Christian history and the Catholic Church – Part 2
I can’t blame ‘em. I can’t blame Roman Catholic apologists for reading their beliefs into ancient Christian writings…for finding in them evidence that they expect to find which objectively isn’t there. They have been taught, in no uncertain terms, that in Jesus saying to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” and giving him the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16) he was granting him supreme authority which Peter was then to pass down to each successive bishop of Rome. Of course there must be evidence of Rome’s authority in the multitude of writings of the church fathers which have survived the centuries. There simply has to be.
So every letter from a first, second, or third century bishop to Rome, from Rome, or referencing Rome is read from that perspective and every statement that could be construed to be supportive of Rome’s primacy is declared to be so. If I were a committed Catholic, I would so construe it as well.
But when these statements are examined in context, from a perspective void of an a priori commitment to Roman Catholicism, their supposed evidentiality of her claims of primacy are seen as very sketchy indeed. A good example of this is found in a treatise written by a second century bishop named Irenaeus. The faithful in Christ were called to “contend for the faith” (Jude 1:3) since even before the New Testament was completed because of various heresies being propagated in the church, and this Irenaeus was doing when he wrote a collection of books commonly called Against Heresies. The heresies Irenaeus was contending with were a Gnostic variety claiming special knowledge unknown even to the bishops who had been appointed by the apostles themselves.
So after describing their “opinions…customs…character…[and] perverse teachings” in Books 1 and 2, he sets about to refute them in Book 3. Chapter 3 of that book is titled, A Refutation of the Heretics, from the Fact That, in the Various Churches, a Perpetual Succession of Bishops Was Kept Up. Irenaeus argues here that correct doctrine can be found in the “various churches” because they were established by apostles who taught and appointed faithful men to succeed them. In paragraph 1 of Chapter 3 he says,
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.
Irenaeus is saying that if there were any “hidden mysteries” God wished his church to know, the apostles certainly would have known them and handed them down to the bishops they appointed. But the bishops do not hold to these unorthodox teachings and the evidence of their heretical nature lies in the fact that the church in the late second century could trace the succession of bishops of the “various churches” back to the apostles. And the apostles selected men to succeed them in authority over the local churches who they knew were solid in their doctrine, would faithfully preserve and pass it on, and would appoint successors with the same criteria.
Even if a particular bishop was found to support heretical teaching (a reality which we’ll see next time bears on the passage in question), there was at the time a general consensus on orthodox doctrine in the churches to confidently establish its accuracy. To bolster his argument from apostolic succession, Irenaeus desires to record the entire heritage of faithful men who have served as bishops tracing their appointments back to the apostles in every one of the “various churches.” But paragraph 2 begins with:
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches…
Because of the tediousness of such a task, Irenaneus chooses to focus on one church:
the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul
And it is here in paragraph 2 that the Roman Catholic Church believes she finds support for her claim of jurisdictional authority.
For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
Understandably, any Roman Catholic reading Irenaeus’ statement, as translated here and read in isolation, would think, “Don’t need to go any further. Seems pretty clear to me that at least from the late second century the bishop of Rome governed the entire church.” But go further we must if we want to be confident that such an assessment is accurate. Taking any statement apart from its context often results in error, and the way Catholic apologists conclude from this one exactly what they brought into it despite conflicting evidence is a prime example.
Furthermore, there is a high degree of uncertainty as to the correct translation of the statement. The translation contemporary Catholic apologists use is certainly one of the furthest from correct. Next time I’ll explain why and give some very important context.