Ben: Irenaeus these days is mostly known as a heretic hunter, and even mentions the Gnostic Gospel of Judas which has recently been the subject of major TV discussions on CNN and elsewhere. Why exactly does Irenaeus have such an allergic reaction to all things Gnostic?
Jackson: The simplest answer is that he thinks they are bad readers of scripture. The secret knowledge the Gnostics claimed to possess from Christ unlocked, they claimed, the true meaning of scripture, a complicated theological system which, at its heart, revealed a God who was completely removed from the affairs of humanity and a creation that was inherently evil and therefore unredeemable. For Irenaeus, these theological points fundamentally corrupted the nature of the good news brought by Christ, handed down by the apostles, and revealed in the scriptures when read rightly.
Irenaeus may have left the Gnostics alone; he does not feel the need to comment on every religion or theological group at odds with the emerging claims of the Catholic Church at the end of the second century. But, according to him, these Gnostic groups were quite aggressive and persuasive in their teachings and were leading many Christians away from the Catholic Church and a salvific understanding of the scriptures and the life of faith. As a bishop, he sets out then to confront what he sees as a threat to the spiritual lives of his flock and the integrity of the Christian message by both exposing Gnostic teaching and refuting them by presenting the right way of reading the scripture, the way that was handed down by the apostles.
Incidentally, the characterization of Irenaeus as nothing more than a theological witch hunter is quite distorted and does not jibe with either Irenaeus’ biography or the state of Christianity in the second century. First, although he was a bishop Irenaeus lacked any power to silence disparate groups because Christianity was not a legal religion whose pronouncements could be enforced by an organized government. Rather, it was an illegal religion whose adherents were frequently arrested and killed. In fact, Irenaeus ascended to his post as bishop only after his predecessor had been martyred along with several other Christians in the church of Lyons. It seems being a bishop at this point was more like a death sentence than a power trip. Second, Irenaeus is less prescriptive and more descriptive in his theology; the Gnostics placed themselves outside the bounds of what could properly be called ‘Christian’ by, as I noted, reading scripture completely out of sync with the majority of Christians spread throughout the world. While second century Christianity is more diverse than is often acknowledged, it is not the case that anything went as some scholars would have us believe. The witness of Irenaeus and others show that several points—belief in the reality of the incarnation, for example—were considered nonnegotiable.