How Gnosticism influenced Ireneus’ presentation of Christian doctrine?

Nick Lica


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GNOSTICISM - is a term derived from Gk. , ‘knowledge’. Until modern times it was applied exclusively to a body of heretical teaching denounced by the church Fathers in the early Christian centuries. Gnostics took any doctrine that they found valuable, without any regard of its origin or for the context from wich it was taken.Where did Gnosticism come from? According to the church Fathers, it was a perversion of Christianity. The most important work of the church fathers was written by Irenaeus, Against Heresies, though Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus of Rome all wrote extensively on the same subjects. Some of these writings are interdependent, and they all have a similar outlook. They were all written from the standpoint of orthodox Catholic Christianity. Ethics of the Gnostics are based on their antropology and cosmology.

a) doctrine of God, creastion and salvation

The foundation-stone of Gnostic belief was a radical cosmological dualism; the belief that the created world was evil, and was totally separate from and in opposition to the world of spirit. The supreme God dwelt in unapproachable splendour in this spiritual world, and had no dealings with the world of matter. Matter was the creation of an inferior being, the Demiurge.

In most of the Gnostic systems reported by the church Fathers, this enlightenment is the work of a divine redeemer, who descends from the spiritual world in disguise and is often equated with the Christian Jesus.

From the standpoint of traditional Christianity, Gnostic thinking is quite alien. Its mythological setting of redemption leads to a depreciation of the historical events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Its view of man’s relationship to God leads to a denial of the importance of the person and work of Christ, while, in a Gnostic context, ‘salvation’ is not understood in terms of deliverance from sin, but as a form of existential self-realization.

Gnosticism is above all a doctrine of salvation. Acording to them salvation is the liberation of the spirit, which is enslaved because of its union with material things. Salvation for the Gnostic, therefore, is to be alerted to the existence of his divine  and then, as a result of this knowledge, to escape on death from the material world to the spiritual.

b. Heresy and orthodoxy

Gnosticism is not, however, irrelevant for NT study. For traces of ‘Gnostic’ belief can be found in a number of NT writings, most strikingly in the beliefs of the Corinthian church as reflected in 1 Cor. These people claimed that because of their possession of special ‘knowledge’ they were released from the normal rules of society, and they claimed to be living an elevated, ‘spiritual’ existence even in their present material state. For them the resurrection was already a past event-past because they understood it spiritually, as did many Gnostics. And, like other Gnostics, they laid considerable emphasis on the supposed magical properties of the Christian sacraments.

The NT writers themselves condemn these ideas.


Was born in Asia minor in Smyrna around 135 AD. There he knew Polycarp who is said to be contemporan with apostle John. Irenaeus lived at the time when the establishment of the canon—the authoritative collection of Christian writings—was an issue of lively debate. What gave Iraeneus his great importance for history of Christian thought was his struggle against heresy and his concern to strengthen the faith of Christians. He wrote two surviving books: Denunnciation and Refutation of the So-called Gnosis and his Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching.

According to Irenaeus, the Gnostics had misused and perverted the Scriptures to support false and idiosyncratic ideas contrary to the church’s tradition. The aim of his work was to show the agreement of the Scriptures with the church’s tradition, thereby retaining the Scriptures for the church. To do this he set forth for the first time the idea that the Scriptures have one central meaning, one scope. This unifying sense was found in the rule of faith (Lat. regula fidei), a simple creed used for catechetical instruction and at baptism by Christian congregations in all parts of the Roman world.


a) Interpreting the Scriptures

Irenaeus was the first to interpret the Christian Scriptures as a unified document. His interest lay chiefly in the Gospels and the writings of Paul, but the overall framework of his interpretation was provided by the history of salvation beginning in ancient Israel and culminating in Christ, who sums up all things that began in Adam.

The faith expressed in this creed, summarized in the phrase “one God, Father and creator, one Christ, Son of God who became incarnate for our salvation, and Holy Spirit,” became the key to interpreting the Scriptures. Irenaeus’ approach to interpretation was to have enormous impact on later Christian interpretation. He repudiated piecemeal exegesis, that is, picking and choosing individual texts to defend arcane or idiosyncratic views, and insisted that the Bible was the church’s book and had to be interpreted in light of central Christian beliefs. Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, and many others followed his lead in their exegesis of the Bible in theological disputes.

Works of interpretation in the late second and early third centuries took the form of treatises on disputed issues, as in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies or Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho. But in the third century the commentary, a line-by-line exposition of the text, appears as a new literary form of interpreting the text of the Scriptures.

The earliest extant commentary of this type was written on the book of Daniel by Hippolytus of Rome (early third century).


b) The doctrine of God

The God of Ireneus has existed from the beginning, and created all things out of nothing. None ca exist against his divine will. Even Devil has been created by God, and his present power is only temporar and limited. He afirms that the God of our salvation is the same as the God of our creation. Christ is the center of Irenaeus’ theology. He is the basis for the continuity between creation and redemption. God’a incarnation in Christ is only the beginning of victory over the evil. This continuity most of heretics denied. We were made by the same God who now in Christ offer us salvation.


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The used Literature

  • J.L. Gonzalez. A History of Christian Thought. Nashville: Abingdon, 1970, vol.

  • Achtemier, Paul J., Th.D., Harper’s Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.) 1985.

  • The New Bible Dictionary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.) 1962.