Race: A Theological Account

By J. Kameron Carter | Go to book overview

Prelude on Christology
and Race
Irenaeus as Anti-Gnostic Intellectual

Gnostic writing, when strong, is strong because it is supermimetic,
because it confronts and seeks to overthrow the very strongest of
all texts, the Jewish Bible. That supermimesis is an intolerable bur-
den, whether for literature or for the fallen poetry of theology.

—Harold Bloom, “Lying against Time:
Gnosis, Poetry, Criticism”

[The Gnostic] imagines there to be three classes of human beings:
the spiritual, the psychic, and the material, after the fashion of Cain,
Abel, and Seth. It is from these three that the three natures come,
no longer in an individual but in the human race as such.

—Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus haeresus 1.7.5

In this prelude, I revisit the intellectual struggle that Irenaeus (c. 125200), bishop of Lyons, waged against ancient Gnosticism in his treatise Against Heresies (Adversus haeresus).1A reading of this text reveals that Irenaeus’s struggle with ancient Gnosticism was no mere intellectual disagreement. It was a struggle tied to the claims that Christianity and Gnosticism wanted to make about material existence. Irenaeus understood his struggle against the ancient Gnostic movement, particularly in its Valentinian-Ptolemaeic variant, as a struggle over the meaning of the body both individually and as a sociopolitical arrangement—that is, as tied to or indicative of the body politic. The Gnostic struggle pushed him to distinguish Christianity’s way of imagining the body (politic) as tied to Christ’s flesh from Gnosticism’s vision of the body (politic). Key to Irenaeus’s

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