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Tag: Irenaeus of Lyons

Did Irenaeus of Lyons teach sola scriptura?

Irenaeus of Lyons

Sola Scriptura’s Epistemological Problems (3 of 4)

A Response to David Roxas (3 of 4)  See also: (2 of 4) and (1 of 4)

David Roxas asked:

2. Are you contradicting the above statement of Irenaus [sic] which says the Scriptures are “the ground and pillar of our faith” or do you equate the later corpus of the Fathers and the body of oral (and mostly liturgical) tradition with Scripture? 

Answer: It is good that Mr. Roxas cited Irenaeus of Lyons, an early Church Father, who wrote:

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. (Against Heresies 3.1.1; ANF p. 414; emphasis added)

However, Mr. Roxas made the error of cherry-picking a quote of a Church Father in order to claim support for the doctrine of sola scriptura, while ignoring other passages that support Apostolic Tradition. In the quote provided by Mr. Roxas, Saint Irenaeus noted that the Gospel was first proclaimed orally, then later transmitted in writing, but nowhere did he put the written Apostolic teaching over the oral proclamation.  Consider also the following quotes from Irenaeus in the passage that follows the one cited by David Roxas.

In the next chapter, we see Irenaeus affirming Apostolic Tradition — “that tradition which originates from the apostles.”

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 [Gnostics] 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. (Against Heresies 3.2.2; ANF p. 416; emphasis added)

In this passage we learn that Apostolic Tradition is preserved through the episcopacy — “the succession of presbyters.”  This is significant.  A Protestant would say that Apostolic Tradition is preserved through Scripture alone, but this is not what Irenaeus teaches.  In the next chapter Irenaeus likewise links Apostolic Tradition to the succession of bishops.

1. 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 . . . . (Against Heresies 3.3.1; ANF p. 416; emphasis added)

The danger of cherry-picking the Church Fathers is that an isolated sentence can be misread and made to support the Protestant position.  This is why it is important that the early Church Fathers be read in context.  At the beginning of the third book of Against Heresies, Irenaeus recounts how he sought to refute the Gnostic heretics.  First, he appeals to Scripture, which is written Apostolic Tradition.  When that does not work, then he appeals to oral Apostolic Tradition – an approach different from Protestantism’s sola scriptura!  Irenaeus treats written and oral Apostolic Tradition as equal and complementary to each other.

One might argue that Irenaeus was advocating sola scriptura when he referred to Scripture as the “ground and pillar of our Faith,” but then we must also take into account the witness of Scripture.  In 1 Timothy 3:15 Apostle Paul referred to the Church as the “pillar and foundation of the truth.”  We find no historic reference of a breach between the Apostle Paul and Irenaeus. Rather, the Church’s magisterium (teaching authority) is complementary to Scripture as the source of Christian doctrine and practice.

If Mr. Roxas wants to show that Irenaeus held to sola scriptura, he will need to show where Irenaeus taught: (1) that written Apostolic Tradition is more authoritative than oral Apostolic Tradition, (2) that true Apostolic Tradition is preserved exclusively through Scripture, not through the succession of bishops, and (3) that the Church can fall into error, but Scripture will be there to correct the Church.


Church Fathers and Scripture

Mr. Roxas asked: 2. “Are the writings of the Fathers and the liturgy of the church ‘theopneustos?’ [God-breathed]”

Answer: Yes. If we believe that Christ bestowed the Holy Spirit on the Church at Pentecost (Acts 2) and that as a consequence of Pentecost there is a charismatic gift of teaching (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, Romans 12:7) then we must conclude that the gift of teaching is inspired by the Holy Spirit.  This is the basis for Orthodoxy’s understanding that the writings of the Church Fathers are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Without this belief that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church, we are left with the situation of fallible men doing their best figuring out what Christ’s words and the later epistles meant.  Or worse yet, that the Church suffered a catastrophic fall into spiritual darkness early on.

Mr. Roxas’ question assumes that the writings of the Church Fathers and the Church’s liturgy stand apart from Scripture, but that is quite impossible.  First, much of the writings of the Church Fathers are exposition or application of Scripture.   The lesser inspiration of the patristic literature can be seen in the weight that the Orthodox Church gives to the patristic consensus over the particular writings of individual Church Fathers.

Second, much of the Liturgy is either Scripture or paraphrase of Scripture.   The Sunday Eucharist should be seen as a continuing Pentecost flowing from Acts 2 down through history for two thousand years until today.  Since it is impossible to confess that Jesus is Lord without the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3) or to pray without the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18), we can only conclude that our worship in the Sunday Liturgy is inspired by the Holy Spirit.  So, the answer to Mr. Roxas question is: “Yes” and “Yes.”


Dositheus – Patriarch of Jerusalem  Source

Irenaeus and the Confession of Dositheus

David Roxas asked:

How does the Confession of Dosiethus [sic] agree with Irenaus [sic] when said confession is adamant that Christians should not read the Scriptures because they are obscure and require initiation into the secrets of theology?

Answer: David Roxas’ question here assumes that Irenaeus and the Confession of Dositheus are at odds with each other. (Note: In 1672, the Orthodox Church issued the Confession of Dositheus which formally condemned Reformed theology.) However, as noted earlier, Mr. Roxas took Irenaeus out of context and misconstrued him to teach sola scriptura (Against Heresies 3.1.1). The larger context of Against Heresies shows that Irenaeus believed that Scripture must be understood with Apostolic Tradition (Against Heresies 3.2 & 3.3).


Similarly, it is important that we read and understand the Confession of Dositheus (1672) in context.  The excerpt below is taken from the response to Question 1: “Ought the Divine Scriptures to be read in the vulgar tongue by all Christians?”

No. Because all Scripture is divinely-inspired and profitable {cf. 2 Timothy 3:16}, we know, and necessarily so, that without [Scripture] it is impossible to be Orthodox at all. Nevertheless they should not be read by all, but only by those who with fitting research have inquired into the deep things of the Spirit, and who know in what manner theDivine Scriptures ought to be searched, and taught, and finally read. But to those who are not so disciplined, or who cannot distinguish, or who understand only literally, or in any other way contrary to Orthodoxy what is contained in the Scriptures, the Catholic Church, knowing by experience the damage that can cause, forbids them to read [Scripture]. Indeed, it is permitted to every Orthodox to hear the Scriptures, that he may believe with the heart unto righteousness, and confess with the mouth unto salvation {Romans 10:10}. But to read some parts of the Scriptures, and especially of the Old [Testament], is forbidden for these and other similar reasons. For it is the same thing to prohibit undisciplined persons from reading all the Sacred Scriptures, as to require infants to abstain from strong meats. (Emphasis added.)

The first thing to note from this excerpt is that the Confession of Dositheus affirms the divine inspiration of Scripture.  The second thing to note is that all Orthodox Christians are permitted to hear the Scriptures: “it is permitted to every Orthodox to hear the Scriptures.”  This makes sense as one cannot avoid hearing the Scriptures read out loud during the Sunday Liturgy.  If one listens attentively to the hymns and prayers in the Liturgy, one will learn to understand the Bible in accordance with the teachings of the Church.  This might rub certain Protestants the wrong way, especially those who have the attitude: “Nobody can tell me what the Bible means; I can read the Bible for myself.”  The third thing to note is that the Confession recognizes that without the proper training and education, one could very well end up misreading Scripture and teaching heresies.  This agrees with what the Bible clearly teaches in 2 Peter 3:16 in which the Apostle Peter wrote:

He [Apostle Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters.  His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (Emphasis added.)

Here the Apostle Peter acknowledges that people who lack the necessary preparation are likely to misinterpret the meaning of Scripture.  It is important to keep in mind that this passage in the Confession of Dositheus was in reaction to the plethora of strange readings of Scripture coming out of the Reformation that the Orthodox bishops in the 1600s found at odds with Holy Tradition.  Thus, the stress on the need for supervised reading of Scripture is well founded.

The account of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts subverts sola scriptura.  In response to Deacon Philip’s question: “Do you understand what you are reading?,” the Ethiopian answered: “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:31-32)  Here we have a literate and pious man requesting help to rightly understand God-breathed Scripture.  Note that Philip did not advocate the sola scriptura approach – that all Scripture being God-breathed is perspicuous (clear in meaning) and that all that is needed for right understanding is more prayer or more careful study of Scripture.  Instead what we see here is an ordained clergyman – Philip was ordained to the office of deacon in Acts 6:5 – giving him the authoritative Apostolic interpretation of Scripture.  Philip as a deacon was part of the Apostolic traditioning process.

So my answer to Mr. Roxas’ question is: There is no disagreement between Irenaeus and the Confession of Dositheus to begin with.  Both affirm that Scripture must be read in the context of Tradition.  The Confession’s strictures on the reading of Scripture make sense in light of the misreadings then stemming from the Protestant Reformation which was causing confusion and conflict in the Christian world.

In conclusion, Irenaeus of Lyons did not teach sola scriptura.  Rather, he taught Scripture-in-Tradition which is the Orthodox Church’s approach to the Bible.  Given that Irenaeus was the disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was the disciple of the Apostle John, and in light of Irenaeus’ reputation as the leading theologian of the second century, Protestants need to reconsider their position on sola scriptura.

Robert Arakaki



Sola Scriptura’s Epistemological Problems (2 of 4)

Early Christian Worship

A Response to David Roxas (2 of 4)  (1 of 4)

Can Christianity Exist Apart From Oral Tradition?

David Roxas asked:

1. Absent a body of oral tradition and the corpus of the church Fathers, which both developed over centuries and which the Fathers themselves did not have (Irenaus [sic] was not reading the Cappadocian Fathers nor was he celebrating the liturgy of Chrysostom) what is the source of Christian knowledge of God, the law, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ? From whence did the later developed corpus of the Fathers and the oral tradition receive it’s knowledge of the Gospel? (Emphasis added.)

Answer: To assume the absence of an identifiable Tradition for the first hundreds of years – that the Church Fathers presumably had no access to – betrays a woeful ignorance of Scripture and church history. In light of what the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy about safeguarding the deposit of oral Tradition (see my prior article), it is impossible for the Church to have existed apart from oral Tradition.  As a matter of fact, it is contrary to Scripture!  The issue is not whether there was an oral Apostolic Tradition.  Rather, the question should be: What evidence is there of oral Apostolic Tradition closer to the time of the Apostles than a fourth century witness like Basil the Great?

Ignatius of Antioch (c. 98/117)

One important source is the Didache which dates to A.D. 100.  We learn from the Didache: (1) the threefold baptism (7.1), (2) only the baptized may be allowed to partake of the Eucharist (9.5), and (3) Christians were expected to keep the Wednesday/Friday fasts (8.1).

Another important witness to oral Tradition is Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch, whose death has been dated to either A.D. 98/117.  From Ignatius we learn: (1) a baptism or celebration of the Lord’s Supper needed the bishop’s approval to be valid (Smyrnaeans 8.2), (2) the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper (Smyrnaeans 7.1), and (3) the threefold order of bishop, presbyters, and deacons (To Polycarp 6.1).  It is important to keep in mind that Ignatius was bishop over Antioch, Apostle Paul’s home church! (Acts 13:1-3)  Ignatius’ connection to the New Testament can be seen in the tradition that he was the child on Jesus’ lap when he said: “Let the children come to me.” (Matthew 19:14-15)



Justin Martyr (c. 100-165)

Then there is Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) who in his First Apology (Chapters 65-67) described early second century worship as taking place on Sunday instead of the Jewish Sabbath (Ch. 67), being liturgical (see “the prayers” in Ch. 65), and affirming the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist (Ch. 66).

. . . so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. (First Apology Ch. 66)

What we have here is oral tradition that describe the application of New Testament teachings.  What we do not see here is biblical exegesis like that favored by Protestants.  The Didache, Ignatius’ letters, and Justin’s apologia all touch upon practices which are quite unfamiliar to modern day Protestants but familiar to Orthodox Christians.  For example, as a Protestant I did not know of the Wednesday/Friday fasts observed by Orthodox Christians.  After I learned about the Orthodox fasts, I was pleasantly surprised to find Orthodoxy’s ascetic disciplines supported by the first century Didache.  So likewise, I was pleasantly surprised that Irenaeus’ belief in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist (Against Heresies 4.18.5; ANF p. 486) agreed with that of Ignatius of Antioch.

Father John Whiteford – a former Protestant, now an Orthodox priest – describes how reading Ignatius made a profound impact on his theology.

I also began reading the Fathers themselves, not just reading about them, with the occasional quotation one might encounter. Coming from Protestant assumptions, the earlier the Father was, the more trustworthy he was likely to be. One of the earliest Fathers to be found outside of the New Testament is St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was a disciple of the Apostle John, was consecrated Bishop of Antioch by St. John himself, and martyred in the arena of Rome in 112 A.D. So I read his seven epistles with great interest, and was again and again struck by the fact that he was not a protestant [sic]. (Source)

Another important early witness to the Scripture-in-Tradition paradigm is the early Latin apologist Tertullian (c. 155-c. 240).  In De Corona, chapter 3, Tertullian describes some of the Christian practices not mentioned in Scripture, e.g., triple immersion baptism, receiving Holy Communion from the hands of the priest, memorial services for the dead, and making the sign of the Cross.  Apparently back then, there were some who insisted in a very Protestant manner that there be biblical justification for these Christian practices.  Tertullian refutes them by posing the question:

For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down?  Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded.  Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should be admitted.  Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom affords us any precedent.  (De Corona Ch. 3, ANF p. 94; emphasis added)

Here Tertullian admits outright that there is no explicit biblical warrant for these practices because these are grounded in unwritten Tradition.  For Tertullian the lack of biblical proofs is no obstacle for following these customs.

If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none.  Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom, as their strengthener, and faith as their observer.  That reason will support tradition, and custom, and faith, you will either yourself perceive, or learn from some one who has. (De Corona Ch. IV, ANF p. 95; emphasis added)

Where Irenaeus refutes sola scriptura implicitly, Tertullian refutes it explicitly on the grounds that Christianity follows tradition along with Scripture.  It would not be until the idea of oral Apostolic Tradition came under direct attack in the fourth century that Basil the Great (330-379) felt obliged to list them in his classic On the Holy Spirit (see Ch. 27 §66).

To sum up, oral Apostolic Tradition does not comprise a corpus parallel to Scripture.  Rather, early Christianity comprised a totality: Scripture, a received way of worship, a received moral code, a received set of spiritual disciplines, and a received church structure.  All these informed the early Church’s understanding of Scripture.  This ancient Christian way of doing things continues on today in Orthodoxy.

As a religion, Orthodoxy is centered around the Liturgy and the Eucharist.  A strong similarity can be seen between Orthodoxy and first-century Judaism which likewise was almost entirely centered around the sacrificial worship of the temple in Jerusalem.  The text-centered religion that Protestants favor would be alien to the first century Judaism, Jesus and Paul were acquainted with.  Protestantism’s text-centered religion more strongly resembles rabbinical Judaism which emerged in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.  Where Orthodoxy represents a continuation of the Judaism of the Bible, Protestantism is rooted in post-biblical rabbinical Judaism.  See Gabe Martini’s article: “The Temple Cult and Early Christian Worship.”


Who Made this List?

Is the Biblical Canon Holy Spirit Inspired?

Many Protestants who assert sola scriptura are unaware of the multiple debts they owe to the early Christians.  One debt is the physical Bible.  The clergy of the early Church were responsible for the preservation of the physical copies of the Bible.  During the early persecutions, the Roman authorities knew that to destroy Christianity they needed to destroy the copies of the Bible.  Early Christian clergy hid the sacred Scriptures during the week and brought them to the liturgical gatherings on Sunday.  For a cleric in the early Church to hand over Scripture to Roman authorities was a grave sin.  The early Christians also faced the challenge of discerning which writings were to be read as Scripture during the Sunday worship and which writings were to be left out.  This spurred the making of a list of writings recognized as divinely inspired and authoritative Scriptures which would in the biblical canon we have today.

Another debt Protestants owe the early Church is the biblical canon. Many Protestants stress that the writings of the New Testament were all written by the end of the first century, but what they fail to note is that there were many other writings (including some so-called Gospels) that were in circulation at the same time.  Thus, one of the challenges facing the early Church was discerning which writings were apostolic and which were not.  Irenaeus of Lyons faced this challenge when the Gnostics circulated their heretical version of the Gospel.  To combat this Irenaeus fell back on oral Tradition to discern right doctrine.  He writes:

For if what they [the Gnostics] have published is the Gospel of truth, and yet is totally unlike those which have been handed down to us from the apostles, any who please may learn, as is shown from the Scriptures themselves, that that which has been handed down from the apostles can no longer be reckoned the Gospel of truth. (Against Heresies 3.11.9; ANF p. 429; emphasis added)

At this early period when there was no definitive listing of apostolic writings (canon) — no Bible book with a table of contents in the front.  Irenaeus fell back on what he had received from his predecessor, Polycarp, the disciple of Apostle John.  Because the “Gospel” the Gnostics propagated was unlike anything he had received, Irenaeus was obliged to reject them outright.  Here we see how the biblical canon emerged out of a traditioning process.

By the end of the second century, a consensus emerged around the four Gospels and Paul’s letters, but it took much longer for a consensus to be formed around Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, the letters by John, and Revelation.  A consensus emerged gradually with respect to the exclusion of the Shepherd of Hermas and 1 and 2 Clement from the New Testament.  It was not until the late fourth century that the biblical canon was formally closed by the Church.  Athanasius’ listing dates to A.D. 367 about the same time as the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, and between the First Ecumenical Council (Nicea I in A.D. 325) and the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople I in A.D. 381).  In the Latin West, similar lists were disseminated by Augustine of Hippo (On Christian Doctrine, Chapter 8 §12-13) and Saint Jerome (Prologue to the Book of Kings).

With respect to the biblical canon, Protestants must ask themselves whether the early Church was guided by the Holy Spirit in the determination of the biblical canon? Or was the biblical canon the result of church politics?  A divinely inspired Bible requires a divinely inspired listing (canon) but then this assumes that there was a spiritually vibrant Church led by the Holy Spirit in the first four centuries. The Church of the fourth century that finalized the biblical canon is the same Church that held the First and Second Ecumenical Councils that formulated the Nicene Creed.  The fourth century was also a time when Church Fathers like Athanasius had to defend the Gospel against the heresy of Arianism.  The fourth century was also the time of great Church Fathers like Athanasius the Great, Ambrose of Milan, John Cassian, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.  Can we not say that the Church Fathers were guided by the Holy Spirit in defending the Faith against heresies? Protestants may want to ignore or even deny that there was a vibrant Holy Spirit inspired Church during the first four centuries, but if we assume a compromised Church riddled with heresies then how can we have confidence in the biblical canon? Such an understanding of the early Church does not reflect the historical evidence, nor does it respect Christ’s promise of a continuing Pentecost in the Church.

Robert Arakaki