Imagine my shock when, while reading Elaine Pagel’s excellent book, Beyond beliefwhich provides insight into how and why the early Gnostic and Orthodox Church Fathers first clashed over theology, I realized that virtually NOTHING had changed in nearly 2,000 years of Church history.
For example, while explaining how Irenaeus viewed Gnostic Christians like Valentine, Ptolemy, and Heracleon, she cites Irenaeus’ response to their [in his mind, at least] “Heretical” teaching by saying:
“This faith which the Church, even when dispersed throughout the world…[was] received from the Apostles” and clarifies faith in “one God, almighty Father, creator of heaven, earth and seas… and in one Christ Jesus, the son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation , and in the Holy Spirit…and the birth of a virgin, and the suffering, and the resurrection from the dead, and the heavenly ascension in the flesh…of our beloved Jesus Christ.
Now, that sounds reasonable, and quite honestly, it pretty much sounds like the early Christian creeds. But listen to how these Gnostic Christians responded to Irenaeus – according to Irenaeus himself:
“We, too, accepted the faith you describe, and we confessed the same things—faith in one God, in Jesus Christ, in the virgin birth, and in the resurrection—when we were baptized. But since that time, following Jesus’ injunction to “seek and you will find”, I have strived to go beyond the basic precepts of the church to reach spiritual maturity.
So here’s what I find so fascinating: it’s EXACTLY the same kind of dialogue that’s going on right now between conservative evangelical Christians like Alisa Childers, Sean McDowell and John Cooper. [among others]who insist that they are the “true Christians” and that these progressive Christians are not.
When progressive Christians [like me] answer them almost the same way Valentine and Ptolemy answered Irenaeus – that we affirm the same things, but understand them in different ways – we are labeled “Heretics” [as they were] and stigmatized as false Christians.
Here is how Valentin’s supporters responded to Irenaeus’ accusations:
“When we confess the same things as you, why do you call us heretics?
I find myself asking Alisa, Sean and Mr. Cooper the same question in 2022 that these Gnostic Christians asked Irenaeus around 125 AD.
What surprised me even more is how long these two different groups of Christians have wrestled with these same questions about the nature of Truth and the mystery of Christ – over 1,800 years!
In his book, Pagels goes on to point out that Irenaeus’ apparent intolerance of those who disagreed with his theology was not always consistent. Indeed, as she explains, “Irenaeus encouraged his fellow believers to tolerate certain variations in outlook and practice,” and even famously opposed to the bishop of Rome [Victor] when he demanded that all Christians celebrate Easter on the same day and went there to suggest that he allow Greek-speaking Christians to celebrate the event on a different day, as many Christians still do today Greeks, Russians and Copts.
Yet, for some reason, Irenaeus viewed Valentine and others like him as threats to his favorite brand of Christianity.
We have some clues as to what bothered him about their opinions and practices, of course. We know that they opposed the baptismal practices of people like Ptolemy who rebaptized believers who joined them because the first baptism was to affirm their faith in a God whom they worshiped as Creator and feared as lawgiver and divine judge, and the second baptism [performed on those who followed Ptolemy, Valentinus and others] was for those who had “Come and see God as Father, as Mother, [and] Source of all being – in other words, as the One who transcends all these images. Thus, Ptolemy invites those who previously considered themselves the servants – or, more crudely, his slaves – to come to understand themselves as servants of God children.” [Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, pg. 138]
Valentinus – who wrote the lost gospel of truth which was only recently discovered and translated in 1945 – “opposes those who portray God as petty, jealous and angry with those who receive ‘the grace to know Him’ as a loving and compassionate Father.” [IBID]
Honestly, I feel like I could swap the names of Valentinus and Ptolemy with names like Richard Rohr and Rob Bell, or swap Irenaeus with Alisa Childers or Sean McDowell, and this book would read like a blog on Patheos. [Maybe even this one?]
But, the shock didn’t end there, my friends. Oh no.
Pagels goes on to note that although Irenaeus tried to silence Valentine and Ptolemy by warning his fellow Christians to “Obey the priests who are in the church—those who have received…the sure gift of truth….[and to] hold in suspicion those who stand aside from the front line of [apostolic] Succession…[and to] consider them either ill-intentioned heretics, or self-inflated schismatics, or hypocrites. [Beyond Belief, pg. 155]
Of course, it wasn’t the followers of Valentine or Ptolemy who were creating division within the Body of Christ on these issues – it was Irenaeus himself!
Just like Childers, Cooper, McDowell, et al, are the ones who create videos stating that those who disagree with them are dangerous while “progressive Christians” [like me] are the ones trying to get them to sit down and talk so we can maintain some unity.
Of course, Irenaeus’ call for believers to follow only those who aligned themselves with the priests was, in itself, mostly for show because “Irenaeus knew this the “disciples of Valentin” do not oppose the clergy. On the contrary, what made them particularly difficult to discredit was the fact that many of them were themselves priests. [Beyond Belief, pg. 155]
Yes. That’s right. Many of these early priests were already – shall we say “deconstructing” – the kind of Christian faith that Irenaeus defended and walked away from God as a wrathful judge in favor of a God who looked much more like Jesus.
We see exactly the same thing happening today. I speak to dozens of Christian pastors in evangelical pulpits today who say things like, “Keith, if my Church leaders [or members] knew that I did not believe in the Substitute Penal Atonement, [or Eternal Torment, or Inerrancy of Scripture, etc.]I would lose my job.
I even created an online course and Facebook group specifically for pastors who deconstruct for this reason.
In other words, Irenaeus was beginning to panic because “the vast majority of Christians first accepted Valentinian’s point of view themselves.” [pg. 157]
Pagels goes on to say that “While Irenaeus, as bishop, strove to expose them as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ and expel them from the churches, he wrote that most Christians regarded them as among their most influential and advanced members”, and notice how ” … at his time, Valentine had been widely respected as a teacher by his fellow Christians in Rome, and even a generation later, the contemporary of Irenaeus, the famous Egyptian teacher, Clement of Alexandria, as well as Clément’s brilliant successor, Origin, [both] engaged in discussions and disputes with prominent disciples of Valentin and regarded them as other Christian teachers. Although Clement and Origen often criticized certain aspects of Valentinian theology, they also adopted elements of it in their own teaching.“ [Beyond Belief, pg. 157]
Yet Irenaeus did not give up on discrediting and silencing these men and their followers. He opposed them at every turn. He published volumes accusing them of heresy and wrote voraciously to expose the flaws in their teaching.
In the end, the only way to silence their voices and make those who agreed with Irenaeus prevail was to take advantage of “the revolution initiated by the Roman Emperor Constantine”. [pg. 168]
And that is why, my friends, we see such a rush on the part of some Christian leaders at the time to ratify the statements of faith that established what “True Christian Doctrine” was. [and wasn’t]and why soon after we saw the writings of Valentin and other so-called “gnostic” thinkers, being burned, destroyed and [thankfully] hidden. It will only be found in 1945 in Nag Hammadi.
So I guess nothing much has changed, right?
I’ve simply never known exactly how long this same struggle has been going on within the Christian faith, and I certainly had no idea how little the tactics and attitudes of those who oppose the ideas of God as loving Father and Christ as being in everyone, everywhere.
Perhaps that will always be the struggle within the Christian faith. Maybe this tension must always exist, for some reason?
He’s been here almost from the very beginning. So maybe we should just try to get used to it.
NOTE: I realize that Irenaus and Valentine did not live in the first century, but they both trace their beliefs back to the disciples of the Apostles. Therefore, in some ways, the seeds of this early movement of deconstruction came from the ideas of the first century.
Keith Giles is the author of the best-selling 7-part “jesus oneQuoir Publishing book series. His last – and last book – of this series, Jesus Disarmed: How the Prince of Peace Disarms Our Violence East available now. Keith is also the host of Second cut with Keith [a new solo podcast available now on the Ethos Radio App, for Apple and Android and on Spotify; and the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast [along with co-hosts Matthew Distefano, Dr. Katy Valentine, and Derek Day], and the new Anonymous of the apostate podcast with Matthew Distefano. He and his wife, Wendy, currently live in El Paso, TX and work with International peace catalyst.