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   Fr Aidan Nichols

Neo-Gnostic Challenges to Orthodoxy and Mission

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

A preamble

            The main aim of this essay is to present a document of the Roman magisterium which responds in the spirit of St Irenaeus to modern religious challenges, Neo-Gnosis included.   It is the ‘Declaration’ Dominus Jesus, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the year 2000.  The full title of Dominus Jesus is ‘On the Unicity [uniqueness] and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church’.   One might well link to it a second, less familiar text, with which it has a marked affinity.  This is a document produced in 2003, under the title ‘Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life’, by two other Roman entities, the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.  This second document deals with ‘New Age’ which, it may be said, bears a special resemblance to the Gnosis combated by Irenaeus.   Like ancient Gnosticism, New Age is a contemporary invented religion of a more or less unorganised and certainly diffuse kind, rather than a long-standing religious tradition of thought and sensibility, with institutions of its own.  While by its ‘existence and fervour’ New Age may constitute what these Curial writers call a ‘witness to the unquenchable longing of the human spirit for transcendence and religious meaning’, [1]  its actual teachings, they say, function as an unacceptable surrogate for salvation in Christ, not least when the attempt is made to combine the two.   New Age is, so these writers maintain, Gnosticism redivivus.  Over against the (post-Christian) ‘Age of Aquarius’ announced by New Agers, the Roman authors proclaim the Word incarnate as the true Aquarius, the One who, at the well of Sychar, in converse with the Samaritan Woman, showed himself the bearer of the water of life.  (Hence of course the title of the second document to which, however, I shall make only occasional reference in what follows, so as to allow the first document its appropriate priority.)

            I gladly accept the suggestion of Father Roald Flemestad that what we are seeing at Rome at the beginning of the new millennium is a tendency which could be called ‘Neo-Irenaeanism’.  In other words, there is a desire to unmask features of the contemporary scene that bear a resemblance to ancient Gnosticism, and to do so by rehearsing once again some of St Irenaeus’s own major themes.  A glance at the footnotes of Dominus Jesus and to the main text of Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life will soon show that Father Flemestad’s intuition is right.  This essay will, then, also draw attention to a number of doctrinal similarities between Dominus Jesus and the thought of the second century Church Father.   (Incidentally, I note that the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church which precedes the first of these documents by a short interval carries no less than thirty references to Irenaeus: more than for any other Church father with the exception of Augustine.)  I may mention here one possible literary channel for this Neo-Irenaeanism: namely, the theological writings of the Swiss dogmatic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Not only did Balthasar have a huge admiration for Irenaeus, whose writings he anthologised, [2] and on whom he wrote a dense monograph incorporated into volume II of his theological aesthetics. [3] His own systematic thought has also been called by a recent American study a ‘retrieval’ of the theology of Irenaeus. [4]   Furthermore, Balthasar considerably influenced the intellectual and spiritual outlook of both Pope John Paul II and, more especially, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, who expressed his debt to him in the funeral panegyric he preached for him at his burial in Lucerne on 1 July 1988.   He was also the beloved mentor of the secretary of the Commission which produced the Catechism, the Dominican archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.

The aims of Dominus Jesus

            The tone of Dominus Jesus indicates a certain background of anxiety.  The desire to find common ground among the various world religions has led in some quarters to an attitude of religious indifferentism which no longer regards the work of Jesus Christ, in its biblical framework, as a revelation intended for the illumination and indeed salvation of the whole world: that is, a faith for all human beings without exception.   But to limit the grace of Christ to one sector, merely, of divine saving operation, and thus deprive it of its globality, its comprehensiveness of aim, has to be judged an heretical opinion when we compare it with the witness of Scripture and of Tradition, as the latter is expressed in such ‘monuments’ as the Liturgy and the Fathers.  

In addition to this principal preoccupation the Declaration Dominus Jesus also has a second, subsidiary but by no means unimportant concern.  An analogous indifferentism, so it holds, besets inner-Christian ecumenism likewise.  The desire to find common ground with other Christians has sometimes led liberal Catholics, in the period since the Second Vatican Council, to play down the claims to uniqueness of that Church body which is in peace and communion with the see of Peter, represented by the bishop of Rome.   Telling the truth about both kinds of issues – inter-religious dialogue and inner-Christian ecumenism – is pastorally desirable, because in both cases – though to different degrees – to suppress the demands of the Gospel mission and Catholic claims in the interests of pluralism and polite relations may also be to put others at a soteriological disadvantage.  Not to know Jesus Christ and the blessings he brings the world is to be disadvantaged in relation to God.  And similarly – or rather, analogously -- not to know the full Gospel through the Church he founded in the integral transmission of these through time in a communion centred on the Roman bishop, Vicar of Peter, and thus Vicar of Christ, this is to be disadvantaged in relation to Jesus Christ and the blessings he brings the world.   That at any rate is how Roman Catholics see it! 

            Dominus Jesus was not a wholly popular document in many quarters.  Some liberal Catholics, who are disproportionally prominent in the media since they are more acceptable to secular elites, regretted it in its entirety.  This was natural because the aim of later twentieth century liberal Catholicism is to push against the limits of the documents of the Second Vatican Council in these matters, whereas the teaching office considers itself, on the contrary, to be bound by them.  But the two halves of the document could also elicit contrasting reactions, often from the same people.  Thus the first half pleased Evangelicals and the Eastern Orthodox.  The second half did not. 

The Introductory Chapter of Dominus Jesus: an Irenaean text

            But it is time to see how the document unfolds.   What the text is about is made plain in its introductory chapter.  That introduction begins, as would any Protestant Evangelical, from the Great Missionary Command at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 16: 15-16).  The mission conferred on the Church by Jesus is universal, extending to all human beings, but the authors propose to concentrate more specifically on the implications of this mission for the existence of other religions.  People already committed to other religions are not thereby withdrawn from the scope of the Church’s mission.   Dominus Jesus points out that, in calling for dialogue with representatives of the world religions, the Second Vatican Council by no means intended to substitute dialogue for mission.  As the text has it: ‘Such dialogue certainly does not replace, but rather accompanies the mission ad gentes’. [5]   At this stage it could have been mentioned that the document of the Council on mission, which is a ‘Decree’, enjoys a higher magisterial status than the document on inter-religious dialogue which is only a ‘Declaration’, but perhaps that comparison was thought excessively technical.  However, Dominus Jesus does not fail to footnote Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical on mission, Redemptoris missio, which makes exactly the same point about how dialogue is an internal accompaniment of mission, not an alternative to it.  

For the Declaration Nostra aetate of the Second Vatican Council, such dialogue must be positive in character, willing to acknowledge whatever is ‘true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions’ [6]  Catholics are not Barthians, or even Calvinists.  Moreover, not everything in the Church is fixed in stone: there are, even for orthodox Catholics, ‘some fundamental questions [in this regard]that remain open to further development’.  But ‘theological reflections’ worked out in the course of ‘developing solutions’ must always remain ‘consistent with the contents of the faith…’ as once given to the saints. [7]  And that is precisely what has not invariably been happening.  So what has been happening?  The document observes:

The Church’s constant missionary proclamation is

endangered today by relativistic theories which seek

to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto but also

de jure (or in principle).  As a consequence, it is held

that certain truths have been superseded…

truths of which Dominus Jesus proceeds to list the chief examples.  Here they are as stated in the Declaration:

[1] the definitive and complete character of the

revelation of Jesus Christ,

[2] the nature of Christian faith as compared with

that of belief in other religions,

[3] the inspired nature of the books of Sacred


[4]the personal unity between the Eternal Word

and Jesus of Nazareth,

[5]the unity of the economy of the Incarnate

Word and the Holy Spirit,

[6]the unicity [i.e. the uniqueness] and salvific

universality of the mystery of Jesus Christ,

[7] the inseparability – while recognizing the

distinction – of the kingdom of God, the kingdom

of Christ, and the Church… [8]

All these doctrinal headings are relevant, evidently, to the claims of the Gospel vis-à-vis the followers of other religions, and, as it happens, all of them in some form figured in Irenaeus’s presentation of the faith ‘against the heretics’. [9]   That catalogue sums up many though not all the chief points Irenaeus himself would want to stress in any ‘demonstration of the apostolic preaching’.  (We can note in passing the absence of such Irenaean themes as the existence of only one God as Lord of creation, divine Providence through the Word, the congruence of the Old and New Testaments, the life of man as the vision of God.)

            In this list of Irenaean motifs that are mentioned I have, so far, omitted to remark one.  And that is the danger, as the authors see it, of minimising the notable claims of the Roman Catholic Church in inner-Christian ecumenism.  They express the truth they see at threat here in the words ‘and the subsistence of the one Church of Christ in the Catholic Church’ (as defined by communion with the Roman see).  That assertion is not without an Irenaean resonance, if we bear in mind the emphasis of the celebrated primacy text in Adversus haereses Book III, where the bishop of Lyons affirms that, if one wishes to know of the contents of the traditio apostolica one can take a short cut and look to:

the most ancient church, the church known to all

men, which was founded and set up at Rome by

the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul.

For with this church, because of its position of

leadership and authority, must needs agree

every church, that is, the faithful everywhere;

for in her the apostolic tradition has always

been preserved by the faithful from all parts. [10]

 (As the translation of this passage is sometimes debated, I take the precaution of citing the English version in a standard Anglican source.[11])

            Such a catalogue of doctrines gives us in effect a table of contents for the rest of Dominus Jesus.  The document, however, does not pass on to its exposition of each endangered truth without first pausing to suggest a source for the ‘roots of these problems’ in what it calls ‘certain presuppositions of both a philosophical and theological nature, which hinder the understanding and acceptance of the revealed truth’.[12] 

What ‘presuppositions’ do the authors have in mind?  They mean the kind of presuppositions which fuel such questions as the following.  [1] Is not divine truth essentially elusive, not to say inexpressible (=cognitive scepticism about revelation)?  Is ‘truth’ not always the ‘truth for me’ – which might not be ‘the truth for you’ (=epistemological relativism)?  Is not reason the only source of knowledge, so that no truth arising from an order that transcends reason can (or should) be acknowledged (=rationalism)?  Again, how can there be truly ultimate – ‘eschatological’ – events which nonetheless show their presence in history (=empiricism)?  And, finally, did the divine Word (the Logos) really become incarnate or is Jesus simply another religious phenomenon who symbolises that Word (=Christological reductionism)?  The authors also blame two flaws in contemporary theological method: first, an eclecticism which is not bothered about ‘consistency, systematic connection, or compatibility with Christian truth’ and secondly, ‘the tendency to read and to interpret Sacred Scripture outside the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church’. [13]  Too often mired in these errors, doubts and methodological infelicities, contemporary Christians are left wondering, Is there a divinely revealed truth, given in history, whose content can be reliably known through Scripture and Tradition, a truth which sets out the basis for the salvation of all human beings?   Rejecting the universal relevance of the ‘rule of faith’ found in the Church built on the apostles, the way is open to a New Gnosis.

Not all the philosophical and theological issues thus raised are pertinent to Irenaeus’ situation but, uncannily, most of them are.  Like Irenaeus, who was faced with radical heresies which had grown out of the Church by synthesising selected elements of New Testament Christianity with a syncretistic background sensibility, the Church today has to meet the challenge of distortions of the Gospel which appear more plausible because they chime more readily with a contemporary mind-set than does orthodoxy. [14]  An egregious example of this is furnished by the heterogeneous movement called ‘New Age’.

The uniqueness of salvation in Jesus Christ

The body of Dominus Jesus consists of six chapters and a conclusion.  The three earlier chapters – on which I shall focus – are occupied with the issues raised by the existence of other religions – and these take up the bulk of the topics so far mentioned.  The three later chapters, which stake out in very clear terms the claims of the Church of Rome, have for their subject the issues raised by inner-Christian ecumenism, and these concern in various ways the nature of the Church, though the closing chapter seeks to unify the document by linking ecclesiology to the soteriological aspect of a theology of world religions as laid out in Chapters I, II and III.  I draw out what seem to me to be the most interesting or salient points made in the document’s course.  

Chapter I, entitled ‘On the Fullness and Definitiveness of the Revelation of Jesus Christ’, insists that any theory for which that revelation in Christ is ‘limited, incomplete, or imperfect’ and thus ‘complementary’ (merely) to that found in other religions, must be rejected as contrary to Christian faith. 

The truth about God is not abolished or reduced because it is spoken in human language; rather, it is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God. [15]

As is well-known, it is a feature of Neo-Modernism to attempt to empty revelation of propositional content by insisting on its character as a personal relation set up between God and believers.  Rather, says the document, faith involves a twofold adherence: to the God who reveals – personally then, as a living ‘Thou’, He Who Is, and yet also to the truth he reveals – precisely ‘out of the trust which one has in him who speaks’. [16]  This leads the authors to the drawing of an extremely important distinction.  And that is the distinction between, on the one hand, faith in the properly theological sense of that word and, on the other, mere belief – as this is found in the non-biblical religions.  Belief in this second sense is not the same as, or even a variant on, faith in the biblical-ecclesial understanding of that word: what Paul calls, on repeated occasions, ‘the obedience of faith’. [17]  Pistis is not doxa.   Or to put it another way, divinely warranted belief is not human opinion.   In the other religions, belief is, for Dominus Jesus, ‘religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself’.  Or in the text’s fullest explanation of this difference:

If faith is the acceptance in grace of revealed truth, [the ‘truth

revealed by the One and Triune God’] …, then belief, in the

other religions, is that sum of experience and thought that

constitutes the human treasury of wisdom and religious


Clearly, that is an absolutely vital distinction for theological thought.  The remainder of Chapter I is devoted to a corollary of this distinction.  The sacred writings of other religions cannot be placed on the same level as the canonical Scriptures, whose human authors are hagiographs, men divinely inspired to produce the written record of the definitive revelation in history.          

Chapter II of Dominus Jesus speaks of ‘The Incarnate Logos and the Holy Spirit in the Work of Salvation’.  For some writers, while the only economy of saving revelation God offers the world is indeed the economy of his eternal Word, that economy is not necessarily that of the incarnate Word.  Wider than the limited economy of the Word incarnate, addressed to Christians, the eternal, invisible, uncreated Word has a more universal – broader, if less full -- design for non-Christians, and this ampler plan does not require any reference to the Church.  ‘These theses’, state the authors of Dominus Jesus in no uncertain terms, ‘are in profound conflict with the Christian faith’. [19]   The ecumenical Creeds rule them out in advance, though corroborative citations are also made from the Second Vatican Council and popes from Leo I to John Paul II.   The key counter-assertion Dominus Jesus makes is this: since the Incarnation, ‘all the salvific actions of the Word of God are always done in unity with the human nature that he has assumed for the salvation of all people’. [20]   The mystery of Christ is co-extensive with all human history, since it extends from his election by God before time began right down to his glorious Parousia.  Just read the opening chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians!   Of course, the state of things before the Incarnation is somewhat different.  If the divine Son, as Irenaeus could and does explain,  mediates all knowledge of God, then as the pre-incarnate Word it was he who illuminated the minds of the Gentiles to find God in creation, and it was he who announced the Father to the patriarchs and prophets.  But even then, so Irenaeus would insist, such visitations by the Word are all ordered to his Incarnation -- to the definitive event of salvation that took place in Jesus Christ. [21]   As the late Cardinal Jean Daniélou remarked:

            Irenaeus’s characteristic, and original, contribution is

            his emphasis on the continuity between these

            earlier instances of the Word’s presence among men

            and the Incarnation. [22]

            Nor is the situation of theological dissenters any happier when, to posit an alternative economy to the one that passes through the incarnate Christ and his ecclesial community, they propose instead an independent economy of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit can never be separated from the Son.  That is particularly Irenaean of course: one thinks of Irenaeus’s metaphor of the Son and Spirit as the ‘two hands’ of the Father. [23]  The purpose of the economy of the Holy Spirit is precisely the actualization of the saving efficacy of the work of the Son, in relation to those who lived before Jesus and those who lived after him, as well as to his contemporaries.   This is what Irenaeus calls in Adversus haereses:

the Spirit preparing people in the Son of God, the Son

leading them to the Father, and the Father giving them

incorruptibility in eternal life which comes to everyone

from the fact of seeing God. [24]

When the Holy Spirit sows ‘seeds of the Word’ (a famous phrase from Justin Martyr’s Second Apology) in ‘various customs and cultures’, that is not in order to bypass Jesus Christ but rather so as to prepare them for ‘full maturity in Christ’: another citation in Dominus Jesus from the mission encyclical of John Paul II, Redemptoris missio. [25]

Chapter III, the last section of the document to deal with other religions, is entitled ‘Unicity and Universality of the Salvific Mystery of Jesus Christ’.  One might have thought that Dominus Jesus had by now made the assertion of this uniquely universal mystery quite unmistakably plain.  What is left to be added?  Before leaving the topic, the authors want to reiterate that the original apostolic preaching – preaching specifically of salvation through Jesus Christ – was made to a pagan world which ‘aspired to salvation through a plurality of saviours’. [26]   In this sense, there is no difference between the world of the apostle Paul, or of Irenaeus, and our own. [27]

At the same time, however, and here is if you will a ‘liberal’ element in the authors’ thinking, they want to leave room for a theological exploration of whether and in what way the ‘historical figures’ and ‘positive elements’ of these religions – such figures as Gautama and Mohammed, such positive elements as Buddhism’s call for asceticism towards temporal goods, Islam’s call for submission to the one God -- can be regarded as under certain aspects sub-mediations of the unique mediatorial being and action of Jesus Christ.  What Dominus Jesus does here, tentatively – we note the words ‘if [or ‘whether’] and in what way’ – is to transfer to the area of a theology of the world religions what Catholic doctrine has always maintained over against classical Protestantism in relation to the Mother of God and the saints. That is, there can be participations of Christ’s unique mediatorship which do not overthrow the axiom stated in First Timothy 2:5, namely: ‘There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’.  If the only Mediator can enable sub-mediations of himself, then the rich power of his mediation is the more fully displayed.  To the authors’ minds, this does not necessarily compromise their claim that the saving work of Christ is unique, universal and absolute -- and their rejection of the theological claim that the use of these terms in Catholic teaching is excessive, narrowing, and fundamentalistic. [28]  It has not been much noted that this suggestion represents a remarkably audacious piece of innovatory theological thinking on the part of the Roman organ.   We can compare with it what a North American patrologist has written of Irenaeus:

            Although he never specifically addressed the question,

            it is clear that Irenaeus would not conceive of revelations

            found in non-Christian religions as alternative means of

            knowing God apart from revelation through the Son.

            Whatever knowledge of God might be had by means

            of Hinduism or Buddhism would have to be mediated

            by Christ and be the result of the Father’s will to make

            himself known to them for salvation. [29]

The uniqueness of the Church

            Perhaps conscious of the temerity of their proposal, the authors of Dominus Jesus now return to safer ground, by rehearsing their reflections on the special status of the Church.  In Chapter IV of Dominus Jesus, on the ‘Unicity and Unity of the Church’, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith insists that, in their words:

                        The Catholic faithful are required to profess that

                        there is an historical continuity – rooted in the

                        apostolic succession – between the Church founded

                        by Christ and the Catholic Church. [30]

Here too Dominus Jesus can cite Irenaeus, side by side with two North African doctors, Cyprian and Augustine.  To some – and that ‘some’ has included historically, most Lutherans – this emphasis on the apostolic succession may seem like a disproportionate concern with sacramental mechanics.  But in fact it presents one important way of criticising New Age, not least as that movement is described by Paul Heelas in a study published by the Oxford University Press and cited approvingly in the pages of Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life.  It is precisely the ‘hierarchical organisation’ of ‘traditionalised religiosity’, writes Heelas, that makes it ‘well-suited for the community’, whereas (he maintains) ‘detraditionalised spirituality is well-suited [only] for the individual’. [31]  That was also true of ancient Gnosis which, in the words of the American exegete Pheme Perkins, became a ‘vehicle for internal migration rather than institutional external migration’. [32]  But individuals need communities, not least so as to be fully persons.

            But what exactly does Dominus Jesus mean by the phrase ‘the Catholic Church’?  This fourth chapter, by citing the Dogmatic Constitution of the Second Vatican Council Lumen Gentium leaves its readers in little doubt.  The Church of Christ, ‘constituted and organised as a society in the present world’, affirmed the conciliar fathers of Vatican II, ‘subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him’. [33]  The exact force of that expression ‘subsists in’ – in the Latin, subsistit in – has been the subject of comment.  The Congregation gives its own clarification when it writes:

With the expression subsistit in the Second Vatican

Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal

statements: on the one hand, that the Church

of Christ, despite the divisions which exist

among Christians, continues to exist fully only

in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand,

that ‘outside of her structure, many elements

can be found of sanctification and truth’, that

is, in those churches and ecclesial

communities which are not yet in full

communion with the Catholic Church. [34]

In the upshot: Christian disunity is indubitably a ‘wound’ of the Church, hindering the attainment of her full universality, but it does not actually deprive her of the unity confessed in the Creed (there is one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church).  Here Dominus Jesus echoes Mysterium Ecclesiae, an earlier ‘declaration’ (from 1973) of the same Roman Congregation, under Pope Paul VI:

The Christian faithful are… not permitted to

imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing

more than a collection – divided, yet in some

way one – of Churches and ecclesial

communities; nor are they free to hold that    

today the Church of Christ nowhere really

exists, and must be considered only as a

goal which all Churches and ecclesial

communities must strive to reach. [35]

            Chapter V, ‘The Church: Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Christ’, tackles the ‘low’ or minimalising ecclesiology which would contrast the Church with the Kingdom, rather than seeing her as the Kingdom’s ‘seed and beginning’. [36] While a variety of theological elucidations of the term ‘Kingdom’ are legitimate, all must maintain that the Kingdom can no more be disassociated from the Church than it can from Christ.  To consider the Church at best an ambiguous sign of the Kingdom – a position often motivated by reaction against a ‘presumed “ecclesiocentrism” of the past’ – is ‘contrary to Catholic faith’. [37]  For Irenaeus too, the Church was

                        the ‘glorious body of Christ’ indwelt by the Spirit,

                        whose operations in the world were co-extensive

                        with the Church.  It was the body in which Christ

                        continued to fulfil the prophecies of the Old

                        Testament…  In the whole world, as Irenaeus saw

                        it, there was therefore no other way of ascent to

                        God than through the Church. [38] 

Rounding off the text

            The sixth and final chapter rounds off Dominus Jesus by looking at ‘The Church and the other religions in relation to salvation’, in this way bringing the secondary, ecclesiological concern of the document into unity with its primary interest in how to evaluate other religions theologically.  By his explicit assertion of the necessity of faith and Baptism for salvation the Saviour implicitly declared the necessity of the Church for salvation likewise, since these treasures are held within her house.  That does not compromise God’s universal saving will, since:

                        [U]nited always in a mysterious way to the Saviour

                        Jesus Christ her Head, and subordinated to him, [the

                        Church] has, in God’s plan, an indispensable

                        relationship with the salvation of every human being. [39]

The Church, then, cannot be considered merely ‘one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions’ – and a fortiori (we may suppose) not alongside whatever hope of salvation might be associated with that pot-pourri of elements from the religions and elsewhere that is New Age.  Rather, citing John Paul II’s letter Redemptoris missio, the grace of Christ can give those outside the company of the baptized a ‘mysterious relationship to the Church’, which, while not formally incorporating them in her membership, nevertheless gives them a share in the ‘enlightenment’ which  baptismal faith brings to her sons and daughters. [40]  Here for a last time the name we find in the footnotes is, alongside Cyprian’s, that of Irenaeus. [41]


             Clearly, the See of Rome in the last years of John Paul II’s pontificate saw Irenaeus as a privileged interlocutor for the doctrinal evils of our epoch.  On the one hand, we can agree with the Anglo-Catholic Lionel Thornton in seeing in Irenaeus an outstanding witness to the faith of the ancient Church.  In his Revelation and the Modern World Thornton wrote:

                        As an exponent of Catholic orthodoxy St Irenaeus

                        stands out as the most representative teacher of his

                        time… He is our most reliable guide to the structure

                        of orthodoxy as it appears just after the last

                        personal contacts with the apostolic age have been

                        finally severed.  In this way he is the authoritative

                        exponent of a tradition which is coterminous with

                        the New Testament and which overlaps it. [42]

But more than this, the modern Romans are saying, owing to the return of a number of the errors his theological doctrine corrects and the simultaneous emergence of a New Gnosis, he is a Father and doctor tailor-made for our own time.


1. Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life, 1. 3.

2. H. U, von Balthasar, The Scandal of the Incarnation. Irenaeus against the Heresies (ET San Francisco 1990).

3. Idem., ‘Irenaeus’ in The Glory of the Lord. A Theological Aesthetics. Volume 2. Studies in Theological Styles: Clerical Styles (ET Edinburgh and San Francisco 1984), pp. 31-94.

4. K. Mongrain, The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar. An Irenaean Retrieval (New York 2002).

5. Dominus Jesus, 2.

6. Nostra aetate, 2, cited ibid.

7. Dominus Jesus, 3.

8. [viii] Ibid., 4.

9. I say ‘in some form’ owing to a hesitation about the second, the distinction between faith and belief. Irenaeus contrast biblical faith to Gnostic claims to saving knowledge of self.  Nor did the Gnostics accept that pagan religions attained the truth about God. However, in Adversus haereses II. 14. 9, Irenaeus complains that the Gnostics sought to gain credibility among pagans by using for the Aeons names already in circulation for the Hellenistic deities, and insinuating that such deities were (ontological) images of the Aeons.

10. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses III. 3. 1.

11. H. Bettenson (ed.), Documents of the Christian Church (London 1943; 1956), p. 97.

12. Dominus Jesus, 4.

13. Ibid.

14. In one sense, Gnosticism is a Christian heresy, a point stressed by E. Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A Survey of the Proposed Evidences (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1983), and S. Petrément, Le Dieu séparé: Les origins du Gnosticisme (Paris 1984).  In another sense it develops from an ambient sensibility which preceded it: thus B. A. Pearson, ‘Jewish Elements in Gnosticism and the Development of Gnostic Self-Definition’, in E. P. Sanders (ed.), Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, 1: The Shaping of Christianity in the Second and Third Centuries (Philadelphia 1980), pp. 151-160, and idem, ‘Early Christianity and Gnosticism: A Review Essay’, in Religious Studies Review 13 (1987), pp. 1-8.

15. Dominus Jesus, 6.

16. Ibid., 7.

17. Romans 16: 26; cf. Romans 1: 5; II Corinthians 10: 5-6.

18. Dominus Jesus, 7.

19. Ibid., 10. The best known representative of this position is probably the recently deceased Belgian Jesuit Jacques Dupuis, whose book, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, was the object of a critical ‘notification’ by the Holy Office in 2001.J. Dupuis, S. J., Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, NY, 1997); for the ‘Notification’ see, conveniently, the slightly abridged version ‘How to Read Jacques Dupuis. The Verdict of the CDF’, in the London Tablet for 3 March 2001.

20.Dominus Jesus, 10.

21. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses IV. 20. 6.  See J. Ochagavía, Visibile Patris Filius. A Study of Irenaeus’s Teaching on Revelation and Tradition (Rome 1964, = Orientalia Christiana Analecta 171), pp. 93-94.

22. J. Daniélou, A History of Christian Doctrine before the Council of Nicaea. Volume 2: Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture (ET Philadelphia 1973), p. 168.

23. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses  IV. 20. 1.

24. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses IV. 20. 5.

25. Justin, Second Apology 8, 1-2; 10, 1-3; 13, 3-6; John Paul II, Redemptoris missio 28.

26. Dominus Jesus 13.

27. Specifically on his Gnostic opponents, Irenaeus complains that they ‘did not understand the economy of God but had instead a multiplicity of economies – one of the Pleroma, one of the Savior, one of the Demiurge, one of the Christ, one of creation and one of the redemption.

Irenaeus turned upside down the Gnostic formula ‘the economy of the Pleroma’, and produced his own Christianised version ‘the fulfilling of the dispensation’ so as to emphasis the all-encompassing unity of an economy where, thanks to Jesus Christ the Recapitulator, all things are summed up in the Word made flesh.  Thus T. L. Tiessen, Irenaeus on the Salvation of the Unevangelized (Metuchen, NJ, and London 1993), p. 119, and cf. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses III. 12. 12.  

28. Cf. Dominus Jesus, 15.

29. T. L. Tiessen, Irenaeus on the Salvation of the Unevangelized, op. cit., p. 131.

30. Dominus Jesus, 16.

31. P. Heelas, The New Age Movement. The Celebration of Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (Oxford 1997), p. 173, cited Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life, 2. 4.

32. P. Perkins, The Gnostic Dialogue: The Early Church and the Crisis of Gnosticism (New York 1980), p. 10.  Perkins writes in two sentences that precede this citation: ‘[The Gnostics’] stratified system of salvation negated all those who were not ontologically pneumatic, and within the particular Gnostic individual movements, internal schisms dictated new direction rather than an authoritative institutional structure.  Given all these characteristics the experience of gnosis is by definition anti-institution’.

33. Lumen gentium, 8.

34. Dominus Jesus, 16, citing Lumen gentium, 8.

35. Mysterium Ecclesiae, 1, cited in Dominus Jesus, 17.

36. Dominus Jesus, 18.

37. Ibid., 19.

38. T. L. Tiessen, Irenaeus on the Salvation of the Unevangelized, op. cit., p. 211.

39. Dominus Jesus, 20.

40. My part-paraphrase of Dominus Jesus, 20 in its use of Redemptoris missio, 9. A recent theological attempt to set out a case along these lines is B.-D. de la Soujeole, ‘Foi implicite et religions non-chrétiennes’, in Revue Thomiste CVI, 1-2 (2006), pp. 315-334.

41. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses II. 24. 1; Cyprian, De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 6.

42. L. S. Thornton, Revelation and the Modern World, Being the First Part of a Treatise on the Form of the Servant (London 1950), p. 28.

Version: 18th July 2009

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