Monday, March 15, 2010

The Chiastic Argument for the Sufficiency of Scripture in Irenaeus's "Against Heresies"

Looking through some old posts I ran across this one, which I posted some time ago. I still like the argument, so I thought I'd repost.

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, wrote Against Heresies toward the end of the second century, A.D. In book III of Against Heresies, Irenaeus advances an extended argument about the sources of truth for the heretic and the Christian. Roman Catholics often point to Irenaeus’s discussion as an early recognition of tradition as a source of authority independent from the Scriptures.

The funny thing is that, years and years ago, I read Against Heresies, as it were, as an innocent. I was simply interested in reading some of the early church fathers. A few years later, when I was in conversation with a pious, Roman Catholic academic, he appealed to Irenaeus's argument at the beginning of book III as establishing the independent authority of tradition, and the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the Christian church. That surprised me, because while I recalled that tradition and Rome were discussed there, I had actually taken the overall import of Irenaeus's argument in book III to be one in favor of the Scriptures as a sufficient authority for the Christian.

Just to be clear, let me underscore that I understood Irenaeus’s argument to be one of the sufficiency of the Scriptures for the Christian, not the necessity of the Scriptures for the Christian. Indeed, even in Protestant churches, unlearned people receive the Gospel orally from preachers rather than directly from the Scriptures themselves. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, provided what is orally communicated is consistent with what the Scriptures teach. Indeed, there really isn’t much of an alternative, as a practical matter (Ro 10.14).

But the thing is, in my reading, I never got the upshot of Irenaeus’s argument to be aimed at establishing tradition as an independent source of doctrine not taught by the Scriptures, nor that the Roman church had unique authority relative to other churches that were established by the apostles. It's of course possible that I misread Irenaeus's argument, but on revisiting it in my conversation it didn't seem to me that I had gotten it wrong, and my Roman Catholic discussant said that he agreed after all that the argument from that text wasn't as strong as he thought it had been.

I understood Irenaeus’s argument to have a chiastic structure that aims at vindicating the Scriptures (again, as sufficient authority, not as necessary authority). It seemed to me then, and seems to me today, that understanding the overall arc of Irenaeus’s argument requires understanding the chaistic structure of his argument in book III. Doing so seems to me to pretty much eliminate the idea that Irenaeus is arguing for tradition as an independent source of authority for doctrines not taught in the Scriptures.

I’ll sketch what I take to the Irenaeus’s chiastic structure in the early chapters of Book III, then I’ll copy part of the text (below). I encourage any interested reader to read the unedited text, which can be found in numerous books and on the web. My goal when I first read Irenaeus (not knowing the role it played in RC apologetics) was to give the text a sympathetic reading, and that continues to be my goal.

Anyway, here’s how I understand the structure of Irenaeus’s argument at the beginning of Book III:

A. (3.1.1-2) We learn salvation from what the apostles preached in public & “handed down to us in the Scriptures.”

B. (3.2.1) When confronted with Scripture, the heretics say that we need tradition in order to understand the Scriptures rightly. This is an oral tradition of doctrines not contained in the Scriptures.

C. (3.2.1) When confronted with orthodox tradition, the heretics reject tradition.

C’. (3.3.1-3) If you say you believe in tradition, you at least have to accept the tradition in the church of Rome because we can trace the succession of bishops there. The heretics can't point to any better candidate for authoritative tradition than that. (Nonetheless, the tradition is manifested in churches “throughout the whole world," but it would be "tedious" to reckon succession in all churches.)

B’. (3.4.1) Tradition confirms what the Scriptures teach.
i. “For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings?”
ii. How else could illiterate people know the Gospel?

A’. (3.5.1.) Therefore, on the basis of their own argument, the heretics must accept arguments based by an appeal to the Scriptures. And so I will "revert" to appealing to Scripture as authoritative refutation of heretical doctrines.

Irenaeus goes on to use the authority of the Scriptures as the conclusion of reductio arguments against the heretics. For example, in 3.11.9, Irenaeus argues:

For if what [the Valentinians] have published is the Gospel of truth, and yet is totally unlike those which have been handed down to us from the apostles, any who please may learn, as is shown from the Scriptures themselves, then that which has been handed down from the apostles can no longer be reckoned the Gospel of truth.

There only reason that he can advance this argument is that he thinks that he has already established that the Valentinians must accept the authority of the Scriptures. Hence, if he can show that their argument is inconsistent with Scriptures, then he's made his point, and the Valentinians must reject the disputed doctrine in favor of the orthodox affirmation.

There is lots to learn from Irenaeus that doesn’t concern modern disputes over the source(s) of authority for the church. Nonetheless, Irenaeus seems to me to teach us two things in the context of arguments between Rome and Wittenberg.

First, tradition is the best that people can do who do not have the Scriptures or who are illiterate. Indeed, if there were no Scriptures there would be no alternative to learning the Gospel from what was handed down orally. But in Irenaeus, tradition is a second-best alternative to the Scriptures. It would be used if we do not have the Scriptures or if we could not read the Scriptures. The Scriptures, by themselves, however, are a sufficiently complete expression of apostolic teaching. The Scriptures are, according to Irenaeus, “the ground and pillar of our faith” (3.1.1-2, cf., 1 Tm 3.15).

Secondly, Irenaeus’ argument for Rome and tradition is nested in this larger argument for Scriptural authority against the heretics. His argument from tradition is aimed at a group that says they do not accept the Scriptures, but accepts an oral tradition that teaches doctrines not taught in the Scriptures. Irenaeus raises the ante on tradition – arguing that if you want tradition you can’t do any better than the tradition in the churches founded by the apostles – and then uses that tradition to force the heretics, as it were, to accept the authority of the Scriptures.

Finally, Irenaeus’s argument is that the Roman church is a “preeminent authority” because, up to that time, she has “preserved continuously” the “apostolical tradition.” Remember Irenaeus’s argument: If you heretics want to appeal to tradition instead of the Scriptures, you can’t do any better than appealing to Rome (and the other apostolic churches). Irenaeus’s argument doesn't pertain to asserting tradition as a source of authority against those who accept and appeal to the Scriptures. Indeed, the irony is that affirming an unwritten, oral tradition of doctrines not also affirmed in the Scriptures is what Irenaeus criticizes the heretics for. It seems to me a real inversion of his argument for modern Roman Catholics then to appeal to it as evidence precisely for an unwritten, oral tradition of doctrines that are not taught in the Scriptures.

Irenaeus’s argument begins with the sufficiency of the Scriptures (3.1.1-2) and ends with the sufficiency of the Scriptures (3.5.1). Giving Irenaeus’s argument the most honest reading I am able, it does not establish tradition as an authority with any content distinct from the Scriptures, and it does not establish Rome as any authority independent of her faithfulness to the Scriptures. It seems to me that a reader can tease out an argument for an unwritten tradition that contains doctrines not taught in the Scriptures only by ignoring how Irenaeus's argument about tradition fits in the chiastic arc of his broader argument about the Scriptures.


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