Tuesday, July 17, 2007

St. Irenaeus and Sola Scriptura

A Protestant would like us to believe that St. Irenaeus believed in sola Scriptura. To that end, she has provided (in a post titled, "Early Church Fathers on Sola Scriptura") the following quotation:
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith (Against Heresies, III, 1, 1).
In the first place, this quotation must be understood within the broader context of the book in which it is found. St. Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies as a refutation of the (especially Gnostic) heresies that were rampant in his day:
You have indeed enjoined upon me, my very dear friend, that I should bring to light the Valentinian doctrines, concealed, as their votaries imagine; that I should exhibit their diversity, and compose a treatise in refutation of them (AH, III, Preface).
He also says there that part of his purpose was to refute them from the Bible:
But in this, the third book I shall adduce proofs from the Scriptures, so that I may come behind in nothing of what you have enjoined; yea, that over and above what you reckoned upon, you may receive from me the means of combating and vanquishing those who, in whatever manner, are propagating falsehood (ibid.)
We should not, therefore, be surprised to find a statement such as our Protestant blogger has presented to us. But does Irenaeus say anything about Sacred Tradition? Yes, he does. In Chapter II of Book III, after saying in paragraph 1 that the heretics reject the authority of the Bible, St. Irenaeus goes on to say:
But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition (AH, III, 2, 2; emphasis added).
And so St. Irenaeus concludes:
Such are the adversaries with whom we have to deal, my very dear friend, endeavouring like slippery serpents to escape at all points. Where-fore they must be opposed at all points, if per-chance, by cutting off their retreat, we may succeed in turning them back to the truth. For, though it is not an easy thing for a soul under the influence of error to repent, yet, on the other hand, it is not altogether impossible to escape from error when the truth is brought alongside it (AH, III, 2, 3).
So we see how St. Irenaeus considers the result: the heretics he seeks to refute accept neither the authority of Scripture nor of Sacred Tradition.

What is more: in chapter III, St. Irenaeus appeals to the fact that apostolic succession was preserved in the Church of Christ:
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to "the perfect" apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity (AH, III, 3, 1).
It should be sufficiently clear that apostolic succession is, for the doctrine of sola Scriptura, completely irrelevant. On the other hand, for the sake of the transmission of Sacred Tradition, it is extremely important. In the passage above, we see St. Irenaeus appeal to the certainty of Sacred Tradition on the grounds of the certainty of apostolic succession. Later in the same chapter of book III, he recounts the succession of the Bishop of Rome "on account of its pre-eminent authority" (AH, III, 2).

Hence we see that, far from endorsing the notion of sola Scriptura, St. Irenaeus was actually a faithful Catholic, accepting the truth and validity of both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as it was transmitted by means of apostolic succession.

(By way of digression, it might also be worth pointing out that St. Irenaeus lived in the mid-2nd century - and already we see Christians like him putting such extraordinary significance upon apostolic succession).

I submit that perhaps our Protestant blogger ought to pay closer attention to the context of the quotations that she offers. This now is the second quotation we have examined, and again we have found it untenable to suppose that the author in question endorsed sola Scriptura.

No comments: