Irenaeus and Apostolic Succession

Having just passed Reformation Day, it is worth returning to the ever-surprising Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. 150–190). We know Irenaeus chiefly through his heresiological tome, Against Heresies, which was mainly directed against gnostic sectarians. According to Irenaeus’ own account of himself, his teacher was Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of John, Christ’s own disciple.[1] One would think Christians interested in better understanding their earliest doctrinal and institutional history would have paid close attention to such a source. Unfortunately, Irenaeus was basically forgotten from around the fifth century until the early days of the Reformation—a forgetting partly due to accident but also because his literalist eschatology later became embarrassing. As such, he has mostly survived in a Latin translation. (For more background, see my prior article on Irenaeus.)[2]

Today, where Catholicism and Protestantism are concerned, the popular, message-board narratives about Irenaeus might go something like this: Catholics will tend to emphasize his material on apostolic succession through presbyters-bishops (there’s a separate, running debate about whether these were distinct offices to Irenaeus) and his esteem for the church in Rome; Protestants will tend to emphasize his words stressing the importance of written scripture. This is not the place to rehash all the relevant passages here, most of which appear in Book 3 of Against Heresies (see especially 3.1–5). Instead, I want to make a particular point about what apostolic succession could and could not have meant to Irenaeus and his immediate audience.

Put simply, we need to read Irenaeus’ notion of apostolic succession not so much as an abstract theory of ecclesiastical constitutionalism but as an appeal to certifiable history. In his most treasured case, Irenaeus holds up his martyred teacher Polycarp as the embodiment par excellence of apostolic succession. Vanishingly little of his argument depends on a special inspiration of office or magisterium. To him, Polycarp did not preserve apostolic tradition out of some divinely-guaranteed status of infallibility. Were that Irenaeus’ argument, he would actually be playing into the hands of his gnostic opponents. Indeed, we know that Christian sectarians themselves often argued for a kind of apostolic succession via teachers, much like the successions one could find in the philosophical schools of antiquity. Valentinus, for instance, claimed to have been taught by one Theudas, an alleged disciple of Paul.[3] Thus, flatly positing institutional authority—“I’m a bishop and as such, I declare the gnostics are wrong”—would not have meaningfully helped Irenaeus’ intended audience make an assessment when the whole matter precisely concerned which norms and institutions were reliable.

Admittedly, the church at Rome was also a crucial witness for Irenaeus, perhaps equal to Polycarp himself (see esp. AH 3.3.2). But neither Irenaeus nor Polycarp thought Rome’s leading clerics were above serious errors and the sharp criticism thereby evoked. Writing c. 300, Eusebius of Caesarea records that both Polycarp and Irenaeus had butted heads with bishops of Rome over the controversy around the celebration of Easter. In the 190s, bishops in Asia had insisted on keeping the habit of celebrating Easter on the Passover, which they believed they inherited from the apostles,

In response to this, the president of the Romans, Victor, immediately tried to cut off the communities of all of Asia together with the neighboring churches from the common unity, for acting in a heterodox way, and made a public proclamation through letters announcing that all the brothers there were utterly without fellowship.But this was not satisfying to all the bishops. In fact, they responded by asking him to keep in mind the matters of peace and unity and love toward neighbors, and their statements, which startled Victor, are in circulation. Among them was Irenaeus, who wrote on behalf of the brothers he led in Gaul.[4]

Schott’s translation might even be a little mild here about what the other bishops were doing. Another possible translation: “And the voices of those rather pointedly upbraiding Victor are extant.” Among those who startled/upbraided Victor was Irenaeus himself, who (in a letter preserved by Eusebius) referred Victor to an older dispute over the same issue decades prior, writing:

And, when the blessed Polycarp spent time in Rome with Anicetus, and they disagreed with each other on some other minor matters, they immediately made peace, for on this point they did not desire there to be any strife between themselves. For Anicetus was not able to persuade Polycarp not to follow this observance, when he had always observed it with John, the disciple of our Lord, and the rest of the apostles with whom he was associated, nor, for that matter, did Polycarp persuade Anicetus to follow this observance, saying that it was proper for [Anicetus] to follow the elders who had come before him. With matters thus resolved, they shared in fellowship with each other, and in the church Anicetus conceded the Eucharist to Polycarp, obviously out of humility, and they took leave of each other in peace and with the whole church being at peace, both those who followed the observance and those who did not.[5]

A few striking features:

  1. Polycarp, Irenaeus, and (probably) Eusebius thought the leaders of the Roman church could make significant mistakes in policy and (in Polycarp’s case) their understanding of tradition. Polycarp believed Anicetus effectively had the wrong tradition; Irenaeus thought Victor had grossly misstepped in excommunicating the Asian churches.
  2. Polycarp, bishop-presbyter of Smyrna and supposed disciple of John, took a backseat to no one in the mid second century. He shows no sense that Rome’s clerics have a superior tradition or authority. If John had indeed taught Polycarp, one would think he would have mentioned the precept of Petrine authority sometimes attributed to Matthew 16. After all, John was presumably there when Jesus said what he did to Peter (v. 13).
  3. Through the example of Polycarp and Anicetus, Irenaeus (and Eusebius) frames the Easter controversy as a matter of adiaphora. Thus, the overzealous Victor is presented as the actor in the wrong.

All of this puts considerably more meat on Irenaeus’ words in Against Heresies. Fundamentally, he was making a historical argument when he insisted on apostolic succession: a publicly available record against which theology could be checked. On the other hand, he did not suppose apostolic succession guaranteed agreement on all substantive matters of doctrine and practice in his day. For Irenaeus and most of the early fathers who insist on its importance, tradition basically functions as a guardrail rather than as a wellspring of theological knowledge from which we can draw (see his dogmatic minimalism of AH 1.10.1–3). His theory of apostolic succession only makes sense when we take it as a historically contingent argument rather than an assertion about bishops or presbyters per se. (And notice, what strikes us as a superlatively remote first-century past would not have seemed so distant for Christians in the mid- to late 100s.)

I leave it to readers to ponder what Irenaeus might have made, then, of the Reformation’s debates.

  1. On the historical substance of Irenaeus’ portrayal of Polycarp, see Charles E. Hill, From the Lost Teaching of Polycarp: Identifying Irenaeus’ Apostolic Presbyter and the Author of Ad Diognetum (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006).

  3. Early Christian notions of apostolic succession via teachers appear among the Valentinians but also Clement of Alexandria. See David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 103, 118, 125–6.
  4. Ecclesiastical History 5.24.9–11, taken from The History of the Church: A New Translation, trans. Jeremy M. Schott (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019), 266.
  5. Ecclesiastical History 5.24.16­–7. Schott, 267.


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