Monday, September 3, 2007

Mathison Cont. (Irenaeus)

In The Shape of Sola Scriptura (see my prefatory piece here), Mathison sets out to prove that “Tradition I”, to which the Reformers sought to return us, was universally held by the unified early church. He believes this tradition consists of the doctrine committed to the Church by Jesus and the Apostles, and it is "coinherent" with Scripture (p. 21).

I would like to walk through the evidence and analysis he uses to reach the conclusion that the early church held to Tradition I. The entirety of his work is built around this premise, so his use of early church evidence deserves careful scrutiny. I will not scrutinize the overall theological and exegetical cogency of Mathison's argument (it has been well scrutinized and discussed here, ht: Chad).

In this post, I will discuss only his claim that Irenaeus held to the 'Tradition I' framework.

Mathison says. Irenaeus developed the concept of Regula Fidei (Rule of Faith), which was recited by catechumens as a summary of the faith handed down from the Apostles (p. 23). We are told that Irenaeus insists that the Regula Fidei, which was "inscripturated" into written form, as such is the foundation and cornerstone of the faith. We are told exegesis was probably the only theological method of the early church, and that the authority of the scriptures was "sovereign and supreme," with the Regula Fedei as the necessary interpretive norm. We are told that the Regula Fidei was distinguishable from Scripture only when in reference to its use in interpreting the same (p.24). We are given the conclusory statement that "plainly" what was written and what was handed down orally are one and the same body of teaching (think of two co-extensive circles in a Venn Diagram).

My analysis.
In this section about what Irenaeus taught, which sets the table for the entire book, not a single word from Irenaeus' pen is given. We are given one lengthy quotation from the venerable Bruce, one from Oberman, and a brief quotation of the (very Protestant sounding) Orthodox theologian Florovsky. I find this to be unpersuasive, and have no idea from the reading what Irenaeus truly held. A book of this breadth and length should offer factual statements and not merely resort to the conclusions of fellow Protestants (reputable as they may be).

Bearing in mind that I spend minutes and not weeks doing my research, I came across some germane Irenaeus passages, courtesy of the wonderful Christian Classics Ethereal Library. The first is from Book 1 of Against Heresies, Chapter III: "Texts Of The Holy Scripture Used By These Heretics To Support Their Opinions".

"And it is not only from the writings of the evangelists and the apostles that they endeavour to derive proofs for their opinions by means of perverse interpretations and deceitful expositions: they deal in the same way with the law and the prophets, which contain many parables and allegories that can frequently be drawn into various senses, according to the kind of exegesis to which they are subjected. And others of them, with great craftiness, adapted such parts of Scripture to their own figments, lead away captive from the truth those who do not retain a stedfast faith in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

From Book III, Chapter IV: "The truth is to be found nowhere else but in the Catholic Church, the sole depository of apostolic doctrine. Heresies are of recent formation, and cannot trace their origin up to the apostles."

"1. 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. For how stands the case? 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. For, prior to Valentinus, those who follow Valentinus had no existence; nor did those from Marcion exist before Marcion; nor, in short, had any of those malignant-minded people, whom I have above enumerated, any being previous to the initiators and inventors of their perversity. For Valentinus came to Rome in the time of Hyginus, flourished under Pius, and remained until Anicetus. Cerdon, too, Marcion’s predecessor, himself arrived in the time of Hyginus, who was the ninth bishop. Coming frequently into the Church, and making public confession, he thus remained, one time teaching in secret, and then again making public confession; but at last, having been denounced for corrupt teaching, he was excommunicated from the assembly of the brethren. Marcion, then, succeeding him, flourished under Anicetus, who held the tenth place of the episcopate. But the rest, who are called Gnostics, take rise from Menander, Simon’s disciple, as I have shown; and each one of them appeared to be both the father and the high priest of that doctrine into which he has been initiated. But all these (the Marcosians) broke out into their apostasy much later, even during the intermediate period of the Church."

[Continue to read the next Chapter if you're interested, which does lay some marvelous groundwork for the infallibility of Scripture. But I do not get the sense from this Chapter that Irenaeus saw Scripture as the exclusive source of teaching, co-extensive with the Tradition that he praises above.]

Conclusion. This does not support the unsubstantiated conclusion made by Mathison that Irenaeus insists on a Regula Fidei "inscripturated" into written form to be the cornerstone of faith. It would appear, rather, that Irenaeus saw the church as being that cornerstone (a very Scriptural view, I might add). Nowhere do I get the sense that Irenaeus saw Scriptural exegesis as the only theological source, nor a notion of co-extensive Scripture/Tradition that is "sovereign and supreme". It is not so plain, at least from the proofs provided, that what was written and what was handed down orally are one and the same body of teaching.


Kepha said...

There is a small book by a Catholioc scholar named Br. Gabriel Moran entitled, Scripture and Tradition: A Study of the Controversy. It was written in the mid-60's in the midst of the controversy within the Catholic Church as to what the definition of "Tradition" was. Some Catholic scholars were arguing for what is known as the "Two-Source Theory" or "partim-partin theory." This is the "traditional" view held during the time of the Reformation and for about four hundred years afterwards. Mathison, who does not make use of Moran's work, labels this view of Tradition as "Tradition II." Other Catholic scholars in the debate, who apparently have won the day, argued for the so-called Material Sufficiency view. Using Mathison's categories, this would be a combination of Tradition I and III.

Again, Br. Moran's book is small (and out-of-print), but he does a good job of surveying the debate within Catholicism and the change in understanding of Tradition. His book confirms, from a Catholic perspective, large portions of Mathison's analysis. Just thought I'd bring it to your attention.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Anyone who reads St. Irenaeus ( or any of the fathers ) at length and remains Protestant is suspect in their judgment. Anyone who suggests that the fathers sided with Protestant views rather than Catholic /Orthodox can be instantly labeled disingenuous.

Modern Catholic theologians are not part of the magisterium and do not represent a true "Catholic" perspective. The "Catholic perspective" on tradition is not something that was settled in the 1960s.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

I should say - do not *necessarily* represent a Catholic perspective. (Especially if they're Jesuit)

Thos said...

Again, I do not mean to critique the overall theological analysis used by Mathison, nor get into the material sufficiency of scripture. Discuss away, I'm just noting that wasn't my purpose in writing.

I do mean to discuss his particular evidentiary analysis. If his claims about the Church Fathers do not withstand scrutiny, then the bigger question of his theological analysis does not even need to be had.

And in this post I think my key observations were 1) I see no evidence that Irenaeus believed what Mathison claims he believed, and 2) the claim that Scripture and Tradition are co-extensive, that scripture is some kind of "inscripturated" tradition, appears particularly suspect.

Really, you'd expect, when being told what Irenaeus believes, to get more than zero Irenaeus quotes combined with several Protestant scholars' quotes.

Does anyone disagree, or is my point settled?

Joseph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joseph said...


I agree.

Joseph said...


I had to delete my original post due to misspelling and a bad choice of words.
Gabriel Moran was a notorious dissenter who was wisked away by the so-called "spirit" of Vatican II. Therefore, I don't think he would be a good source to represent the teachings of the Church.

Here is an article that features him:

Thos said...

I came across this in the Didache, tipped off by another unrelated blog post:

"But every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.... In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations."

It strikes me that this teaching, comparing the breaking of bread in communion to Malachi's perfect sacrifice (a connection Catholics claim regularly) is not in the Bible itself. It may arguable be deduced, but it is not in the Bible. I wondered how this plays with Mathison's argument that Tradition is co-extensive with Scripture. The Didache, while not Scripture is very ancient and was certainly highly regarded (and often read) in the ancient church of Irenaeus' day. Does this little quote evidence a little piece of Tradition that was not inscriptured and co-extensive with the Holy Scriptures?

Joseph said...


I just completed "Jesus of Nazareth" a few days ago. In there Pope Benedict XVI quotes from the Didache in reference to the Eucharistic prayer. I'm not sure if "evidence" is the correct word to use since we believe, we don't seek to prove necessarily. Though, I think I understand that your meaning was "historical evidence", as in some ancient documentation that makes a reference to the Eucharist. I am beginning to digress, however.

I believe that based on Pope Benedict's usage of the Didache in his book about the historical Jesus, he would probably be inclined to agree with you that it is "historical evidence" of extra-biblical Tradition within the Early Church. Though I wouldn't doubt that, as the theologian he is, he would be able to provide more examples.

Thos said...


I mean 'evidence' in its verb form, as in 'To support by testimony; attest' (American Heritage). I am flattered to hear that good Pope Benedict might agree with my perspective (oh, wait, does that mean that anti-Christ and I are in agreement (cf. original Westminster Confession)?)!

I believe there are many other examples, and indeed found others just in the Didache, but chose this one for the sake of example, not to make an exhaustive point.

It's just striking - if the Catholic Church relies (in some small part) on the Didache to give a meaning to Malachi (about your Eucharistic faith) that is quite contrary to Protestant interpretation of scripture, then Tradition and Scripture are not co-extensive. If Mathison would respond here by saying that this Didache-Malachi example is what he means in saying that at times the Regula Fidei elucidates Scripture, then (besides the fact that Protestants may need to update their communion practice) it elevates a non-Scriptural source ("Tradition") to a point that puts him in direct conflict with Reformed confessional standards.

Peace in Christ,

Joseph said...


"I mean 'evidence' in its verb form, as in 'To support by testimony; attest' (American Heritage)."

Yeah, I got that in hindsight but I didn't want to delete another post and leave a bunch of craters in your combox. I'm not firing on all cylinders today.

The Didache is part of the "deposit of faith", which is part of Tradition (at least a historical record of some Apostolic Traditions). It is revered as an Early Church document, possibly penned in the first century or at the turn of the second century by a witness of an Apostolic council in Ephesus(?) or by someone who recorded the oral teaching of that council by one who witnessed it. I know you probably didn't mean that the Church is reliant on the Didache to create a link to the eucharistic rendering of Malachi. But, just in case, even if all records of the Didache were destroyed long before we had this conversation, it would not hurt the Church's case for Tradition. It wasn't necessary to prove these teachings on such a large scale before or immediately after the Reformation.

I'm probably missing your point. Forgive me if I am. Trust me, I'm tired.

Thos said...


I'm being more complex that I need to be or meant to be.

I take this part of the Didache to be either i) at least one piece that the Catholic Church can use to support its belief that it properly formed/developed it's view of eucharist-as-perfect-sacrifice, or ii) early evidence that that view existed even before the Didache was written.

So here we have either i) a building block of Tradition, or ii) an indication of what that Tradition looked like early on. And that Tradition is not co-extensive with Scripture - it gives us MORE THAN is plain from our 66 (chuckle) book Bible (and if it doesn't, Mathison and I are malpracticing communion as described in Scripture).

This is not all that profound, but strikes against some of the foundation of Mathison's argument in this popular book.

Joseph said...

I gotcha! Thanks for the help. I have one brain cell left and it's overheating. Too bad you can't draw pictures in a combox.

Mike L said...

Here's my take on Irenaeus on Scripture and Tradition: