Irenaeus and the Gnostics

Many years ago I took a course on Gnosticism in Rome under Fr. Antonio Orbe, SJ, an expert on the subject. Gnosticism, an early heresy that threatened Christianity in the 2nd century eventually waned as a movement and its writings were destroyed. Until a large cache of gnostic writings was discovered recently in the sands of Egypt, most of what was known about the the gnostics came from the writings of St. Irenaeus, the bishop we honor today in our liturgy.

When I studied under Fr. Orbe, he was just back from Egypt and was busy deciphering a trove of gnostic writings. I remember an observation he made about St. Irenaeus.  He said he was struck by how accurately and fairly  Irenaeus reported  what the gnostics taught in his writings,  not distorting what they said or omitting their ideas. He was fair and respectful to friend and foe alike. He was a peace-maker.

Not a bad example for today when hot words and smear attacks, distortions and lies dominate our communications. Irenaeus was a peace-maker. Peace makers don’t destroy, they heal and unite. Blessed are they!

Ireneaus also respected the created world. wrote against the gnostic teachers of his day who claimed their wisdom was wiser than the gospels. He compared their teaching to the faith of “the great church,” the church all over the world. The widely-traveled Christian bishop knew that church; originally he came from Asia Minor, became bishop of Lyons in Gaul, visited Rome. He knew what Christians over the Roman world believed.He also knew what the new gnostics taught, and he wrote down their teachings in great detail in a book called:

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