St. Irenaeus of Lyons & Sola Scriptura


St. Irenaeus of Lyons was a disciple of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who was a disciple of St. John the Apostle. Irenaeus’ greatest achievement, and the one for which he is most remembered, was his five-volume Against Heresies in which he thoroughly examines and refutes the Gnostic heretics. Every time I read anything from this great writing, I have to wonder if Irenaeus was a prophet; he often seems to be arguing against Protestantism over a thousand years before that particular heresy ever existed.

Of particular interest in examining St. Irenaeus’ position on Sola Scriptura are the first five chapters of Book 3 of Against Heresies. Let’s look at the common Protestant proof-text:

“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those [the Apostles] 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.” – St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 3, 1, 1

In order to really understand what Irenaeus is saying here, we need to examine the context. This statement is only the beginning of his argument which extends until the end of chapter 5 in the same book. His argument is so intricate (and great, by the way) and his every word so important to that argument, that a summary can’t do it justice. I’ll attempt to summarize his argument, but I highly recommend that you read chapters 1-5 of Book 3 of Against Heresies for yourself here.

Now, I’ll try to explain what Irenaeus is saying; forgive me if I oversimplify his argument. First, let’s note two very important things which it may be easy for some to miss in the quote above:

  1. A careful reading of the quote reveals that St. Irenaeus is not referring to all Scripture as “the ground and pillar of our Faith;” he’s referring specifically to the Gospels, and, even more specifically, to the message of the Gospels which he outlines in the paragraph that follows the quote above:

    “These [the Gospels] have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God.” – AH, 3, 1, 2

    These statements are “the ground and pillar of our Faith” which Irenaeus is referring to. And, in saying this, he’s paraphrasing the dialogue between St. Peter the Apostle and Christ in Matthew 16:15-18:

    “He [Christ] said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it.” (NKJV)

  2. His wording is very intentional. He’s calling his reader’s attention back to the words of St. Paul in 1 Timothy 3:15, in which the Apostle says that the Church is “the ground and pillar of the truth.” St. Irenaeus is hearkening back to this statement of the Apostle for a reason: he’s identifying the message of the Gospel with the Church as being our “ground and pillar,” and also identifying “our Faith” with “the truth.” And he’s doing all of this, as he explains in the chapters following, in contradistinction to the “secret traditions” of the Gnostics, which conflict with the True Faith taught by the Apostles about Christ and handed down in the Church via Apostolic Succession (but more on that in a moment).

Another common Protestant proof-text comes from the next chapter:

“When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce. AH, 3, 2, 1

Taken alone, this is often made to sound as if Irenaeus is condemning tradition in general; he’s not, though. As in the previous quotes, in which he juxtaposes Scripture with the Gnostic’s “secret traditions,” he now juxtaposes these “secret traditions” with Holy Tradition. Comparing Holy Tradition with the Gnostic’s “secret traditions,” he enumerates two major differences:

  1. Contrary to the “secret traditions” of the Gnostics, which often contradict each other and trace their lineage back to men like Basilides, Marcion, Valentinus, and Cerinthus, and which are passed down only to “the perfect,” Irenaeus asserts that Holy Tradition comes from the Apostles themselves and is passed down through the Priests whom the Apostles appointed to oversee the Church:

    “But, again, when we refer them to that Tradition which originates from the Apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of Priests in the Churches, they object to Tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the Priests, but even than the Apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. … It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to Tradition.” – AH, 3, 2, 2

  2. In contradistinction to the secretive, “hidden” nature of the Gnostics’ “traditions,” Irenaeus contrasts Holy Tradition, which is open all people through the Church:

    “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 [Gnostic heretics] rave about.” – AH, 3, 3, 1

In Book 5 of Against Heresies he also makes very clear the Scripture can only be interpreted rightly in the context of the Church, building on the identification of Scripture and Church which he laid out in the quotes above:

Those, therefore, who desert the preaching of the Church, call in question the knowledge of the holy Priests, not taking into consideration of how much greater consequence is a religious man, even in a private station, than a blasphemous and impudent sophist. Now, such are all the heretics, and those who imagine that they have hit upon something more beyond the truth, so that by following those things already mentioned, proceeding on their way variously, inharmoniously, and foolishly, not keeping always to the same opinions with regard to the same things, as blind men are led by the blind, they shall deservedly fall into the ditch of ignorance lying in their path, ever seeking and never finding out the truth. It behoves us, therefore, to avoid their doctrines, and to take careful heed lest we suffer any injury from them; but to flee to the Church, and be brought up in her bosom, and be nourished with the Lord’s Scriptures. For the Church has been planted as a garden in this world; therefore says the Spirit of God, ‘Thou mayest freely eat from every tree of the garden’ that is, Eat ye from every Scripture of the Lord; but ye shall not eat with an uplifted mind, nor touch any heretical discord.” – AH, 5, 20, 2

So, we’ve now established that Irenaeus is not arguing for the authority of Scripture alone, nor does he assert Scripture’s authority over or outside of the Church. Instead, Irenaeus asserts that Scripture is a part of the Holy Tradition of the Church whose Truth is preserved by means of Apostolic Succession from the Apostles. And I’ll close this post with a quote from Irenaeus in which he tells us exactly where that Church is to be found — even in our own day:

“Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the Apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the Tradition of the truth. 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? For how should it be if the Apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the Tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?” – AH, 3, 4, 1 [emphasis mine]

Again, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you read chapters 1-5 of Book 3 of Against Heresies for yourself here. St. Irenaeus’ argument in those chapters is outstanding and I have no doubt that, like me, you’ll be shaking your head as you read and wondering how the Protestant apologist can read these chapters and not realize that Irenaeus is talking about him all throughout. I’m almost certain that St. Irenaeus had the gift of prophecy.

Father Not Sola Scriptura Sola Scriptura
Didache
St. Clement of Rome
St. Ignatius of Antioch
St. Papias of Hierapolis
St. Polycarp of Smyrna
St. Justin Martyr
St. Melito of Sardis
St. Irenaeus of Lyons
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5 comments

  1. We talked about III.v.1 as well, in our patristics class this semester; what do you make of this quote, which follows what you quoted at the end of the post (emph mine)? “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, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that no lie is in Him.”

    Just wanting to help you “head off” a possible objection Protestants might have to your citing AH. Bk 3. What do you think?

  2. Because when 9/10 of Protestants read stuff like that, they read it as “Scripture alone,” and not Scripture primus. I would respond somewhere along the lines of that distinction.

    As to further heading off objections, don't know at this point.

  3. It seems, after re-reading the previous chapter and the chapter which begins with that sentence, that he is introducing his next few thoughts, which are Scriptural proofs against the Gnostics. He is not saying, “Let's leave aside all Tradition and go to Scripture” or “All Tradition is contained in Scripture” or anything like that, clearly. To re-phrase his statement, he is saying, essentially, “Now that we've looked at Apostolic Tradition, which exists here in the Church, let's turn and look at some proof against the Gnostics from the Scriptures.” That's my reading anyway. I can see how this sentence could be taken (way) out of context and misused by some, but all one would have to do to counteract that is point again to the entirety of chapters 1-5 and say “read.” Perhaps you can add something more? I'd be very interested in hearing what you might have learned in your Patristics class.

  4. Well, you know, Fr. Behr wasn't all that interested in dealing with that specific idea, at least not this semester. He made a point in saying that the Gnostics, in saying that there was all this tradition that existed outside of Scripture that was absolutely vital to understanding Scripture sounded more like modern Orthodox theologians than anyone else. I asked him about things like the traditions St. Basil mentioned in _On_the_Holy_Spirit_ that he said were extrabiblical, and he said we'd deal with that when we got to it.

    My own thoughts were that St. Irenaeus was referring to kerymata, or the foundational ideas of the faith found in the Creed, while St. Basil is referring to dogmata — in his sense, the more catechetical material that is reserved for the catechumen or the baptized. That's just my thought, though. Should be interesting to go over the Cappadocian Fathers in depth with him.

  5. Very interesting. I'd love to hear more on this when you get to those points (such as St. Basil's writings) in your Patristics class. Thanks for this.

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