St. Irenaeus is one of the most important early Christian fathers. While figures like Origen, Tertullian, and especially St. Augustine gain more fame and attention, Irenaeus is probably more important on a cornerstone level than all three – especially for historical reasons. It is through Irenaeus, who lived from 130-202 and predates Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine on the Christian scene, whose works are seen as laying forth the groundworks of apostolicity, and whose works show an early formative canon and how important the orthodox-Gnostic debates were.
St. Irenaeus was bishop of Lyon in Gaul (modern day France). Gaul was an early center for Christianity in the West, and a very unique center too – having already developed its own organic liturgy that is remembered as the Gallican Rite (now defunct). Gallican Christianity was developing around the same time of North African Christianity and Roman Christianity. In fact, this seemingly polarizing diversity was famously addressed by Irenaeus, who laid out the quintessential Catholic maxim that influenced Augustine and his doctrine of the mixed church – “Unity in faith, diversity in practice.”
It is a misnomer to see even post-Nicaean Christianity, or even post-Theodosian Christianity, as uniform and homogenous. This is historically inaccurate. In fact, the stories of the orthodox vs. heretics debate is almost entirely the opposite of what most people think. In part, this is because the early heretical movements are generally looked at through the prism of Protestant anti-Catholicism. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. To Protestants, the heretics represent the diversity of early Christianity that were engaged in a sort of primitive Sola Scriptura project that was eventually crushed by what becomes Greek Orthodoxy (in the east) and Roman Catholicism (in the west). Additionally, supposed Gnostic egalitarianism fits well with our modern craze over equity, so Christian movements that want to play up the egalitarianism card like to look back to these early movements as their historical and spiritual forebears that represented some vague notion of “true Christianity” before institutional corruption. We’re all familiar with this metanarrative I’m sure. (Even though the Gnostics were never as egalitarian as their modern fans claim; in fact, they were often less egalitarian than the emergent orthodox movement that was codified at Nicaea.)
In reality the picture of the early heresies and eventual orthodoxy is almost the exact opposite of what most people think, especially in the Protestant imagination. As testified by the early Church Fathers themselves – and especially Irenaeus – the principle unity in faith but diversity in practice reflects the fact that there were already a multitude of different religious and liturgical practices that had developed in the early church by the mid and late second century. The Gallican, Punic, Latin, and Greek rite liturgies were already off the ground and running. From Irenaeus, who took one of the more historical and literal approaches to Scriptural hermeneutics, to Origen and Augustine, who both took far more allegorical approaches, we see a diversity in hermeneutical traditions as well.
Church historians Andreas Köstenberger and Michael Kruger, in their book The Heresy of Orthodoxy, have challenged this philistine and pseudo-academic portrait that I just outlined above. They too highlight the importance of Irenaeus in the formation of orthodoxy and early church diversity. In fact, it was the heretical movements that were anti-diverse. While there were many early heresies, none were diverse from within but very rigid in their practices and mandates for joining. Likewise, they hated Irenaeus’s maxim of diversity in practice – they sought unity in faith and unity in practice. When the church clamped down on the heretical movements, what made them heretical was their schismatic attitude. Unable to achieve their unity in faith and unity in practice impetus, the heretical movements broke away – this caused competition, to which the catholic church would triumph over through the course of several centuries.
One of the most important events in early Christian history which is important to historians and scholars is the invitation of Irenaeus to Rome to settle a brewing controversy over episcopal leadership in the city. Valentinus, a leader of Roman Gnosticism (called Valentinian Gnosticism after him), was one of the candidates for bishop. When he was passed over in favor of the eventual Pope, Anicetus. As a result, Velentius left the formal church in Rome and started his own movement, to which Irenaeus was called to Rome to help settle the dispute between Valentinianism and Catholicism. Marcion of Sinope did the same, bringing his theology to review in Rome where the Roman church leaders rejected it, and Marcion subsequently broke away to found his sect of Gnosticism – so we see a common theme in the early heretical movements, when their theologies are rejected they break away first. Only Arius was met with formal expulsion among the early heretics, the rest (especially the Gnostic sects) always broke away first when their ideas were rejected.
Valentinus’s theology, to the best of our knowledge, was a deep gnostic layering of “enlightenment” to return to wholeness (Pleroma; itself a concept used in orthodox theology but with different connotations than within Gnosticism). According to Valentinus, there were three types of people: (1) spiritual, (2) psychical, and (3) material. The spiritual people were the only ones able to achieve true knowledge and union with Pleroma through navigated the complex pathway back up to divinity. The spiritual people, of course, were Valentinus’s followers and only his followers. The psychical people were viewed as a the regular Christians and the established church. These people had some knowledge, but were still corrupted by their materialism (e.g. their belief in dignity of the human body and that Christ was both man and god). The psychical Christians, who erred in mistaking Christ and the Christian message as having a redemptive message to the material world, missed the mark concerning spiritualism in other words. Yes, all the talk about spiritualism and “spiritual but not religious” is essentially Gnostic in origin. Having made this mistake, these Christians were cut off from Pleroma, but would still attain some form of knowledge and happiness in life. The truly material people, whom Valentinus considered Pagans and Jews, had rejected the spiritual (Jews) or had no conception of the spiritual (the Pagans), and would therefore perish in totality upon their deaths.
Irenaeus’s works, Against Valentinus and Against Heresies in particular, are important in the visibility of early Christian apostolicity. Irenaeus attacks Valentinus for using texts to base his teachings on that were not well-known to the Christian community as a whole. Irenaeus quotes from the Greek Septuagint, the Hebrew Bible in Greek that included other books from the Hebraic Tanakh. He also quotes extensively from the letters of the Apostle Paul. Already with Irenaeus we begin to see an early canon that comprises of the Greek Septuagint (Christian Old Testament), the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, as well as the epistles of the Apostle Paul. Part of what led to these works being chosen for the canon was their universality – they were well known to all Christian communities, from those in the east to those in the west. The “Gnostic gospels” were always small and scattered, not known, which is why they were looked at suspiciously. Irenaeus even called the Gnostic gospels being used by Valentinus as pseudo-historical.
Furthermore, Irenaeus cemented the rule of apostolicity. Irenaeus argues that those Christian movements that are deviating in their teachings from those passed down from the Apostles are to be avoided. Here we see the heart of the Apostolic tradition – that there is a basic set of beliefs and teachings handed down from the Apostles to the next generation of Christian leaders (the bishops) which is the unity that unites all Christian congregations. However, as time goes on, as Irenaeus says, these Christian communities are working to try to understand the finer details of these beliefs.
Lastly, and contrary to anti-patristic mythmaking, the early church was extremely open. It was the heretics who were closed. As Irenaeus charged, the heresies were akin to the common “Mystery Religions” throughout the Roman Empire where one would have to pass a series of tests before becoming a member. Membership was selective and closed to the Gnostics, much like how Valentinus already establishes this principle with “spiritual people” vs. the psychical and material people. For Irenaeus, another hallmark of apostolicity is that the church community is open to anyone who seeks to join. This follows the idea of an open community rather than a closed community.
Therefore, from Irenaeus we see the cornerstones of the apostolic tradition in Christianity already forming by the mid-second century A.D. From Irenaeus we see an early canon which includes the Greek Septuagint, the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, and the Pauline Epistles. We also see from Irenaeus a widespread rejection of the “gnostic gospels” because few are aware of these texts. When the Bible was finally canonized, one of the principles was precisely this: universality. Texts that were well known to Christian communities as far away as Gaul and Iberia, to North Africa and Greece, to Egypt and Palestine were the texts that were canonized – the gnostic texts were almost always isolated and known only to small sects in Rome, Greece, and especially Egypt, but never had much outward influence beyond their immediate communities.
Furthermore, Irenaeus’s “Rule of Apostolicity” is already in full force: if communities and their leaders are teaching beliefs and ideas that run counter to those of the Apostles, they are not apostolic communities. And finally, from Irenaeus we also see the issue of open community vs. closed community as a hallmark of apostolicity. Those communities that are open to anyone interested follow the apostolic tradition, while communities that are closed, speak with mystery language, and demand tests for membership (to prove that you were among the “spiritual people”) should be avoided. Irenaeus’s promotion of apostolicity against heresy became a subsequent pillar for future dealings with schismatic and heretical movements through the ecumenical conciliar era of Christianity.
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