Irenaeus was an early church father who was born sometime around 130 and died in 202 CE. He studied under Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, who had been a disciple of the apostle John (6-100 CE). After the death of Pothinus (87-177 CE), the first bishop of Lyon (Lugdunum), Irenaeus became the second bishop of Lyon, France.
Irenaeus is well known for a series of five books entitled “Against Heresies,” which was also known as “The Refutation and Overthrowal of Knowledge Falsely So-Called.” This series was written between 175 and 189 CE. He is likely the first witness asserting the four gospels as authentic or canonical.
“Against Heresies” was the best explanation of Gnosticism until actual Gnostic texts were found in upper Egypt in the town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. This collection of 13 codices are known as the Nag Hammadi library. Not all of the Nag Hammadi library is Gnostic in nature, but it does contain 52 Gnostic treaties. There is much variation and/or contradiction among their content.
There are many forms of Gnosticism. Irenaeus’ work not only confronts the Valentinian form of Gnosticism, but several other false teachings as well. Valentinian Gnosticism was founded by a man named Valentinus. It is one of the Syrian-Egyptian forms of Gnosticism. It is a serious heresy that had to be dealt with in the early church.
According to the Louw Nida Lexicon, hairesis (αἵρεσις, Strong’s G: 139/LN: 152) is defined as:
- Division or group based upon different doctrinal opinions and/or loyalties and hence by implication in certain contexts an unjustified party or group (applicable in the NT to religious parties) Acts 24:14, 26:5
- The content of teaching which is not true. 2 Peter 2:1
- Division of people into different and opposing sets. 1 Cor. 11:19
Judaism had a wide variety of sects. In the New Testament or Apostolic writings, we are familiar with the Pharisees and Sadducees, but there were others including the Essenes, Zealots, Sicarii, Samaritans, Hellenistic Jews, and those who believed in Yeshua. During the early centuries, there were several sects of believers in Yeshua that came to be considered heresies. There is very little known about them, but that discussion is for another day.
Despite some differences in Scripture interpretation and practices, the various sects still held to a common set of beliefs found in the Tanakh.
Even today among our assemblies, we see differences in interpretation, which affects how we walk out the Scriptures.
During the 2nd and 3rd centuries (Ante-Nicene period), the assemblies were likely not only interpreting certain Scriptures differently, but several false teachings had entered the assemblies.
False teaching in the early centuries included:
- Marcionism – the God of Yeshua was a different God from that of the Tanakh.
- Montanism – reliance on prophetic revelation of the Holy Spirit. Eusebius (Book 5, chapter 16) describes this as a type of frenzy and ecstasy accompanied by babbling and uttering of strange things and prophesying in a manner contrary to what was considered normal from the beginning.
- Adoptionism – Yeshua was not born the Son of God, but He was adopted at his baptism, resurrection, or ascension.
- Docetism – Yeshua was pure spirit; His physical form was an illusion; this belief was often present in some Gnostic circles. (1 John 4:2)
- Gnosticism – which is vastly different from the list above.
In 2 Peter 2:1-2, Peter warned his readers to avoid false prophets and teachers: “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed.”
In 2 Corinthians 11:2-4, Paul told the Corinthians: “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. 3 But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. 4 For if he who comes preaches another Yeshua whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted — you may well put up with it!”
Irenaeus was coming against a very destructive heresy — another Yeshua — in the teachings of Valentinus that we call Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is a very odd belief system as opposed to what is presented in Scripture. It is somewhat reminiscent of Greek mythology.
There are two worlds in Gnosticism:
- Pleroma – where about 30 Aeons exist.
- Material world – where people and other living creatures exist.
The Pleroma is tripartite; it’s made up of the Ogdoad (8), Decad (10), and Duodecad (12), which are composed of 30 spiritual beings called Aeons. So, the Pleroma is the totality of these divine powers known as Aeons. These are grouped in male and female conjunction pairs called syzygies.
Monad, which means “the One,” is the pre-existing Aeon; he is the unknowable god who is part of the Ogdoad.
The Ogdoad is composed of the Monad (Charis = Grace) and Ennoea (Silence/Idea) who produced Nous (Mind; also called Monogenes [only begotten]) and Aletheia (Truth) who produced Logos (Word) and Zoe (Life) who produced Anthropos (Man) and Ecclesia (Church).
The Decad was formed from Logos and Zoe. They produced Bythius (Deep) and Mixis (Commingling) who produced Ageratos (Unageing or Undecaying) and Henosis (Union) who produced Autophyes (Self-Existent) and Hedone (Pleasure or Bliss) who produced Acinetos (Immovable) and Syncrasis who produced Monogenes (Only-Begotten) and Makaria (Happiness).
The Duodecad was formed from Anthropos and Ecclesia. They produced Paracleuts (Comforter or Helper) and Pistis (Faith) who produced Patricos (Paternal) and Elpis (Hope) who produced Metricos (Maternal) and Agape (Love) who produced Ainos (Praise or Ever-lasting) and Synesis (Intelligence or Understanding) who produced Ecclesiasticus (Ministerial) and Macariotes (Happiness or Bliss) who produced Theletos (Willed or Longed-For) and Sophia (Wisdom).
Sophia desired to know and search out the nature of Monad, and she ended up producing (without her male conjunction) an amorphous, spiritual substance, which was later known as Sophia Achamoth.
Monad, by way of Monogenes (and without a male-female conjunction), produced Horus who purified Sophia and restored her to her proper conjunction.
Sophia Achamoth, the amorphous/spiritual substance made by the Aeon Sophia, was place outside the Pleroma.
Sophia Achamoth created the Demiurge, the god of the material world. So, Gnosticism has two gods. The Demiurge was created in the image of the only begotten Son of Monad named Nous (Monogenes). What puzzles me is how she knew what his image was in the first place.
The Demiurge has a variety of names including El, Satan, and Yahweh. He is essentially believed to be the same as the God of Abraham. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the Demiurge has said, “I am God, and besides me there is none else.” However, I still find this shocking.
The Demiurge made what was in the material world, and he was ignorant of everything he made. Everything was made with the help of Sophia Achamoth, but he was ignorant of that as well.
They made angels in the image of the Aeons that are in the Pleroma. The angels include Cosmocrator, which is comparable to Satan, the ruler of the material world.
They made 7 heavens; and they made what is on the earth.
People are made of earth, matter, and spirit; together they make up Ecclesia.
Monogenes produced another conjugal pair: Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Christ instructed the Aeons as to the nature of their conjunctions/syzygies, and taught them that those who possessed a comprehension of the Unbegotten (Monad) were sufficient for themselves. He told them about their origins and that the Father (Monad) cannot be understood or comprehended, nor seen or heard, except as far as he is known by Monogenes (Nous) – if you didn’t notice, there are two Monogenes.
So, what we have here is a situation in which only Nous knows his father, but it is Christ who is revealing some knowledge to the ignorant Aeons of their origin and nature.
The Holy Spirit taught the Aeons to give thanks that they were all equal among themselves, and led them to a state of true rest.
Notice the themes of teaching and rest that are also seen in the Scriptures.
Together all the Aeons produced the perfect fruit of Jesus who is also referred to as Savior and Christ. So, here we have a second Christ. Patronymically, Jesus is also referred to as Logos, and Everything, because he was formed from the contributions of all of the Aeons.
I’m using the name Jesus instead of Yeshua for two reasons:
- All of the names of the Aeons are in Greek.
- To emphasize that this really is another Yeshua than what is depicted in the Apostolic Scriptures.
Jesus is considered to be an intermediary Aeon who can aid humanity by helping them recover the lost knowledge of the divine origins of humanity, so they can get from the material world to the Pleroma.
The amorphous substance, Sophia Achamoth, is also called the Holy Spirit who is along with Christ. In other words, she is a second Holy Spirit. So, there are two gods (Monad and Demiurge), two Christs, and two Holy Spirits.
Gnosticism has a very different soteriology and eschatology than what is found in the Scriptures. People are divided into three groups:
- “Left hand” are those who will perish in fire.
- Spiritual people who are “shaped in union with the psychic;” they are the salt and light of the world to whom Jesus came to save by imparting special knowledge of the divine origins of humanity. They will become intelligent spirits and enter the Pleroma. They will marry angels who wait on the Savior.
- “Right hand” are those who can go either way depending on their inclination.
If someone is of spiritual seed, they can commit all kinds of sins and abominations that they desire because it is impossible for their spiritual substance to come under the power of corruption or be lost. They are considered to be like a piece of gold that can become covered in dirt, but can be simply dusted off, and its substance cannot be corrupted by the dirt.
This ideology causes people to live in a way that is outside of YHVH’s covenant. This is why Gnosticism is so dangerous.
When all that is spiritual has been formed and come to perfection, Sophia Achamoth (the bride) will pass from the intermediate place, enter the Pleroma, and receive the Savior (Jesus, the bridegroom) as her spouse in order to form a conjunction between them. The nuptial chamber will be the full extent of the Pleroma.
When we look at Gnosticism, we see that there are serious differences between Scripture and its:
- Cosmology – origin and development of the universe.
- Soteriology – doctrine of salvation
- Eschatology – theology concerned with death, judgment, and destiny of the soul.
These kinds of differences make Gnosticism a heresy (false teaching).
When we suspect that something may be a false teaching, we need to see if there are differences in these kinds of things.
Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 1: “… The thirty Aeons are indicated (as we have already remarked) by the thirty years during which they say the Savior performed no public act, and by the parable of the labourers in the vineyard…”
The fact that Yeshua did not begin his ministry for the first 30 years of his life has nothing to do with the concept of their being 30 Aeons. This is an illogical conclusion or attempted connection.
Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 2: “The production, again, of the Duodecad of the Aeons, is indicated by the fact that the Lord was twelve (Luke 2:42) years of age when He disputed with the teachers of the law, and by the election of the apostles, for of these there were twelve. (Luke 6:13) The other eighteen Aeons are made manifest in this way: that the Lord, [according to them,] conversed with His disciples for eighteen months and after His resurrection from the dead.”
The numbers 12 and 18 being mentioned in Scripture has no connection to the concept of a Duodecad or the other 18 aeons. There is no logical or significant connection or conclusion here.
Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 2 (continued): “They also affirm that these eighteen Aeons are strikingly indicated by the first two letters of His name [Ἰησοῦς]. Namely Iota and Eta. And, in like manner, they assert that the ten Aeons are pointed out by the letter Iota, which begins His name; while, for the same reason, they tell us the Savior said, “One Iota, or one tittle, shall by no means pass away until all be fulfilled.” (Mat. 5:18)
Using letters to establish any kind of connection or conclusion between Scripture and Gnostic concepts is extremely weak and illogical.
Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 6: “Such, then, is the account which they all give of their Pleroma, and of the formation of the universe, striving, as they do, to adapt the good words of revelation to their own wicked inventions. And it is not only from the writings of the evangelists and the apostles that they endeavor to derive proofs for their opinions by means of perverse interpretations and deceitful expositions: they deal in the same way with the law and the prophets, which contain many parables and allegories that can frequently be drawn into various senses, according to the kind of exegesis to which they are subjected. And others of them, with great craftiness, adapted such parts of Scripture to their own figments, lead away captive from the truth those who do not retain a stedfast faith in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ (Yeshua Messiah), the Son of God.”
Clearly, there are many kinds of things in the Scriptures that Gnostics twist for their own purposes.
I have met people who have twisted Scripture in a similar manner, and they don’t even seem to realize that this is what they are doing. They have not learned proper study techniques or techniques of exegesis. In a similar manner, the Jews have a way of illogically twisting things to prove their points. This allows them to prove that anything is whatever they want it to mean or say .
The early church father, Irenaeus, responded to the way “Christian Gnostics” twisted Scripture by explaining his interpretation of Scripture, which was based on teachings handed down to him.
Irenaeus was coming against the idea of two gods, two Christs, and two Holy Spirits.
“But that the apostle did not speak concerning their conjunctions, but concerning our Lord Jesus Christ (Yeshua Messiah), who he also acknowledges as the Word of God, he himself has made evident.”
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”
“.. Jesus (Yeshua) who suffered for us, and who dwelt among is was Himself the Word of God.”
Here Irenaeus is emphasizing that the Word was made flesh, whereas some Gnostics denied that Yeshua came in the flesh. This is Docetism.
“… And that He (Yeshua) should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickedness,” (Eph 6:12) and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteousness, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.”
Here, Irenaeus is coming against the eschatology of the Gnostics – the idea of the three kinds of people – the left, the right, and the spiritual. Scripture describes only two groups – one that will be gathered and one that will be burned in the lake of fire.
Irenaeus used a method similar to that which Yeshua used to deal with Satan when Yeshua was tempted following His baptism – Irenaeus used Scripture to correct false teaching.
This method, when using Scripture as a whole, can be used not only to refute false teaching, but also to respond to the misinterpretations of Scripture.
Please be aware — when you use Scripture to correct false teachings and misinterpretations, there will be various responses:
- The correction will be received, and adjustments in behavior, if needed, will take place.
- The correction will be doubted, and all those involved should investigate the subject further to confirm.
- The correction will be rejected.
In such situations, it’s important that everyone involved continue to respond to each other with love, kindness, and patience. Pray for the truth of the matter to be revealed to everyone involved.
No one should respond by creating division in the body, and sometimes, this requires a high level of self-control.
As you can see, Gnosticism brought a completely different worldview into the assembly, which had the potential to radically change the way people interpreted the Scriptures.
This impacted concepts such as YHVH being only one God; God’s nature or character; creation; covenant; the reason Yeshua came to God’s people; the meaning of salvation and redemption; and the need for Yeshua to return at some point in the future.
Just think what it would be like if the way we interpret Scripture was permanently changed because of Gnosticism.
We need to have a way that we can we tell the difference between:
- A false teaching that could potentially cause people to abandon YHVH and worship false gods
- A simple misinterpretation of Scripture
To do this, we must know what the truth of the Scripture is. This requires much study. Sometimes truth is revealed in bits and pieces over a very long period of time.
When investigating any topic, we must ask ourselves, “What does the WHOLE text say?”
We need to exercise caution when thinking about rejecting various passages of Scripture when they don’t fit into what our idea of correctness is. Rejecting certain portions of Scripture could potentially lead to an error in halacha – how something is walked out.
When investigating a topic, most concepts are non-debatable, but when it comes to how to walk something out, debate may arise. We just have to work through those things in our own cultural context.
However, sometimes we come upon something debatable in the Scriptures. It could be what appears to be an unexplained contradictory statement in the text. Maybe more than one view of something is supported by Scripture. Perhaps one command is given for one situation and not for a similar situation; this may require extrapolation for application. Also, something may be alluded to without an outright Biblical explanation or command for walking it out.
In situations like these, we must look at all facets of a debate. Normally, I begin with the Scripture itself. Sometimes, we must go outside Scripture to shed more light on a passage. We may need historical or cultural information, or definitions of certain terms in Greek or Hebrew to investigate discrepancies or to properly interpret the text. This is especially true when we must go outside the Scriptures to address a debate such as the new moon.
Noticing that not everyone was looking at all facets of the new moon debate was the biggest problem I ran into when investigating that vast subject. I found that people would zoom in on one area to support their position, and they probably weren’t even aware that there were other pieces of the puzzle that had to be examined such as general astronomy, a specific math model related to orbits, a Scriptural pattern, Scripture itself, claims that observing a new crescent moon was pagan, differences in definitions of Hebrew terms, historical practices, various kinds of calendars, maturation of barley or fruit trees, etcetera.
Irenaeus may not have had access to the amount of information that we have today at our fingertips. He seemed to rely most on his understanding of the Scriptures and on what had been passed down to him.
As part of Irenaeus’ book, he taught that Yeshua was prophesied by the prophets. He spoke of what is found in the gospels. They were his source of truth showing that Yeshua was the Son of God. He was born of a virgin and His name was to be called Immanuel, which means God with us. Yeshua, the Son of man is Christ the Son of the living God, as well as the Word of the Father and Mighty God.
Irenaeus said that the teachings of the Gnostics originated from the doctrine of Simon Magus. They found another god and maintained that the apostles preached a gospel that was still under the influence of Jewish opinions. They felt their doctrine was purer and intelligent. I think a Jew who had come to believe Yeshua is the Messiah would be just as shocked as I was to read this stuff.
In order to refute a false teaching, you have to know what that doctrine is, as well as what the Scriptures say. Despite how Irenaeus refutes Gnosticism, I found concerns common to other church fathers.
As we read Irenaeus, we notice that he sometimes makes statements that make you question whether or not he read the context of a particular passage. He refers to the Mosaic law as a law of bondage, even quoting Ezekiel 20:24 where YHVH says He “gave them statutes that were not good, and judgments in which they shall not live.” The context is wrong here. Yes, the people had not executed YHVH’s judgments; they had despised His statutes, profaned His Sabbaths, and their eyes were fixed on their father’s idols. Therefore, YHVH gave them up to statutes that were not good, and judgments by which they could not live, and pronounced them unclean. These statutes and judgments were likely those belonging to the nations that they were conforming themselves too. These statutes and judgments could not bring life. These statutes and judgments could only bring death. The whole point of YHVH’s covenant, which includes the statutes and judgments, was to bring life instead of death.
Irenaeus acknowledges that circumcision and Sabbaths are a sign, and points out the people were justified independently of these signs. He indicates that the laws were laws of bondage suited for their instruction or punishment but cancelled by the new covenant of liberty while increasing and widening laws that are natural, noble, and common to all. This surely demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Torah. It’s as if Irenaeus is unaware of Psalm 119:45 which says, “And I will walk at liberty, For I seek Your precepts.” Further, he states that there is no need for sacrifice and oblation because God desires obedience. Again, he has missed the proper context of these statements in Scripture just as other church fathers have done. Ezekiel 20:40 says, “For on My holy mountain, on the mountain height of Israel,” says the Lord God, “there all the house of Israel, all of them in the land, shall serve Me; there I will accept them, and there I will require your offerings and the firstfruits of your sacrifices, together with all your holy things.” The Torah needed to be carried out with the right heart. The sacrifices are merely on hold for now. They are part of the pattern set forth by YHVH. They have significance; they are typological in nature.
Irenaeus speaks much of the typology in Scripture that points to Messiah. He uses what he knows to refute various heretics. He uses the food laws to suggest that the heretics are the one with the double hoof that do not ruminate because they do not meditate on the words of God and are not adorned with the works of righteousness. Instead, they walk after their own lusts.
Irenaeus does not talk about the passage of the grafting in of the olive tree in Romans 11 in terms of Jews and Gentiles. He indicates that the wild olive branch has been grafted into the natural one without saying what each represents. He says that if the person remains wild, it is cut off and cast into the fire, but if it takes kindly to the graft, and is changed into the good olive tree, it becomes a fruit bearing olive branch bearing spiritual fruit. He does not speak of it as the Gentile believers being grafted into the olive tree of Israel. He says that the engrafted wild olive doesn’t lose its woody substance, but changes the quality of its fruit. When man is grafted in by faith and by the Spirit, he is to produce spiritual fruit.
My understanding is that God is not going to graft anyone into the olive tree of Israel until they believe in Yeshua – He’s the door to the covenant with YHVH. The olive tree represents Israel and the covenant YHVH has with Israel. The non-believing Jews were removed due to their lack of belief in Yeshua, but they can be grafted back in if they believe.
Irenaeus methodically addresses the errant beliefs of various heretics using Scripture. He makes a lot of great statements, but there are a few conclusions that he makes when things are taken out of context that raise eyebrows for Torah observant believers. Unfortunately, as I’ve already said, these are consistent with other church fathers.
Gnosticism — This is a full version of an abbreviated PowerPoint presentation on Gnosticism presented at Feast of Tabernacles of Virginia at Small Country Campground in 2019. It expands on this post to include how we can identify false teaching and discuss differences in Scripture interpretation in the assembly. Last edited 10/16/2019.