CHURCH FATHERS (13): Detecting false intellectuals

Rev. José Mario O. Mandía

We have discussed the two internal threats to the Faith during the first two centuries of Christianity: Gnosticism and Montanism. Gnosticism was addressed by Saint Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul (present-day France).

Irenaeus was born around the middle of the 2nd century AD, probably in Smyrna (now called ‘Izmir,’ in Turkey) where he was a student of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (cf. Church Fathers 5). We will remember that Saint Polycarp was a disciple of Saint John the Apostle. Later on, Irenaeus moved to Lyons, where he became bishop.

Pope Benedict XVI says that “Irenaeus was first and foremost a man of faith and a Pastor. Like a good Pastor, he had a good sense of proportion, a wealth of doctrine, and missionary enthusiasm. As a writer, he pursued a twofold aim: [1] to defend true doctrine from the attacks of heretics, and [2] to explain the truth of the faith clearly. His two extant works – the five books of The Detection and Overthrow of the False Gnosis and Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching (which can also be called the oldest ‘catechism of Christian doctrine’) – exactly corresponded with these aims” (General Audience, 28 March 2007).

(1) The Detection and Overthrow of the False Gnosis (from Ancient Greek: Ἔλεγχος καὶ ἀνατροπὴ τῆς ψευδωνύμου γνώσεως), known as Adversus Haereses (‘Against Heresies’) in Latin, consisted of five books. Each book was divided into chapters, each chapter divided into numbered paragraphs. We will recall that the Gnostics claimed to have secret knowledge accessible only to a few. Irenaeus argued that these false intellectuals were not the real teachers of the Faith. The real teaching of Christ comes through the Apostles whom Jesus Himself taught. The Apostles transmitted it to their successors, the bishops. This is what we call ‘Apostolic Tradition.’

Pope Benedict XVI said that Irenaeus’ teaching on Apostolic Tradition can be summed up in three points. Apostolic Tradition is (1.1) public; (1.2) one; and (1.3) ‘pneumatic’ or spiritual or guided by the Holy Spirit (Greek ‘pneuma’ means ‘spirit’).

(1.1) Apostolic Tradition is public, not private or secret, not reserved to a few. It is transmitted through the Apostles and their successors. In Book 3, Chapter 3, paragraph 3, Saint Irenaeus mentions the names of the twelve popes who succeeded Saint Peter, from Pope Linus to Pope Eleutherius. “In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”

(1.2) Apostolic Tradition is one, unlike Gnosticism which was divided into multiple sects. “For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth” (Book 1, Chapter 10, paragraph 2).

(1.3) Apostolic Tradition “is ‘pneumatic’, in other words, spiritual, guided by the Holy Spirit: in Greek, the word for ‘spirit’ is ‘pneuma’” (Benedict XVI, General Audience, 28 March 2007). The Spirit is what keeps the Church alive and ever young.

Irenaeus writes: “For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace” (Book 3, Chapter 24, paragraph 1).

(2) The Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching “is composed of two parts…. The first part (chapters 4-42) deals with the essential content of the Christian faith. The Three Divine Persons, the Creation and Fall of Man, the Incarnation and Redemption are treated…. The second (chapters 42-97) adduces proofs for the truth of the Christian revelation from the prophecies of the Old Testament, and presents Jesus as the Son of David and as Messiah” (Quasten, I, p. 292).