Listening to Irenaeus today, I heard the following words which as a Protestant struck me right through the heart:

He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it—men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. Matthew 23:24 For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism (Again Heresies, Book IV, Chap 33, Par 7).

Now, it would be my hope that informed Protestants would be against schism in principal, simply because Tit 3:10, Jude 1:19, Rom 16:17, Gal 5:20, and 1 Tim 6:4. It is worth noting that the literal word “schism” is only used once, in 1 Cor 12:25, and it lacks the sort of implications where we would consider it as schism one and of the same.

That being said, Protestants make the claim that schism with Rome is unfortunate, as Rome forfeited the Gospel and they were therefore forced to create a new Church. Irenaeus words, plainly stated, would appear to disallow it. I mean, he disallows schism for “any kind of reason.”

However, on second glance, I begin to have honest doubts concerning whether or not the preceding reading is not affected by modern presuppositions. When we think of “schism,” we think of splitting from Rome. When we think of “reformation” we think of Protestantism. Are these modern presuppositions affecting how we read Irenaeus?

Now, I want to be very careful in this analysis, as it is not my intention to simply explain away the clear and obvious meaning of what he just wrote. This is honestly not my intention. Instead, let me try to put forward a possible explanation which would perhaps lead many of us to read what Irenaeus just wrote in a different sense. I would ask for you, to in good faith and honest judgment, carefully test what I write and be impartial in doing so.

When reading Irenaeus’ comments on schism, I notice that they all have something in common. Let’s look at Book 4, Chapter 26, Par 2:

Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth. And the heretics, indeed, who bring strange fire to the altar of God— namely, strange doctrines— shall be burned up by the fire from heaven, as were Nadab and Abiud.

Clearly, Irenaeus believed that the laity should obey the elders and Bishops who had Apostolic succession. In Book III, he shows that those who do not were Gnostic heretics. So, it might be all to easy to simply read the above and say that Irenaeus was simply writing against those who join themselves to Gnostics who do not have succession.

There is real merit to the previous line of reasoning. Irenaeus, though differentiating between “perverse minds” (i.e. crazy people), “schismatics,” and the “hypocrites” a sentence later conflates them all as “heretics.”

Further, a fuller reading of chapter 33 appears to lend support to such a simplistic rebuttal. Irenaeus writes:

A spiritual disciple of this sort truly receiving the Spirit of God, who was from the beginning, in all the dispensations of God, present with mankind, and announced things future, revealed things present, and narrated things past— [such a man] does indeed judge all men, but is himself judged by no man. For he judges the Gentiles (Chap 33, Par 1).

Moreover, he shall also examine the doctrine of Marcion, [inquiring] how he holds that there are two gods, separated from each other by an infinite distance (Chap 33, Par 2).

[This spiritual man] shall also judge all the followers of Valentinus, because they do indeed confess with the tongue one God the Father, and that all things derive their existence from Him, but do at the same time maintain that He who formed all things is the fruit of an apostasy or defect (Chap 33, Par 3).

He will judge also the Ebionites; [for] how can they be saved unless it was God who wrought out their salvation upon earth (Chap 33, Par 4)?

He shall also judge those who describe Christ as [having become man] only in [human] opinion (Chap 33, Par 5).

He shall also judge false prophets, who, without having received the gift of prophecy from God, and not possessed of the fear of God, but either for the sake of vainglory, or with a view to some personal advantage, or acting in some other way under the influence of a wicked spirit, pretend to utter prophecies, while all the time they lie against God (Chap 33, Par 6).

He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church (Chap 33, Par 7).

He shall also judge all those who are beyond the pale of the truth, that is, who are outside the Church; but he himself shall be judged by no one (Chap 33, Par 7).

As we can see in the preceding, schismatics are lumped together with several notable groups of heretics. While on first glance, our presuppositions would lead us to think of these schismatics as analogues for Protestants, the reality is much different. These men have wholly different doctrines that orthodox Christianity.

We can also gather this much from how Irenaeus speaks of those whom he approves, because the true Church is known by its correct doctrine. Apostolic Succession merely is a means that makes it obvious that those who claim to be the Church have preserved the right Scriptures (as opposed to the falsified Gnostic Gospels) and correct interpretations of the truth. For example, in Chapter 33 Par 8 Irenaeus cuts right to the chase:

True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures.

Irenaeus says the same thing earlier in Chapter 26 Par 4:

From all such persons [heretics], therefore, it behooves us to keep aloof, but to adhere to those who, as I have already observed, do hold the doctrine of the apostles, and who, together with the order of priesthood (presbyterii ordine), display sound speech and blameless conduct for the confirmation and correction of others.

So, in the end the markings of a true Church is not by virtue of it having succession. This is why Irenaeus never dwells upon valid orders and sacraments*, as the efficacy of Apostolic Succession had nothing explicitly to do with proper sacraments. Rather, Apostolic Succession provides proof that the doctrine and Scriptures of the Church are actually correct. Apostolic Succession therefore verifies the truth of doctrine. Ultimately, the true Church contains correct doctrine. According to Irenaeus, Apostolic Succession is the means of verifying correct doctrine. He never writes that it is the basis of receiving grace (as it would be if valid orders were required in order to receive necessary grace from sacraments).

**Take note that I never said that Irenaeus could have not possibly believed that Apostolic Succession is necessary for valid sacraments. Rather, I said he never explicitly talks about the efficacy of Apostolic Succession in this sense. If we want to understand Irenaeus without presuppositions, it requires simply going by what he literally says about the matter and drawing our conclusions purely from his own words and ideas, not our own.**

Now, I apologize  for taking so long with this, but in order to make a convincing case that our presuppositions may be causing us to misunderstand what Irenaeus is saying, it requires covering all of these details. Bear with me for one more.

When Irenaeus speaks of the schismatics he writes that”look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church” and that they are “puffed up and self-pleasing.” These are not schismatics of positive conviction, as I think we may charitably say that Protestants tend to be. Rather, these schismatics are looking to enrich or empower themselves through schism. This would have been fairly typical for Gnostic teachers, at it was proper decorum during the time for teachers to make their living by robbing their students blind.

For example, in the Didache the following warning is given;

Let every apostle that comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain except one day; but if there be need, also the next; but if he remain three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges; but if he ask money, he is a false prophet (Chapter 11).

The Scripture has similar warnings. Paul writes in Romans to “keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses…For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites” (Rom 16:17-18). He writes further in 2 Cor 11–

Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God’s good news to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you…For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face (2 Cor 11:7, 8, 20).

While the Rom and 2 Cor were likely speaking of Judaizers, 1 Tim 6 said the following concerning Proto-Gnostics:

Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain (1 Tim 6:3-5).

The concern that Gnostic schismatics acted with the motive to acquire wealth is well founded both in the Scripture and in early church history. This means that when Irenaeus writes, “For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them” he probably did not mean this in a categorical sense (i.e. no matter how well meaning someone is, unless he has Apostolic Succession he can under nor circumstance reform the Church.) More likely, Irenaeus was being sarcastic as clearly these men had nothing of importance in mind, they were only thinking of enriching themselves and inflating their egos.

Now, my readers, I would ask for a real careful reflection upon this topic. Is my logic faulty? How would Irenaeus honestly read in these sections without modern presuppositions?