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Father of Christian Theology

IRENAEUS, SAINT (Bishop of Lyon). Opus eruditissimum Divi Irenaei …

Basel: Froben, 1526

Folio. Contemporary blind-tooled pigskin over wooden boards, stained and with some wear and scratches, clasps, manuscript title on spine. Early inscriptions including marginalia and underlining, h4 repaired, small wormhole to last leaf. A very good copy.

FIRST EDITION of the works of Irenaeus, “the father of Christian theology,” as he is widely known.

Irenaeus is one of the most important of the early Church Fathers. Writing at the end of the second century, with the authority of direct links to the followers of the original Apostles, he defended the Church against existential threats and helped to establish its fundamental underpinnings.

Irenaeus’s principal work is Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), “one of the most precious remains of early Christian antiquity.” The work comprises a refutation of the Gnostic heresies, then a serious threat to the Church, and exposition and defense of the Catholic faith” (Roberts, ed. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies). This is “the chief work of Irenaeus and truly of the highest importance; it … constitutes an invaluable source of information on the most ancient ecclesiastical literature from its beginnings to the end of the second century. In refuting the heterodox systems Irenaeus often opposes to them the true doctrine of the Church, and in this way furnishes positive and very early evidence of high importance. Suffice it to mention the passages, so often and so fully commented upon by theologians and polemical writers, concerning the origin of the Gospel according to St. John, the Holy Eucharist, and the primacy of the Roman Church” (Catholic Encyclopedia).

Irenaeus is “one of the few really original and creative thinkers in the history of the church … He united the ethical and religious, the legal and the mystical, and so founded historic Catholicism … To no other Father does Catholic theology owe so much” (McGiffert).

“Irenaeus asserted in a positive manner the validity of the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament), which the Gnostics denied, claiming that it upheld the laws of the Creator God of wrath. Though Irenaeus did not actually refer to two testaments, one old and one new, he prepared the way for this terminology. He asserted the validity of the two testaments at a time when concern for the unity and the difference between the two parts of the Bible was developing. Many works claiming scriptural authority, which included a large number by Gnostics, flourished in the 2nd century; by his attacks on the Gnostics, Irenaeus helped to diminish the importance of such works and to establish a canon of Scriptures” (Encyclopedia Britannica 11th ed.). Irenaeus, the earliest witness to the four gospels as canon, played a central role in establishing the canonical Christian Bible.

Edited by Erasmus, this first edition of Irenaeus was central to Erasmus’s effort to publish the works of the Church Fathers at the Froben Press at Basel. Erasmus was convinced that the Roman Catholic Church would only be fully reformed and renewed by turning again to the Bible as interpreted by the Fathers of the Church. More than any other single figure Erasmus brought to light the ancient writings of the Church Fathers. In the case of Irenaeus, Erasmus crowed in his preface, “Why should I not call him ‘mine,’ since I found him almost buried and have done my best to clear away the dust of ages and restore him to the light?”

The first edition of Irenaeus is very scarce in collector’s condition. No example has appeared for public sale in the past thirty years.

[Bound with the following work, which is first in the volume:]

(CLEMENT I, Pope.) Divi Clementis Recognitionvm Libri X. Ad Iacobvm Fratrem Domini, Rvfino Torano Aqvileiense Interprete… Basel: Froben, 1526.

First edition. This work, once attributed to Pope Clement I, concerns on St. Peter and his disciple Clement. The ornamental borders are designed by Hans Holbein.