Irenaeus is an important father of the church for a number of reasons. His extensive writing and fairly impeccable theology situated in the period which saw the end of the apostolic fathers and apologists. Even though Irenaeus was bishop of Lyon, he was from Asia Minor. He also had direct contact with Polycarp, the disciple of John the Apostle.
Often in discussions concerning the making and veneration of images with Protestants, there is a passage that is adduced to prove that the early church was either iconoclastic or the weaker claim of being iconophobic. The passage is as follows,
“They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.”
This passage is situated at the end of Irenaeus discussion of the Gnostic sect of the Carpocrates and I will give them their due attention in a moment. But first we need to just look at the text itself and see what it bears.
There is no open and absolute condemnation of representational art here. Irenaeus in condemning the Carpocrates isn’t condemning them for having art work per se of things in heaven, earth or under the earth. He doesn’t invoke biblical language as read to prohibit all image making. Nor is there here an unconditional condemnation of veneration of images. Irenaeus doesn’t say that veneration is evil and therefore what the Carpocrates are doing is evil. Nor does Irenaeus tell us much about what the kind of objectionable veneration is taking place.
There do seem to be three things that have warranted Irenaeus’ condemnation. First, they claim to have an image made by Pontius Pilate of Jesus. They seemingly use this to bolster their claim to apostolic authenticity. Second, that they set up this image of Jesus along with various philosophers-Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle. This implication seems to be that Jesus is one of many men of wisdom.
Here it is important to understand what a man of wisdom was thought to be in the ancient world of the Mediterranean. Socrates is the prime example. A man of wisdom is commissioned by the gods or divine powers, sometimes without even knowing it. He is a “seer” of sorts who interprets signs from the gods. Signs from the gods were ambiguous and deliberately so to instill respect and humility. Someone suffering from hubris would misinterpret the signs, usually to their own downfall. And of course language was a system of signs that Socrates or any other man of wisdom could interpret to find the truth, customarily in such a way as to humiliate the arrogant and ignorant since those two defects often ran together.
Third, that they have other modes of honoring these images on top of the aforementioned practice of crowning them and that these ways of expressing honor are essentially the same as those found among the pagans for honoring their gods. What these exact modes are, Irenaeus doesn’t tell us.
Just looking at the text then, there seems to be no good reason to think that Irenaeus is expressing belief in iconoclasm or even iconophobia. Even the most ardent defenders of iconodulism would find the claims and practices of the Carpocrates objectionable. An iconodule can reject all of the practices mentioned here without any inconsistency. The text then offers no support to the thesis that the early church at the time of Irenaeus was iconoclastic.
But we can take the matter further. To understand what exactly Irenaeus is objecting to it might help to sketch the beliefs of the Carpocrates to situate his remarks. For them the world was created by angels inferior to the “father.” Among these architectural angels there is one superior to the rest by far and this is the deity of the Old Testament. This archon or ruler imposed order and law and so the world itself bears these marks. Morality is the construction of an inferior agent. Law and order then are turned on their heads from the position of both Hellenism and Christianity grounding Gnostic antinomianism. Morality and law are sub-moral and sub-legal.
Jesus is taken as an important figure because while raised in Judaism, according to the Carpocrates, he despised the Jewish law and so was endowed with particular powers above those of ordinary men enabling him to throw off bodily passions. The “purity” of Jesus soul then marks him off from other men rather than a miraculous birth. This purity was in part the result of recollecting more of his bodily pre-existence than other men. He is a great soul. The soul upon embodiment in Platonism as well as Gnosticism suffers from confusion and ignorance. This is in part due to the matter of the body. Matter in the ancient world was by and large propertyless unlike contemporary conceptions of matter which take matter to have its own form or property, namely extension. Matter in Platonism is metaphysically indeterminate. The power of the soul as life is spread out over the matter to form body and its power becomes thus dissipated and ineffective. To be precise, the soul is not in the body, but the body is in the soul since the soul comes to matter and forms body. This constitutes the fall of soul into body.
Since Jesus retained this knowledge of a pre-embodied existence and received the appropriate powers, he could transcend the ruler of this world and hence its moral laws. “Christ” is the spirit that comes upon the man Jesus or is a status achieved by the man Jesus. Here we have the meeting of an adoptionistic Christology with the Platonic notion of a man of wisdom. The efficient principle is supplied by Plato’s early to middle period teaching of education as recollection from a pre-embodied existence with the result in Carpocrates being docetism. This is why Irenaeus remarks that the Carpocrates thought of themselves on a par with Jesus, Paul or Peter. Salvation then was achievable via the efforts of the soul in and of itself.
“The soul, therefore, which is like that of Christ can despise those rulers who were the creators of the world, and, in like manner, receives power for accomplishing the same results. This idea has raised them to such a pitch of pride, that some of them declare themselves similar to Jesus; while others, still more mighty, maintain that they are superior to his disciples, such as Peter and Paul, and the rest of the apostles, whom they consider to be in no respect inferior to Jesus. For their souls, descending from the same sphere as his, and therefore despising in like manner the creators of the world, are deemed worthy of the same power, and again depart to the same place. But if any one shall have despised the things in this world more than he did, he thus proves himself superior to him.”
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.25.2
Plato held the recollection thesis early on that education is not conveying information but remembering things known from a prior existence because he took knowledge to be an all or nothing deal. And he thought that because the objects of knowledge were simple either the soul grasped them or it did not. If that is so, it is impossible to learn about something you don’t know about since you don’t know about it. Eventually he drops the recollection theory since he moves to the idea that forms are anatomic or intrinsically related. Anyhow, the soul being life or the power of life cannot die, since then it would not be itself but its opposite and a thing can never be itself and its opposite. Given that the objects of knowledge for Plato are eternal and like things go with like, the soul knows these things prior to embodiment. “Forgetting” is what takes place when soul comes to matter to bring about body. The man of wisdom delivers not only knowledge of things, but our true identity from the immaterial world.
This is important to note since Carpocrates was probably more indebted to Platonism and Pythagoreanism than other Gnostics like Basilides. Like Plato, but to a more accentuated degree and put to different purposes, the body is a prison for the soul. After liberation from the body the soul then chooses a new embodied life based on its past experiences. It must do so until it has learned everything required and can be free of the cycle of death and reincarnation. But if it has limited experiences it will most likely choose badly and so it was necessary for Carpocrates that persons choose to enjoy as many experiences as possible. In order to make this possible, then no act can be good or evil in and of itself. This is why they embraced libertinism and antinomianism. Hence order and law were evil since they returned the soul to its prison by limiting its choices and experiences.
So the Carpocrates also engaged in various debaucheries.
“So unbridled is their madness, that they declare they have in their power all things which are irreligious and impious, and are at liberty to practice them; for they maintain that things are evil or good, simply in virtue of human opinion. They deem it necessary, therefore, that by means of transmigration from body to body, souls should have experience of every kind of life as well as every kind of action (unless, indeed, by a single incarnation, one may be able to prevent any need for others, by once for all, and with equal completeness, doing all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of, nay, which we must not even conceive in our thoughts, nor think credible, if any such thing is mooted among those persons who are our fellow-citizens), in order that, as their writings express it, their souls, having made trial of every kind of life, may, at their departure, not be wanting in any particular. It is necessary to insist upon this, lest, on account of some one thing being still wanting to their deliverance, they should be compelled once more to become incarnate.”
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.25.4
The gatekeeper to transcend this life was the devil and the Carpocrates reinterpreted Matthew 5:25ff concerning reconciling with someone with whom you have a dispute to refer to the devil. The “adversary” or the devil had to be paid off in order to lead souls back to their true home. And the devil is naturally paid in sins. So one has to “sin it up” in this life to escape. As with all forms of Gnosticism there is an inverted moral order-the devil is the good guy of the story.
This is one reason why they engaged in a fair amount of religious syncretism. Crossing religious lines is another way tp cause offense and the Gnostics relished causing scandal and offense.
“They practice also magical arts and incantations; philters, also, and love-potions; and have recourse to familiar spirits, dream-sending demons, and other abominations, declaring that they possess power to rule over, even now, the princes and formers of this world; and not only them, but also all things that are in it.”
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.25.3
It should be obvious that we aren’t dealing with a form of Christianity that its’ advocates are attempting to cash out in philosophical categories, but something else. Carpocrates’ is essentially a Platonic syncretist with a nihilistic twist trying to wed his views to Christianity. What is specifically Gnostic rather than Hellenistic or specifically Platonic is the opposition to order and law. While Plato too thought of the body as a prison of the soul and ignorance the product of embodiment, the world, while a mixture of conflicting powers was still good due to its harmony. This is not so with Carpocrates’ Gnosticism which turns the Hellenism on its head.
The preceding sketch fills in explanatory space as to why Irenaeus finds the practices of the Carpocrates objectionable. But there is more evidence that will support my reading of Irenaeus. It should be kept in mind that the text we have of Against Heresies is a Latin translation of a Greek original which we do not have. The same passage is found in other writers who cite Irenaeus or depend on him for information about the Carpocrates. Hippolytus is one such author who gives the passage this way.
“And they make counterfeit images of Christ, alleging that these were in existence at the time (during which our Lord was on earth, and that they were fashioned) by Pilate.”
Hippolytus’ text is important for three reasons. First, because it is relatively early and not far removed from Irenaeus. Second, Hippolytus’ text indicates that the Carpocrates make counterfeit images of Jesus. And third that they use these images to bolster their claims to apostolicity. Hippolytus makes it seem as if what is objecitonable is not the possession of images or even honor given to them, but that these images are fakes.
Further down the historical road, other writers give us information that fills out probably what Irenaeus had in mind as to how the Carpocrates used these images. Epiphanius of Salamis in his Panarion writes the following.
“They possess paintings-some, moreover, have images made of gold, silver and other materials-and say that such things are portraits in relief of Jesus, and made by Pontius Pilate! That is, the reliefs are portraits of the actual Jesus during his sojourn among men! They possess images like these in secret and of certain philosophers besides-Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and the rest-and also place other reliefs of Jesus with these philosophers. And having erected them, they worship them and celebrate heathen mysteries. For once they have set these images up, they then follow the customs of the heathen; yet what are the customs of the heathen but sacrifices and the rest?”
Like Irenaeus and Hippolytus, what Epiphanius is objecting to is not representational art or iconic veneration per se with respect to Christ or apostolic figures, but the Carpocratic syncretism and the inclusion of Christian figures in pagan sacrificial practices. In such rites, given what we know of the Carpocrates, there was probably a fair amount of sexual immorality thrown in for good measure. Consequently, there is nothing in the passage from Irenaeus that grounds iconophobia or iconoclasm.