The Continuity of the Faith: Irenaeus on Church Tradition and Apostolic Succession (and Why I, as a Protestant, Can Wholeheartedly Agree)

In this post, I would like to continue discussing the relation articulated by early church father Irenaeus of Lyons between Scripture, tradition, and church authority. The response to my first post on this topic (which you can read here) was to be expected: irrespective of the points made (largely by Fr. John Behr whom I quoted) about the primacy accorded to Scripture by Irenaeus, many, particularly Catholics, countered with a number of other citations from Irenaeus attesting to his commitment to the authority of church tradition and of the apostolic succession preserved by the bishop of Rome. Due to the normal constraints of the blog format, I was unable to tackle this particular aspect of Irenaeus’ view in my first post, but I promised to do so, and it is what I intend to do now.

Two prefatory remarks are in order. First, I will return to John Behr’s illuminating exposition of Irenaeus’ thought as it proceeds from where I left off in my previous post. To repeat: Fr. Behr is an eminent Eastern Orthodox scholar and the dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary whose expertise lies in patristics, and particularly in Irenaeus. Thus, his argument demands to be taken seriously and cannot merely be dismissed as “uninformed” or “cherry-picked” or, God-forbid, even “Protestant” (which clearly Behr is not). I admit that this post well exceeds the standard word count of normal blog posts, but I deemed it necessary to quote Behr at some length in order to give him ample space to develop his argument. Second, I want to clarify that I am not claiming that Irenaeus held to sola Scriptura as such, for that would be an anachronistic projection of a sixteenth-century debate onto a second-century screen. My claim is much more modest: just as the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of doctrinal development, the idea that the substance of the faith can be articulated in new and varying ways while remaining faithful to the deposit delivered once and for all to the saints (as argued, for example, by John Henry Newman), so also I see the Reformers’ articulation of sola Scriptura as a mature and coherent development of the seminal insights of Irenaeus regarding the relation between God, Scripture and the church.

With that said, let’s turn to John Behr’s account of tradition and apostolic succession as developed by Irenaeus:

Irenaeus continues his rhetorical argument [in book 3 of Against Heresies], by making an appeal to the apostolic tradition as he understands it:

But, again, when we refer them to that tradition from the apostles which is preserved through the successions of the presbyters in the churches, they object to the tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For they maintain that the apostles intermingled the things of the Law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but evenwriting-of-scripture the Lord himself, spoke at one time from the demiurge, at another time from the intermediate place, and yet again from the pleroma; but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery … Therefore it comes to this, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition. (AH 3.2.2)

Irenaeus clearly believes that an appeal to tradition is legitimate. And just like his opponents, Irenaeus claims that the tradition to which he appeals derives from the apostles, though this time it is one which has been maintained publicly, by the succession of presbyters in the churches. As we saw, Irenaeus began his argument by asserting the identity between what the apostles preached publicly and subsequently wrote down. Just as Irenaeus’s opponents object to his use of Scripture, so also they object to the tradition to which he appeals, for the tradition to which Irenaeus appeals, in both its written and oral form, has elements of Scripture, the Law, mixed up with what comes from the Saviour himself. Moreover, according to his opponents, even the words of the Lord have to be carefully discerned, to determine whence they derive. Not surprisingly, those who set themselves above Scripture in this manner have little use for tradition as understood by Irenaeus.

Irenaeus continues in chapter three by developing his allusion to the apostolic tradition being preserved by the successions of presbyters in the churches. As we have seen, the apostolic tradition is nothing other than the Gospel proclaimed by the apostles as the foundation for the Church. Insofar as the Gospel, proclaimed in public, has been preserved intact, it is possible to appeal, as a point of reference for what has been taught from the beginning, to the succession of presbyter/bishops who have taught and preached the same Gospel. In this way, apostolic succession becomes an element, alongside Scripture, canon and tradition, in the self-identification of orthodox or normative Christianity. So Irenaeus begins:

Thus, the tradition of the apostles, which is manifest throughout the whole world, is clearly to be seen in every church by those who wish to see the truth. And we are able to list those who were appointed by the apostles as bishops in the churches and their successions until our own times. They have neither taught or known the gibberish spoken by these people. For if the apostles had known secret mysteries, which they taught “the perfect” privately and apart from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves. For they desired that these men should be perfect and blameless in all things, who they were leaving behind as successors, delivering up their own place of teaching. (AH 3.3.1)

The tradition of the apostles is manifest in all the churches throughout the world, preserved by those to whom the apostles entrusted the well-being of the churches founded upon the Gospel. To demonstrate this, Irenaeus next turns to list the succession of bishops at Rome, as being the preeminent example of an apostolic church. When considering this passage, it is important to remember that monarchical episcopacy was not established in Rome until at least the end of the second century, and perhaps later. The Church in Rome was primarily composed of house churches, each with its own leader. These communities would have appeared like philosophical schools, groups gathering around their teachers, such as Justin and Valentinus, studying their scriptures and performing their rites. Thus the purpose of enumerating “those who were appointed by the apostles as bishops in the churches,” is not to establish the “validity” of their individual offices and the jurisdiction pertaining to it, but, as Irenaeus puts it, to make possible the discovery “in every church” of the “tradition of the apostles” manifest in the whole world, that is, the truth taught by the apostles, insofar as it has been preserved, in public, intact.

Similarly, although Irenaeus describes the apostles as leaving these men behind as their successors, they are not themselves described as “apostles.” A firm distinction is made between the “blessed apostles” and the first “bishop” of Rome (AH 3.3.3). More important than the office itself is the continuity of teaching with which the successors are charged. After listing the various presbyter/bishops up to his own time, Irenaeus concludes by again emphasizing the point of referring to such successions: “In this order and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles and the preaching of the truth have come down to us” (AH 3.3.3). It is the preaching of the truth, preserved by the presbyter/bishops throughout their successions, that is the ecclesiastical tradition deriving from the apostles. Finally, after establishing this to be the case in Rome, Irenaeus turns briefly to speak of the churches in Asia, at Smyrna and Ephesus, both of which for him are “true witnesses to the tradition of the apostles” (AH 3.3.4).

In the following chapter, after again emphasizing the completeness and exclusivity of the revelation made by the apostles, who deposited “all things pertaining to the truth” in the Church, Irenaeus continues with an interesting hypothetical case:

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary in that case to follow the course of tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?

To which course many nations of the barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper and ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who because of his surpassing love towards his creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, he himself uniting man through himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior of those who are saved and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise his Father and his advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed, and they do please God ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity and wisdom. (AH 3.4.1–2)

Here Irenaeus goes even further than his appeal to tradition in AH 3.2.2; not only can one appeal to tradition in the sense of the Christian revelation delivered by the apostles, and now preserved and preached by the Church, but even if the apostles had not left behind anything written, we should “follow the course of the tradition which they have handed down to those to whom they did commit the churches,” as do the barbarians, who believe in Christ, having salvation written in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, “preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God …” So that “by means of the ancient tradition of the apostles,” true believers will not be swayed by those who teach anything else. Although it is not actually called a canon of truth, what Irenaeus describes as being believed by these illiterate people written upon by the Spirit, is very much like his descriptions of the canon elsewhere. The content of 412244tradition, what it is that these barbarians believe, it is important to note, is nothing other than what is written in the apostolic writings, themselves “according to Scripture.” Again, the apostolic writings and tradition are not two independent or complementary sources, but two modalities of the Gospel “according to the Scriptures.”

So, for Irenaeus, both the true apostolic tradition maintained by the churches, and the apostolic writings themselves, derive from the same apostles, and have one and the same content, the Gospel, which is itself, as we have seen, “according to the Scriptures.” “Tradition” for the early Church is, as Florovsky put it, “Scripture rightly understood.” Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principles which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture cannot be understood except on the basis of Scripture itself, using its own hypothesis and canon.

Having established, in principle, that the tradition delivered by the apostles is a current reality in the church, Irenaeus turns, however, to Scripture to examine what it says about God and Christ:

Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the demonstration from the Scriptures of the apostles who wrote the Gospel (ad eam quae est ex Scripturis ostensionem eorum qui evangelium conscripserunt apostolorum), in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that there is no lie in Him. (AH 3.5.1)

Scripture, as written, is fixed, and though the tradition maintained by the succession of presbyters is similarly fixed in principle, in practice it is much less secure, and, in any case, it can never be, for Irenaeus, a point of reference apart from Scripture. The doctrine concerning God, and the truth that is Christ, is to be found in the exposition of the Scriptures as interpreted by the apostles, who alone proclaimed the Gospel, handing it down in both Scripture and tradition.

The vital point established in all this is the affirmation that there is indeed one Gospel, a Gospel which is of God, not of man (cf. Rom 1:1; Gal 1:11–12). This point is equally an affirmation that there is one Lord Jesus Christ. The one Christ, the Son of God, proclaimed by the apostles in the one Gospel “according to the Scriptures,” makes known (cf. Jn 1:18: ἐξηγήσατο, “exegeted”) the Father, just as the one God has made himself known through his one Son by the Holy Spirit who speaks about him through the prophets. Yet, as noted in the beginning of this chapter, this Gospel proclaims the Coming One (ὁ ἐρχόμενος), and so it is not fixed in a text, but is found in an interpretative engagement with Scripture, based upon its own hypothesis, not man’s, and in accordance with the canon and tradition delivered by the apostles. Equally important is that, despite the great variety of positions against which this basis was articulated, and even if not manifest clearly and continuously from the beginning, it is nevertheless based upon what was delivered at the beginning. The order and structure of the Christian Church, its ordained ministers and its liturgy, all underwent many developments and modifications in subsequent centuries…. Because of these changes, care needs to be taken to ensure that later understandings of the Church, her ministers and her tradition, are not projected back into the use that was made of the appeal to apostolic succession and tradition in the earliest debates concerning the basis of normative or orthodox Christianity.[1]

Although I already highlighted the salient statements from Behr, let me simply rehearse them here for the sake of emphasis:

  • As we saw, Irenaeus began his argument by asserting the identity between what the apostles preached publicly and subsequently wrote down.
  • Not surprisingly, those who set themselves above Scripture … have little use for tradition as understood by Irenaeus.
  • As we have seen, the apostolic tradition is nothing other than the Gospel proclaimed by the apostles as the foundation for the Church. Insofar as the Gospel, proclaimed in public, has been preserved intact, it is possible to appeal … to the succession of presbyter/bishops who have taught and preached the same Gospel.
  • When considering this passage [on apostolic succession], it is important to remember that monarchical episcopacy was not established in Rome until at least the end of the second century, and perhaps later.
  • Similarly, although Irenaeus describes the apostles as leaving these men behind as their successors, they are not themselves described as “apostles.” A firm distinction is made between the “blessed apostles” and the first “bishop” of Rome (AH 3.3.3). More important than the office itself is the continuity of teaching with which the successors are charged.
  • Again, the apostolic writings and tradition are not two independent or complementary sources, but two modalities of the Gospel “according to the Scriptures.”
  • “Tradition” for the early Church is, as Florovsky put it, “Scripture rightly understood.” Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture …, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture.
  • Scripture, as written, is fixed, and though the tradition maintained by the succession of presbyters is similarly fixed in principle, in practice it is much less secure, and, in any case, it 2012-0905-frjohnbehrcan never be, for Irenaeus, a point of reference apart from Scripture.
  • Because of these changes, care needs to be taken to ensure that later understandings of the Church, her ministers and her tradition, are not projected back into the use that was made of the appeal to apostolic succession and tradition in the earliest debates concerning the basis of normative or orthodox Christianity.

What clearly emerges from Behr’s argument is that Irenaeus considered tradition as containing nothing other than what was taught in Scripture. It was the heretics, not Irenaeus, that appealed to an oral tradition that could not be found in Scripture. The tradition to which Irenaeus appealed was simply, as Florovsky put it, “Scripture rightly understood”, not something that possessed an independent or superior authority in and of itself. In this sense, Irenaeus believed that tradition was authoritative only insofar as it agreed with Scripture and was therefore to be held accountable to Scripture as the higher authority, not vice versa.

Moreover, when Irenaeus spoke of apostolic succession and the continuity of the presbytery as playing a vital role in the preservation of the faith, it was the preservation of the faith that was his primary concern. For Irenaeus, the bishops of the church did not possess an authority equal to that of the apostles, and as such, their effectiveness in preserving the faith was not to be judged on the basis of the office to which they were appointed but according to the degree to which their teaching was faithful to the apostolic tradition which, as Behr points out, was self-same with the apostlic writings that would later be collected together in the New Testament. In other words, Irenaeus did not recognize the validity of any tradition – regardless of whether or not it was claimed to have passed through the succession of bishops – that could not be found in Scripture. The only solid ground upon which the church stood was, according to Irenaeus, Scripture, because, as crucial as the succession of the presbytery might be, it was “much less secure” than what was “fixed” in the written Word. Ultimately, what mattered for Irenaeus was not the continuity of the presbytery, but the continuity of the faith. The validity of the former depended on its fidelity to the latter.

In Irenaeus’ day, it was indeed in the churches overseen by those in succession from the apostles that the true faith could be found, and so he could make an appeal to that succession as a mark of the true church. It is mistaken, however, to assume that what was historically true in the time of Irenaeus is also true today. That is to say, Irenaeus could point to the continuity of the presbytery as authoritatively preserving the apostolic tradition precisely because up until that time it had done so! This does not mean, however, that Irenaeus believed with certainty that it would always continue to do so . What Irenaeus was not doing, therefore, was laying down an absolute principle that would be binding for the rest of church history. Why not? Because, if indeed his primary concern was the integrity and continuity of the faith fixed for all time in Scripture, then insofar as later generations of church leaders would have compromised that faith by adding to tradition elements that either distorted or contradicted it, then it is safe to say that Irenaeus certainly would not have continued to appeal to the authority of tradition and succession at the expense of the authority of Scripture.

Therefore, the way in which many Roman Catholics today cite Irenaeus to justify the authority of their tradition and episcopal succession is fundamentally anachronistic in that it reads back into Irenaeus later definitions of tradition (as containing teachings that may not be found in Scripture but are nevertheless considered binding) and succession of bishops (as possessing authority because of their office rather than in virtue of the fidelity of their teaching to Scripture) that he did not actually espouse. While Irenaeus certainly advocated church tradition and apostolic succession as authoritative, what he meant by this was something far different than what Roman Catholics mean today.

Again, I am not claiming that Irenaeus held to sola Scriptura per se, but simply that, based on Behr’s analysis, the sixteenth-century development of this principle by the Reformers was actually more in line with the substance of Irenaeus’ teaching than were the parallel developments of tradition and succession that had occurred in the Catholic Church. In other words, when the Reformers spoke of tradition and succession, their meaning seems to have been closer to the way in which Irenaeus used these concepts than the way in which their Roman opponents did.

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[1] John Behr, The Way to Nicaea. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp.41-46. Emphasis mine.

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