Elaine Pagels, a self identified modern Gnostic, spots four major aspects of what Irenaeus meant by calling the Gnostics’ system an “evil exegesis” (Beyond Belief 119-142). The first was that the Gnostics pushed the view of discovering the god within themselves, and themselves within god (119-122). Then Gnostics often added their own inventions, boldly revising John’s Gospel account with the Round Dance of the Cross. In this revisioning a person sees Jesus according to their own “expectations and capacities” (125). The third piece of their ‘evil exegesis’ was the changing forms of Jesus into Father, Mother and Son (126-127). And the final instance Pagels draws out from Irenaeus is where she herself places her greatest emphasis. Irenaeus rejected the ‘evil exegesis’ where the Gnostics found hidden meanings in the Gospel of John, in which they try to find meanings that support their own inventions. “For Irenaeus, however, innovation proved that one had abandoned the gospel” (128). This innovativeness, then, fought against Irenaeus’s desire for a “united and unanimous ‘catholic church’” (129).
Pagels asserts that Irenaeus was primarily worried that the Gnostics’ ‘evil exegesis’ was schismatic and divisive, and that this is what drove his refutation. Is Pagels correct? It’s obvious that a united, universal Church was extremely important to Irenaeus. For instance, he writes about the Church,
“She believes these things [everywhere] alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth. For the languages of the world are different, but the meaning of the [Christian] tradition is one and the same” (1.10.2).And he reiterates this sentiment repeatedly through out the beginning of his work, writing short statements like “[…], the real Church has one and the same faith everywhere in the world” (1.10.2).
Also, Irenaeus is perplexed by the Gnostics’ creative innovations. “Since their teachings and traditions are different, and the newer ones among them claim to be constantly finding something new, and working out what no one ever thought of before, it is hard to describe their views” (1.21.5). And again, “Each of these mystagogues has his own ceremony of redemption” (1.21.1). But is Irenaeus’s perplexity due to the schismatic potential, or is there something deeper?
It cannot be denied that schism created by innovation in doctrine was repulsive to Irenaeus. It is very informative how often he recites the ‘tradition’ and it sounds clearly like what we now call the Apostles’ Creed. This attitude of Irenaeus should instruct the 21st Century American Church. Innovative doctrines (viz. Word of Faith, etc); creative styles and techniques that divide the Church along homogenous groupings (age-segregated churches, or divisions by traditional services and contemporary services); emergent agendas that segregate themselves from the larger body of Christ’s people and make themselves unaccountable, and so forth, would have left a sour taste in Irenaeus’s mouth.
Yet Irenaeus seems to be more concerned with what he perceived as the Gnostics’ attempted destruction of the Apostolic Faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3c). Thus he refuted their endeavor to strip the Word of the incarnation. If they were to succeed in this they would end up closing the door to our knowing the Father (3.11.3 and 5).
Therefore, it seems that Irenaeus’s real agenda in refuting the Gnostics and their ‘evil exegesis’ was to ensure that the truth about Christ, the eternal Word made man, would win the day. And why was this agenda so important? Again and again Irenaeus showed that it was only by the Word (who is fully God) becoming fully human could our liberation from the ‘apostasy’ of sin be possible.
With the above in mind, then Book 5 of his Against Heresies looks as if it is the climax of his whole refutation of the heretics. What unfolds in Book 5 is not an agenda of simply promoting a unified church, but a full-blooded story of redemption. The following quotations should give ample evidence of Irenaeus’s agenda.
“So, then, since the Lord redeemed us by his own blood, and gave his soul for our souls, and his flesh for our bodies, and poured out the Spirit of the father to bring about the union and communion of God and man - bringing God down to men by [the working of] the Spirit, and again raising man to God by his incarnation - and by his coming firmly and truly giving us incorruption, by our communion with God, all the teachings of the heretics are destroyed” (5.1.2).
“Nor would he have truly redeemed us by his blood if he had not been truly made man, restoring again to his own creation what was said [of it] in the beginning, that man was made according to the image and likeness of God - not snatching by deceit what was another’s, but justly and graciously claiming what was his own - for with reference to the apostasy, he justly redeemed us from it by his own blood, but with reference to us, who have been redeemed, he acted graciously. For we gave nothing to him first, nor does he desire anything from us, as if needing it; but we are in need of communion with him. Therefore he graciously poured himself out that he might gather us together into the bosom of the Father” (5.2.1).
Therefore, on one hand Pagels is right that the Church’s unity is a primary aspect of Irenaeus’s effort. But it is unity under the Apostolic Faith once for all delivered to the saints. It is not unity for its own sake, as if that were the means and the ends simultaneously. On the other hand, Pagels is mistaken in that she completely misses Irenaeus’s real program: That the Eternally begotten Word (Fully God) became fully man. In becoming fully man He took on our condition to liberate it and heal it. By doing this, He restored the lost life and image of God we had before the ‘apostasy.’ He has now by His obedience on the tree of the cross reversed and renewed what was done through the first man’s disobedience at a tree.
In conclusion, Irenaeus would probably have been delighted by the words of Charles Wesley‘s hymn, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, which easily summarize his over arching agenda in his refutation of the heretics:
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Irenaeus. The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called. Ed. and Transl. Cyril C. Richardson. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1953. 358-97.
Pagels, Elaine. Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Vintage Books. 2003.
Wesley, Charles. Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. 1744. The Cyber Hymnal. 8 Aug. 2005.