I am participating in the group Read the Fathers, so in order to help me maintain this discipline I will be sharing my favorite quotes and observations every Saturday:

saint-irenaeus-of-lyonsThis week’s readings were from Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against Heresies, Book 1.


– Irenaeus is my favorite theologian from the pre-Nicene era. For a great introduction on his life and work go here.

– Irenaeus’ Against Heresies may cause some to recoil, but we must remember that unlike many modern “heresy hunters” who range from pastors of mega churches with the luxury and safety to tell everyone else why they are wrong, or internet trolls who have nothing else to do with their time, Irenaeus was the pastor of a persecuted people. The Bishop who served in Lyons prior to his arrival had been martyred and it was altogether possible that Irenaeus would face the same fate. Irenaeus was concerned with truth because for him (unlike many of us) it was a “life and death” scenario being a Christian in the Roman world. As one sees from his introductory remarks there are those advocating a “special knowledge” that is essential for being saved. As a pastor of common people this likely irritated Irenaeus. Why should he let the simplicity of the Gospel be hijacked by misguided mystics? He wouldn’t and this is why we have his writings.

– Irenaeus’ first concern are the Valentinian gnostics. A figure of concern is Ptolemaeus, a teacher in the Valentinian tradition (Preface, 2). The gnostic hierarchy begins with a pre-existent Aeon (Age/Era), known also as Proarche, Propator, and Bythus. This deity is like God the Father, but also like the Platonic One. Alongside Aeon is Ennoea (Idea), known as Charis (Grace) and Sige (Silence), who may be like a Son-Spirit. Sige is female. She gave birth to Nous (Mind). Nous is called “Monogenes” (only-begotten), Father, and “Beginning of all Things”. This may be where Christians’ God the Father enters the gnostic pantheon. Alongside Nous  is Aletheia (Truth). Together, these four are the “first-begotten Pythagorean Tetrad” (Bythus, Sige, Nous, Aletheia). Monogenes sends Logos (Word) and Zoe (Life) who bring for Anthropos (Man/Human) and Ecclesia (Assembly/Church). This creates an Ogdoad (Bythus, Nous, Logos, Anthropos). These sets have a male-female binary: Propate with Ennoea, Nous with Aletheia, Logos with Zoe, and Anthropos with Ecclesia. These couples create other ten other Aeons: Bythius (Deep) and Mixis (Mingling), Ageratos (Undecaying) and Henosis (Union), Autophyes (Self-Existent) and Hedone (Pleasure), Acinetos (Immovable) and Syncrasis (Blending), Monogenes (Only-Begotten) and Marcia (Happiness). Anthropos and Ecclesia create twelve more Aeons: Paracletus (Advocate) and Pistis (Faith), Patricos (Ancestor) and Elpis (Hope), Metricos (Metrical) and Agape (Love), Ainos (Praise) and Synesis (Understanding), Ecclesiasticus (Ecclesiastical) and Macariotes (Felicity), Theletos (Desired) and Sophia (Wisdom) (1.1.1-2). These groups of beings are a tripartite Pleroma of Ogdoad, Decad, and Duodecad. The Valentinians teach that from this place came the “Savior”, who according to Irenaeus they will not called “Lord”. So Jesus reveals these mysteries, but only to the teachers of this sect. And this sect has the secret knowledge that can be access only through these teachers if one wants salvation. There are other sects like this one, with pantheons that are similar, but this one is the most extensive.

Propator (First-Father, known as the Author and First Cause) is known by Nous (Mind) only. Nous wanted to tell others about Propator, but Sige (Silence) prevented him (1.2.1). Sophia (Wisdom) sought to break into the presence of the Propator, she wanted to know what Nous knew, but the danger would be that Sophia would be remerged back into the pure existence that is Propator. She co-opts Horos (Sight/Vision) and this allows her to glimpse Propater (1.2.2-3). This overwhelms Sophia, and Sophia is morphed, becoming Material Substance (2.3). Sophia appears to have been split apart in some sense. She remains within the Pleroma, but her “inborn idea” is split apart, half of her becomes this material world (1.2.4). The first to emerge from this splt as Christ and Holy Spirit. After this it gets confusing, but it seems that Christ and Holy Spirit do some revealing that pleases the Pleroma, resulting in a great celebration of the Propater, and this causes them to create Jesus, who is called Savior, Christ, Logos, and so forth, but shouldn’t be confused with those aspects of the Pleroma with those names (1.2.5).

– Sophia is the cause of this world in some sense. Her error lead to her deformity. In 1.4.1-5 Ireaneus attempts to explain Valentinian thought on how this all came to pass. Sophia became expelled from light, and she wanted to return to her former place because of Achamoth (likely a derivative of the Hebrew word for wisdom, chockmah). Her actions causes humans souls and a being known as the Demiurge to come into existence, as well as all the other corporeal elements of this world. As Sophia struggles to return to the Pleroma, she seeks the light, Christ, but Christ has returned and so he sends Paraclete. Paraclete and Sophia reproduce as well, and this creates some who are in the image of Sophia and some in the image of Paraclete.

– These thirty members of the Pleroma each represent a year of Jesus’ life where he did not minister (thirty years of age). The Valentinian system has much numerology involved. As one can see, the names of these members have to do with concepts like “Mind”, “Wisdom”, “Truth”, and so forth. In other words, there is a Platonic reality in which things we humans perceive are represented by some behind-the-scenes reality (Derrida would hate this). The Valentinians hold to a very complex metaphysical worldview. Even the cross (“Whoever does not take up his ‘cross’ and follow me”) is made into the member Stauros, the Cross.

– Valentinians presented “three kinds of existence”–matter, animal, and spiritual (symbolized by Abel, Cain, and Seth in 1.7.5). The Demiurge or Father of the material world. This deity ruled over everything outside the Pleroma (see 1.5.1-2). Sophia is above the Demiurge, but the Demiurge is above the world, and he thinks he is everything. The Demiurge created the earthy part of humans combining invisible substance with animal substance. In this process Sophia or Chockhman inserted a spiritual aspect into humans without Demiurges’ knowledge (1.5.2-6). Those who have this spiritual substance, who receive the right gnosis or knowledge, are those who are freed from this present world.

– Those who affirm themselves as the “spiritual” who know their true existence because of their gnosis present themselves as above others. They eat meat offered to idols. They attend gladiator fights. Irenaeus reports various forms of sexual immorality saying that these gnostics argue that since they are spiritual it doesn’t matter what their soon to be discarded physical body does. Others, who are not spiritual, are told they may obtain a certain intermediate state if they behave correctly (1.6.1-4).

– The Valentinian afterlife consist of these spiritual ones finally entering the pleroma with Sophia and the Savior, where they are given into marriage with angelic beings (1.7.1). Since humans exist in three ways–matter, animal, or spiritual–only the latter have this sort of eternal hope, and it is predestined by their natures, which they must discover through gnosis.

Valentinian Christology argues that Jesus was created by the Demiurge, but he went through Mary like water, and this allowed him to avoid the base nature of others, so the Savior comes down from the Plethora upon him. This true Jesus never suffered, though an animal natured Christ did suffer so that is what people saw.

– Irenaeus shows familiarity with much of the NT from the early part of this work: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy. Interestingly enough, he argues against Valentinian interpretations of many of these works, which indicates that the Valentinians used them as well. Irenaeus laments this writings, “And it is not only from the writings of the evangelists and the apostles that they endeavor to derive proofs for their opinions by means of perverse interpretations and deceitful expositions: they deal in the same way with the law and the prophets, which contain many parables and allegories that can frequently be drawn into various senses, according to the kind of exegesis to which they are subjected. And others of them, with great craftiness, adapted such parts of Scripture to their own figments, lead away captive from the truth those who do not retain a steadfast faith in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1.3.6).” For an example of Valentinian exegesis through Ireaenus’ lens see 1.8.5-9.2.

– Irenaeus mocks Valentinian exegesis by using a Homeric poem as an example. Read “Irenaeus’ Homeric Poem”.

– According to 1.10.1 the Apostolic tradition is simple in comparison to the Valentinian tradition (see quote #3). Irenaeus emphasizes that this tradition is shared by the church universal (it is catholic, 1.10.2-3). Valentinians (or gnostics) are depicted in 1.1.12-1.13 as having many different teachers with a wide variety of theological systems (Irenaeus would hate Protestantism). In 1.13.1-7 there is a charismatic sect lead by a man named Marcus who proclaims himself a prophet, who leads people in weird, chaotic rituals, and who seduces women to have sex with him, even deceiving the wife of a deacon. When moderns exalt gnosticism as an equal approach to Christianity as the catholic Christianity of Irenaeus these things need to be considered.

Irenaeus seems to have been very witty. In quote #2 below I share how he compares Valentinian thought to someone dismantling a mosaic of jewels that created a picture of a king only to use those same jewels to reconstruct a picture of a dog or a fox. In other words, Valentinians may use the same words, ideas, and even Scripture, but the picture created isn’t as beautiful. Later, after discussing how some gnostic teachers create their own doctrines he shows that he can be as witty, saying in 1.11.4:

“There is a certain Proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd; and alongwith this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus.For if it is fitting that that language which is used respecting the universe be transformed to the primary Tetrad, and if any one may assign names at his pleasure, who shall prevent us from adopting these names, as being much more credible [than the others], as well as in general use, and understood by all?”

Later he calls the gnostic doctrines, which he aimes to expose, “the utterly ill-conditioned carcase of this miserable little fox” (1.31.4).

– Irenaeus was self-aware as well. In 1.16.2 after trying to explain some of the teachings of the gnostics he writes, “I will not, however, weary thee by recounting their other interpretations, that you may perceive the results everywhere.” Honestly, I was weary in reading the account! Also, he writes in 1.16.3, “I well know, my dear friend, that when thou hast read through all this, thou wilt indulge in a hearty laugh over this their inflated wise folly! But those men are really worthy of being mourned over, who promulgate such a kind of religion…” He is aware of (1) the laughable absurdity of his opponents worldview and (2) the sad reality that some are being deceived by it.

– In 1.19 it is evident that Irenaeus is about to address the Marcionite-like error. He mentions how some misuse statements by the prophets about Israel to act as if Israel had no knowledge of the true God at all. In 1.20 this group is depicted as relaying traditions about Jesus from spurious writings or misinterpretations of the Four-fold Gospel. In 1.21.1 he says they denounce baptism because true regeneration comes through gnosis. In 1.21.3 he indicates that some gnostics replace baptism with a sexual ritual, others with baptisms that contain weird incantations rather that a straightforward pronunciation of what seems to be Matthew 28:19. In 1.21.4 there are others who use a mixture places on the head of the one being initiated. Marcion is addressed in 1.27.2-4. He followed Cerdo (see below), but went farther, saying that the God of the Jews (called Cosmocrater) was not Jesus’ Father (Jesus came from a higher deity), that this God created evils, promoted war, and a variety of other terrible things. Marcion rejected the OT. He used portions of Luke’s Gospel and parts of Paul’s writings, as long as it served to dejudiaze Christianity. He taught his followers that he was bringing them the true Gospel. Marcion reinterpreted the OT making bad characters (Cain, Sodom, Egypt) into good and good characters (Abel, Noah, Abraham) into bad.

– Simon “the Samaritan” is said to be the Simon the Magician from the Book of Acts (attributed to Luke by name by Irenaeus in 1.23.1). According to Irenaeus, once rebuked by Peter for trying to purchase the power to endow the Holy Spirit on people (which in the Acts narrative is accompanied by the miraculous), Simon gives himself fully to the art of magic. He becomes quite famous, treated as a god, and given a statue during the reign of Claudius Caesar (41-54 CE). In 1.23.2-5 Ireaneus discusses how Simon freed a slave woman, claimed her to be the embodiment of the Ennoea, created a sect with priest who saw him as an incarnation of Jupiter, and claimed gnosis of this reality would save those who followed him when the world dissolves. Simon was succeeded by Menander, another Samaritan magician, who taught by being “baptized into him” one became eternally young and couldn’t die. This seems to show a familiarity with Pauline and Lukan Christianity, though altered (1.23.5). Others emerged from this sect, one teaching that the God of the Jews was an angel and that Jesus appeared as a man, but he was not a real man, but a spirit who came down to destroy his Father, the God of the Jews, and to save those who believed on him (1.24.2). Another added that the nations were ruled by angels, the God of the Jews being a contentious one, which explained why the nations hated the Jews, and why Jesus came appearing as a human to save them (1.24.4). Salvation is for the soul. The body, being material, is utterly corrupt (1.24.5).

Other sects: Carpocrates taught that Jesus’ ability to save came through his purity of soul. Jesus’ soul remembered from where it came (“the sphere of the unbegotten God”), and though he was corrupted by Jewish teaching, his soul was able to rise above. This is true of others as well. Others can rise above their corrupt teaching to return their soul to its place of origin through gnosis. There is a shared concept with Hinduism and Buddhism that a soul migrates until freed back to this reality at some point (1.25.1-65). Cerinthus taught that Jesus was a normal man upon whom the “Christ” descended at his baptism and left at his death (being impassable). The true God did not create this world, but some lesser power. The Ebionites (see my notes on the Gospel of the Ebionites) are said to believe similar ideas to the Carpocrates and Cerinthus. They accept Matthew’s Gospel only, and despise Paul, because he was “an apostate from the law”. For those who have suggested some tension between Matthew’s Gospel and the Pauline Gospel it appears at least one group affirm this tension. For the most part, the Ebionites seem like Law observant Jews, who maintain Jerusalem’s supremacy, yet Irenaeus frames them as being connected to gnostic thought, which is not impossible. The Nicolaitanes are the sect mentioned in the Apocalypse. They follow an apostate deacon named Nicholas and Irenaeus accuses them of being indifferent toward idolatry and eating meat offered to sacrifices, like indicating a syncretism of sorts (1.26.1-3). According to Irenaeus a teacher influenced by Simon became Bishop of Rome named Cerdo, nine spots after the apostles (glad the papacy wasn’t in effect then, eh?), and he denied that the God of the Jews was the Father of Jesus (1.27.1). The Encratites are an ascetic bunch, denouncing marriage and the eating of meats. There are others still, but for the most part, the Valentinian doctrines represent their teachings, with small differences here and there.

– Tatian of Diatessaron fame is mentioned as having become a heretic after the martyrdom of Justin (feeing Justin from any responsibility) inventing a doctrinal system similar to that of Valentinian.

– The Cainites are interesting because some suggest there may be a connection to how this sect exalts bad characters in the OT (like Marcion did) as good. Cain “derived his being from the Power above” unlike others. Then, as regards Judas (which is why some connect this with the Gospel of Judas): “They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.”


The Humility of Irenaeus:

“You will not expect from me, who am resident among the Keltæ, and am accustomed for the most part to use a barbarous dialect, any display of rhetoric, which I have never learned, or any excellence of composition, which I have never practiced, or any beauty and persuasiveness of style, to which I make no pretensions. But youi will accept in a kindly spirit what I in a like spirit write to thee simply, truthfully, and in my own homely way; whilst you yourself (as being more capable than I am) will expand those ideas of which I send thee, as it were, only the seminal principles; and in the comprehensiveness of thy understanding, will develop to their full extent the points on which I briefly touch, so as to set with power before thy companions those things which I have uttered in weakness. In fine, as I (to gratify thy long-cherished desire for information regarding the tenets of these persons) have spared no pains, not only to make these doctrines known to thee, but also to furnish the means of showing their falsity; so shall you, according to the grace given to thee by the Lord, prove an earnest and efficient minister to others, that men may no longer be drawn away by the plausible system of these heretics, which I now proceed to describe.” (Preface, 3)

Valentinian Corruption of Christian Doctrine:

“Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavor, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma.” (1.8.1)

The Apostolic Tradition:

“The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensationsof God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.” (1.10.1)

The True God: 

“The rule of truth, which we hold, is, that there is one God Almighty, who made all things by His Word, and fashioned and formed, out of that which had no existence, all things which exist. Thus says the Scripture, to that effect “By the Word of the Lord were the heavens established, and all the might of them, by the Spirit of His mouth.”And again, “All things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made.”There is no exception or deduction stated; but the Father made all things by Him, whether visible or invisible, objects of sense or of intelligence, temporal, on account of a certain character given them, or eternal; and these eternalthings He did not make by angels, or by any powers separated from His Ennœa. For God needs none of all these things, but is He who, by His Word and Spirit, makes, and disposes, and governs all things, and commands all things into existence,—He who formed the world (for the world is of all),—He who fashioned man,—He [who]is the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, above whom there is no other God, nor initial principle, nor power, nor pleroma,—He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we shall prove. Holding, therefore, this rule, we shall easily show, notwithstanding the great variety and multitude of their opinions, that these men have deviated from the truth; for almost all the different sects of heretics admit that there is one God; but then, by their pernicious doctrines, they change [this truth into error], even as the Gentiles do through idolatry,—thus proving themselves ungrateful to Him that created them. Moreover, they despise the workmanship of God, speaking against their own salvation, becoming their own bitterest accusers, and being false witnesses [against themselves]. Yet, reluctant as they may be, these men shall one day rise again in the flesh, to confess the power of Him who raises them from the dead; but they shall not be numbered among the righteous on account of their unbelief.” (1.22.1)