Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Wit of Irenaeus

Irenaeus (c. 120-202) was born in or near Smyrna in Asia Minor. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who himself was the disciple of John. He is the most notable of the 2nd century apologist, defending Christianity and particularly the four main Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He became bishop of the Christians in and around Lyons. He spent a lot of time and energy fighting the growing influence of Gnosticism.

A little about Gnosticism: Olson equated the 2nd century heresy to the twentieth century New Age Movement. Gnosticism in fact did not completely disintegrated over the centuries but was muted by official surpression by Christian emperors and state churches. It reared its head again with modern pluralism, tolerance of dissenting views, and the separation of church and state. It is usually presented by "self-styled Christians as a purer form of Christianity for genuinely spiritual people who cannot abide the smothering dogma and institutionalism of officially orthodox churches." (p.29)

Irenaeus's work include his 5-volume Against Heresies, the first sustained critical examination and refutation of Gnosticism by an influential Christian leader.

I think that our impression of Against Heresies not being an easy read would be quite right but what impressed me was his wit. Here's what he has to say about the Gnostic teaching of Valentinus, the best known and for a time the most successful Early Christian Gnostic theologian, regarding the origin of the world (p. 72):
    He maintained that there is a certain Dyad (two-fold being, who is inexpressible by any name, of whom one part should be called Arrhetus (unspeakable), and the other Sige (silence). But of this Dyad a second was produced, one part of whom he names Pater, and the other Aletheia. From this Tetrad, again, arose Logos and Zoe, Anthropos and Ecclesia. These constitute the primary Ogdoad ... There is another, who is renowned teacher among them, and who, struggling to reach something more sublime, as follows: There is [he says] a certain Proarche who existed before all things, surpassing all thought, speech and nomenclature, whom I call Monotes, being one, produced, yet not as to bring forth ... the beginning of all things, an intelligent, unbegotten, and invisible being, which beginning language terms "Monad." With this Monad there co-exists a power of the same essence, which again I term Hen (One). These powers then – Monotes, and Henotes, and Monas, and Hen – produced the remaining company of Aeon.
Olson continues, "Irenaeus stopped his laborious exposition of Gnostic metaphysics at this point and responded passionately with a parody of this so-called Christian view of creation based on allegedly higher knowledge and wisdom":
    Iu, Iu! Pheu, Pheu! – for well may we utter these tragic exclamations at such a pitch of audacity in the coining of names as he has displayed without a blush, in devising a nomenclature for his own system of falsehood. For when he declares: There is a certain Proarche before all things, surpassing all thought, whom I call Monotes; and again with this Monotes there co-exists a power which I also call Henotes, – it is most manifest that he confesses the things which have been said to be his own invention, and that he himself has given names to this scheme of things, which had never been previously suggested by any other. It is manifest also, that he himself is the one who has had sufficient audacity to coin these names; so that, unless he had appeared in the world, the truth would still have been destitute of a name. But, in that case, nothing hinders any other, in dealing with the same subject, to affix names after such a fashion as the following: There is a certain Proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd; and along with this Gourd there exist a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Utter-Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be part of themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus ... If any one may assign names at his pleasure, who shall prevent us from adopting these names, as being much more credible [than the others], as well as in general use, and understood by all?
He utterly cracked my up! Awesome wit! Who said the old folks, our theological ancestors, our faith father are boring?

Source of picture: (public domain)

Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform, (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP)


  1. I did not expect that. I may have to read this book. Thanks for the laugh!

  2. I didn't know they had melons & cucumbers back then.

  3. The book is thick but written like a story, therefore a good read.

  4. I didn't know they had melons & cucumbers back then.

    Oh, they do, they have gourds too. lolol