Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Apostolic Succession (Part 11): More Of Irenaeus' Standards

Irenaeus explains that a succession of bishops isn't enough, but must be accompanied by moral and doctrinal standards:

"From all such persons [corrupt church leaders], therefore, it behoves us to keep aloof, but to adhere to those who, as I have already observed, do hold the doctrine of the apostles, and who, together with the order of priesthood, display sound speech and blameless conduct for the confirmation and correction of others....Where, therefore, the gifts of the Lord have been placed, there it behoves us to learn the truth, namely, from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles, and among whom exists that which is sound and blameless in conduct, as well as that which is unadulterated and incorrupt in speech." (Against Heresies, 4:26:4-5)

Irenaeus' concept of apostolic succession carries such qualifications with it and would have to be balanced with other arguments and placed within a hierarchy of authorities. Just as a parent or government official can be disobeyed if he commands something contrary to what God has commanded, so also bishops have a qualified and subordinate authority.

Earlier this year, Dave Armstrong responded to this passage in Irenaeus:

The Christian moral standard [citing 1 John 3:9 and 5:18] is extremely high. We would fully expect men to fall short of it, and they do. But in any event, St. Irenaeus alone does not decide the criteria of bishops: the Church ultimately does that....

Jason has, as usual, distorted what St. Irenaeus actually taught here. First of all, he is talking about priests ('presbyters'), not bishops. In the quotation above that I brought out, he contrasts them with the episcopate, which is the bishops....

As I have shown, Irenaeus was not referring to bishops in the passage under consideration, but to priests. But if a bishop did become a heretic, then any Catholic would be within his rights to avoid him, too: of course. (sources here and here)

Saying that "St. Irenaeus alone does not decide the criteria of bishops" tells us what Dave believes. But it doesn't reconcile Irenaeus with Catholicism.

We know that the early patristic Christians held church leaders accountable to a much higher moral standard than we would later see in the history of the papacy and Catholic bishops in general. Polycarp approved of the removal of a presbyter from the Philippian church, reasoning "if a man cannot govern himself in such matters, how shall he enjoin them on others? If a man does not keep himself from covetousness, he shall be defiled by idolatry, and shall be judged as one of the heathen" (Letter To The Philippians, 11). Some of the patristic sources speak of how particular sins render a man unqualified to serve as a bishop. We know that some Roman bishops attained their office by means of such sins or remained in office while committing them. For moral standards applied to the episcopate that would disqualify some of the bishops of Rome, see the following examples: Cyprian, Letter 63:1-2; Peter of Alexandria, The Canonical Epistle, 10; Apostolic Constitutions, 8:47:30-31.

And Dave is wrong about what offices Irenaeus was referring to. As Philip Schaff explains:

"the wavering terminology of Irenaeus in the interchangeable use of the words 'bishop' and 'presbyter' reminds us of Clement of Rome, and shows that the distinction of the two orders was not yet fully fixed" (History Of The Christian Church, 2:4:46)

Robert Lee Williams writes:

"Tradition from the apostles is preserved [according to Irenaeus] by the successions of 'presbyters' (3.2.2), present bishops in solidarity with the ancient ones of the post-apostolic period." (Bishop Lists [Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2005], p. 136)

In the section of Irenaeus under consideration (Against Heresies, 4:26:2-5), Irenaeus refers to "those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles" (4:26:2). His focus earlier in his treatise had been on bishops, so it would make more sense for him to refer to bishops here than to refer to a lower office. He goes on, "Such presbyters does the Church nourish, of whom also the prophet says: 'I will give thy rulers in peace, and thy bishops in righteousness.' [Isaiah 60:17]" Presbyters and bishops are being equated. Earlier, Irenaeus had referred to "the succession of presbyters in the Churches" (3:2:2), and he goes on in the next section to name bishops, including the bishops of Rome, in the context of succession (3:3:3-4). In a letter to the Roman bishop Victor, Irenaeus refers to "the presbyters before Soter, who presided over the church which thou now rulest. We mean Anicetus, and Pius, and Hyginus, and Telesphorus, and Xystus." (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 5:24) He's referring to Roman bishops as presbyters.

Despite his erroneous objection that Irenaeus was referring to some lower office rather than bishops, Dave wrote, "But if a bishop did become a heretic, then any Catholic would be within his rights to avoid him, too: of course." Irenaeus doesn't limit the standard to whether a bishop is a heretic, much less a heretic by modern Roman Catholic standards. Rather, Irenaeus refers to sound teaching without specifying whether he has something like Dave's concept of heresy in mind, and he refers to moral standards that the bishop must meet. Evangelicals would argue that modern Roman Catholic bishops have erred in their teaching to a large degree, and many Catholic bishops, including a lot of Popes, have been morally unfit. As we'll see in some later posts in this series, other patristic sources also held bishops to standards like those of Irenaeus or qualified their concept of apostolic succession in some other way.

Irenaeus was writing less than a century after the apostolic era, and he was arguing for a faith consisting of core beliefs that were held by every church he considered Christian, beliefs that had been taught explicitly, had been taught consistently, and were maintained by bishops who met high moral standards. Every one of those criteria just mentioned is weakened or absent in a modern system like Catholicism. The modern Catholic bishop is much further removed from the time of the apostles, requires his people to accept far more than the core set of beliefs Irenaeus referred to, acknowledges that many churches he considers Christian reject some of his alleged apostolic traditions, claims that doctrines like the papacy and the assumption of Mary were taught implicitly rather than explicitly in the earliest generations, has to acknowledge that even some Roman bishops rejected modern Catholic beliefs, and comes from a long line of morally corrupt predecessors.

An Evangelical can agree with much or all of what Irenaeus says about the standards he applies to such issues, yet not expect himself and other modern Christians to live according to all of Irenaeus' conclusions. Those conclusions depend largely on a context that no longer exists.

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