Irenaeus and the Gnostics

A few years back, back, the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown became a best seller and block buster film. It had a simple underlying narrative, a powerful church has suppressed dissent and diversity.

In that book and in a lot of contemporary thinking, the Gnostics are the real heroes of church history. They were prototype feminists, a concern for spirituality over dogma etc.

So who were the Gnostics and why are people so interested in them today? Up until about 80 years ago, all we really had to go on for them were one or two fragments of their thoughts preserved in the writings of their opponents. Then in 1945 at a  place called Nag Hammadi a whole treasure trove of documents was found. These became known as the Gnostic Gospels, a collection of alternative stories accounts and letters connected to the life of Jesus and purporting to come from the apostles. The manuscripts are in Coptic and date to 390AD.


  1. So who were they and what did they believe

An Alternative Creation Story

They saw God as distant, pure spirit who doesn’t get his hands dirty in physical matter. God is impersonal. In fact, one Gnostic, Basileadis, goes so far as to describe him as “The non-existent God.”

Between us and God are intermediary spirit beings/gods (demiurges).     Creation was an unpleasant accident.  In other words, for the Gnostic thinker, matter  =bad, spirit = good.


One Gnostic account says:


“The Sophia of the Epionoia,” being an Aeon conceived a thought from herself with the reflection of the invisible Spirit and foreknowledge.  She wanted to bring forth a likeness out of herself without the consent of the Spirit – hand had not approved – and without her consort and without his consideration…And because of the invincible power which is in her, her thought did not remain idle and a thing came out of her which was imperfect and different from her appearance.”[1]


The OT god Yahweh is portrayed as one of the demiurges, ruling the world but evil.


One early leader, Marcion –(c85-160), created his own Bible. It contained his own version of Luke’s Gospel and some of Paul’s letters.  This was an attempt to edit out the OT because he sees Yahweh as this evil demi-god opposed to the true Father.


  1. b. An alternative Salvation story


In Gnostic thinking, Jesus cannot be fully God –because God is completely other.  However, nor can he be a real man –because matter is evil. Therefore, there could be  no atonement because there was no real death on the cross.


“He whom you saw on the three, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus.  But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness.”[2]


So, for the Gnostic, Salvation is about escape from this world/from matter back to spirit form/oneness.  This is possible through being initiated into inner circles of secret knowledge. This is where the name Gnostics comes from. The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis. Therefore someone who possesses this special gnosis is a Gnostic.


Jesus’ role in salvation is to give knowledge/wisdom and guidance. This means that the Gnostic Gospels are not at all like the Gospels in our Bibles. They are collections of random sayings with no plotline/narrative.

Incidentally, far from being feminist they saw women as the low point of matter and so a woman’s first step to knowledge was to become male. As the Gospel of Thomas puts it:

“Simon Peter said to them, Mary should leave us because women are not worthy of life.  Jesus responded: Look, I’ll lead her in order to make her male so that she can become a living spirit as you males are.  For each woman who makes herself male will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”[3]

  1. Irenaeus –the orthodox strike back

Irenaeus was born in Turkey (early 2nd Century AD –C202AD).  He becomes a Presbyter (church leader) in Lyons and later a bishop(2nd Century AD). In AD 177 he took a letter from Lyons to the bishop of Rome describing the persecution experienced there.[4] He was taught by Polycarp (69-155/160AD) who himself had been a disciple of John meaning he had a close relational link to the apostles and eyewitnesses of Jesus.

Irenaeus becomes one of the key leaders and thinkers responsible for refuting Gnosticism. He does so with notable bluntness.  E.g.

“And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion who met him on one occasion and said ‘Do you recognise me?’ ‘I do recognise you the first born of Satan.”[5]

His response can be outlined as follows.

  1. Confidence in the clear and public transmission of Scripture so that despite the church being diverse and spread out across the World they share one common faith

Uniformity of belief

“For the church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the 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 dispensations and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead….”[6]

“…the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout he whole world, yet as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it.”[7]

No evidence of secret traditions among the apostles and early church leaders

“If the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to ‘the perfect’ apart and privy from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves.”[8]

“But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth for he tarried on earth a very long time and when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom departed this life having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles and which the church hands down, which alone are true.”[9]

The completeness of Scripture

“But it is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are.  For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principle winds….”[10]

“For the cherubim too were four faced and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God.”[11]

–          Lion –Mark

–          Calf –Luke

–          Human –Matthew

–          Eagle –John


  1. The cohesion of the Bible narrative –One God who makes man and so of necessity steps down into history as man to save his creation (Recapitualtion)

Marcion’s two God’s

“Marcion therefore by dividing God into two, maintaining one to be good and the other judicial, does in fact, on both sides, put an end to deity.  For he that is the judicial one, if he be not good, is not God, because he from whom goodness is absent is not God; and again, he who is good, if he be not judicial, suffers the same loss as the former, by being deprived of his character of deity.”

Recapitulation[12] –the fittingness of Christ’s work

“God took the dust of the earth and formed the man, the beginning of mankind.  So then the Lord, summing up afresh this man took the same dispensation of entry into flesh, being born from the Birgin, by the will and wisdom of God; that he should also show forth the likeness of Adam’s entry into flesh and there should be that which was written in the beginning, man after the image and likeness of God.”[13]

“For the Lord came to seek again the sheep that was lost; and man it was that was lost” [14]

  1. Why is this important?

This is important because it helps us to see the conspiracy theories for what they are. They are just that, conspiracy theories which fly in the face of historical evidence.

Not only that, far from being cuddly nice guys, the Gnostics are exposed for what they are, false teachers with a false gospel that:

–          Puts God at a distance

–          Denies the goodness of God’s creation

–          Denies the true and full humanity and deity of Jesus


The Gnostic Gospels are no Gospel at all. They lack the good news needed for salvation.

[1] Apocyrphon of John, cited in NE, 68.

[2] The Apocalypse of Peter, in The Nag Hammadi Library Revised Edition, (ed J M Robinson, E.J Brill, rev, 1988), 377

[3] Gospel of Thomans, Aaying 114.

[4] Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought, 22.

[5] Cited in New Esuebius, 116.

[6] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.2 ( New Eusebius, 111-112)

[7] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.3 (New Eusebius, 112)

[8] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.3.1 (New Eusebius, 114).

[9] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.3 (New Eusebius, 115).

[10] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV.2.2. (New Eusebius, 117).

[11] Irenaeus, Against Heresies,  (New Eusebius, 118).

[12] Recapitualtion is the idea that Christ recapitulates or relives and fulfils history but living it right e.g. obeying where Adam disovbeyed.

[13] Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching, 32-34 (New Eusebius, 120).

[14] Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching, 32-34 (New Eusebius, 120).