‘Against Knowledge—Falsely So Called’
HOW important is truth to you? Does it disturb you that falsehood has distorted, even concealed, the truth about the Creator of heaven and earth? This greatly disturbed Irenaeus, a professed Christian of the second century of our Common Era. He endeavored to expose the dangerous inaccuracies of Gnosticism, an apostate form of Christianity. Earlier, the apostle Paul warned Timothy to turn away from such ‘falsely called knowledge.’—1 Timothy 6:20, 21.
Irenaeus boldly spoke out against erroneous doctrine. For instance, consider what he said in the introduction to his extensive literary work entitled “The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called.” He wrote: “Certain men, rejecting the truth, are introducing among us false stories and vain genealogies, which serve rather to controversies, as the apostle said [1 Timothy 1:3, 4], than to God’s work of building up in the faith. By their craftily constructed rhetoric they lead astray the minds of the inexperienced, and take them captive, corrupting the oracles of the Lord, and being evil expounders of what was well spoken.”
The Gnostics (from the Greek word gnoʹsis, meaning “knowledge”) claimed superior knowledge through secret revelation and boasted that they were the “correctors of the apostles.” Gnosticism intertwined philosophy, speculation, and pagan mysticism with apostate Christianity. Irenaeus refused to share in any of this. Rather, he embarked on a life-long struggle against heretical teachings. No doubt he was well aware of the need to apply the apostle Paul’s warning: “Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ.”—Colossians 2:8; 1 Timothy 4:7.
Early Life and Ministry
Little is known of the early life and personal history of Irenaeus. It is generally supposed that he was a native of Asia Minor, born between 120 C.E. and 140 C.E. in or near the city of Smyrna. Irenaeus personally testifies that in his early youth, he was acquainted with Polycarp, an overseer in the Smyrna congregation.
While learning under the tutelage of Polycarp, Irenaeus apparently befriended Florinus. Polycarp was a living link to the apostles. He expounded copiously on the Scriptures and strongly recommended adherence to the teachings of Jesus Christ and His apostles. In spite of this fine Scriptural training, however, Florinus later lapsed into the teachings of Valentinus, the most prominent leader of the Gnostic movement!
Irenaeus wanted his friend and former associate Florinus to be restored to sound Scriptural teaching and rescued from Valentinianism. Therefore, Irenaeus was moved to write a letter to Florinus, saying: “These doctrines, Florinus, . . . are not of sound understanding; these doctrines are not consistent with the church, and involve those who follow them in the greatest impiety; . . . these doctrines those presbyters who were before us, and who were conversant with the apostles, did not hand down to thee.”
Endeavoring to remind Florinus of the fine training received at the feet of the distinguished Polycarp, Irenaeus continued: “I remember the events of those times . . . so that I am able to tell even the place in which the blessed Polycarp was accustomed to sit and discourse . . . Also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; how also he used to recount their words.”
Florinus was reminded that Polycarp taught what he had received “from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, [and had] related all in harmony with the Scriptures. These things, through the mercy of God vouchsafed to me, I then heard, noting them down, not upon paper but in my heart; and continually by the grace of God I recall these things accurately to my mind. And [regarding Valentinianism] I am able to bear witness in the sight of God that if that blessed and apostolic presbyter [Polycarp] had heard such a thing, he would have cried out and stopped his ears . . . He would have fled from the place in which, sitting or standing, he had heard such words.”
There is no record that Florinus ever responded to the touching and forceful letter of Irenaeus. But the words of Irenaeus reveal his genuine concern for a dear friend who had left the way of truth and succumbed to apostasy.—Compare 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7-12.
It is not known when Irenaeus took up residence in Gaul (France). In the year 177 C.E., he was serving as an overseer in the congregation at Lyons. It is reported that his ministry there was very fruitful. In fact, historian Gregory of Tours reported that Irenaeus had in a short time succeeded in converting all Lyons to Christianity. Doubtless, this was an overstatement.
Irenaeus’ principal work, “The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called,” was commonly referred to by the name “Against Heresies.” It is divided into five books. The first two contain a critical description of the beliefs of various heretical sects, particularly the Valentinian heresy. In the remaining three books, Irenaeus attempts to set forth “arguments from the Scriptures.”
In the introduction to his third book “Against Heresies,” Irenaeus writes: “Keep in mind therefore what I have said in the two previous books; and by adding this to them you will have from me a full reply against all heretics, and will be able to resist them faithfully and boldly on behalf of the one true and life-giving faith, which the Church has received from the apostles and imparts to her children. For the Lord of all gave to his apostles the power of the gospel, and by them we also have learned the truth, that is, the teaching of the Son of God—as the Lord said to them, ‘He who hears you hears me, and he who despises you despises me, and him who sent me.’”
Although Irenaeus admitted that he was not a good writer, he was determined to expose all aspects of the “evil teachings” of Gnosticism. He quotes and comments on many scriptures and argues masterfully against the “false teachers” of the “destructive sects.” (2 Peter 2:1-3) It appears that Irenaeus had difficulty compiling his work into a satisfactory form. Why? Because he had amassed material of enormous proportions.
Irenaeus’ exposé was manifestly brought to birth after great pains and much study. His lengthy arguments supply a wealth of information on the sources and phenomena of Gnosticism. The writings of Irenaeus are also an invaluable index of at least some of the Scriptural views still held by professed adherents to God’s Word at the end of the second century C.E.
Irenaeus repeatedly reaffirms belief in “one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven, and the earth, and the seas, and all that is in them, and in one Christ Jesus, the son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation.” These facts the Gnostics denied!
Speaking against Gnostic Docetism (the teaching that Christ never came in human form), Irenaeus wrote: “Christ must be a man, like us, if he would redeem us from corruption and make us perfect. As sin and death came into the world by a man, so they could be blotted out legitimately and to our advantage only by a man; though, of course, not by one who should be a mere descendant of Adam, and thus himself stand in need of redemption, but by a second Adam, supernaturally begotten, a new progenitor of our race.” (1 Corinthians 15:45) On the other hand, the Gnostics were Dualists, believing that spiritual things were good but that all matter and flesh were evil. Consequently, they rejected the man Jesus Christ.
Reasoning that all flesh is evil, the Gnostics also rejected marriage and procreation, claiming that Satan originated these. They even ascribed divine wisdom to the serpent in Eden! This viewpoint resulted in extreme life-styles, either asceticism or fleshly indulgence. Claiming that salvation came only through mystical Gnosticism, or self-knowledge, they left no room for the truth of God’s Word.
In contrast, Irenaeus’ arguments included belief in the Millennium and indicated some comprehension of the prospect of peaceful future life on earth. He endeavored to unite the growing factions of his time by wielding the powerful Word of God. And he is generally remembered for his clear thinking, acute perception, and sound judgment.
Although some credit Irenaeus (who died about 200 C.E.) with fostering the true doctrines of the Christian faith, it must be remembered that his was a time of change and foretold apostasy. At times, his arguments are somewhat vague, even contradictory. Nevertheless, we highly value the testimony of men who boldly spoke out in favor of the inspired written Word of God rather than the traditions of men.