Irenaeus is offered up as “direct evidence”. I question that evidence up above, especially his reporting of history, but citing Darrell Bock, who said that Irenaeus was a faithful reporter of the Gnostic heresies against which he was discoursing, I allowed that it may also be possible to allow that Irenaeus was a faithful reporter of what the church believed at the time.
In this vein, it is interesting that immediately before Irenaeus says anything about either “succession” or “Rome”, he talks about the Scriptures, and echoes these warnings from Matthew: the notion that the Apostles had a totally new message, that this message itself was the bearer of its own power, and that those who did not keep it properly were subject to “the worst calamity”:
The Lord of all gave his apostles the power of the Gospel, and by them we have known the truth, that is, the teaching of the Son of God.
Not the leftover teaching of the Jews. Per Cullmann, this is Paul’s paradosis “from the Lord” (1 Cor 11:23 etc).
To [the Apostles], the Lord said, “He who hears you hears me, and he who despises you despises Him who sent me”. For we have known the “economy” for our salvation only through those through whom the Gospel came to us [only through the Apostles]; and what they first preached they later, by God’s will transmitted to us in the Scriptures so that would be the foundation and pillar of our faith (“Against Heresies, 3 Pr.).”
So here, in the words of Irenaeus, before there is a promise of an “unbroken succession”, we have the Apostles carrying the message, and the message being written down, and what is written, to Irenaeus, is “the foundation and pillar of our faith”.
It is not right to say that they preached before they had perfect knowledge …
That is, the apostles had “perfect knowledge” which they preached and set down. This speaks to Irenaeus’s understanding of “development”, too, as some [Gnostics] venture to say,
boasting that they are correctors of the apostles. For after our Lord arose from the dead and they were clad with power from on high by the coming of the Holy Spirit, they were filled concerning everything and had perfect knowledge. They went forth to the ends of the earth proclaiming the news [the message] of the good gifts to us from God and announcing heavenly peace to men. Collectively and individually they had the Gospel of God.
They had the message and it was written down. It is the written records that are “by God’s will transmitted to us”. Not “the succession”. Here, Irenaeus describes what Kruger called “the canonical core”. This, too, before any mention of “succession”:
Thus Matthew published among the Hebrews a gospel written in their language, at the time when Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and founding the church there. After their death Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself delivered to us in writing what had been announced [the message] by Peter. Luke, the follower of Paul, put down in a book the Gospel preached by him. Later John the Lord’s disciple, who reclined on his bosom, himself published a Gospel while staying at Ephesus in Asia.
Note, this is in contrast to the process that Joseph Ratzinger outlined in his work “Primacy, Episcopacy, and Successio Apostolica” (which I’ve cited above):
“The concept of [apostolic] succession was clearly formulated, as von Campenhausen has impressively demonstrated, in the anti-Gnostic polemics of the second century; [and not in the first century] its purpose was to contrast the true apostolic tradition of the Church with the pseudo-apostolic tradition of Gnosis” (pgs 22-23).
The idea of a “New Testament” as “Scripture” is still quite inconceivable at this point—even when “office”, as the form of the paradosis, is already clearly taking shape” (Ratzinger 25).
We should not deceive ourselves: the existence of New Testament writings, recognized as being “apostolic”, does not yet imply the existence of a “New Testament” as “Scripture”—there is a long way from the writings to Scripture. It is well known, and should not be overlooked, that the New Testament does not anywhere understand itself as “Scripture”; “Scripture” is, for the New Testament, simply the Old Testament, while the message about Christ is precisely “spirit”, which teaches us how to understand Scripture.” The idea of a “New Testament” as “Scripture” is still quite inconceivable at this point—even when “office”, as the form of the paradosis, is already clearly taking shape” (Ratzinger, 25).
This open situation of the existence of recognized New Testament writings without the existence of any New Testament principle of Scripture or any clear notion of the canon lasted until well in the second century—right into the middle of the period of the conflict with Gnosticism. Before the idea of a “canon” of New Testament Scripture had been formulated, the Church had already developed a different concept of what was canonical; she had as her Scripture the Old Testament but this Scripture needed a canon of New Testament interpretation, which the Church saw as existing in the traditio guaranteed by the successio (Ratzinger, 25-26).
This notion is reproduced in CCC 83:
83 The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.
Note that Irenaeus here contrasts with both Ratzinger and the CCC at this point. Irenaeus provides us “direct evidence”, in K. Doran’s usage, that what the Apostles preached, and then what they “put down” was, actually, “the Scriptures” which “would be the foundation and pillar of our faith”.
Cullmann’s whole premise is to say that there is a sharp disjunction between the “oral transmission” of the message, and the need to write it down in a fixed, canonical form.
Irenaeus has said all of that before he talks about Rome. At this point, too, there is an echo of the warnings of Matthew 23:
Thus the tradition of the apostles [now written down as “Scriptures”] manifest in the whole world, is present in every church to be perceived by all who wish to see the truth. We can enumerate those who were appointed by the apostles as bishops in the churches as their successors even to our time, men who taught or knew nothing of the sort that [the Gnostics] madly imagine. If however the apostles had known secret mysteries that they would have taught secretly to the “perfect,” [as the Gnostics were teaching – those who could somehow improve on the Apostles’ message, perhaps through some process of “development”], they would certainly have transmitted them especially to those to whom they entrusted the churches. For they wanted those whom they left as successors, and to whom they transmitted their own position of teaching, to be perfect and blameless in every respect [1 Tim 3:2). If these men acted rightly it would be a great benefit, while if they failed it would be the greatest calamity.
What we have in Matthew 23 is echoed here in Irenaeus. It is not the promise of some future “unbroken succession, but as evidence that a faithful transmission has occurred to this point. It is a warning against “improving upon” the message (rather, the need to keep it faithfully” and also that warning (in the light of the destruction of the temple) that those, in the “succession”, “if they failed it would be the greatest calamity”.
This is not a promise for the future, but an echo of Matthew’s warning of destruction to church leadership that was not faithful.