Vs. J. Engwer Re Church Authority, #2: St. Irenaeus

Vs. J. Engwer Re Church Authority, #2: St. Irenaeus October 13, 2023

In Particular, His & Other Fathers’ — and Luther’s and Calvin’s — Views on Church Infallibility & Indefectibility 

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Jason Engwer is a prolific Protestant anti-Catholic apologist and webmaster of the site, Tribalblogue (where I have long since been banned). We used to dialogue, from 2000 to 2010. His words will be in blue.

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This is a reply to Jason’s article, The Church, Authority, And Infallibility: (Part 2): Irenaeus [3-22-10]. Jason cites a big chunk of my quotations from St. Irenaeus (130-202) and my comments on them, and then writes:

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I’ve addressed doctrinal development and Dave’s understanding of it in some of my earlier responses to him, such as here and here. Remember, he claimed that praying to the dead is implied by Biblical passages like Revelation 5:8 and that apostolic succession is “explicit” in Papias, for example. He claims that everything from papal infallibility to the assumption of Mary is found in seed form in scripture. As I’ve said before, Dave doesn’t limit himself to acorns when seeking a justification for his Roman Catholic oak. An apple seed or mustard seed will do.
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It’s very difficult to answer such a sweeping, inane, relentless set of caricatures of my actual beliefs. So I won’t. See my many articles about development of doctrine and my book devoted to that topic (my favorite in theology), to learn about my actual viewpoint.
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Of the four passages in Irenaeus cited by Dave above, the first and third are comments on the state of the church in Irenaeus’ day.
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St. Irenaeus (in his words cited) makes no indication that he is bound merely to the present time and is not talking about changeless, grace-produced  attributes of the Church. Jason merely assumes this, because it’s one of the games he plays in order to dismiss the many clear “Catholic” and opposed-to-Protestant-ecclesiology words from the saint. Hence in the second comment, Irenaeus writes, “the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us” (Against Heresies, III, 5, 1). Jason responded to this (below).
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Apparently, Dave is assuming that Irenaeus must have expected the church to always maintain that status by means of its infallibility.
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Yes (per the words I just cited, and I’m sure, many more that could be found. What are we supposed to believe?: that he thought the Church had all these Go-ordained and God-caused supernatural attributes in his day, but that they would shortly disappear? That’s apparently — oddly enough — how many Protestants view ecclesiology, but it makes no sense whatsoever, and is suffused with an unfaithful skepticism; contrary to godly faith.  Irenaeus wrote, accordingly, in Against Heresies, IV, 33, 8 (complete):
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, both without danger and without blasphemy; and [above all, it consists in] the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts [of God]. [my italics and bolding]
Likewise, in Book III, 24, 1 has the following caption (either from Irenaeus himself or by Schaff and the translators):
Recapitulation of the various arguments adduced against Gnostic impiety under all its aspects. The heretics, tossed about by every blast of doctrine, are opposed by the uniform teaching of the Church, which remains so always, and is consistent with itself. [my italics and bolding]
St. Irenaeus writes under this title:
But [it has, on the other hand, been shown], that the preaching of the Church is everywhere consistent, and continues in an even course, and receives testimony from the prophets, the apostles, and all the disciples— as I have proved— through [those in] the beginning, the middle, and the end, and through the entire dispensation of God, and that well-grounded system which tends to man’s salvation, namely, our faith; which, having been received from the Church, we do preserve, and which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth, as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also. For this gift of God has been entrusted to the Church, . . . [my italics and bolding] (cf. I, 10, 2: “carefully preserves [the faith] . . . she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony . . .”; III, 2, 2: “tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches . . .”; III, 3, 3: “the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.)
It would be nice if Jason would actually research and back up the outlandish anti-Catholic-inspired claims he makes about any given Church father, rather than just tossing off a line in ignorance and wishful thinking, like, “Dave is assuming that Irenaeus must have expected the church to always maintain that status by means of its infallibility.” Yes, as just shown, Irenaeus did believe that, and it’s simply common sense. If one believes that the all-powerful God granted supernatural protection to His Church, then it follows unarguably that God intended it to be permanent and perpetual. Of what use would a temporary protection be? Then the Church would have gone off the rails before the second century (Irenaeus’ time) arrived. 
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After all, Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13, RSV), and “the Father . . . will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:16-17).
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His second quote of Irenaeus refers to how the tradition of the apostles is “permanent among us”. As I mentioned in my 2008 article Dave was responding to, Irenaeus could mean that there will always be people who will believe the doctrines he’s referring to. He could mean that the apostolic tradition, considered in itself, will always be available. The apostolic tradition isn’t identical to the church, and, as I documented in my series on apostolic succession, the apostolic faith Irenaeus was referring to was much different than the faith of Roman Catholicism.
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See the “death by a thousand cuts” game that Jason constantly plays? If Irenaeus disagrees with him, then (using the time-honored liberal skeptical mentality) he simply redefines what he wrote, slanting it and sophistically erasing it and its clear implications. God help us; we have seen that for over two hundred years in biblical hermeneutics and exegesis, and now we see it in patristic examinations. Anything but the obvious Catholic implications . . . For Jason, Irenaeus can’t possibly be supporting (horror of horrors!) Catholic positions, so Jason obfuscates and plays with his words and speculates about his interior thoughts, until “he” doesn’t support Catholicism. See how it works?
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I hasten to add that I don’t believe for a second that Jason is consciously trying to be deliberately dishonest (i.e., to deceive). He simply has such a strong bias that he believes his own distortions. He’s blind to his own bias and glaring and serious methodological errors. Either way, if falsehood is the product, it’s the devil’s victory and a net loss for Jason’s readers and followers.
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In that series I just referred to, I also documented that much of what Irenaeus says about the church of his day isn’t applicable to later generations. Even if we assume that Irenaeus expected the apostolic faith to always be maintained by the church, he could be referring to the sort of church perpetuity I discussed in the introduction to this series. Dave needs to present more of an argument if he wants us to believe that Irenaeus was referring to something more.
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I just did. Let the reader judge!
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The fourth passage Dave cited is the most relevant, because of the “certain gift of truth” reference, which Dave associates with infallibility. He doesn’t explain how that phrase allegedly implies infallibility, much less the Roman Catholic concept of infallibility in particular.
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I dealt with that in the previous installment. It was the Anglican patristics scholar J. N. D. Kelly who noted that the phrase used was  charisma veritatis certum.
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What is Irenaeus referring to? Recall, first, that Irenaeus is distinguishing between church leaders who are to be followed and those who are to be avoided. I discussed the larger context in one of the posts in my series on apostolic succession. It’s not certain that every bishop will have the gift of truth Irenaeus is referring to. What he’s saying is that possession of the gift of truth is one of the characteristics a church leader must have if he’s to be followed. Irenaeus doesn’t claim that every bishop has it.
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He is claiming that the body of bishops or clerical leaders as a whole possess the gift (just as Catholics believe: they have infallibility when they affirm doctrines when gathered in an ecumenical council, in agreement with the pope). There can always possibly be exceptions, just as Judas was an exception even in the group of disciples that Jesus selected. But the exception doesn’t disprove the rule.

Jesus (addressing the seven churches in Revelation; “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?”: Jn 6:70) and St. Paul refer to sin in the Church and “wolves” and “false prophets” entering in, while simultaneously holding that the Church nevertheless preserves “the truth”. This is what Protestants like Jason can’t bring themselves to accept, because they don’t have enough faith to believe that God can protect His Church. They think He can preserve the Bible inerrant, but that He can’t enable His Church to preserve theological and spiritual and moral truth. Yet sinful men were involved in each thing.

I used to believe the same. I understand the incorrect outlook from my own experience. Jason would appear to think that any and every possible exception disproves the entire rule. Nothing ever seems to be sufficient to him to be an unarguable truth: if it has to do with support for any Catholic position.
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Jason cites three Protestant scholars analyzing Irenaeus’ phrase, charisma veritatis certum. And of course they interpret it in a way that is consistent with Protestant ecclesiology (as we would expect). Lots of discussion of it has taken place, but in the end, it is ultimately best interpreted in light of his entire body of writing and his overall thought. In any event, he was not a Protestant. There were none for another 1300 years, and I submit that no Church father can be found who is closer in belief to any species of Protestantism than to Catholicism (no matter how much Protestants pretend that this is the case with St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, and others).
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Notice [Eric] Osborn’s comments about the Spirit’s guidance of all Christians. In the introduction to this series, I mentioned that advocates of church infallibility often fail to apply their reasoning consistently. Comments made about the church are interpreted much differently than similar comments made about Israel, all believers, the state, parental authority, etc.
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It’s not an either/or. Many things in Scripture have a multiple application. The Holy Spirit’s guidance is one of these things. Individuals are guided (I certainly have been in my own life) — Paul discusses this in 1 Corinthians 2 –, and there is a specific application to Church leaders (“I was appointed a preacher and apostle . . . a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth”: 1 Tim 2:7; cf. Eph 3:8-10). The Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Because Jason seems to not understand this, he goes on for several paragraphs engaging in irrelevant speculation (which requires no reply).
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Maybe Dave thinks that the qualifier “certain” before “gift of truth” makes his point. But how so? We could interpret Irenaeus as saying that it’s certain that the church leaders in question will stay within the truth. The problem, for Dave’s position, is that the term is broad enough to allow for other interpretations as reasonable possibilities, and his own reading can’t be shown to be probable. Irenaeus could mean that the truth in question is certain, not that its ongoing possession by church leaders is certain.
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As I contended above, Irenaeus’ belief in the indefectibility of the Church, as indicated in his use of the notion of God’s “preservation” works against Jason’s interpretation of his ecclesiology. Irenaeus was not merely talking about the Church leaders of his time, though they were included in his analysis.
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He criticizes heretics for having “no fixed conclusion or certainty” (Against Heresies, 2:1:4). He criticizes the heretics because they “desert what is certain, indubitable, and true” (2:27:3). He refers to learning what’s “certain and clear” from the churches (3:4:1). He refers to the church’s “possessing the sure tradition from the apostles” (5:20:1). 
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Exactly!
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He frequently uses terms like “certain” and “certainty” to refer to high probabilities, including when addressing matters other than what Dave thinks the church has infallibly taught (3:12:12, 3:16:6, etc.). He refers to degrees of certainty (“more certain”, 5:30:3).
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As everyone does. Yawn . . . ZZZZZzzzzzzz . . . .
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All Christians should “keep with all certainty” the faith they’ve received (Demonstration Of The Apostolic Preaching, 98). Was Irenaeus expecting all Christians to keep the faith infallibly?
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No; he expected the Church to do that.
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Irenaeus’ church is about as relevant to Dave’s denomination as an apple seed is to an oak.
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We believe the progression is, of course, acorn to oak. Irenaeus’ church is about as relevant to Jason’s jumbled chaos of thousands of denominations as an apple seed is to a mountainside of thousands of different weeds.
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Jason then discusses Irenaeus’ passage in Against Heresies, Book III, 24, 1, which I cited above:
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Is the church “always renewed” in the sense that its future renewal is assured?
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Yes. Again, if God chooses to supernaturally renew it at one point of time, why not always? But beyond that point of common sense and plausibility, He has, after all, promised to preserve His Church all the way to the final consummation:

Matthew 16:18 [“de-Peterized”] . . . my church, . . . the powers of death shall not prevail against it.

Ephesians 3:10-11 that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. [11] This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Ephesians 5:25-27 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, [26] that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, [27] that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

See my elaborate arguments for infallibility and indefectibility in my reply #1.
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Or is Irenaeus referring to something that’s happened up to that point in time, but may not continue at all times afterward? (For example, we might refer to a man as always faithful to his wife without meaning that he’s sure to be faithful to her in the future.) Is Irenaeus referring to something that will always occur if the conditions are met, but those conditions may not be met at all times? I think what he had in mind was the first meaning described above, given factors like how highly he speaks of the church in general, how closely he goes on to associate the church with the Spirit, and how highly other authors contemporary with Irenaeus spoke of the church. When Irenaeus refers to the church and the maintaining of the faith, is he only referring to a church hierarchy and its actions within particular circumstances, like an ecumenical council or the Roman bishop’s ex cathedra teachings on faith and morals? No, there’s no reason to think he had such qualifications in mind. He may be referring to some low form of church infallibility, like the concept of church perpetuity that I discussed in the introduction to this series.
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That’s what Jason would love to be the case, so Irenaeus’ faith could be lowered to the level of Jason’s own (in which the church isn’t infallible or indefectible at all), but it’s implausible in light of the entire body of the saint’s writing.
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Even John Calvin believed that the Church was indefectible (the highest and strongest form of infallibility), but Jason doesn’t, and he erroneously thinks Irenaeus didn’t. Calvin eloquently wrote (when he was right, he was extraordinarily right):

So highly does he recommend her authority, that when it is violated he considers that his own authority is impaired. For there is no small weight in the designation given to her, “the house of God,” “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). By these words Paul intimates, that to prevent the truth from perishing in the world, the Church is its faithful guardian, because God has been pleased to preserve the pure preaching of his word by her instrumentality, and to exhibit himself to us as a parent while he feeds us with spiritual nourishment, and provides whatever is conducive to our salvation. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, 1:10; my italics and bolding)

I always hold that the truth does not perish in the Church though it be oppressed by one council, but is wondrously preserved by the Lord to rise again, and prove victorious in his own time. (Inst., IV, 9:13; my italics and bolding)

Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, also agreed:

Christ preserves his Christendom even in the midst of such destruction, just as he rescued Lot at Sodom . . . the Antichrist sits in the temple of God through the action of the devil, while the temple still is and remains the temple of God through the power of Christ. . . . They [Anabaptists] take a severe stand against the pope, but they miss their mark and murder the more terribly the Christendom under the pope. (Concerning Rebaptism: A Letter to Two Pastors, 1528, Luther’s Works, Vol. 40, 233; translated by Conrad Bergendoff; my italics and bolding)

Jason is more like the Anabaptists; far more radical than Luther or Calvin ever dreamt of being.

The eminent Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff described the perspective of the Ante-Nicene Church fathers generally, concerning Scripture, Church, and tradition:

Equally inseparable from her is the predicate of apostolicity, that is, the historical continuity or unbroken succession, which reaches back through the bishops to the apostles, from the apostles to Christ, and from Christ to God. In the view of the fathers, every theoretical departure from this empirical, tangible, catholic church is heresy, that is, arbitrary, subjective, ever changing human opinion; every practical departure, all disobedience to her rulers is schism, or dismemberment of the body of Christ; either is rebellion against divine authority, and a heinous, if not the most heinous, sin. No heresy can reach the conception of the church, or rightly claim any one of her predicates; it forms at best a sect or party, and consequently falls within the province and the fate of human and perishing things, while the church is divine and indestructible.

This is without doubt the view of the ante-Nicene fathers, even of the speculative and spiritualistic Alexandrians . . .

Even Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, with all their spiritualistic and idealizing turn of mind, are no exception here. (History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, Chapter IV, section 53, “The Catholic Unity,” pp. 169-170, 172; my italics and bolding)

This would include St. Irenaeus, since Schaff contended that all the fathers before 325 believed in the same thing regarding the indefectibility of the Church. That’s the opinion of one of the most renowned Protestant Church historians; editor of the famous and standard 38-volume set of the writings of the fathers. He would know. He’s the expert. He has read a thousand times more of the fathers’ writings than Jason or I ever have read or will read. If Jason disagrees with him, I (sorry!) go with Schaff. Nothing personal . . .

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Summary: I debate and document several points about St. Irenaeus’ view on Church infallibility and indefectibility with evangelical anti-Catholic apologist Jason Engwer.

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