Irenaeus (c 130-203) was the first Father of the Church to confront the threat presented to Christianity by the Gnostics.
Gnosticism flourished before the birth of Christ, and in some aspects persists today. The phenomenon, however, has always been so diffuse that it is difficult to define.
The essential proposition is that this world is too fundamentally flawed to be the creation of a perfect God. Rather, the Gnostics decided, it was the work of the Demiurge, a partially corrupted emanation of the supreme deity.
The ultimate divinity remains hidden from mankind. Even so, buried deep within us, there are inklings of its existence, which may be discerned by those inherently gifted in spiritual affairs, or possessed of the correct cabbalistic formulae.
For the Gnostics, then, religious knowledge was the province of the superior intellect. Far from there being any absolute truths or moralities, there were merely intuitions available to the few. As for Christ, he might be a valued teacher; he could never, though, be God. Irenaeus perfectly captured the smugness that Gnosticism imbued. “As soon as a man has been won over to their way of salvation, he becomes so puffed up with conceit and self-importance that he imagines himself to be no longer in heaven or on earth, but to have already passed into the fullness of God’s powers.
“With the majestic air of a cock he goes strutting about – as if he had already embraced his angel.” Indeed, modern times have also demonstrated that, when a man is judge in his own cause, he becomes intolerable.
Irenaeus, in fact, was associated with the very roots of Christianity. Born apparently in the eastern Mediterranean, he had been taught by a disciple of St John, Polycarp of Smyrna, who relayed to him the Apostle’s accounts of conversations with Jesus.
Somehow Irenaeus became a priest in Lyons. Perhaps he earned his irenical, “peace-giving”, nomenclature in 177 when he was dispatched to Rome to urge Pope Eleutherius to adopt a more lenient policy towards an over-enthusiastic sect of Montanists in Phrygia.
On his return to Lyons, he was appointed bishop in place of St Pothinus, who had been martyred at the age of 90.
In combating the Gnostics, Irenaeus was particularly concerned by the followers of Simon Magus, the sorcerer who gave his name to the sin of simony, and had been roundly rebuked by St Peter (Acts 8:20-23).
Although some Gnostics gained a reputation for asceticism, Irenaeus railed against their sexual licence. What, after all, could be expected of men who considered that “conduct is only good or evil in the eyes of man”?
In his view Christian practice and morality should be guided by Apostolic tradition. No wonder his tomb in Lyons was destroyed by the Calvinists in 1562.