Thursday, January 05, 2017

Debunking an over-used Irenaeus quote on “Papal Succession”

In this definitive work on Irenaeus
the city of Rome is not even mentioned.
Someone posted this quote from Irenaeus in response to Jerry Walls’s comment on Facebook about the Roman Catholic Church having claimed to have “compiled the Bible” (and by the way, Jerry agrees it is "Simplistic, self-serving hubris":

The great early Father, St. Irenaeus in the mid-100’s felt a little differently (Against Heresies III, 2-4):

[T]hat tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles....

Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”

Jerry referred them to Peter Lampe; someone else commented that “if you don’t have a succinct answer, you probably don’t have an answer”. Here is a succinct response that I posted:

Couple of things about the Irenaeus quote (for those who wanted a succinct answer). Jerry mentioned Peter Lampe, “From Paul to Valentinus”. Lampe studied every scrap of paper (including Romans 16, 1 Clement, Justin, Shepherd of Hermas, etc.), every inscription, every archaeological find, every cemetery in ancient Rome, and determined that there was a network of small churches led by groups of elders. There was no one “successor of Peter” for 150 years or more. So it’s a broken, fabricated “succession”.

Bottom line on Irenaeus: he was a bad historian, relying on anachronism. He says “the church was founded by Peter and Paul”, but there were more likely churches in Rome immediately following Pentecost, many years before Peter and Paul ever got there. Paul arrived to existing churches there maybe 25-28 years later, and there was no mention of Peter.

Fables that Peter was the first bishop of Rome and ruled there for 25 years have also been found to be contradictory to accounts in Acts. That story first made its appearance in the third century, but it sounded good to later bishops of Rome, and so therefore it was repeated ad nauseam.

Irenaeus also spread the fable the “Simon Magus (a believer as of Acts 8) was the father of all heresies”. FYI, this fable about Simon Magus was introduced in “the Gospel of Peter”, which featured a smoked tuna that comes back to life and hops in the lake, a talking dog, and a walking, talking 60-foot cross.

In Irenaeus’s day, anachronism was common. People looked at the world around them, and they concluded “the world has always been this way”. Even though the church had been changing. Lampe cites the origins of Irenaeus’s list as being “drawn up” by Hegesippius (whom we know only from reporting in Eusebius, 150 years later).

Irenaeus may have had good theology, but that’s because he also was among the first to have an almost totally compiled New Testament. It wasn’t “the Catholic Church” that put it together. Paul’s works were most likely collected in his own lifetime. The Gospels and other letters were also collected in a group -- but there was no doubt they were regarded as Scripture from the moment the ink was dry.

I should also add, regarding this sentence: “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.”

I recently had an opportunity to respond to someone else on this passage. There are a number of specific criticisms:

1. The place to begin is in the textual history. Eric Osborn begins his work “Irenaeus of Lyon” (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001): “The original Greek text of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is found only in fragmentary form, while a complete Latin translation prepared about the year 380 has survived”. It was “Pope Damasus” who was overseeing the re-writing of the history of Rome to incorporate many church things. The dearth of manuscripts (“Greek fragments”), only three early Latin MSS; one dated 380; the other two dated 1,000 --- this was a lost work, certainly not “authoritative”, for the first 1000 years of the church.

2. Cullmann notes that when Irenaeus “speaks of the Roman church as the ‘very ancient and universally known church founded and organized by Peter and Paul’” there is at least one error: we know from Romans that the Roman church was not founded by Paul. “This at once calls in question the historical trustworthiness of the statement (“Peter”, pg 116).”

3. Aside from that, J.N.D. Kelly analyzes this passage in “Early Christian Doctrines” – see pg 193; Also, Norman Geisler (“Is Rome the True Church?” Crossway, pgs 154 ff) borrows heavily from Cleveland Coxe’s discussion in ANF 1. The discussion centers on (a) it is a Latin translation of a Greek text that we don’t have, and (b) whether the word “convenire” in the Latin is “should agree” or “does agree” – the suggestion was that Rome is a source of Christian doctrine, but rather, a reflection of it, as faithful Christians from all over the world would visit that cosmopolitan city.

Here is more from J.N.D. Kelly:

...the gist of the sentence may be taken to be that Christians of every other church are required, in view of its special position of leadership, to fall in line with the Roman church, inasmuch as the authentic apostolic tradition is always preserved by the faithful who are everywhere. This interpretation, or some variant of it, has been accepted by many, but it is awkward to refer "in qua" to hank...ecclesiam," and anachronistic to attribute such thinking to Irenaeus. Hence it seems more plausible to take "in qua" with "omnem...ecclesiam," and to understand Irenaeus as suggesting that the Roman church supplies an ideal illustration because, 'in view of its preeminent authority' based on its foundation by both Peter and Paul, its antiquity, and so on, every church--or perhaps the whole church--in which the apostolic tradition has been preserved must as a matter of course agree with it. There is therefore no allusion to the later Petrine claims of the Roman see (Kelly 193).

Of course, even the Latin translation is questioned (Irenaeus wrote originally in Greek, which is lost), and so any doctrines that consider this to be a foundational text ought to be questioned, especially something that Roman Catholics consider as important as the papacy.

Second, regarding the concept of “Apostolic Succession”:

1. Note that this was not a concept that the earliest church talked about. John Behr (“St Irenaeus of Lyons”) notes that Ignatius did not have a concept of “Apostolic Succession”. See this link. In contrast to the Roman concepts of bishops (who are the “successors of the apostles” for Ignatius, the authority of “bishops” is far diminished from the authority of “apostles”. He notes: “Ignatius repeatedly states that as a bishop he, unlike the apostles, is not in a position to give orders or to lay down the precepts or the teachings (δόγματα), which come from the Lord and the apostles alone (cf. Magnesians 13; Romans 4:3; Ephesians 3:1).”

2. Hans Von Campenhausen (“Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power” – in a work certified by Ratzinger, see the “God’s Word” work, pg 22-23 – cited here) points out : “The first and only usage of the concept of “a succession (διαδοχἡ) of teachers and instructors” [within the context of Christianity] prior to Irenaeus is found in the Gnostic Letter to Flora of the Gnostic teacher Ptolemaeus (c. AD 90 – c. AD 168). Von Campenhausen notes in a footnote, “this is the only pre-Irenaean attestation of that conception of παράδοσεις [tradition being handed on] which from now on is the determinative one” (von Campenhausen, 158).

3. Daniel William O’Connor (“Peter in Rome”, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1969, pg 27), notes that the Hegesippus in 166 “claims to have compiled himself”, or “drew up” or “made up his own list at this time” – not that it was an already-existing list.

4. Working with these and other data, Peter Lampe puts forward a thesis as to how this list from Irenaeus (borrowed from Hegesippus) is a “historical construction” (pg 406) – probably made with the best of intentions, and comprised from actual names of presbyters from the various churches at Rome. But as far as “succession” and dates (most of which were supplied again at the time of Damasus), it is not a historical list.

And finally, it should be noted that “history” in that time is different from “history” as we understand it. Timothy Barnes, writing about Eusebius’s history, relates that Eusebius looked around at the existing church of his day, and anachronistically projected his own view of the church back to the time of the apostles. There was no concept that the historical make-up of the church was different in the Apostles’ day as it was in his day (see Barnes, “Constantine and Eusebius”, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pgs 131-132).


  1. I'd say the response was akin boxing with three devastating blows to the body, a straight right to the chin, left hook to the temple and a right upper cut. KO.

    1. Thanks Alex. Two things: First, Roman Catholic scholars never use this passage to defend the papacy. They already know it's debunked. Second, uninformed "Catholic Converts", in their enthusiasm, always seem to trot it out. So I found over the years that I've needed to compile such information as this whenever I see it.

  2. Great post John. What is the best a Catholic can offer in defense of apostolic succession? And what would be the counter argument for it?

  3. John - Well done good friend! I just finished reading Lampe, so I can attest to your accurate references. I had a thought for you: it seems to me that there are no "ex cathedra" pronouncements on Matt. 16:18. If that's true, then not even Rome is willing to commit to the actual interpretation. Do I understand that correctly? I just listened a bit to Jimmy Akin talk about how ex cathedra statements are classified as a go to "only when needed" in his words. I've not heard that before. In any case, without ex cathedra, isn't the whole issue still open?

    1. Thanks Corey -- you are correct, there is not an "infallible" interpretation of Matt 16:18 although as Loomis and Shotwell ("See of Peter", 1927) wrote, "that doctrine is the fundamental basis of the whole papal structure" and it is "on the border line between history and dogmatic theology". Since that time, Rome has had to deal with eroding history. Here's a link that gives an overview of the history of the interpretation of that verse:

      One of the challenges with "ex cathedra" statements (there is only one, officially -- the 1950 pronouncement on the assumption of Mary) -- Akin is wrong about "only when needed". He is referring to a time when the bishop of Rome sort of played "9th vote on the Supreme Court" among the five patriarchates. There was no need for the "assumption of Mary" dogma.

      "Papal Infallibility" was first conceived as a way of preventing one pope from undoing another pope's authoritative statements (sort of what Trump is going to do to all of Obama's "executive orders") -- here's a little about that:

  4. Your post doesn't really accomplish what you think. A 20th century scholar examined sources from the early church, but apparently ignored Irenaeus as a source probably because he had a conclusion he wanted to reach. And asserting that the "fable" that Peter served as bishop of Rome "first made its appearance in the third century" also skips right over Ireneaus. Oh well.

    1. What do you think I want this to accomplish? There is a paragraph about Rome being important (no kidding, it was the capital of the empire, and had been for as long as anyone could remember. There are no Greek manuscripts (and Irenaeus wrote in Greek). There is a bad Latin translation dating from, surprise, surprise, the fourth century. There are two more copies written after 1000. All of this screams "this is not important in the first millennium". A "20th century scholar" can wrangle about "interpretation", but if there is only one manuscript, you can rest assured that for the first 1000 years no one thought that document was important.

  5. "Fables that Peter was the first bishop of Rome and ruled there for 25 years have also been found to be contradictory to accounts in Acts. That story first made its appearance in the third century, but it sounded good to later bishops of Rome, and so therefore it was repeated ad nauseam."
    --------yeah, the story that Peter lived in Rome for 25 years might be a fable, but the story that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome did not make its first appearance in the 3rd century, but, if we can trust Eusebius, in the 2nd century.

    In H.E. 6:14, Eusebius quotes Clement of Alexandria as saying:

    "As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome..."

    And Clement goes on to say this preaching had succeeded in founding a church, which later had to repeatedly ask Mark for a written account of Peter's preaching, a thing Mark persistently denied but finally acquiesced to.

    Assuming Clement was correct, does it make historical sense to say that all Clement is implying here is that Peter came to Rome, preached a sermon in public, then took the next flight out of town?

    No. If Peter really did preach the gospel in Rome, to the point that his preaching created enough believers to form a church, it is highly likely that Peter would have known there's more to his duties as an apostle than just talking out loud about Jesus as he walks from one location to the next.

    He would have found it necessary to interact with new converts and groups of them in a way that would fall under the duties of "bishop".

    That much would reasonably follow from Clement's statement, even if other patristic accounts give a different name for the first bishop of Rome, and even if Peter's engaging in bishop-duties there was more on the order of a temporary leader than a permanent resident.

    Peter does not have to "move to Rome", in order for all activities historically and reasonably implied from his "preaching in Rome" to qualify him as the first "Bishop of Rome".

  6. The textual history of 'Against Heresies'? Well, it was translated into Latin in the pre-Nicene period - one of the first theological works of the Fathers to be translated. It was also translated into Syriac and Armenian. It was used by Hippolytus, Eusebius and Epiphanius.

    Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 405 proves that Irenaeus was being read in a obscure provincial town in Egypt very soon after he wrote. It certainly implies a wide distribution. Numerous quotes from Irenaeus, including 'Against Heresies' are included in Greek theological florilegium.

    As far as I am aware there is no dispute over the text of Against Heresies. As the Latin version was translated 100 years before Damasus I'm not sure what he has to do with anything. Can you point me to the page in Osborn where he says Damasus tinkered with the text to promote the Papacy?

  7. According to Dominic J. Unger, in his introduction to his translation of book one of Against Heresies, for ACW there are 9 extant Latin manuscripts of Against Heresies (page 12) plus 3 non-extant manuscripts that Erasmus used for his first edition (page 13). He also affirms with good evidence that the Latin translation was pre-Nicene (pages 14-15).

    Sorry John, there is no manuscript dating to 380. That is simply a speculative date that a few scholars claim, including Osborn, for the Latin translation. Considering Tertullian used the Latin version of Against Heresies in his Against Valentinius it is hard to justify a later date for the translation. As for Damasus's connection with Irenaeus, I'm still waiting for evidence! Even Osborn doesn't make this claim.

    Also, Patriarch Photius reviewed Against Heresies in the 9th century in his Bibliotheca. So not only were Greek manuscripts of Against Heresies around in the 9th century but it was being read. Is this too much scholarship for you?