Irenaeus: Protestant or Catholic?

Even in the second century, before it was seen that even the bishops of the churches planted by the apostles could teach contrary to the writings of the apostles, apostolic succession was not relied on apart from Scripture since heretics claimed their own lines of succession. Because heterodox congregations insisted that the meaning of Scripture could only be uncovered with the aid of oral traditions they allegedly received from the apostles, St. Irenaeus, the most important second-century theologian,1 (p. 1) called Scripture rather than simply the church “the ground and pillar of our faith”:

That the apostles preached that Gospel and then subsequently wrote it down is important for Irenaeus, as it will later enable him to appeal to the continuous preaching of the Gospel in the Church, the tradition of the apostles. It is also important to Irenaeus to specify that what they wrote has been handed down (“traditioned”) in the Scriptures, as the ground and pillar of our faith. While Paul had spoken of the Church as being the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3:15), in the need to define more clearly the identity of the Church Irenaeus modifies Paul’s words so that it is the Scripture which is the “ground and pillar” of the faith, or, he states later, it is the Gospel, found in four forms, and the Spirit of life that is “the pillar and foundation of the Church” (AH 3.11.8). It is by their preaching the Gospel that Peter and Paul lay the foundations for the Church, and so the Church, constituted by the Gospel, must preserve this deposit intact.2 (p. 39)

As the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (Article IV) asserted against the papacy, the authority of this church is the consensus of “all the prophets,” who bear witness that “whoever believes in [Jesus] will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).

If his high view of Scripture made Irenaeus too Protestant for modern Catholics, his high view of the sacraments made him too Catholic for modern Protestants. He knew nothing of the Zwinglian divorce between Word and Sacrament that would be officially granted by the Council of Trent. According to Irenaeus, the rule of faith needed to understand Scripture is in believers, having been received through baptism (Against the Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 9). Since he was a disciple of Polycarp, in turn a disciple of John the Elder, that conviction was probably derived from if not identical to the doctrine represented in the writings of the latter. His Gospel says only those in whom Jesus’ cleansing Word remains will know the truth (John 8:31-32; 15:3). Likewise, he assured his “little children” that if the message/anointing they had received in the beginning remained in them, it would testify against the proto-Gnostic teachings (1 John 2:24-27). The concept of receiving the rule of faith in baptism may precede even John’s writings: an earlier “exhortation to put away evil and to receive the implanted Word is freighted with baptismal imagery” 3 (p. 65) (James 1:21). Not having been born of water through the resurrection to a living hope (John 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3; 3:21), the Gnostic opponents of Irenaeus took Scripture passages out of context to interpret them contrary to the gospel (Book 1, Chapter 8). By contrast, the orthodox of the early church recognized the canonicity of the genuine New Testament books on the basis of the baptismal creeds that had originated with Christ before the doctrine of the apostles was committed to writing.4 This use of the creeds confessed in baptism both to acknowledge the authority of Scripture and to interpret it was appropriate since baptism fully reveals the Triune God.4


Reference List

1. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies: Book 1 (The Newman Press, New Jersey, 1992).

2. J. Behr, The Way To Nicaea (SVS Press, Crestwood, 2001).

3. D. P. Scaer, James the Apostle of Faith: A Primary Christological Epistle for the Persecuted Church (Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, 1994).

4. D. P. Scaer, “Baptism as church foundation,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 67, 109-129 (2003). Download the PDF file.


Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.