Soundings

‘The father of Catholic theology’

Jul 2011    

Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202 AD)

ONE OF THE GREATEST THREATS to the Church in the second century is Gnosticism, a multifaceted and polymorphous sect whose origins can be traced to ancient Iran and Babylon. A mixture of Hellenistic philosophy, Iranian mysticism, heterodox Judaism and Christianity, Gnosticism exerted a powerful and corrosive influence in the early Church.

As its name suggests, Gnosticism teaches that salvation is achieved by attaining a secret knowledge (Greek: gnosis) that is revealed through certain human and spiritual agents. The true Christian, according to the teaching of the sect, is someone who has knowledge of these mysteries that would result in true self-knowledge.

The Gnostics also presented a dualistic metaphysics that maintains that reality is fundamentally divided into matter and spirit, and that the former is evil and the latter good. Gnosticism therefore teaches that the material world is evil, and that salvation essentially has to do with liberation from it.

It was in his battle against Gnosticism that Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, produced his most seminal works which contributed to the development of Christian theology in the Patristic era. As a native of Asia Minor, Irenaeus spoke and wrote in Greek and had more than a rudimentary education.

According to Eusebius, one of the earliest historians of the Church, when Irenaeus became Bishop of Lyons, the city was undergoing sporadic persecutions by the Roman authorities. In his attempt to expose and refute the doctrinal errors of the Gnostics and clarify the cardinal tenets of the Church, Irenaeus wrote Against the Heresies (Adversus Haereses) and e Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. As these treatises were the earliest attempts at systematically elucidating the teachings of the Catholic Church, they provide invaluable insight into early Christianity.

Against the Gnostic doctrine that the material world is evil, Irenaeus taught that God is the Creator of both the material and spiritual orders. This means that although the world is fallen due to human sin and is therefore in need of salvation, it is not intrinsically evil. Because God is the author of the physical order, it is good in the eyes of the Creator, who wishes His creation to flourish. In his attempt to demonstrate this further, Irenaeus appealed to the incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity. By becoming flesh in the incarnation, the Son of God affirms the goodness of the material creation whose integrity He has come to restore. us, by appealing to two cardinal doctrines of the Christian Faith – creation and incarnation – Irenaeus refuted the erroneous dualism of the Gnostics.

A proper understanding of the goodness of the created order has important implications in the way salvation itself is conceived. Because of their theory that matter is evil, the Gnostics understood salvation as liberation from the imprisonment of the material world. According to them, Christians must be saved from the world. The Gnostics therefore introduced numerous ascetic practices that were purposed to free the souls of believers from the fetters of their physical bodies.

Irenaeus, however, understood salvation as involving the whole created order. us, while the Gnostics emphasised the salvation of the souls of believers, Irenaeus taught the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

In fact, in his doctrine of “recapitulation”, Irenaeus taught that through His life, suffering, death and resurrection, Christ brings the fallen world into alignment once again with the will and the purpose of God, so that it could achieve its true goal (telos). Unlike the Gnostics, who taught a salvation from the world, Irenaeus insisted in the salvation of the world.

Irenaeus did not only refute the heretical teachings of the Gnostics. He also presented his readers with the rule of faith, the synthesis of the whole Catholic doctrine. For this reason Irenaeus was not merely an apologist, but the father of Catholic theology.

The great theologian of Latin Christianity, Tertullian, described Irenaeus as a “very exact inquirer into all doctrines”. Therefore, Irenaeus may be described as the first theologian who presented the various tenets of the Christian Faith in their profound coherence and beauty.

IRENAEUS GROUNDS HIS THEOLOGY in the Faith that the Church received from the Apostles. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes: “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.

“The only true and life-giving faith, the Church has received from the Apostles and imparted to her sons. For the Lord of all gave to His Apostles the power of the Gospel, through whom also we have known the truth, that is, the doctrine of the Son of God,” he adds.

By appealing to the doctrinal tradition of the Church to refute the teachings of the Gnostics, Irenaeus teaches the modern Church two important lessons. Firstly, Scripture belongs to the Catholic (universal) Church. Its interpretation is therefore the work of the entire Church, and should never be subjected to the idiosyncratic and subjective views of isolated groups or individuals.

Secondly, the doctrines of the Church are extremely important for reading the Bible correctly. To be sure, the doctrines of the Church about God, Christ and salvation are based on God’s revelation recorded in the Bible. But they in turn provide the necessary theological framework for reading and understanding Scripture.

The Gnostic heresy has shown how one’s understanding of the message of the Bible can be distorted when it is read through the lens of an alien metaphysics.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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