The Effect of Gnosticism on the Early Church, and the Church's Response
What was so devastating about the Gnostic influence on the nascent church, was that its commingling of Hellenistic philosophies, redemptive stories, and tremendous theological and literary output catalyzed the surety of the first Christians into bewilderment. Current leaders' authority was held suspect, and people craned their heads in rapt confusion; the authority of the church was slowly being undermined. Says Chadwick,
In a word the central issue was that of Authority. What was the true interpretation of the Old and New Testaments? Who now occupied the teaching chairs of the apostles and could give clear guidance to bewildered believers? Where could one find reliable evidence of what the apostles had really taught?With their confidence in the veracity of the Old and New Testaments destabilized, the pressures and frights of persecution from Roman authorities and Jewish leaders, the early Christians questioned the auspices of their presbyters. Since it was no longer clear, or certain if Christian leaders could be trusted, and by implication if even Christ could be trusted to be who he said he was, then the confidence of the Christian community was shakey, at best. Where once the need for a saviour was satisfied through Christ, the first Christians began to turn their attention again to the need for a sure and universally identifiable redeemer. The Gnostics, having perpetrated the Christian communities, responded to these resurgent desires for a saviour by proffering their own elaborate redemption stories and slowly began to win converts. Christian leaders and laypeople alike were turning to the Gnostics of their day. The church was swaying to the first historical shocks of large-scale schisms.
Still, placing the evidence together, that the Gnostics believed themselves to be sincere Christians and that the church had yet to define its permanent authority, has led some scholars to question the traditional understanding of the Gnostics and their effect on the early church. Elaine Pagels, in her celebrated book The Gnostic Gospels rejoins the customary conception of the Gnostics being religious schismatics and insurgents with an illuminating sociological appraisal of the second century movement. She maintains that the Gnostics were concerned with issues of authority, charging that the church was primarily occupied with establishing itself in the apostolic tradition. This would imply a uniformity of belief between the members of the spiritual community, and thereby squeeze out room for the creative spiritual insight that was so dear to the Gnostics. Says Pagels,
...when we investigate how the doctrine of God actually functions in gnostic and orthodox writings, we can see how this religious question also involves social and political issues. Specifically, by the latter part of the second century, when the orthodox insisted upon "one God," they simultaneously validated the system of governance in which the church is ruled by "one bishop."The voice heralding the cry of "one bishop" belonged to Clement, bishop of Rome (ca. 90-100 AD). In short, Clement sought to impress upon the church at Corinth a system of church government that would secure the spiritual authority of the presbyter as being the bishop's representative, who in turn, is the representative of God. By doing so, Clement rebuked the Corinthians for deposing their presbyters and enjoined them to restore the holy offices to the rightful occupants. A generation later, Ignatius of Antioch in Syria echoed Clement's refrain, but with greater force and much more gravity. Says Pagels,
He defended the three ranks – bishop, priests, and deacons – as a hierarchical order that mirrors the divine hierarchy in heaven. As there is only one God in heaven, Ignatius declares, so there can be only one bishop in the church. "One God, one bishop" – this became the orthodox slogan.By declaring the primacy of the bishop as God's representative on earth, both Clement and Ignatius tried to restore the confidence of the primitive church, and identify a visible, secure, and respectable authority. Those who were bewildered could defer to their bishop "as if he were God," and have confidence that his word is true just as St. Peter and St. Paul's words were true; and their words were ratified by Christ Himself who taught them. Thus the appeal to Apostolic Succession in the early church was meant to not only establish the holy offices within the various Sees, but to safeguard against the gathering whirlwind of doubt being whipped up by the Gnostics within the Christian communities.
Irenaeus of Lyons
By far the most important theologian of the second century church was Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 140 – 200 AD). His writings set in motion the most devastating attacks against the Gnostics, and until 1945 when the Nag Hammadi texts were discovered, provided the most detailed accounts of Gnostic doctrines and systems. Of Irenaeus' many writings only two are extant, but they are the his most important works and come under the title Adversus Haereses (Against the Heretics), originally titled Detection and Overthrow of the Pretended but False Gnosis.
Within Irenaeus' two-part, five volume delineation of the Gnostics, he begins in the first part ('Detection') by giving a meticulous description of the most prominent and subtle system of the Gnostics, that invented by Valentinus. From there, he moves on to describe the genus of Gnosticism, beginning with Simon Magus and Menander, then lists the leaders of various other Gnostic sects in succession:
Satornil [Saturninus], Basilides, Carpocrates, Cerinthus, the Ebionites, the Nicolaites, Cerdon, Marcion, Tatian, and the Encratites. But he emphasizes the fact that with these names the number of those who in one way or another departed from the truth is not exhausted.The four books that come after comprise the second part ('Overthrow') of his attack against the Gnostics. Johannes Quasten summarises the contents of these four books accordingly:
Book II refutes the gnosis of the Valentinians and the Marcionites from reason;Inside the folds of Irenaeus' books, the Gnostics are laid bare. Their own philosophical, and theological misapprehensions are brought to the fore and shown from many converging angles to be false, misleading, even anti-Christ. The Gnostic influence on the early church caused centrifugal movements away from orthodox congregations that were slowed by the insistent, well-reasoned adjudications of Clement of Rome, and Ignatius of Antioch. They were almost eliminated, however, by the poignant observations Irenaeus asserted, and may possibly have caused a centripetal movement of adherents back to the early orthodox congregations. "So successfully did he defend the articles of faith of the Catholic Church which the Gnostics had denied or misinterpreted that he deserves to be called the founder of Christian theology."
Book III, from the doctrine of the Church on God and Christ;
Book IV, from the sayings of the Lord.
Book V treats almost exclusively of the resurrection of the flesh which was denied by all the Gnostics.
What, in particular, caused Irenaeus' writings to be regarded as the authoritative source against the Gnostics? Several characteristics of his theology answer that question, and in themselves, show forth both the folly of Gnostic thought, and the unity and beauty of the Christian faith.
To begin with, Irenaeus attacks the philosophical underpinnings of the Gnostic sects. In Book I, he points to the lack of cohesion between the sects, implying as it were, that disunity is not the province of God, but of the conjectures of men. "I.31.3: 'Simply to exhibit their sentiments, is to obtain a victory over them,'" wrote Irenaeus. As noted earlier, the Gnostics were not unified in their teachings, and in fact, disagreed quite sharply on certain issues. For example, a great many Gnostic schools taught that abstinence from all forms of physical affection was the only way to not encourage further participation with, or reproduction of matter. Conversely, other Gnostics encouraged complete indulgence in all forms of bodily pleasure, their justification being that the "spiritually perfect were free to be immoral." Irenaeus spotted contrary doctrines such as just mentioned and questioned the validity of opposing assertions coming from groups that each claimed to be enlightened to the real truth.
In contrast to the sectarian tendencies of the Gnostics, the church, Irenaeus maintained, is an organic whole, having its headship in Christ who is represented by the bishop. Here Irenaeus agrees with his predecessors Clement, and Ignatius, but takes it a step further by asserting that the church, its traditions, rites, and teachings are not reserved only for the spiritual elite but for all Christians everywhere. Cunliffe-Jones sums up Irenaeus' argument by noting,
It seems, then, that Irenaeus thinks of the bishops, the official teachers of the community, as being both the representatives and spokesmen, and also the authorized defenders, of the apostolic tradition of belief which, unlike the Gnostic traditions which are reserved for the privileged elite, constantly circulates among the whole Christian community and is preserved and purified by a process of comparison and interchange.The blessing of the Christian community is evident in the unity it shares under one God, one bishop, and no discrimination by means of hidden, undisclosed, or otherwise enigmatic and esoteric knowledge. In addition, Irenaeus appealed to the train of bishops who had succeeded each other right back to the time of Christ. In this it was understood implicitly that what the present bishop taught was what was handed down by Christ to the apostles; there was no room for the quiet machinations of human thought – the bishop taught what Christ, the Messiah spoke. Under the umbrella of the Christian church, its bishop and teachings, one is shielded from the spurious and incongruent rains of Gnostic philosophies.
The issue that most incensed Irenaeus, however, was the Gnostic tendency to make divisions within divinity Gnostics were wont to diminish the God of the Old Testament in favour of selected interpretations of the New Testament God; they were convinced of the separation between the Christ (Logos) and Jesus, "the Logos from the Saviour... the Christ above from the Christ below." What is more, it is inherent in the Gnostic divisions within the divine that other forms of dualism follow: soteriological dualism, Scriptural dualism, Ecclesiastical dualism, Social dualism, Practical dualism, and Metaphysical dualism. In all aspects, the consequences for dividing the divine, to Irenaeus, spelled disaster if accepted into orthodox Christianity, and blasphemy for the Gnostics who presented it as authentic, godly teaching. In response, Irenaeus vehemently defended the unity and Oneness of God (c.f. Deut. 6:4-9). Moreover, Irenaeus contended that the Gnostics were
practicing a sort of theology-fiction, projecting mental processes into an atemporal framework which develops into an arbitrary speculation about the Pleroma and its aeons and amounts to an utterly indiscrete theologia gloriae.The fanciful musings and imaginings of the Gnostics were not to be taken seriously over above the weighty and very real teachings of Christ, the apostles, and the bishops after them.
The heart of Irenaeus' theology, however, was his doctrine of Recapitulation. "Although he borrowed this idea from the Apostle Paul, he developed it considerably. Recapitulation is for Irenaeus a taking up in Christ of all since the beginning." Since God's original intentions for mankind were interrupted by the fall of Adam and Eve, and thereby all mankind, Christ becomes the second Adam and destroys the "evil effects of the disobedience of the first Adam."
Because he [Irenaeus] believed that in the Fall only the moral likeness of God was lost, not the basic image, he was able to regard the Fall in a very different way from the deep pessimism of the Gnostics. Error came in, he thought, because mankind is growing to maturity, and in the infancy of the race it was natural that mistakes were made by the frail and immature children who were Adam and Eve.Therefore, God's original trajectory for the human race was to experience the progressive revelation of God. Since mankind fell into moral turpitude, God revealed His salvific power through a "progressive education" in which humanity was led step-by-step to the climactic incarnation of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. By doing so, God gathered up, or recapitulated in Himself that moral likeness along with His image, and effected salvation for the whole man, not just the enlightened spirits of certain men, as the Gnostics averred. Irenaeus' insistence that God gathered up all things in Himself was a direct refutation of not only the division of the Logos from the Saviour, the pre-determined good men from the bad, and the notion of the physical being intrinsically evil while the spiritual is inherently good; it was a decisive argument against the fractured realities the Gnostics were so quick to believe, and an implicitly devastating remark on the disunity of the Gnostic sects, who had no one overarching doctrine to unite them into a worthwhile religion, or even philosophy. The invisible monolith of Gnosticism now began to crumble.
The first century phenomenon of Gnosticism lived a short live in the history of philosophies and religions. Stretching itself over the course of approximately two-hundred years, its influence was felt very sharply in the early church. Its subtle doctrines found their way into the clergy and laity alike at a time when peoples' hopes were already being tried, tested, and crushed. Sporadic Roman persecutions against the church, and the pervading disdain of surrounding Judaisers and Pagans pressured the church from the outside, while Gnosticism tunneled its way into the church itself, almost causing the church to collapse from the inside. Diligent heroes of the faith, such as Clement, Ignatius and Irenaeus met the challenges of Gnosticism, and not only did they stave off the creeping influence of the Gnostics, but also helped establish the traditions of the church which have been carried over to the present day. Their work served to reunify the Christian church as it tottered under the strain of its first trials, and launched some of the first major theological and apologetic works; works which we would do well to refer to again in the twenty-first century as the grip of Gnosticism begins to rear its head in the guise of the 'New Age Movement,' and other more subtle pseudo-scientific, and sociological phenomena, such as evolution, and postmodern deconstructionism.
© Christopher J. Freeman
 Quasten, Johannes, 256
 Chadwick, Henry, 41
 Pagels, Elaine, 40
 Ibid., 42
 Ibid., 42
 Quasten, Johannes, 287
 "...some fifty-two texts from the early centuries of the Christian era – including a collection of early Christian gospels, previously unknown... Examination of the datable papyrus used to thicken the leather bindings, and of the Coptic script, place them c. A.D. 350 – 400. But scholars sharply disagree about the dating of the original texts. Some of them can hardly be later than c. A.D. 120 – 150, since Irenaeus, the orthodox Bishop of Lyons, writing c. 180... complains that in his time such writings already have won wide circulation – from Gaul through Rome, Greece and Asia Minor." Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, xiv – xv.
 Quasten, Johannes, 288
 Quasten, Johannes, 289
 Ibid., 289
 Ibid., 289
 Ibid., 294
 Vallée, Gérard A Study in Anti-Gnostic Polemics (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1981), 12
 Kelly, J.N.D., 25
 Cunliffe-Jones, Hubert, ed., 42
 Chadwick, Henry, 81-82
 Vallée, Gérard, 19
 Ibid., 21
 Ibid., 21-22 "soteriological dualism, whereby the universality of God's economy and will for salvation is denied... Scriptural dualism, which separates the NT from the OT and ultimately the God of the OT from the God announced by the Saviour... Ecclesiastical dualism, according to which a distinction is made between simple believers and pneumatics, thus breaking the unity of the Church... Social Dualism, whereby some are said to be good, and others evil, by nature... Practical Dualism, according to which some recommend, over against the common discipline, either the rigorism attainable only by a few or the libertinism of the so-called superior men... metaphysical dualism opposing the world above to the world below, spirit to matter."
 Ibid., 18
 Quasten, Johannes, 295-296
 Ibid., 296
 Chadwick, Henry, 80
 Ibid., 80
(Category: The Church: Christian History)