What we can Learn from Irenaeus and the “Rule of Faith”

One of the first major heresies to threaten the church was Gnosticism. Gnosticism taught that there was a higher and secret spiritual knowledge (gnosis) passed down by Jesus, and that only those who have obtained this knowledge would ultimately be saved. Though there was much variance of belief within Gnostic thinking, prominent and universal views among them included: a denial of the incarnation of Christ and a belief that all material was evil and that the great goal was to liberate the good immaterial from the evil material through the gnosis.[1] Seeds of Gnosticism can be found as early as the first century, but its major thrust was the second and third centuries. Irenaeus, an early Christian apologist, began to see Gnostic thinking creeping into the church, and after becoming the Bishop of Lyons launched an apologetic onslaught against the Gnostics.

His magnum opus against Gnosticism was his work entitled, Against Heresies. In chapter 10, Irenaeus uses what is known as the Rule of Faith as an anti-Gnostic teaching tool for new believers. He explains that this faith has been “delivered by the apostles and their disciples,” and that it is what unites the universal church as “if she had one soul and one and the same heart.”[2] This Rule of Faith includes an understanding of the triune nature of the Godhead; the incarnation, virgin birth, resurrection and ascension, and return of Jesus Christ; the universal lordship of Jesus Christ; the eschatological judgment, eternal punishment for the wicked, and eternal glory for the saved in Christ. Irenaeus utilized this Rule of Faith to show that the Gnostics are outsiders. Almost every point of the Rule of Faith contrasted with the teachings of the Gnostics. This Rule of Faith that was handed down by the apostles and preserved by the church is what established the unity of all churches. As Olsen rightly notes, Irenaeus utilized the Rule of Faith, not only to show that the Gnostics were not a part of the church, but parasites of the church.[3] In the Rule of Faith, Irenaeus depended heavily on texts like Ephesians 1:10 which reads, “As a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”[4] After quoting this Irenaeus writes, “And to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race.”[5] This is a radical blow to Gnosticism which taught that matter and flesh were all evil and that the gnosis was passed down to help one be freed from the flesh. Irenaeus is showing that Scripture teaches that in Christ both the material and the immaterial will be perfectly restored, redeemed and united.

The contemporary church could learn much from Irenaeus’ Rule of Faith, especially in light of the many false doctrines that exist today. Every Christian church should have a creed or a statement of faith that outlines the major tenants of the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This statement will outline the major things which make one a Christian, and serves as the foundation for the universal church of Jesus Christ. Many today who profess to be “Christians” deny the literal and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. The literal resurrection of Jesus Christ is a major tenant of the faith delivered by the apostles, and by having such a “Rule of Faith” as the banner of our church, the members could all show that the erroneous belief noted above has no place in the apostolic teaching.

One artistic expression that has been put forth to popularize such a Rule of Faith for the church is song. Some churches have set historic creeds like the Apostle’s Creed to music, and others have made their own creeds that line up with the historic confessions of the faith. Even some of the more mainstream Christian musicians have made songs that outline a basic Rule of Faith for the church today, like the Newsboys song “We believe.” These songs are a way of catechizing ourselves and our congregants on the major tenants of our faith. Singing the Rule of Faith and/or reciting the ancient creeds of the faith is one way we can continue to keep our churches in line with orthodoxy and protected against heretical views.

irenaeus

[1] Roger E. Olsen, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 69.

[2] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.10.1

[3] Olsen, 72.

[4] All Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[5] Irenaeus, 1.10.1

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