Last week we spent some time analyzing the thoughts of Tertullian and Origen on the concept of a strong central episcopate to rule the Early Church. As we have shown, the very idea was not only foreign to them, but also repugnant. They relied on the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit and the Chief Shepherd in heaven to guard the church, even in times when there were known disagreements among men. Christ, His Spirit, and His Scriptures provided the solutions to whatever ailed the Early Church. The Church did not desire, and did not seek, a visible chief shepherd for this task. Tertullian rejected the pretenses of ostensibly “papal” edicts from a fallible “bishop of bishops,” and insisted that men ought rather to “imbibe the Scriptures of that Shepherd who cannot be broken” (Tertullian, On Modesty, chapter 10). Origen rejected the carnality of an earthly chief city, and insisted that Christians instead “have the heavenly Jerusalem as their metropolis” (Origen, De Principiis, Book IV, chapter 22). Such statements, so forceful and adamant, can hardly be construed as support for the early rise of papal and Roman primacy that Roman Catholics earnestly desire to find in the post-apostolic era.
This week we continue the series with Irenæus (early 2nd century). Irenæus insists, with Clement, Polycarp, the church at Smyrna, Ignatius, the Shepherd of Hermas, Mathetes, Tertullian and Origen that the observable doctrinal, fraternal, apostolic unity of the many earthly bishoprics is mysteriously administered invisibly from heaven, and not visibly from earth. This we shall address first. Attentive readers will note that we have taken him out of chronological order, assessing Tertullian (early 3rd century) and Origen (3rd century) ahead of him. We have ordered it this way intentionally for reasons that we hope the readers will find quite illuminating. Roman Catholicism believes that she has found in Irenæus incontrovertible evidence of the early primacy of Papal Rome. As we shall demonstrate, Rome is up to her typical devices, relying on an English mistranslation of a garbled Latin translation of a lost Greek original in order to find in Irenæus that which Irenæus obstinately refuses to allow. Tertullian and Origen provide additional data for understanding the the era immediately following him, data that overturns Rome’s attempt to find Roman primacy in Irenæus. This we shall address second.
Irenæus and the Invisibly Shepherded Church
Irenæus believed that the purity and unity of the Church were guarded invisibly from heaven. Listen as he marvels that the Church, “though dispersed throughout the whole world,” still manages to teach one singular doctrine as if she possessed only one mouth:
“The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples 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.” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book I, chapter 10, paragraphs 1 & 2).
The Church “hands them down” as if she had only one mouth? What mouth might that be? Is it the mouth of Peter and his successors? Is it to be found in Rome? No, the “one mouth” by which the Church speaks and “hands down” apostolic doctrine is the Scriptures, and that mouth can be found in Germany, Gaul, Spain, Syria, Egypt, Libya—and yes, even in “the central regions of the world.” Though Rome can be inferred from such a description, for some reason Irenæus does not see fit to mention her by name:
“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.” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book I, chapter 10, paragraph 2).
What could possibly bring about this unity of doctrine? Does our unity emanate like that of a single light from a particular Latin city set on seven hills? Perhaps Irenæaus here meant to elevate Rome by not mentioning her (in the same way that John Paul II claimed that the Gospel “omission” of Mary at Jesus’ tomb is evidence of her presence there).
Remarkably, Irenæus is unaware of any individual ruler of the Church imbued with infallibility or indefectability, but he seems to make the argument in the plural—that “the rulers in the Churches” are protected from error. The mystery of the unity of the Church was not that one indefectable ruler presided over the rest, but that all “the rulers of the Churches” together could not fail. Note well—yes note very well indeed—that the bishops of the visibly apostolic Church had but one Master, and he was in Heaven, not in Rome:
“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); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book I, chapter 10, paragraph 2).
Irenæus recognized, as Ignatius and the Church at Smyrna did, that there are “rulers in the Churches,” and above them, a Master in Heaven. He was unaware of a hierarchical position in Rome standing between “the rulers in the Churches” and their Master in heaven. Notice how Irenæus speaks of one Church, one path, one doctrine, one faith, one dispensation, one gift, one constitution, one way, one light and one truth, but stubbornly refuses to identify “one man” on earth who is responsible for maintaining this state of affairs. Instead he refers to a plurality of bishops “to whom the apostles committed the Churches”:
“Now all these [heretics] are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the Churches; …
But the path of those belonging to the Church circumscribes the whole world, as possessing the sure tradition from the apostles, and gives unto us to see that the faith of all is one and the same, since all receive one and the same God the Father, and believe in the same dispensation regarding the incarnation of the Son of God, and are cognizant of the same gift of the Spirit, and are conversant with the same commandments, and preserve the same form of ecclesiastical constitution, and expect the same advent of the Lord, and await the same salvation of the complete man, that is, of the soul and body. And undoubtedly the preaching of the Church is true and steadfast, in which one and the same way of salvation is shown throughout the whole world. For to her is entrusted the light of God; and therefore the ‘wisdom’ of God, by means of which she saves all men, ‘is declared in [its] going forth; it utters [its voice] faithfully in the streets, is preached on the tops of the walls, and speaks continually in the gates of the city.’ [Proverbs 1:20-21] For the Church preaches the truth everywhere, and she is the seven-branched candlestick which bears the light of Christ. Those, therefore, who desert the preaching of the Church, call in question the knowledge of the holy presbyters …” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book V, chapter 20, paragraphs 1-2)
What could possibly account for this unity in the visibly apostolic Church? What is the source of the unity of doctrine? Why, the Scriptures, of course. After refusing to point to a single bishop who ostensibly protects the Church from error, Irenæus then points to the source of the light of “the seven-branched candlestick”—the Scriptures themselves:
“It behooves us, therefore, to avoid their [heretics’] 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, ‘You may freely eat from every tree of the garden, [Genesis 2:16] that is, Eat from every Scripture of the Lord.” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book V, chapter 20, paragraphs 1-2)
“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.” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, chapter 1, paragraph 1)
Irenæaus, quite obviously, was unaware of Rome’s “three tree” rubric in which we are to eat the fruit of the trees of the Magisterium, Tradition, and Scriptures. What we eat in the Church is the “Scripture of the Lord.” It is this tree, breathed of the Holy Spirit, that accounts for the visible unity about which Irenæus marvels in his books.
The emphasis on visible apostolicity is seen in Irenæus’ refutation of heretics who claimed that they had access to special apostolic knowledge that could not be found in the Scriptures. Irenæus had been sent to Rome from Gaul with letters correcting the rising heresy there. To this error Irenæus strongly objected on the grounds that the heretics alleged that the source of Church’s truth was not limited to written documents. These heretics were introducing two additional trees from modern Rome’s arboretum: the magisterium and tradition. When confronted from the Bible, the heretics argued that the Scriptures cannot be properly understood by those who are not sufficiently equipped with tradition of which they alone were the custodians. Irenæus would have none of it:
“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 Corinthians 2:6] And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing …” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, chapter 2.1).
What was the solution to this problem? How could we answer these men who claimed that they had special access to oral apostolic tradition not contained in the Scriptures? The answer was simple. Just as we noted earlier, apostolic doctrine could be found in Germany, Gaul, Spain, Syria, Egypt, Libya—and yes, even in “the central regions of the world.” Because every church on earth could trace its lineage to the teachings of the apostles, those who sought for truth could simply go find apostolic teaching in any church in the known world:
“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 [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to ‘the perfect’ apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves.” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, chapter 3, paragraph 1)
In light of these proofs, “it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, chapter 4, paragraph 1), and what is obtained from the Church is the apostolic doctrines contained in the Scriptures alone. To demonstrate his point, Irenæus then poses one of the most interesting hypothetical questions in all of his works: What would have happened if the Apostles had not left us their writings? If they had not, we would need to go to the Churches they founded and ask them what was true:
“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?” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, chapter 4, paragraph 1)
We need not wonder, says Irenæus, for the situation is not hypothetical at all. Remarkably, Irenæus claims that he has proof of illiterate barbarians in his day, evangelized by the apostles themselves, “without paper or ink” who yet hold to precisely the same truths that our Scriptures contain, guarded in their simplicity by the Holy Spirit Himself. Yet the truths these barbarians hold are explicitly Scriptural, and there is not one thing in Irenæus’ list of their doctrines that is not explicitly Scriptural, implicitly affirming that the “ancient tradition of the apostles” is exactly what they handed down to us in the written documents we now hold. All without the imposition of an imperial papacy. Thus the “barbarians” had been preserved in their purity by the administration of the Holy Spirit, and would not entertain these new “traditions” for a moment:
“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.” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, chapter 4, paragraph 2)
And that, says Irenæus, is “what would have happened if the Apostles had not left us their writings.” The invisibly shepherded church would have continued in its visible apostolicity, guarded by the Spirit and holding to that “which [the Apostles] did at one time proclaim in public,” which were “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” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, chapter 1, paragraph 1). And such truth as that revealed to us in the Scriptures may be found in any apostolic church on earth, if the current heretics in Rome truly desired to find it.
Irenæus and the Alleged Primacy of the City of Rome
It is at this point in Irenæus’ work that Roman Catholicism believes she can find evidence for the primacy of a visible Roman shepherd, and in the process she misses the point that Irenæus makes about the invisible superintendence of the church by the Chief Shepherd in heaven. In order to demonstrate the visible apostolicity of the church throughout the world, Irenæus claims that the succession of bishops from the apostles can be proved in any church on earth. But for expediency, he only lists the succession of bishops in Rome, the greatest city of the empire and, as it turns out, the epicenter of the current heresy.
In the third chapter of the third book of his work Against Heresies, Irenæus is therefore construed to establish beyond doubt the Early Church’s embrace of a strong central episcopate in Rome. In that work, Irenæaus wrote,
“For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church [in Rome], on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, paragraph 2).
As it turns out, Irenæus’ statement is based on a questionable English translation of a “barbarous” Latin translation of a lost Greek original. Ironically, a more credible English translation comes not from the lips of obstinate Reformers but from a Roman Catholic Patristic scholar. As we shall demonstrate below, Rome leans too heavily upon errant mistranslation to construct the foundation of her illicit authority, and the building she seeks to build upon it is demolished by Irenæus himself.
What we notice first is what the editors are only too eager to point out about Irenæus’ works—namely that the Greek original is lost, and the translator of the Latin version was far from equal to his task:
“After the [Latin] text has been settled, according to the best judgment which can be formed, the work of translation remains; and that is, in this case, a matter of no small difficulty. Irenæus, even in the original Greek, is often a very obscure writer. At times he expresses himself with remarkable clearness and terseness; but, upon the whole, his style is very involved and prolix. And the Latin version adds to these difficulties of the original, by being itself of the most barbarous character. … We have endeavoured to give as close and accurate a translation of the work as possible, but there are not a few passages in which a guess can only be made as to the probable meaning.” (Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, Introductory Note to Irenæus Against Heresies)
As it turns out, Irenæus’ alleged claim that every church in the world “should agree with this Church” in Rome as “a matter of necessity” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, paragraph 2), is just such a difficult passage in which guesswork is reluctantly elevated by the translators to the level of scholarship. This point is conceded by the Protestant translator, William W. Rambaut. The Latin text is difficult enough, and the Greek eludes us entirely:
“We are far from sure that the rendering given above is correct, but we have been unable to think of anything better” (Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Against Heresies, Book III, ch. 3, n. 3313).
The editors of Schaff’s Ante-Nicene Fathers, of course, are aghast at Rambaut’s inability “to think of anything better.” In the same footnote, they say it would in fact be difficult to think of anything worse, so heavily does the literary and historical context weigh against such a rendering.
To our rescue rides not a Protestant ideologue, but a Roman Catholic translator who was able to think of something much better, something that was more consistent with the context of Irenæus’ work and the period in which he lived. Indeed, it makes very little sense at all for Irenæaus to come to Rome to correct Rome’s errors only to find that Rome was the cause of the error, and remind everyone that he is not the first to have to come to Rome to correct Rome’s errors—and then insist therefore that everyone must agree with Rome. In fact, it very much appears—and the facts bear this out—that Irenæaus thought every church in the world must come to Rome to correct her, not to receive instruction from her. And that, as it turns out, is roughly how the Roman Catholic translator renders the corrupted Latin into English.
To understand the passage, we must first remember the purpose for Irenæus’ visit to Rome in the first place. Irenæus was a bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (modern day Lyon, France) when he received word that the errors of Marcion and Valentinus were taking root in Rome. What is a bishop in the remote regions of the continent to do when such heresy is taking root across the mountains? Should he leave the matter to the infallible “chief shepherd” residing there? Au contraire! The Gallic Bishop hurriedly ran to Rome with letters of correction to halt the advance of heresy in the capital of the empire. What dismay lay in wait for him when he found upon his arrival that the heresy was being underwritten by no less than the “pope” himself:
“Irenæus was sent to Rome with letters of remonstrance against the rising pestilence of heresy; … But he had the mortification of finding the Montanist heresy patronized by Eleutherus the Bishop of Rome; and there he met an old friend from the school of Polycarp, who had embraced the Valentinian heresy.” (Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, Introductory Note to Irenæus Against Heresies)
This formative event was the inspiration of Irenæaus’ life work, Against Heresies. In this work he explained that he was not the first bishop who had to come to Rome’s aid in such a manner. Others before him had come to Rome to correct her errant ways, including Polycarp, and his weapon of choice was the “sole truth from the apostles” which had been handed down to him by the Church at Smyrna:
“He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of [bishop] Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles—that, namely, which is handed down by the Church.” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, paragraph 4).
Here we have Irenæus, already obliged to travel to Rome from Gaul to correct the Montanist heresy that was thriving under the blessing of “Pope” Eleutherus, and he reminds his audience that Polycarp before him also had to come to Rome from Smyrna to correct the heresies then prospering under “Pope” Anicetus’ watchful eye. Chrysostom, we recall, also noted the providential transit of Ignatius from Antioch to Rome. Rome, it seemed, “required more help” than the East because of the “great impiety there” (John of Chrysostom, Homily on St. Ignatius, chapter IV). Last week, we found Tertullian complaining that the bishop of Rome had adopted the heresy of Praxeas (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, chapter 1). We also found Hippolytus complaining that popes Zephyrinus and Callistus were constantly advancing heretical views, “but we have frequently … refuted them, and have forced them reluctantly to acknowledge the truth,” only to find them repeatedly wallowing in “the same mire” again (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Book IX, chapter II). Origen had gone to Rome in the days when “the truth had been corrupted” under Zephyrinus and returned to Alexandria more eager than ever to shore up the defenses of the church (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 28, paragraph 3).
In this same vein, Eusebius also relates this very telling episode: the churches in Asia had seen the ravages of Montanism first hand, and after some consternation and several synods throughout Asia, addressed the heresy and condemned it (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 16, paragraph 10). Gaul, too, in the west, had seen the ravages of the new heresy, and “set forth their own prudent and most orthodox judgment in the matter” (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 3, paragraph 4). From both sides—east and west—the apostolic churches were responding to the error and seeking to halt its advance. But one apostolic church located in “the central regions of the world” was flatly oblivious to the problem and instead of restraining it, was actually writing letters in support of the error. That apostolic church was no less than the church at Rome, under the dithering and “infallible guidance” of “pope” Eleutherus. The Catholic Encyclopedia euphemistically refers to his “conscientious and thorough study of the situation” prior to his ruling on the matter (Catholic Encyclopedia, Pope St. Eleutherius), but one does not issue letters of support for a heresy while one is “conscientiously” and “thoroughly” studying a situation. Only under pressure did he ultimately rescind the letters he had written in support of the heresy (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, chapter 1).
To this litany of Roman errors, we add Eusebius’ account of the Passover controversy. Some churches wanted to celebrate Passover on the 14th of the month, and some wanted to celebrate it on the Lord’s Day. In the spirit of Diotrephes (3 John 9), Victor had directed all episcopates to conform to one rule. In response, Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, told Victor that his opinions carried no weight outside of his own episcopate, and that the churches of Asia were unmoved by his presumptuous tone:
“I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’ [Acts 5:29]” (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 24, paragraph 7).
Essentially, Polycrates pulled rank on Victor, testifying that “a great multitude” of bishops stood with him, and “that I did not bear my gray hairs in vain, but had always governed my life by the Lord Jesus.” He clearly, clearly, was unaware of any chief bishopric across the Adriatic, but understood that there was one above him in Heaven. Polycrates’ deferral to the Scriptures as his guide and to the Lord as His Shepherd, instead a fallible man in Rome was more than Victor could stomach. In a petulant response, “pope” Victor issued a wholesale excommunication of the Asian bishops and those who agreed with them. For this he earned a sharp rebuke from bishops on every side, even from those who agreed with his dating of Passover:
“But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor. Among them was Irenæus…” (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 24, paragraphs 9-11)
Irenæaus went on to explain that there was no Scriptural mandate that any bishop could impose on the matter, and that various churches had “formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode” (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 24, paragraph13). They were to be left to themselves in the spirit of Romans 14:5, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”
To this we must add the case of Firmilian, bishop of Cæsarea, writing to Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, complaining that “they who are at Rome … vainly pretend the authority of the apostles.” We will cover this controversy more next week, but in brief, Firmilian’s complaint highlights in particular “pope” Stephen’s “audacity and pride” and “the things that he has wickedly done,” and includes thanks to Cyprian because he had “settled this matter” of an upstart bishop thinking more highly of himself than he ought (Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 74, From Firmilian, Against the Letter of Stephen, paragraphs 3 & 6).
We recite this sordid history of the successors in Rome to provide the context for the language of Irenæus that has been so difficult to translate—a history of Rome’s propensity for error, pride, audacity, petulance, wickedness and heresy, and of the surrounding churches’ persistence in correcting that city’s bishops and forcing them to return to apostolic truth. In that context, which of the following two candidate translations may be taken to reflect Irenæus’ true meaning?
A. Because of its preeminence, all churches must agree with the church of Rome.
B. Because of the Roman church’s propensity to wander, faithfully apostolic churches on every side must necessarily convene with her to correct her, so influential is she from this position in the crossroads of the empire, and therefore dangerous when left to her own devices.
Option B is quite clearly the answer, and thus does our Roman Catholic patristic scholar render the passage. The Latin here is:
“Ad hanc enim ecclesiam propter potiorem principalitatem necesse est omnem convenire ecclesiam.”
“Convenire,” is what Rambaut had translated “agree,” but it rather has the sense of coming together, as in “to convene,” and for three hundred years after the apostolic age, the surrounding churches had to meet with Rome to help her, correct her and restrain her from her propensity to inflict damage upon herself and others. Irenæaus’ meaning is clearly that apostolic churches throughout the world necessarily and constantly had to correct Rome when she strayed from the truth and overreached beyond her jurisdiction—a necessity that history bears out in striking relief. After all, Rome was at the crossroads of an empire, and heresy was best nipped in the bud before it could spread like a cancer to the rest.
Note that the Roman Catholic translator has the apostolicity of the church in Rome preserved by faithful churches on every side, instead of the apostolicity of the churches on every side being preserved by the church in Rome, yielding a much more natural translation, given the its context. He renders “convenire” as “resort,” but the meaning is clear enough:
“For to this Church, on account of more potent principality, it is necessary that every Church, that is, those who are on every side faithful, resort, in which (Church) ever, by those who are on every side, has been preserved that tradition which is from the Apostles.” (Berington & Kirk, The Faith of Catholics, vol. I, 2nd ed. (New York, 1885) 248)
Indeed, the bishops of the surrounding churches had their hands full, rebuking the bishop of Rome for his pride, correcting him for his audacity, rejecting his chronic propensity for overreach, and “forcing him reluctantly to acknowledge the truth.” What they did not do is “agree with” him out of some ancient obligation to do so.
Notably, Irenæus lists Linus, then Anacletus, then Clement as successors to the apostles. Here he stops, resting upon the great legacy of Clement, imploring “these men who are now propagating falsehood” to go examine Clement’s letter to discover the origins of the Church’s apostolicity. When Irenæus continues his list of successors, the list includes within it the name of one of the men who had been “propagating falsehood,” “pope” Eleutherius himself! (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, paragraph 3).
Irenæus then continues in the next paragraph, suggesting that if the heretics in Rome could not trouble themselves to investigate the claims of the apostles there in their own home town, then Smyrna, Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth and all the churches of Asia would do just fine. If one could not be bothered to read the letter of Clement to Corinth, one could just as well read the letter of Polycarp to Philippi and find the same truth. If they did not believe the teachings of Clement, they ought to believe the teachings of Polycarp, who had come to Rome to help the bishop there. Both had received these truths from the apostles, and all the apostles received the truth from the same Spirit (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, paragraph 4).
As lists of successors go, Irenæus appeals to the line of succession in Smyrna—”those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time”—as if it had equal authority. Clement “might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears]” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, paragraph 3), but Polycarp “was not only instructed by apostles,” but also, having “received this one and sole truth from the apostles” via Smyrna, had to bring it with him to Rome to instruct the church there . It was Polycarp, not “pope” Anicetus, “who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than … the heretics” troubling Rome (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, paragraph 4).
Small wonder, then, that when Tertullian addressed the issue of unbroken succession, he said that all “the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna” does. Succession was just as important in Smyrna as it was with all the other apostolic churches, and they all kept registers of it. Thus, when Irenæus was correcting errors that had taken root in Rome, he appealed first to the apostolicity of the Roman Church. When he was correcting the errors of his friend, Florinus, whom he had known as a boy in Smyrna, Irenæus appealed to the Scriptural truths that had been received by the successors of John in Smyrna (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 24, paragraph 5). At the time, all their registers of succession were available to be inspected, and anyone sincere enough to look into the truth could do so in Germany, Gaul, Spain, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and all the churches of Asia. Oh, and in Rome, too. After all, said Irenæus, Jesus had come “to generate the twelve-pillared foundation of the Church” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book IV, chapter 21.3), not the one-pillared foundation.
We close this week’s entry by highlighting Polycrates, the Asian bishop to whom we referred above, and his defiant response to “pope” Victor. As we noted, he appealed to “Holy Scripture,” insisting that he “governed [his] life by the Lord Jesus,” and not by any pope in Rome (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 28, paragraph 3). He was clearly unaware of an earthly chief shepherd. But he was aware of a heavenly One. In his response to Victor he appealed to the apostles Phillip and John, two “great lights” that had “fallen asleep” in Asia. He then lists five other prominent bishops since the apostles, who had also fallen asleep there. They had died, Polycrates says, not awaiting a chief episcopate on earth, but “awaiting the episcopate from heaven” (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 24, paragraph 5). They had died, in other words, believing in a visibly apostolic Church, invisibly shepherded from on high, where the chief episcopate of the Church of Christ resides.
We will continue next week with Cyprian of Carthage.