Monday, March 08, 2010

Apostolic Succession (Part 9): The Reasoning Behind Irenaeus' Succession

If Irenaeus didn't hold a Roman Catholic view of apostolic succession, then what view did he hold? Earlier, I quoted some of Everett Ferguson's comments on apostolic succession in general. I'll repeat his comments on Irenaeus in particular:

Irenaeus of Lyons drew on the idea of the succession of bishops to formulate an orthodox response to the Gnostic claim of a secret tradition going back to the apostles. Irenaeus argued that if the apostles had had any secrets to teach, they would have delivered them to those men to whom they committed the leadership of the churches. A person could go to the churches founded by apostles, Irenaeus contended, and determine what was taught in those churches by the succession of teachers since the days of the apostles. The constancy of this teaching was guaranteed by its public nature; any change could have been detected, since the teaching was open. The accuracy of the teaching in each church was confirmed by its agreement with what was taught in other churches. One and the same faith had been taught in all the churches since the time of the apostles.

Irenaeus's succession was collective rather than individual. He spoke of the succession of the presbyters (Haer. 3.2.2), or of the presbyters and bishops (4.26.2), as well as of the bishops (3.3.1). To be in the succession was not itself sufficient to guarantee correct doctrine. The succession functioned negatively to mark off the heretics who withdrew from the church. A holy life and sound teaching were also required of true leaders (4.26.5). The succession pertained to faith and life rather than to the transmission of special gifts. The "gift of truth" (charisma veritatis) received with the office of teaching (4.26.2) was not a gift guaranteeing that what was taught would be true, but was the truth itself as a gift. Each holder of the teaching chair in the church received the apostolic doctrine as a deposit to be faithfully transmitted to the church. Apostolic succession as formulated by Irenaeus was from one holder of the teaching chair in a church to the next and not from ordainer to ordained, as it became. (Encyclopedia Of Early Christianity [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999], p. 94)

As Irenaeus' view of Roman primacy was a result of practical factors, not belief in a papal office established by Jesus and the apostles, so also his view of apostolic succession was largely shaped by practical factors that wouldn't be equally applicable to all Christians at all times. Ferguson mentions that Irenaeus formulated his argument in response to Gnostics who made succession claims themselves, that he appealed to commonly accepted evidential categories like the public nature of apostolic teaching and the unlikelihood that so many churches would agree on teachings the apostles hadn't taught, etc. Irenaeus frequently appeals to common evidential concepts, like the earliness of a source (e.g., Clement of Rome in Against Heresies, 3:3:3) and diversity of witnesses (e.g., churches throughout the world in Against Heresies, 1:10:1). As the historian Philip Schaff noted, such appeals to common evidential categories carry with them the implication that the argument is weakened when the passing of time or some other factor lessens the force of the line of evidence cited. Irenaeus' chronological nearness to the apostolic era, for example, was a good argument in his day, whereas a Pope of the twenty-first century is far more distant from the time of the apostles. Schaff commented:

"To estimate the weight of this argument, we must remember that these fathers still stood comparatively very near the apostolic age, and that the succession of bishops in the oldest churches could be demonstrated by the living memory of two or three generations. Irenaeus in fact, had been acquainted in his youth with Polycarp, a disciple of St. John. But for this very reason we must guard against overrating this testimony, and employing it in behalf of traditions of later origin, not grounded in the scriptures. Nor can we suppose that those fathers ever thought of a blind and slavish subjection of private judgment to ecclesiastical authority, and to the decision of the bishops of the apostolic mother churches. The same Irenaeus frankly opposed the Roman bishop Victor. Tertullian, though he continued essentially orthodox, contested various points with the catholic church from his later Montanistic position, and laid down, though at first only in respect to a conventional custom—the veiling of virgins—the genuine Protestant principle, that the thing to be regarded, especially in matters of religion, is not custom but truth. His pupil, Cyprian, with whom biblical and catholic were almost interchangeable terms, protested earnestly against the Roman theory of the validity of heretical baptism, and in this controversy declared, in exact accordance with Tertullian, that custom without truth was only time-honored error." (History Of The Christian Church, 2:12:139)

In his recent study of apostolic succession, Robert Lee Williams reaches conclusions similar to Ferguson's. He notes Irenaeus' appeal to the antiquity of sources, like Clement of Rome (Bishop Lists [Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2005], p. 129). Irenaeus' list of Roman bishops serves as "a chronological frame of reference" and is part of "a sociological discussion of the relatively recent origins of Gnostic groups" (p. 134). Eric Osborn notes Irenaeus' appeal to such common evidential standards in many places (Irenaeus Of Lyons [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], pp. 6, 23, 127-128, 199, 203). The patristic scholar John McGuckin accurately refers to such standards put forward by Irenaeus as "commonsense rules" (The Westminster Handbook To Patristic Theology [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], p. 185).

Modern advocates of apostolic succession often take Irenaeus' conclusions on succession, which are heavily dependent on arguments from the context of his day, and apply those conclusions to modern contexts that are significantly different. I'll discuss some examples in the next post in this series.

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