Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Early Church II-4: The Rule of Faith

 This is the 4th of 4 sections of Part II. The previous sections are:

II-1: The Martyrs
II-2: The Lapsed and the Problem of the Martyrs
II-3: Bishops and Succession


After a time a hero arose in the Church by the name of Irenaeus of Lyons. His monumental work “Against Heresies,” written between 182 and 188 AD, is lauded as a Western classic and, while it receives little attention today, the Early Church unanimously consented to its orthodoxy and power of persuasion. Irenaeus was said to have been a follower, or taught in some capacity by Polycarp, whom Irenaeus lavishes with praise as a true, concrete, and powerful proof of the Apostolic faith.

Ireneaus is not the man with whom to mess.

Irenaeus wrote this text, first, to instruct a friend of his of the many and strange beliefs of the Gnostics. Secondly, he wrote to instruct his fellow bishops (and eventually believers) of the truth of the Catholic faith. The Tradition of the Apostles alone, he says, are in harmony with Scripture and both are in harmony with the teachings of the successors to Apostles who are in concord and council with one another. This came to be known as the “Rule of Truth” or and later the “Rule of Faith.” While an exposition upon it is too complicated for our purposes here (it deserves its own treatment), some explanation is useful for us. Irenaeus' work was regarded with a great deal of honor. The historian Eusebius himself quotes it frequently some 150 years later, showing how well know and how much the text had spread in that time.

This Rule was something conceived by Irenaeus in order to protect from error as well as something to guide those seeking to understand our faith: he claims we have a wealth of resources, whether it's the example of the Apostles, the rule of their successors, the writings they all left us, and of course Scripture. The Rule is not a result of knowledge of these things, either, but rather they come about as a result of living one's faith in the Church.

The Rule, then, does not simply safeguard the faith nor is it a tool used exclusively to combat heresies. The Rule really is the expression of the life of the Church which is Christ living in the world.

Irenaeus, in book III of his work, explains that this life, a life of faith according to the Rule, can only exist within the Church which has its origin in the Apostles. The presbyters and bishops of the Church are those who safeguard this tradition and faith. Furthermore all of these bishops owe their example to “the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul … for it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church” (III.3.ii).

These Apostles were not preeminent because of their teaching alone but also because of their witness to the faith; indeed their ultimate witness of martyrdom confirmed their teaching in Christ. Irenaeus attests to the power of their example by affirming that the bishops of Rome have a unique privilege. He refers to Clement of Rome who interfered with the church at Corinth on behalf of the whole Church. Clement, Irenaeus says, wrote firmly and with authority to correct the conduct of those in Corinth. Clement could do this because he “had seen the blessed apostles … [and when dealing with Corinth had] the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears] and their traditions before his eyes” (III.3.iii). The lives of the faithful in Corinth did not correspond to the teaching of the Apostles.

In Clement's letter Irenaeus claims that Clement did not clarify Scripture for them, rather it declared “the tradition which it [Corinth] had lately received from the apostles” (Idem.) Furthermore from “this document … [one] may understand the apostolic tradition of the Church” (Idem).

A further example of the Rule being a lived faith is Irenaeus' treatment of Polycarp. Although the space dedicated to Polycarp is small the import is great. Polycarp was instructed by the apostles, was appointed bishop, exercised his role for a long time, and then suffered a glorious martyrdom “having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true” (III.3.iv) Polycarp was a supreme witness to the Rule by virtue of his martyrdom. His whole life up to that point, however, had made him “a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness to the truth [than the other heretics mentioned in books I and II]” Idem). The bishops who are in union with the teaching and lives of the Apostles, both in Rome and elsewhere, are a living example of that same faith of the Apostles and protect it from those who add or subtract from them.
The example and martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, produced just as profound effect as his teaching, you can imagine.

Should one doubt his claims, however, Irenaeus points to the “barbarians” (most likely the Germanic and Gallic tribes near Lyon) who have “salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully [preserve] the ancient tradition” (III.4.ii) Without written documents for reference all they can rely on is what they were taught. This is so because “what is in Scripture and what is in tradition are the same, the truth about God and Christ; both contain the apostolic preaching.”*

Irenaeus calls these barbarians crude with respect to the written language but wise with respect to their love of the same apostolic faith of the Church: “Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language, but as regards to doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed” (III.4.ii.).

What they were taught is that to which Scripture attests. The barbarians, in a sense, are less susceptible to error because in living the traditions of the apostles they can more easily detect incongruent words and actions: “If anyone were to preach to these men inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. 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” (III.4.ii).

Those, such as the Apostle John, and Polycarp, would be revolted at the sight of one who corrupted the truth and taught falsely. Those who lived their faith in an exemplary way could readily detect those who would poison it by their teaching or example. “Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth” (III.3.iv).

Irenaeus also speculates that if the Apostles had not left their writings behind the Church would not lack for guidance or instruction. On top of the men mentioned above who maintained the teaching of the Apostles by virtue of their authority Irenaeus argues that the churches united with Rome act in accord with one another. He advises that if “a dispute relative to some important dispute among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the Apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear[?]” (III.4.i). In the case of important questions that are under dispute, it is not enough to consult the creed or interpret Scripture. Rather Irenaeus says, “[Should we not] follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?” (Idem.). One resolves disputes, when he does not have the Scriptures, by looking at how faithful men in union with the apostles conduct themselves (and how their ancestors conducted themselves).

At this point it is important to note the pattern that Irenaeus adopts with regard to disputes in the Church. The Gnostics that he argues against are considered as “thieves and robbers,” (Idem.) but even among the faithful there are legitimate disagreements on how to handle new errors or problems. One may, looking closely at the text, see a method for how Irenaeus approaches them. His approach is to invoke and use the example of the Apostles, then Scripture. The first mention of the Rule is in Book I, chapter 9. Irenaeus in the previous chapters, gives and exposition on the sayings of the Gnostics and how they use Scripture. Irenaeus claims that when one encounters those who use Scripture falsely he can easily reject them if he “retains [as] unchangeable the rule of truth which he received by means of baptism[.]” (I.9.iv.).

(Note: It should be worth noting that receiving the Rule at Baptism would be incoherent if it were a mere reception of the sacrament (and thus receiving a special knowledge by the sacrament). It is more likely that Irenaeus means catechetical instruction since what follows in this quote is that “he [the baptized] will no doubt recognize the names, expressions, and the parables from the Scriptures, but will not means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them.” Irenaeus, however, offers no exposition on baptism or catechesis in Against Heresies, so this point is speculation. He does, however, offer some description of the initiation rites of the Gnostics, including their version of Baptism which is laced with false doctrine and shrouded in mysteries not expressed by the Apostles or Scripture (cf. I.21.iii-v). As a result, what I propose here is not an unfounded speculation.)

In the following chapter Irenaeus first says that the Church, through spread throughout the whole world, has
received from the apostles and their disciples this faith … [and none of the rulers of these various churches] however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these [mentioned in I.10.i]; nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition (I.10.i, ii. The emphasis, in italics, is mine.).

Even here, with respect to the creed in chapter 9.i, Irenaeus first defers to the faith and tradition of the Apostles before he speaks about Scriptures. This is said explicitly at the opening of Book III:

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures. (III.1.i)

Let this brief exposition suffice, for it is much larger than this. In summary, the Rule of faith in my estimation is a life lived in harmony with the Apostles, their successors, the teachings of the Church, and Scripture, all of which derive their power, meaning, and life from God Himself. Apostolic succession is essential for the makeup of the Church and our own personal faiths.

If this is your face, I understand that it's complicated. But you made it through part II!


We were not born with power over ourselves and, as we grow older, we have those whom we must guide and others must guide us. Indeed, with regard to faith or tradition, “what do you possess that you have not received?” (1 Cor 4:7). Moreover Paul says “An athlete cannot receive the winner's crown except by competing according to the rules” (2 Tim 2:5). Likewise Paul reminds Timothy, as he does us, “You have followed my teaching, way of life, purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, and sufferings … that I endured. … Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from who you learned it” (2 Tim 3:10, 14).

The example of the Apostles, the authority given to them and their successors, is an aspect of our faith that we would all do well to reexamine in our hearts and live more fully. While deacon, priest, and bishop may be over us in the Lord (cf. 1 Thes 5:13) as both father and brother, this does not mean that we as children, brothers, sisters, and mothers have no effect or purpose. What mother or father among you would say your child, by their disobedience, their mistakes, their successes, and their virtues has not changed you? Is it not the case that a faithful child is a source of glory and joy for a parent and uplifts them in their own faith. Is it not also the case that even their waywardness and lack of faith, however distressing, is reason to redouble your prayer and love? The same is true of our relationship with those in charge of leading us—they rejoice in us as if we were their own children, and are troubled for many nights when we fall away, cause scandal, and remain distant. Again, as I said before, God uses all these things to strengthen us if we allow Him to be with us.

I hope the examples of the martyrs inspire us, as they should, but may the beauty of our Church and the strength of her leadership, then and now, inspire us to be grateful sons and daughters to our spiritual fathers. Where we must make an account of ourselves to the Father, they must make an account of all of us. Indeed, “obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account, that they may fulfill their task with joy and not sorrow, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13:17).

May we pray in gratitude for the martyrs whose courage emboldened the Church and the bishops, priests, and spiritual leaders of past generations guided her in her zeal. May all the work we do today be as one body working, no one considering his or her work—however small—apart from the work of the whole Church. If we work in her, according to her, even the smallest task receives the glory of the whole project. Have no contempt for those who lead or those who are highly regarded, for the wage received from the Master is the same (cf. Mt 20:1-16). Let us work, then, as one giving thanks to the Father, Son, and Spirit who give us all that is good.

*Everett Ferguson, “Paradosis and Traditio: A Word Study” in Tradition & the Rule of Faith in the Early Church: Essays in Honor of Joseph T. Leinhard, S.J., ed. Ronnie J. Rombs and Alexander Y. Hwang (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010) 13.