Selections from the Work Against Heresies by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons: "The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called"


PREFACE To Irenaeus

Certain men, rejecting the truth, are introducing among us false stories and vain genealogies, which serve rather to controversies, as the apostle said,25 than to God's work of building up in the faith. By their craftily constructed rhetoric they lead astray the minds of the inexperienced, and take them captive, corrupting the oracles of the Lord, and being evil expounders of what was well spoken. For they upset many, leading them away by the pretense of knowledge from Him who constituted and ordered the universe, as if they had something higher and greater to show them than the God who made the heaven and the earth and all that is in them. By skillful language they artfully attract the simple-minded into their kind of inquiry, and then crudely destroy them by working up their blasphemous and impious view about the Demiurge. Nor can their simple bearers distinguish the lie from the truth.

For their error is not displayed as what it is, lest it should be stripped naked and shown up; it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, and made to seem truer than the truth itself to the inexperienced because of the outer appearance. As one better than I am has said about these matters, a precious stone like emerald, which many value greatly, can be put to shame by a clever imitation in glass, unless there is someone on hand who can test it, and show what was done deceptively by art; and when brass is mixed with silver, what untrained person can easily prove it? So then, lest some should be made prey of through my fault, like sheep by wolves, not recognizing them because of their outwardly wearing sheep's clothing-whom the Lord warned us to guard against26 talk like us, though thinking very differently, I thought it necessary, my dear friend, after reading the Commentaries, as they call them, of the disciples of Valentinus, and having met some of them and so become familiar with their point of view, to expound to you those portentous and profound mysteries, which not all accept, since not all have sufficiently purged their brains.27 Then you, being informed about these things, may be able to make them clear to all your people, and to warn them to be on their guard against this abysmal folly and blasphemy against Christ. As well as I can, then, I will briefly and clearly describe the position of' the present false teachers, I mean the followers of Ptolemaeus, who is an offshoot of the school of Valentinus, I will further provide, as far as my modest ability extends, the means of overthrowing it, showing how absurd and foreign to the truth are the things they say. I am neither practiced in writing nor trained in rhetoric, but my love for you and yours encourages me to bear my witness about these teachings which have been hidden till the present, but have now by the grace of God come to light. "For there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed, nor secret, that shall not be made known."28

You will not expect from me, a resident among the Celts, and mostly accustomed to a barbarous language, rhetorical skill, which I have never learned, nor power in writing, which I have not acquired, nor beauties of language and style, which I am not acquainted with.29 But what I write to you out of love, plainly and truly and simply, you will surely receive in love, and you can then amplify for yourself, having greater ability than mine, what I have given you, as it were, in basic principles. With your breadth of mind you will be able to make much more fruitful what I have said to you in brief, and will be able to present powerfully to your people what I have feebly expounded to you. As I have endeavored, in response to your long-held desire to know their position, not only to make it plain to you, but also to give you the necessary means of showing its falsity, so do you perform a similar service for the rest, according to the grace which the Lord has given you, so that men may no longer be ensnared by their plausibilities which are as follows.

The Faith of the Church

Now the Church, although scattered over the whole civilized world to the end of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples its faith in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven, and the earth, and the seas, and all that is in them, and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation, and in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets proclaimed the dispensations of God --the comings, the birth of a virgin, the suffering, the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily reception into the heavens of the beloved, Christ Jesus our Lord, and his coming from the heavens in the glory of the Father to restore all things, and to raise up all flesh, that is, the whole human race, so that every knee may bow, of things in heaven and on earth and under the earth, to Christ Jesus our Lord and God and Saviour and King, according to the pleasure of the invisible Father, and every tongue may confess him,30 and that he may execute righteous judgment on all. The spiritual powers of wickedness, and the angels who transgressed and fell into apostasy, and the godless and wicked and lawless and blasphemers among men he will send into the eternal fire. But to the righteous and holy, and those who have kept his commandments and have remained in his love, some from the beginning [of life] and some since their repentance, he will by his grace give life incorrupt, and will clothe them with eternal glory.

Having received this preaching and this faith, as I have said, the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it, as if living in one house. She believes these things [everywhere] alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth. For the languages of the world are different, but the meaning of the [Christian] tradition is one and the same. Neither do the churches that have been established in Germany believe otherwise, or hand down any other tradition, nor those among the Iberians, nor those among the Celts, nor in Egypt, nor in Libya, nor those established in the middle parts of the world. But as God's creature, the sun, is one and the same in the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and illumines all men who wish to come to the knowledge of the truth. Neither will one of those who preside in the churches who is very powerful in speech say anything different from these things, for no one is above [his] teacher,31 nor will one who is weak in speech diminish the tradition. For since the faith is one and the same, he who can say much about it does''' not add to it, nor does he who can say little diminish it.

This matter of having more or less understanding does not mean that men change the basic idea, and imagine another God above the Demiurge and Maker and Nourisher of this universe, as if he were not enough for us, or another Christ or another Only-begotten. But it consists in working out the things that have been said in parables, and building them into the foundation of the faith: in expounding the activity and dispensation of God for the sake of mankind; in showing clearly how God was long-suffering over the apostasy of the angels who transgressed, and over the disobedience of men; in declaring why one and the same God made some things subject to time, others eternal, some heavenly, and some earthly; in understanding why God, being invisible, appeared to the prophets, not in one form, but differently to different ones; in showing why there were a number of covenants with mankind, and in teaching what is the character of each of the covenants; in searching out why God shut up all in disobedience that he:", might have mercy on all; in giving thanks that the Word of God was made flesh, and suffered; in declaring why the coming of the Son of God [was] at the last times, that is, the Beginning was made manifest at the end; in unfolding what is found in the prophets about the end and the things to come; in not being silent that God has made the despaired-of Gentiles fellow heirs and of the same body and partners with the saints; and in stating how this mortal and fleshly [body] will put on immortality, and this corruptible incorruption; and in proclaiming how he says, "What was not a people, is a people, and what was not beloved, is beloved," and, "Many more are the children of the desolate than of her who has a husband."32 With reference to these things and others like them the apostle exclaimed, "0 depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God; how unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out!"33 But [this greater skill] does not consist in imagining beyond the Creator and Demiurge the Mother of these things and of him, the Desire of a wandering Aeon, and coming to such a point of blasphemy, nor in falsely conceiving of the Pleroma above her, now with thirty, now with an innumerable crowd of Aeons, as these teachers who are indeed void of divine understanding say. But as I said before, the real Church has one and the same faith everywhere in the world.


Let us now look at the inconsistent views of these men, since there are two or three of them anyway, how they do not even agree on the same topics, but vary from each other both about things and about names. The first of these, Valentinus, who adapted the principles of the so-called Gnostic heresy to the individual character of his school, thus expounded it, defining that there is an unnamable Dyad, of which one is called Ineffable and the other Silence. Then from this Dyad a second Dyad was produced, of which he calls one part Father and the other Truth. From the Tetrad were produced Logos and Zoe, Anthropos and Ecclesia,34 and this is the first Ogdoad. From Logos and Zoe he says that ten Powers were produced, as I said before, but from Anthropos and Ecclesia twelve, one of which, falling away and suffering a lack, brought about the rest of the business. He postulated two Boundaries, one between the depth and the rest of the Pleroma, dividing the begotten Aeons from the unbegotten Father, and the other separating their Mother from the Pleroma Christ was not produced from the Aeons within the Plemora, but was conceived by the Mother who was outside, according to her knowledge of better things, but with a kind of shadow. He, being male, cast off the shadow from himself and returned into the Plemora. Then the Mother, being left with the shadow, and emptied of spiritual substance, brought forth another Son, and this is the Demiurge, 'whom he also calls almighty over things subject to him. He that there was also produced with him a left-hand Ruler as do those falsely called Gnostics whom we shall of. He sometimes says that Jesus was produced by him ' who was separated from their Mother and reunited with that is, the Desired; sometimes from him who returned to the Plemora, that is, from Christ; sometimes from Anthropos and Ecclesia. And he says that the Holy Spirit was produced y the Truth to inspect and fructify the Aeons, entering into it them invisibly, through whom the Aeons produced the plants of truth.


Secundus35 says that there is a first Ogdoad, a right-hand and a left-hand Tetrad, as he would have them called, one light, the other darkness; and the Power that fell away and suffered lack was not begotten of the thirty Aeons, but of their fruits. There is another distinguished teacher among them, who, striving after something more sublime, and an even greater knowledge, speaks thus of the first Tetrad: There is a certain Proarche before all things, beyond any thought or speech or name, whom I call Moonset; with this Moonset is another Power, whom I call Henotes.36 This Henotes, and this Moonset, being the One, sent forth, but not as causing an emanation, the intelligible Arche over all things, which Arche is known in speech as Monad. With this Monad there also reigns a Power of one substance with him, which I also call the One. These powers, Moonset and Henotes, Monad and the One, sent forth the other productions of the Aeons.

Iu, iu, and pheu, pheu! Truly we may utter these exclamations from tragedy at such bold invention of ridiculous nomenclature, and at the audacity that made up these names without blushing. For when he says, "There is a certain Proarche before all things, above all thought, which I call Moonset," and again, this Moonset there reigns a Power, which I call Henotes," it is obvious that he admits that he is talking about his own inventions, and that he has given names to his inventions which no one else had given them before. It is clear also that he himself dared to make up these names, and unless he had been on hand the Truth would have had no name. There is no reason why someone else shouldn't assign names like these on the same basis: There is a royal Proarche above all thought, a Power above all substance, indefinitely extended. Since this is the Power which I call the Gourd, there is with it the Power which I call Superemptiness. This Gourd and Superemptiness, being one, emitted, yet did not emit, the fruit, visible, edible, and delicious, which is known to language as the Cucumber. With this Cucumber there is a Power of like quality with it, which I call the Melon. These Powers, the Gourd, Superemptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, sent forth the remaining crowd of the delirious Melons of Velntinu.37 For if the language which is used about all kinds of things is to be transferred to the first Tetrad, and anyone can assign names as he pleases, who would prohibit [our using] these names, which are much more credible, and in common use and generally known?

Cerdon and Marcion

Cerdon, who took his start from the followers of Simon, and settled at Rome under Hygonus, who held the ninth place in the episcopal succession from the apostles,43 taught that the God preached by the Law and the Prophets was not the Father'. of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the former was known and the. latter unknown, the former righteous and the latter good. After him came Marcion of Pontus, who developed his teaching, shamelessly blaspheming the God whom the Law and the Prophets proclaimed, describing him as the author of evils, desirous of wars, changing his opinions, and [at different times] contrary to himself. But Jesus [was] from the Father who s above the God that formed the world, and came into Judea n the time of Pontius Pilate, who was procurator of Tiberius Caesar; manifest in human form to those who were in Judea, he abolished the Prophets and the Law, and all the works f that God who made the world, whom he calls the World Ruler44 In addition to this he mutilated the Gospel According o Luke, removing everything about the birth of the Lord, and much of the teaching of the words of the Lord, in which the Lord is recorded as clearly confessing -the creator of this universe as his Father. He persuaded his disciples that he was more veracious than the apostles who handed down the gospel, giving them not a gospel but a mere fragment of a gospel. He also similarly cut up the Epistles of Paul, removing whatever the apostle said clearly about the God who made the world, that he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and whatever the apostle teaches by referring to the prophetic writings that predict the coming of the Lord.

Only the souls [he says] of those who have learned his teaching will come to salvation; the body, since it is taken from the earth, cannot be saved. To his blasphemy against God he adds this, speaking diabolically indeed and in direct opposition to the truth: that Cain and those like him-the men of Sodom and the Egyptians, and other such, and in general all the nations that walked in all kinds of wickedness-were saved by the Lord when he descended into the lower regions, and came running to him and received him into their realm; but Abel and Enoch and Noah and the other righteous, and the patriarchs such as Abraham, with all the prophets and those who were pleasing to God, did not share in the salvation which the serpent who was in Marcion preached. For, he says, since they knew that their God was always testing them, they thought he was testing them then, and so did not come to Jesus or believe his proclamation, and therefore their souls remained in Hades.

But since this man alone has dared publicly to mutilate the scriptures, and more than any others to malign God shamelessly will refute him separately, convicting him from his own writings, and from the words of the Lord and the apostles which lie preserves and uses I will overthrow him, with the help of the Lord.45 But here it is necessary only to mention him, that you may know that all those who corrupt the truth and injure the teaching of the Church are the disciples and successors of Simon Magus the Samaritan. Although, in order to deceive others, they do not confess the name of their teacher, yet they teach his views. Setting up the name of Christ Jesus as a kind of decoy, but in one way or another introducing the impiety of Simon, they bring many to destruction, spreading their evil teachings under a good name, and by the sweetness and beauty of the name [of Christ] offering them the bitter and evil poison of the serpent, the prince of the apostasy.


The Unity and Number of the Gospels

These, then, are the principles of the gospel. They declare one God, the maker of this universe, who was proclaimed by the Prophets, and who through Moses established the dispensation of the Law, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and besides him they know no other God nor any other Father. So firmly established is this position in the Gospels that the heretics themselves bear witness to them, and starting from them each one of them tries to establish his teaching. So the Ebionotes, who use only the Gospel According to Matthew, are shown by that very document not to have right views about the Lord. Marcion cut up that According to Luke, yet is clearly, by the passages which he still keeps, shown to be a blasphemer of the one existing God. Those who separate Jesus from Christ and say that Christ remained impassible while Jesus suffered, and try to bring forward the Gospel According to Mark, can be corrected out of that, if they will read it with a love of the truth. The followers of Valentinus, who make a great use of that According to John to demonstrate their conjunctions, can be demonstrated from that to be wholly mistaken, as I have demonstrated in the first Book. Since [even] our opponents bear witness to us and make use of these [works], our demonstration based on them is firm and true.

The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in .number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men. From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, he who sits upon the cherubim and sustains all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit. As David said, when asking for his coming, " sitter upon the cherubim, show yourself." 77 For the cherubim have four faces, and their faces are images of the activity of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it says, was like a lion, signifying his active and princely and royal character; the second was like an ox, showing his sacrificial and priestly order; the third had the face of man, indicating very clearly his coming in human guise; and the fourth was like a flying eagle, making plain the giving of the Spirit who broods over the Church. Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these.78 For that According to John expounds his princely and mighty and glorious birth from the Father, saying, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," and, "All things were made by him, and without him was nothing made." Therefore this Gospel is deserving of all confidence, for such indeed is his person. That According to Luke, as having a priestly character. began with the priest Zacharias offering incense to God the fatted calf was already being prepared which was to be sacrificed for the finding of the younger son.79 Matthew proclaims his human birth, saying, "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham," and, "The birth of Jesus Christ was in this manner," for this Gospel is manlike, and so through the whole Gospel [Christ] appears as a man of a humble mind, and gentle. But Mark takes his beginning from the prophetic Spirit who comes on men from on high, saying, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet," showing a winged image of the gospel. Therefore he made his message compendious and summary, for such is the prophetic character. Again, the Word of God himself used to speak to the patriarchs before Moses, in a divine and glorious manner, but for those under the Law he established a priestly and liturgical order; after this, becoming man, he sent out the gift of the Holy Spirit into the whole earth, guarding us by his own wings. As is the activity of the Son of God, such is the form of the living creatures; and as is the form of the living creatures, such is also the character of the Gospel. For the living creatures were quadriform, and the gospel and the activity of the Lord is four-fold. Therefore four general covenants were given to mankind: one was that of Noah's deluge, by the bow; the second was Abraham's, by the sign of circumcision; the third was the giving of the Law by Moses; and the fourth is that of the Gospel, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Since this is the case, they are foolish and uninstructed, even audacious, who destroy the pattern of the gospel, and present either more or less than four forms of the gospel-the former, because they claim to have found more than the truth, the latter because they annul the dispensations of God. So Marcion," rejecting the whole gospel, rather indeed cutting himself from the gospel, still boasts of having a share in the gospel. Others frustrate the gift of the Spirit, which in these last. times has been poured out on the human race according to the Father's decree, refusing to admit that aspect [of the gospel] which is according to John's Gospel, in which the Lord promised that he would send the Paraclete; but they reject together both the gospel and the prophetic Spirit. Unhappy men, who want to be some kind of false prophets, but deny the gift of prophecy to the Church, suffering what those do who, because of those who come in insincerity, separate themselves from the fellowship of the brethren. It can be understood that men of this kind would not accept the apostle Paul either. For in the Epistle addressed to the Corinthians he speaks carefully about prophetic gifts, and knows of men and women who prophesied in the Church. Sinning in all these ways against the Spirit of God, they fall into the unforgivable sin.80 But the followers of Valentinus, putting away all fear, bring forward their own compositions and boast that they have more Gospels than really exist. Indeed their audacity has gone so far that they entitle their recent composition the Gospel of Truth, though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the apostles, and so no Gospel of theirs is free of blasphemy. For if what they produce is the Gospel of Truth, and is different from those which the apostles handed down to us, those who care to can learn how it can be shown from the Scriptures themselves that [then] what is handed down from the apostles is not the Gospel of Truth.81 That those alone are true and firm, and that there can be no more Gospels than have been mentioned before, nor any fewer, I have shown by these many great arguments. For since God made all things in due order and harmony, it was proper that the outer form of the gospel should be well ordered and well fitted together. ...


25 I Tim. 1:4.

26 Matt. 7:15

27 These phrases are of course meant satirically.

28 Matt. 10:26; Luke 12:2.

29 Irenaeus is not the onl authr to use the best resources of his rhetoric to protest his lack of it.

30 Phil. 2:10, 11.

31 Matt. 10:24; Luke 6:40.

32 Eph. 2:19; I Cor. 15:54; Rom. 9:25 (Hos. 2:23); Gal. 4:27 (Isa. 54:1).

33 Rom. 11:33.

34 Or Word and Life, Man and Church

35 Or just possibly "the second," If the Latin translation was sufficiently well-known to have corrupted the Greek extracts.

36 That is, Beginning, Uniqueness, and Oneness.

37 Satire, indeed carcasm, although there are hints that the sacredness of cucumbers and melons, as the least material kinds of fruit, was a not unknow idea. Cf. The prohibition against offering them in church (Hippolytus, Apost. Trad. 28), and their later use by Manichaeans as food for the elect.

43 Here the apostles are included in the series, while in III. 3:3 they are not.

44 The Cosmocrat. Cf. Eph. 6:12.

45 A topic taken up, though not quite in this manner, in Book IV.

46 Luke 10:16

77 Ps. 80(79):1.

78 The first appearance of the creatures of Ezek., ch. 1, and Rev. 4:7, 8, as symbols of the Evangelists; later the lion is assigned to saint Mark and the eagle to Saint John.

79 AN allegorical interpretation of Luke 15:23.

80 Irenaeus' view if the Montanists; he objects to their exclusive Puritanism, and not so much to thei claim to prophetic gifts as to their denial that these gifts alrady existed in the Church, which shows them to be false prophets who thus sin against the Holy Spirit by denying his working in others (Matt. 12:31; Luke 12:10).

81 Which is preposterous.

82 Rom. 11:34.

83 The Logos acted logikos, a play on words which cannot be rendered exactly in either Latin or English.

84 Cf. Diog. 7:4; Irenaeus here avoids referring to the prince of the apostasy, but in the proicess almost personifies the apostasia itself.

85 And therefore presumably could "rest" only on a visible being, not on another invisible one.

86 A reference to the Ebionite Eucharists, celebrated with water alone (cf. Epiphanius, Haeress 30:16).

87 I Cor. 15:45; John 1:13; the "hands of God" are presumably the Word and the Spirit.

88 I.e., the Marcionites.

89 Col. 1:14.

90 "And blood" lacking in Greek (quoted here by John of Damacus), but doubtless correctly present in Latin; Iraneus thinks of consecration of the Eucharist by the power of the Owrd (as in the Eucharist prayer of Sarapion), or perhaps by the divinely ordered pattern of prayer (cf. Justin, Apol. I, ch. 66)

91 Eph. 5:30.


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