Friday, March 05, 2010

Apostolic Succession (Part 6): Irenaeus And Rome

Irenaeus seems to have written shortly after Hegesippus, and he comes much closer to Dave Armstrong's view of apostolic succession than any previous source. But that isn't saying much.

Irenaeus believed in a form of Roman primacy, but not a papacy. Even Roman Catholic scholars have acknowledged that the passage Catholics most often cite from Irenaeus on the subject (Against Heresies, 3:3:2) has been abused in support of Catholicism. For example:

"All churches must agree with it [the Roman church] on matters of doctrine because they must agree with the apostolic tradition preserved by the apostolic churches....In any event this is a striking testimony though not, in my view, as decisive as some have argued. The context of Irenaeus' argument does not claim that the Roman Church is literally unique, the one and only in its class; rather, he argues that the Roman church is the outstanding example of its class, the class in question being apostolic sees. While he chose to speak primarily of Rome for brevity's sake, in fact, before finishing, he also referred to Ephesus and Smyrna....The German Catholic scholar, Norbert Brox of Regensburg, has claimed that the argument is framed entirely within a western context. At first I found this argument weak, but after comparing Irenaeus' argument to its expansion as found in Tertullian's De praescriptione haereticorum (36), (cf. next chapter), I find Brox's argument more convincing." (Robert Eno, The Rise Of The Papacy [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1990], pp. 39-40)

"It is indeed understandable how this passage has baffled scholars for centuries! Those who were wont to find in it a verification of the Roman primacy were able to interpret it in that fashion. However, there is so much ambiguity here that one has to be careful of over-reading the evidence....Karl Baus' interpretation [that Irenaeus wasn't referring to a papacy] seems to be the one that is more faithful to the text and does not presume to read into it a meaning which might not be there. Hence, it neither overstates nor understates Irenaeus' position. For him [Irenaeus], it is those churches of apostolic foundation that have the greater claim to authentic teaching and doctrine. Among those, Rome, with its two apostolic founders, certainly holds an important place. However, all of the apostolic churches enjoy what he terms 'preeminent authority' in doctrinal matters." (William La Due, The Chair Of Saint Peter [Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999], p. 28)

The historian Eric Osborn, in a recent study of Irenaeus, concludes:

"The subjection of all churches to Rome would be unthinkable for Irenaeus." (Irenaeus Of Lyons [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], p. 130)

The Roman primacy Irenaeus refers to is a result of non-papal factors, such as the Roman church's historical relationship with two prominent apostles, its familiarity to other churches, and probably its location in the capital of the empire. Irenaeus believed in a form of Roman primacy that doesn't imply a papacy.

Why are Catholics 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 have said so little of it? The fact that discussions of the papacy in Irenaeus place so much emphasis on this one passage, which doesn't actually say anything of a papacy, is revealing.

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 status 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, and the same can be said of his high view of Smyrna and Ephesus.

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.

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 primacy of the Roman church and a jurisdictional primacy of the Roman bishop. And there's a difference between a primacy that results from practical factors 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.

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 Linus as bishop of Rome. 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. Over and over, he places Peter and Paul together. There's no reason to conclude that he viewed Peter and the bishops of Rome as Popes. The foundational doctrine of Catholicism, the papacy, is unknown to Irenaeus.

In my next post in this series, I'll address some of Dave Armstrong's comments about Irenaeus and Roman primacy.


  1. Sounds pretty convincing. I'd like to see someone from the RC side respond to this.

    Is Osborn's book the standard on Iranaeus, or is there another that you would recommend? How about a particular collection of Iranaeus' works?

  2. Jason,
    Great material.

    Thanks for your steady dis-mantling of Dave Armstrong's arguments.

    He will likely just claim "development of doctrine".

    But it appears he is the one who has left the discussion/debate after he accused you of leaving the debate.

  3. The apostles Peter and Paul (plural) founded the Roman church.

    Jason, does anyone that you mention discuss the fact that this is simply a historical error on Irenaeus's part? And if so, how does it affect his overall reliability as a reporter of what was going on in those days? (For example, Irenaeus also has Jesus being more than 50 years old at his death.)

    Louis: I'd like to see someone from the RC side respond to this.

    A number of the writers that Jason cited ARE Roman Catholic scholars. It is very telling that the RC internet apologists crowd has to simply out-of-hand dismiss the work of "their" own scholars. They have no leg to stand on, really.

  4. John,
    By "historical error on Irenaeus' part"; do you mean that he makes a mistake by saying that Paul also laid the foundation of the church at Rome?

    Can it be said that he "watered" and taught after the foundation was laid by his mighty epistle to the Romans?

    Maybe he visited the Roman Church and preached and taught (to obtain some fruit and encourage the brethren (Romans 1:11-15) after his release from prison after Acts 28 ?

    Paul clearly said, that he wanted the Roman church to help him on his way to Spain, the frontier mission field of that day,

    "so that I might not build upon another's foundation" Romans 15:20


    "but now, with no more place for me in these regions, and since I have had for many years a longing to come to you - whenever I got to Spain . . . to be helped on my way there by you . . . "

    Romans 15:23-24

    2 Cor. 10:12-18 - Paul talks about "the regions beyond" and "the sphere which God has given him"

    When he was released from prison after the end of Acts 28; he tried to go on to Spain, and wrote 1 Timothy and Titus and was arrested again, writing 2 Tim. from prison before his execution by Nero.

    If Peter was a Pope, as the Roman Catholics claim, it seems it would be mentioned in Romans and I Peter and especially 2 Peter. There is nothing; zero.

  5. Ken -- I'm specifically suggesting that neither Peter nor Paul "founded" the church at Rome. Of course, Paul addresses a church at Rome before he ever visited it, which precludes his being a founder. But there is very strong attestation that there were Christian churches there perhaps as early as soon after Pentecost, and certainly by Acts 18:2.

    And in that sense, Irenaeus was certainly wrong to say that the church at Rome was "founded" by either Peter or Paul. (But certainly not Paul).

  6. Louis,

    Osborn's book has a lot of useful information in it, but he neglects some subjects I wanted to see covered in more depth. He largely addresses issues like recapitulation and deification. I don't know much about the scholarly reception of his book. But he was (he's dead) a highly regarded scholar. You can read some endorsements for the particular book I cited (and some others he wrote) at The Cambridge University Press web page on the book has some other endorsements.

    I don't know enough about different versions of Irenaeus' works to recommend one over another. I sometimes consult more than one edition to get more information about a particular passage, but I've only read all the way through one edition of each of his works. You can read some good, though dated, versions of his works online. Against Heresies and his fragments are available at and Demonstration Of The Apostolic Preaching is available here. Other editions of his works are available online as well.

  7. John Bugay,

    A term like "founded" has a broad range of possible meanings. I wouldn't criticize Irenaeus on that point.

    His error about the age of Jesus has some significance relevant to his credibility and in illustrating the fallibility of tradition, for example, but not much significance. His mistake is less unreasonable than is commonly suggested. Here are some of my comments on the subject from a discussion a few years ago:

    "Irenaeus' false view of Jesus' age can be attributed to his misreading of John 8:57. If some elders of the church affirmed the historicity of John 8:57, or agreed with Irenaeus that Jesus lived the life of an ideal teacher (without intending the implication of old age that Irenaeus assumed), then Irenaeus could have wrongly concluded that the elders agreed with what he believed about Jesus' old age. Since other early sources disagree with Irenaeus on this point, it seems unlikely that the elders of the church were teaching what Irenaeus believed....There is no early document that explicitly tells us that Jesus was such-and-such an age when He died. We arrive at conclusions about His probable age by means of putting together various pieces of information. We today may think that it's obvious that Jesus died in His 30s, since we hear that conclusion so often from pastors, historians, etc., and we so often see artwork, movies, and such that portray Jesus as somebody in that age range. But whether Jesus was in His 30s or 40s isn't of much significance to Christianity, and Irenaeus lived at a time when that issue hadn't received nearly as much attention as it has since then."

    Anybody who's interested can read more on the subject in the thread linked above.

    Irenaeus addressed thousands of subjects in his extant writings. He was accurate the large majority of the time. We have to make case-by-case judgements about his credibility on individual topics, but his overall credibility is often underestimated by making too much of issues like the ones you've mentioned. On a subject like the history of the Roman church, we have to be careful not to make too much of what little he says. In some cases, it's difficult to judge just what he knew and just what he meant by the terms he used. Irenaeus read the same passages in Paul's letter to the Romans that we've read, and even in later centuries we find some patristic sources still aware that the monepiskopos was a gradual development. I'm skeptical of conservative Roman Catholic readings of Irenaeus on subjects like Roman primacy, but I'm also skeptical of liberal and other readings of Irenaeus that are overly critical of him.

  8. It's not convincing at all. You've managed a facile proof-texting by Brox, Osborn, et al., but completely pass over a dozen patrologists who disagree: A. Fortescue, J. Behr, J. Quasten, J.N.D. Kelly, J. Meyendorff, D. Bell, and many others. Especially telling is your complete omission of Thomas Oden.

    The fallacy in your argument is that it relies on an inflated definition of 'papacy' which, in turn, manifests itself to be a straw man. More to the point, your interpretation of Adversus haereses is really nothing more than diluting the full force of St Irenaeus' words.

    Another flaw in your argument is that you assume that the de iure of Roman primacy on the basis of Scriptural evidence must is necessarily antecedent to the de facto of Roman primacy.

    Finally, your entire discussion on apostolic succession lacks any consideration of Francis Sullivan's From Apostles to Bishops (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2001). To my mind, this indicates a tremendous academic irresponsibility on the part of the writer.

    M. G. Hysell, M.A., M.Th.

  9. M.G. Hysell,

    You've given us a lot of assertions without interacting with any of my arguments.

    And your own post doesn't demonstrate the "academic responsibility" you ask of my posts. How many Catholic blogs or other Catholic sources have you criticized for their "academic irresponsibility"?