On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis

On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis (Ancient Greek : Ἔλεγχος καὶ ἀνατροπὴ τῆς ψευδωνύμου γνώσεως), sometimes called Adversus Haereses, is a work of Christian theology written in Greek about the year 180 by Irenaeus, the bishop of Lugdunum (now Lyon in France).[1][2][3][4][5]

In it, Irenaeus identifies and describes several schools of gnosticism and contrasts their beliefs with his description of orthodox Christianity.[6]


Against Heresies can be dated to sometime between 174 and 189, as the list of the Bishops of Rome includes Eleutherius, but not his successor Victor.[7] Its purpose of was to refute the teachings of various Gnostic groups,[8] specifically what he considers a non-apostolic scriptural exegesis on the part of Gnostics such as Valentinus and others.[9] In this he seeks to present "what was understood as an authentic form of century-old Christian tradition against various forms of Gnosticism."[10]

As bishop, Irenaeus felt compelled to keep a close eye on the Valentinians and to safeguard the church from them. In order to fulfil this duty, Irenaeus educated himself and became well informed of Gnostic doctrines and traditions.[11] This eventually led to the compilation of his treatise.

It appears however, that the main reason Irenaeus took on this work was because he felt that Christians in Asia and Phrygia especially needed his protection from Gnostics, for they did not have as many bishops to oversee and help keep problems like this under control (probably only one bishop was assigned to a number of communities).[12] Therefore, due to the issue of distance between Irenaeus (who was in the western Roman province of Gaul) and the orthodox Christian community of Asia, Irenaeus found that writing this treatise would be the best way to offer them guidance.

Until the discovery of the Library of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Against Heresies was the best surviving contemporary description of Gnosticism.

This publication is historically important as the dating of the publication is irrefutable and the document is amongst the earliest non-controversial confirming documentations for many of the sayings of Jesus and the Letters of Paul.

Main arguments

Irenaeus was a pastor and his primary goal was the purity of church teaching and identifying heretical notions claiming to be a part of it.[13] In Book I Irenaeus describes the beliefs of the Gnostics. In Book II he argues against them from logic, while in Book III he argues from Scripture. Justin Martyr was an important source, as well as Theophilus of Antioch. For Irenaeus, apostolic tradition represented a living contact with Jesus and his teachings.[7] Against Heresies is an exercise in apologetics "with careful attention to how best to refute the arguments of the opponent.[13]

Irenaeus maintained that human salvation has two components: first, humans must make an intentional commitment to goodness; they then become immortal through the divine power of resurrection.[14] Irenaeus took the position that scripture, interpreted through Christian tradition, is authoritative and the Gnostic exegesis a misstatement,.[13][15] While the Gnostics offered access to secret knowledge available only to a few, Irenaeus pointed out that the true doctrines of the Christian faith are the same taught by bishops in different areas.[16]

While many of the Gnostics viewed the material world as flawed and from which believers sought to escape to an eternal realm of spirit, Irenaeus saw creation as good and ultimately destined for glorification.[17]

Irenaeus opposed Marcion of Sinope, who distinguished between the God of the Hebrew Bible and the Father of Christ in the New Testament, and argued that the same God led man through history by way of the Law and the Prophets.[7] He demonstrated Jesus as summing up in his person and life not only the story of salvation but even the stages of human life.[15]

Irenaeus cites from most of the New Testament canon, as well as the noncanonical works 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas; however, he makes no references to Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John or Jude– four of the shortest epistles.[18]

Mark Jeffrey Olson says that 1 Corinthians 15:50 is quoted far more than any other verse from the letters of Paul in Against Heresies. He writes that the reason for this is because Irenaeus "believes that this verse is the textual key to the exegetical battle over Paul being fought by the Valentinian Gnostics and the Catholic (Universal) Christians." Both Irenaeus and the Valentinians use this verse to prove their direct linkage to the Apostle Paul. The two sides completely disagree in their evaluation of the material world and each seeks to show that its own position truly represents what the Apostle Paul said about the issue. Olson states that according to Irenaeus, this important verse which reads "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" is used by the Gnostics to point out that "the handiwork of God is not saved."[19] The Gnostics have a negative view of the material world.

Valentinian Gnostics believe that Christ and Jesus were two separate beings temporarily united. They also adhere to the belief that before Jesus’ crucifixion, Christ departed from his body. Hence they believe that Christ did not actually have a physical body and therefore did not have a physical resurrection but a spiritual one. The correct interpretation according to Irenaeus would be to use the term "flesh and blood" which are stated in this verse to refer to "the wicked who will not inherit the kingdom because of their evil works of flesh."[20]


See also


  1. Also called On the Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So Called e.g. Peter Drilling Premodern faith in a postmodern culture 2006 p73 "But eventually The Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (the actual title of what is commonly known as Against Heresies) expanded from two volumes to five."
  2. Robert Lee Williams Bishop lists 2005 p123 "Irenaeus recorded the bishops of the Roman church in the third of his five books entitled Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called" (Greek: Ἔλεγχος καὶ ἀνατροπὴ τῆς ψευδωνύμου γνώσεως, lit. "Elenchus and Overturning of the Pseudonymous Knowledge"), commonly called Against Heresies (Latin: Adversus haereses, Greek: Κατὰ αἱρέσεων).
  3. The final phrase "of knowledge falsely so-called" (Greek: tes pseudonymou gnoseos genitive case; or nominative case pseudonymos gnosis)."Greek Word Study Tool | irregular nom f. sg". perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  4. Unger, Dominic J., Dillon, John J., St. Irenaeus of Lyons Against the heresies, Vol.1, p.3, 1992 "the final phrase of the title "knowledge falsely so-called" is found in 1 Timothy 6:20”.
  5. Due to its reference to Eleutherus as the current bishop of Rome, the work is usually dated c.180. Schaff, Philip (2001) [c.1885] "Introductory Note to Irenæus Against Heresies", Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Against Heresies, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  6. Only fragments of the original Greek text exist, but a complete copy exists in a wooden Latin translation, made shortly after its publication in Greek, and Books IV and V are also present in a literal Armenian translation.Poncelet, Albert (1910). "St. Irenaeus". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York City: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 4 March 2009.
  7. 1 2 3 Richardson, C. (1995). Early Christian Fathers. Touchstone. p. 343. ISBN 9780684829517. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  8. Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church Through the Middle Ages. Fortress Press. 2011. p. 12. ISBN 9780800698515. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  9. Steenberg, M.C. (2009). Of God and Man: Theology as Anthropology from Irenaeus to Athanasius. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 21. ISBN 9780567600479. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  10. Anderson, W.P. A Journey Through Christian Theology: With Texts from the First to the Twenty-first Century. Fortress Press. p. 18. ISBN 9781451420326. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  11. Vallée, Gérard (1981). A study in anti-Gnostic polemics: Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. p. 9. ISBN 0-919812-14-7. OCLC 8975860.
  12. Grant, Robert McQueen (1997). Irenaeus of Lyons. New York City: Routledge. p. 6. ISBN 0-415-11838-7. OCLC 34517356.
  13. 1 2 3 Heide, G. (2012). Timeless Truth in the Hands of History: A Short History of System in Theology. Wipf & Stock Publishers. p. 15. ISBN 9781630877989. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  14. Freeman, Jennifer. "Irenaeus, Against Heresies", Christian History, issue 116, 2015 a, /
  15. 1 2 "Donovan, Mary Ann. "Irenaeus of Lyons (review)", Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.4 (1998) 674-675". muse.jhu.edu. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  16. Kotsko, A. (2010). The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 71. ISBN 9780567204325. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  17. McFarland, I.A. (2009). Creation and Humanity: The Sources of Christian Theology. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 9780664231354. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  18. Davis, Glenn (2008). "Irenaeus of Lyons". The Development of the Canon of the New Testament. Retrieved 4 March 2009.
  19. Irenaeus (2001) [c.180] "Showing how that passage of the apostle which the heretics pervert, should be understood; viz., 'Flesh and blood shall not possess the kingdom of God.'", in Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter IX, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  20. Olson, Mark Jeffrey (1992). Irenaeus, the Valentinian Gnostics, and the Kingdom of God (A.H. Book V): The Debate about 1 Corinthians 15:50. Lewiston, New York: Mellen Biblical Press. pp. 11–14. ISBN 0-7734-2352-4. OCLC 26504711.

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