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The Apostolic Tradition And The

The Gnostics claimed apostolic authority for their teaching and appealed
to successions of teachers who had handed down their teachings. This
procedure forced the Church to lay stress upon the obvious fact that its
doctrine was derived from the Apostles, a matter on which it never had had
any doubt, but was vouched for, not by obscure teachers, but by the
churches which had been founded by the Apostles themselves in large cities
and by the bishops whom the Apostles had instituted in those churches.
Those churches, furthermore, agreed among themselves, but the Gnostic
teachers differed widely. By this appeal the bishop came to represent the
apostolic order (for an earlier conception v. supra, 14, b, c),
and to take an increasingly important place in the church (v. infra,

Additional source material: For Gnostic references to successions
of teachers, see Tertullian, De Praescr., 25; Clement of
Alexandria, Strom., VII, 17; Hippolytus, Refut., VII, 20. (=
VII, 8. ANF.)

(a) Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., III, 3: 1-4. (MSG, 7:848.) Cf. Mirbt, n. 30.

The first appearance of the appeal to apostolic tradition as
preserved in apostolic sees is the following passage from Irenaeus,
written about 175. The reference to the church of Rome, beginning,
"For with this Church, on account of its more powerful
leadership," has been a famous point of discussion. While it is
obscure in detail, the application of its general purport to the
argument of Irenaeus is clear. Since for this passage we have not
the original Greek of Irenaeus, but only the Latin translation,
there seems to be no way of clearing up the obscurities and
apparently contradictory statements. The text may be found in
Gwatkin, op. cit., and in part in Kirch, op. cit., 110-113.

Ch. 1. The tradition, therefore, of the Apostles, manifested throughout
the world, is a thing which all who wish to see the facts can clearly
perceive in every church; and we are able to count up those who were
appointed bishops by the Apostles, and to show their successors to our own
time, who neither taught nor knew anything resembling these men's ravings.
For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries which they used to teach
the perfect, apart from and without the knowledge of the rest, they would
have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing
the churches themselves. For they desired them to be very perfect and
blameless in all things, and were also leaving them as their successors,
delivering over to them their own proper place of teaching; for if these
should act rightly great advantage would result, but if they fell away the
most disastrous calamity would occur.

Ch. 2. But since it would be very long in such a volume as this to count
up the successions [i.e., series of bishops] in all the churches, we
confound all those who in any way, whether through self-pleasing or
vainglory, or through blindness and evil opinion, gather together
otherwise than they ought, by pointing out the tradition derived from the
Apostles of the greatest, most ancient, and universally known Church,
founded and established by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul,
and also the faith declared to men which through the succession of bishops
comes down to our times. For with this Church, on account of its more
powerful leadership [potiorem principalitatem], every church, that is,
the faithful, who are from everywhere, must needs agree; since in it that
tradition which is from the Apostles has always been preserved by those
who are from everywhere.

Ch. 3. The blessed Apostles having founded and established the Church,
intrusted the office of the episcopate to Linus.(52) Paul speaks of this
Linus in his Epistles to Timothy. Anacletus succeeded him, and after
Anacletus, in the third place from the Apostles, Clement received the
episcopate. He had seen and conversed with the blessed Apostles, and their
preaching was still sounding in his ears and their tradition was still
before his eyes. Nor was he alone in this, for many who had been taught by
the Apostles yet survived. In the times of Clement, a serious dissension
having arisen among the brethren in Corinth, the Church of Rome sent a
suitable letter to the Corinthians, reconciling them in peace, renewing
their faith, and proclaiming the doctrine lately received from the

Evaristus succeeded Clement, and Alexander Evaristus. Then Sixtus, the
sixth from the Apostles, was appointed. After him Telesephorus, who
suffered martyrdom gloriously, and then Hyginus; after him Pius, and after
Pius Anicetus; Soter succeeded Anicetus, and now, in the twelfth place
from the Apostles, Eleutherus [174-189] holds the office of bishop. In the
same order and succession the tradition and the preaching of the truth
which is from the Apostles have continued unto us.

Ch. 4. But Polycarp, too, was not only instructed by the Apostles, and
acquainted with many that had seen Christ, but was also appointed by
Apostles in Asia bishop of the church in Smyrna, whom we, too, saw in our
early youth (for he lived a long time, and died, when a very old man, a
glorious and most illustrious martyr's death); he always taught the things
which he had learned from the Apostles, which the Church also hands down,
and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic churches
testify, as do also those who, down to the present time, have succeeded
Polycarp, who was a much more trustworthy and certain witness of the truth
than Valentinus and Marcion and the rest of the evil-minded. It was he who
was also in Rome in the time of Anicetus and caused many to turn away from
the above-mentioned heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had
received from the Apostles this one and only truth which has been
transmitted by the Church. And there are those who heard from him that
John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe in Ephesus, when he saw
Cerinthus within, ran out of the bath-house without bathing, crying: "Let
us flee, lest even the bath-house fall, because Cerinthus, the enemy of
the truth, is within." And Polycarp himself, when Marcion once met him and
said, "Knowest thou us?" replied, "I know the first-born of Satan." Such
caution did the Apostles and their disciples exercise that they might not
even converse with any of those who perverted the truth; as Paul, also,
said: "A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition,
reject; knowing that he that is such subverteth and sinneth, being
condemned by himself." There is also a very powerful Epistle of Polycarp
written to the Philippians, from which those who wish to, and who are
concerned for their own salvation, may learn the character of his faith
and the preaching of the truth.

(b) Tertullian, De Proescriptione, 20, 21. (MSL, 2:38.)

Tertullian worked out in legal fashion the argument of Irenaeus
from the testimony of the bishops in apostolic churches. He may
have obtained the argument from Irenaeus, as he was evidently
acquainted with his works. From Tertullian's use of the argument
it became a permanent element in the thought of the West.

Ch. 20. The Apostles founded in the several cities churches from which the
other churches have henceforth borrowed the shoot of faith and seeds of
teaching and do daily borrow that they may become churches; and it is from
this fact that they also will be counted as apostolic, being the offspring
of apostolic churches. Every kind of thing must be judged by reference to
its origin. Therefore so many and so great churches are all one, being
from that first Church which is from the Apostles. Thus they are all
primitive and all apostolic, since they altogether are approved by their
unity, and they have the communion of peace, the title of brotherhood, and
the interchange of hospitality, and they are governed by no other rule
than the single tradition of the same mystery.

Ch. 21. Here, then, we enter our demurrer, that if the Lord Jesus Christ
sent Apostles to preach, others than those whom Christ appointed ought not
to be received as preachers. For no man knoweth the Father save the Son
and he to whom the Son has revealed Him [cf. Luke 10:22]; nor does it
appear that the Son has revealed Him unto any others than the Apostles,
whom He sent forth to preach what, of course, He had revealed to them.
Now, what they should preach, that is, what Christ revealed to them, can,
as I must likewise here enter as a demurrer, properly be proved in no
other way than by those very churches which the Apostles themselves
founded by preaching to them, both viva voce, as the phrase is, and
subsequently by epistles. If this is so, it is evident that all doctrine
which agrees with those apostolic churches, the wombs and origins of the
faith, must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing what the
churches received from the Apostles, the Apostles from Christ, Christ from
God. There remains, therefore, for us to show whether our doctrine, the
rule of which we have given above [v. infra, 29, c], agrees with the
tradition of the Apostles, and likewise whether the others come from
deceit. We hold fast to the apostolic churches, because in none is there a
different doctrine; this is the witness of the truth.

(c) Tertullian, De Praescriptione, 36. (MSL, 2:58.)

It should be noted that the appeal to apostolic churches is to any
and all such, and is accordingly just so much the stronger in the
controversy in which it was brought forward. The argument,
whenever it occurs, does not turn upon the infallibility of any
one see or church as such. That point is not touched. Such a turn
to the argument would have weakened the force of the appeal in the
dispute with the Gnostics, however powerfully it might be used in
other controversies.

Come, now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it
to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in
which the very thrones of the Apostles are still pre-eminent in their
places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice
and representing the face of each of them severally. Achaia is very near
you, in which you find Corinth. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you
have Philippi; there, too, you have the Thessalonians. Since you are able
to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus. Since, moreover, you are close upon
Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the
very authority of Apostles themselves. How happy is that church, on which
Apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where
Peter endures a passion like his Lord's; where Paul wins a crown in a
death like John's; where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into
boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island exile! See what she has
learned, what taught; what fellowship she has had with even our churches
in Africa! One Lord God does she acknowledge, the Creator of the universe,
and Christ Jesus born of the Virgin Mary, the Son of God the Creator; and
the resurrection of the flesh; the law and the prophets she unites in one
volume with the writings of Evangelists and Apostles, from which she
drinks in her faith. This she seals with the water of baptism, arrays with
the Holy Ghost, feeds with the eucharist, cheers with martyrdom, and
against such a discipline thus maintained she admits no gainsayer.

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