Lutheran Chemnitz Wrong Re Fathers & Sola Scriptura

Lutheran Chemnitz Wrong Re Fathers & Sola Scriptura October 18, 2018
— mostly dealing with St. Irenaeus and Tertullian — 
This is a reply to one aspect of the prominent 16th century Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz’ Examination of the Council of Trent, Part I (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1971; translated by Fred Kramer).  I’m in possession of a hardcover edition.
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I read the first hundred pages of Chemnitz’ Examen, Volume I. Now I’ve read the entire section on Bible and Tradition (minus the sections on canonicity and vernacular, because those are important but distinctly separate issues): up to page 315.

I do give the man a great deal of credit indeed for offering a substantive, clearly presented, articulate, well-formulated and thought-through argument, presented with a relative minimum of unhelpful polemics, which is highly unusual for that time. Of course, I strongly disagree on the presuppositional level. Chemnitz takes the view that the Church Fathers are far more like Lutherans than Catholics. I take the opposite view (big surprise).

The big dispute, then, between the two parties, is over the correct identity of the true legatees of the patristic, early Church heritage of theology. That battle must be fought by means of competing historical facts. One has to examine the relevant writings (for any given issue) of the Fathers and can make judgments of factuality and truth and falsity. It’s not a subjective enterprise but very much an objective one. One cannot pick and choose and select what they like and simply ignore or omit or deny the existence of what doesn’t fit into their own theological schema or worldview or set of dogmas. Both sides must take the greatest pains not to do this.

Chemnitz, for many pages, presents scriptural testimony that Scripture is central and primary in Christianity. Since we Catholics do not in the slightest disagree with that, I have no beef, and so need not critique those lengthy sections. He then proceeds (pp. 150-168) to show that the Fathers held to the same view. Of course they did, and again, we agree, and so — again –, there is no need to offer any critique. He next takes up the matters of canonicity (pp. 168-196) and vernacular translations (pp. 196-207). But I have chosen to pass over those sections for the time being. Perhaps at a later date I will look at them. Presently, I am interested in the important question of the Rule of Faith.

Starting on page 207, Chemnitz writes about “the Interpretation of Scripture.” That takes us more directly into the territory of authority, sola Scriptura, and so forth, then from pages 223 to 315 he examines in the greatest (and most impressive) detail, what he classifies as eight kinds of tradition. Here we will get to the substance of the deepest disagreements between Catholics and Lutherans, on the Bible and (or “vs.”) Tradition issue. I am delighted to have this opportunity to offer a Catholic critique of his overall arguments.

Without further ado, I shall now proceed, with his words in blue. When he directly cites a Church Father, the words will be in green (and the Father’s name often bolded: all bolding will be my own).

Chemnitz in this latter section (pp. 207-315) expresses what he sees as the Fathers’ relationship to the Lutheran understanding of Christian authority and the Rule of Faith:

General Lutheran Perspective on the Fathers

[T]he saying of Jerome remains in force: “Whatever does not have authority in Holy Scripture can be rejected as easily as it can be approved.”

This is the chief point of the controversy between us and the papalists. (p. 101)

Because it was not a contrary, nor a different, nor another, but one and the same doctrine which Paul delivered either by word of mouth or by epistle. (p. 109)

[to which Catholics say, “of course!” and “Amen!” — “twin fonts of the same divine wellspring . . .”]

We have therefore the testimony of the ancient church concerning the perfection and sufficiency of the Scripture, namely, that it contains all things which are necessary for faith and morals for living, so that it is the rule, canon, and norm by which all things which are to be received as the Word of God in matters of religion must be proved and confirmed, (p. 161)

And we confess that we are greatly confirmed by the testimonies of the ancient church in the true and sound understanding of the Scripture. Nor do we approve of it if someone invents for himself a meaning which conflicts with all antiquity, and for which there are clearly no testimonies of the church. (pp. 208-209)

[W]e love and value greatly the true and sound interpretations which agree with the rules which we have quoted from the fathers. (p. 211)

[W]hen the papalists have transformed any statement of Scripture so that it agrees with their own corruptions, they search diligently in the writings of the fathers that they may scrape together from them a few statements which will in some way defend their purpose. (p. 212)

Jerome writes to Minerius and Alexander: “My intention is to read the ancients, to test everything, to retain what is good, and not to depart from the faith of the catholic church.” (p. 212)

[B]ecause the word “traditions” was not used by the ancients in one and the same way, and because the traditions of which mention is made in the writings of the ancients are not all of the same kind, the papalists sophistically mix together such testimonies without discrimination and, as the saying goes, whitewash all traditions from one pot in order that they may disguise them under the pretext and appearance of antiquity.” (p. 220)

It is undeniably the truest of axioms that that alone is the true doctrine which the apostles transmitted and which the primitive church professed as received from the apostles. (p. 225)

Irenaeus says that all these things were “in agreement with the Scriptures.” . . . The papalists, however, contend for such traditions as cannot be proved with any testimony of Scripture . . . the papalists expressly affirm that their traditions cannot be proved by any testimony of the Scripture. (p. 226)

Therefore the first kind of traditions is this, that the apostles delivered the doctrine orally, but this was afterwards set down in writing in the Scripture. Apostolic men also proclaimed many things received from the apostles, but “all these agreed with the Holy Scriptures.” And certainly these considerations give no protection to the traditions of the papalists, which cannot be proved by any testimony of Scripture, as they themselves confess. It must, however, be observed in connection with this first kind of traditions how fraudulently the papalists quote and treat the testimonies of Scripture and of antiquity in order to establish and confirm their spurious traditions. (p. 226)

[E]lsewhere he [St. Augustinepronounces the anathema on those who preach anything outside of the things which we have received in the Scriptures of the Law and of the Gospel . . . this second kind of traditions leads us to the Scripture and binds us to the voice of doctrine that sounds forth in it . . . (p. 228)

There is a very great difference between the primitive church, which was at the time of the apostles and of apostolic men testifying with regard to the books of Holy Scripture, and the papal church, which is foisting its fictions as apostolic traditions on us without proof.

Where the fathers describe this tradition concerning the books of Scripture, they prove it from the testimonies of the primitive church . . . they affirm that the things which were handed down by the apostles were all in harmony with the Holy Scriptures . . . Therefore we have it from the tradition of the fathers itself how one must judge what are true apostolic traditions, as Jerome says commenting on the first chapter of Haggai: “The sword of God, which is the living Word of God, strikes through the things which men of their own accord, without the authority and testimonies of Scripture, invent and think up, pretending that it is apostolic tradition.” Therefore the tradition of the church commends the books of Holy Scripture to us in such a way that it reminds us that all other things must be examined according to it . . . [ellipses in the original] and that the things which are in agreement with it must be accepted but what does not agree, even if it is put forth as apostolic tradition, must be struck down by the sword of the Word of God. (pp. 228-229)

Chemnitz’s Appeal to St. Irenaeus as a Supposed Proto-Lutheran Falls Flat


Chemnitz cites St. Irenaeus as a supposed witness to the Lutheran Rule of Faith, and brings as evidence his famous work, Against Heresies, Book III, chapters 3 and 4; mentioning the first sentence of the former and a paragraph or so of the latter (on p. 231). He summarizes thusly:

[B]oth Irenaeus and Tertullian [De praescriptioneexpressly tell us concerning which dogmas of the faith this dispute was undertaken; for they recite almost word for word those articles of faith which today make up the symbol called the Apostles’ Creed. Can these articles of faith not be proved, demonstrated, and established from Scripture? . . . And Irenaeus does nothing else in Books 3, 4, and 5 than to prove and confirm those articles at length from Scripture, and to take from the testimonies of Scripture refutation of the perversions that conflict with these articles. . . . Let this be observed, for then the reader will know with what cunning the papalists twist these arguments of Irenaeus and Tertullian to their traditions, concerning which they themselves confess that they cannot be proved with any testimony of Scripture. (pp. 232-233)

I find this fascinating and more than a little ironic, since Against Heresies, Book III, chapter 3, is perhaps the most famous of all of Irenaeus’ arguments in favor of apostolic succession, episcopacy (bishops), the primacy of Rome, and indeed, even the papacy: all of which Chemnitz would reject as unbiblical. So we see here a situation where Chemnitz tries mightily hard to “spin” Irenaeus in a Lutheran direction, but the facts of the matter simply do not support his interpretation (and rather strikingly so at that).

He claims that Irenaeus is doing “nothing else” in three entire books of this treatise than proving everything right from Scripture. And of course, the sinister Catholics are the ones who twist his words for their own nefarious (and invariably anti-biblical) ends. Well, you be the judge, by reading for yourself. Here is the entirety of Book III, chapter 3, from the standard Schaff (Protestant-edited and translated) collection of the Fathers, available online (green-colored emphases my own):

Chapter III.—A refutation of the heretics, from the fact that, in the various Churches, a perpetual succession of bishops was kept up.

1. It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.

2. Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

3. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome despatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spake with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the apostolical tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Sorer having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.

4. But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,—a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles,—that, namely, which is handed down by the Church. There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Dost thou know me?” “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.” Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, “A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.” [Tit. iii. 10]. There is also a very powerful Epistle of Polycarp written to the Philippians, from which those who choose to do so, and are anxious about their salvation, can learn the character of his faith, and the preaching of the truth. Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.

“Nothing else” but confirming and proving articles for Scripture?!?! This entire chapter has exactly one biblical reference, about rebuking heretics. But the father discusses many quite “Catholic” and distinctly non-Lutheran things: none with direct biblical proofs in the immediate context. Yet, if Chemnitz is right about Irenaeus, the latter must himself believe that biblical proofs can be adduced for them; otherwise, St. Irenaeus is guilty of the same heinous error that Chemnitz often accuses “papalists” of committing: coming up with doctrines without biblical support). In any event, here are the “Catholic” notions that St. Irenaeus discusses with the most serene confidence that they are true (almost assuming that demonstration need not be given; they are so obviously true):

1) Perpetual succession of bishops (this the Lutherans rejected and put in their place the rule of secular bishops, which even Melanchthon and to a lesser extent Luther, lamented in later years).

2) The apostles instituted bishops (this also the Lutherans reject, or else (quite obviously) they would have retained bishops and apostolic succession as patristically understood, since this was (in Irenaeus’ understanding) clearly an apostolic practice, having been literally instituted by the apostles.

3) Peter and Paul founded the preeminent Church of Rome (many Protestants — I don’t know about Chemnitz or confessional Lutheranism offhand — reject this and even deny that Peter was ever in Rome, or was bishop of Rome, etc.). But Chemnitz, of course, thinks that the Church of Rome had forsaken the true apostolic faith at some point, so that schism was necessary. That is not what Irenaeus would have held at all. He would have stated — like Catholics — that the one true Church (a real, historical institution, headed by the pope in Rome) cannot, could not possibly defect from the true faith. Rejection of the Catholic Church and rejection of apostolic succession thus necessarily go hand in hand.

4) Every Church should agree with the Church of Rome (the Catholic Church). This was obviously rejected by Lutherans and all Protestants. Yet they continue to claim St. Irenaeus as one of their own in this respect of authority and Scripture.

5) Early papal succession is given.

6) “things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.” No mention of Scripture here (note the key word “alone”). Nor is it logically required to deduce from this that absolutely everything that the Church declares has express, explicit sanction in Scripture. For Irenaeus and Catholics, such things need only be harmonious and consistent with Scripture.

7) The Church of Rome was already acting with authority over other churches (letter of First Clement: a sort of primitive papal encyclical).

Sorry, this is simply not the Lutheran Rule of Faith, or sola Scriptura. It is episcopal, papal, Catholicism, pure and simple. And I think Chemnitz certainly knew enough to know better than to deny it. It’s simply a case of reading the Fathers through the lens of Lutheran tradition. In a word, Chemnitz was blinded by his confessional bias and couldn’t accurately report the true nature of St. Irenaeus’ opinions on the matters at hand. And Irenaeus is one of his favorite Fathers to cite (St. Augustine being the only other one to rival him).

Chemnitz and Lutherans, in light of all this, are burdened with a huge logical dilemma. It can be concisely expressed in the following fashion:

1) Martin Chemnitz claims that St. Irenaeus, in his famous work Against Heresies, only taught that which is expressly taught in Holy Scripture (a position agreeable to Lutheran and general Protestant adherence to sola Scriptura).

2) But Irenaeus taught in this treatise things rejected by Lutherans, such as episcopacy, apostolic succession, apostles’ choosing of bishops to succeed them, Roman primacy, the papacy, Roman authority over other local churches, as a universal doctrinal standard, and truth as determined solely by apostolic succession [yet without pitting this manifest authority against Scripture]. That is no less than seven things which are not agreeable to Lutheranism [and in just one chapter!].

3) The above two propositions admit of only so many explanations; primarily (if not only) two:

A) The notions of episcopacy, apostolic succession, apostles’ choosing of bishops to succeed them, Roman primacy, the papacy, Roman authority over other local churches, as a universal doctrinal standard, and truth as determined solely by apostolic succession are all doctrines expressly taught in Holy Scripture.


B) St. Irenaeus in fact, did not hold only to doctrines expressly taught in Scripture and accepted some notion that is contrary to sola Scriptura.

4) If A is true, then Lutheranism has departed from biblical teaching in at least these seven ways.

5) If B is true, on the other hand, then Chemnitz has wrongly characterized Irenaeus’ views and must revise and retract his presentation. St. Irenaeus would be seen to have rejected sola Scriptura or, at any rate, some primitive version of it, allegedly more “[proto-] Lutheran” than Catholic.

6) Ergo: either way, Chemnitz is overthrown by demonstrable fact and logic (which has to do with the relationship of facts and truths one to another). And St. Irenaeus is seen to be far closer to Catholic teaching in this regard than Lutheran.

The Church preserves the truth. This truth will always assuredly be in line with Scripture, and never contrary to it, but it remains true that it is proper to write as Irenaeus does, without mentioning Scripture, and to be perfectly accurate doing so, just as one can say either “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is Man” without being guilty of an inaccuracy. Lutherans and other Protestants, however, always want to de-emphasize the role of the authoritative Church, because sola Scriptura requires them to (unbiblically) deny that anything but Scripture can ever be infallible.

Chemnitz was wise to not attempt a citation of St. Irenaeus with regard to interpretation of Scripture, for this eminent Father says some exceedingly un-Lutheran things about that, too, in the same work:


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 schismaries 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 . . .

4. From all such persons, therefore, it be-bores 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 . . .

5. Such presbyters does the Church nourish . . . Where, therefore, the gifts of the Lord have been placed, there it behoves us to learn the truth, [namely,] from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles? and among whom exists that which is sound and blameless in conduct, as well as that which is unadulterated and incorrupt in speech. For these also preserve this faith of ours in one God who created all things; and they increase that love [which we have] for the Son of God, who accomplished such marvellous dispensations for our sake: and they expound the Scriptures to us without danger, neither blaspheming God, nor dishonouring the patriarchs, nor despising the prophets. (Against Heresies4, 26, 2, 4-5; chapter 26 is entitled, “THE TREASURE HID IN THE SCRIPTURES IS CHRIST; THE TRUE EXPOSITION OF THE SCRIPTURES IS TO BE FOUND IN THE CHURCH ALONE”)

St. Irenaeus very clearly expresses the dogmatic authority of the Church, bound up with apostolic succession. No one can deny this authority. But sure enough, Luther and the Lutherans (and all Protestants following them) did. Thus Chemnitz expressly contradicts St. Irenaeus’ teaching above, with the following words:

[T]hey contend that the gift of interpretation is so bound to the regular succession of the bishops . . . they imagine that the gift of interpretation is inseparately [translator typo?: seemingly should be “inseparably”?] bound to the throne of the bishops. But this is false . . .(p. 209)

There is therefore no dictatorial or pontifical authority of interpretation in the church . . . (p. 211)

Yet that is exactly what St. Irenaeus taught above. So that Father must go “down” with the Catholic Church, to the extent that Chemnitz condemns the latter on this issue. It’s a matter of rudimentary consistency and historical fact. If the Catholic apologist like myself (or patristics scholar, or biographer, etc., etc.) can demonstrate that on such-and-such a point some Father agreed far more with Catholicism, then Chemnitz ought to have conceded that point and to have condemned the Father along with his condemnations of Catholic teaching and authority. They are one and the same.

This is a classic instance, and the Catholic case gets inevitably stronger as the accumulation of patristic evidence piles up. But Chemnitz (with some few exceptions) does not want to present this sort of anomalous evidence because it doesn’t support his case that Lutheranism is the true inheritor and preserver of the patristic theological legacy. I’ve always contended that Catholics need not fear patristic evidence anymore than they need fear the Bible, as both are firmly on our side, over against any form of Protestantism, where the latter depart from our doctrines.

Here are some highlights of Protestant scholars’ appraisal of Irenaeus’ views.:

Besides appealing to the Scriptures, the fathers, particularly Irenaeus and Tertullian, refer with equal confidence to the “rule of faith;” that is, the common faith of the church, as orally handed down in the unbroken succession of bishops from Christ and his apostles to their day, and above all as still living in the original apostolic churches, like those of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome. Tradition is thus intimately connected with the primitive episcopate. The latter was the vehicle of the former, and both were looked upon as bulwarks against heresy.

Irenaeus confronts the secret tradition of the Gnostics with the open and unadulterated tradition of the catholic church, and points to all churches, but particularly to Rome, as the visible centre of the unity of doctrine. All who would know the truth, says he, can see in the whole church the tradition of the apostles; and we can count the bishops ordained by the apostles, and their successors down to our time, who neither taught nor knew any such heresies. Then, by way of example, he cites the first twelve bishops of the Roman church from Linus to Eleutherus, as witnesses of the pure apostolic doctrine. He might conceive of a Christianity without scripture, but he could not imagine a Christianity without living tradition; and for this opinion he refers to barbarian tribes, who have the gospel, “sine charta et atramento,” written in their hearts. (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II: Ante-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 100-325, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970; reproduction of 5th revised edition of 1910, Chapter XII, section 139, “Catholic Tradition,” 525-526)

His most characteristic thought, however, is that the Church is the sole repository of the truth, and is such because it has a monopoly of the apostolic writings, the apostolic oral tradition and the apostolic faith. Because of its proclamation of this one faith inherited from the apostles, the Church, scattered as it is throughout the entire world, can claim to be one [haer. 1,10,2]. Hence his emphasis [E.g., ib. 1,9,4; 1,10,1 f; 1,22,1] on ‘the canon of the truth’, i.e. the framework of doctrine which is handed down in the Church and which, in contrast to the variegated teachings of the Gnostics, is identical and self-consistent everywhere. In a previous chapter we noted his theory that the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back to the apostles themselves provides a guarantee that this faith is identical with the message which they originally proclaimed. (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, HarperSanFrancisco, revised 1978 edition, 192)

But where in practice was this apostolic testimony or tradition to be found? . . . The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation. Irenaeus believed that this was the case, stating [Haer. 5, praef] that the Church preserved the tradition inherited from the Apostles and passed it on to her children. It was, he thought, a living tradition which was, in principle, independent of written documents; and he pointed [Ib. 3,4,1 f.] to barbarian tribes which ‘received this faith without letters’. Unlike the alleged secret tradition of the Gnostics, it was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors, and by these in turn to those who followed them, and was visible in the Church for all who cared to look for it [Ib. 3,2-5]. It was his argument with the Gnostics which led him to apply [Ib. 3,2-5 (16 times)]the word ‘tradition’, in a novel and restricted sense, specifically to the Church’s oral teaching as distinct from that contained in Scripture. For practical purposes this tradition could be regarded as finding expression in what he called ‘the canon of the truth’. By this he meant, as his frequent allusions [E.g. ib. 1,10,1 f; 1,22,1; 5,20,1; dem. 6] to and citations from it prove, a condensed summary, fluid in its wording but fixed in content, setting out the key-points of the Christian revelation in the form of a rule. Irenaeus makes two further points. First, the identity of oral tradition with the original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back lineally to the apostles [Cf. haer. 3,2,2; 3,3,3; 3,4,1]. Secondly, an additional safeguard is supplied by the Holy Spirit, for the message was committed to the Church, and the Church is the home of the Spirit [E.g. ib. 3,24,1]. Indeed, the Church’s bishops are on his view Spirit-endowed men who have been vouchsafed ‘an infallible charism of truth’ (charisma veritatis certum [Ib. 4,26,2; cf. 4,26,5] ).
On the other hand, Irenaeus took it for granted that the apostolic tradition had also been deposited in written documents. As he says, [Haer. 3,1,1] what the apostles at first proclaimed by word of mouth, they afterwards by God’s will conveyed to us in Scriptures . . . the New [Testament] was in his eyes the written formulation of the apostolic tradition . . . [Ib. 3,1,1; cf. 3,1,2; 3,10,6; 3,14,2] . . . Irenaeus was satisfied [Ib. 2,27,2] that, provided the Bible was taken as a whole, its teaching was self-evident. The heretics who misinterpreted it only did so because, disregarding its underlying unity, they seized upon isolated passages and rearranged them to suit their own ideas. [Ib. 1,8,1; 1,9,1-4] Scripture must be interpreted in the light of its fundamental ground-plan, viz. the original revelation itself. For that reason correct exegesis was the prerogative of the Church, where the apostolic doctrine which was the key to Scripture had been kept intact. [Ib. 4,26,5; 4,32,1; 5,20,2]
Did Irenaeus subordinate Scripture to unwritten tradition? This inference has been commonly drawn, but it issues from a somewhat misleading antithesis. its plausibility depends on such considerations as (a) that, in controversy with the Gnostics, tradition rather than Scripture seemed to be his final court of appeal, and (b) thathe apparently relied upon tradition to establish the true exegesis of Scripture. But a careful analysis of his Adversus haereses reveals that, while the Gnostics’ appeal to their supposed secret tradition forced him to stress the superiority of the Church’s public tradition, his real defence of orthodoxy was founded on Scripture. [Cf. ib. 2,35,4; 3, praef.; 3,2,1; 3,5,1; 4, praef., 5, praef.] Indeed, tradition itself, on his view, was confirmed by Scripture, which was ‘the foundation and pillar of our faith’. [Ib. 3, praef.; 3,1,1] Secondly, Irenaeus admittedly suggested [Ib. 1,9,4] that a firm grasp of ‘the canon of the truth’ received at baptism would prevent a man from distorting the sense of Scripture.
But this ‘canon’, so far from being something distinct from scripture, was simply a condensation of the message contained in it. Being by its very nature normative in form, it provided a man with a handy clue to Scripture, whose very ramifications played into the hands of heretics. The whole point of his teaching wa, in fact, that Scripture and the Church’s unwritten tradition are identical in content, both being vehicles of the revelation. If tradition as conveyed in the ‘canon’ is a more trustworthy guide, this is not because it comprises truths other than those revealed in Scripture, but because the true tenor of the apostolic message is there unambiguously set out. (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, HarperSanFrancisco, revised 1978 edition, 37-39; cf. similar statements from Kelly on pages 44 and 47)

St. Irenaeus, in effect, rejects the path taken by the Lutherans, in going their own way, rejecting Catholic Church authority, in this passage:

1. Now all these [heretics] are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the Churches; which fact I have in the third book taken all pains to demonstrate. It follows, then, as a matter of course, that these heretics aforementioned, since they are blind to the truth, and deviate from the [right] way, will walk in various roads; and therefore the footsteps of their doctrine are scattered here and there without agreement or connection. But the path of those belonging to the Church circumscribes the whole world, as possessing the sure tradition from the apostles, and gives unto us to see that the faith of all is one and the same, since all receive one and the same God the Father, and believe in the same dispensation regarding the incarnation of the Son of God, and are cognizant of the same gift of the Spirit, and are conversant with the same commandments, and preserve the same form of ecclesiastical constitution, and expect the same advent of the Lord, and await the same salvation of the complete man, that is, of the soul and body. And undoubtedly the preaching of the Church is true and stedfast, in which one and the same way of salvation is shown throughout the whole world. For to her is entrusted the light of God; and therefore the “wisdom” of God, by means of which she saves all men, “is declared in [its] going forth; it uttereth [its voice] faithfully in the streets, is preached on the tops of the walls, and speaks continually in the gates of the city.” For the Church preaches the truth everywhere, and she is the seven-branched candlestick which bears the light of Christ.
2. Those, therefore, who desert the preaching of the Church, call in question the knowledge of the holy presbyters, not taking into consideration of how much greater consequence is a religious man, even in a private station, than a blasphemous and impudent sophist. Now, such are all the heretics, and those who imagine that they have hit upon something more beyond the truth, so that by following those things already mentioned, proceeding on their way variously, in harmoniously, and foolishly, not keeping always to the same opinions with regard to the same things, as blind men are led by the blind, they shall deservedly fall into the ditch of ignorance lying in their path, ever seeking and never finding out the truth. It behoves us, therefore, to avoid their doctrines, and to take careful heed lest we suffer any injury from them; but to flee to the Church, and be brought up in her bosom, and be nourished with the Lord’s Scriptures . . . (Against Heresies, 5, 20, 1-2)
Chemnitz’s Appeal to Tertullian as a Supposed Proto-Lutheran Falls Flat

Note again what Chemnitz wrote about Tertullian regarding the rule of faith:

[B]oth Irenaeus and Tertullian [De praescriptione] expressly tell us concerning which dogmas of the faith this dispute was undertaken; for they recite almost word for word those articles of faith which today make up the symbol called the Apostles’ Creed. Can these articles of faith not be proved, demonstrated, and established from Scripture? . . . Let this be observed, for then the reader will know with what cunning the papalists twist these arguments of Irenaeus and Tertullian to their traditions, concerning which they themselves confess that they cannot be proved with any testimony of Scripture. (pp. 232-233)

As to Tertullian seeking to ground all doctrine in Scripture, or harmonious with Scripture (meaning that there may not always be explicit proofs, as Chemnitz himself later concedes with regard to, e.g., infant baptism) we have no disagreement. Catholics believe the same. Yet in this same work, Tertullian clearly opts for the binding authority of apostolic succession and the Church: exactly what Chemnitz and Lutherans deny:

Chapter 19. Appeal, in Discussion of Heresy, Lies Not to the Scriptures. The Scriptures Belong Only to Those Who Have the Rule of Faith.

Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. But even if a discussion from the Scriptures should not turn out in such a way as to place both sides on a par, (yet) the natural order of things would require that this point should be first proposed, which is now the only one which we must discuss:”With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong. From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule, by which men become Christians?” For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions.

[ . . . ]

Chapter 21. All Doctrine True Which Comes Through the Church from the Apostles, Who Were Taught by God Through Christ. All Opinion Which Has No Such Divine Origin and Apostolic Tradition to Show, is Ipso Facto False.

From this, therefore, do we draw up our rule. Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, (our rule is) that no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed; for “no man knows the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him.” Matthew 11:27 Nor does the Son seem to have revealed Him to any other than the apostles, whom He sent forth to preach—that, of course, which He revealed to them. Now, what that was which they preached—in other words, what it was which Christ revealed to them—can, as I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the gospel to them directly themselves, both vivâ voce, as the phrase is, and subsequently by their epistles. If, then, these things are so, it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches—those moulds and original sources of the faith must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the (said) churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, Christ from God. Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savours of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God. It remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours, of which we have now given the rule, has its origin in the tradition of the apostles, and whether all other doctrines do not ipso facto proceed from falsehood. We hold communion with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is in no respect different from theirs. This is our witness of truth.

[ . . . ]

Chapter 28. The One Tradition of the Faith, Which is Substantially Alike in the Churches Everywhere, a Good Proof that the Transmission Has Been True and Honest in the Main.

Grant, then, that all have erred; that the apostle was mistaken in giving his testimony; that the Holy Ghost had no such respect to any one (church) as to lead it into truth, although sent with this view by Christ, John 14:26 and for this asked of the Father that He might be the teacher of truth; John 15:26 grant, also, that He, the Steward of God, the Vicar of Christ, neglected His office, permitting the churches for a time to understand differently, (and) to believe differently, what He Himself was preaching by the apostles,—is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone astray into one and the same faith? No casualty distributed among many men issues in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. Can any one, then, be reckless enough to say that they were in error who handed on the tradition?

[ . . . ]

Chapter 32. None of the Heretics Claim Succession from the Apostles. New Churches Still Apostolic, Because Their Faith is that Which the Apostles Taught and Handed Down. The Heretics Challenged to Show Any Apostolic Credentials.

But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men,—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. For after their blasphemy, what is there that is unlawful for them (to attempt)? But should they even effect the contrivance, they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner. To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine. Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. But in truth they neither are so, nor are they able to prove themselves to be what they are not. Nor are they admitted to peaceful relations and communion by such churches as are in any way connected with apostles, inasmuch as they are in no sense themselves apostolic because of their diversity as to the mysteries of the faith. (The Prescription Against Heretics, chapters 19, 21, 28, 32)

Chemnitz doesn’t write like this; most Protestants do not. This is (again) Catholicism. It is perfectly permissible to say that truth is grounded in apostolic succession and the Church grounded therein. It is also true to say that truth is grounded in Holy Scripture, The two do not contradict. But they need not always be stated together. Chemnitz will only state them together while stressing over and over again that Scripture is over Tradition and the Church.

But Tertullian, Irenaeus, and other Fathers saw no need to dichotomize and categorize like that. They simply didn’t think in those terms (as historians of doctrine have stressed). It requires revisionism and historical anachronism to make out that they thought like 16th century Lutherans on these issues. Chemnitz has the same exact problem, then, with Tertullian here, that he had with Irenaeus (since he made the same exact argument for both, and both are seen to not conform to his characterization). Hence, Anglican historian J. N. D. Kelly summarizes Tertullian’s view (over against Chemnitz’ interpretation):

[F]or Tertullian what was believed and preached in the churches was absolutely authoritative [Kelly cited the passage above as proof] . . . on occasion [he] described this original message as tradition, using the word to denote the teaching delivered by the apostles, without any implied contrast between tradition and Scripture . . . Tertullian can refer [Ib. 21; c. Marc. I, 21;4 5] to the whole body of apostolic doctrine, whether delivered orally or in epistles, as apostolorum traditio or apostolica traditio . . .

Tertullian’s attitude does not differ from Irenaeus’s in any important respect . . . In its primary sense, however, the apostolic, evangelical or Catholic tradition [C. Marc. 4, 5; 5, 19; de monog. 2] stood for the faith delivered by the apostles, and he never contrasted tradition so understood with Scripture . . .

But Tertullian did not confine the apostolic tradition to the New Testament; even if Scripture were to be set on one side, it would still be found in the doctrine publicly proclaimed by the churches. Like Irenaeus, he found [E.g., de praescr. 21; 32; c. Marc. 4, 5] the surest test of the authenticity of this doctrine in the fact that the churches had been founded by, and were continuously linked with, the apostles; and as a further guarantee he added [De praescr. 28] their otherwise inexplicable unanimity . . .

This unwritten tradition he considered to be virtually identical with the ‘rule of faith’ (regula fidei), which he preferred to Scripture as a standard when disputing with Gnostics . . . where controversy with heretics breaks out, the right interpretation can be found only where the true Christian faith and discipline have been maintained, i.e., in the Church [De praescr. 19] . . .

He was also satisfied, and made the point even more forcibly than Irenaeus, that the indispensable key to Scripture belonged exclusively to the Church, which in the regula had preserved the apostles’ testimony in its original shape. . . . the one divine revelation was contained in its fulness both in the Bible and in the Church’s continuous public witness. (Early Christian Doctrines, ibid., 36, 39-41)

This is absolutely contrary and antithetical to Chemnitz’ interpretation of what Tertullian taught about the Rule of Faith. And it is, I think, sufficiently documented from the relevant primary sources (whereas Chemnitz blithely ignores the massive counter-evidence so that his readers remain utterly ignorant of it).

The above two instances are just two of many , many of the same ahistorical dilemma faced by Lutherans, who claim to be in line with patristic teaching. Chemnitz’ claims for these two great figures were examined and found to be desperately wanting. He failed. I won’t maintain that he was deliberately lying or twisting or being a sophist (i.e., all the things he accuses Catholics of). But he is simply flat-wrong, incorrect, in error, mistaken. If someone disagrees, they are more than welcome (in fact, highly encouraged!) to overthrow my arguments and documentation in support of them.

Now, bearing in mind what we have already seen, of the surprising weakness and groundlessness of Chemnitz’ argument, observe the absurdity and untruth of what he writes after he makes it:

[W]e say, and the obviousness of the matter confirms it, that there is a greater difference between the primitive apostolic church and the papal kingdom than there is between heaven and earth. Therefore they must prove that their church is apostolic before they can arrogate this privilege to themselves . . . (pp. 235-236)

[T]his will be the question, whether Irenaeus and Tertullian were setting forth and proving another and different doctrine than the one handed down in the Scripture, that is, whether they argued and showed that the church at that time had many teachings and mysteries of the faith from traditions which could not be proved from any testimony of Scripture. That this is the point of controversy between us and the papalists we have already said repeatedly. (p. 236)

The reason, however, why they appealed to tradition. although they had many and very firm testimonies in Scripture, we have set forth above, namely, that they might show the agreement between the true apostolic tradition and the Scripture. (p. 236) 

For not even one iota can be shown in the whole disputation of Irenaeus and Tertullian about any dogma which they put forth from tradition alone in such a way that it cannot be proved by any testimony of Scripture. (p. 236) 

Irenaeus afterward proves at length from the Scripture the same thing that he had first shown from tradition. (p. 237) 

He [Irenaeus] does not speak of dogmas of faith which cannot be proved by any testimony of Scripture. (p. 238) 

For we have shown that Irenaeus and Tertullian prove the agreement of the apostolic tradition with the Scripture, so that tradition may not be set in opposition to the Scripture. . . . (p. 239)

When, therefore, traditions are set forth which do not agree with the Scripture and which cannot be shown and proved from the Scripture, it is quite certain that they are not apostolic . . . For this reason I diligently commend to the reader this disputation of Irenaeus and of Tertullian. (p. 239)

If therefore someone asks with true and pious zeal what is the truly ancient and apostolic tradition, it is not necessary to invent fables about purgatory, holy water, and the like. For Irenaeus and Tertullian, in that disputation about which we have already said so much, do not speak only in general, but they show, describe, and tell clearly in express words what the apostolic tradition is. (p. 240)

These genuine, ancient, and true traditions of the apostles we embrace with deepest reverence. (p. 246)

Alright; if Chemnitz is so reverential towards “true traditions” taught by the likes of Tertullian, then I wonder what he would have thought about the following beliefs (“fables”?), espoused by Tertullian? Did he get these from the Bible, too, just as he supposedly always does (according to Chemnitz)?:

And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent . . . As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours. (The Crown [De Corona], 3, 3, my green-colored emphasis; The birthday “anniversary” is a commemoration of the date of death: i.e., a saved person’s birthday into eternal life)

Indeed, she prays for his soul, and requests refreshment for him meanwhile, and fellowship (with him) in the first resurrection; and she offers (her sacrifice) on the anniversaries of his falling asleep. (Monogamy, 10; my green-colored emphasis)

I shall conclude with a marvelous contra-Protestant argument made by Cardinal Newman, regarding this very belief of Tertullian’s, comparing its authority to that of his espousal of the canonicity of Philemon (it has much relevance to Chemnitz’s own incoherence and inconsistency with regard to patristic beliefs, compared to Lutheran and Catholic)

For instance; the first Father who expressly mentions Commemorations for the Dead in Christ (such as we still have in substance at the end of the prayer for the Church Militant, where it was happily restored in 1662, having been omitted a century earlier), is Tertullian, about a hundred years after St. John’s death. This, it is said, is not authority early enough to prove that that Ordinance is Apostolical, though succeeding Fathers, Origen, St. Cyprian, Eusebius, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, etc., bear witness to it ever so strongly. “Errors might have crept in by that time; mistakes might have been made; Tertullian is but one man, and confessedly not sound in many of his opinions; we ought to have clearer and more decisive evidence.” Well, supposing it: suppose Tertullian, a hundred years after St. John, is the first that mentions it, yet Tertullian is also the first who refers to St. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon, and even he without quoting or naming it. He is followed by two writers; one of Rome, Caius, whose work is not extant, but is referred to by Eusebius, who, speaking of thirteen Epistles of St. Paul, and as excluding the Hebrews, by implication includes that to Philemon; and the other, Origen, who quotes the fourteenth verse of the Epistle, and elsewhere speaks of fourteen Epistles of St. Paul. Next, at the end of the third century, follows Eusebius. Further, St. Jerome observes, that in his time some persons doubted whether it was St. Paul’s (just as Aerius about that time questioned the Commemorations for the Dead), or at least whether it was canonical, and that from internal evidence; to which he opposes the general consent of external testimony as a sufficient answer. Now, I ask, why do we receive the Epistle to Philemon as St. Paul’s, and not the Commemorations for the faithful departed as Apostolical also? Ever after indeed the date of St. Jerome, the Epistle to Philemon was accounted St. Paul’s, and so too ever after the same date the Commemorations which I have spoken of are acknowledged on all hands to have been observed as a religious duty, down to three hundred years ago. If it be said that from historical records we have good reasons for thinking that the Epistle of St. Paul to Philemon, with his other Epistles, was read from time immemorial in Church, which is a witness independent of particular testimonies in the Fathers, I answer, no evidence can be more satisfactory and conclusive to a well-judging mind; but then it is a moral evidence, resting on very little formal and producible proof; and quite as much evidence can be given for the solemn Commemorations of the Dead in the Holy Eucharist which I speak of. They too were in use in the Church from time immemorial. Persons, then, who have the heart to give up and annul the Ordinance, will not, if they are consistent, scruple much at the Epistle. If in the sixteenth century the innovators on religion had struck the Epistle to Philemon out of Scripture, they would have had just as much right to do it as to abolish these Commemorations; and those who wished to defend such innovation as regards the Epistle to Philemon, would have had just as much to say in its behalf as those had who put an end to the Commemorations.

If it be said they found nothing on the subject of such Commemorations in Scripture, even granting this for argument’s sake, yet I wonder where they found in Scripture that the Epistle to Philemon was written by St. Paul, except indeed in the Epistle itself. Nowhere; yet they kept the one, they abolished the other – as far, that is, as human tyranny could abolish it. Let us be thankful that they did not also say, “The Epistle to Philemon is of a private nature, and has no marks of inspiration about it. It is not mentioned by name or quoted by any writer till Origen, who flourished at a time when mistakes had begun, in the third century, and who actually thinks St. Barnabas wrote the Epistle which goes under his name; and he too, after all, just mentions it once, but not as inspired or canonical, and also just happens to speak elsewhere of St. Paul’s fourteen Epistles. In the beginning of the fourth century, Eusebius, without anywhere naming this Epistle,” (as far as I can discover,) “also speaks of fourteen Epistles, and speaks of a writer one hundred years earlier, who in like manner enumerated thirteen besides the Hebrews. All this is very unsatisfactory. We will have nothing but the pure word of God; we will only admit what has the clearest proof. It is impossible that God should require us to believe a book to come from Him without authenticating it with the highest and most cogent evidence.” (Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects, “Lecture 6. External Difficulties of the Canon and the Catholic Creed, compared,” London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1872, 201, 203-209; green-colored emphases added, italics are Newman’s own)


(originally 8-29-07)

Photo credit: Martin Chemnitz (November 9, 1522 – April 8, 1586): eminent second-generation Lutheran theologian, reformer, churchman, and confessor. Anonymous portrait from the 16th century [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]



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