Irenaeus, a 2nd century theologian, defended Christianity from the Gnostic philosophies that were popular at the time. His 5 volume work, Against Heresies, dedicates the first two volumes to describing the Gnostic views and then precedes to dismantle them in the remaining volumes.
Underlying Irenaeus’ defense lies the questions: how do we know what the truth is? and how do we decide between different interpretations of Scripture?
The heretics did not just offer a different worldview. They were using Scriptures to uphold their ideas – which centered on two gods – a good one and an evil one. It was the evil god who created the physical world that we must rid ourselves of.
In Book III chapters 1-4, Irenaeus, having laid out the heretical views and prior to engaging them, explains why his interpretations of Scripture should be accepted over those offered by the heretics.
Irenaeus proposes the same principles as Vincent of Lerins – that which is believed everywhere, always, and by all – just without the catchy phrase.
The first thing to note is that Irenaeus has a high view of Scripture, considering them the “ground and pillar” of the faith.
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. (III.1)
The view of this 2nd century teacher and theologian is that the teachings of the apostles, received from Jesus, were originally transmitted orally but are preserved for us in writing. Our theology must be grounded in Scripture. It should be noted that after he defends his views on Scripture and tradition over the next 3 chapters, Irenaeus will begin making his arguments using passages and principles from the Scriptures.
Here is how he starts chapter 5:
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, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God …
The problem, as already noted, is that the heretics used the Scriptures “adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions” (I.8). In addition, when confronting the heretics with Scriptural interpretations that refuted their ideas they would “accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous” (III.2).
The heretics would then claim that truth could only be known by those who knew tradition.
the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition.
However, the heretics reject apostolic tradition as being a valid source of truth. Instead they claim:
they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.
boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles
This led to Irenaeus’ assessment of the heretics:
it comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition
The heretics could not be ignored as they were drawing many into their view. The problem then is how to assess the two different interpretations of Scripture that are offered. Who is guilty of “violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions” (III.2; 4)?
To answer that question, Irenaeus, asks the hypothetical question: what would we do if we did not have the Scriptures.
For how stands the case? 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?
Irenaeus argues that we could visit the churches (of his day) and see what they taught. It is there that we will find the tradition taught by the apostles because, he reminds us, it is in the church in Rome, Ephesus, the Asiatic churches, and even the “nations of barbarians” that we find preserved the “ancient tradition”.
If we were to endeavor on this task, we should note the following characteristics of tradition:
we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles (III.2)
- Tradition which is true originated with the apostles. It is not newly discovered ideas.
apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (III.3)
- Tradition has been passed on to the faithful, who continue to pass it on.
For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world (I.10)
- Tradition that is true is universally accepted, It is taught the same in all the churches and theologians.
[the apostles] neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about.
[Clement’s] Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood
Polycarp … 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 Asiatic Churches testify
- Tradition that is true is ancient. It can be traced back to the Apostles and the earliest theologians.
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;
From this document [Clement’s epistle], whosoever chooses to do so, … may also understand the apostolical tradition of the Church … (III.3)
- Tradition is not hidden but accessible to anyone
- Tradition can be studied and understood by all because it is preserved in the earliest documents (the Scriptures and the writings of those who heard the apostles).
As we explore the fundamental beliefs of both the early and modern church we should be careful to assess them against these characteristics.
Irenaeus closes this section of volume three reminding the reader that where there is ancient and universal testimony the churches hold firm.
Thus, 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.