We are looking at the writings of Christian apologists from the 2nd Century AD. Some were disciples of disciples of Christ’s Apostles. Irenaeus of Lyons was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. One of Irenaeus’ best known writings is the multi-book series, Against Heresies.
Irenaeus called out heretics by name in Against Heresies. They claimed to be Christians and teachers of the Gospel, but Irenaeus demonstrated with both Scripture and logic that they were not true to the Gospel of Christ.
Do you think that’s a good idea for Christians to do today? Should we name names? Why or why not? Let’s see what we can learn from one of the leading Christian apologists of the 2nd century as we ask God for wisdom in how to address modern heretics and their heresies.
Satan was the first heretic and gnostic. He said that God had misled Adam by withholding the truth about what would happen to him if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (calling God a liar). Satan also declared that he (Satan) had ‘special’ knowledge about the spiritual world that would ‘open’ Eve’s eyes to greater knowledge (knowing good and evil) –
“Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, ‘Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?’ … You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:1, 4-5
God cursed the serpent (Satan) and promised that the Seed of the woman would one day crush his (Satan’s) head. Satan then began a vicious campaign against humanity to destroy the woman who would carry the Seed that would crush his head. Satan was not successful. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, died on the Cross and rose from the dead, making a public spectacle of Satan and those who would follow him.
“And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.” Colossians 2:13-15
Paul went on to tell the Colossian Christians that because of Christ’s triumph they were free to follow Christ and not be cheated from their spiritual reward.
“So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. Therefore if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— ‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” Colossians 2:16-23
Paul’s description of those who would cheat Christians of their reward contains excellent insight to the so-called ‘Christian gnostics’ of the early centuries of the Church. I say ‘so-called’ because they were neither ‘Christian’ nor endued with true ‘knowledge’ (gnosis).
Many people followed Satan’s lead and opposed the Truth during the 1st Century. Many of them came from within the Church, which reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s warning to Christian leaders –
“For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.” Acts 20:27-30
We know that Satan “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). What can we Christians do in the face of such attacks? Here’s what we learn from the Apostle Peter –
- humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt us in due time
- cast all our care upon Him, for He cares for us
- be sober
- be vigilant
- resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by our brotherhood in the world
Satan’s attacks on Christians are the same around the world and throughout history. The idea that God has withheld vital spiritual ‘knowledge’ from us that we can only learn from people who God has given His “secrets” is ridiculous and dangerous. As Paul wrote, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.” Paul did not withhold any knowledge from the Christians he taught. He declared to them the “whole counsel of Go.”
God has made His Truth clear to His children through the declarations (writings) of Christ’s Apostles. People who oppose God’s revealed Truth and exalt themselves as knowing “secret things” of God are heretics and false teachers.
Here are some of the people and groups Irenaeus called “heretics” in Against Heresies –
- Simon Magus
One of the important points Irenaeus made about these heretics was that they “are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the Churches.” (Book 5.20.1) We saw Irenaeus point that out in great detail in Book 3. He also pointed out the heretical danger of thinking that they (heretics) had “hit upon something more beyond the truth” –
“Those, therefore, who desert the preaching of the Church, call in question the knowledge of the holy presbyters, not taking into consideration of how much greater consequence is a religious man, even in a private station, than a blasphemous and impudent sophist. Now, such are all the heretics, and those who imagine that they have hit upon something more beyond the truth, so that by following those things already mentioned, proceeding on their way variously, in harmoniously, and foolishly, not keeping always to the same opinions with regard to the same things, as blind men are led by the blind, they shall deservedly fall into the ditch of ignorance lying in their path, ever seeking and never finding out the truth. It behoves us, therefore, to avoid their doctrines, and to take careful heed lest we suffer any injury from them; but to flee to the Church, and be brought up in her bosom, and be nourished with the Lord’s Scriptures. For the Church has been planted as a garden (paradisus) in this world; therefore says the Spirit of God, ‘Thou mayest freely eat from every tree of the garden,’ that is, Eat ye from every Scripture of the Lord; but ye shall not eat with an uplifted mind, nor touch any heretical discord. For these men do profess that they have themselves the knowledge of good and evil; and they set their own impious minds above the God who made them. They therefore form opinions on what is beyond the limits of the understanding. For this cause also the apostle says, ‘Be not wise beyond what it is fitting to be wise, but be wise prudently,’ that we be not east forth by eating of the ‘knowledge’ of these men (that knowledge which knows more than it should do) from the paradise of life. Into this paradise the Lord has introduced those who obey His call, ‘summing up in Himself all things which are in heaven, and which are on earth;’ but the things in heaven are spiritual, while those on earth constitute the dispensation in human nature (secundum hominem est dispositio). These things, therefore, He recapitulated in Himself: by uniting man to the Spirit, and causing the Spirit to dwell in man, He is Himself made the head of the Spirit, and gives the Spirit to be the head of man: for through Him (the Spirit) we see, and hear, and speak.” Book 5.20.2
Irenaeus laid the full heresy at the feet of Satan, where it belongs –
“As therefore the devil lied at the beginning, so did he also in the end, when he said, ‘All these are delivered unto me, and to whomsoever I will I give them.’ For it is not he who has appointed the kingdoms of this world, but God; for ‘the heart of the king is in the hand of God.’ And the Word also says by Solomon, ‘By me kings do reign, and princes administer justice. By me chiefs are raised up, and by me kings rule the earth.’ Paul the apostle also says upon this same subject: ‘Be ye subject to all the higher powers; for there is no power but of God: now those which are have been ordained of God.’ And again, in reference to them he says, ‘For he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, the avenger for wrath to him who does evil.’ Now, that he spake these words, not in regard to angelical powers, nor of invisible rulers-as some venture to expound the passage-but of those of actual human authorities, [he shows when] he says, ‘For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, doing service for this very thing.’ This also the Lord confirmed, when He did not do what He was tempted to by the devil; but He gave directions that tribute should be paid to the tax-gatherers for Himself and Peter; because ‘they are the ministers of God, serving for this very thing.” Book 5.24.1
More Apologists, More Heretics
We will see other apologists naming heretics as we continue our study. This precedent began with Jesus and His Apostles. They called out the heretics of their day by name. (e.g. Pharisees, Sadducees, Phygellus, Hermogenes, Hymenaeus and Philetus). Paul went so far as to write –
“Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.” Romans 16:17-18
Why do you think Paul and the others did that? Do you think that was wise or unwise? We might ask ourselves this question – should we call out today’s heretics by name? Another question might be – what if we don’t?
I recommend that before we call anyone a “heretic” or “false teacher” we are sure of their heresy and false teaching. We may find many differences in interpreting Scripture with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but calling people”heretics” and “false teachers” are strong words that can carry serious consequences. We need to be careful when using those terms for people who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. However, we can follow the example of Jesus, the Apostles and the early apologists and name names where appropriate knowing we are following a strong tradition –
“Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.” Colossians 2:8-10
“Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.” 1 John 2:18-19
“But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.” 2 Peter 2:1-3
One of the strongest admonitions to Christians about standing strong against the heresies of this age comes in John’s second letter –
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward. Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.” 2 John 1:7-11
Does that mean we should not be kind and compassionate in our dealings with non-Christians who disagree with us about the existence of God, reliability of Scripture or Deity of Christ? Of course we should. Paul wrote – “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” (Colossians 4:5-6) Peter reminded us to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)
What John addressed in his second letter concerns “deceivers,” people who present themselves as Christians but do not continue in the “doctrine” of Christ. We are NOT to receive them as brothers because that would be sharing in their evil deeds and send a dangerous message to Christians who look to us for spiritual guidance.
I would go so far as to say we should not share in ANY way with their ministry of deception. If we do appear with them (e.g. platform, radio or TV program), it should be for the purpose of declaring that their teaching is heresy.
In future studies we will look at writings of other Christian apologists from the 2nd century AD including Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria.