In a Facebook exchange on March 25, 2017, in the group “B.C. and L.D.S. (Biblical Christians and Latter Day Saints)” with a non-Mormon named Errol Vincent Amey, I presented a series of quotations from the church fathers to counter Mr. Amey’s view of Scripture and authority. In brief, Mr. Amey is a follower of David Bercot, who teaches that true Christianity (which just happens in Bercot’s view to correspond to a modern form of Anabaptist Christianity) is to be determined solely on the basis of the consensus teachings of the ante-Nicene church fathers (i.e., the church fathers who wrote prior to the Council of Nicaea in AD 325). Mr. Amey ignored all but one of the quotations, my quotation of Irenaeus in Against Heresies 3.2.1, which he attempted to counter by quoting the next paragraph as well as a later passage (3.2.2; 3.4.1).

The next day, Mr. Amey’s friend Robert Boylan, a Mormon blogger, posted a critique of what he called my “abuse of Irenaeus of Lyons to support sola scriptura.” Mr. Boylan approvingly repeated Mr. Amey’s argument, again mentioning only my one quotation of Against Heresies 3.2.1 and answering it by quoting 3.2.2 and 3.4.1.

Anabaptists and Mormons make somewhat strange bedfellows, though of course they do share some agreements. Both are modern forms of restorationism, which seeks to re-establish the primitive Christianity that was supposedly lost in a massive apostasy that corrupted virtually all of Christianity for well over a millennium. Yet they have radically different views about what a restored Christianity should look like. The one thing on which they agree is that it would not look at all like traditional evangelical Protestantism. It is apparently this point of agreement that unites such persons as Mr. Amey and Mr. Boylan.

Mr. Boylan’s blog post knocks down a straw man of his own creation. I did not claim that Irenaeus held to the evangelical Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. I avoid such anachronistic claims for my positions just as I oppose them when they are made in defense of positions I reject. Irenaeus’s view of Scripture was to a great extent consistent with the later formal doctrine of sola scriptura, but he was addressing different concerns and some of the views he held on related matters were different than the views taken by most evangelicals.

My purpose in quoting Irenaeus and other church fathers was to show that they would not have endorsed Mr. Amey’s approach of making the ante-Nicene fathers the standard rather than Scripture itself. That is, the ante-Nicene fathers did not view themselves in that way. If they did not think that a synthesis of their teachings should be made the authoritative standard of Christianity, then to use them as such is ironically counter to that very principle. It turns out to be a self-defeating approach.

As just mentioned, Irenaeus did hold to a view of Scripture that is to a considerable extent in line with that of the later Protestant Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Again, he did not hold to that doctrine in the same developed form or in the same theological and ecclesiastical context as the Reformers or later evangelicals, but his view does point generally in the same direction. Let’s look at some of Irenaeus’s statements on the authority of Scripture in Against Heresies:

Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth (1.8.1).

A sound mind, and one which does not expose its possessor to danger, and is devoted to piety and the love of truth, will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed within the power of mankind, and has subjected to our knowledge, and will make advancement in [acquaintance with] them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study. These things are such as fall [plainly] under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures (2.27.1).

If, however, we cannot discover explanations of all those things in Scripture which are made the subject of investigation, yet let us not on that account seek after any other God besides Him who really exists. For this is the very greatest impiety. We should leave things of that nature to God who created us, being most properly assured that the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit; but we, inasmuch as we are inferior to, and later in existence than, the Word of God and His Spirit, are on that very account destitute of the knowledge of His mysteries (2.28.2).

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 (3.1.1).

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 (3.2.1).[1]

It is only the last of these statements to which Mr. Amey and Mr. Boylan tried to respond, arguing that I had taken it out of context. We will look at it in context shortly, but first let us notice what Irenaeus clearly says. The heretics “gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures,” taking out of context the scriptural texts to which they do appeal (1.8.1). What the Scriptures teach about God are clear and unambiguous, whereas the heretics claim that the Scriptures are too ambiguous to be a reliable source of truth and so must be clarified by the superior authority of “tradition” (2.27.1; 3.2.1). Irenaeus insists that the Scriptures are perfect in the knowledge they reveal whereas “we” who are reading the Scriptures are inferior and have no source of knowledge even equal to that revealed by the Word and the Spirit in the Scriptures (2.28.2). This may not be a full-blooded doctrine of sola scriptura, but it is functionally very close to it. And again, my point in quoting these statements from Irenaeus was not to show that he taught sola scriptura (per se) but that he would have rejected the objections to it raised by Mr. Amey and Mr. Boylan (especially the claim that the Scriptures were too ambiguous to be the basis for settling doctrinal disputes).

Now let us turn to the context of Irenaeus’s statement in Against Heresies 3.2.1, looking as well at 3.2.2. It will be simplest to quote the entirety of the passage (3.2):

1. 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: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world” [1 Cor. 2:6]. And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent, who could speak nothing pertaining to salvation. For every one of these men, being altogether of a perverse disposition, depraving the system of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself.
2. 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.
3. Such are the adversaries with whom we have to deal, my very dear friend, endeavouring like slippery serpents to escape at all points. Wherefore they must be opposed at all points, if perchance, 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.[2]

Irenaeus was here refuting the argument of the Gnostics that their doctrine represented a superior “tradition” to the apostolic tradition that was preserved and taught in the churches who traced their origins back to the apostles themselves. What he said here needs to be understood in the context of his larger critique of Gnosticism. The Gnostics claimed to find support in the Scriptures but only by taking bits and pieces of them out of context while in actuality rejecting those Scriptures. That is, the Gnostics typically denied the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, but they mined them for ammunition against the apostolic Christian faith. When their attempts to hijack the Scriptures were exposed as fraudulent, these Gnostics would then turn around and claim that it really did not matter what the Scriptures said because they were privy to a “tradition” that was superior to what could be found in the Scriptures. The truth, they claimed, was not to be found in inspired texts but in the inspired oral “tradition” that they alone had. This is the claim that Irenaeus was refuting in 3.2, where he pointed out that in reality this Gnostic “tradition” was whatever the individual Gnostic teacher happened to be teaching. There was no real tradition here, Irenaeus concluded, in contrast to the tradition that was preserved by the presbyters of the churches that were founded by the apostles. Confronted by the genuine tradition of the apostolic churches, the Gnostics could only resort to making the fictitious claim that their teachers possessed a higher philosophy superior to that of the apostles and even of Christ himself. Hence, Irenaeus concluded, the Gnostics “consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.” They had neither Scripture nor tradition on their side.

We need to be clear about what Irenaeus was not claiming here. He was certainly not claiming that the churches’ leaders had authority to add new revelations to those given in Scripture. He was also not claiming that the apostolic tradition preserved by the presbyters in the apostolically founded churches constituted a second source of revelation. Nor was he claiming that the Scriptures could not be understood in their own right but were so ambiguous or unclear that functionally the real authority for determining what the Scriptures meant, and thus what Christians ought to believe, was tradition or the teaching of the church’s leaders. Indeed, as we have seen, Irenaeus explicitly denies this last claim. The problem was not any alleged ambiguity or other defect in the Scriptures but the Gnostics’ disrespect for the Scriptures in tearing texts out of context.

For Irenaeus, the “tradition” of the apostolic churches led by a succession of presbyters founded by the apostles themselves was important because it confirmed the authority of the Scriptures. Irenaeus lived at a time when the New Testament writings were still circulating as individual texts, or in some cases in groupings of texts such as the Gospels or the Pauline epistles. There were no bound volumes in which all 27 books of the New Testament were published as a single book. Moreover, the rapid growth and diffusion of Christianity throughout the Mediterranean world meant that in the late second century there were many Christian congregations that did not have access to all of the New Testament writings. Christians who did not have much or even any of the apostolic writings nevertheless could have the apostolic faith because it had been taught from one generation to the next by faithful leaders (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). Thus, Irenaeus goes on to make the following comments:

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. 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?
2. To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. 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.[3]

This is the other passage in Against Heresies that Mr. Amey and Mr. Boylan quote (in part) to counter one of my quotations from the same book. However, there is nothing here that supports either Mr. Amey’s position (the Bible cannot be understood on its own because it is unclear but must be interpreted according to whatever the ante-Nicene fathers as a whole taught) or Mr. Boylan’s Mormon position (the Bible cannot be understood on its own because it is incomplete or altered but must be interpreted through latter-day scriptures and the voice of the modern prophets). There is no notion here of the superiority (in clarity or in any other way) of oral traditions to the Scriptures, or that church teaching has authority over the reading and interpretation of the Scriptures in their own contexts. Nor of course is there any suggestion that the apostolic churches were privy to revelations that went beyond (let alone corrected) what was taught in the Scriptures. Rather, Irenaeus simply insists that even those churches that lacked some or all of the Scriptures believed the same things as the Scriptures taught because they had preserved apostolic teaching. This teaching concerns such basic matters as that God created all things through his Son, that his Son was born of a virgin, died, and rose again, and that Christ will be the Judge at the end of the age. There is nothing here of a secret or higher doctrine not already found clearly taught in the New Testament.

After demonstrating in some detail the historical reality of the apostolic tradition especially in the church in Rome, Irenaeus resumes his argument for the apostolic doctrine of God, beginning as follows:

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.[4]

John McRay has offered the following pertinent comment on Irenaeus’s turn back to Scripture at this point:

He has established the tradition as apostolic, he feels, but instead of proceeding to utilize it by saying “I will now give the authoritative exegesis of the disputed passages,” he rather reverts to the Scripture, for therein he expects to find apostolicity rather than in himself…. Throughout the entire work he makes his arguments from Scripture and not from authority resident in bishops.[5]

The historian of early Christianity R. P. C. Hanson similarly commented:

Irenaeus believes that what the Church teaches is the genuine content of Scripture; but he does not exalt this into a formal principle of exegesis. He never believed that the Scriptures without the authoritative exegesis of the Church are incomprehensible…. The whole purpose of Irenaeus, at least, as we can reliably collect it from the prefaces and endings of each of the books of Adversus Haereses, was to refute the Gnostics from Scripture.[6]

Irenaeus offers no support to modern-day restorationist movements, whether of the Anabaptist or the Latter-day Saint kind. He did not teach that the views of Christian leaders in his day were the final authority for properly interpreting Scripture. Nor, of course, did he think that the Christianity of which he was a part was actually apostate, as Mormonism teaches. In this regard Mr. Boylan’s only potentially useful point was that Irenaeus did not teach sola scriptura, which is another way of saying that Irenaeus was not a Protestant evangelical. And of course that is quite true, though Irenaeus’s position was far closer to the later developed idea of sola scriptura than Mr. Boylan allows. In any case, having set aside the straw man of Irenaeus as advocating the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, there is nothing left in Mr. Boylan’s polemic that requires a response.

There is a final irony here worth noting. Mr. Amey does not and cannot appeal to the oral teaching of presbyters who knew the apostles or who knew people who knew the apostles. Modern advocates of an “ante-Nicene Christianity” do not have any access to such an oral tradition, nor can their church leaders be reliably shown to stand in a chain of succession back to the first-century apostles. Indeed, David Bercot and his followers like Mr. Amey do not appeal to any modern elders or bishops or other Anabaptist church leaders as authoritative custodians of an apostolic oral tradition. Rather, what they attempt to use to advance their position are the writings of the ante-Nicene fathers. And like the Bible, the patristic writings need to be interpreted by reading them in their historical and literary contexts. Like the Bible, different religious groups today appeal piecemeal to isolated statements from the church fathers to advance their modern agendas, interpreting them in different ways and sometimes distorting and abusing the patristic writings. In short, the problem of modern people disagreeing about the meaning of a text is not solved by turning to texts from the second and third centuries instead of the apostolic texts of the first century. Doing so merely compounds the problem. There is no shortcut around the need to interpret texts by carefully reading them in their contexts.



[1] All quotations from Irenaeus’s Against Heresies are taken from The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, rev. A. Cleveland Cox (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1885, 1987 reprint), hereafter ANF.

[2] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.2.1-3, in ANF 1:415.

[3] Ibid., 3.4.1-2, in ANF 1:416–17.

[4] Ibid., 3.5.1, in ANF 1:417.

[5] John McRay, “Scripture and Tradition in Irenaeus,” Restoration Quarterly 10/1 (1967): 9-10.

[6] R. P. C. Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church (London: SCM Press, 1962; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 108, 109.

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