Archive for the ‘Words of Wisdom’ Category

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus explains the beliefs of the Gnostic heresy and teaches the Eastern churches how to show its falsehood and defend the divine truth. In this endeavor, he argues that the tradition of the original apostles has been passed down through the church leaders and kept in its true and pure form. To discern false teaching and identify heresy, one only needs to compare it to this tradition. He also implies that all Christians have a hermeneutic operating while they interpret Scripture, whether they admit it or not. In this essay, I will express my disagreement with his first argument, that the passed-down tradition is authoritative, but I will express my agreement with the second argument, that all Christians use a hermeneutic.

Irenaeus affirms the power that Christ gave to His apostles. His Holy Spirit not only enlightened them with perfect knowledge of the holy things of God but it also instilled in them the authority to speak on God’s behalf and write His words in Scripture. Their leadership in Christian churches was also authoritative, as they were taught by the Lord Jesus Himself, so they used proper church order and worship. These things they taught to their successors, the bishops of the church, who went on to lead God’s people after the apostles had died off. These traditions were passed down through the leaders of the church as time went on. The church, says Irenaeus, in all of its manifestations on the earth, “preserves [this preaching and this faith]. She also believes these points of doctrine just as if she had but one soul” [pp. 331]. The church in Rome, especially, is considered supremely dependable, as it was “founded and organized…by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul,” so dependable that “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church” [pp. 415]. Therefore, argues Irenaeus, when we come to some controversy in the church, such as the Gnostic teaching, we need only compare it to this tradition. After all, he asks, “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” [pp. 417]?

In all of his argument, he implies that all Christians have a creed, a hermeneutic, that they use to interpret Scripture. I agree. Every believer holds to basic doctrines and usually some understanding of Scriptural authority. They approach Scripture with this understanding and interpret it according to that hermeneutic. The question is whether or not their hermeneutic is good.

I do not agree that Scripture ought to be interpreted according to the apostolic tradition, not because I doubt that the apostles’ teaching was authoritative, but because I doubt human faithfulness in passing it down. Yes, we can trust the apostles themselves, but who is to keep their successors from changing, adding to, or subtracting from what they taught? All authentic Christians have knowledge of the truth enough to give God glory and to be saved, but they can stray from the truth in secondary doctrines.1 Furthermore, inauthentic Christians in the church could stray from the truth even in primary doctrines. We can be kept in the truth only by comparing ourselves and our beliefs to the writings of the original apostles. This is, I believe, the reason God gave us the written Scriptures, so that sound doctrine and the truth of God would not be subjected to human error and unfaithfulness passed down through the ages. Irenaeus’ argument that we would need a second authority if the Scriptures had not been written is irrelevant because we have the written Scriptures.

However, I do not blame Irenaeus for using the logic that he does. He lived, after all, in the third generation, likely only separated from John the Apostle by Polycarp. I give him credit in his argument, because the tradition passed down in his time was still probably in its original form, true to Scripture. I wonder if even he would be so convinced if the apostolic tradition if he saw the church in Rome centuries later. It is another example of man’s entrapment in his own time. Nevertheless, Irenaeus’ writing remains a great witness to the early church and a great apologetic to the Gnostic heresy.


1. The Belgic Confession, Article 2, in Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions, (Grand Rapids: Faith Alive)

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“One of the crucial roles of servanthood needed in our day is brokenhearted boldness in the proclamation of God’s truth. I mention this, because the spirit of relativism in our day has created an atmosphere in which speaking the truth with conviction, and calling others to believe it, is not considered humble. The typical condemnation of Jesus’ claim to be the only way to heaven (John 5.23, 14.6) is that it is arrogant.

G. K. Chesterton saw this coming in 1908, when he wrote,

‘What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth. This has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert: himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt: the divine reason. The new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. There is a real humility, typical of our time, but it so happens that it’s practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which makes him stop working altogether. We are on the road to producing a race of man too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.'”

Piper, John. “Humble Yourself in Childlikeness, Servanthood, and Brokenhearted Boldness.” What Jesus Demands from the World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006.

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