Did Irenaeus Believe in Sola Scriptura?

I. Background
Last Monday, I wrote a post explaining as succinctly as I know how to the two types of sola Scriptura. Long story short, Tradition 0 (associated typically with Evangelicals like Independent Baptists and other “low-church” people) gives virtually no weight to the Early Church Fathers, and is sometimes rather hostile to them, while Tradition 1 thinks we should view the Bible through the lens of the Early Church (sometimes). Historically, the early Protestant Reformers felt that the Catholic Church had wandered away from the Bible and the teachings of the early Church. This is due in no small part to a pretty incomplete knowledge of the early Church, and the real trouble of distinguishing forgeries of early Church writings from the real thing (Calvin, for example, was convinced that St. Ignatius of Antioch’s writings were too Catholic to actually be from 110).

Luther’s view on Scripture is interesting. He was quite confident that he was interpreting Romans and Galatians correctly to mean sola Fide, and this confidence made him willing to cut out the book of James (which he realized contradicted his conclusion) if need be, and to change Romans 3:28 from “justified by Faith” to “justified by Faith alone” to support his conclusion. So accept the Scripture if it agrees with your view, reject or change it if you don’t. This, more or less was the view given to the early Church Fathers as well. Tradition 1’s view on Tradition and the Early Church can be summarized as follows:

  1. The Bible alone is the sole authority on of issues of faith and morals.
  2. The Bible must be understood in the manner it was understood by the early Church,
  3. (Unless the Early Church misunderstood it).

That not-really-mentioned #3 becomes very important. Because if you reject the unanimous view of the Fathers on the Eucharist, what’s to stop you from rejecting them on the Trinity? Oneness Pentecostals and others show that you can put a lot of Faith in the Bible and still get the basics radically incorrect.

This was in response to a guy named Roderick Edwards, who criticized Tradition 0 adherents for shouting sola Scriptura while meaning their private interpretation. In his initial comment, he said, “My issue as a ‘Protestant’ is determining where that ancient faith begins and ends and where unChristian additions have been added, either by Roman Catholics or Evangelicals. To me, there is a clear difference between Roman Catholicism and Papalism. And it seems the Reformers were more against Papalism than the RCC.” Well, Roderick’s responded to my post with one of his own, which is very polite, thoughtful and well-written.

I’m not going to respond to all of the points he raised, but here are two.

II. Choosing the Canon
Roderick explains in his post that you can’t start with Scripture to believe in sola Scriptura. That’s a pretty important fact to admit. To get to, “these books of the Bible are canonical,” you can’t start with the books themselves, since no book says that the other books are canonical. You need an external Authority to the Bible. For Catholics, that’s the Church: meaning here both the Magisterium, which formally defined the canon at Trent; and Tradition, which held that these were the canonical books for centuries (with minimal dissent), rooted in the local Church Councils at Hippo and Carthage, and supported by the writings of Church Fathers like St. Augustine. For Roderick, this means rejecting the Deuterocanon because it isn’t in the modern Tanakh (Jewish Bible). I’ve addressed this position before here (see also here), but no one in the early Church used the 66-book canon, and no one in the early Church understood Romans 3:1-2 as giving non-Christian Jews a perpetual ability to dictate the contents of the Old Testament. Virtually every Church Father and Council addressing the issue addresses both the Old and New Testament. So in arriving at 66 books, Roderick is both employing a methodology wholly alien to the early Church and arriving at a result which was universally rejected. Had he relied upon the early Church Fathers instead, he would have gotten to the Catholic Bible. The reason is pretty straightforward: while modern Jews don’t accept the Deuterocanon, the books were widely (but not universally) accepted as canonical up through the second half of the first century. Their rejection was that they were in Greek (the popular language of the Romans) and the Jews felt that only Hebrew Scriptures were sacred. Christians, of course, reject this rationale, because it would take out the entire New Testament. (It’s worth noting that the same rabbinical school at Jamnia which rejected the Deuterocanon added the early anti-Christian prayers to synagogue worshipping, ending the days of Christians and Jews worshipping together on Saturdays).

III. Irenaeus, “Papalism” and Sola Scriptura
In his response, Roderick claims that “Irenaeus and the other ECF certainly believed in Tradition 1/Sola Scriptura.” In my post, I asked him what he meant by “papalism.” He explained that it refers to Apostolic Succession with Roman Primacy:

Simply put, Papalism (which is what the Reformers were actually rebelling against, not against the Church) Papalism is the notion that the Bishop in Rome somehow has any more authority than any other Bishop or Pastor. The Bishop in Rome is not the heir to Peter, especially as we cross reference the typical RC proof-text of Mt 16:18-19 with Mt 18:18-19. This so-called “keys to bind and loose” appear to be given to Peter alone in Mt 16:18-19 from which the Papists have built a notion of apostolic succession as if each Roman pope has the “keys” to bind and loose not only supposedly ex cathedra/infallible positions on doctrines within the Church but as was a contention with the Reformers, it is supposed the pope has/had the ability to bind and loose souls. It is clear from Mt 18:18-19 that these “keys” were given to all the apostles and only meant that they were the authority within the Church. There is no warrant for apostolic succession. The apostles were hand-picked by Jesus as the foundation of the Church, He Himself being the Cornerstone(Eph 2:20). A foundation is NOT laid with each new generation. There is a reason Paul was setting up elders in the various churches. Elders and Apostles were not the same function and role. The role of apostle has ceased as even Paul acknowledges he was the last picked apostle. (1 Corinthians 15:6-8,1 Corinthians 4:9) The idea that the Roman Bishop is somehow the heir to Peter is the main wall of separation that hinders reunification between not only the RC and the Protestants, but also between the RC and the Eastern/Greek Orthodox.

As an exegetical matter, I note only that Matthew 18:18-19 gives the binding/loosening power to the Church collective (which is why Church Councils can infallibly decree), and the keys to Peter alone (who also individually receieved the binding/loosening power, and can infallibly decree on his own).

But let’s hear from Irenaeus, instead. First, in Book III, Chapter 3, No. 1, Irenaeus says:

1. It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to the perfect apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.

So Irenaeus irrefutibly teaches Apostolic Succession as the way to determine the authentic Apostolic Tradition. His point is, we know what the Apostles taught, because their students, and their student’s students (etc.), are still around. There’s an unbroken chain, guarded by the Holy Spirit. And note what Irenaeus is using this to disprove: the notion of a “secret Tradition.” His point is that we know exactly what the Church teaches, because we can see the visible Church. And then he goes on, in No. 2 to establish the primacy of the Roman See, arguing that “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority.” Then, although he’s the Bishop of Lyons, chooses to trace the episcopal lienage not of the See of Lyons, but of the Holy See. That’s No. 3. I’ve included them both below so you can see precisely what he says:

2. Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

3. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.

So no, Irenaeus and the other early Church Fathers didn’t believe in Tradition 1. They were solidly “papalists,” by Roderick’s own definition of that silly term. You don’t get more Roman Catholic than saying, “everyone must agree with the Church in Rome, which descended from Peter and Paul, and continues to this day through Apostolic Succession.” You can argue that Irenaeus and the other Church Fathers were wrong, but you can’t very well argue that Irenaeus didn’t believe what he goes to such lengths to spell out.

The basis for Roderick’s mistake here seems to be his reliance on Keith Mathison’s book. It’s a fun read, but it’s just terribly researched. He relies heavily upon secondary sources, and the early Church Fathers section is absolutely riddled with scholarly errors that spin the Fathers 180 degrees from their actual views. He prints basically anything that supports his view, even if it’s someone just making ridiculous assertions about what the Fathers really taught. St. Augustine says he wouldn’t believe in Scripture unless so moved by the Catholic Church. On page 42, Mathison quotes Florovsky to “prove” that “Actually, the sentence could be converted: one should not believe the Church unless one was moved by the Gospel. The relationship is entirely reciprocal” What? Augustine says he believes the Bible because the Church, which he can see is guided by the Spirit, says it’s the word of God. Florovsky’s statement not only completely perverts Augustine’s point, it makes no sense: if you don’t believe either the Church or the Bible until you believe the other one, you’ll never believe either. Mathison completely inverts what the “unanimous consent of the Fathers” is. And he claims that St. Clement of Alexandria taught against the perpetual Virginity of Mary, when he in fact taught it.

Going back to my original formula, I suggested that Tradition 1 adherents, faced with the incredible Catholicity of the Early Church Fathers respond by either:

(a) becoming more Catholic (frequently, Catholic converts point to exactly this testimony of the Early Church), (b) rejecting the Church Fathers on an increasing number of issues, or (c) misunderstanding what they believed and taught. Of course, (a) leads to Catholicism, (b) leads to Tradition 0, and (c) is an unstable foundation.

Mathison is clearly in the (c) camp. He seems to genuinely want to follow the faith of the Church Fathers, but he also wants them to disprove the Catholic Church. He’ll eventually have to choose on or the other. Roderick, on the other hand, had a good-faith reliance on a bad book, and seems pretty open to the Truth. What’s more, he criticized the Tradition 0 crown for rejecting the Church Fathers since “this approach denies God’s ability and purpose of continuity for His community of saints” and “throws the Church into immediate apostasy even though Jesus Himself said that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the Church. (Matthew 16:18).” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Update: I was asked when Against Heresies was written by someone who noted that it’s relevant to the Catholic-Orthodox discussion. It was written between 175-185 A.D., probably in 179 or 180. That’s over 800 years before the Great Schism formally occurred, and centuries before even the de facto breach.


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