually worthy. As such, Gnosticism became associated with elitism. Most Gnostic myths, relying heavily upon Greek pagan philosophy, taught that worldly things were created by a wicked demi-god, Demiurge, and thus, evil. The evil material universe is then at odds with the goodness of the Supreme Creator and the spiritual world.
Gnosticism descended into a form of Dualism, where the body and all matter are evil, and all that is spiritual is good. The world, and all that is in it, is to be rejected. Man is seen as a spark from the spiritual God, but entrapped in the evil material world and imprisoned in the body.
This is in direct contradiction to the teachings of Christianity. Man is not simply a spiritual being, who discards the body at death. Man is a composite being of body and soul. In the Book of Genesis, God calls all creation “good,” and later, on the sixth day, when God creates Man, He calls him “very good.” (Gen. 1:31) Orthodox Christianity’s major objection to Gnosticism focused around its denial of the goodness of the material world. St. Irenaeus fought such heresies vigorously, including the denial of the physical atonement of Jesus as well as the rejection of the material sacraments
Before long, the Gnostics had devolved into a form of Docetism that denied the corporeal incarnation of God into the world. To them, Jesus only “appeared” to be human, and wore a body like a mask or shell. By their beliefs, it made no sense that God would enter into an evil material universe.
Irenaeus, in response, seized upon the teachings of St. Paul that Christ did “unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1:10) St. Irenaeus taught that Christ had to enter into the world, and into humanity, in order to atone for the sins of the world and redeem humanity. In his theory of Atonement by Recapitulation, Irenaeus says, “The Word, becoming man, recapitulates all things in Himself, so that just as the Word is foremost in things super-celestial, spiritual, and invisible, so also in things visible and corporeal He might have the primacy.” Jesus lived a life in the body like one of us, redeeming our humanity through His divine-humanity.
Irenaeus goes further in saying that Jesus lived through all the stages of man, from birth, to infancy and childhood, maturity, old age and even unto death, thereby sanctifying all the stages of a man’s life. Here the Catechism concurs stating, “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption… and a mystery of recapitulation. All Jesus did, said and suffered had for its aim restoring fallen man to his original vocation.” (CCC 517-518)
Just as the Gnostics professed that God as Spirit would not incarnate into the evil world, so too, according to their belief, would His Spirit neither enter into the material sacraments of the Church. According to their teachings, God would not enter into bread and wine, or water, oil or chrism. St. Irenaeus fought vociferously against this heresy with an explicit defense of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. He writes, “For as the bread from the earth, receiving the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist . . . so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible but have the hope of resurrection into eternity.”
When we say the Apostles’ Creed, we are reminded of the early Church’s constant spiritual battle with Gnosticism. We say God is the creator of heaven “and earth.” Jesus was physically born into the world, physically suffered and died. We believe in the “resurrection of the body.”
The Creed reveals a constant push back against those who denied the goodness of the material world, the body, and the corporeal redemption by Jesus. As one of the earliest and greatest defenders of the faith, St. Irenaeus counteracted the polymorphic pagan influences of Gnosticism, dispelling their dualism and wishy-washy spirituality, which St. Paul refers to as “the profane and vain babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge.” (1 Tim. 6:20)
And so, as we remember St. Irenaeus on his Feast day, June 28th, we should retain the true faith, clinging to the doctrines of our Apostolic religion, believing in the sacred humanity of Jesus, crucified on the Cross, and whose Real Presence is in the Eucharist.
May He resurrect us bodily to eternal life.