Preeminent – the word garners attention whenever it is used, suggesting to the reader or hearer that something or someone is held in the highest regard. And when the word is used by a respected early church father with regard to the church, its meaning demands attention. And when the word is used in connection to a specific church, the church in Rome, attention it will get. Such is the case regarding a certain passage from the works of a beloved second century bishop named, Irenaeus.
Any Roman Catholic that has heard of Irenaeus will tell you that in his works against heresies, he explicitly referred to the church in Rome as being preeminent. “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church [the church in Rome], on account of its pre- eminent authority.” For Roman Catholics, this statement is proof positive that the second century church regarded the church in Rome as preeminent to all the others. The problem for Roman Catholics, however, is that the “proof” falls apart when the quote is reunited with its context.
The quote comes from the third book of Irenaeus’ work “Against Heresies.” The passage from which the statement is plucked, comes from chapter three and is prefaced with these words:
“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops.”
It would be tedious, says Irenaeus, to show the apostolic succession of all the churches founded by apostles, but for the sake of conciseness he chose to use the church in Rome as his example. The most likely reason for this is because Irenaeus resided in the west wherein the Roman church held jurisdiction. Rome is also where the heresies were flourishing. The disclaimer that prefaces his example would not be necessary if Irenaeus believed that the church in Rome held universal preeminence.
Also notice that Irenaeus testifies that both Peter and Paul – not Peter alone, founded the church in Rome coequally. What we are about to learn from Irenaeus regarding the Catholic claim of primacy is, ironically, undisputable evidence against it. More on that in just a bit.
Irenaeus goes on to say, “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.”
Ideological Catholics will interpret this quote as the faithful everywhere must agree with the church of Rome because it is preeminent over all the churches. But that is not al all what Irenaeus is saying. The preeminent authority he was referring to is the apostles, not the Roman church. This is why he could have used a different apostolic church like Antioch or Jerusalem to make his case. The faithful everywhere must agree with the church in Rome, and the church in Antioch, and likewise Jerusalem, because of their preeminent authority – that is, the apostolic authority handed down to those churches.
Elsewhere in his works, Irenaeus makes similar statements that clarify his point. Nowhere does Irenaeus point to Rome as the preeminent church, or even the one single church where one should seek the truth of the faith. Instead Irenaeus points to all the churches collectively and never places one as preeminent over another. Here are a couple of examples from the same work that confirm this point.
“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?” (ibid, 3:4)
“As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and 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. 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. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. 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.” (ibid, 1:10)
The evidence for support of Roman supremacy is so weak that in a recent discussion with a Catholic apologist, he quoted the passage from the same translation and removed certain words in order to change the meaning entirely. Where the passage says, “on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere” he quoted it as, “on account of its pre- eminent authority everywhere.” It speaks volumes against their claims when apologists have to resort to dishonest tactics in order to strengthen their arguments.
If the so-called proof text itself is not lacking enough as support for the Catholic position, what follows it in Irenaeus’ work is down right damaging. In order to show that the apostolic authority resided in the church of Rome, Irenaeus laid out the succession of the bishops from the apostles down to his own time. And here is where we find that undisputable evidence I mentioned. Notice in the following quote that both Peter and Paul, the co-founders of that church, placed Linus in the episcopate as the first bishop of the church in Rome.
“The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric.” (3:3:3)
The entire Catholic claim of supremacy is dependent upon Peter residing as bishop in Rome, and the evidence from Irenaeus categorically refutes that notion. By stating that Clement is the third bishop after the apostles, Irenaeus clearly shows that Peter never held the office of bishop in the church of Rome. The entire claim that Peter was the bishop of Rome has been fabricated through time and has absolutely no foundation upon which to stand. Catholic apologists, who for whatever reason buy into the revised history, have nothing but far-reaching circumstantial evidence to support their position. The evidence from the Ante-Nicene period is overwhelmingly against them.
In my next post I will highlight a few incidences from the Ante-Nicene church that demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that Rome possessed no higher power than any other apostolic church of the time.