Defining Heresy: Irenaeus

We’ve looked at some broad–and some specific–defintions of heresy.  Now I want to start looking a bit at the history of the concept and start examining it and its many ramifications.

The word “heresy” is from the Greek αἵρεσις (hairesis).  According to Liddle and Scott’s Lexicon, the root meaning is “taking”.  From this by extension comes the meaning “choice” or “opinion”–whence “school of thought”, “sect”.  In none of these definitions is there any derogatory implication, or any implied standard against which the choice or opinion is judged.  The first person to use the term in the now-standard way was St. Irenaeus of Lyon.

His biography in brief:  He was born in the early 2nd Century AD in Smyrna, Asia Minor (now İzmir, Turkey).  He is said to have been a disciple or at least hearer of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and an early martyr.  Polycarp, born around 70 AD, is said to have been a disciple of St. John the Apostle  himself.  Irenaeus became the second bishop of Lugudunum, Gaul (Lyons, France).  In this capacity he wrote many letters, commentaries, and polemics, and he is one of our earliest, and therefore most important, sources of knowledge about the early Church.  Irenaeus was eventually martyred, and is celebrated as a saint in both Eastern and Western Churches.  For scholars and theologians, his claim to fame is authorship of On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, better known as Against Heresies (Adversus haereses in Latin). 

Against Heresies was specifically written as an attack on Gnostic–possibly Valentinian–groups.  More importantly, for our purposes, this was the first use of the term “heresy” (as far as we know) in the modern sense.  One might, in light of the original meaning of the word, translate Adversus haereses as “Against the Sects”, or perhaps “Against the Sectarians”.  After all, the Gnostics of various stripes (as well as other heterodox groups) were “sects”–“followers”, that is, of a certain doctrine–of Christianity.  The orthodox, of course, were a sect, too, in this sense of the word.  It was Irenaeus, though, that gave “heresy” a negative connotation.  For him, a “heresy” isn’t just a sect, but a wrong or mistaken sect.  In the usage of Irenaeus, then,  “heresy” longer meant merely “a group following a distinctive opinion” but “followers of a wrong (and therefore evil) opinion”.

The moral import here is of significance.  People have differing opinions (remember, hairesis–heresy–originally means “opinion”) on many things, without this necessarily implying evil or ill-will.  If I like (or dislike) Lady Gaga and my friends think otherwise, that doesn’t mean I am an evil person in their eyes.  Similarly with religion–I have friends and relatives from various religious traditions including Luthern, Methodist, Baptist, Neopagan, and Buddhist, and if any one of them thinks I’m evil, it’s for reasons other than that I’m Catholic!  Even on matters of fact (as opposed to opinion), error need not mean evil or ill-will.  I am a teacher, and while I may mark off points on a test if a student gives the wrong answer, lowering their grade, that doesn’t mean I think less of them as a person, even if they flunk the course (in fact, I’ve flunked students who have specifically asked to repeat the course under me, so they grasped that it wasn’t anything personal; which is good).

With heresy as used in Irenaeus–as in the modern sense of the word–though, there is an implication beyond just differing opinion, beyond simple error.  There is an implication at the very least of intellectual pride or disobedience (refer to the previous post) or at most of deliberate, obstinate, willful, and sinful rejection of a (presumably obvious) truth.  Heretics, in short, are not just in the minority, not just eccentric, not just people who hold weird beliefs.  They are instead people of bad will, people who are trying to undermine truth, people who are, to be blunt, evil.  To put it another way, holding the wrong beliefs in certain areas can make you a bad person.  This is the aspect of heresy that I think is most problematic.

It is also significant that Irenaeus was a strong advocate of the role of the bishop as a guarantor against heresy.  He developed the idea of Apostolic Succession and developed the idea of a purity of original doctrine and authority descending from Christ to the Apostles to the bishops in a perfect and unbroken lineage.  Therefore, as I’ve observed, power and authority, having entered the mix, made heresy as we know it possible.  True, the Church in Irenaeus’s day had bigger fish to fry.  Continuing to exist under Roman persecution was more important than taking action–aside from written polemics–against heretics.  Nevertheless, the seeds were sown, and they were to bear unpleasant fruit in succeeding centuries.  We’ll look at that next.

Posted on 20/10/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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