Christian History and the Catholic Church – Part 4
Does the Roman Catholic Church have proof of her asserted supreme authority in the writings of a second-century bishop? If she does it would greatly strengthen her claim to be “the one, true church” outside of which there is no salvation.(1) A lot of us are lost if the evidence weighs in her favor.
We’ve been examining a short passage in an ancient text written by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, in the late second-century. Returning from Rome after having been sent there on a mission to combat heresy in the capital of the Roman empire, and finding that the bishop of Rome himself was promoting it, Irenaeus vented his anger and frustration and laid down a defense of the orthodox Christian faith in a multi-volume work commonly known as Against Heresies. In refuting the heretics by submitting evidence of the doctrinal purity that can be found in every church established by apostles, Irenaeus chooses the church at Rome as just one example. Please read Parts 2 and 3 for more background.
The passage in question, according to translation number 1, reads:
1) 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.
As I indicated previously, the exact translation of this short statement is disputed and difficult to discern. The Greek original of Irenaeus’ work is lost and the Latin translation is, according to the English translators, “of the most barbarous character” often necessitating that the translators back-translate a passage into Greek first to help them render it into English. A better translation according to, of all people, a 19th-century Roman Catholic reads:
2) 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 and Kirk, vol. i. p. 252.)
Consider now how 21st-century Catholics translate it:
3) For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. And it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.
Well, that’s quite different. The text in Latin of the first clause is: “Ad hanc enim ecclesiam propter potiorem principalitatem necesse est omnem convenire ecclesiam.” I don’t see any word there that might be translated “origin.” Would it be too cynical of me to believe the Catholic Church took liberties with the text to make it sound even more supportive of her claims?
Which one, if any, of these translations is correct? God only knows but we mortals can at least rule out one or more by an objective look at the evidence.
The first line of evidence is an invisible one. It’s the lack of any objective evidence prior to the end of the fourth century that the bishop of Rome had recognized universal authority over the entire church. If he did we would expect to find multiple attestations of it in the many writings of the church fathers that have come down to us, and in much clearer expressions than this difficult to translate statement of Irenaeus.
As well we would expect to find some reference to Peter’s singular and supreme authority in the letters and Acts of the Apostles. But there is none.
Does it make any sense that Irenaeus would declare it necessary that “every Church should agree” with the Roman church, making her the template for orthodoxy that the other churches should copy, when she had repeatedly needed correcting of heresy? And he had witnessed that firsthand? It’s much more reasonable to understand him as contending it necessary for the churches “on every side” of her to “resort” (go often) to her to ensure that the heresies consistently being propagated in her city don’t take root there, because of her strategic importance as a geopolitical center.
In both translations 1 and 2 the “apostolic tradition” or the “tradition which is from the apostles” is preserved not by the church at Rome but by “the faithful everywhere” or the churches “who are on every side.” No credit is given to Rome as the fount of truth excepting as she is faithfully and consistently purified by the other apostolic churches.
It’s telling, the way contemporary Catholic apologists have produced such a distorted translation as number 3 above. Since even the translation of one of their own (#2) wasn’t definitive enough for their purposes, and they know their claims rely heavily on this early supposed evidence of Rome’s jurisdictional primacy, it being the best they have from the early centuries, they present a bastardized version unhindered by uncertainty. The average Catholic, trained to trust the learned clergy and theologians, accepts it as genuine proof positive of early attestation to the church’s unique claims, and is easily led to believe there is much more.
For the Roman Catholic Church to properly appropriate Irenaeus as a defender of her unique faith, she would need to sufficiently account for Exhibits A through D, showing that they do not contradict her claims. That she cannot do.
And so I have no reason to fear being lost on account of having separated myself from her more than 30 years ago. Though one can find the true church within her, it does not subsist in her. The one, true church does not have a formal name, organizational system, nor earthly head. It is a global family…brothers and sisters by faith and trust in our heavenly Father, redeemed and restored to him through the blood of his Son, Jesus Christ. Mostly unknown personally to each other, but perfectly known by God.
And he that knows who belong to him, has declared that we can know it too.
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. – 1 John 5:11-13