St. Irenaeus and the Gnostics

How common is it to hear someone say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.”  A very Gnostic-esque statement.  One need only to glance at your local bookstore’s religion shelves to see that Gnosticism, that ancient heresy and foe of Christianity, is alive and well in the modern world.  There you would find a smorgasbord of spirituality, with topics on “New Age,” transcendentalism, astrology, reincarnation, and ways of attaining a “secret knowledge.”  Cults and belief systems for attaining secret knowledge, or gnosis, were all the rage back in the second century as well.  Gnostic sects were in direct competition with the nascent Christian Church.  It was amidst the threat of Gnosticism that perhaps the greatest Church Father of the second century emerged, Saint Irenaeus.

Irenaeus was born in 130 A.D. in Smyrna (modern day Turkey), and died in 202 A.D. in Lyons, France, where he had become the bishop.  In his youth Irenaeus was a disciple of Saint Polycarp, who was martyred in 155 A.D, but who had himself been a disciple of the Apostle Saint John the Evangelist.  Thus, Irenaeus’ close historical connection to John lends a distinct apostolic credence and weight to all his writings.  His greatest work is the massive five-volume set of books Adversus Haereses, or Against Heresies, a refutation of the doctrines of Gnosticism.  In addition to his close proximity to John and the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus’ writings are all thoroughly Catholic.  It is as if we are reading the modern Catechism (on such topics as the Real Presence of the Jesus in the Eucharist, the Sacrifice of the Mass, Apostolic succession, and Mariology) inserted within the second century.

The heretical Gnostic movements led Irenaeus to develop Church sacramental theology and Christology, or an understanding of exactly who Christ is.  Irenaeus developed the idea of the necessity of a bodily atonement and redemption through Jesus’ sacred humanity.  This is simply the “Recapitulation theory of Atonement.”  In order to understand this better, we should first look at the false teachings of Gnosticism.

The Gnostic sects emphasized a secret, pseudo-mystical knowledge that had to be gained for salvation, and generally reserved only for the few who were deemed spiritually worthy.  As such, Gnosticism became associated with elitism.  Most Gnostic myths, relying heavily upon Greek pagan philosophy, taught that worldly things were created by a wicked demi-god, Demiurge, and thus, evil.  The evil material universe is then at odds with the goodness of the Supreme Creator and the spiritual world.  Gnosticism descended into a form of Dualism, where the body and all matter are evil, and all that is spiritual is good.  The world, and all that is in it, is to be rejected.  Man is seen as a spark from the spiritual God, but entrapped in the evil material world and imprisoned in the body.

This is in direct contradiction to the teachings of Christianity.  Man is not simply a spiritual being, who discards the body at death.  Man is a composite being of body and soul.  In the Book of Genesis, God calls all creation “good,” and later, on the sixth day, when God creates Man, He calls him “very good.” (Gen. 1:31)  Orthodox Christianity’s major objection to Gnosticism focused around its denial of the goodness of the material world.  St. Irenaeus fought such heresies vigorously, including the denial of the physical atonement of Jesus as well as the rejection of the material sacraments.

Before long, the Gnostics had devolved into a form of Docetism that denied the corporeal incarnation of God into the world.  To them, Jesus only “appeared” to be human, and wore a body like a mask or shell.  By their beliefs, it made no sense that God would enter into an evil material universe.

Irenaeus, in response, seized upon the teachings of St. Paul that Christ did unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1:10)  St. Irenaeus taught that Christ had to enter into the world, and into humanity, in order to atone for the sins of the world and redeem humanity.  In his theory of Atonement by Recapitulation, Irenaeus says, “The Word, becoming man, recapitulates all things in Himself, so that just as the Word is foremost in things super-celestial, spiritual, and invisible, so also in things visible and corporeal He might have the primacy.”  Jesus lived a life in the body like one of us, redeeming our humanity through His divine-humanity.  Irenaeus goes further in saying that Jesus lived through all the stages of man, from birth, to infancy and childhood, maturity, old age and even unto death, thereby sanctifying all the stages of a man’s life.  Here the Catechism concurs stating, “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption… and a mystery of recapitulation. All Jesus did, said and suffered had for its aim restoring fallen man to his original vocation.” (CCC 517-518)

Just as the Gnostics professed that God as Spirit would not incarnate into the evil world, so too, according to their belief, would His Spirit neither enter into the material sacraments of the Church.  According to their teachings, God would not enter into bread and wine, or water, oil or chrism.  St. Irenaeus fought vociferously against this heresy with an explicit defense of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  He writes, “For as the bread from the earth, receiving the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist . . . so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible but have the hope of resurrection into eternity.”

When we say the Apostles’ Creed, we are reminded of the early Church’s constant spiritual battle with Gnosticism.  We say God is the creator of heaven “and earth.”  Jesus was physically born into the world, physically suffered and died.  We believe in the “resurrection of the body.”  The Creed reveals a constant push back against those who denied the goodness of the material world, the body, and the corporeal redemption by Jesus.  As one of the earliest and greatest defenders of the faith, St. Irenaeus counteracted the polymorphic pagan influences of Gnosticism, dispelling their dualism and wishy-washy spirituality, which St. Paul refers to as the profane and vain babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge.” (1 Tim. 6:20)  And so, as we remember St. Irenaeus on his Feast day, June 28th, we should retain the true faith, clinging to the doctrines of our Apostolic religion, believing in the sacred humanity of Jesus, crucified on the Cross, and whose Real Presence is in the Eucharist.  May He resurrect us bodily to eternal life.

image: Zvonimir Atletic /

Brian Kranick


Brian Kranick is a freelance writer focusing on all things Catholic. In addition to other studies, he has a master's degree in Systematic Theology from Christendom College.  He has spent years working as an analyst in the Intelligence Community, and currently resides with his wife and three children in the Pacific Northwest.  He is the author of the blog:

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  • noelfitz

    This is another great article. But like other articles in CE I do not really understand it. However I think this is a good thing, as it encourages me to think and try to understand my faith better.

    After reading the article my first task was to consult Dr Google and Professor Wikipedia, who tells me ‘Irenaeus vigorously defended the title of “Theotokos”’ I also note that Irenaeus has been considered the ‘Father of Mariology’.

    I see in the article that Irenaeus lived through old age. Old age is relative, but I am not sure what this means. Would anyone like to tell me?

    Some time ago I was at a lecture about atonement, where the speaker, an Augustinian priest, said that there are several theories of atonement but none is satisfactory. Anselm held a ransom theory where Jesus paid a ransom for us by his death. Anselm had a satisfaction theory, which sounds similar. The learned Prof Wikipedia tells me that in the Recapitulation Theory Jesus undid the sin of Adam. Does this ignore the fact that he also atoned for my sins?

    I do not really understand atonement and this article, but the key message is that in Irenaeus’ conviction the world is good.

  • Howard

    Basically, Gnosticism makes four crucial errors.
    1. First of all, it gets the nature of a human being wrong, by assuming we have no more profound relationship to our bodies than to the clothes we wear. We see this idea causing practical problems today whenever someone says, “Yes, this [embryo, disabled person, etc.] is biologically a human organism, but that doesn’t mean it is a person.” It is also responsible for the whole “Caitlyn Jenner” thing.
    2. Also as part of getting human nature wrong, it assumes that the essence of each human is a spirit that is all-good, and that in fact is just a little piece of God. Thus it would tell us we don’t so much need to repent and accept the forgiveness of God as to die and shed our evil bodies. That’s bad enough, but it has also manifested itself in the idea that sin only touches our (already corrupt) bodies but leaves our souls stainless, so why not give in?
    3. Obviously, it gets the nature of God fundamentally wrong, too, since it would make Him not qualitatively different from us.
    4. Gnosticism also makes KNOWLEDGE the supreme virtue, whereas Christianity makes it LOVE. In practice, Gnostics fall hard for truly ridiculous theories that let them feel that they are among the very few smart or brave enough to confront the scary truth. When you see people who are obsessed with “ancient aliens”, the idea that most leaders of government, business, and culture are in fact reptilian shapeshifters, or the like, you are seeing the Gnostic urge in action. And yes, this includes some fringe Catholics who latch onto dubious private revelations.

  • Tom Hanson

    This is a splendid essay about Irenaeus of Lyons and Gnosticism, which has sprung to a minor new life with the help of Dan Brown’s novels and general interest in newly found gnostic texts (the texts found at Nag Hammadi in the mid 20th century). I think that it was unwise to call Christianity of the 2nd century “nascent.” This may seem like a pedantic quibble, and the word probably would have been merely imprecise before the manuscripts were found and translated. But by the time of Irenaeus, the church had a recognizable hierarchy in place, and more important had disassociated itself from Judaism in the eyes of pagan Romans as well as the eyes of Christians themselves.
    All this matters because of today’s milieu regarding Gnosticism. What you are doing by using “nascent” is masking a fact that was very important to Irenaeus himself and will be helpful in explaining Catholic Christian history to a new consciously-pagan culture. Irenaeus repeatedly says that all Chritian gnostic sects are Johnnies-come-lately. Gnosticism itself probably antedated Chistianity, we would say today, but Christian gnostics would not and could not know about Christ until Christianity had become noticeable in the world they lived in. Irenaeus says explicitly and repeatedly that he himself had talked with important Gnostics and studied their beliefs. He also urges people to check what he writes by talking to them themselves. That is certainly historically true because his admittedly unfriendly descriptions match remarkably well with the newly found texts. Undoubtedly he has misinterpreted some things the Gnostics he talked to had said (to be expected from someone who is not a believer) but to anyone who even in translation has read Irenaeus–and that is a tough slog– the Nag Hammadi texts in translation seem very familiar and his thoughts about Gnosticism fit well with what Gnostic texts say. He also accuses the Gnostics of his day of just making up stuff about Jesus. Lo and behold, some of the Nag Hammadi texts explicitly say things like “it came to me in a vision that…”
    At the same time today we have recently seen John Dominic Crossan (in the back matter of his “biography” of Jesus as a Mediteranean Peasant) urging scholars to make an exception about those same Nag Hammadi documents. The idea being that in this instance, historians should make an exception to the methodological rule that early documents are more reliable for history than late documents, and treat these particular later documents as though they are of equal historical value with the epistles and gospels we know are earlier. Irenaeus knew better.

  • noelfitz

    Thank you for your contribution to this discussion. You consider the relative importance of love and knowledge, but one cannot love what one does not know, so knowledge comes first.

    I am grateful for your long and scholarly post. There is nothing new under the sun and Gnostics sound like New Age adherents.

    Congratulations for your great article, which has certainly got people thinking, and thanks again.

  • noelfitz

    This discussion has certainly taken off. It is great to read committed Catholics robustly and respectfully considering our mutual faith. I really am grateful to CE for its solid teaching and articles.

    You say Modernists are ruling the Church. Who are they?

    Was my friend Prof Wikipedia wrong when he said the Recapitulation Theory undid the sin of Adam, said Linnaeus defended the title Theotokos and called Irenaeus the Father of Mariology?
    I find the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia a bit out of date. Vat II and the CCC happened since then, and do not deserve to be ignored.

  • Nick_from_Detroit

    Noel Fitz,
    Thank you, for your reply. My apologies, for taking so long to respond.
    I did not claim that wiki was “wrong” concerning any of those subjects. Only that it should be taken with a grain of salt. Because, anyone, including anti-Catholics, can post anything (true or false) on that site, and usually do. It should not be trusted at face value, and should be fact-checked always.

    I do not see how you could infer that I was suggesting that the Second Vatican Council and CCC should be ignored just because I recommended the Catholic Encyclopedia? The CE is a much more trusted source than wiki, by any objective standard. God Bless!