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  • Writer's pictureThe Other Paul

A Summary of Irenaeus' Views on Apostolic Tradition

Just last week I appeared on Tony Costa's channel Toronto Apologetics to present what I believe is the fairest interpretation of Irenaeus of Lyons' beliefs regarding 'Apostolic Tradition' (broadly conceived to include scripture and oral teaching). I believe I decisively demonstrated that he does not promote a particularly Romanist or Eastern view of tradition, and therefore that Romanists and Easterners who cite him as supporting them do so illegitimately. On the contrary, Irenaeus' views can be easily if not more easily adopted in a Protestant paradigm, at least once historical circumstances are accounted for. You can watch the entire program on Costa's channel {I}.

Here, I will present a summary of my case with references to key citations from Against Heresies. I intend to soon write a couple of larger essays; the first being a more comprehensive demonstration of my view, incorporating material from Irenaeus' other work The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, and the second being a detailed comparison of Irenaeus' view as given in the first essay with the Roman and Eastern views on "tradition," including certain apologists who appeal to Irenaeus for their view. For now, my basic thesis presented in the interview is as follows:

I. 'Apostolic Tradition' is a set body of teachings that consist of the basic precepts of the Christian faith and which are passed down from the Apostles and particularly through Christian leaders (the presbyters/bishops).

CITATIONS: AH I.10, III.2 - 4.

II. This set of teachings is completely preserved in two parallel modes by the time of Irenaeus; the written scriptures and the oral teaching passed from the Apostles and through bishops successively.


III. Both of these modes can be understood in themselves.


IV. Irenaeus relies on the testimony of the churches and their succession of teaching through the bishops on the basis of sound historical criteria, that these churches can materially trace their teachings back to the Apostles by pointing to successive bishops within living memory who taught the same thing, particularly if they commissioned writings that can be read today (e.g. 1st Clement).

a. Irenaeus' view is simply concerned with the historical pedigree of teaching, and does not reflect the later concern with an exact material succession going back to the Apostles for the sake of a sacramental "teaching charism."

CITATIONS: All prior citations + anywhere he refers to the passing on of teaching. Irenaeus is employing basic historical method in tracing the teachings themselves through teachers, just as pagans writers did with the philosophers (cf. Diogenes Laertius' The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers).

V. Apropos I - IV, Irenaeus' method and beliefs are perfectly compatible with the Protestant paradigm, especially once his unique historical circumstances are accounted for. He does not reflect a particularly Roman or Eastern view of 'tradition'.

a. One major example; he does not present the oral teaching of the church as a "lens" through which to read scripture in order to gain "clarity" on more difficult passages. As per II and III, both written scripture and oral teaching pass on the full content of the faith and are in themselves intelligible.

And that's my case presented on Costa's channel in sum. I have much more to say, so stay tuned for the major posts I have planned for this.


I - Apostolic Tradition vs. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy: Tony Costa and Paul Facey

II - This is inferred from the nature of Irenaeus' claim here, that what Irenaeus lists in his creed is THE faith (ἡ πίστις) handed on by the Apostles, which requires some form of dogmatic completeness to the set of teachings he then lists for such a statement to make sense. Next, it is clear that every assertion in his creed can be very clearly and easily inferred from the scriptures.

III - This is inferred from the nature of Irenaeus' expectation for the reader to judge the historical pedigree and doctrinal soundness of those presbyters whom he is exhorted to follow.

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