Between now and June 24 I am finished up a book for Canon Press about different heroes of the faith. The publishers kindly gave me an extra year to allow me time to add some chapters about bad guys, so the good guys no longer have a monopoly on my time.
This last week I've been fine-tuning my chapter on Saint Irenaeus. When I wrote the first draft of the chapter I didn't have enough time to read all the primary sources so I relied on the first volume N.R. Needham's book 200 Years of Christ's Power to help with research. Speaking about Irenaeus' view of apostolic succession, Needham contrasted his formulation of this doctrine with later formulations, pointing out that "In Irenaeus, however, it was more a case of the bishop deriving his importance from belonging to an apostolic church, rather than a church being a true church because it had an apostolic bishop."
Since a colleague I used to teach with once discovered an error in Needham’s history, I thought that it might be a good idea to check to see if he was correct about Irenaeus before my manuscript goes to print. So this week I borrowed Irenaeus’ Against Heresies from my pastor with these two questions in mind:
Question #1: Is it correct that Irenaeus taught that a bishop derived his importance from belonging to an apostolic church?
Question #2: If the answer to question #1 is affirmative, then how did Irenaeus propose to distinguish a truly apostolic church from their heretical counterparts?
As a good protestant, I had always assumed that the answer to question #2 is that the criteria for determining if a church is truly apostolic is to look at the doctrine.
If my reading of Irenaeus this week is correct, the church is the custodian of the truth, but only those churches that have continuity to the teachings of the apostles qualify as being the true church. It thus turns out that my Protestant assumption was half correct, for Irenaeus does teach that to determine if a church was within the apostolic tradition one had to look to see if the church’s theology was in line with the rule of faith that the apostles had passed down in the sacred writings. Thus, Irenaeus used Biblical exposition to show that the teaching of the Gnostic churches were incompatible with the apostles’ doctrine revealed in scripture.
But that is only one side of the coin. Equally important in determining whether a church is legitimacy apostolic is whether the church is under a bishop that is the recipients of a chain of ordination going back to the apostles. This is because it was to be assumed that the apostles and their successors would only have appointed leaders who agreed with their teaching and also because apostolic authority was transmitted by the laying on of hands in a transfer of real divine power and authority.
“we appeal again to that tradition which has come down from the apostles and is guarded by the succession of elders in the churches… Even if the apostles had not left their Writings to us, ought we not to follow the rule of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they committed the churches?”
Thus, it would seem that Needham presents us with a false dilemma: it is true that the bishop derives his importance from belonging to an apostolic church, but it is also true that a church must have an apostolic bishop in order to be part of the true church. Remove either of these, and what you’re left with is a counterfeit church.
Although Irenaeus did not have time “to enumerate the successions of all the churches”, he took the church at Rome as one example and traced the succession of ordinations back to Peter and Paul. This, he maintains, provides “a full demonstration that it is one and the same life-giving faith which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles to the present, and is handed on in truth.”
The doctrine of apostolic succession provided a hedge around the interpretation of scripture, according to Irenaeus. Any church which taught private innovations different to the public tradition of the other apostolic sees, was a church teaching heresy.
At the end of this blog post I'll put a longer quotation from Irenaeus' Against Heresies. But right now, I'd like feedback on the following questions:
Question #3: One of the reasons that Irenaeus taught apostolic succession is because he believed that the apostles “certainly wished those whom they were leaving as their successors, handing over to them their own teaching position, to be perfect and irreproachable, since their sound conduct would be a great benefit [to the Church], and failure on their part the greatest calamity.” If Irenaeus was correct, might it be possible that the purity of this chain of succession could expire after a time, as the link to the first apostles becomes more and more distant? Sort of like photocopying a copy of a copy, etc - eventually the resulting copy is no longer an adequate representation of the original. It may have been very well for Irenaeus to propose this golden chain of ordination in his day because the apostles hadn't been dead that long, but would this have become unrealistic after a certain amount of time?
Question #4: Is Irenaeus’ doctrine of apostolic succession a Biblical doctrine? If so, where can we find it implied or inferred in scripture?
Question #5: If Irenaeus is correct in his doctrine of apostolic succession, which churches today satisfy the criteria for a ‘true church’?
Please use the comment section to join in the discussion.
Longer Quotation on Apostolic Succession
Here are some sections from Against Heresies where he lays out these doctrines:
"For we learned the plan of our salvation form no others than from those through whom the gospel came to us. They first preached it abroad, and then later by the will of God handed it down to us in Writings, to be the foundation and pillar of our faith. For it is not right to say that they preached before they had come to perfect knowledge, as some dare to say, boasting that they are the correctors of the apostles. For after our Lord had risen from the dead, and they were clothed with the power from on high when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were filled with all things and had perfect knowledge. They went out to the ends of the earth, preaching the good things that come to us from God, and proclaiming peace from heaven to men, all and each of them equally being in possession of the gospel of God. So Matthew among the Hebrews issued a Writing of the gospel in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel at Rome and founding the Church. After their decease Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what Peter had preached. Then Luke, the follower of Paul, recorded in a book the gospel as it was preached by him. Finally John, the disciple of the Lord, who had also lain on his breast, himself published the Gospel, while he was residing in Ephesus in Asia. All of these handed down to us that there is one God, maker of heaven and earth, proclaimed by the Law and the Prophets, and one Christ the Son of God. If anyone does not agree with them he despises the companions of the Lord, he despises Christ the Lord himself, he even despises the Father, and he is self-condemned, resisting and refusing his own salvation as all the heretics do."
But when we appeal again to that tradition which has come down from the apostles and is guarded by the successions of elders in the churches, they oppose the tradition, saying that they are wiser not only than the elders, but even than the apostles, and have found the genuine truth. For the apostles [they say] mixed matters of the Law with the words of the Saviour, and not only the apostles, but even the Lord himself, spoke sometimes from the Demiurge, sometimes from the middle power, sometimes from the highest, while they know the hidden mystery without doubt or corruption, and in its purity. This is in nothing less than shameless blasphemy against their Maker. What it comes to is that they will not agree with either Scripture or tradition….
The tradition of the apostles, made clear in all the world, can be clearly seen in every church by those who wish to behold the truth. We can enumerate those who were established by the apostles as bishops in the churches, and their successors down to our time, none of whom taught or thought of anything like their mad ideas. Even if the apostles had known of hidden mysteries, which they taught to the perfect secretly and apart from others, they would have landed them down especially to those to whom they were entrusting the churches themselves. For they certainly wished those wham they were leaving as their successors, handing over to them their own teaching position, to be perfect and irreproachable, since their sound conduct would be a great benefit [to the Church], and failure on their part the greatest calamity.
But since it would be very long in such a volume as this to enumerate the successions of all the churches, I can by pointing out the tradition which that very great, oldest, and well-known Church, founded and established at Rome by those two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul, received from the apostles, and its faith known among men, which comes down to us through the successions of bishops, put to shame all of those who in any way, either through wicked self-conceit, or through vainglory, or through blind and evil opinion, gather as they should not. For every church must be in harmony with this Church because of its outstanding pre-eminence, that is, the faithful from everywhere, since the apostolic tradition is preserved in it by those from everywhere.
When the blessed apostles had founded and built up the Church, they handed over the ministry of the episcopate to Linus. Paul mentions this Linus in his Epistles to Timothy. Anencletus succeeded him. After him Clement received the lot of the episcopate in the third place from the apostles: He had seen the apostles and associated with them, and still had their preaching sounding in his ears and their tradition before his eyes‚Äîand not he alone, for there were many still left in his time who had been taught by the apostles. In this Clement's time no small discord arose among the brethren in Corinth, and the Church in Rome sent a very powerful letter to the Corinthians, leading them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which they had recently received from the apostles, which declared one almighty God, maker of heaven and earth and fashioner of man, who brought about the Deluge, and called Abraham; who brought out the people from the land of Egypt; who spoke with Moses; who ordained the Law and sent the Prophets; and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. Those who care to can learn from this Writing that he was proclaimed by the churches as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so understand the apostolic tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is older than those present false teachers who make up lies about another God above the Demiurge and maker of all these things that are. Evarestus succeeded to this Clement, and Alexander to Evarestus; then Xystus was installed as the sixth from the apostles, and after him Telesphorus, who met a glorious martyrdom; then Hyginus, then Pius, and after him Anicetus. Soter followed Anicetus, and Eleutherus now in the twelfth place from the apostles holds the lot of the episcopate. In this very order and succession the apostolic tradition in the Church and the preaching of the truth has come down even to us. This is a full demonstration that it is one and the same life-giving faith which had been preserved in the Church from the apostles to the present, and is handed on in truth.
Similarly Polycarp, who not only was taught by apostles, and associated with many who had seen Christ, but was installed by apostles for Asia, as bishop in the church in Smyrna--I saw him myself in my early youth--survived for a long time, and departed this life in a ripe old age by a glorious and magnificent martyrdom. He always taught what he learned from the apostles, which the Church continues to hand on, and which are the only truths. The churches in Asia all bear witness to this, as do those who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time; he is certainly a much more trustworthy and dependable witness than Valentinus and Marcion and the other false thinkers. When he visited Rome under Anicetus, he converted many of the above-mentioned heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received from the apostles the one and only truth, the same which is handed on by the Church. There are those who have heard him tell how when John the disciple of the Lord went to bathe at Ephesus, and saw Cerinthus inside, he rushed out of the bath without washing, but crying out, "Let us escape, lest the bath should fall while Cerinthus the enemy of the truth is in it." Polycarp himself, when Marcion once met him and said, "Do you know us?" answered, "I know you, the first-born of Satan." The apostles and their disciples took such great care not even to engage in conversations with the corrupters of the truth, as Paul also said, "A heretical man after a first and second warning avoid, knowing that such a man has fallen away and is a sinner, being self-condemned" (Titus 3:10, 11). There is also a very powerful letter of Polycarp addressed to the Philippians, from which those who care to, and are concerned for their own salvation, can learn the character of his faith and [his] preaching of the truth. The church in Ephesus also, which was founded by Paul, and where John survived until the time of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.
Since there are so many clear testimonies, we should not seek from others for the truth which can easily be received from the Church. There the apostles, like a rich man making a deposit; fully bestowed upon her all that belongs to the truth, so that whoever wishes may receive from her the water of life. She is the entrance to life; all the others are thieves and robbers (Cf. Rev. 22:17; John 10:7, 8).Therefore we ought to avoid them, but to love with the greatest zeal the things of the Church, and so to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. What if there should be a dispute about some matter of moderate importance? Should we not turn to the oldest churches, where the apostles themselves were known, and find out from them the clear and certain answer to the problem now being raised? Even if the apostles had not left their Writings to us, ought we not to follow the rule of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they committed the churches?
Many barbarian peoples who believe in Christ follow this rule, having [the message of their] salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit without paper and ink. Diligently following the old tradition, they believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth and of all that is in them, through Christ Jesus the Son of God, who on account of his abundant love for his creation submitted to be born of a virgin, himself by himself uniting man to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and risen, and having been received up into splendor, is to come in glory as the Saviour of those who are saved, and the judge of those who are judged, and will send into eternal fire those who alter the truth, and despise his Father and his coming. Those who believe in this faith without written documents are barbarians in our speech, but in their convictions, habits, and behavior they are, because of their faith, most wise, and are pleasing to God, living in all righteousness and purity and wisdom. If anyone should preach to them the inventions of the heretics, speaking in their own language, they would at once stop their ears and run far, far away, not enduring even to listen to such blasphemous speech. So by that old tradition of the apostles they do not even take into their minds whatever their impressive words may mean.Nor do they have any proper congregation or established teaching.
For there were no Valentinians before Valentinus, or Marcionites before Marcion; nor were there any of these perverse thinkers whom I have listed above before the founders and inventors of their perversity. For Valentinus came to Rome under Hyginus; he flourished under Pius and remained until [the time of] Anicetus. Cerdon, who was Marcion's predecessor, used to come into the Church under Hyginus and make his confession, reaching the point where he would now give his secret teaching, now make his confession in public, and then was convicted of his evil teachings and was separated from the assembly of the brethren. Marcion, who followed him, flourished under Anicetus, who held the tenth place in the series of bishops. As we have shown, the others who are called Gnostics began with Menander, the disciple of Simon, and each has as his father and chief the one whose opinions he followed. All of these rebelled in their apostasy much later [than the founding of the Church], in the midst of the Church's history.
So the apostolic tradition is preserved in the Church and has come down to us….
Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church, those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth. And the heretics, indeed, who bring strange fire to the altar of God namely, strange doctrines shall be burned up by the fire from heaven, as were Nadab and Abiud.
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