Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Dangers of Gnosticism according to Irenaeus and Hippolytus

What are the dangers of Gnosticism according to Hippolytus and Irenaeus? What is so unorthodox about it?

             I had the fine pleasure of reading Hippolytus and Irenaeus on the subject of defending the faith against the heretics-Gnostics.[1] Both authors went to great lengths to explain, and then refute, the claims of their adversaries. Hippolytus and Irenaeus seem to have different strategies in how they went about doing so however, and it seems only Irenaeus offers a clear answer to what exactly is heretical about the doctrine of the Gnostics. It appears that to the bishop of Lyons the biggest danger presented by the Gnostics is their blasphemy of the Creator; their claim that there was a god higher than Yahweh. I will first survey Hippolytus of Rome, for his thesis does deserve attention, though he doesn’t speak much to the question posed. The majority of the paper will be devoted  to the views of Irenaeus of Lyons, the missionary-theologian who not only described the various systems considered outside of orthodoxy, but devoted three of his five books to pure refutation and correction, setting out the true doctrine of the church in the process. [2]

                Hippolytus of Rome, who at one time was himself considered outside of the church,[3] most likely wrote Refutation of All Heresies after the year 222. Of the ten books that made up this work, eight are extant. The title makes Hippolytus’ aim clear; his goal was to refute all heresies. When I say all, I mean all. Due to the fact that there were many different sects around, the majority of the work is actually given to pure description of the various systems of belief, even those not exclusive to Christianity. In Book 1, Hippolytus begins with relaying the numerous Greek philosophers and their systems. This isn’t without reason though, because his intention for including the systems of the philosophers is to prove that the Gnostics-heretics of his day actually stole their ideas from these Greeks. This can be shown in the first few paragraphs, “No fable made famous by the Greeks is to be neglected. For even those opinions of theirs which lack consistency are believed through the extravagant madness of the heretics, who, from hiding in silence their own unspeakable mysteries, are supposed by many to worship God.”[4]

                This, in fact, seems to be Hippolytus’ thesis for the entire work. The implication of this is, as Tixeront put it, that “the heretics thus appear as the successors of the pagan philosophers and the champions of perverted reason against divine wisdom.”[5] Such is Hippolytus’ formula as he marches through each sect. He describes the heretical system and then points out that it originates with the Greek philosophers and astrologers. He does this notably when dealing with Valentinus. Hippolytus judges that Valentinus’ doctrine originated with Pythagoras and Plato, “Valentinus has drawn his own heresy, as we shall show, and should therefore be reckoned a Pythagorean and a Platonist, but not as a Christian.”[6]

                As fascinating as Hippolytus’ thesis is, it brings me no closer in understanding what exactly was unorthodox about the heretics-Gnostics. Our next witness, on the other hand, has much to say, and knows how to say it in style. For this, we must turn to the far reaches of the empire – Gaul. I shall let Hippolytus introduce this marvelous theologian. “…The blessed presbyter Irenaeus has powerfully and elaborately refuted the opinions of these (heretics). And to him we are indebted for a knowledge of their inventions.”[7]
                Irenaeus was probably born around 135 AD and is said to have listened to Polycarp as a child, who in turn was a disciple of John the Apostle. “The blessed presbyter” wrote the famous work, Against the Heresies, around the year 180 AD. It will take much self-constraint on my part to not go off topic and discuss the greatness of Irenaeus and his various theologies (though I really want to bring up his recapitulation theory), but God-willing, I will control myself. [8]
I found it fascinating that Irenaeus, and Hippolytus after him, ascribe the beginning of the gnostic heresy to Simon Magus, the infamous magician from Acts 8:9-24. After his run-in with the apostles, Irenaeus states that Simon intended to rival the apostles and set himself up as “the one who appeared among the Jews as the Son of God, while in Samaria he descended as the Father, and among other nations he came as the Holy Spirit.”[9] Simon even taught that he was the high Father himself! While Irenaeus doesn’t seem to be aware of a fully developed system of aeons like the later Gnostics, there are still traces found in Simon’s system. For instance, there was a first thought in the mind of the Father (that is, Simon), who leaped forth from him and “descended to the lower regions and gave birth to angels and powers.”[10] From these angels and powers, our world was made. However, the creators, these angels, enslaved the world to themselves. In response, the Father came down in the form of Simon to free people from the tyranny of the creator-angels. It is from this religion of Simon that Irenaeus asserts that all the heresies got their start.

We see even early on then, that a central tenet of the heresies was to claim that there was another god higher than the Creator. In the rest of book 1, Irenaeus goes through many of the later heresies, all of whom shared that idea. In fact, it seems the only sect to not believe in a higher god than Yahweh was the Ebionites. Book 1, chapter 22 highlights Irenaeus’ attitude towards such a claim. Towards the end of laying down the Rule of Truth, Irenaeus’ greatest weapon against heresies, he states: 

“This is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, above whom there is no other God, nor a Beginning, nor a Power, nor a Fullness. This is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we shall demonstrate. If, therefore, we hold fast this Rule, we shall easily see that they have strayed from the Truth, even though their statements are quite varied and numerous. It is true, nearly all the heretical sects, many as they are, speak of one God; but they alter Him by their evil-mindedness…they will, however, not be numbered with the righteous, because of their unbelief.”[11]

                Here it is shown that Irenaeus goes to great lengths to defend the Father. This seems to be his central grievance. It is echoed in nearly every description he gives of the various sects and in almost every one of his five books. In book 2, Irenaeus compared the Gnostics to the pagans, and claims that the Gnostics are actually worse in God’s eyes:

“For, though the heathens serve the creature rather than the Creator, and also the things that are not gods, still they attribute the first place of the deity to God the Creator of this universe. But these heretics, because they assert that the Creator is the fruit of degeneracy and call him ensouled who is ignorant of the power that is above him. And who they claim lies when he says: I am God, and there is no other God,…[they] expose themselves as blasphemers of him who really is God and, to their own condemnation, as fabricators of him who is not God. And so they who claim that they themselves are the perfect who have knowledge of all things are found to be worse than heathens and are more blasphemous in mind also toward their Creator.”[12]
                In fact, one of the reasons why we have such a great picture of the doctrine of the church in Irenaeus’ latter three books is to prove that the apostles called no one else God or Lord and that they acknowledged the Creator of the world not as some lower being but as God Himself. [13] It is this doctrine that Irenaeus is at pains to defend, and it this that ultimately casts the Gnostic from Christ and salvation. 

                Irenaeus did mention another pivotal doctrine that the heretics-Gnostics twisted to their own destruction. It was that of Christ, who the heretics-Gnostics said was an entirely separate being, while others stated that He didn’t actually come in the flesh. Irenaeus condemns both ideas, asserting that these doctrines “kill” and likened them to a poison.[14] The Bishop even goes as far as to say that it is these heretics that the apostles speak against in the Scriptures.  

                Both Fathers took up the mantle to defend and attack the threat from within. They clearly identified the pretenders and announced them to the world. Yet their strategies were different. Hippolytus sought to discredit the origins of the Gnostic-heretics. His thesis was that they had simply taken older Greek systems and given them new names. Irenaeus doesn’t concentrate on origins;[15] his tactic is to compare the Gnostics’ doctrine with the true doctrine of the church. Both vividly describe and counter the Gnostic claims, but it is only Irenaeus who really expands on the latter. It is interesting that the two fathers also continually refer to the rule of faith as a counter to the Gnostic claims. This seems to be the “end all” for the argument at hand, and will require more research if I am to better understand the second century.

[1] I have hyphenated heretics and Gnostics because, at times, they seem to be considered to be distinct from one another, though the second group would be a subset of the first. See AH 4.33.3 where Irenaeus seems to distinguish the Valentinians from the Gnostics, the latter being followers of Simon Magus
[2] Some even call Irenaeus’ AH the first recorded systematic theology
[3] Hippolytus did not agree with some of the theological convictions of the bishop of Rome and actually set up his own church and was elected antipope in reaction. However, before he died Hippolytus repented and called his church to reconciliation with the Catholic Church. Therefore, the church was later able to still canonize him as a saint
[4] Refutation of All Heresies  Vol 1 p 42
[5] J. Tixeront, A Handbook of Patrology, p 130
[6] Refutation of All Heresies Vol 2 p 25
[7] Refutation of All Heresies Vol 2 p 57
[8] Though I do see myself researching Irenaeus much more heavily because he speaks to so many different issues. And, even more importantly, it seems the aim of Ir. is to simply retell the doctrine of the church, which means his views will give us a great glimpse into the church of the 2nd century .
[9] Against the Heresies vol 1 p 82
[10] ibid
[11] Ibid p 81
[12] AH vol 2 p 35
[13] AH vol 3 p 77
[14] Ibid p 87
[15] Though he does speak about the differing names and even invents his own system, complete with powers Cucumber and Pumpkin. A must read – AH Vol 1 p 53

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