4.4 – Persecutions, the Gnostics and Irenaeus of Lyon (23 min video)
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It’s been frequently pointed out that Christians were more often persecuted by the so-called “good emperors” — guys like Trajan or Marcus Aurelius or Dician or Diocletian. And yet it was the so-called “bad emperors” — guys like Commodus or Caracalla — who actually left Christians alone, perhaps because they thought Christians didn’t really cause any harm, or they were just too busy pursuing their own vices. I’m not really sure. But what’s really remarkable is that we see the Christians being accused of all kinds of things that weren’t true. For example, and I’ve already mentioned some of this, they were accused of being atheists, of not believing in the true gods. They were accused of being cannibals because they drank the blood or ate the flesh of their founder. It was a misunderstanding of communion. They were accused of being world haters because they were always talking about a kingdom that is not of this world. People thought that they were kind of mad for these reasons. Well, Kenneth LaTourette points out, he says, “No other faith was opposed so violently as Christianity, yet responded so peaceably.” For us to kind of get some historical background here, Let’s take a look at Rome following the reign of Marcus Aurelius, which brings us to his rather famous son, Commodus, who began reigning while his father was still alive and then reigned all the way until the year 192 AD.
Commodus had a bit of a scandal regarding his birth. Some people rumored or gossiped that his father was a gladiator. Normally, you would not want to be associated with that, but cometists who loved gladiators actually encouraged the rumor. We’re also told that cometists rejected the philosophers and hated books. He hated school with a passion. He preferred instead to hunt or to actually keep company with athletes and gladiators and watch their exploits in the arena. When he became co-ruler with his father for the the last three years of his father’s life, his dad, Marcus Aurelius, tried to pass on Stoic virtues to him, but it never really worked. After Marcus Aurelius died near Vienna, Commodus quickly made peace with the German tribes, secured the border, and then went back to Rome. He spent little time with the Senate. Spent much more time giving massive amounts of money, or especially bread and circuses, the masses. In fact, he himself enrolled in a gladiator school and drove chariots in the Circus Maximus, fought in the arena against gladiators, or showed off his hunting skill.
In one exhibition, he evidently killed 100 tigers with exactly 100 arrows. And then made sure to have himself paid for all of his hard work out of the Roman treasury and have all of his exploits recorded in the official annals, meaning he was rather vain and full of himself.
Some historians tell us that he was notably cruel and delighted in torturous deaths of his enemies. One curious detail that comes to us though is that he had a favorite mistress, a woman by the name of Marcia. Some people think she may have been a Christian, some people think she merely was sympathetic to them, perhaps she had friends who were Christians.
As for Commodus, he got tired of even the little rule that he did, and so he let a prefect rule in his place. When that prefect began a reign of terror, executing numerous people suspected of plotting against Commodus or merely criticizing him, when Marcia was then one of those supposed victims, she decided she was having none of it, and so she poisoned Commodus.
And then when the poison worked too slowly, she arranged for his personal trainer, a wrestler by trade, to finish her husband, or rather her lover, off.
He was evidently only 31 years old. And yet the point is, during his reign that lasted a little more than a decade, Christians had relative peace. They enjoyed that until his successor, Septimus Severus, came into power. Severus was somebody who rose through a violent takeover. There was sort of a rush and a whole lot of battle to see who would take the throne after Commodus. He himself was a Phoenician who had studied at Athens, who practiced law in Rome and was seen as a capable general who secured the border along the Danube.
In other words, he’s one of the good emperors from a sort of a secular standpoint. He reigned for 18 years. 12 of those years he was at war, sometimes against Byzantium, a city that had rebelled within the empire that held out for four years.
He was so angry over that that he had it burned to the ground, so that I guess Constantine could rebuild it centuries later. He also invaded Parthia, conquered Mesopotamia once again, even actually sent the legions into Caledonia, we now call Scotland. But then, after having won so many victories, he decided to retire to the northern city of England that we now call York, and he simply said, “I have been everything and it is worth nothing.” He was somebody who realized that you can be on top of the world, the height of your game, and it just means nothing. One story tells of him saying that he was healed early on by a Christian and thought favorably of them. But then, for whatever reason, in the year 202, he changed his mind and declared that baptism and conversion to Christianity was a crime. And not just a crime, but a capital offense. Anybody who would do this would be put to death. This began an empire-wide persecution of Christians. Clement of Alexandria said there were daily burnings and beheadings in his city. In fact, Origen’s father was one of the people who was put to death there. We have the story, for example, of Potamina, who was burned to death. And then when one of her executioners, a man by the name of Basileides, saw her faith and converted, he was beheaded in turn. But the most famous is the story of Perpetua, who lived in Carthage, North Africa. She was someone who had come to the faith, who had an infant child, and when she was denounced as a Christian, was arrested and sentenced to die, her father begged her while she was in prison to think of her nursing infant and to recant the God whom she loved.
She told her father that she couldn’t do it with a clear conscience. As a result, she was brought into the arena. She was brought there after recording a very curious dream in which she said she was climbing a ladder and she had to get past a fearsome dragon, but that she made it past the dragon and she came to the most beautiful of gardens.
For her, it was a clear metaphor of what was going to happen, her death by martyrdom and then heaven awaiting her afterwards. She was put to death by multiple means. She was first tortured and whipped. Then she was put against a bull who gores her, but evidently did not kill her, at which point she had to be put to death by a gladiator.
What’s most curious though, is she didn’t die alone. She actually stood there with the slave woman named Felicitas, who was also put to death for her Christianity. The story goes that they stood hand in hand as Christians, slave and free, and showed to the entire world, as F.F. Bruce notes, that class distinctions were irrelevant. As for Septimius Severus, he failed to wipe out the church and died in his bed, the last emperor to do so for 80 years.
After telling his son, Caracalla, who became emperor after him, Whatever you do, make your soldiers rich and don’t bother with anything else. In other words, he died a rather cynical old man. Well, before we talk about other characters, let’s talk about a movement that existed in the early church that was always a problem for the other church. That’s the movement known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a form of heresy, which is based upon an old word that simply means to choose or even just choice. It’s the idea that you’re basically choosing your own version of truth that you want to follow. As for Gnosticism, it comes from another Greek word, gnosis, which means simply knowledge, but implied that you, the Gnostic, especially if you’re a Gnostic leader who began a heresy, that you had been given special knowledge from God himself from the heavens that nobody else had.
Something that superseded whatever Jesus said or superseded whatever the apostles had said. The Gnostics were in some sense all alike. They all denied the goodness of this created world. They all denied the goodness of the flesh. The whole idea of God saying about everything that he creates, it was good. They denied that. And they argued rather that the God of the Old Testament was sort of like a lesser God. And the true God, whom they sometimes referred to as the Demiurge, was completely beyond his creation, completely separate from it. And he acted through various angelic creatures to exercise his will in this world. But the idea of actually becoming flesh, that never happened. So Jesus was more of a lesser God. He wasn’t actually God. And these Gnostics wrote their own Gospels and they named them after the disciples just to try to trick people. For example, we have the Gospel of Peter which says that Jesus, because he was this sort of agent of heaven or like a superhero of sorts, that he suffered no pain whatsoever in this life.
It was merely a show. Or you have the Gospel of Thomas, which reports Jesus as saying that for every woman who once entered the kingdom of heaven, she must first make herself male.
In other words, it repeats the worst ideas of the pagans that somehow women were inferior to men and had to become men in order to be saved first.
The problem was with the Gnostics is they all denied the authority of the canon of scripture. They typically denied that either Jesus was fully God or that he was fully human. That’s why Paul makes a big deal of both of those things in Colossians saying that in him, the whole fullness of the deity dwells in his actual body.
The whole fullness of God dwells within him. It’s also why John makes it very clear that the logos, the word became flesh and dwelt among us. It’s John, for example, who notes that Jesus actually was pierced in the side while upon the cross and that specifically blood and water flowed from his wound, meaning he truly was God and he truly was human.
As for a specific character, someone wants you to note, we have Montanus who grew up in Asia Minor. His followers were known as Montanus just after his name. Well, Martinus was a true Gnostic because he said that he was the Holy Spirit’s chosen mouthpiece. Basically, he and the Holy Spirit were like this, and whatever he said was what the Holy Spirit wanted him to tell. So he was going to tell you what you should really do with your life. He argued that the New Jerusalem was coming, much like heaven says, except the New Jerusalem was specifically going to be in Asia Minor, just happened to be where he was from.
He also argued that marriage was, you know, acceptable but not really ideal. And if your spouse dies, that’s a good thing. You should just move on and live a life of singleness. So that gives you a sense of the Gnostics. Like, there’s no affirmation of the physical world. Another Gnostic was named Marcion. He also came from Asia Minor. His followers were simply called Marcionites. Well, Marcion had this idea that the Old Testament was just bunk. It should not be listened to. He also argued that all the apostles were wrong except for Paul. He was okay with Paul for some reason. And he said that Jesus came not really just to save us, but to save us from the God of the Old Testament and to bring us to the God of the New Testament.
In other words, he did not see God as the, or Jesus for that matter, as the same yesterday, today and forever. He saw no, there was this God of the Old Testament and we’re free from him, whoever he was. And now we’ve got the God of the New Testament, the guy who’s all about mercy and love. He didn’t see the idea of covenant. He didn’t see that there’s one God who doesn’t change, who yes, is a God of love, but is He’s also a holy God and requires a payment for sin for us to be united with him again. In order to peddle his ideas, he edited his own New Testament. It must have been very thin for it to argue what he wanted it to argue. He also said that all the material realm was entirely evil and should be rejected. I hope you’re seeing some themes here. yet another form of Gnosticism was known as Docetism. It’s a word that basically means to seem like something appears as being this way. It argued there’s no way that God could suffer. How could God who made the universe suffer as a human or die? That’s just ridiculous. So Docetists argued that Jesus only appeared to suffer. They went so far as to say that whenever he suffered, he kind of left the body It was just his body that suffered. Or that when he was on the cross, he switched bodies with somebody else. And he himself watched comfortably from a distance, as if he’s like sitting there eating a snack or something like that. This is crazy. In other words, they didn’t think that pain or suffering could ever happen. Because for them, the only reason you would ever get sick or suffer pain or suffer at all is because of sin in your life.
You had to be perfectly holy. And if you had suffering, well, the problem was with you. There was never an understanding of, no, the world is fallen, and that’s why we suffer. Yet another equally bad idea was the bad idea of the Ebionites. Their name basically means the poor ones. They said there was no virgin birth. There was no apostolic authority of the disciples. So they rejected pretty much all of the New Testament. And they argued that to be a true Christian, You must be poor, you must earn your righteousness, and you must be vegetarian. Those things were all present there. It was this idea of somehow you can earn salvation by just doing certain things. This is why we get, for example, the character of Melito of Sardis. Melito of Sardis was a pastor in the second century, and he writes this in one of his sermons that’s preserved to history. He says, “Jesus arrived on earth from the heavens for the sake of the one who suffered. He clothed himself in the sufferer.” He became human because we suffer. “By means of a virgin’s womb, and he came forth as an actual human being. He took to himself the sufferings of the sufferer by means of a body capable of suffering.” You notice how much he emphasizes this? “And he destroyed the sufferings of our flesh by a spirit that was incapable of death. He killed off death, which is the great homicide. In other words, the church fathers emphasize how Jesus truly was God and truly was human. One of those church fathers was named Irenaeus of Lyon. His dates for reference are 115 to 202 AD. He himself was not from Lyon, which is in Gaul. He was from Smyrna over in Asia Minor. It was there that he was born to Greek Christian parents and was given, like Justin Martyr, an excellent education in Greek philosophy and Greek literature.
It’s also there that he was discipled by Papias and Polycarp, some of the earliest church fathers after the apostles, both themselves discipled by John.
He actually said that what I heard from Polycarp, I wrote not on paper, but I wrote it in my heart. And by the grace of God, I constantly bring it afresh to mind. Meaning he recognized just the glorious blessing of knowing Polycarp. Whenever Polycarp said, he just memorized it. That must have been the presence of such a man. One historian, Liam Carmichael, says of Irenaeus that he loved his home in Asia Minor, there in Smyrna. He loved, quote, “his home and his country and his friends.” I mention that because he made the decision to travel all the way across the empire to Lyon to serve in the church there. He actually came there after the great persecution of 177 when that pastor, the 90-year-old Pothinus, was put to death from torture. After Irenaeus arrived, we’re told that the church actually grew in size, probably not so much from his work, but from all the witness of the martyrs, the fact that people had seen these Christians die with such bravery, really with such faith that they had.
Irenaeus, however, realized he had to fight against Gnosticism. He had to fight against all those bad ideas I just defined for you. He actually once said that if Polycarp had heard of such things, he would have said, “Oh, good God, unto what time have you brought me that I should tolerate such things?” Irenaeus curiously accused the Gnostics of being indifferent to Jesus, which is actually brilliant. What he basically meant was that the Gnostics were all about their rules and all about trying to earn salvation on their own. They weren’t really about Jesus. They didn’t really have a love for him, which is why he says, quote, “The true way to God is love. It is better to be willing to know nothing but Jesus Christ the crucified than to fall into ungodliness through over curious questions and paltry subtleties.
” In other words, he saw Gnosticism as trying to ask too many questions or really trying to answer too many questions. It didn’t really seem to admire a proper mystery. Also to combat narcissism, he quoted heavily from the New Testament over 1,000 recorded times. Actually recorded every single book except Philemon, probably because he just never got around to it. He dealt with schisms in the church over the dating of Easter, like many church fathers did. And Tertullian said of him that he was, quote, “one of the most curious explorers into all kinds of doctrines. It’s in fact his confession that is still preserved to us in history, in which he writes this for the new Christian to say, or really for any Christian to say in the weekly church service, “The church believes, or I believe, in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them.
And I believe in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation. There’s again, the emphasis on becoming flesh. And in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed by the prophets, the divine, and the coming of Christ, his birth from a virgin, his passion, his rising from the dead and the bodily ascension to heaven of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, and his manifestation from heaven and the glory of the Father to sum up all things in one and to raise up again all flesh of the whole human race.
He’s emphasizing the redemption of this actual world. You’ll also notice it sounds like the Apostles’ Creed. He helped lay the groundwork for that famous document of the church. Eventually, Leon underwent the persecutions of Septimius Severus, who surrounded the city with his legions and then sent them in for a general massacre of all Christians, men, women, and children alike.
It’s there at the age of 87, roughly the same age that Polycarp was, that Irenaeus met his end and also his reward.