Here, we continue through Irenaeus, and a little bit of Jerome, to show that the Early Church Fathers did not teach that Apostolic Succession was a “living institution” which can contradict demonstrably genuine Apostolic teachings, specifically those in the Scripture.
When we speak of tradition, it is a teaching whose origin is historically Apostolic. Anyone can claim that something is “tradition.” As we reviewed previously, Irenaeus’ point was that Apostolic Succession demonstrated historically the origin of the traditions he espoused. Hence, true Apostolic Tradition CANNOT contradict the Scripture or the writings of the Early Church Fathers, as far as they are consistent with the Scripture. For a “tradition” to be legitimate it cannot suddenly appear hundreds of years after the beginning of the Church.
All of this aside, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox claim that historically, only they can lay claim to Apostolic Succession anyway. And, because “the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church,” this means that Protestants must be schismatics.
However, tradition does not bear out this contention either. In fact, we can find a reference to Apostolic Succession referring clearly to a group of people, though not “Catholics” in the sense of the term we understand. In Book III, Chapter 4, Paragraph 2 of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies he writes:
To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the 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.
From the preceding we can safely conclude three things:
1. These barbarians were saved, and thereby Christians.
2. These barbarians were cut off from the institution of the Church. Not only were they illiterates and thereby had no Scriptures or written communication with the Catholic Church of the ancient world, they also were identified as separate from the institutional church.
-Irenaeus supposes that there are “many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ,” but otherwise only speculates “if” someone preached “the inventions of the heretics…in their own language” then they would act like children and run away. Obviously this is not the response of real people, but speculatory barbarians. This does not sound like people that had any Bishop in correspondence with Rome (or any other civilized part of the world), and therefore was under Rome’s authority.
-Irenaeus’ grammar excludes the possibility these people had a Bishop. He speaks of the barbarians as a mutually exclusive party to the Church: “[B]y means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they [the barbarians] do not suffer their mind to conceive [of any Marcionite heresy]…among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever established.” The word “neither” shows that they are not considered part of the Church that Irenaues speaks of in some sense. Yet, they would be in agreement in their faith so that both the historical Church and these barbarians who have remembered what the Apostles taught would both deny the innovations of the heretics.
3. These same barbarians maintained faithful by preserving tradition. Hence, within this whole discussion on Apostolic Succession that spans for chapters (that we covered in Part I), it is possible to be successors of the Apostles without even a recognized Bishop of the institutional Church. How? By preserving tradition. Obviously, this is Irenaeus point, which mitigates against any understanding that Apostolic Succession is a “living institution.”
Now, no one claims that apart from literally seeing the Bible, you cannot be saved. Those of us that espouse what is coined “Reformed Theology,” which is rather the Biblical and traditional doctrines of the Church, assert that we are saved by faith alone. The Bible merely communicates details concerning saving faith in Christ.
Look at what Irenaeus wrote. How do the barbarians have “salvation written on their hearts?” In Irenaeus’ own words, they “believe in Christ,” and though they are cut off from the Church and its written documents “because of faith, [they are] very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom.” Their wisdom is not that of the learned, but that of faith.
Therefore, Biblical and apostolic faith is what saves, not a connection to an institutional church, according to what we find in Irenaues. Now, I have been told by a Catholic (and correctly so) that Ignatius wrote at an earlier point in time that “[l]et no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 8).
It is my opinion that what Irenaues speaks of is a different situation than that of Ignatius. However, what if they contradicted? Being that neither of their writings are Scripture, they can contradict one another and that does not pose us any problems. Nonetheless, it is more likely that Irenaeus was speaking of a peculiar group of people he supposed existed while Ignatius had a literal audience within the civilized world, already part of the Church. The differences in audiences gives us the context of each man’s teachings.
So, while the barbarians might have not had a Bishop recognized by the civilized Catholic Church, they probably would have had “bishops.” Following the model we see in the Scripture, the Elders of their churches were in effect their Bishops (i.e. Overseers,) though not in the Roman Catholic sense.
Such an arrangement would indeed be Apostolic. Paul in Acts 20:17, 28 conflates Elders and Bishops as the same thing. This means that there were no singular Bishops originally in the church, but rather a plurality (as Phil 1:1 would show definitively.) Interestingly enough, St. Jerome concurs with this:
Before parties sprung up in the Christian administration; before such expressions as these were uttered amongst the faithful, I belong to Paul, I to Apollo, I to Cephas; the churches were governed by a common council of their presbyters [elders]. But, when it came to pass, that each individual (presbyter) looked on those whom he had baptized, to be an acquisition for himself, not for Christ; every where it was decided, that one presbyter should be chosen, and placed over the others , and that to him the care of the church at large should appertain, thereby to remove every principle of schism. These instances I have brought, to show that presbyters and bishops were, for those of old, one of the same;but that by degrees, the government was restricted to one, in order to do away the possibility of dissentions in future. As therefore, presbyters should know, that, in virtue of the church usage, they are submitted to their prelate, whosoever he may be; so let bishops understand, that they themselves are greater than presbyters, more from a usage than from the primary ordinance from the Redeemer, and it is their duty to govern their churches by joint deliberation.
So, nothing was done by the barbarians “without the Bishop,” but the bishops were likely not Roman Catholic (or aware that they were “Catholic.”) They were elders appointed the old fashioned way.
All of this is yet another case of how tradition has been misappropriated by supposed “Apostolic” churches that make a practice of propagating teachings unknown by the apostles and disputed by the early church fathers.