St. Irenaeus, Gnosticism, And The Rule Of Faith

St. Irenaeus, Gnosticism, And The Rule Of Faith February 28, 2020

In the second century Gnosticism threatened to tear the young Christian Church apart.  It was a heresy that taught that all matter was evil, Jesus was spirit, and that true salvific doctrine was passed down through a secret oral tradition.  To combat this growing problem the early Church father St. Irenaeus wrote a lengthy treatise titled Against Heresies

Foundations Of The Creed

One of the methods used by the great Church Father was the rule of faith.  In describing the rule of faith Irenaeus writes, “The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation.”

This rule of faith would lay the groundwork for what would become the Apostles’ Creed.  St. Irenaeus argues that the faith was given by Christ to the Apostles, and then to the bishops to whom the disciples appointed.  Which is exactly what the Catholic church teaches today.

The Historic Faith

The rule of faith also shows that Christ was truly incarnate, and that matter was created by an eternal God and not evil.  The rule of faith was a vital part in combating gnostic teaching because it showed that they had no historical, scriptural, or apostolic support for the claims that they were making.

It helped expose their schismatic and anti-scriptural view of Christianity.  Irenaeus also appealed to Ephesians 1:9-10 in his refutation of Gnosticism.  That passage of scripture states, “he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (NRSV).”  The great saint used this to show that, contrary to the gnostic view, not all matter is bad.

Statue, Church, Holy, Golden Key

One Faith Given By Christ

The Church was to be a unified body of believers with Jesus Christ as its head.  However the gnostic heresy was causing division.  It is linked with the rule of faith in that there was only one faith handed down from Christ.  There was not one faith for one group, and a special secret faith for a select few.  The faith in Christ is available to all people and in that we should be unified.

The rule of faith previously cited is a great tool in confronting false doctrines in our own times  There is no shortage of false doctrine and some of these groups out there are great at evangelization.  This is impressive given how low their numbers are compared to Catholics.  The rule of faith is a great tool because it shows that the faith is not a new invention, but was passed down by Christ himself.

It shows that Christ is God incarnate, and firmly teaching that the Trinity is one being with three distinct persons.  Many of these groups deny the Trinity and claim scriptural support.  Many of these passages were used in the days of Irenaeus and he corrected false usage.

Whether it be in person, phone, or email.  A dialogue about the truth can mean a lot to someone caught in false doctrine.  It gives them someone to ask questions to and the Holy Spirit can plant a seed.  Many great saints came to faith in just that way.


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  • Tom Hanson

    Good beginning. I have seen very little on Discus concerning Gnosticism and so-called ancient Christian Gnostics, ancient Gnostic Christianity, and the ways that the media treat them as part of “the cutting edge of History.” I heard that phrase first on the History Channel. Since then there are people saying that the Nag Hammadi manuscripts should become part of the Christian Bible. The usual rumors of the Vatican hiding the real historical Jesus are coming alive again after a historical down slump. And if it gets much larger, I have a book selection for you. It’s by the American Philip Jenkins–Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State as of 2001, and published by Oxford U. P.. The title is HIDDEN GOSPELS: HOW THE SEARCH FOR JESUS LOST ITS WAY. 216 pages plus notes, index and other back matter. It’s a fun read for an academic to have written and goes back into the 19th century far enough to make it clear that the Nag Hammadi trove of gnostic texts was not an early bombshell putting scholars suddenly to take on gnosticism. On the contrary today’s media about it is part and parcel of several older media manias about the ancient gnostics. In fact the Gospel of Thomas, Nag Hammadi’s greatest find intact is very much like the first intact version of it in the 19th century and has been studied for well over a century. This means, for scholars, that the (gnostic) sayings of Jesus in it took its earlest sayings having read Mark, which puts protoChristianity (which became orthodox Christianity) earlier than the Gospel of Thomas.

    Further, Irenaeus in his Herasies, does a good job describing Christian gnostic belief in the Nag Hammadi Library, and his historical evidence has become more and more believable. Add to this that the archaeology of graves in the middle east and the facts there make it pretty plain that gnosticiism was earlier than Christianity. Also that Christianity at first had only Christian symbols in their grave decorations. Gnostics continued to have only Gnostic symbology. After a time Gnostics began to notice the Christian religion. Christian graves continued as usual. So far when Gnostic-christians were buried more than just Gnostic symbols and Christian symbols have been found in their graves, other pagan god symbols also have been found in them. If that continues, it would mean most probably that Gnostics may have been earlier in the Middle East ( Philo of Alexandria seems to have been moderately mildly interested in some of their ideas), but they were Johnny come lately to Christianity. See W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, Fortress Press. See pp.280-281, and their notes ref archaeology and graves.