Irenaeus had manifestly taken great pains to make himself acquainted with the various heretical systems which he describes. His mode of exposing and refuting these is generally very effective. It is plain that he possessed a good share of learning, and that he had a firm grasp of the doctrines of Scripture. Not unfrequently he indulges in a kind of sarcastic humour, while inveighing against the folly and impiety of the heretics. But at times he gives expression to very strange opinions. He is, for example, quite peculiar in imagining that our Lord lived to be an old man, and that His public ministry embraced at least ten years. But though, on these and some other points, the judgment of Irenaeus is clearly at fault, his work contains a vast deal of sound and valuable exposition of Scripture, in opposition to the fanciful systems of interpretation which prevailed in his day.
We possess only very scanty accounts of the personal history of Irenaeus. It has been generally supposed that he was a native of Smyrna, or some neighbouring city, in Asia Minor. Harvey, however, thinks that he was probably born in Syria, and removed in boyhood to Smyrna. He himself tells us (iii. 3, 4) that he was in early youth acquainted with Polycarp, the illustrious bishop of that city. A sort of clue is thus furnished as to the date of his birth. Dodwell supposes that he was born so early as a.d. 97, but this is clearly a mistake; and the general date assigned to his birth is somewhere between a.d. 120 and a.d. 140.
It is certain that Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons, in France, during the latter quarter of the second century. The exact period or circumstances of his ordination cannot be determined. Eusebius states (Hist. Eccl., v. 4) that he was, while yet a presbyter, sent with a letter, from certain members of the Church of Lyons awaiting martyrdom, to Eleutherus, bishop of Rome; and that (v. 5) he succeeded Pothinus as bishop of Lyons, probably about a.d. 177. His great work Against Heresies was, we learn, written during the episcopate of Eleutherus, that is, between a.d. 182 and a.d. 188, for Victor succeeded to the bishopric of Rome in a.d. 189. This new bishop of Rome took very harsh measures for enforcing uniformity throughout the Church as to the observance of the paschal solemnities. On account of the severity thus evinced, Irenaeus addressed to him a letter (only a fragment of which remains), warning him that if he persisted in the course on which he had entered, the effect would be to rend the Catholic Church in pieces. This letter had the desired result; and the question was more temperately debated. until finally settled by the Council of Nice.
The full title of the principal work of Irenaeus, as given by Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., v. 7), and indicated frequently by the author himself, was A Refutation and Subversion of Knowledge falsely so called, but it is generally referred to under the shorter title, Against Heresies. Several other smaller treatises are ascribed to Irenaeus; viz., An Epistle to Florinus, of which a small fragment has been preserved by Eusebius; a treatise On the Valentinian Ogdoad; a work called forth by the paschal controversy, entitled On Schism, and another On Science; all of which that remain will be found in our next volume of his writings. Irenaeus is supposed to have died about a.d. 202; but there is probably no real ground for the statement of Jerome, repeated by subsequent writers, that he suffered martyrdom, since neither Tertullian nor Eusebius, nor other early authorities, make any mention of such a fact.
As has been already stated, the first printed copy of our author was given to the world by Erasmus. This was in the year 1526. Between that date and 1571, a number of reprints were produced in both folio and octavo. All these contained merely the ancient barbarous Latin version, and were deficient towards the end by five entire chapters. These latter were supplied by the edition of Feuardent, Professor of Divinity at Paris, which was published in 1575, and went through six subsequent editions. Previously to this, however, another had been set forth by Gallasius, a minister of Geneva, which contained the first portions of the Greek text from Epiphanius. Then, in 1702, came the edition of Grabe, a learned Prussian, who had settled in England. It was published at Oxford, and contained considerable additions to the Greek text, with fragments. Ten years after this there appeared the important Paris edition by the Benedictine monk Massuet. This was reprinted at Venice in the year 1724, in two thin folio volumes, and again at Paris in a large octavo, by the Abbe Migne, in 1857. A German edition was published by Stieren in 1853. In the year 1857 there was also brought out a Cambridge edition, by the Rev. Wigan Harvey, in two octavo volumes. The two principal features of this edition are: the additions which have been made to the Greek text from the recently discovered Philosophoumena of Hippolytus; and the further addition of thirty-two fragments of a Syriac version of the Greek text of Irenaeus, culled from the Nitrian collection of Syriac mss. in the British Museum. These fragments are of considerable interest, and in some instances rectify the readings of the barbarous Latin version, where, without such aid, it would have been unintelligible. The edition of Harvey will be found constantly referred to in the notes appended to our translation.
Irenaeus Against Heresies
1. Inasmuch1 as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says,2 “minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith,” and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, [I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations.] These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge, from Him who rounded and adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal, than that God who created the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein. By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them, while they initiate them into their blasphemous and impious opinions respecting the Demiurge;3 and these simple ones are unable, even in such a matter, to distinguish falsehood from truth.
2. Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself. One4 far superior to me has well said, in reference to this point, “A clever imitation in glass casts contempt, as it were, on that precious jewel the emerald (which is most highly esteemed by some), unless it come under the eye of one able to test and expose the counterfeit. Or, again, what inexperienced person can with ease detect the presence of brass when it has been mixed up with silver? ”Lest, therefore, through my neglect, some should be carried off, even as sheep are by wolves, while they perceive not the true character of these men, -because they outwardly are covered with sheep’s clothing (against whom the Lord has enjoined5 us to be on our guard), and because their language resembles ours, while their sentiments are very different,—I have deemed it my duty (after reading some of the Commentaries, as they call them, of the disciples of Valentinus, and after making myself acquainted with their tenets through personal intercourse with some of them) to unfold to thee, my friend, these portentous and profound mysteries, which do not fall within the range of every intellect, because all have not sufficiently purged6 their brains. I do this, in order that thou, obtaining an acquaintance with these things, mayest in turn explain them to all those with whom thou art connected, and exhort them to avoid such an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ. I intend, then, to the best of my ability, with brevity and clearness to set forth the opinions of those who are now promulgating heresy. I refer especially to the disciples of Ptolemaeus, whose school may be described as a bud from that of Valentinus. I shall also endeavour, according to my moderate ability, to furnish the means of overthrowing them, by showing how absurd and inconsistent with the truth are their statements. Not that I am practised either in composition or eloquence; but my feeling of affection prompts me to make known to thee and all thy companions those doctrines which have been kept in concealment until now, but which are at last, through the goodness of God, brought to light. “For there is nothing hidden which shall not be revealed, nor secret that shall not be made known.”7
3. Thou wilt not expect from me, who am resident among the Keltae,8 and am accustomed for the most part to use a barbarous dialect, any display of rhetoric, which I have never learned, or any excellence of composition, which I have never practised, or any beauty and persuasiveness of style, to which I make no pretensions. But thou wilt accept in a kindly spirit what I in a like spirit write to thee simply, truthfully, and in my own homely way; whilst thou thyself (as being more capable than I am) wilt expand those ideas of which I send thee, as it were, only the seminal principles; and in the comprehensiveness of thy understanding, wilt develop to their full extent the points on which I briefly touch, so as to set with power before thy companions those things which I have uttered in weakness. In fine, as I (to gratify thy long-cherished desire for information regarding the tenets of these persons) have spared no pains, not only to make these doctrines known to thee, but also to furnish the means of showing their falsity; so shalt thou, according to the grace given to thee by the Lord, prove an earnest and efficient minister to others, that men may no longer be drawn away by the plausible system of these heretics, which I now proceed to describe.9
Chapter I.—Absurd Ideas of the Disciples of Valentinus as to the Origin, Name, Order, and Conjugal Productions of Their Fancied Aeons, with the Passages of Scripture Which They Adapt to Their Opinions.
1. They maintain, then, that in the invisible and ineffable heights above there exists a certain perfect, pre-existent Aeon,10 whom they call Proarche, Propator, and Bythus, and describe as being invisible and incomprehensible. Eternal and unbegotten, he remained throughout innumerable cycles of ages in profound serenity and quiescence. There existed along with him Ennoea, whom they also call Charis and Sige.11 At last this Bythus determined to send forth from himself the beginning of all things, and deposited this production (which he had resolved to bring forth) in his contemporary Sige, even as seed is deposited in the womb. She then, having received this seed, and becoming pregnant, gave birth to Nous, who was both similar and equal to him who had produced him, and was alone capable of comprehending his father’s greatness. This Nous they call also Monogenes, and Father, and the Beginning of all Things. Along with him was also produced Aletheia; and these four constituted the first and first-begotten Pythagorean Tetrad, which they also denominate the root of all things. For there are first Bythus and Sige, and then Nous and Aletheia. And Monogenes, perceiving for what purpose he had been produced, also himself sent forth Logos and Zoe, being the father of all those who were to come after him, and the beginning and fashioning of the entire Pleroma. By the conjunction of Logos and Zoo were brought forth Anthropos and Ecclesia; and thus was formed the first-begotten Ogdoad, the root and substance of all things, called among them by four names, viz., Bythus, and Nous, and Logos, and Anthropos. For each of these is masculo-feminine, as follows: Propator was united by a conjunction with his Ennoea; then Monogenes, that is Nous, with Aletheia; Logos with Zoe, and Anthropos with Ecclesia.
2. These Aeons having been produced for the glory of the Father, and wishing, by their own efforts, to effect this object, sent forth emanations by means of conjunction. Logos and Zoe, after producing Anthropos and Ecclesia, sent forth other ten Aeons, whose names are the following: Bythius and Mixis, Ageratos and Henosis, Autophyes and Hedone, Acinetos and Syncrasis, Monogenes and Macaria.12 These are the ten Aeons whom they declare to have been produced by Logos and Zoe. They then add that Anthropos himself, along with Ecclesia, produced twelve Aeons, to whom they give the following names: Paracletus and Pistis, Patricos and Elpis, Metricos and Agape, Ainos and Synesis, Ecclesiasticus and Macariotes, Theletos and Sophia.
3. Such are the thirty Aeons in the erroneous system of these men; and they are described as being wrapped up, so to speak, in silence, and known to none [except these professing teachers]. Moreover, they declare that this invisible and spiritual Pleroma of theirs is tripartite, being divided into an Ogdoad, a Decad, and a Duodecad. And for this reason they affirm it was that the “Saviour”—for they do not please to call Him “Lord”—did no work in public during the space of thirty years,13 thus setting forth the mystery of these Aeons. They maintain also, that these thirty Aeons are most plainly indicated in the parable14 of the labourers sent into the vineyard. For some are sent about the first hour, others about the third hour, others about the sixth hour, others about the ninth hour, and others about the eleventh hour. Now, if we add up the numbers of the hours here mentioned, the sum total will be thirty: for one, three, six, nine, and eleven, when added together, form thirty. And by the hours, they hold that the Aeons were pointed out; while they maintain that these are great, and wonderful, and hitherto unspeakable mysteries which it is their special function to develop; and so they proceed when they find anything in the multitude15 of things contained in the Scriptures which they can adopt and accommodate to their baseless speculations.
Chapter II.—The Propator Was Known to Mono-Genes Alone. Ambition, Disturbance, and Danger into Which Sophia Fell; Her Shapeless Offspring: She is Restored by Horos. The Production of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, in Order to the Completion of the Aeons. Manner of the Production of Jesus.
1. They proceed to tell us that the Propator of their scheme was known only to Monogenes, who sprang from him; in other words, only to Nous, while to all the others he was invisible and incomprehensible. And, according to them, Nous alone took pleasure in contemplating the Father, and exulting in considering his immeasurable greatness; while he also meditated how he might communicate to the rest of the Aeons the greatness of the Father, revealing to them how vast and mighty he was, and how he was without beginning,—beyond comprehension, and altogether incapable of being seen. But, in accordance with the will of the Father, Sige restrained him, because it was his design to lead them all to an acquaintance with the aforesaid Propator, and to create within them a desire of investigating his nature. In like manner, the rest of the Aeons also, in a kind of quiet way, had a wish to behold the Author of their being, and to contemplate that First Cause which had no beginning.
2. But there rushed forth in advance of the rest that Aeon who was much the latest of them, and was the youngest of the Duodecad which sprang from Anthropos and Ecclesia, namely Sophia, and suffered passion apart from the embrace of her consort Theletos. This passion, indeed, first arose among those who were connected with Nous and Aletheia, but passed as by contagion to this degenerate Aeon, who acted under a pretence of love, but was in reality influenced by temerity, because she had not, like Nous, enjoyed communion with the perfect Father. This passion, they say, consisted in a desire to search into the nature of the Father; for she wished, according to them, to comprehend his greatness. When she could not attain her end, inasmuch as she aimed at an impossibility, and thus became involved in an extreme agony of mind, while both on account of the vast profundity as well as the unsearchable nature of the Father, and on account of the love she bore him, she was ever stretching herself forward, there was danger lest she should at last have been absorbed by his sweetness, and resolved into his absolute essence, unless she had met with that Power which supports all things, and preserves them outside of the unspeakable greatness. This power they term Horos; by whom, they say, she was restrained and supported; and that then, having with difficulty been brought back to herself, she was convinced that the Father is incomprehensible, and so laid aside her original design, along with that passion which had arisen within her from the overwhelming influence of her admiration.
3. But others of them fabulously describe the passion and restoration of Sophia as follows: They say that she, having engaged in an impossible and impracticable attempt, brought forth an amorphous substance, such as her female nature enabled her to produce.16 When she looked upon it, her first feeling was one of grief, on account of the imperfection of its generation, and then of fear lest this should end17 her own existence. Next she lost, as it were, all command of herself, and was in the greatest perplexity while endeavouring to discover the cause of all this, and in what way she might conceal what had happened. Being greatly harassed by these passions, she at last changed her mind, and endeavoured to return anew to the Father. When, however, she in some measure made the attempt, strength failed her, and she became a suppliant of the Father. The other Aeons, Nous in particular, presented their supplications along with her. And hence they declare material substance18 had its beginning from ignorance and grief, and fear and bewilderment.
4. The Father afterwards produces, in his own image, by means of Monogenes, the above-mentioned Horos, without conjunction,19 masculo-feminine. For they maintain that sometimes the Father acts in conjunction with Sige, but that at other times he shows himself independent both of male and female. They term this Horos both Stauros and Lytrotes, and Carpistes, and Horothetes, and Metagoges.20 And by this Horos they declare that Sophia was purified and established, while she was also restored to her proper conjunction. For her enthymesis (or inborn idea) having been taken away from her, along with its supervening passion, she herself certainly remained within the Pleroma; but her enthymesis, with its passion, was separated from her by Horos, fenced21 off, and expelled from that circle. This enthymesis was, no doubt, a spiritual substance, possessing some of the natural tendencies of an Aeon, but at the same time shapeless and without form, because it had received nothing.22 And on this account they say that it was an imbecile and feminine production.23
5. After this substance had been placed outside of the Pleroma of the Aeons, and its mother restored to her proper conjunction, they tell us that Monogenes, acting in accordance with the prudent forethought of the Father, gave origin to another conjugal pair, namely Christ and the Holy Spirit (lest any of the Aeons should fall into a calamity similar to that of Sophia), for the purpose of fortifying and strengthening the Pleroma, and who at the same time completed the number of the Aeons. Christ then instructed them as to the nature of their conjunction, and taught them that those who possessed a comprehension of the Unbegotten were sufficient for themselves.24 He also announced among them what related to the knowledge of the Father,—namely, that he cannot be understood or comprehended, nor so much as seen or heard, except in so far as he is known by Monogenes only. And the reason why the rest of the Aeons possess perpetual existence is found in that part of the Father’s nature which is incomprehensible; but the reason of their origin and formation was situated in that which may be comprehended regarding him, that is, in the Son.25 Christ, then, who had just been produced, effected these things among them.
6. But the Holy Spirit26 taught them to give thanks on being all rendered equal among themselves, and led them to a state of true repose. Thus, then, they tell us that the Aeons were constituted equal to each other in form and sentiment, so that all became as Nous, and Logos, and Anthropos, and Christus. The female Aeons, too, became all as Aletheia, and Zoe, and Spiritus, and Ecclesia. Everything, then, being thus established, and brought into a state of perfect rest, they next tell us that these beings sang praises with great joy to the Propator, who himself shared in the abounding exaltation. Then, out of gratitude for the great benefit which had been conferred on them, the whole Pleroma of the Aeons, with one design and desire, and with the concurrence of Christ and the Holy Spirit, their Father also setting the seal of His approval on their conduct, brought together whatever each one had in himself of the greatest beauty and preciousness; and uniting all these contributions so as skilfully to blend the whole, they produced, to the honour and glory of Bythus, a being of most perfect beauty, the very star of the Pleroma, and the perfect fruit [of it], namely Jesus. Him they also speak of under the name of Saviour, and Christ, and patronymically, Logos, and Everything, because He was formed from the contributions of all. And then we are told that, by way of honour, angels of the same nature as Himself were simultaneously produced, to act as His body-guard.
Chapter III.—Texts of Holy Scripture Used by These Heretics to Support Their Opinions.
1. Such, then, is the account they give of what took place within the Pleroma; such the calamities that flowed from the passion which seized upon the Aeon who has been named, and who was within a little of perishing by being absorbed in the universal substance, through her inquisitive searching after the Father; such the consolidation27 [of that Aeon] from her condition of agony by Horos, and Stauros, and Lytrotes, and Carpistes, and Horothetes, and Metagoges.28 Such also is the account of the generation of the later Aeons, namely of the first Christ and of the Holy Spirit, both of whom were produced by the Father after the repentance29 [of Sophia], and of the second30 Christ (whom they also style Saviour), who owed his being to the joint contributions [of the Aeons]. They tell us, however, that this knowledge has not been openly divulged, because all are not capable of receiving it, but has been mystically revealed by the Saviour through means of parables to those qualified for understanding it. This has been done as follows. The thirty Aeons are indicated (as we have already remarked) by the thirty years during which they say the Saviour performed no public act, and by the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. Paul also, they affirm, very clearly and frequently names these Aeons, and even goes so far as to preserve their order, when he says, “To all the generations of the Aeons of the Aeon.”31 Nay, we ourselves, when at the giving32 of thanks we pronounce the words, “To Aeons of Aeons” (for ever and ever), do set forth these Aeons. And, in fine, wherever the words Aeon or Aeons occur, they at once refer them to these beings.