The wizard Simon of Samaria wanted to be powerful and famous. His nickname was “The Great Power of God!” and he had a many fans. When he heard the gospel of Jesus, as preached by Phillip and proved by miraculous signs, he believed. Still a fan of “magic,” Simon coveted the power of Peter and John when they came to Samaria to give the Holy Spirit to the new believers. He was willing to pay for the special knowledge these two friends of Jesus possessed, so that he too could control God’s essence. But his motive was false. He still loved the applause of the crowd and the supernatural control of others. Peter rebuked his bitter spirit and his sin.
This story, found in Acts 8, is the first spark of the all-too-human quest for power-filled knowledge that found its way into Christianity. Power is having ability to do something. Simon’s desire for the power Jesus gave to Peter and John (imparting the Holy Spirit by laying hands) was not unique. But it is the first time we read of it, and in less than a year after Jesus’ ascension! The quest for power as a means of salvation through secret knowledge became rampant in the early church. These were the Gnostics.
It is hard to imagine pioneering the new sect of Jesus. Today, we have 2000 years of thought and study that has shaped our understanding. To those living in the 1st and 2nd century, they had the word of those who walked with Jesus and the ancient Jewish Scripture. We have the same, but the centuries of debate help us shape our beliefs by taking the shortcuts forged by their hard study and argument.
The ideas of Gnosticism took root and spread before thought was given to the veracity of its foundation and its results. The thinkers of that time, when confronted with the wave of gnostic knowledge seekers, had to ask some hard questions. Does Scripture provide all we need to know God? Is there more we should seek? Can we trust those who witnessed the life of Jesus to give the whole account? How do we know which books to trust? How does salvation come?
Refuting the Gnostic Teaching
This was the life-work of Irenaeus. Irenaeus (2nd century) was born into a Christian family and he studied in Smyrna under Polycarp, who was a disciple of John. He also spent time studying at the school of Justin in Rome. He tackled the teachings of the Gnostics in detail. His books describe the doctrine of the Gnostics of his day and location, and their practices. Many of them believed Jesus colluded with Judas to betray him and taught him things He hid from the others. They believed the physical world was evil, and this led to either asceticism or debauchery.
Irenaeus debated the Gnostics using Old Testament Scripture, four accounts of the apostles, the writings of Paul and the historical record of the unity found in the leaders of the church. Remember, before the “bible” was canonized, there were many writings floating around. Irenaeus’ work helped refine a litmus-test for later scholars compiling the books into the Book. There was also a visible record of the unity of doctrine found in the leaders of the church, traced back to the apostles. Irenaeus contrasted this legacy to the scattered and varied doctrine of the Gnostics.
Irenaeus used Justin’s teachings to formulate his arguments against the Gnostic concept of Aeons of Gods: that God was many gods of various influence and authority. He stressed the unity and equality of the Godhead, and the full divinity of the Logos, or Christ.
Another interesting teaching of Irenaeus is his eschatology. He details and merges Revelation’s prophecy with the weeks of Daniel. He taught that the Time, Times and Half a Times was a literal three and a half years reign of anti-Christ just prior to the Second Coming of Christ. When Christ returns, all the just will be raised to reign with Jesus in an earthly kingdom. The wicked who are alive will be destroyed. After the millennium, there will be a general resurrection and judgement and the descent of the New Jerusalem. He believed anyone who taught that the righteous dead were glorified in a spiritual kingdom immediately after death were heretics.
Irenaeus did not write his own history, so we know little of his birth date or death. He was a bishop in France, and spent his life with the French church or traveling as a missionary. His volumes reveal a lively conviction of faith. His books have steered the church away from the speculative theories of Gnosticism, and his arguments have been foundational in firming the faith as we understand it today.
How would Irenaeus have answered Simon the sorcerer? Like Peter, Irenaeus stressed the redemptive power of Christ’s atonement. Salvation and forgiveness is not limited to those with certain “abilities” (or power), but to anyone who repents and prays. (Acts 8:20-22)