This is the second post in a series on Catholic Answers apologetics tracts. This week’s post continues in the topic of “Apostolic Tradition.” The second early church quote from Catholic Answers Apostolic Tradition track is from the second century bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus. The quote appears as follows.
“As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority [import] of the tradition is one and the same” (Against Heresies 1:10:2 [A.D. 189]).
Just as in their previous quote from Papias, there is nothing here to indicate what the tradition is, just that there is vitally important tradition occupied and guarded by the church. The presupposition of a Catholic will automatically trigger thoughts of ‘sacred tradition,” tradition that according to the Catholic Church was handed down from the apostles orally to church leaders. After all, that is the message Catholic Answers is trying to send. Sacred tradition refers to doctrine that is either not found in written Scripture or is not easily deduced from it. It is considered to be equal in authority to Scripture. But as much as reading this quote from Irenaeus might go a long way in promoting sacred tradition for those who are presupposed to believe it, it is isolated; and it fails to show anything of substance. But if we go and read the quote in context we find that Irenaeus does not fail to explain what the tradition is. In the paragraph just prior to the one Catholic Answers posted on their website, he said this.
Previous paragraph to C.A. quote:
The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickedness,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. (Against Heresies 1:10:1)
He continues with what we find on the Catholic Answers website.
As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same.
When brought into context it is easy to see that the tradition of which Irenaeus was referring was pure basic Christian doctrine. No mention or hint of any doctrine not fully and easily supported by the written word.
Here is another quote from Irenaeus that appears on the Catholic Answers Apostolic Tradition page.
“That is why it is surely necessary to avoid them [heretics], while cherishing with the utmost diligence the things pertaining to the Church, and to lay hold of the tradition of truth. . . . What if the apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches?” (ibid., 3:4:1).
What Catholic Answers does not provide is what Irenaeus said next…
“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 splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior 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.” (3:4:2)
Sound familiar? Irenaeus continues:
“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…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.” (ibid. 3:4:2)
Irenaeus is teaching that in the absence of written Scripture, the faith of the church is preserved in tradition, which was handed down from the apostles and carefully guarded. This tradition literally mirrored the written Scriptures because it essentially was the written Scriptures.
The next Irenaeus quote on Catholic Answers is this:
“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors to our own times—men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about.” (ibid. 3:3:1)
Now that we know what the tradition is we can sympathize with Irenaeus’ sentiments concerning doctrines that were never taught by the apostles, or those approved men to whom they charged with the care of the faith.
Here is one more interesting quote taken from Book 3 of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies:
“When, however, they [heretics] are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: [word of mouth].” (ibid. 3:2:1)
Irenaeus’ description of the heretics is not at all unlike that of the Post-Nicene Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church places tradition on equal ground with Scripture. “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (82).
However, this would not be such a big deal if only the tradition they were referring to was what Irenaeus presented; tradition that actually did equal Scripture. But unfortunately, the traditions the catechism is referring to is more akin to what the heretics preached; false doctrines that are unascertainable from Scripture.
There is one additional quote from Irenaeus that appears on the Catholic Answers Apostolic Tradition page, but it lends itself better to the topic of the papacy. And since the quote appears in that topic as well, I will leave it for a future post.