On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis

On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis

On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, today also called On the Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So Called[1] (Greek: ἔλεγχος και άνατροπή της ψευδωνύμου γνώσεως, lit. "Elenchus and Overturning of the Pseudonymous Knowledge"), commonly called Against Heresies (Latin: Adversus haereses, Greek: κατὰ αἱρέσεων), is a five-volume work written by St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century. The final phrase "of knowledge falsely so-called" (Greek: tes pseudonymou gnoseos genitive case; or nominative case pseudonymos gnosis[2]) is a quotation of the apostle Paul's warning against "knowledge falsely so-called" in 1 Timothy 6:20.[3]

Due to its reference to Eleutherus as the current bishop of Rome, the work is usually dated c. 180.[4] In it Irenaeus identifies and describes several schools of gnosticism and contrasts their beliefs with what he describes as catholic, orthodox Christianity. 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.[5]



The purpose of Against Heresies was to refute the teachings of various Gnostic groups; apparently, several Greek merchants had begun an oratorial campaign praising the pursuit of "gnosis" in Irenaeus' bishopric. Another popular theory states that a group of Gnostics known as the Valentinians remained part of the early Christian church, taking part in regular church celebrations despite their radical differences. It is also said that Gnostics would secretly meet outside of regular church activity where they would discuss their "secret knowledge" and scripture that pertains to it. As bishop, Irenaeus felt obligated 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.[6] 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).[7] 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 refers to the Word as the "Son" who he says, "was always with the Father," which doesn't necessarily oppose the unitarian view of God.[citation needed]Irenaeus affirms that "the Father is above all things. 'For the Father,' says He [Christ] 'is greater than I.' The Father, therefore, has been declared by our Lord to excel with respect to knowledge."[8] Irenaeus clarifies: "The Father is indeed above all, and He is the Head of Christ."[9] Nevertheless, his writings have been cited by others as proof that early Christians held a binitarian or a trinitarian view as he wrote, "…there is none other called God by the Scriptures except the Father of all, and the Son, and those who possess the adoption".[10] Though this could also be held as the churches' teaching of the procession of Christ and the Holy Spirit from the Father alone as is evident in Irenaeus' teaching on the Holy Spirit within the same work.[11] This teaching was later greatly emphasized by Eastern Theologians through the teaching of St Irenaeus, "The Holy Spirit and the Christ being the hands of God the Father, reaching in from the infinite into the finite."[10]

In Book II, chapter 22 of his treatise, Irenaeus asserts that the ministry of Jesus lasted from when he was baptized at the age of 30 until at least the age of 40:

[F]rom the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan. Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement.[12]

Arguments have been provided in defense of this accusation by pointing out section 3 of this same chapter, demonstrating a three-year ministry starting from the age of 30:

But it is greatly to be wondered at, how it has come to pass that, while affirming that they have found out the mysteries of God, they have not examined the Gospels to ascertain how often after His baptism the Lord went up, at the time of the passover, to Jerusalem, in accordance with what was the practice of the Jews from every land, and every year, that they should assemble at this period in Jerusalem, and there celebrate the feast of the passover. First of all, after He had made the water wine at Cana of Galilee, He went up to the festival day of the passover, on which occasion it is written, For many believed in Him, when they saw the signs which He did, as John the disciple of the Lord records. Then, again, withdrawing Himself [from Judæa], He is found in Samaria; on which occasion, too, He conversed with the Samaritan woman, and while at a distance, cured the son of the centurion by a word, saying, Go your way, your son lives. Afterwards He went up, the second time, to observe the festival day of the passover in Jerusalem; on which occasion He cured the paralytic man, who had lain beside the pool thirty-eight years, bidding him rise, take up his couch, and depart. Again, withdrawing from thence to the other side of the sea of Tiberias. He there seeing a great crowd had followed Him, fed all that multitude with five loaves of bread, and twelve baskets of fragments remained over and above. Then, when He had raised Lazarus from the dead, and plots were formed against Him by the Pharisees, He withdrew to a city called Ephraim; and from that place, as it is written He came to Bethany six days before the passover, and going up from Bethany to Jerusalem, He there ate the passover, and suffered on the day following.[12]

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.[13]

Mark Jeffrey Olson says that I 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 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."[14] 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."[15]


See also


  1. ^ 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." 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"
  2. ^ irregular nom f. sg.
  3. ^ Dominic J. Unger, John J. Dillon - 1992 St. Irenaeus of Lyons Against the heresies, Vol.1 p3 "the final phrase of the title "knowledge falsely so-called" is found in 1 Timothy 6:20.
  4. ^ Schaff, Philip (2001) [c. 1885] "Introductory Note to Irenæus Against Heresies", Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Against Heresies, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  5. ^ Poncelet, Albert (1910). "St. Irenaeus". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York City: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08130b.htm. Retrieved 4 March 2009. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ Grant, Robert McQueen (1997). Irenaeus of Lyons. New York City: Routledge. p. 6. ISBN 0-415-11838-7. OCLC 34517356. 
  8. ^ Irenaeus (2001) [c. 180] "Perfect knowledge cannot be attained in the present life: many questions must be submissively left in the hands of God", in Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter XXVIII, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  9. ^ Irenaeus (2001) [c. 180] "God the Father and His Word have formed all created things (which They use) by Their own power and wisdom, not out of defect or ignorance. The Son of God, who received all power from the Father, would otherwise never have taken flesh upon Him", in Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter XVIII, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  10. ^ a b Irenaeus (2001) [c. 180] "Preface to Book IV", in Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Against Heresies, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  11. ^ Irenaeus (2001) [c. 180] "The Holy Ghost, throughout the Old Testament Scriptures, made mention of no other God or Lord, save him who is the true God", in Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter VI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  12. ^ a b Irenaeus (2001) [c. 180] "The thirty Æons are not typified by the fact that Christ was baptized in His thirtieth year: He did not suffer in the twelfth month after His baptism, but was more than fifty years old when He died.", in Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter XXII, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  13. ^ Davis, Glenn (2008). "Irenaeus of Lyons". The Development of the Canon of the New Testament. http://www.ntcanon.org/Irenaeus.shtml. Retrieved 4 March 2009. 
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 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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