Irenaeus, The Canon of Truth, and the Battle Against Gnosticism
I am very excited about Dr. Elaine Pagels’ latest book, Beyond Belief. It provides by far the clearest understanding of Gnosticism and its contrast with Christianity I have ever seen. And it particularly deals with the crucial role which Irenaeus, my favorite church father, played in explaining and defending Christian doctrine, and in explaining and attacking the Gnostic perversions of Christianity, which were very widespread and influential in his time.
According to Pagels, Irenaeus’ prominence was due in large part to the fact that he was the one who defined and promulgated the original meanings of the terms “orthodox” and “canon.” Unfortunately, these terms are not usually defined correctly today. The term “orthodox” is now taken to mean conventional or customary or traditional. It also often connotes stodginess, obscurantism, and lack of creativity. The term “canon” is taken to mean to list of books which the church officially decided to include in the Bible.
The original meaning of these terms coined by Irenaeus is readily understood by a brief etymological examination of the Greek words whence they were derived. Let’s look first at “orthodox,” then at “canon.”
The prefix “ortho-“ comes from the Greek adjective orthos, one of whose meanings is “straight” or “properly aligned.” There are a number of technical terms in English derived from this meaning, e.g., the dental term “orthodontics,” which means correcting abnormally aligned teeth. The suffix “-dox” is derived from the Greek noun doxa, meaning “thinking,” which in turn comes from the Greek verb dokein, “to think.” Therefore the term “orthodox” literally means “straight thinking,” “thinking that is aligned with the truth” and therefore is “on target”; and it has the kind of good connotations surrounding such colloquialisms as “straight shooting,” “straight arrow,” “straight from the shoulder,” “give it to me straight,” as distinguished from crooked or devious. It was therefore an excellent and most appropriate term to use in combating the Gnostics, who tried to hide their sneakiness and crookedness behind a veneer of sophistication.
It is clear, then, that orthodoxy is an epistemological term, not a sociological (or ecclesiological) term and it must in no way be confused with custom or convention or tradition. In fact, the more clearly the early church came to understand the thought system of orthodoxy, the more obvious it became how radically antithetical is was to the customs, conventions, and traditions both of paganism and of Talmudic Judaism, the mileaux out of which the converts to Christianity came in the early church age. And, when the Reformers in the sixteenth century began to recover the thought-system of the canon of truth, it became clear how antithetical it was to many of the customs, conventions, and traditions of the Medieval Church. In short, “straight thinking” or orthodoxy is antithetical to all false thinking, whether that thinking is traditional or revolutionary.
Now let’s examine the criterion for orthodoxy, which Irenaeus called “the canon of truth.” The term “canon” is derived from the Greek noun kanon (which in Latin is canon), which refers to the measuring instruments used to insure the proper construction of a building, e.g., rulers to insure that boards are cut to the proper length, plumblines to insure that the walls are perpendicular to the foundation, etc. Irenaeus’ choice of this term “canon of truth” was very wise, because it makes it crystal clear that orthodoxy is an epistemological term and that it is an objective matter, not a subjective one. Just as rulers and plumblines provide objective measurements in a building, so the canon of truth will provide objective truth for the church, not subjective fancy.
It was especially important in Irenaeus’ day to have and to use this canon of truth in order to identify and combat the false teachings which the Gnostics were spreading within the church under the guise of Christianity. It was not easy to make the distinction between Gnosticism and Christianity because of the tactics the Gnostics employed. The Gnostics often succeeded in obfuscating this distinction because they clothed their teachings in Christian garb in two different ways. First, they put their teachings into books which were similar in style to the apostolic writings and similarly entitled, and then falsely claimed that these books were authored by the apostles. The so-called Gospel of Thomas is but one of many of these Gnostic pseudepigrapha. Secondly, the Gnostics also presented their teachings in the form of an ostensibly more advanced interpretation of the apostolic writings, which supposedly contained a higher knowledge hidden from most readers but available to those with deeper spiritual insight.
Irenaeus showed that these Gnostic teachings were false because they were out of accord with the canon of truth, which is the system of interlocking doctrines taught in the apostolic preaching and the apostolic writings. It was upon this canon of truth that the apostles founded the churches and it was into this canon of truth that the Christians were baptized and it is by adhering to this canon of truth that the church will prosper and be kept from error. To forsake this canon of truth by seeking out the supposedly higher knowledge of the Gnostics is to depart from the truth into apostasy (from the Greek words apo, away from + stasis, stance; thus “an away from [God] stance”).
To summarize, the canon of truth is the thought-system of interconnected truths which comes from God through Christ, who commissioned His apostles to proclaim it in their preaching and in their writings. These apostolic writings, when read as intended, teach the canon of truth. But this canon of truth, this divinely revealed truth system, will not be accepted as the truth by the unregenerate man, who will repudiate it in one of two ways: either he will claim that the Bible is wrong (as most of the unsaved do) or he will claim, by means of a false interpretation, that the Bible actually teaches something different (as the Gnostics did). Because Irenaeus recognized this point, he never used the term “canon” to refer to the Bible, but only to the truth system taught in it, which can only be rightly understood and accepted by the humble reader who wishes to know the truth. Here once again we can see how much wiser Irenaeus was than those who came after him in church history. By perceiving this all important point, Irenaeus grasped one of the most fundamental principles of what is now called “The Van Til Perspective.” Indeed, I would go so far as to say he was the Van Til of his day, and it is for that reason that he was able to successfully battle against the Gnostics.
Irenaeus not only coined the excellent term “canon of truth,” he also was one of the first to set forth some of the fundamental doctrines included in it. When looked at in retrospect, these doctrines can be considered as a prototype or nucleus of what later were, unfortunately, called “creeds” or “confessions,” beginning with the Nicene Creed in 325 A.D. I say “unfortunately” for this reason: Although the Nicene Creed and its immediate successors such as the Creed of Chalcedon, taught true doctrines, it was an egregious mistake to use the term “creed” (from the Latin, credo, meaning “ I believe”) instead of “canon of truth” as Irenaeus did, because in so doing the emphasis was shifted away from truth and onto the church’s subjective act of belief. Further, to those who have studied the church history of the time, The Nicene Creed can readily be associated with the power politics involved both in the Roman Empire and in what was unfortunately becoming an increasingly bureaucratized church. All of this tends to muddy the waters and to divert attention away from the matter of real importance, namely the truth. I suggest that we go back to Irenaeus’ conception of orthodoxy and canon and that we repudiate the perverted meanings of those terms which are accepted today. We need it to fight the battles we face in our own day.
What did the Gnostics teach and how did it differ from “straight thinking”? Pagels book is very helpful here because it is based on further and better research into the real meaning of Gnosticism than was available when she wrote her book The Gnostic Gospels in 1979, which was actually only a preliminary report on the Gnostic writings that had been found in Nag Hammadi. One of the matters which I found confusing in her book and others I had read on the subject was the bewildering array of different versions of Gnosticism. The diversity is so great that some even suggested abandoning the very idea of there being a category such as Gnosticism. Beyond Belief, by explaining the real meaning of Gnosticism, not only clears up this confusion but shows why all theses different versions are inherent in its very essence.
Unlike Christianity, which says that we need to look to Jesus Christ for light and salvation because He alone is the Light and the Savior, Gnosticism teaches that each of us has divine light and a divinely given capacity to save ourselves so that we should look within and discover our light (which they called a “luminous epinoia”) and our soteric ability. Since individuals differ, they will have different understandings and different ways of saving themselves. This, then, explains the diversity of thinking among the Gnostics. This is the heart of the matter. The emanationist ontology with all its weird names and terms, which is what most people associate with Gnosticism, was simply a theological justification for human autonomy and human autosoterism for the second century as existentialism was for the twentieth century. It is also clear that anyone who thinks that he in himself has the light and can save himself and who thinks that his interpretation of the apostolic writings constitutes a higher interpretation which he accepts due to his superior insight will tend to be arrogant and to have a “know-it-all” attitude and to regard himself as one who is “in the know.” The sarcasm involved in the phrase “know-it-all” was similar to the sarcasm involved when the term “Gnostic” was used for derogation. The term “Gnostic” is derived from the Greek noun gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” There is a good possibility that the New Testament term “knowledge falsely so called” may refer to Gnosticism’s false claim to knowledge.
Therefore, to anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of Christianity and of Gnosticism, it is crystal clear that they are antithetical to each other. Therefore Ireneaeus was clearly justified in his position. Surprisingly, Pagels is unwilling to grant this point. She wants to regard orthodoxy and Gnosticism as variant species of Christianity. Her desire is in flagrant contradiction to the excellent research in her book which provides such a clear understanding of both Christianity and Gnosticism and the radical antithesis between them. Because Gnosticism is a false religion, not a variety of Christianity, it must be repudiated. This means rejecting both its fallacious interpretation of the apostolic writings and its pseudepigrapha, which claim to be apostolically authored.
Because Christianity is based upon the canon of truth taught by the apostles, Irenaeus came to the obvious conclusion that it was necessary to identify and to carefully study the writings of the apostles. He began with the Gospels. Since there were four (and only four) Gospels, which were apostolically authored, he drew the obvious conclusion that all four of these Gospels must be used and that only these four must be used. This conclusion is so simple and so obvious that it is amazing that no one else had done this before. Most churches at the time were using only one or two of the Gospels, and some of them were using false Gospels and some of them thought that the Gospel of John was not a true Gospel, and Tatian decided that the four Gospels should be merged into one composite Gospel. Here again Irenaeus was the pioneer in seeing what needed to be done: he insisted that all four (and only these four) Gospels be used and that they should both be maintained as separate Gospels (not conflated as Tatian did), and also that they be studied together in such a way as to contribute toward our fuller understanding of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ. He called this the “four-formed” Gospel. Pagels shows how Irenaeus places a great stress upon the Gospel of John, since it is the Gospel that emphasizes the Deity of Christ. I do not agree with Pagels when she says that only the Gospel of John teaches Christ’s deity and that the Synoptics teach only His humanity. I agree with Arthur Pink, who says in his book Why Four Gospels (which, by the way, deserves a far wider readership) that all four of the Gospels teach Christ’s deity, and that the Gospel of John is unique in emphasizing His deity. Pagels, however, has an excellent discussion of how powerfully Irenaeus used the Gospel of John in his polemics against the Gnostics, which is understandable because John’s creationist prologue refutes the gnostic emanationism and Christ’s deity is the reason for His uniqueness.
Pagels book is well written in crisp, fresh language which is a pleasure to read. Her discussions of Gnosticism, orthodoxy, the canon of truth, and the important role of Irenaeus is immensely helpful. As I noted, I reject her conclusion, which is clearly emotional and not rational, and which does not follow from her research, namely that Gnosticism and orthodoxy are variant versions of Christianity. I also do not accept the historical-critical method which she, like all liberals, uses. I also do not accept her notion that John tried to attack The Gospel of Thomas by attacking the Apostle Thomas: this is preposterous because that book wasn’t written by Thomas. With these exceptions, I highly recommend Pagels’ book for the reasons noted. I also recommend further study on how Irenaeus can be regarded as an incipient Van Tilian and how we can re-establish the original meaning and connotation of orthodoxy and how we can use the word “canon of truth” today as Irenaeus did in his day.