Book review: Irenaeus’s “Against Heresies”

I next chose to pick up Irenaeus’s Against Heresies. It sounded like a positive note to ring off the new year, right? I chose Against Heresies, because I the very title made me feel like I wouldn’t get along with Irenaeus very well. Does he not seem like a religious hardliner trying to sniff out people with whom he disagrees? A Saul of Christianity? I immediately thought of the quote from Nikolai Berdyaev, who didn’t think much of the word heresy:

A fanatic of orthodoxy who denounces heresies and exterminates heretics has lost the vital fullness and harmony of truth, he is possessed by one emotion only and sees nothing but heresy and heretics everywhere. He becomes hard, forgets about the freedom of the spirit and has but little attention to bestow upon men and the complexity of individual destinies. Heaven preserve us from being obsessed by the idea of heresy! That obsession plays an enormous part in the history of Christianity and it is very difficult to get rid of it. A conviction has been bred for centuries that a religious fanatic, who mercilessly denounces heresies and heretics, is more religious than other men, and those who think that their own faith is weak respect him. In truth, however, a religious fanatic is a man who is obsessed by his idea and completely believes it, but is not in communion with the living God. On the contrary he is cut off from the living God. And for the sake of the fulness of divine truth, for the sake of freedom and love and communion with God, it is essential to uproot in oneself the evil will to denounce heresies and heretics. A heresy should be opposed by the fullness of truth and not by malice and denunciations. Fanatical denunciations of heresies sometimes assume the guise of love and are supposed to be inspired by love and pity for heretics. But this is hypocrisy and self-deception. Heresy hunters simply flatter themselves and admire their own orthodoxy.

But perhaps I was going a little too hard on Irenaeus, as I wasn’t familiar with what kinds of heresies he was dealing with. Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies? in the 2nd century. Christianity was still new, it wasn’t firmly established, the apostles were gone, and I’m sure it was no easy task to maintain a unified Church in such conditions. Could the early Church survive both external and internal threats? Wasn’t a rigorous attempt at correlation to use a Latter-Day Saint equivalent, necessary to maintaining the unity of the faith?

What I didn’t anticipate was Against Heresies quite narrow in scope: it addresses a specific family of heresies that was a large threat to the early Church: Gnosticism. I mentioned this briefly in my review of Justin’s Apologies. This wasn’t just a difference of opinion in the administration of the sacrament or baptism, how the Atonement or resurrection works, or whether grace or works was more important. It was quite extensive. The introduction summarizes Gnosticism so:

The fundamental object of the Gnostic speculations was doubtless to solve the two grand problems of all religious philosophy, viz., How to account for the existence of evil; and How to reconcile the finite with the infinite.

Irenaeus spends his first two books clearly defining the heresies of Gnosticism and point by point refuting them. The next three books are dedicated to establishing true Christian doctrine as a means of confounding Gnostic heretics. I wasn’t familiar with Gnosticism before reading Against Heresies, and as far as I’m aware, it’s long been relegated to the dust bin of history. To give you a summary built around the points from the introduction:

  • the infinite: God the Father is a created being. He had a father and mother, and that father had a father, and– well, God’s great grandfather (named Bythus) is the actual uncreated and incomprehensible being. Gnosticism comes with a complex geneology of gods (called Aeons) very similar to (and as Irenaeus accuses, plagiarized from) the scheme of the Greek and Roman Gods.
  • existence of evil: the material Creation is a mistake in universal history. God the Father is a either a dupe or outright evil. There are three types of substance: material, animal, and spiritual. Material will ultimately be destroyed. Animal will be relegated to a middle kingdom (terrestrial kingdom?!) if they choose to keep the commandments (a lower law). Spiritual beings (which you are if you are in on Gnostic secrets) don’t have to keep commandments and will be saved just by virtue of being spiritual.

Gnosticism isn’t only distinguished by its doctrines, but also by its methods. Gnostic teachings were all secret to which you had to be initiated. The teachings in the Bible are only superficial, and it’s only by being initiated that you truly can find what’s below the surface. They have a real preoccupation with numbers e.g. the Twelve apostles, the twelve years the woman with an issue of blood suffered, all point to the existence of the duodecad, a group of twelve Aeons. And if you knew about the twelve Aeons, this would be totally obvious.

When you read some of these ideas, you aren’t surprised that Irenaeus probably was right to be concerned: it sounds like a bunch of B.S, and a lot of it is so specific, it couldn’t have survived 2nd century perceptions. It doesn’t feel universal in scope. Irenaeus does an extremely thorough job at doing battle with Gnosticism, going through each and every variety. He must have immersed himself in it do be so familiar with their teachings. And sometimes, Irenaeus got a little snarkly, like when he accused Valentinus of being an airhead:

But if, in truth, vacuity was produced, then its producer Valentinus is also a vacuum, as are likewise his followers. If, again, it was not produced, but was generated by itself, then that which is really a vacuum is similar to, and the brother of, and of the same honour with, that Father who has been proclaimed by Valentinus

There are a few responses of my own I had to Irenaeus’s work. They are my way of interacting with the text from my Latter-Day Saint background.

Heresies as an attempt to narrow doctrine

First, I was reminded of Chesterton’s remarks on heresy in his biography of St. Francis:

St. Francis was so great and original a man that he had something in him of what makes the founder of a religion. Many of his followers were more or less ready, in their hearts, to treat him as the founder of a religion. They were willing to let the Franciscan spirit escape from Christendom as the Christian spirit had eclipsed Israel. Francis, the fire that ran through the roads of Italy, was to be the beginning of a conflagration in which the old Christian civilization was to be consumed. That was the point the Pope had to settle; whether Christendom should absorb Francis or Francis Christendom. And he decided rightly, apart from the duties of his place; for the Church could include all that was good in the Franciscans and the Franciscans could not include all that was good in the Church…

Every heresy has been an effort to narrow the Church. If the Franciscan movement had turned into a new religion, it would after all have been a narrow religion. In so far as it did turn here and there into a heresy, it was a narrow heresy. It did what heresy always does; it set the mood against the mind.

Heresies try to fill in the blanks of what the Church had labelled mystery. In this case, they tried to solve the problems of eternity and pain and suffering all in one go. By so doing and separating themselves from the Church, they overcommitted themselves. I like this idea of narrowing, because it means that ideally, the Church should the opposite: all-encompassing. I don’t remember who said it anymore, but I remember someone using the metaphor of an umbrella to describe the Church: it actually covers a variety of beliefs, backgrounds, and cultures. It is big enough. It’s not the exact quote, but President Uchtdorf expressed a similar sentiment in response to a question:

Some might say, “I just don’t fit in with you people in the Church.”

If you could see into our hearts, you would probably find that you fit in better than you suppose. You might be surprised to find that we have yearnings and struggles and hopes similar to yours. Your background or upbringing might seem different from what you perceive in many Latter-Day Saints, but that could be a blessing. Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.

I was just talking to my dad about our different perspectives on faith. My dad was concerned I was being blown about by every wind of doctrine because I didn’t concede to a literal worldwide flood. But for my dad, that was vital: Joseph Smith taught that the earth was literally baptized– and in Latter-Day Saint practice, even if your toe comes up out of the water, that means you have to do it again. Therefore, the entire earth– Everest and all– had to be covered. The Church is still big enough for both of us to be here, even if we have different beliefs. The essentials are still there.

I like the idea built into the Catholic church: the name itself means universal, because it is big enough to contain differences of opinion in doctrine. You can have a different balance of grace and works, and we can still be in the same Church (Martin Luther may disagree, but that’s how it was at one point).

Sorry for the long remarks here. What does that have to do with Against Heresies and Gnosticism? While reading Irenaeus, I feared that perhaps the heresy of Gnosticism had succeeded in narrowing the Church: not by embracing their narrow doctrines, but by taking a hard stance in the opposite direction. Here are a few examples:

Because the Gnostics claimed that God wasn’t the first Creator, Irenaeus counters very strongly that God is the end-all be-all: he created absolutely everything. He is the first cause. Here’s is response to Gnosticism’s proposed doctrine of gods existing before God the Father:

And then, again, if creation be an image of those things above, why should we not affirm that those are, in turn, images of others above them, and those above these again, of others, and thus go on supposing innumerable images of images?… How much safer and more accurate a course is it, to confess at once that which is true: that this God, the Creator, who formed the world, is the only God, and that there is no other God besides Him– He Himself receiving from Himself the model and figure of those things which have been made.

While I don’t believe in the convoluted scheme of the Gnostics, I felt like this was indeed a narrowing of potential beliefs within the Church. While Mormons don’t fill in the details like the Gnostics do, we leave it open-ended with Joseph F. Smith’s epithet: “As man is, God once was. As God is, so can man become.” And, well, I suppose we are considered heretics. But I felt that by taking a hard stance on this point and drawing such a hard line, Irenaeus was effectively narrowing the Church.

Another point Irenaeus hits: God created the rules. If he didn’t, then he would be a “slave of necessity”:

For it would have been better, more consistent, and more God-like, to cut off at the beginning the principle of this kind of necessity, than afterwards, as if moved by repentance, to endeavour to extirpate the results of necessity when they had reached such a development. And if the Father of all be a slave to necessity, and must yield to fate, while He unwillingly tolerates the things which are done, but is at the same time powerless to do anything in opposition to necessity and fate, then according to this reason, the Bythus of whom they speak will be found to be the slave of necessity and fate.

Mormons that God became God by adhering to the laws and ordinances associated with that blessing. There are eternal laws that cannot be violated. To the Catholic mind, that makes God a slave: can He be all-powerful if he can’t create the rules? Again, a narrowing.

Finally, Irenaeus insists on creation ex nihilo:

This opinion, too, that they hold the Creator formed the world out of previously existing matter, both Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Plato expressed before them… Then again, as to the opinion that everything of necessity passes away to those things out of which they maintain it was also formed, and that God is the slave of this necessity, so that He cannot impart immortality to what is mortal, or bestow incorruption on that what is corruptible, but every one passes into a substance similar in nature to itself… And they assert that God Himself can do no otherwise, but that every one of the different kinds of substance mentioned passes away to those things which are of the same nature with itself… They thus have dressed up anew, and referred to Bythus and their Aeons. Anaxagoras, again, who has been surnamed “Atheist,” [had similar opinions].

This ultimately sets Christianity in conflict with, you know, the first law of thermodynamics, and he accuses other theologies of incorporating such an idea of atheism.

Arguments that refute your own doctrine

I was also surprised to find that Irenaeus doesn’t shy away from using arguments that could easily be turned against Christian doctrine. Perhaps he seems confident they don’t apply when it comes to the Christian god? I was thinking, for instance, of his accusing Bythus, the first cause of Gnosticism, of not really being omnipotent because he allowed evil in the form of the actions of others to exist:

What sort of being must that Bythus be, who allows a stain to have place in His own bosom, and permits another one to create or produce within His territory, contrary to His own will? Such a mode of acting would truly entail [the charge of] degeneracy upon the entire Pleroma, since it might from the first have cut off that defect, and those emanations which derived their origin from it, and not have agreed to permit the formation of creation either in ignorance, or passion, or in defect.

In terms of Christian doctrine, What kind of God would permit such evil persons to exist? Or permit the existence of a devil? In fact, he includes a strong argument for free will, without fully accounting for the inconsistencies with this previous line of thought. It seems a little hypocritical.

Similarly, he makes an argument for why would God create things that need perfecting when he could create them in their perfected state in the first place?:

For how is it possible that those things which cannot at first obtain rectification, should subsequently receive it?

This seems to be in direct contradiction to the whole Christian idea of redemption.

Writing things down

Similar to Latter-Day Saint ecclesiology, Irenaeus seems intent on establishing the rightful origins of their authority. In one section, he elaborates how the current bishop of Rome obtained his priesthood from a line directly back to Paul:

Paul –> Linus –> Anacletus –> Clement –> Evaristus –> Alexander –> Sixtus –> Telephorus –> Hyginus –> Pius –> Anicetus –> Eleutherius (contemporary)

When Mormons are ordained, they obtain a similar line of authority tracing back their priesthood ultimately back to Peter, James, and John and Jesus Christ. It is interesting though that Irenaeus doesn’t seem to explain why authority went from the apostles to the bishops: why were the apostles temporary? Mormons use this point as a sign of when the apostasy occured, and I was hoping to perhaps find some explanation here.

This is one of many strong similarities between Catholicism and Mormonism: this insistence on authority, or perhaps insecurity? After all, Christ said you will know them by their works as opposed to their lines of authority. Irenaeus goes on to explain how important their written traditions are:

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case] to follow the course of tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?

If any were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive of anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established.

Irenaeus falls firmly into the camp of the priestly, as defined by Max Weber and Lowell Bennion:

Weber described prophets as men who spoke “as one having authority” out of their own calling. They broke with the existing order; they were critics of the immoralities and religious formalities of their people, such as I’ve illustrated with Isaiah and Micah. Like Jesus, they were revolutionary in their day: “It is written . . . but I say unto you.” Jesus didn’t reject the old, but he gave a new thrust and a different emphasis to that which had gone before: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23.)

Prophets try to get people to put religion in perspective, to see it in terms of great fundamentals and in terms of ethics as well as theology. Prophets have never been bound by the past. They speak for God afresh in the interest of man, in the light of the great ideals of religion, and in the light of God’s purpose and character. The other type of religious leader, Weber calls a priest. By this he means a man in any faith whose primary concern is to conserve the religion of the founder—of a Moses or Christ, for example. The priest canonizes scripture, refines doctrine, establishes tradition, records history, performs sacred rites and sacraments. In this way he builds and maintains the church, welding the believers into a meaningful fellowship.

Both are necessary, of course, but can a Church really be considered true and living if it relies entirely on the documents of the past?

I reiterate that my intent was not to critique a fellow believer, and I hope that was made clear by aligning the critiques with weaknesses in my own faith tradition. If anything is to be critiqued, it is the conservative tendencies of religion without leaving a balanced place for the prophetic element. Perhaps that is because it is difficult if not impossible to incorporate the prophetic into a hierarchy with clearly defined boundaries and structures: the Hebrew prophets always came from outside.

I do appreciate Irenaeus’s efforts at keeping the unity of the Church: something that is praiseworthy in itself. I just fear at the other extreme of overcorrection that does result in the heresy hunters that Berdyaev described above. It seems to be a hard line to walk.

3 thoughts on “Book review: Irenaeus’s “Against Heresies”

Add yours

  1. Great post. Gnosticism is alive and well in the modern age. You can find elements of it in Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and an assortment of other Christian heretical groups. Be on the lookout, it’s very cleverly disguised.

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