Protestant Historical Theologian Discusses St. Irenaeus’s view of Tradition, Authority, and the Written Word of God

In his book The Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus (1948), the Weslyan historian summarizes the view of St. Irenaeus on the authority of Tradition, the Scripture, and the ecclesial principle of Apostolic succession:


“With [Irenaeus] it is fundamental that the Scripture provide complete proof of all Christian doctrine….However, the question of religious authority for S. Irenaeus is by no means so simple as this. Very many other passages speak of the unwritten tradition of the Church as the determinative voice. It is even maintained that the faith could well have continued upon this ground alone, had the Apostles left no writings behind them” (pp. 32 f.)

“According to S. Irenaeus, the available authentic information from the Apostles regarding the life, teaching, and saving work of the Lord was not wholly written. There was also an oral tradition handed down by the Apostles and their successors. We may most accurately describe this tradition as the unwritten New Testament. It will be seen that in the system of Irenaeus it occupies a position of dogmatic value equivalent to that of the Epistles, save only that ink and paper is absent” (p 87)

“As the Canon and interpretation of the written tradition is to be determine by authority, so also is the unwritten…Once granted that there was such a thing as unwritten information to which valid appeal could be made, the only answer to the heretic was the plain assertion that the true oral tradition was the exclusive possession of the Church, just as was the written tradition. This was seconded by the assertion that, as the Church was alone competent to expound the Scripture, so she alone could determine the meaning of that which was not written…It was the teaching of S. Irenaeus that the witness to tradition is collective, and, indeed, by inherent nature universal. It is not individual, for individualism is the mark of heresy… The voice of the Church is always for practical purposes regarded as the voice of her official and recognized leaders” (pp. 91 f.)

“To enquire whether tradition or Scripture is the primary authority is to obscure the mind of S. Irenaeus by asking the wrong question. To him both are manifestations of one and the same thing, the apostolic truth by which the Christians lives….The truth hands by two cords, and he can speak of either as self-sufficient without intending to deny or subordinate the other” (p. 103)

“Religious authority…is bound to dissolve into the tones of the present voice of the Church… This ‘Living Voice’ is the actual religious authority for S. Irenaeus. We may candidly agree that he would probably not have recognized this as the truth about himself” (p. 105)

“The ‘Living Voice’ of the Church was therefore the essential and determinative factor in whatever he actually taught” (p. 292)

[citations found in B.C. Butler’s “The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged ‘Salmon'” (1954), p. 28]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s