The Great Controversy: Irenaeus and the Development of the Orthodox Church Part 6

by Joshua Tilghman on March 5, 2016

Bishop_Irenaeus_(Ćirić)This post will cover Irenaeus and Valentinus, and the seeds of Orthodoxy that were beginning to develop in the second century. If you have been keeping up with the first five parts of this series, then you already know that the earliest Christianity had very different beliefs than today’s Orthodoxy. The earliest Christians relied heavily on Jewish tradition. They followed a strict moral code, subjugating their lives to God through a consecrated lifestyle. They believed that the man Jesus completely fulfilled the Law of God and this earned him a great honor. To the earliest Christians, Jesus was savior because he showed mankind the way to the Kingdom of God through obedience and by the teaching of esoteric wisdom (the science of the soul). He was not the virgin-birthed God-man we have today. These elements were added later. The focus of the earliest Christians wasn’t on who Jesus was, but what he accomplished as a man. He was then seen as the first fruits of what other men could also accomplish.

I also believe that the many early Christian manuscripts, including Gnostic scripture such as the Gospel of Thomas, show that the New Testament was never meant to be taken literally. The early oral tradition of Jesus reflect an esoteric wisdom, not an exoteric one. The original Gospel writers never intended to write any of the scriptures as a reliable historical framework. A close look at both the external and internal evidence makes this inconceivable. Allegorical scripture was a purposeful way to teach the deeper mysteries of God, the soul and the spiritual world, and it is the only viable way to write such powerful truths. This is why Jesus spoke in parables and Paul veiled his epistles with symbolism.

Today we will begin to explore the seeds that challenged the original intent of the scriptures and the man Jesus, which finally blossomed into Orthodoxy.


One of the early important persons to sow the seeds of a more Orthodox interpretation of Jesus and the Gospels was Irenaeus. Being born relatively late to the scene (130 A.D.), his writings (preserved through later church fathers) give us a crystal clear picture of his belief system. In order to get to the core of this belief system, I provide the following quote from Irenaeus:

“For I have shown through the scriptures, that no one of the sons of Adam is as to everything, and absolutely, called God, or named Lord. But that he is Himself in his own right, beyond all men whomever lived, God, and Lord, and King Eternal, and the incarnate Word, proclaimed by all the prophets, the apostles, and by the Spirit Himself, may be seen by all who have attained to even a small portion of the truth. Now the scriptures would not have testified these things of Him, if, like others, He had been a mere man.”

For Irenaeus, scripture was king. More importantly, it was the literal interpretation of the scripture that was king. When Irenaeus attacked the Gnostics, the real basis for his beliefs was because “the scriptures say so.” To base an entire belief system on something written many thousands of years ago at literal value, when virtually all scriptures written during this time period were allegorical in nature, is silly, as we can easily see from so many pastors and modern-day literalist who try to extrapolate dates and times for Jesus’ second return and a millennial reign. What is true today is no different from the past. Even though we know Irenaeus wrote prolifically, only two of his works survived, most likely, because he believed in the immanent return of the millennial kingdom where Jesus would soon reign from the New Jerusalem. Obviously this didn’t happen, so it is likely, even though we have no proof of this, that some of his writings were thrown out in future centuries when his predictions didn’t come to pass.

Let’s just return for a brief moment to the last sentence of Irenaeus’ quote that I bolded above, where he states:

Now the scriptures would not have testified these things of Him, if, like others, He had been a mere man.”

Here we can get to the core of his reasoning process. “If he had been a mere man,” Irenaeus says. Irenaeus justified his position through a hardening of the literalist perspective. Instead of using a little common sense and intuition, he is intellectualizing the position only. This is where I think the majority of the Orthodox position make their grand mistake. The intellect is useful, but the scriptures are spiritually discerned, and the hard-lined literalist position uses the natural mind only.

When one isn’t afraid to let go of tradition and intuit for themselves, the idea that Jesus was God incarnate—to the exclusion of every other man—is a contradiction. How could anyone be fully man and fully God at the same time, unless, as the Gnostics believed, at the deepest core of the self, man is already divine? There is no other way around this truth. If Jesus was the only man that were truly both fully God and fully man at the same time, how could he really identify with the common man? This in itself would disqualify his ministry. However, if, as the Gnostics believe, all men, at the highest level of reality (the true self) is truly divine, then the scriptures in their entirety begin to make sense. The Jesus of the scriptures, then, is symbolic of every man. His transformation, as taught through the symbolic resurrection, is also a type of resurrection we can attain to. No wonder the Old Testament scripture that Jesus quotes, states:

“I said, ye are all Gods; you are all sons of the Most High” (Psalms 82:6).

Irenaeus and the Demiurge

Irenaeus made it his life mission to combat Gnostics, especially Valentinian Gnosticism. In his work, Against Heresies, he relentlessly attacks the Gnostics as vile heretics. Why? I believe it has a lot to do with Irenaeus’ misunderstanding of the Gnostic’s cosmology. Since he believed that the Old Testament scriptures were literal, he certainly couldn’t understand the depth and breadth of the true meaning of the Gnostic demiurge. Many scholars, as well as myself, once made the same mistake. As I have repeated before from Gaskell’s The Dictionary of Scripture and Myth, the demiurge is symbolic of:

“…the archetypal man—the self completely immersed in the matter of the lower planes—who is the World-soul and progenitor of the human race.”

Understand this important point: what Irenaeus and other church fathers thought as heresy, was in fact a deeper understanding to the Gospel story of Jesus. Jesus’ portrayal through the Gospels is one who overcomes and transcends the human ego. This is the spiritual process of Gnosis, which is transcending the concept of the demiurge—the fall into duality and the physical plane for the purpose of discovering, with divine awareness—the realization of the true self. The demiurge is not evil in the literal sense, but only represents the process of man in duality before discovering his or her inherit divinity through experience. Therefore the concept of the demiurge represents a necessary progression in the grand scheme of man’s fall and redemption. Perhaps we could philosophize that the demiurge is both a necessary evil, but a divine necessity as well. Isn’t this why we suffer in the world? Adversity can naturally move the soul towards greater spiritual awareness. How else could the below scripture be true?

“Jesus learned obedience through the things that he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

A quote from Wikipedia will further support the idea that Irenaeus was wrong in his assessment of Gnosticism:

“Until the discovery of the Library of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Against Heresies was the best-surviving description of Gnosticism. According to some biblical scholars, the findings at Nag Hammadi have shown Irenaeus’ description of Gnosticism to be largely inaccurate and polemic in nature. Though correct in some details about the belief systems of various groups, Irenaeus’ main purpose was to warn Christians against Gnosticism, rather than catalog those beliefs. He described Gnostic groups as sexual libertines, for example, when some of their own writings advocated chastity more strongly than did orthodox texts—yet the gnostic texts cannot be taken as guides to their actual practices, about which almost nothing is reliably known today.”

The truth is that even today’s scholars are at a lost to understand and interpret the true nature of the Gnostic scriptures, probably just like Irenaeus was centuries ago. Any works veiled in symbolism and allegory have to be read through spiritual eyes. Most scholars do not possess such intuition today because they rely too much on intellect instead of experience and self-discovery. Almost nothing can be reliably known about the Gnostics from what they wrote because their writing was so cryptic.

Another point about Irenaeus’ ignorance: he believed all Gnostics held a metaphysical dualism philosophy, which purported many Gods. But Clement of Alexandria, a contemporary of Irenaeus knew better when he claimed there was a “monadic Gnosis,” of which Valentinus and his school proclaimed in a sole Lord and God (Pagles, The Gnostic Gospels, pg. 31).

It seems that Irenaeus was very naïve in his quest to denounce Gnosticism. We cannot judge Irenaeus too harshly, because he probably wasn’t privy to the deeper mysteries taught in the secret meetings and teachings of Valentinian Gnosticism. He only know about it through rumor and speculation, and the very allegorical and sometimes provocative nature of the Gnostic texts gave him the justification to attack it the way he did. Although he studied the Gnostic texts in depth, he just didn’t understand them. But the very sad fact is that Irenaeus’ work served as the foundation for so many later generations when confronting Gnosticism. No doubt, his writings caused many false ideas to proliferate in Christian circles, and because of his efforts, Orthodoxy had the seeds from which to flower and eventually dominate all other forms of Christianity.

Irenaeus vs Valentinus

Elain Pagels, in her work the Gnostic Gospels, explores the theme of why Irenaeus and the flowering Orthodox position of the second century began to attack the Gnostic position so heavily. She states it was for more social and political reasons.

Pagels states:

“But 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 later 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…For when Gnostic and Orthodox Christians discussed the nature of God, they were at the same time debating the issue of spiritual authority.” (Pagels, 34).

Pagels further states,

“Irenaeus, as bishop, recognized the danger to clerical authority. The redemption ritual, which dramatically changed the initiate’s relationship to the demiurge, changed simultaneously his relationship to the bishop. Before, the believer was taught to submit to the bishop “as to God himself,” since, he was told, the bishop rules, commands, and judges “in God’s place.” But now he sees that such restrictions apply only to naïve believers who still fear and serve the demiurge. Gnosis offers nothing less than a theological justification for refusing to obey the bishops and priests!” (Pagels, 38).

Ah! Perhaps we are getting to the real crux of the matter. The redemption ritual consisted of five stages: baptism, anointing, redemption, Eucharist, and the bridal chamber. When the initiate completed all five stages, he was symbolically resurrected from the dead and free from the influence of world. At this stage the initiate would have also overcome the ego, and therefore be said to be free of the Demiurge. In Valentinian thought, the literalists Orthodox were under the influence of the demiurge, or still caught in the duality mindset of illusion. Since Irenaeus already misunderstands the true intent and meaning of the Gnostic demiurge, he would be blind to the true depths of psychological, emotional, and spiritual healing Valentinus’ system of worship and consecration provided.

Irenaeus would see this as a threat because he strongly believed in papal succession, set up by the original apostles. The problem is, history doesn’t really support such strong papal succession before the late first century. We only have tradition to go on and very little historical fact.

Pagels further states:

“To defend the church against these self-styled theologians, Irenaeus realized that he must forge theological weapons. He believed that if he could demolish the heretical teaching of “another God besides the Creator,” he could destroy the possibility of ignoring or defying—on allegedly theological grounds—the authority of the “one catholic church” and of its bishop” (Pagels 44).

To the modern man, it might seem that Irenaeus was a pretty nasty guy that was quite power hungry. But we can’t really say this. In all honesty, Irenaeus, just as Ignatius before him, thought they were doing the right thing for God. For us who live in the present, religion and politics are separate. But in the time of the early church fathers, they were one. This was even true in Jesus’ day. Remember Caesar Augustus was considered divine. Pagels gives us more insight when referring to Ignatius, who took the position of Irenaeus a generation before:

“A cynical observer might suspect him [Ignatius] of masking power politics with religious rhetoric. But the distinction between religion and politics, so familiar to us in the twentieth century, was utterly alien to Ignatius’ self-understanding. For him, as for his contemporaries, pagan and Christian alike, religious convictions necessarily involved political relationships—and vice versa.”

This was true even in Jesus’ and Paul’s day. Jesus conveyed that we must live in the world (following the law of the land) but we were not to be of the world when it came to character, belief and practice. We are to be wise as serpents and harmless of doves. Sometimes wisdom dictates that we obey Caesar.

Irenaeus’ influence

Many scholars have considered Irenaeus as the greatest Christian scholar of the second century. He can be regarded as the first heresiologist. Most of the important church fathers after him, that helped reign in the Orthodox position, quoted him extensively. Irenaeus’ writings were used to justify the orthodox position and without a doubt helped to usher it in. Irenaeus is responsible for solidifying the belief that the teachings of Christ and the Bible should be kept within the institutionalized church. We must realize that in the second century there were many conflicting Christian ideas, beliefs, and practices throughout the Roman Empire. Orthodoxy did not take hold in later centuries because it was the one truth, or by right, or by apostolic succession as defined by the scriptures, but because of people like Irenaeus.

I believe that the art of allegorical interpretation and the higher truths we can glean from them was all but lost because people like Irenaeus—who never truly grasped them—sought to stamp them out. I don’t think we can blame him. When one reads Against Heresies, one gets the picture that Irenaeus was truly trying to protect his flock. He truly believed he was doing the right thing. But as I have seen in my life the hard-lined literalist position does not add up, nor does it answer the hardest questions about life. Rather, it dodges them.

I have decided to end my series here. I thought about continuing through the centuries to the emperor Constantine, whose policies allowed for the Orthodox position to gain superiority of influence. But there are plenty of resources the reader can get on that subject. Besides, after completing this post I am eager to get back to the allegorical interpretation of the scriptures. That is what this site is truly about. This series has been more about history, but I believed it necessary so the reader could gain an alternative viewpoint with much evidence that the Orthodox position gained a foothold because the victor always writes the history.

If you would like to read Irenaeus’ work, Against Heresies, follow the link below.




{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Randy March 5, 2016 at 3:58 pm

Great series, very informative. Thanks


Joshua Tilghman March 5, 2016 at 4:15 pm

Thanks, Randy. It was a pleasure to write, although I am ready to get back to the heart and meat of this blog, which is unveiling the symbolism within the scriptures. Perhaps I’ll continue more of this series at a later time because there is still a lot of important information which needs to be addressed to help the reader understand why and how Orthodox Christianity became the dominant force in history. Blessings.


Gord March 6, 2016 at 12:43 am

Thanks again for your work and sharing. Very enlightening


Joshua Tilghman March 6, 2016 at 9:16 am

My pleasure, Gord.


Vinícius Otaviano August 1, 2017 at 8:12 am

Great series Joshua, we’re usually led to believe that everything had to to with Constantine setting up the church as we know today, but now I know better. I just love History! How can we learn to avoid the mistakes from the past if not by studying it? And I really enjoy your point of view when you say that we need to look with a different eye to better understand how institutionalized church came to be, as you put it that politics and religion were one and the same.


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