A stained glass portrait of Irenaeus in the Church of St. Irenaeus in Lyon

Our current knowledge of Gnosticism comes from two main groups of sources. The first group is made up of the scriptures written by the Gnostics themselves – texts such as those discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library. And the second consists of the writings of non-Gnostic Christians who wrote about the Gnostics with the intent of refuting them. Such authors are commonly called “heresiologists” – “those who study heresy”[1] – a loaded term, of course, but one that’s stuck.

The most important heresiologist for the study of Gnosticism is undoubtedly Irenaeus of Lyons (Lyon in modern-day France), who lived from roughly 155 to 202 AD.[2] He wrote his main work, Against the Heresies or Detection and Overthrow of Gnosis Falsely So-Called, in about 180. His “day job” was being the Bishop of Lyons.[3]

Other noteworthy heresiologists include Justin Martyr (103-165 AD),[4] Tertullian (160-220),[5] Hippolytus of Rome (170-236), Clement of Alexandria (150-215), Origen of Alexandria (185-254), and Epiphanius of Salamis (316-400).[6]

“Orthodoxy,” “Proto-Orthodoxy,” and “Heresy”

Despite significant differences in the viewpoints of the heresiologists (which would eventually get some of them labelled “heretics” themselves by their former friends and allies), each one saw himself and his perspective as “orthodox,” a word that comes from the Greek ortho, “straight” or “correct,” and doxos, “thinking” or “opinion.” So “orthodoxy” literally means “correct thinking,” and it was used by the heresiologists and some other early Christians to refer to what they considered to be definitive, authoritative Christian beliefs and practices.[7]

(In the interest of avoiding a possible point of confusion, note that “orthodox” with a lowercase “o” is a very general polemical term, and in the context of early Christianity it doesn’t have much to do with what we today call “Orthodox Christianity” with an uppercase “O” – the main form of Christianity in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The only historical connection is that the type of Christianity that the heresiologists considered to be “orthodox” eventually gave rise to all of the main branches of Christianity that have existed since: Catholicism, Protestantism, and, yes, Orthodoxy as well.)

When most of the heresiologists were writing – the second and third centuries – there wasn’t any standard of orthodoxy that was officially codified or enforced, because there wasn’t an official church that could have codified or enforced it. Christianity was still a very decentralized and diverse religious movement. Several different varieties of Christianity existed, each of which was claimed by its adherents to be normal, true Christianity, while the rival versions were riddled with dangerous errors. Effectively, each type of early Christianity saw itself as orthodox and the others as heresies.

An official church that championed one of these varieties of early Christianity – the heresiologists’ variety – at the expense of the others only arose with the Roman Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity in the fourth century. Since the version of Christianity that won that struggle thereby became the officially “orthodox” version, we often call it “proto-orthodoxy” or “proto-orthodox Christianity” and its followers the “proto-orthodox” when we’re talking about the period before Constantine’s conversion.[8]

A 16th-century portrait of Justin Martyr

The opposite of orthodoxy was “heresy.” The word “heresy” comes from the Greek haeresis, “choice” or “division.”[9] Haeresis was originally a basically neutral descriptive term. It simply referred to the fact that any given discipline had different schools of thought (haereseis in the plural) within it.[10]

But the word began to take on the pejorative meaning that it still has today in the writings of the second-century heresiologist and Christian philosopher Justin Martyr. Justin used the word “heresy” to refer to Christian perspectives that differed from his own. True Christianity, for Justin, didn’t count as a “school of thought” within Christianity – it was just Christianity as such.[11]

Proto-Orthodox Theology

What, then, did the heresiologists believe that distinguished them so firmly and radically (in their eyes) from the Gnostics? Despite the theological differences between the heresiologists, they shared quite a bit in common.

Perhaps the most decisive difference between the proto-orthodox and the Gnostics – especially for Justin Martyr – was in the two groups’ views of the Old Testament creator god. For the Gnostics, the god of Judaism was an ignorant, wicked being who was utterly inferior to the true God who had sent Christ. For the proto-orthodox, this was rank blasphemy against the true God himself, who had both created the world (albeit largely through Jesus, the “Word”/Logos of God, as in the first chapter of the Gospel of John) and later sent Jesus to save it.[12]

Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian all held that the bodies of all true Christians would be resurrected and perfected at some particular but unknown future date. That was what “salvation” meant to them – not any kind of solely spiritual change, like the mystical inner transformation of gnosis (the root of the word “Gnostic”) or even the resurrection of the spirit immediately after a person’s death. Indeed, Justin explicitly condemned the latter view as heresy.[13]

These two differences point to a broader third difference: for the proto-orthodox, spirit and matter were much closer to one another than they were for the Gnostics. Gnostic theology was largely based on the notion of the inherent vileness of the material world compared to spirit (a theological position that we today call “anticosmicism”). In the heresiologists’ view, the material world had been corrupted by human moral error, but it had originally been created perfect and therefore contained within itself the capacity for perfection, a capacity which would be actualized once again when Jesus returned to resurrect and judge the dead.[14]

For the Gnostics, the greatest source of spiritual and theological authority was one’s own experience of gnosis; everything else about their mode of religion was supposed to be set up in response to such experiences, and pointed back to them in the hope of generating them for oneself and for others.

The proto-orthodox completely disagreed. They treated spiritual experiences with skepticism, and often found them to be deceiving or too idiosyncratic to be of much value. Even the scriptures, when considered by themselves, were too ambiguous and open to interpretation to serve as trustworthy sources of authority. Instead, one had to look to the church hierarchy (like Irenaeus the bishop) to find true doctrine and to know how to interpret the scriptures and one’s experiences. After all, they claimed, the bishops and presbyters had obtained their “rule of faith” from the apostles and ultimately from Christ himself, which made them, and only them, the possessors of the true doctrine of Christ.[15] (It should be noted that the Gnostics claimed the same lineage for their own doctrines.)

Finally, the Gnostics differentiated between who was a true Christian and who wasn’t based on the spiritual maturity of the person in question. As the Gospel of Philip puts it, some people “go down into the water and come up without having received anything.” The proto-orthodox, on the other hand, used simple, outward criteria: does this person profess to be a Christian? Is he or she willing to undergo martyrdom? Has he or she been baptized? Does he or she submit to the clergy? If so, then he or she is a Christian.[16] The Gnostics saw the proto-orthodox as shallow and small-minded, while the proto-orthodox saw the Gnostics as confused, obscurantist, and snobby.

The Heresiologists as Sources on Gnosticism

In light of all of this, how should we approach the writings of the heresiologists? To what degree do their writings contain valuable pieces of information about the Gnostics that we wouldn’t otherwise know, and to what degree do the heresiologists report vituperative, baseless accusations that make the Gnostics look bad for the sake of making them look bad?

Naturally, the answer is some of both.

While the heresiologists were at bottom polemicists and wrote to attack Gnosticism rather than to describe it in a more neutral way, they demonstrate that they were quite capable of accurately characterizing Gnosticism when doing so served that larger purpose. Now that we possess so many of the Gnostics’ own compositions, we can check the heresiologists’ reports against the Gnostic writings themselves. This independent evidence corroborates much of what Irenaeus in particular tells us.[17]

The heresiologists sometimes reproduce full Gnostic texts that are otherwise lost. At other times, they summarize lost Gnostic texts, giving us some access to those texts with the crucial caveat that they’re filtered through an antagonistic interpretation of them.[18]

However, some heresiologists are much more reliable than others. Whereas the earliest heresiologists like Justin and especially Irenaeus spoke from a position of extensive firsthand acquaintance with the Gnostics and their writings, later ones like Hippolytus and Epiphanius often just repackaged what Irenaeus had already said and clumsily tried to infer additional “information” from the words of the esteemed Bishop of Lyons.[19]

Furthermore, as you’d expect from polemicists, the heresiologists were prone to exaggeration and sensationalism. For example, they accused the Gnostics of engaging in all kinds of shocking libertine behavior, which isn’t corroborated by any independent evidence and which stands in stark contrast to the pious asceticism unanimously advocated by the Gnostic texts themselves.[20]

All in all, though, we should be thankful to the heresiologists for – perhaps ironically – bequeathing to us so much lore about the Gnostics, even if some critical effort is required on our part to separate the wheat from the chaff.

References:

[1] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 20-23.

[2] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 120.

[3] Ibid. p. 1.

[4] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 180.

[5] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. 2009. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Penguin. p. 1178.

[6] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 21-22.

[7] Ibid. p. 20.

[8] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 6-7.

[9] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 20.

[10] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 106.

[11] Ibid. p. 107-108.

[12] Ibid. p. 108-110.

[13] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 169.

[14] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 211.

[15] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 122.

[16] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 104-105.

[17] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 29.

[18] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 20-23.

[19] Wisse, Frederik. 1981. “Stalking Those Elusive Sethians.” In The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Volume Two: Sethian Gnosticism. Edited by Bentley Layton. E.J. Brill. p. 569.

[20] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 197-201.