Against Heresies (Irenaeus)

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P. Oxyrhynchus 405 – fragment of Against Heresies from c. 200 CE

Against Heresies (Ancient Greek: Ἔλεγχος καὶ ἀνατροπὴ τῆς ψευδωνύμου γνώσεως, Elenchos kai anatropē tēs pseudōnymou gnōseōs, "On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis"), sometimes referred to by its Latin title Adversus Haereses, is a work of Christian theology written in Greek about the year 180 by Irenaeus, the bishop of Lugdunum (now Lyon in France).[1][2][3][4][5]

In it, Irenaeus identifies and describes several schools of Gnosticism, as well as other schools of Christian thought, and contrasts their beliefs with proto-orthodox Christianity.[6]

Until the discovery of the Library of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Against Heresies was the best surviving contemporary description of Gnosticism. Today, the treatise remains historically important as one of the first unambiguous attestations of the canonical gospel texts and some of the Pauline epistles. Irenaeus cites from most of the New Testament canon, as well as the noncanonical works 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas; however, he makes no references to Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John or Jude – four of the shortest epistles.[7]

Only fragments of the original text in ancient Greek remain today, but many complete copies in Latin, the dates of writing of which remain unknown, still survive. Books IV and V exist in their entirety in a literal version in Armenian.


Against Heresies can be dated to sometime between 174 and 189 AD, as the list of the Bishops of Rome includes Eleutherius, but not his successor Victor.[8] The earliest manuscript fragment of Against Heresies, P. Oxy. 405, dates to around 200 AD.[9]

Irenaeus' primary goal in writing Against Heresies was to attack cults that fell away from orthodox Christianity, mainly the Gnostics and Marcionites.[10][11][12] In particular, he sought to disprove what he saw as incorrect interpretations of scripture on the part of Gnostics such as Valentinus.[13] Irenaeus sought to present "what was understood as an authentic form of century-old Christian tradition against various forms of Gnosticism."[14] As James VanderKam notes, elements of this early Christian tradition drawn upon by Irenaeus include apocalyptic traditions such as 1 Enoch.[15]

As bishop, Irenaeus felt compelled to keep a close eye on the Valentinians and to safeguard the church from them. In order to fulfill this duty, Irenaeus became well informed of Gnostic doctrines and traditions.[16] His studies of Gnosticism eventually led to the compilation of this treatise.

Main ideas[edit]

Irenaeus argued that orthodox Christianity was passed down to him from the apostles who knew Jesus personally, while the Gnostics and Marcionites were distorting this apostolic tradition.[8]

While the Gnostics offered salvation through secret knowledge available only to a few, Irenaeus contended that the true doctrines of the Christian faith are the same taught by bishops in different areas.[17]

While many of the Gnostics viewed the material world as flawed and from which believers sought to escape to an eternal realm of spirit, Irenaeus saw creation as good and ultimately destined for glorification.[18] As Mark Jeffrey Olson points out, 1 Corinthians 15:50 is quoted more than any other verse from the letters of Paul in Against Heresies:

I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

— 1 Corinthians 15:50, RSV

Both Irenaeus and the Valentinians use this verse to argue for their own understandings of the resurrection of the dead. The Valentinians believed that resurrection was a purely spiritual phenomenon, while Irenaeus insisted that Christians would be raised from the dead in fleshly bodies. According to Irenaeus, this verse was used by the Gnostics to argue that "the handiwork of God is not saved."[19]

Irenaeus also polemicized against Marcion of Sinope, who preached that the creator God of the Hebrew Bible and the Father of Jesus Christ were two different gods. Irenaeus argues that the same god who sent Jesus to the Earth also led man through history by way of the Jewish law and prophets.[8]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Also called On the Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So Called e.g. Peter Drilling Premodern faith in a postmodern culture 2006 p 73 "But eventually The Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (the actual title of what is commonly known as Against Heresies) expanded from two volumes to five."
  2. ^ Robert Lee Williams Bishop lists 2005 p 123 "Irenaeus recorded the bishops of the Roman church in the third of his five books entitled Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called" (Greek: Ἔλεγχος καὶ ἀνατροπὴ τῆς ψευδωνύμου γνώσεως, lit. "Elenchus and Overturning of the Pseudonymous Knowledge"), commonly called Against Heresies (Latin: Adversus haereses, Greek: Κατὰ αἱρέσεων).
  3. ^ The final phrase "of knowledge falsely so-called" (Greek: tes pseudonymou gnoseos genitive case; or nominative case pseudonymos gnosis)."Greek Word Study Tool | irregular nom f. sg". Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  4. ^ Unger, Dominic J., Dillon, John J., St. Irenaeus of Lyons Against the heresies, Vol.1, p.3, 1992 "the final phrase of the title "knowledge falsely so-called" is found in 1 Timothy 6:20”.
  5. ^ Due to its reference to Eleutherus as the current bishop of Rome, the work is usually dated c. 180. Schaff, Philip (2001) [c. 1885] "Introductory Note to Irenæus Against Heresies", Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Against Heresies, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  6. ^ Only fragments of the original Greek text exist, but a complete copy exists in a wooden Latin translation, made shortly after its publication in Greek, and Books IV and V are also present in a literal Armenian translation.Poncelet, Albert (1910). "St. Irenaeus". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York City: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 4 March 2009.
  7. ^ Davis, Glenn (2008). "Irenaeus of Lyons". The Development of the Canon of the New Testament. Retrieved 4 March 2009.
  8. ^ a b c Richardson, C. (1995). Early Christian Fathers. Touchstone. p. 343. ISBN 978-0-684-82951-7. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  9. ^ Egypt Exploration Fund (1903). Grenfell, Bernard P.; Hunt, Arthur S. (eds.). The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Vol. 3. Oxford. p. 10. 405 consists of seven fragments written in a small neat uncial hand, which is not later than the first half of the third century, and might be as old as the later part of the second.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  10. ^ Heide, G. (2012). Timeless Truth in the Hands of History: A Short History of System in Theology. Wipf & Stock Publishers. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-63087-798-9. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  11. ^ Donovan, Mary Ann (1998). "Irenaeus of Lyons (review)". Journal of Early Christian Studies. 6 (4): 674–675. doi:10.1353/earl.1998.0062. S2CID 170882635. Project MUSE 9987.
  12. ^ Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church Through the Middle Ages. Fortress Press. 2011. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-8006-9851-5. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  13. ^ Steenberg, M.C. (2009). Of God and Man: Theology as Anthropology from Irenaeus to Athanasius. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-567-60047-9. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  14. ^ Anderson, W.P. (18 September 2023). A Journey Through Christian Theology: With Texts from the First to the Twenty-first Century. Fortress Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-4514-2032-6. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Vallée, Gérard (1981). A study in anti-Gnostic polemics: Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. p. 9. ISBN 0-919812-14-7. OCLC 8975860.
  17. ^ Kotsko, A. (2010). The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-567-20432-5. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  18. ^ McFarland, Ian A. (2009). Creation and Humanity: The Sources of Christian Theology. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-23135-4.[page needed]
  19. ^ Irenaeus (2001) [c. 180] "Showing how that passage of the apostle which the heretics pervert, should be understood; viz., 'Flesh and blood shall not possess the kingdom of God.'", in Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter IX, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

External links[edit]