Saturday, October 31, 2009

Reformation Day

Here's a collection of many of Triablogue's articles about the historical roots of the Reformation and Evangelicalism.


  1. Jason,
    I always appreciate your writings on Roman Catholicism and the Reformation. Your earlier debates with Dave Armstrong years ago really helped.

    Thanks. Your collection made my evening complete after watching the movie Luther with my family on Oct. 31! (and You Tube clips of the black and white film)

    Do you have any other resources on Irenaeus' famous and controversial statement about the church at Rome?

    in Against Heresies, book 3:3:2 ?

    For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, . . . ?

    "agree with" or "resort to" ?

    "pre-eminent authority" ? or "more potent principle" ?

    What do you think Irenaeus meant by this?

    Scholarly thoughts?

  2. Ken,

    Thanks for the encouragement.

    The passage in Irenaeus is prominent in disputes between Catholics and Protestants largely because of Catholic desperation and Protestant ignorance. That's a bad combination that explains much of what we see today in online forums and other contexts in which Catholics and Protestants argue over their disagreements. Since a papacy isn't mentioned by anybody in the earliest generations of church history, many Catholics are desperate enough to read it into texts that don't mention it. And since so many Protestants are highly ignorant of church history and are unwilling to do the research that's appropriate, they're unprepared to answer the Catholic abuse of the historical sources, and they often trust what Catholics are telling them when such trust is unwarranted. Thus, many Protestants won't go to Irenaeus, study his comments in context, then refute the Catholic argument. Instead, they'll dismiss Irenaeus as too late of a source, dismiss him as part of a post-apostolic apostasy, etc., often under the assumption that their Catholic opponent is representing Irenaeus accurately.

    We should begin by asking why Catholics are going to this passage in Irenaeus to begin with. A few hundred pages of Irenaeus' writings are extant, and we have descriptions of some of his non-extant writings. He frequently addressed issues of authority, repeatedly appealing to the authority of the apostles, the authority of those who knew the apostles, the authority of scripture, etc. He never appeals to papal authority, nor does he ever even mention it. Yet, Catholics so often tell us that the papacy is the foundation of the church, the center of unity, that it's the solution to a wide variety of problems in Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy, etc. How likely is it that Irenaeus would have believed in the concept of a papacy, yet would say so little of it that Catholics would have to resort to reading it into one passage in one of Irenaeus' works? The fact that discussions of the papacy in Irenaeus begin and end with this one passage is revealing.

    Even if we translate every disputed portion of this passage as a conservative Catholic would like to see it translated, there's no papacy mentioned. We could read the passage as possibly reflecting belief in a papacy, but it doesn't lead us to the conclusion that it's probable that Irenaeus believed in the doctrine. The passage isn't enough to lead us, by itself, to the conclusion that Irenaeus believed in a papacy.

    In the same section of his treatise, Irenaeus goes on to refer to the importance of the churches in Smyrna and Ephesus, and the reasons he gives for the prominence of those churches have nothing to do with a permanent office established by Jesus and the apostles. Other sources before and around the time of Irenaeus, such as Ignatius of Antioch and Tertullian, give non-papal reasons for the importance of the Roman church. Irenaeus probably held a high view of that church for similar reasons.

    Notice that the opening segment of this section in Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3:3:1) gives a practical explanation for the significance of the apostolic churches and their bishops. He says nothing about Matthew 16, an office established by Jesus, infallibility, etc. Rather, Irenaeus is (correctly) appealing to these churches' (and their bishops') historical proximity to the apostles. His reasoning is much like what we see today in Christian apologetics, an appeal to concepts like the earliness of a source, geographical proximity to an event in dispute, and eyewitness testimony. Irenaeus is presenting us with a historical argument that any Protestant could accept. No papacy is involved.

  3. He mentions bishops in all three churches (Rome, Smyrna, and Ephesus), although he doesn't name any of them in the case of Ephesus. His focus is on churches, not bishops. There's a difference between a non-jurisdictional prominence of the Roman church and a jurisdictional primacy of the Roman bishop. And there's a difference between a prominence that results from practical factors, such as the location, wealth, and doctrinal faithfulness of a church, and a primacy that results from a permanent office established by Jesus and taught by the apostles. The evidence suggests that Irenaeus and other early sources had the former in view, even though Catholics read the latter into their comments.

    The second segment of this section in Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3:3:2) ends with a reference to how the tradition is preserved by Christians everywhere. The meaning of Irenaeus' comments here is disputed. He could be referring to the universal church, which would involve all Christians. Or he could be referring to the Roman church and the fact that Christians from around the world influence that church when they travel there (as the capital of the empire, Rome received many travelers). Once again, Irenaeus is appealing to a practical factor, not a permanent office established by Jesus and taught by the apostles. Later in this section of his treatise, Irenaeus appeals to the oldness of a document he cites, First Clement, without any appeal to the alleged papal authority of its author. The focus, again and again, is on such practical factors.

    In addition to Irenaeus' focus on the Roman church and its primacy for non-papal reasons, note that he repeatedly refers to Peter and Paul together, without placing Peter in a position of higher authority. (He mentions Peter before Paul here, but that sort of ordering is inconclusive, and he reverses the two, mentioning Paul first, elsewhere.) He repeatedly refers to how the Roman church reflects the traditions of the apostles (plural). The apostles Peter and Paul (plural) founded the Roman church. They (plural) appointed the first Roman bishop. Clement is referred to as the Roman bishop appointed in third place from the apostles (plural), Sixtus is referred to as the sixth from the apostles (plural), and Eleutherius is referred to as the twelfth from the apostles (plural). Clement is commended for his knowledge of the traditions of the apostles (plural). The Roman church is commended for reflecting the traditions of the apostles (plural) in a document we today call First Clement. Irenaeus had many opportunities to assert a jurisdictional primacy of Peter. He never does it. He doesn't even refer to a non-jurisdictional primacy.

  4. Jason,
    Thanks for a thorough answer! Well thought out.

    The footnote in the at that place (Against Heresies, 3:3:2) mentions that it could mean something like, every one resorts to Rome, from all over the empire, since it is the capital, and in that sense, it reflects the universal faith, a "more potent principality". (my paraphrase from memory)

    What you say about Peter and Paul and the plural of apostles in the verses later fits - and goes against a single Roman bishop with jurisdictional authority; I had not noticed the plurals there.

    Thanks again!