The Hope of Faith and the Trap of Gnosticism: St. Irenaeus of Lyons Today

Homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, on Sunday, Aug. 23, 7529 [Sept. 6, 2021, on the civil calendar].

Today is the Apodosis or Leave-taking of the Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God which is sometimes called the Summer Pascha, as we move toward the end of the Church Year on Aug. 31 (Sept. 13 on the civil calendar). At this leave-taking of summer Pascha, on the eighth or resurrectional day after the feast, we commemorate also on the Church calendar each year the holy and glorious right-victorious Hieromartyr Irenaeus, who was born about a hundred years after the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, and lived in what is now France. He was a great early teacher of Orthodoxy to the West.

Significantly for the correlation of his legacy with the Dormition season, he is the first Christian writer whose work survives to highlight the tradition that the Virgin Mary is the New Eve, just as Jesus Christ is the New Adam. Related to that, for the Theotokos Is the greatest of the saints and the hub as it wee of the Apostolic era, St Irenaeus emphasized that early the importance of apostolic succession,  how the living tradition of the Church is sustained by God’s providence across generations through the spiritual power given to her at Pentecost, in which her members join through communion.

He emphasized apostolic succession in the face of a great heresy or wandering away from Christian truth that had already started in his time, known as Gnosticism, which is a major heresy returned to us in new forms today in America. His major surviving work, entitled On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-called Gnosis, today known usually by shorthand as Against Heresies, is counted among the writings of the apostolic fathers, as Irenaeus was a living personal link in that early tradition of the Church. He was a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna who himself was a disciple of the Apostle John the Theologian.

His writing against gnosis or Gnosticism, which means a private knowing of truth, is significant because he offers an early historical testimony to the life of Jesus Christ from only two generations away tracing back to someone who knew our Lord, and combines this with an historical witness to the pernicious and persisting heresies of Gnosticism  His descriptions of Gnosticism were considered too fantastic and terrible, like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel, until they were confirmed by the discovery of gnostic writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1945 and after.Folklorists claim that oral traditions are reliable about history for at least a couple generations, to the time of the grandparents and living memory, and Irenaeus was a spiritual grandson of the beloved disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, testifying to the truth of the Gospels written directly by those who knew the Lord.

St. Irenaeus is remembered as the second bishop of Lyons, succeeding Pothinus, who was martyred during persecution of Christians under Marcus Aurelius when St. Irenaeus was visiting Rome. Lyons in France at that time was a major center of the Western Empire and a kind of gateway to the old Celtic and Germanic regions of the West. Known as Lugdumum, the Roman capital of Gaul, it may have had up to 200,000 residents in the time of St Irenaeus. Some scholars say its name is based in that of a Celtic pagan god associated with the sun although it also has been interpreted as “shining hill.”

Irenaeus is thought to have been a Greek from Polycarp‘s hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, now Izmir, Turkey. He was brought up in a Christian family so personally connected to orthodoxy. He is remembered as a martyr and buried under the church in Lyons, although his relics there were destroyed in 1562 by the Calvinist Huegenots during the religious wars that wracked France in the Reformation, in which Protestant culture came to hasten the revival of Gnosticism in the West.

Irenaeus describes in the final volume of his book the overthrow of Satan as occurring in our Lord Jesus Chrst’s overcoming of the three temptations by Satan in the wilderness. These are temptations of material comfort, of willful arrogance, and of power over others. They were all present in the Gnostic heresy by apostate Christians claiming to know better than the apostolic tradition, and they bedevil us today in American culture. But St. Irenaeus reminds us of how our Lord has freed us from the deceptive bonds of these delusional temptations for all time.

By overcoming these temptations, Irenaeus writes, our Lord overcame them for all humanity. Satan’s name in the Greek is diabolos, from which we get the English devil, and it means slanderer or opposer, literally that which separates as opposed to symbolos, from which we get symbolic, which means to unite. Ireneaus refers to Satan’s name as synonymous with apostate, those whose heresies he refutes in his early writing. Our Lord called Satan the liar and the father of lies, setting up prelest or delusion in which we become unable to love because we are living lies about ourselves and others, in a false virtual reality made from our own objectification and essentialization, as if we would take the role of God. This is the heart of the Gnostic heresy as St Ireneaus described it offering us practical help in our spiritual warfare today.

The Gnostics falsely sought to split up the unity of God into a number of divine “Aeons”, distinguishing between the “High God” and the wicked “Demiurge” who created the world in a counterfeit mockery of Trinitarian belief. In this they are like modern unitarians distinguishing between the material mechanisms of evolution as cause and vague spiritual powers either attributed to a deist watchmaker or to neopagan entities. With the gnostics’ splitting up of God came their splitting up of the intellect and the physical. This is like how many people today assume that they can do what they like with their body as a kind of meat puppet of their will but there is no integrity of body and soul. In such false belief there is no need for chastity because what people do with their will falsely is believed to be disconnected from their body. It is the tendency to make human beings into the equivalent of computer avatars, using technology to manipulate themselves and others, and not being mindful or grounded in holistic lives. With this comes the other primary gnostic belief that certain select people can gain the elite knowledge needed to understand truth and then to control and manipulate others. Thus the gnostics sought to twist and misuse scripture for individual interpretations. And the powers of this world still seek to do this today.

Against these beliefs, Irenaeus emphasized the importance of the unity of God in the triune Trinity, and the essential significance of the Incarnation, in tandem with the Crucifixion and Resurrection to our salvation in the resurrection of the body. He emphasized apostolic succession in the one apostolic and catholic Church, that God-given tradition that ensures in the Christian gospel we live in the Church in the body of Christ, in open and not some kind of secret or elite-driven evolving knowledge used to control and manipulate others. We do not find ourselves by asserting ourselves as possessors of special knowledge. Rather, we empty ourselves in Christ in His holy catholic and apostolic Church through the Eucharist and ascetic struggle with God’s grace.

So much of modern culture now wanders away from the apostolic succession to gnostic tendencies such as transgenderism and technocracy or rule by technology. But Orthodox Christianity shows us how God’s Providence sustains us in His Church unto the ages of ages. Even the sufferings we experience are part of that Providence and for our salvation when we turn to our Lord in His Church which is our ark of salvation amid demonic renewals of ancient heresies in these latter days. As St. Irenaeus pointed out, Christ as the new Adam systematically undoes what Adam did. When Adam was disobedient about the fruit of a tree, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of the tree. Christ overcame Satan’s temptations. The faithfulness of the Theotokos undid the faithlessness of Eve. In the Incarnation and life of Christ was recapitulated or summed up human life, and Christ by living it, sanctifies it with his divinity, providing as it were a true antidote or vaccine to sin.

I’ll close with words directly from St .Irenaeus, the faithful spiritual grandson of the Evangelist John:

The Lord of all gave to His apostles the power of the gospel, and by them we also have learned the truth, that is, the teaching of the Son of God—as the Lord said to them, ‘He who hears you hears Me, and he who despises you despises Me, and Him Who sent Me’ [Lk.10:16]. For we learned the plan of our salvation from no other than from those through whom the gospel came to us. The first preached it abroad, and then later by the will of God handed it down to us in Scriptures, to be the foundation and pillar of our faith. For it is not right to say that they preached before they had come to perfect knowledge, as some dare to say, boasting that they are the correctors of the apostles. For after our Lord had risen from the dead, and they were clothed with the power from on high when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were filled with all things and had perfect knowledge. They went out to the ends of the earth, preaching the good things that come to us from God, and proclaiming peace from heaven to all men, all and each of them equally being in possession of the gospel of God. (From Against the Heresies, III)

For more, please read Against Heresies by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, available in an excellent new one-volume English edition from Ex Fontibus, https://www.exfontibus.com/products/irenaeus-against-heresies. St. Irenaeus’ work is also posted online in Englishat https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103.htm

With thanks also to the article on St Ireneaus on the Orthodox Wiki, https://orthodoxwiki.org/Irenaeus_of_Lyons

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