Volume 10, Issue 2: Patres
Irenaeus was born in Asia Minor around the years A.D.120-130. After studying there under Polycarp, he was sent to the
city of Lyons, a leading city in Celtic Gaul, where he became the bishop of Lyons and lived until his death in the first years of
the third century. Some speculation has him dying as a martyr under the Emperor Severus in A.D. 202. Although Irenaeus's
name was a derivative of the Greek word for peace, the man was no stranger to controversy. He is still most remembered by
church historians for his polemics, such as his confrontation with Victor the Bishop of Rome during the Paschal dispute, and his
treatise Against Heresies.
Against Heresies is the most extensive work of Irenaeus that we have; it is a treatise he wrote to expose most of the
popular heresies that endangered the Christian church in the second century. Most of this book, however, takes aim at the
teachings that originated with a man named Cerinthus and then grew under many others, like Marcion and Valentinus, to be one
part of the Gnostic heresy.
Cerinthus was, according to the apostle John's definition, antichrist. He denied that Jesus was the Christ. According
to him, Jesus was a man, fully man, born of a normal union between Joseph and Mary. At Jesus' baptism the spirit of
Christ descended on Him in the form of a dove and then left Him when He was crucified. Christ's spirit actually came from the
Propater (First Father) who the world had not yet known. It turns out that a number of god-like beings had sprung from this
Propater. You might recognize some of their names, Charis (grace), Aletheia (truth), Logos (word), Zoe (life) and many more. This
crowd of semi-deities, known as the Aeons, had emanated from the Propater, but were unaware of his existence. They are
referred to as the Pleroma (fullness) of the Propater. The world that we live in, and all other material substances, actually came
from the Aeon Sophia (wisdom). Then came the Christ, another Aeon, who let the rest of the Aeons and mankind in on the
secret of the Propater. This put the total number of Aeons at thirty, which of course was signified by the fact that Christ was
thirty years old before he started preaching (Against Heresies,
Irenaeus was obviously a witty chap and included in his explanation of this heresy is his own attempt at Gnostic
exegesis. "But along with it there exists a power which I term
a Gourd; and along with this Gourd there exists a power which again
I term the Utter-emptiness. This Gourd and emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as
to be apart from themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable and delicious, which fruit language calls a
Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a
Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness,
the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus" (1.11:4).
Followers of the Gnostic heresy taught that man was saved by his knowledge (gnosis) of the Gnostic system, which
is where the term Gnostic comes in. One could gain this saving kind of knowledge by becoming a disciple, or as Irenaeus
best put it, a "cracked-brain follower" of a Gnostic master (1.13:1), who would then enlighten his students for a healthy fee.
Irenaeus pointed out how it was difficult to actually list the heresies, because nobody knew what they actually believed. The
knowledge differed drastically from master to master. They manipulated their students, trading their supposed saving knowledge
for money and sexual perversions.
Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp (the disciple of John), explained that the heresies of Cerinthus were a primary target
of John's Gospel. "John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith, and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to
remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men" (3.11:1). A story had been passed on to Irenaeus
about how John had entered a bath-house with his disciples, but when seeing that Cerinthus was already inside, "rushed out of
the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, `Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of
the truth, is within'" (3.4:4).
John's testimony against Cerinthus' doctrines of the Aeons is very evident throughout his gospel. Chapter one begins
by declaring that the Word was from the very beginning and was, in fact, God Himself, not an emanation from Him having
no clue of the Father's existence. Cerinthus was always careful to separate the person of Jesus and the person of Christ. John
takes aim at this in 1 John 2:22: "Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the
Father and the Son."
The early church owed Irenaeus much for the work he did to defend the catholic faith from heresy. Our modern
church remains indebted to him. Although many historians discuss him and his significance, Irenaeus himself gives the best
preface to his work. "I well know, my dear friend, that when thou hast read through all this, thou wilt indulge in a hearty laugh
over this their inflated wise folly" (1:16:3). Or as he more succinctly put it elsewhere, "Iu, Iu! Pheu, Pheu!" (1.11:4).