Why do I write on Roman Catholicism? Because of claims like these:
I still have yet to see a good Protestant response to Irenaeus, who predates Cyprian:
“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that 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 succession of bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.’ –Irenaeus, early Church father, ca. 180 A.D. in his famous work Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, para. 2
I don’t know if the Protestants would like me calling myself a Protestant, but I do protest against Rome’s claims, so here is my “good Protestant response.”
Rome, according to Irenaeus, was:
- very great
- very ancient
- universally known
- founded by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul
As a result, “it is a matter of necessity that every church agree with this church.”
The reason that every church must agree with this church is because of its “preeminent authority.”
Many Protestants, including the American editor of The Ante-Nicene Fathers don’t like “preeminent authority” as a translation of “potiorem principalitatem.” (We only have Against Heresies in Latin. The Greek original is not extant.) He likes another Catholic translation: “potent principality.”
That’s nice and literal, but does it really say anything different than preeminent authority? I think not. Let’s not kid ourselves. No matter how you translate those two words, Irenaeus believed in AD 185 that every church should agree with the Roman church, and that sure qualifies as preeminent authority to me.
In fact, Irenaeus says that every church in the world already agreed with Rome.
the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. (Against Heresies I:10:2)
So why does Irenaeus bother to tell all these churches that already agree with Rome that they have to agree with Rome?
You may notice the name of the book in which Irenaeus’ quote is found: Against Heresies. Although Irenaeus is writing to the church in Rome, he is teaching the church at Rome how to answer gnostic heretics. In giving them arguments to use against heretics, he directs the arguments at the heretics, not the Christians. He is arming the Christians to speak to the heretics.
As such his words are for heretics, not Christians, except insofar as the Christians used those words to combat the heretics.
There is another long argument using apostolic succession besides Irenaeus’. That argument is written by Tertullian, and it is in a book called The Prescription Against Heretics. It is addressed to Christians that are examing the Scriptures to see if heretical gnostic teaching is true. Tertullian is trying to save these Christians from being seduced by the gnostics, so his words are addressed to the heretics as well.
You will not find anyone discussing apostolic succession except in the context of heresy.
Apostolic Succession Is an Argument, Not a Doctrine
There is one point to apostolic succession: “We have the truth; you don’t.”
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. (Against Heresies III:3:3)
Apostolic Succession is an apologetic argument that the churches descended from the apostles are much more likely to hold to the truth than the upstart gnostics who have to ascribe their beginning to men who not only came after the apostles but were not authorized by the apostles.
Apostolic Succession Can Be Argued From Any Church
Even in the quote from Irenaeus that begins this blog post, we can see that the issue is not Rome. The issue is any church that has been able to hand down the truth from the apostles to elders or a bishop and on to the next set of elders or bishops.
The quote referenced at the start of this post begins with “because it would be tedious … to reckon up the succession of all the churches … “
It also ends with:
But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles … but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna … [and] departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asian Churches testify. (ibid. III:3:4)
Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles. (ibid.)
Tertullian, who also makes Rome the best source of apostolic authority, provides many other churches that can be consulted to learn the truth.
Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over to the apostolic churches … Achaia is very near you, in which you will find Corinth … Macedonia, you have Philippi … the Thessalonians … Asia, you get Ephesus … Italy, you have Rome, from which their comes into our hands the very authority [of the apostles or just “true authority”]. (Prescription Against Heretics 36)
Tertullian uses much the same terminology as Irenaeus, and he cites Rome, it seems, as the foremost authority, too. However, this authority cannot be separated from truth! The churches were ruled by the Truth above all.
If truth is not preserved, then any authority of apostolic succession is invalidated.
Doctrine Was Not Decreed from Rome or Any Other Church
… is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone
astray into one and the same faith? No casualty distributed among many men issues in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. (ibid. 28)
Consider this argument by Tertullian. This is his second argument. His first argument is that God gave the Gospel to Jesus, Jesus gave it to the apostles, and the apostles gave it to their churches. The churches then kept a roll of bishops, showing that they had handed the truth on purposefully from bishop to bishop and from one set of elders to the next.
His second argument was that if all the churches had the same doctrine, how did that happen? If error crept in, wouldn’t one error have crept in over in Caesarea and and a different one in Carthage? How could Alexandria go astray into an error and barbarians in Gaul wind up in exactly the same error?
Impossible. If a tradition is handed down in different places all over the world, and it is all in agreement, it is because there is one source, the apostles, not because one error crept over every church everywhere.
This argument presupposes that although Rome may have been the primary and most reliable preserver of apostolic truth at the start of the third century, it was not decreeing doctrine to all the churches. If it were, Tertullian’s argument would be invalidated. When he says that errors in doctrine would be different in various churches, the gnostics could have answered, “No. Rome fell into error, and it passed that error on to the rest of you.”
The heretics couldn’t deny Tertullian’s argument because although Rome was to be consulted in times of doubt, so were all the other apostolic churches. Rome could not decree new doctrines and had no means by which to pass on to everyone else her teachings.
Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among
us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? (Against Heresies III:4:1)
When Rome did try to force its opinions on other churches, it failed … consistently (ref).
The Issue Is Truth
As you can see in all of this above, the issue is truth.
The argument of apostolic succession no longer applies. The roll of bishops that the Roman church can show us is tattered and fragmented at best. It is certainly not a lineage that can lay any claim to being a reliable transmitter of truth.
- For almost a century, known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, there was no bishop in Rome at all. The pope lived in Avignon, France.
- Even the Roman Catholic Church will admit that there were Middle Age popes who were simply wicked.
- The Roman Catholic Church has not only lost or changed apostolic teachings, but it has changed the most important one that applies to apostolic succession! How are they going to transmit the truth unchanged when they now believe they have the authority to explain and add to apostolic tradition?
Apostolic succession does not give anyone or any church the right to decree or change truth. Apostolic succession is an argument to prove who has the truth, and the possession of the truth gives authority to the one who has it.
At one time, Rome was a beacon of truth, honored in all the world because of its stature in the Roman empire and its foundation in the apostles Peter and Paul.
It no longer possesses the foundation that gave it authority.
Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches,
however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these, for no one is greater than the Master. (Irenaeus, Against heresies I:10:2)
It is unlawful to to assert that [the apostles] preached before they had perfect knowledge, as some even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. (ibid. III:1:1)