Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume I/IRENAEUS/Against Heresies: Book I/Preface.

Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I, Against Heresies: Book I by Irenaeus, translated by Philip Schaff et al.


1. Inasmuch[1] 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. One[4] 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 enjoined[5] 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 purged[6] 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 Ptolemæus, 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 Keltæ,[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]


  1. The Greek original of the work of Irenæus is from time to time recovered through the numerous quotations made from it by subsequent writers, especially by the author’s pupil Hippolytus, and by Epiphanius. The latter preserves (Hær. xxxi. secs. 9–32) the preface of Irenæus, and most of the first book. An important difference of reading occurs between the Latin and Greek in the very first word. The translator manifestly read ἐπεί, quatenus, while in Epiphanius we find ἐπί, against. The former is probably correct, and has been followed in our version. We have also supplied a clause, in order to avoid the extreme length of the sentence in the original, which runs on without any apodosis to the words ἀναγκαῖον ἡγησάμην, “I have judged it necessary.”
  2. 1 Tim. i. 4. The Latin has here genealogias infinitas, “endless genealogies,” as in textus receptus of New Testament.
  3. As will be seen by and by, this fancied being was, in the Valentinian system, the creator of the material universe, but far inferior to the supreme ruler Bythus.
  4. There are frequent references to Irenæus to some venerable men who had preceded him in the Church. It is supposed that Pothinus, whom he succeeded at Lyons, is generally meant; but the reference may sometimes be to Polycarp, with whom in early life he had been acquainted. [On this matter of quotations from anonymous authors of the apostolic times, not infrequently made by Irenæus, consult the important tractate of Dr. Routh, in his Reliquiæ Sacræ, vol. i. 45–68.]
  5. Comp. Matt. vii. 15.
  6. The original is ἐγκέφαλον ἐξεπτύκασιν, which the Latin translator renders simply, “have not sufficient brains.” He probably followed a somewhat different reading. Various emendations have been proposed, but the author may be understood by the ordinary text to be referring ironically to the boasted subtlety and sublimity of the Gnostics.
  7. Matt. x. 26.
  8. As Cæsar informs us (Comm., i. 1), Gaul was divided into three parts, one of which was called Celtic Gaul, lying between the Seine and the Garonne. Of this division Lyons is the principal city.
  9. [The reader will find a logical and easy introduction to the crabbed details which follow, by turning to chap. xxiii., and reading through succeeding chapters down to chap. xxix.]