Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.33

Dominic J. Unger, St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies (Book 2). Ancient Christian writers, 65.   New York; Mahwah, NJ:  Newman Press, 2012.  Pp. xvi, 185.  ISBN 9780809105991.  $34.95.  

Reviewed by Todd Stephen Berzon, Columbia University (

[The Table of Contents follows this review.]

By my rough calculation, the thirty-eight volumes of the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers contain well over 250 titles from more than sixty of authors of the early Christian centuries.1 The translations, done primarily at the end of the nineteenth century, are equal parts magisterial and maddening. And yet for much of the scholarly community they remain, for reasons of standardization, the essential reference of translated texts for the study of early Christianity. And while no rival catalogue may ever replace the ubiquity of the Nicene library—surely, this status has only been enhanced by the fact that the entire library now resides (searchable) online2—the collection of the Ancient Christian Writers surely comes closest.

With the death of Dominic J. Unger in 1982, John Dillon undertook the task of publishing and editing Unger’s translation and annotations of Irenaeus’s sweeping Against the Heresies.3 Book 1, published in 1992, offered a fully contextualized portrait of the bishop’s text, and Dillon’s introduction dutifully enumerated a range of relevant textual matters, including its title and authenticity, time of composition, its readers, style, purpose, structure, and manuscript tradition. Having waited now twenty years, the series is fortunate to have the continuation of Unger’s translation and annotations with the publication this year of Book 2. Dillon has again undertaken the editing of Unger’s work and Michael Slusser has written the text’s Introduction.

If we can characterize Book One of Against the Heresies as a description, or as the fuller title intimates, the exposition of “Gnostic” and Marcionite beliefs, praxis, ritual, hermeneutics, etc.—an investigation of what it is that heretics do, believe, and disseminate to their followers—Book Two, for all its disorganization, emerges as the much-anticipated refutation of these holdings. Of course, while Irenaeus expends a certain amount of energy (mostly sarcastic) in Book One contesting certain heretical propositions—he simply cannot restrain himself—the thrust of the full title’s second aspect, the process of overthrowing, is undertaken in the Second Book. The argument against the heretics, however, necessarily includes both implicitly and explicitly a contrary elaboration of the true cosmological system, the contours and power of the divine nature (as seen in creation), the stability and singularity of God, and the (im)possibility of obtaining perfect knowledge of God and the world.

The “Gnostic” system of the hierarchized universe hardly lends itself to ease of comprehension, but Unger and Dillon have succeeded in producing a fluid, cogent, and highly readable text. Since the original Greek of the text is lost (the exception being Book I, which, owing to citations from Hippolytus and Epiphanius, has been largely recovered in Greek)— the text’s translation is based upon a Latin version, with Greek, Arabic, Armenian, and Syriac fragments acting as supplementary sources. The text, which reads similarly to the translation of Book One, is divided into thirty-five individual chapters. Slusser’s proposed outline of the text hews closely to the insights of Adelin Rousseau’s formulation in the “Source chrétiennes” edition, and thus follows a five-fold division:4 (1) Chapters 1-11 contest the Valentinian proposition of a Pleroma/Fullness above the Creator God, which contains “another, greater God” (2.10.2; 36); (2) Chapters 12-19 expose and refute the inconsistencies within Valentinian theories of the emissions of the Aeons (here, we see the commonly used heresiological argument that the heretics derive their error from pagan writings), the passion of Wisdom, and the offspring of the Demiurge; (3) Chapters 20-28 concern the Valentinian appeal to numerology, their exegetical techniques and practices, and their ignorance of divine pedagogy; (4) Chapters 29-30 are an attempt to describe and refute two facets of the Valentinian system: the destiny of human souls as reflected in the tripartite nature or substance and the superiority of the Gnostics as spiritual being; (5) Chapters 31-35 expand the refutation of the Valentinians outward to encompass “the entire crowd of heretics” (2.31.1; 101), and include comments on magic, the transmigration of the souls, the disembodied soul, and a random assortment of loose ends (prophecy, the Hebrew language, and the 365 heavens of Basilides).

Importantly Slusser qualifies his appeal to Rousseau’s outline, noting that the five-fold structure does not in itself aid “the reader to understand the movement of Irenaeus’s thought” (4). He rightly suggests that the text is a meditation upon the boundaries of human and divine knowledge, which nourishes a much larger debate about the totality and singularity of God and the divine creation and the human capacity to apprehend the intimate truths and details of this divine transcendence. Building upon the work of Rowan Greer, Slusser rests much of his reading upon the formulation from the text itself (2.1.2; 17) that “God contains all things, but is uncontained.” This, Greer and Slusser argue, enables Irenaeus to charge the heretics with disrupting the foundational precepts of the Creator God. Since this is the only hermeneutical key the editors provide, this reader would have liked useful a fuller engagement with Greer’s analysis; a single paragraph seems somewhat insufficient.

While a more contemporary English translation is surely a useful contribution for students of Irenaeus and early Christianity, it is the annotations that truly set this volume apart from other English language translations. Dillon’s notes are extremely thorough, altogether clear, and filled with linguistic aids. Anyone who has spent considerable time with Against the Heresies will be firmly indebted to the work of these expertly fashioned textual notes. The notes offer plausible corrections for many of the text’s syntactical and grammatical oddities. Indeed, the focus of the annotations is to provide guidance in navigating the tricky Latin text; the notes often (helpfully) posit a relationship between the Latin translation and the Greek original. On occasion the notes venture outside the domain of linguistic coherence and citational cross-reference to tackle complex theological matters (most notably n.5 of Chapter 6, which considers in detail the process by which human beings come to know God and the qualities of natural and supernatural knowledge) and historical details (n.30 of Chapter 22, which tries to make sense of Irenaeus’s comments about the age and ministry of Jesus Christ). The notes try and succeed mightily in clarifying the theological and linguistic intricacies of this frequently opaque text.

That being said, one might contest Slusser’s deployment of the terms heresy and orthodoxy without any discussion of their complex implications. It is unclear to this reader whether Slusser assumes the coherence and manifest existence of what he calls “orthodox belief” (5). The translation, introduction, and annotation all seem to presume the pre-existence of orthodoxy, rather than Irenaeus’s participation in its creation. Given that the introduction offers a revised bibliography of Book 1, it would follow that the introduction and/or notes might also include a revised account of the text as a participant in the ongoing scholarly discussion of heresy and orthodoxy. It is surprising that neither the introduction nor notes reference any of the major works that have explored anew these complex and diversely formulated categories.5 Given the enormous shift since 1992 in the way scholars of early Christianity now conceptualize the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy, it is somewhat striking that the text is wholly silent on this issue.

Moreover, at various times there seem opportunities to demonstrate Irenaeus’s standing within, what Averil Cameron has described as, the traditio haereticum.6 In the Introduction, for instance, Slusser notes Irenaeus’s repeated usage of the scriptural proposition “seek and you shall find,” (Luke 11:9 and Matthew 7:7), but he leaves his discussion only at the level of biblical allusion. It is perhaps worth considering the immense import Tertullian ascribes to this verse in his Prescription against the Heretics, as a matter of deducing the relevant bounds of theological inquiry, only to cast the thematic trajectory of Against the Heresies within the wider genre of heresiology. The notes do offer some supplemental information about Irenaeus’s text and heresiology more broadly, such as useful information about the figure of Heracleon, who was unattested in Book I of the treatise, and cross-references to Hippolytus’s Refutation of the All the Heretics. This reader would have preferred if these complex issues had merely been flagged or discussed in detail rather than only cursorily scrutinized. Likewise, although the revised bibliography includes several recent contributions on Irenaeus and his work, a handful of relevant and recent books and articles, such as Eric Osborn’s Irenaeus of Lyons, remain noticeably absent.7

Setting aside my relatively minor quibbles, Dillon and Slusser have done an immensely valuable service in resuming the work of the late Dominic J. Unger. The notes and translation will be of enormous use to students of early Christianity and, more specifically, to those who believe that the theological and rhetorical complexity of heresiology has been vastly underappreciated and, in fact, understudied. I can only hope that this updated translation will serve to widen the scrutiny this magisterial texts deserves. Dillon, Slusser, and Unger’s work should be consulted by any and all interested in the work of Irenaeus of Lyons and in the foundations of late antique heresiology.

Table of Contents

Transmission of the Text
Purpose of the Book
The Argument of Book Two
Was Book Two Part of a Larger Plain?


1.   Ante-Nicene Fathers. 10 vols., eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and Rev. A. Cleveland Coxe. Reprint Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994); Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Reprint edition (Peabody, MA: Hendricksen, 1994).
2.   New Advent Fathers of the Church.
3.   The revisions for Book 3 have fallen to Irenaeus M.C. Steenberg, St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies (Book 3). New York/Mahwah, NJ: The Newman Press, 2012.
4.   Adelin Rousseau and Doutreleau, eds. Contre les hérésies, Livres II, SC 294 (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1982)
5.   There have been innumerable contributions to this much-discussed question, among them, Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Alain Le Boulleuc, La notion d’hérésie dans la literature grecque IIe-IIIe siècles 2 vols. (Paris : Etudes Augustiniennes, 1985); Eduard Iricinschi and Holger M. Zellentin, eds., Heresy and Identity in Late Antiquity (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008); David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Antti Marjanen and Petri Luomanen, eds. A Companion to Second-Century Christian ‘Heretics’ (Boston: Brill, 2008); Ismo O. Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
6.   Averil Cameron, “How to Read Heresiology,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies38.3 (2003): 477.
7.   Eric Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Annette Yoshiko Reed, “Εὐανγέλλιον: Orality, Textuality, and the Christian Truth in Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses,” Vigiliae Christianae 56 (2002), 11–46; One Right Reading? A Guide to IrenaeusCollegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997); Michael Kaler, Louis Painchaud, and Marie-Pierre Bussières, “The Coptic Apocalypse of Paul, Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses 2.30.7, and the Second-Century Battle for Paul’s Legacy” Journal of Early Christian Studies 12.2 (2004): 173-193. ​

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