Jay Michaelson
June, 1998


Resisting Dualism:
The Philosophical and Hermeneutic Arguments of
Irenaeus's Against Heresies


I. Introduction: The dualist problem

A. A brief history of spirit


In the beginning, there was the body. We all have bodies; we all see them; and to one extent or another, we all value them. Eventually, as religious belief systems began to grow in the Near East, people began to relate their livelihoods, and the well-being of their communities, to some sort of larger processes or powers in the world. They attached value to the way they related to this larger whole, and sometimes personalized the nature of the relationship, seeing it in terms of kingship, parenthood, or even a business covenant. In the Biblical religions that would later develop into Judaism, it was believed that there was but one "larger power" in the world the God of Israel that he created the world, and chose Israel as His people from among the nations, and that so long as the people of Israel gave God his due, and followed his many commandments, God would make their land fertile, protect them from enemies, and provide a range of other this-worldly benefits.


But after the body, there is change. Change takes place both in the realm of inanimate objects salt dissolves, buildings crumble and, eventually, in the realm of the organic as well: people decay, and die. While Israel negotiated the terms of its agreement with God, pre-Socratic thinkers in Greece struggled to understand how a thing can both remain itself and undergo change. If all of the molecules in my body have changed over the last twenty-seven years, then am I the same body, or the same person, as I was when I was born?


The Pre-Socratics debated a wide range of possibilities: that everything was in flux, that there were certain core elements (water, fire) which remained constant throughout change, and so on. But Plato, who is the beginning of the story here, argued neither that everything changed nor that some thing always stayed the same, but rather that the essence of every thing was its form, and that while a thing may undergo changes in its substance, it always continued to participate in form. An olive tree grows from a seed to a sapling to a tree, but always in some way reflects or embodies the form of the olive tree.


And a man, though his body originates from a humunculous and grows through childhood to old age, and finally dies, also has some essence to him that does not change in this way: his intellect, or his soul. The soul, said Plato, is immortal. The spirit is essential. Matter is neither.


Platonic dualism and Hebraic monism pose radically different ontological propositions. In the Hebraic model, the material world is the site of God's benevolence and relationship with Israel. (Urbach 198) In the Greek model, the material world is at best irrelevant to the essence of man and his immortality. To the Jews, the flesh was the site of religious significance, national difference, and legal cognizability. (Boyarin 3) To the Greeks, the flesh only imperfectly reflected the perfect forms (to one degree or another, the closer the better), national differences were non-essential, and the spirit of the law was more important than its letter.


The Greeks had a wide range of understandings of creation. If we can take Hesiod, or Plato's Timaeus, at all literally, some held highly mythic conceptions of the world's origination. Some, like Aristotle, believed the world to be eternal. But because there was not such a strong linkage between the creation of the world and the significance of the present, as there was for the Hebrews, the issue was somewhat marginal.


As we all know, Athens and Jerusalem collided, and produced Christianity. Paul, who portrays himself as a reformed Pharisee, blended Greek dualism with Jewish religion as reformed by Jesus, to create an ontological view similar to Plato's in which man possesses an immortal soul in touch with grace yet in terms closer to those of Jesus' version of Judaism: grace, Divine love, and so on. Paul, like many of his contemporaries, even took Platonic dualism a step further than Plato did, holding that the body was not just irrelevant but to some degree evil. "If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live," Paul says in Romans 8:13. And in Galatians, Paul suggests that focusing on the material elements in circumcision is (at best) an erroneous distraction, because it deludes one into thinking that acts on the body, rather than acts of the heart/soul, are the avenue to grace.


For Plotinus to say such a thing is not terribly problematic; he is describing the way the world is, and if the material world is a gross interference with intellection and the progress of the spirit, then so it is. But for Paul to say such things is a very large problem: because he also wants to say that the same God who sent Jesus Christ to establish a new covenant with mankind also created the world.


As such, the problem facing Paul is quite foundational: what is the world for, if it is not the locus of religious significance? Why did God even create the world, if it is (1) non-essential and (2) so full of suffering?


B. Word become flesh: Dualism and identity for Irenaeus


Such concerns may be purely philosophical or theological if an incipient community is secured by means of power, or constituted in terms other than those of ideas. But for Irenaeus (c.130-c.200), whose work is the subject of this paper, the problem becomes political as well as philosophical. The Church which was forming in his time was a unique community in its societal context: it was bound together not by racial or national ties but by belief and practice. As such, matters of belief which could be treated in a pluralistic fashion by the Romans or the Pharisees could not be so tolerated by the early Christians: they were basic issues of constitutive identity.


Nor were they idle matters even on purely ideological terms. Beyond the political nature of heresy and dissent, we should recognize several consequential questions that result from the Pauline dualist straddle. Perhaps most pressing of these, in light of Christian and other martyrdom in the period, is what is now thought of in theological circles as the "Problem of Evil." The Jewish understanding of God and the world allows evil to exist, either because of free will on humans' part or retribution on God's part. The Platonic worldview understands what we think of as evil as part of the material world, and not really "real" at all. But if God indeed created the world, and God is all-loving and benevolent, then why is there suffering, pain, and death? Moving away from the problem of evil per se, why is there even distance (what we would today call alienation) from God at all? The Pauline straddle between a Greek dualist ontology and a Hebraic cosmology is not a merely academic problem; it creates deep tensions within Christian religious consciousness, the resolutions of which are my subject here.

Irenaeus, we shall see, proposes at least two positive solutions to the problem of the material world. On the one hand, he creates what I suggest is a subtly new Christian anthropology, which revalorizes the body in the face of the gnostic threat. And on the other hand, he shifts the ground of the argument from philosophy to hermeneutics, thus changing the entire nature of the debate itself. Since most of Against Heresies is, as its title suggests, concerned with negative arguments against gnosticism rather than positive responses to it, it is important to see how the gnostics answered the "question" of materiality so that we can understand how Irenaeus responds to them.


II. The gnostic solution


Gnosticism, by which I mean the cluster of heretical schools which subscribed to some form of dualist philosophy, generally provided a clear answer to this question. (Rudolf 23) The material world, the world that we see, was not created by the Good and Benevolent God, but by someone else. As complex as the theogonies of gnosticism, and as elaborate as their myths grow, the fundamental answer they pose to the problem of materiality is simple: it comes from somewhere else. There may be a thousand ways to attain true knowledge and be free of the interference of the creator-god, but the basic gnostic move remains straightforward: the material world is evil because it was created by something other than the benevolent God.


As such, gnostic theology is able to maintain both the Hebraic conception of a benevolent God and a strong dualistic conception of the universe which holds the material world to be completely evil. Of course, the gnostics make this move at a price: the validity of the Old Testament, or at least anything resembling a literal reading thereof. Marcion, for example, finds himself bound to reject the entirety of the Old Testament as the creation of the "bad" creator god, and excludes much of what becomes canonized in the New Testament as well. Ptolomy's Epistle to Flora, taking Paul's "spiritualization" of the Old Testament's commandments farther than Paul himself did, finds a middle position placing the Old Testament God as neither good not bad but "just," (PtF 33.7.3-5) although much of the material in the Hebrew Bible is not even deemed to be of his authorship.


It is important to note that the gnostic move is coherent as much within Paul's very mild denigration of the body as within the harsh condemnations of all things material that one finds in the Nag Hammadi material. If matter is indeed gross and base, the problem of who created it is more pronounced, but we should reiterate the fact that the basic dilemma exists even if matter is nothing more than a neutral nuisance and potential distracter.


Needless to say, the gnostic "answer" was deemed utterly unacceptable by Irenaeus and later figures in what becomes Christian orthodoxy. Irenaeus, whose affirmative position will be discussed momentarily, regards gnostic hermeneutics as preposterous (e.g. Against Heresies I., 3.6, 8.1, 9.4) and the idea of God as "Creator, Maker, and Sustainer of this universe" as fundamental (id. I.,10.3). Although Irenaeus spends at least as long criticizing gnostic ritual practice and exegetical method as he does its dualist cosmology/ theology, this first (extant) text of anti-heretical literature makes it clear that the "gnostic answer" is not going to be acceptable by the Church orthodoxy.


If we agree with Daniel Boyarin that Pharisaic Judaism was essentially monistic in outlook (Boyarin 230ff), we can now see it and gnosticism as two unacceptable poles: total materialism on the one hand, total anti-materialism on the other. No matter how good or bad the material world seems to be, the Church fathers will not have either metaphysical option available. But what else is there?


III. Against Heresy


A. The Negative Argument: Dualism is unacceptable


Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, dismisses as theologically unacceptable the Valentinian position that the world was created by some entity other than the God of the Old and New Testaments. For Irenaeus, it is impossible to deny "there is one God, the Creator, and that He is not the fruit of any defect, nor is there anything either above Him, or after Him." (AH II.Preface.2) Interestingly, Irenaeus does not initially take this position on dogmatic grounds; in Book II of Against Heresies, he attempts to argue philosophically against the gnostics. For Irenaeus, to say that there is something other-than-the-Pleroma is a category mistake, assigning limit to the infinite. (AH II.1.3) It is simply impossible in the philosophical, not theological, sense -- that "The name of the Omnipotent will thus be brought to an end." (AH II.1.5)


Nor, Irenaeus says, is the gnostic position conceivable theologically. Quoting John, Irenaeus affirms also that "All things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made." (AH II.2.5) Throughout the books of Against Heresies, Irenaeus uses proof-texts and even church history (e.g. AH III.4.1) to show that the gnostic position is untenable.


Eventually, Irenaeus concludes that "the first principles of the Gospel" are "that there is one God, the Maker of this universe; He who was also announced by the prophets, and who by Moses set forth the dispensation of the law,--[principles] which proclaim the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ignore any other God or Father except Him." (AH III.11.7) The gnostic answer is incoherent, and in Irenaeus's view, contrary to the fundamentals of Christian belief.


B. The Positive Argument I: Philosophical Quasi-Monism


Given Irenaeus's unequivocal stance, what is the answer to the Pauline problem? Why is there matter at all, if spirit is what is essential? And why is the material world not perfect, if God created it?


Irenaeus's "solution" is laid out in the later books of Against Heresies, and it is essentially twofold: First, the flesh is connected to God, and Second, even despite this point, gospel texts with which even the heretics agree contain statements that explicitly make clear the fact that God created the world, so the "question of materiality" is at best secondary.


Irenaeus's first argument develops in Book V of Against Heresies. Building on the Biblical verse, already quoted in AH III.11.2, that the "Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us," Irenaeus builds a fairly rigorous anthropology that recaptures the saved-ness of the flesh. Already, he had said that the essence of humanity is not spirit alone, but rather "a mixed organization of soul and flesh, who was formed after the likeness of God, and moulded by His hands, that is, by the Son and Holy Spirit." (AH IV.Preface) Now, in Book V, he strongly affirms the salvation of the flesh via the incarnation and the eucharist.


Irenaeus appears to view the incarnation not as a temporary residing of the spirit in fleshly form but as an ontological condition of the universe. The fleshliness of the incarnation is emphasized in Book V:


Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God,--all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. (AH V.1.1)


In a moment, I will discuss the context of this statement that it is used not for demonstrating the ontological value of the flesh but for the ultimate infallibility of New Testament teaching. But let us take this statement on its own terms for just a moment. For Irenaeus, the incarnation is not (only) a "condescension" of the Spirit into flesh it is also a link between flesh and spirit: "attaching man to God." By virtue of this attachment, which is not temporary (i.e. the life of Jesus) but permanent, the material world is linked to the Divine. It is not "fallen" after all.


Irenaeus next points out that gnostic dualism is contradicted by the material nature of the eucharist:

When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?--even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that "we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones." He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones,--that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. (AH V.2.3)


Such statements as these are not meproof-texts, like the hundreds assembled before them in Against Heresies. These texts make an ontological statement that was not present in Paul: that flesh is capable of receiving the gift of God. Recall that for Paul, flesh was at best irrelevant for the "gift of God." This position led me to ask what the flesh is for at all. Irenaeus differs from Paul; for Irenaeus, the flesh is quite relevant. And of course, since Irenaeus, unlike most modern scholars, believes the epistle to the Ephesians to be authentically Pauline in origin, he does not even have to enter into legitimizing his break from Paul, because "Paul" himself uses fleshly terms to describe the connection to God.


Finally, Irenaeus extends his quasi-monism to human anthropology itself. He argues that the very liveliness of the human body is testament to the fact that the soul resides in the body, not out of it. Analogizing the body to a sponge that holds the water of the soul, Irenaeus concludes that "The flesh, therefore, is not destitute [of participation] in the constructive wisdom and power of God." (AH V.3.3) Irenaeus, unlike Paul, sees the body, not just the soul, as the instrument of divinity. Matter exists because matter connects the human with God.


To be sure, Irenaeus still leaves room for the evils of "carnality," but he redefines the evil of the flesh away from the terms of fleshliness as such and towards terms of lustfulness:


Those persons, then, who possess the earnest of the Spirit, and who are not enslaved by the lusts of the flesh, but are subject to the Spirit, and who in all things walk according to the light of reason, does the apostle properly term "spiritual," because the Spirit of God dwells in them. Now, spiritual men shall not be incorporeal spirits; but our substance, that is, the union of flesh and spirit, receiving the Spirit of God, makes up the spiritual man.    (AH V.8.2)


Irenaeus's reinterpretation of fleshliness as lust and spirituality as unity of flesh and spirit is perhaps the best evidence in Against Heresies of his new anthropology. Where Paul seemed to suggest that man might be just as well off without a body, the gnostics said man cannot be saved at all with a body. Irenaeus mends the fence: the body is essential. It is how the body is used, whether indulged in lustfulness or unified with the spirit, that determines salvation.


Irenaeus subsequently devotes the rest of Book V to interpreting the many texts which appear to contradict his anthropological and ontological stance, and with more proof-texts, showing how God has been involved with bodies from Enoch to Elijah. (Indeed, the lengths to which Irenaeus must go to read his anthropology into the New Testament testifies to his innovation, or perhaps renovation, of quasi-monism.) But the basic point should by now be clear: Irenaeus solves the dualist problem by revalorizing the body, by stating that it is saved and is part of the dynamic of salvation that runs through Christian theology. Irenaeus's non-Pauline anthropology evades the slippage into gnostic dualism.

We should note that Irenaeus has still not answered some of the consequential questions posed earlier. Even if the world is linked to God, why was it created to begin with? And what of the problem of evil? Irenaeus's move, at least in Against Heresies, is not to answer these questions, but to change their status, from problems that may shape ontology, to problems that need to be worked out in the context of an ontology/cosmology that cannot be questioned.


C. The Positive Argument II: Hermeneutical Fideism


All along, we have been operating under the basic assumption that Paul, the gnostics, and Irenaeus are involved in a kind of philosophical quest to deduce the nature of God and the universe. But obviously this is not the case at all. Indeed, the quintessentially religious nature of the discourse becomes clear in exactly the same spot as the passage just quoted. In Book V of Against Heresies, Irenaeus states categorically that, whatever out philosophical opinions, only Jesus can in fact teach truth. Irenaeus had already pointed out the fact that there were no Valentinians before Valentinus, and no Marcions before Marcion, suggesting that these men invented their teachings themselves. (AH III.4) Now, in Book V, Irenaeus suggests that their teaching is fundamentally of a lower quality, because it is simply impossible for humans to deduce correct gnosis of the godhead:


FOR in no other way could we have learned the things of God, unless our Master, existing as the Word, had become man. For no other being had the power of revealing to us the things of the Father, except His own proper Word. For what other person "knew the mind of the Lord," or who else "has become His counsellor?" (AH V.1)


In short, Book V of Against Heresies takes what would today be called a fundamentalist turn. Though Irenaeus had hinted earlier on at some kind of philosophical solution to the problem of dualism, here he falls back on the source of the revelation being God. While this may be less convincing for a modern reader, Irenaeus's solution may be more persuasive in context, because many of his proof-texts discussed above come from gospels which even Marcion agreed were "authentic." While it is true that Irenaeus also makes extensive use of Old Testament material, he has already made such ample use of the gospels that his argument here can be quite strong.


As such, Irenaeus's basic positive argument is less philosophical than it is hermeneutical. If we grant that his audience (and the Valentinians themselves) agree that the gospel is completely true, then the real question is not one based on theory but based on interpretation. Why is the material world created by God? Because Jesus said it is. Why is the God of the Old Testament the same as the God of the New Testament? Because the New Testament says it is. Again, this may seem like a retreat to modern ears, but to accuse Irenaeus of "falling back" on fundamentalism is an anachronism. What he is doing is shifting the nature of the discourse against the gnostic heresies from a philosophical ground, where I have already suggested post-Pauline Christians have a problem, to a hermeneutical ground, where Irenaeus is able to make some persuasive points, probably best reflected in the parodies and sarcasm of Book I.


If a Valentinian argues a spiritual interpretation of the eucharist, Irenaeus is ready to engage him on hermeneutical grounds. But he is not willing to debate the basic philosophical questions about how the world was created outside of those bounds, because ultimately, a proper hermeneutical understanding of what is said in the gospels is a proper philosophical understanding of the nature of the world. Thus, Irenaeus's positive argument for anti-dualism links back, in the end of Against Heresies, to the hermeneutical negative arguments against the gnostics with which the work began. Hermeneutics is not just a way to show that the gnostics are foolish; given the nature of the text, it provides the foundation for Irenaeus's later, positive ideas.


As for the consequential arguments discussed at the end of Part I of this paper, Irenaeus's method changes their status considerably. They may remain theological puzzles, but one of the critical distinctions between theology and philosophy is that the theologian already knows the answer. The Problem of Evil, for example, will become for the post-conversion Augustine less a matter of investigating the nature of materiality than a matter of syncretizing the apparent existence of evil with the incontrovertible truth that God created the world. Once Augustine is "firmly persuaded that thou our Lord, the true God [made] not only our souls but our bodies as well--and not only our souls and bodies but all creatures and all things," the problem of evil which once tormented him changes. (Augustine Confessions VII.3) Once he has embraced the essence of Christianity, Augustine "realized that the question must be so analyzed as not to constrain me by any answer to believe that the immutable God was mutable .. . And so I pursued the search with a quiet mind, now in a confident feeling that what had been said by the Manicheans--and I shrank from them with my whole heart--could not be true." (Id.)


This "quiet mind" is precisely the difference between a belief that results from a philosophical/ anthropological argument, such as Irenaeus's first line of thought, and a hermeneutical one, which characterizes his second one. The fundamental hermeneutical questions may remain quite contentious, and Augustine, like Irenaeus, was anything but "quiet" about how to understand Scripture. But once those questions are solved, the consequences which may have colored the philosophical investigations are less pressing, because they are only consequences, not determinants.


IV. Conclusion


Irenaeus ends up, in my view, moving away from dualism in the face of the gnostic threat. Pauline ambiguity is possible when one's boundaries are patrolled not by ideas but by power, or in the case of Judaism, by ethnicity. But when ideas are the boundary-line between Christian stability and instability, something more definitive is needed. Irenaeus stakes out a surprisingly monistic anthropology in the later books of Against Heresies, and builds that anthropology into his hermeneutic certitude.


As such, the real retreat of Against Heresies is not the fundamentalist move, but rather the return to a form of monism as against Greek dualism. One might respond that Irenaeus is not really monistic here, because a sponge holding water (his metaphor for the body containing the soul) still implies that the water is something other than the sponge. But in fact, Irenaeus uses this metaphor to show how water and sponge, flame and torch, are unified in the ideal. And let us recall that even the Pharisees had a notion of the soul-in-the-body. A body without any kind of animating presence only exists as half of the dualist pair. Monists are precisely those who must identify the soul within the body itself.


Once again, one can still ask why is this the case, why must a soul be in a body. But Irenaeus has already answered it: it is the case because it is the case. One might as well ask why a soul must be a soul, why a table must be a table. For Irenaeus, once anyone who believes in the gospels grants his interpretive correctness, the question becomes tautological.


As a side-note, it is interesting to take note of the fact retreat away from dualism is not the only possible response to extreme, gnostic dualism. Ironically, one of the most interesting responses to dualism comes from a move within Judaism that had long been thought of as "Jewish gnosticism." (See Scholem 12ff) Following the philosophical revolution in Judaism in the 12th and 13th centuries, for example, Jewish thinkers were faced with a similar challenge as Irenaeus and Augustine had to answer, as suddenly the grammar of Greek philosophy entered Judaism: a grammar of "outside appearance" and "inside meaning" of commandments, of the letter and the spirit. Interestingly, even the sharpest critics of Maimonidean neo-Aristotelianism did not seem to attack the basic dualist premise - hardly anyone said that there was no "shell" and "kernel" to the Jewish commandments, because the shell was the kernel. Even as Maimonides' books were burned, the people burning them were developing their own dualist answers to his philosophical account indeed, the vocabulary of "shell" and "kernel" becomes a central motif in subsequent Kabbalistic writings.


But the Kabbalah is neither gnostic (renouncing the material) nor monistic (renouncing the spiritual). Instead, the theosophical-theurgical Kabbalah held that the Torah and mitzvot formed a bridge between the material and the spiritual; every action on Earth had a theurgical effect "on high." The Kabbalistic solution enabled the continued value of the performance of material mitzvot, even as it ceded the question of whether there is a ground of signification beyond the material to the Maimonidean side.


The Kabbalah's straddle, like Paul's, proved unstable. It was a matter of (only) a few hundred years before the anomian and even antinomian element in the Kabbalah became exploited by Shabbetai Tzvi, and a fortiori Jacob Frank, who to varying degrees proposed that the connection between the signifier of the mitzvah and the signified (within God) may not be obvious, and may indeed be inverse. Conceptually speaking, the foundation for this view existed from the moment the first Kabbalists bought into the Greek notion that there is something beyond this world, and that that is what "really matters." The fence of the Kabbalah that that other realm is affected by actions in this one was not strong enough.


Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies when "Shabbetai Tzvi" was already present, when there was already a renunciation of the "world of appearances" in favor of a supernal realm. Deriding those who denigrated the material world and turned their eyes toward a distant realm of spirit, Irenaeus - perhaps surprisingly to those who would generalize all of early Christianity as "spiritual" -- reaffirmed the world of appearance.


Sources Cited
Primary Material


Augustine, Confessions (Albert C. Outler trans.)

Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Robert M. Grant trans.)

New Testament (Revised International Version)

Ptolemy's Epistle to Flora (Bentley Layton trans.)




Secondary Material


Boyarin, Daniel, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (1993)

Rudolf, Kurt, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (1985)

Scholem, Gershom, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (1960)

Urbach, Ephraim, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs (1975)


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