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Combatting The Heresy Of The SoCalled Gnosis

Combatting The Heresy Of The So-Called Gnosis Essay, Research Paper


Sept 16, 1994

note: this paper is a response to an assignment to discuss the rhetorical devices used by Irenaus in his polemic against the gnostics.

Combatting the Heresy of the So-Called Gnosis

You, sibling in the faith and fellow teacher of the church, ask both why I am so angry with the Gnostics and with what rhetorical and theological weapons I fight them. To be brief, I am angry at the ways they alter the faith I hold dear and at the success they have at leading souls astray?souls to which I have a pastoral responsibility as bishop. I fight this heresy with all the classical rhetorical weapons at my disposal, relying especially on the theological authority of the Scriptures, the Gospels, and the tradition of the apostles.

Let me first discuss these offenses and the ways in which I combat them. (The quotations I give and the details of my arguments you can easily find in my book, ?The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called?.)


I have said that I am angry with the Gnostic teachers because they alter the teachings of the true faith. By changing the doctrine given to the church through the apostles they make Jesus and the apostles out to be liars. Specifically:

?The Gnostics consider the God of the Jews and of the Catholic faith to be the author of evils.

?They deny original sin: ?weakness and suffering were brought about by ignorance?and knowledge is the redemption of the inner man.?

?They deny the physical reality of Jesus, the incarnation, and the passion. This makes a mockery of Jesus?s life and death.

?They deny salvation through Christ, ?They need nothing more than the knowledge of all things?and this is the true redemption.?

?They deny the bodily resurrection. Their denial of the bodily resurrection also denies the nature of the Eucharist and contradicts Paul?s writings about it.

?They deny that the Holy Spirit has been given to the church.

I have also said that I am angry with them for pastoral reasons. More specifically:

?Gnostic theories create controversies rather than build people up in the faith.

?They are successful in attracting people, especially the uneducated, away from truth.

?The Gnostic ceremonies of redemption lead their adherents to renounce baptism.

These doctrines and practices make the Gnostic adherents cast away the salvation that is theirs through Christ. As a shepherd of the flock, I am angry at anyone who harms the flock.

Rhetoric and Theology

I am not a teacher of rhetoric, as I have stated in the introduction to ?The Refutation?.? I have, however had some acquaintance with the forms of rhetoric and I try to be as persuasive a writer as possible.

The teachers of rhetoric write and speak using three categories: logos, ethos, and pathos..

By logos they mean the rational impact that is made by evidence. As evidence they include using examples, personal testimony, the opinions of others, and the opinions of authority (that is of someone with expert knowledge). They also include logical chains of reasoning as a form of logos.

The teachers of rhetoric urge that, when arguing against a position, one should first state the opposing views. They then suggest attacking the factuality of the data or reasoning, citing counterexamples or counter testimony, casting doubt on the representativeness, relevancy, or sufficiency of the examples, and questioning the reliability of an authority and the accuracy or context of quotations.

Ethos is the impact of an argument from the projected image of the writer.

Pathos is the emotional impact of the argument created by using word choice, metaphors, and analogies.

Logos?Counter Argument

If you examine ?The refutation??, you will see that I follow these guidelines for argument. I am careful to state the positions of the Gnostic teachers as evenhandedly as I can. I refute their claims in several of the ways described above.

?I show that the Gnostic views are logically inconsistent, refuting their reasoning and using logical deductions. The Gnostic teachers do not agree among themselves.

?Similarly, I note that gnosticism did not appear until many years after the establishment of the Church. It is a recent innovation. Since it is recent, it cannot speak more truly about Jesus than the testimony of the past. ?There were no Valentinians before Valentinius.?

?Using logic and personal witness, I give counter testimony to their claim to secret knowledge and cast doubt on their authority.

If the apostles had hidden knowledge, they would have transmitted it to their successors in the churches they founded. They would not have led people contrary to that knowledge, especially if the course of the church is as perilous as the Gnostics maintain it to be. Since the apostolic succession in many churches has been carefully maintained, the catholic faith has been passed on intact.

Polycarp knew John, I knew Polycarp; I would trust what Polycarp says over the Gnostic teachers who have not known a teacher who was taught by Jesus.

Clement teaches the creator as the Father of Jesus; he was successor to Peter and Paul through Linus and Anecletus; he wrote this before the Gnostic teachers wrote; therefore his tradition is more authentic than theirs.

?I cite the censure of the church against their authorities. For example, I note that Cerdon was convicted and expelled from the church for his teachings.

?Further, I cite the direct authority of the disciple John, who wrote the beginning of the fourth Gospel to contradict Cerinthus and the Nicolaitans and specifically deny the Gnostic cosmology. In this way I oppose true authority to theirs and cite counter testimony.

?The Gnostics teach that the Demi-urge was ignorant of the power above him. Since the Christ was above the Demi-urge, how could his coming have been announced by John or the prophets if their theories were true? By raising this question I provide a counter-example to their claim of authority.

Logos?Positive Argument

Additionally I give examples, testimony, opinions of authority, and logical chains of reasoning to support the truths of the church that are denied by the Gnostics, and to support the claim of the church to have the true teachings of Jesus. These may be considered under four categories: consistency, Scriptural evidence, Gospel evidence, and apostolic evidence. These are the theological themes which I use in this battle. For example:


I assert that the faith is everywhere the same: ?Neither will one of those who preside in the churches who is very powerful in speech say anything different from these things, for no one is above [his] teacher, nor will one who is weak in speech diminish the tradition. For since the faith is one and the same, he who can say much about it does not add to it, nor does he who can say little diminish it.?

The gospels agree with each other that God the Creator is God the Father of Jesus, and that Jesus and the Christ are the same.

There cannot be more or less than four gospels because of the philosophical and prophetic patterns of the number four. Since the Gnostics either add or subtract from this number, they cannot be correct.


I prove the resurrection through logically showing that God?s promises to Abraham and the blessing of Jacob were not fulfilled in their lives. They could not be fulfilled in a spiritual existence because they were physical promises. Since, then, God must have fulfilled them in the resurrection, the resurrecton must exist.


I assert that the gospels contain authentic apostolic tradition because of traceable history of the writing to the apostles.

I review the doctrine of redemption by the suffering and death of the Son. That suffering and death are tied theologically and structurally to the fall, just as the incarnation is tied to the fall through the roles of Mary and Eve. If Jesus had not been truly human, he could not have redeemed us as he would have had nothing in common with us.

Jesus did not despise the physical world but enjoyed it and used it. Jesus did not consider the creator to be evil.

Jesus clearly spoke of spending time physically with the disciples in the Kingdom of God, as evidenced at the last supper. This implies the physical resurrection.

?Apostolic evidence

I show that the apostolic faith is historical and transmitted from witnesses intact to the present.

I assert that after the resurrection the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and given perfect knowledge; so no gnosis can supersede that knowledge that they transmitted.

I testify that John and Papias bore oral traditions of Jesus speaking about the physical kingdom of God in the resurrection.


I can say little about my use of ethos in my argument. The knowledge that the reader has of me and my life is the main way in which ethos acts in my rhetoric. I do note, however, that ?I write to you out of love,? which is a clear indication of the use of ethos by stating my motivations. I do not ask my readers to accept my statements without further evidence merely on the strength of who I am.


Pathos, the use of emotionally engaging words, motifs, and style is an integral part of classical rhetoric. No argument against anyone?s position is heeded in my world unless it is well larded with pathos. Here are a few examples of the methods of pathos that I use in ?The Refutation?.

?Invective or Name-Calling

?Satan inspired?, ?so-called Gnostic?, ?what babbling sophists!?, ?slippery snakes?, ?their perversity?, ?wolf in sheep?s clothing?.


?one of which, suffering a lack, brought about the rest of the business.?

?Since this is the Power which I call the Gourd, there is with a the Power which I call Superemptiness. This Gourd and Superemptiness, being one, emitted, yet did not emit, the fruit, visible, edible, and delicious, which is known to language as the Cucumber.?

??those portentous and profound mysteries, which not all accept, since not all have sufficiently purged their brains.? *

?Appeal to Prejudice

I give evidence that barbarians with only oral tradition knowledge of the Gospel would run away rather than listen to such blasphemies. This implies that the educated should act at least as responsibly.

?Affiliation with Audience?s Needs

Since I know that gnosticism is attractive to those who want to use their intellect to explore matters of faith, I give an extensive list of topics that are proper for inquiry within the church.

I trust that this little exposition of my motivation and methods adequately answers your questions. May our Lord prosper all your works,

/s/ (pseudo-) Irenaeus, Episcopus Lyonae


Writing Arguments, A Rhetoric with Readings, John D. Ramage, John C. Bean, Macmillan, 1989

?The Gospel of Truth?, tr George MacRae, ?The Gospel of Thomas?, tr Helmut Koester and Thomas Lambden, ?The Apocryphon of John?, tr Frederik Wisse, ?On the Origin of the World?, Hans-Gebhardt Bethge and Orval Wintermute, in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, tr. Robinson et al, Harper & Row, 1978

?Selections from the Work Against Heresies by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons; ?The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called?? in Early Christian Fathers (The Library of Christian Classics), Cyril Richardson, ed, Westminster/John Knox Press

wc 1949