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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons: Against Heresies & Fragments

Edited by Alexander Roberts, D.D & James Donaldson, L.L.D

The work of Irenaeus Against Heresies is one of the most precious remains of early Christian antiquity. It is devoted, on the one hand, to an account and refutation of those multiform Gnostic heresies which prevailed in the latter half of the second century; and, on the other hand, to an exposition and defense of the Catholic faith.

The author divides his work into five books. The first of these contains a minute description of the tenets of the various heretical sects, with occasional brief remarks in illustration of their absurdity, and in confirmation of the truth to which they were opposed. In his second book, Irenaeus proceeds to a more complete demotion of those heresies which he has already explained, and argued at great length against them, on grounds principally of reason. The three remaining books set forth more directly the true doctrines of revelation, as being in utter antagonism in the view held by the Gnostic teachers. In the course of this argument, many passages of Scripture are quoted and commented on’ many interesting statements are made, bearing on the rule of faith; and much important light is shed on the doctrines, held, as well as the practices observed, by the Church of the second century.

The fundamental object of the Gnostic speculations was doubtless to solve the two grand problems of all religious philosophy, ‘How to account for the existence of evil’ and, ‘How to reconcile the finite with the infinite’. But these ancient theorists were not more successful in grappling with such questions than have been their successors in modern times. Owning to the bewildering acrobatics of the Gnostics, the patience of the reader is sorely tried, in following our author through those mazes of absurdity which he treads in explaining and refuting their speculations. Irenaeus had manifestly taken great pains to make himself acquainted with eh 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 rule of faith.

The first printed copy of Irenaeus 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 folio and octavo. All these contained merely the ancient barbarous Latin version, and were deficient towards the end by five entire chapters. 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. 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 Jarney in two octavo volumes. The text of Irenaeus’s work has not been altered in this edition, although some footnotes have been revised or removed where superfluous or inaccurate.

This is the work of scholars who have deep care about the Catholic Church and the need for its history as a way to understand our movement forward. The attendance of the authors to the indices is detailed and written with the clarity necessary for this kind of document.


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