Irenæus on ‘the Treasure Hid in the Scriptures’

Irenæus was one of the leading churchmen of the second century. Around the year 178 he became bishop of the churches in Lyons. At that time Gnostic heresies were flourishing, and so shortly after his ordination as bishop, Irenæus wrote a five-part treatise against them called "The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge (Gnosis) Falsely So Called." Later writers referred to this work as Irenæus' Five Books Against the Heresies (Adversus Hæreses).

Among the many errors of the Gnostics was their opinion that the Old Testament was not to be regarded as canonical Scripture. They contended that many things in the Old Testament did not agree with the message of the New Testament (as they understood it), and so they rejected it. But Irenæus argued that the Old Testament is a thoroughly Christian book when it is rightly understood. Below we give an excerpt from the fourth book of Adversus Hæreses, in which Ireanæus explains the right approach to the interpretation of the Old Testament.

A NOTE ON SOURCES. Irenæus wrote his book in Greek (at that time Greek was still commonly used even in Gaul), and during the third century a Latin version was published by an unknown translator. The Greek text has not survived. The work has come down to us only in copies of the Latin version, except for some portions of the original Greek preserved as quotations in writings of the Greek Fathers. For our passage, we present the Latin text with notes from the edition of Harvey: Sancti Irenæi Libros Quinque Adversus Hæreses; textu græco in locis nonnullis locupletato, versione latina cum codicibus Claromontano ac Arundeliano denuo collata, præmissa de placitis Gnosticorum prolusione, fragmenta necnon Græce, Syriace, Armeniace commentatione perpetua et indicibus variis edidit W. Wigan Harvey, vol. 2 (Cambridge: University Press, 1857), pp. 234-6. The English translation is by Alexander Roberts and William H. Rambaut, published in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vol. 5, The Writings of Irenæus I (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1868), iv.26.1.

Χριστος εστιν ο θησαυρος ο κεκρυμμενος εν αγρω

The Treasure Hid in the Scriptures is Christ

Si quis igitur intentus legat Scripturas, inveniet in iisdem de Christo sermonem, et novæ vocationis præfigurationem. Hic est enim thesaurus absconsus in agro, id est, in isto mundo: (Ager enim mundus est,) absconsus vero in Scripturis (1) thesaurus Christus, quoniam per typos et parabolas significabatur, (2) unde poterat hoc quod secundum hominem est intelligi, priusquam consummatio eorum quæ (3) consummata sunt veniret, quæ est adventus Christi? Et propter hoc Danieli (4) prophetæ dicebatur: Muni sermones, et signa librum usque ad tempus consummationis, quoadusque discant multi, et adimpleatur agnitio. In eo enim cum perficietur dispersio, cognoscent omnia hæc. Sed et Hieremias ait: In novissimis diebus intelligent ea. Omnis enim prophetia, priusquam habeat effectum, ænigmata et ambiguitates sunt hominibus. Cum autem venerit tempus, et (4) evenerit quod prophetatum est, tunc (5) prophetiæ habent liquidam et certam expositionem. Et proper hoc quidem Judæis cum legitur Lex in hoc nunc tempore, fabulæ similis est: non enim habent expositionem omnium rerum pertinentem ad adventum Filii Dei, qui est secundum hominem: a Christianis vero cum legitur, thesaurus est, absconsus in agro, cruce vero Christi revelatus est, et (5) explanatus, et ditans sensum hominum, et ostendens sapientiam Dei, et eas quæ sunt erga hominem dispositiones ejus manifestans, et Christi regnum præformans, et hæreditatem sanctæ Hierusalem præevangelisans, et prænuntians, quoniam in tantum homo diligens Deum proficiet, ut etiam videat Deum, et audiat sermonem ejus, et ex auditu loquelæ ejus in tantum glorificari, uti reliqui non possint intendere in faciem gloriæ ejus, quemadmodum dictum est a Daniele: Quoniam intelligentes fulgebunt, (6) quemadmodum claritas firmamenti, et a multis justis sicut stellæ in sæcula, et adhuc. (7) Quemadmodum igitur ostendimus, si quis legat Scripturas. Etenim Dominus sic disseruit discipulis post resurrectionem suam a mortuis, (8) ex ipsis Scripturis ostendens eis, quoniam oportebat pati Christum, et intrare in gloriam suam, et in nomine ejus remissionem peccatorum prædicari in toto mundo. Et erit consummatus discipulus, et similis patrifamilias qui de thesauro suo profert nova et vetera.

1. Ar. omits thesaurus Christus.

2. Unde. The translator read μη εδυνατο...; Mass. inserts non.

3. For consummata I offer the conjectural emendation of concionata. The practice of giving a passive force to a deponent verb is not unusual with the translator, and concionor is προφητευειν. Cf. Idem hoc futurum, etiam Sibylla concionata est, Lact. iv.18.

4. Ar. omits prophetæ. ib. evenit.

5. Ar. prophetæ, and explantatus.

6. Ar. ut for quemadmodum.

7. Grabe considers the text of the following sentences to be transposed, and he takes the sentence, et erit consummatus—nova et vetera, immediately after legat Scripturas. But there is no Necessity for this. For having stated the advance towards spiritual perfection made by the Christian, Irenaus introduces the quotation from Daniel, and then resumes his subject, instancing the knowledge of Scriptural truth conveyed to his disciples by the glorified Saviour, and arrives at the conclusion, that the Christian thus throughly instructed will be as the wise householder, etc. One cause of obscurity is perhaps the rendering of φαινομεν by ostendimus, instead of lucemus or apparemus.

8. Ar. inserts et.

If any one, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling [vocationis]. For Christ is the treasure which was hid in the field, (1) that is, in this world (for "the field is the world"); (2) but the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ, since He was pointed out by means of types and parables. Hence His human nature could not (3) be understood, prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of Christ. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet: "Shut up the words, and seal the book even to the time of consummation, until many learn, and knowledge be completed. For at that time, when the dispersion shall be accomplished, they shall know all these things." (4) But Jeremiah also says, "In the last days they shall understand these things." (5) For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is to men [full of] enigmas and ambiguities. But when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then the prophecies have a clear and certain exposition. And for this reason, indeed, when at this present time the law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation of all things pertaining to the advent of the Son of God, which took place in human nature; but when it is read by the Christians, it is a treasure, hid indeed in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of men, and showing forth the wisdom of God and declaring His dispensations with regard to man, and forming the kingdom of Christ beforehand, and preaching by anticipation the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the man who loves God shall arrive at such excellency as even to see God, and hear His word, and from the hearing of His discourse be glorified to such an extent, that others cannot behold the glory of his countenance, as was said by Daniel: "Those who do understand, shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous (6) as the stars for ever and ever." (7) Thus, then, I have shown it to be, (8) if any one read the Scriptures. For thus it was that the Lord discoursed with the disciples after His resurrection from the dead, proving to them from the Scriptures themselves "that Christ must suffer, and enter into His glory, and that remission of sins should be preached in His name throughout all the world." (9) And the disciple will be perfected, and [rendered] like the householder, "who bringeth forth from his treasure things new and old." (10)

1. Matt. xiii. 44.

2. Matt. xiii. 38.

3. Harvey cancels "non," and reads the sentence interrogatively.

4. Dan. xii. 4, 7.

5. Jer. xxiii. 20.

6. The Latin is "a multis justis," corresponding to the Greek version of the Hebrew text.

7. Dan. xii. 3.

8. The text and punctuation are here in great uncertainty, and very different views of both are taken by the editors.

9. Luke xxiv. 26, 47. [The walk to Emmaus is the fountain-head of Scriptural exposition, and the forty days (Acts i. 3) is the river that came forth like that which went out of Eden. Ecclesiasticus iv. 31.]

10. Matt. xiii. 52. [I must express my delight in the great principle of exposition here unfolded. The Old Scriptures are a night-bound wilderness, till Christ rises and illuminates them, glorying alike hill and dale, and, as this author supposes, every shrub and flower, also, making the smallest leaf with its dewdrops glitter like the rainbow.]