Monday, March 22, 2010

The Church, Authority, And Infallibility (Part 2): Irenaeus

Here are some of Dave Armstrong's claims relevant to Irenaeus and church infallibility:

What we would expect to find is a notion of profound, binding authority, apostolic succession, and related ideas. These are certainly present [in Irenaeus]; therefore, exactly what Cardinal Newman would predict in a theologian of the second century, is present. Here are a few examples:

. . . carefully preserving the ancient tradition . . . by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established.

(Against Heresies, III, 4, 2)

Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, . . .

(Against Heresies, III, 5, 1)

And then shall every word also seem consistent to him, if he for his part diligently read the Scriptures in company with those who are presbyters in the Church, among whom is the apostolic doctrine, as I have pointed out.

(Against Heresies, IV, 32, 1)


And Cardinal Newman is correct in distinguishing between basic binding authority in the early Church and the later far more highly developed infallibility (just as Christology became far more complex as time went on: all the way to the seventh century or later)....

Why not let our readers see what St. Irenaeus states there?:

Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father.

(IV, 26, 2)

Sounds like a big disproof of infallibility and Catholicism, doesn't it? In one sentence, we see binding authority in the Church, apostolic succession, the episcopate (bishops), and infallibility ("certain gift of truth") -- and Scripture isn't mentioned along with the four other varieties of authority. (sources here and here)

I've addressed doctrinal development and Dave's understanding of it in some of my earlier responses to him, such as here and here. Remember, he claimed that praying to the dead is implied by Biblical passages like Revelation 5:8 and that apostolic succession is "explicit" in Papias, for example. He claims that everything from papal infallibility to the assumption of Mary is found in seed form in scripture. As I've said before, Dave doesn't limit himself to acorns when seeking a justification for his Roman Catholic oak. An apple seed or mustard seed will do.

Of the four passages in Irenaeus cited by Dave above, the first and third are comments on the state of the church in Irenaeus' day. Apparently, Dave is assuming that Irenaeus must have expected the church to always maintain that status by means of its infallibility.

His second quote of Irenaeus refers to how the tradition of the apostles is "permanent among us". As I mentioned in my 2008 article Dave was responding to, Irenaeus could mean that there will always be people who will believe the doctrines he's referring to. He could mean that the apostolic tradition, considered in itself, will always be available. The apostolic tradition isn't identical to the church, and, as I documented in my series on apostolic succession, the apostolic faith Irenaeus was referring to was much different than the faith of Roman Catholicism. In that series I just referred to, I also documented that much of what Irenaeus says about the church of his day isn't applicable to later generations. Even if we assume that Irenaeus expected the apostolic faith to always be maintained by the church, he could be referring to the sort of church perpetuity I discussed in the introduction to this series. Dave needs to present more of an argument if he wants us to believe that Irenaeus was referring to something more.

The fourth passage Dave cited is the most relevant, because of the "certain gift of truth" reference, which Dave associates with infallibility. He doesn't explain how that phrase allegedly implies infallibility, much less the Roman Catholic concept of infallibility in particular.

What is Irenaeus referring to? Recall, first, that Irenaeus is distinguishing between church leaders who are to be followed and those who are to be avoided. I discussed the larger context in one of the posts in my series on apostolic succession. It's not certain that every bishop will have the gift of truth Irenaeus is referring to. What he's saying is that possession of the gift of truth is one of the characteristics a church leader must have if he's to be followed. Irenaeus doesn't claim that every bishop has it.

Everett Ferguson explains:

"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." (Encyclopedia Of Early Christianity [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999], p. 94)

Robert Lee Williams comments:

"K. Muller has shown that Irenaeus is referring not to Dix's 'sacramental charisma received in ordination' but to ecclesiastical doctrine." (Bishop Lists [Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2005], p. 136)

And Eric Osborn writes:

"Bishops have a certain gift of truth. The charisma of the spirit works in all true believers to give understanding of doctrine (4.33; 5.20.2). Bishops have no unique gift of truth but an assured, reliable commission to teach. 'Not only their ethical disposition and the succession, but also the spirit who already 'perfected' the apostles and since then is active in the church, equips them to hand on the truth intact.'...Certainty is linked with the truth of the tradition 'the veritas is the charisma', and not with presbyterial infallibility." (Irenaeus Of Lyons [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], pp. 146-147)

Notice Osborn's comments about the Spirit's guidance of all Christians. In the introduction to this series, I mentioned that advocates of church infallibility often fail to apply their reasoning consistently. Comments made about the church are interpreted much differently than similar comments made about Israel, all believers, the state, parental authority, etc.

Let's consider some other passages in which Irenaeus makes reference to gifts of God similar to the gift in the passage Dave has cited. In Against Heresies 2:20:3, we read:

"For the Lord, through means of suffering, 'ascending into the lofty place, led captivity captive, gave gifts to men,' and conferred on those that believe in Him the power 'to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and on all the power of the enemy,' that is, of the leader of apostasy. Our Lord also by His passion destroyed death, and dispersed error, and put an end to corruption, and destroyed ignorance, while He manifested life and revealed truth, and bestowed the gift of incorruption."

Elsewhere, he refers to "the pre-eminent gift of love" (4:33:8). Jesus has "by means of His advent, poured upon the human race the greater gift of paternal grace." (4:36:4) God has given Christians "the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker" (5:17:1).

Would Dave apply the same reasoning to such passages that he applies to the passage about the gift of truth? Should we conclude that Irenaeus thought every Christian would always have incorruption and communion with God, for example, meaning that justification can't be lost? Should we conclude that the church exercises its gift of love in a manner similar to how Dave thinks the gift of truth is exercised (such as when a Pope is speaking ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals)?

Maybe Dave thinks that the qualifier "certain" before "gift of truth" makes his point. But how so? We could interpret Irenaeus as saying that it's certain that the church leaders in question will stay within the truth. The problem, for Dave's position, is that the term is broad enough to allow for other interpretations as reasonable possibilities, and his own reading can't be shown to be probable. Irenaeus could mean that the truth in question is certain, not that its ongoing possession by church leaders is certain.

He criticizes heretics for having "no fixed conclusion or certainty" (Against Heresies, 2:1:4). He criticizes the heretics because they "desert what is certain, indubitable, and true" (2:27:3). He refers to learning what's "certain and clear" from the churches (3:4:1). He refers to the church's "possessing the sure tradition from the apostles" (5:20:1). He frequently uses terms like "certain" and "certainty" to refer to high probabilities, including when addressing matters other than what Dave thinks the church has infallibly taught (3:12:12, 3:16:6, etc.). He refers to degrees of certainty ("more certain", 5:30:3). All Christians should "keep with all certainty" the faith they've received (Demonstration Of The Apostolic Preaching, 98). Was Irenaeus expecting all Christians to keep the faith infallibly?

Shortly after the passage Dave cites, Irenaeus writes:

"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." (4:26:4)

Most likely, "the doctrine of the apostles" is another way of referring to "the certain gift of truth".

Irenaeus goes on:

"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. For these also preserve this faith of ours in one God who created all things; and they increase that love which we have for the Son of God, who accomplished such marvellous dispensations for our sake: and they expound the Scriptures to us without danger, neither blaspheming God, nor dishonouring the patriarchs, nor despising the prophets." (4:26:5)

He refers to gifts (plural). He mentions attributes like "blameless conduct", which he had referred to as "gifts" elsewhere, such as in the passages I cited above. Have Roman Catholic bishops, such as the Popes of the medieval era, had such gifts along with the gift of truth that Dave has singled out?

The church and faith described by Irenaeus aren't the Roman Catholic church and faith, as I demonstrated in my series on apostolic succession. Irenaeus nowhere mentions, or even implies, the papacy, papal infallibility, conciliar infallibility, and other elements of Dave's concept of the church. Dave dubiously reads a far more vague concept of infallibility into phrases like "the certain gift of truth". Irenaeus' church is about as relevant to Dave's denomination as an apple seed is to an oak.

Did Irenaeus believe in some other concept of an infallible church? My sense is that he did. But there isn't much evidence to go by, and the evidence we have is sometimes hard to judge. As Eric Osborn noted, even scholars who specialize in the study of Irenaeus have often found him difficult to understand on some issues and have accused him of incoherence and inconsistency (Irenaeus Of Lyons [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], pp. 9-12). Osborn himself refers to "the apparent confusions in his [Irenaeus'] thought" and how he "piles image upon image, thought upon thought", producing an "Irenaean jungle" (p. 251). One of the most significant passages in Irenaeus that I'm aware of with potential implications for church infallibility is the following:

"But it has, on the other hand, been shown, that the preaching of the Church is everywhere consistent, and continues in an even course, and receives testimony from the prophets, the apostles, and all the disciples— as I have proved— through those in the beginning, the middle, and the end, and through the entire dispensation of God, and that well-grounded system which tends to man's salvation, namely, our faith; which, having been received from the Church, we do preserve, and which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth, as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also. For this gift of God has been entrusted to the Church, as breath was to the first created man, for this purpose, that all the members receiving it may be vivified; and the means of communion with Christ has been distributed throughout it, that is, the Holy Spirit, the earnest of incorruption, the means of confirming our faith, and the ladder of ascent to God. 'For in the Church,' it is said, 'God has set apostles, prophets, teachers,' and all the other means through which the Spirit works; of which all those are not partakers who do not join themselves to the Church, but defraud themselves of life through their perverse opinions and infamous behaviour. For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth." (Against Heresies, 3:24:1)

Is the church "always renewed" in the sense that its future renewal is assured? Or is Irenaeus referring to something that's happened up to that point in time, but may not continue at all times afterward? (For example, we might refer to a man as always faithful to his wife without meaning that he's sure to be faithful to her in the future.) Is Irenaeus referring to something that will always occur if the conditions are met, but those conditions may not be met at all times? I think what he had in mind was the first meaning described above, given factors like how highly he speaks of the church in general, how closely he goes on to associate the church with the Spirit, and how highly other authors contemporary with Irenaeus spoke of the church. When Irenaeus refers to the church and the maintaining of the faith, is he only referring to a church hierarchy and its actions within particular circumstances, like an ecumenical council or the Roman bishop's ex cathedra teachings on faith and morals? No, there's no reason to think he had such qualifications in mind. He may be referring to some low form of church infallibility, like the concept of church perpetuity that I discussed in the introduction to this series.

Modern readers of Irenaeus often ask whether the church he's referring to is Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Both groups would claim to be consistent with what Irenaeus describes in the passage quoted above. (That tells you something about the vagueness of the concepts involved here.) But, as I documented in my series on apostolic succession, Irenaeus didn't define the apostolic faith as either of those groups does, and he disagreed with the beliefs of both groups on some issues. Even though some of what Irenaeus says about the church is consistent with Catholicism and Orthodoxy, partial consistency doesn't prove identity.

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