John Henry Newman on Development of Papal Supremacy

John-Henry-Cardinal-NewmanWhen the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated.

And, in like manner, it was natural for Christians to direct their course in matters of doctrine by the guidance of mere floating, and, as it were, endemic tradition, while it was fresh and strong; but in proportion as it languished, or was broken in particular places, did it become necessary to fall back upon its special homes, first the Apostolic Sees, and then the See of St. Peter.

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Chapter IV, Section III, paragraph 4


What else does Irenaeus say?

Irenaeus of Lyon, from Wikipedia

Irenaeus of Lyon, from Wikipedia

It seems that most Christians who study the early church love Irenaeus. It’s probably because he battled the gnostic heresies so well in his 5-volume work Against Heresies in the 180s A.D. Since there are no more Valentinians or Marcionites (at least not purposefully) we can all look to him as a hero of the faith and cheer at most of what he wrote.

However, within Christian circles the main question is whether Irenaeus was more Catholic or Protestant.  Now it didn’t take me long to sense that he was more Roman Catholic than Protestant. Yet many Protestants claim him too and do their best to show his words to be in line with Reformation doctrines.

Probably the main quote they love is in 3, 1, 1. Irenaeus says,

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith…. When, however, they [the heretics] are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and assert that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For they allege that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world.”

Protestants use this passage of Irenaeus to prove that he believed in sola scriptura. I’m not so sure because he still goes on to approve of traditions passed down by the apostles through the bishops.

But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, and which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. (3, 2, 2)

So he still believes in the traditions passed down straight from the apostles and in the next several chapters he shows how the heretics are not part of the apostolic succession and therefore cannot have a “secret” tradition from the apostles. Irenaeus does not condemn traditions of the apostles but rather shows how the heretics can’t have it because they do not have apostolic succession.

However, for the sake of argument, what if Irenaeus did actually believe in sola scriptura the same way Protestants do? If we trust him enough as a source to believe this passage we musn’t stop there, right? We must continue on and find out what else he said and take it seriously.

So what else did Irenaeus say?

What did Irenaeus consider Scripture?

septuagintIrenaeus quoted from the deuterocanonical books in the same way he quotes Scripture.

For example, in 4, 26, 3 Irenaeus quotes from Daniel 13 (which is not in Protestant Bibles) and in 5, 35, 1 quotes the entire chapter of Baruch 5.  Both times he did this alongside other Scripture without making any distinction.

Even other Protestants agree that Irenaeus considered the deuterocanonical books as Scripture.

Anglican J.N.D. Kelly said that in the first couple centuries “the deuterocanonical writings ranked as Scripture in the fullest sense” and gives multiple examples including Irenaeus who “refers to Wisdom, the History of Susannah, Bel and the Dragon and Baruch.” (Early Christian Doctrines ch. 3)

Protestant Evangelical F.F. Bruce also said, “Irenaeus is well able to distinguish ‘the writings of truth’ from ‘the multitude of apocryphal and spurious writings.’ The Old Testament writings are indispensable witnesses to the history of salvation; the Septuagint version was divinely inspired, the writings which we call the Apocrypha being evidently invested with the same authority as those translated from the Hebrew Bible.” (The Canon of Scripture ch. 13).

So Irenaeus considered the deuterocanonical books to be Scripture. Therefore, even if he did believe in sola scriptura, his Bible includes books that the Reformers removed. Protestants do not believe these books are inspired but Roman Catholics do.

What did Irenaeus say about the Eucharist?

eucharistAgain, giving directions to His disciples to offer to God the first-fruits of His own, created things — not as if He stood in need of them, but that they might be themselves neither unfruitful nor ungrateful — He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said, “This is My body.” And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world, to Him who gives us as the means of subsistence the first-fruits of His own gifts in the New Testament, concerning which Malachi, among the twelve prophets, thus spoke beforehand: “I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord Omnipotent, and I will not accept sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun, unto the going down [of the same], My name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is My name among the Gentiles, saith the Lord Omnipotent;” — indicating in the plainest manner, by these words, that the former people [the Jews] shall indeed cease to make offerings to God, but that in every place sacrifice shall be offered to Him, and that a pure one; and His name is glorified among the Gentiles. (4, 17, 5)

So Ireaneus saw the Eucharist as a sacrifice and a fulfilment of Malachi 1:10-11 which prophesied a “pure offering” that would one day be offered by all nations. That’s still Roman Catholic doctrine, not Protestant. (CCC 1330, 1350)

Inasmuch, then, as the Church offers with single-mindedness, her gift is justly reckoned a pure sacrifice with God….And the Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, offering to Him, with giving of thanks, the things taken from His creation. (4, 18, 4)

So the only place we can offer this oblation is in the Church. Not just anyone can offer this sacrifice to God. That’s still Roman Catholic doctrine, not Protestant (CCC 1330, 1350). Protestants just don’t talk like this.

What did Irenaeus say about Mary?

Though he didn’t use the phrase, Irenaeus saw Mary as the New Eve. Just as Jesus is a type of Adam so Mary is a type of Eve. Adam and Eve disobeyed and brought destruction upon mankind but Jesus and Mary obeyed and brought salvation to mankind.

mary-and-jesusIn accordance with this design, Mary the Virgin is found obedient, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” But Eve was disobedient; for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin….so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race…. And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith. (3, 22, 4)

Protestants just don’t talk like this about anyone and certainly not about Mary. Meanwhile, Roman Catholics still see Mary as the New Eve and a Mediatrix.


Scripture, the Eucharist, and Mary are three very big and contentious issues between Protestants and Catholics and yet it seems Irenaeus is far closer to Roman Catholicism than to Protestantism.

So what do we do?  It seems there are three options.

  1. Accept his quote about the Scripture being the “ground and pillar of our faith” as more truthful than his other doctrines and therefore the others can be safely ignored.
  2. Explain away many of his other doctrines to mean something other than what they actually sound like.
  3. Accept that he was just not a Protestant.


Does Friendship with Christ equate to determining doctrine?

In discussions on the Biblical and historic case for Roman Catholicism, friends and family almost always rest their position on their personal relationship with Jesus. It is defended so enthusiastically that I seriously wonder whether the next generation will not profess sola scriptura but rather sola my personal relationship with Jesus because He will lead me into all truth. Will the next generation even want the Bible?

This dynamic has made me wonder about what a personal relationship with Jesus should mean? Does having a personal relationship with Jesus automatically equate to knowing true doctrine?

Enter Robert Hugh Benson.

In his book The Friendship of Christ, he wrote about the danger and responsibility of attaining an intimacy with Christ. In chapter IV he wrote this.


RobertHughBensonOf course, since every advance in spiritual life has its corresponding dangers — since every step that we rise nearer to God increases the depth of the gulf into which we may fall — a soul that has reached the stage of the Illuminative Way which we have called Ordinary Contemplation (and which is, in fact, the point at which the State of Union is reached) has an enormous increase of responsibility. The supreme danger is that of Individualism, by which the soul that has climbed up from ordinary pride reaches the zone in which genuine spiritual pride is encountered, and, with spiritual pride, every other form of pride — such as intellectual or emotional pride — which belong to the interior state.

For there is something extraordinarily intoxicating and elevating in the attaining of a point where the soul can say with truth, “Thou lightest my lamp, O Lord.” It is bound, in fact, to end in pride unless she can finish the quotation and add, “O my God, enlighten my darkness!” Every heresy and every sect that has ever rents the unity of the Body of Christ has taken its rise primarily in the illuminated soul of this or that chosen Friend of Christ. Practically all the really great heresiarchs have enjoyed a high degree of interior knowledge, or they could have led none of Christ’s simple friends astray. What is absolutely needed, then, if illumination is not to end in disunion and destruction, is that, coupled with this increase of interior spiritual life, there should go with it an increase of devotion and submission to the exterior Voice with which God speaks in His Church: for, notoriously, nothing is so difficult to discern as the difference between the inspirations of the Holy Ghost and the aspirations or imaginations of self.

For non-Catholics it is almost impossible to avoid this elevation of self, this reliance upon interior experience — those elements in fact which still keep Protestantism in being, and still endlessly subdivide its energies: for they are aware of no such Exterior Voice by which their own experiences may be tested. But it is possible, too (as our own days shew), for even educated and intelligent Catholics to suffer from this disease of esotericism, to imagine that the Exterior must be avoided by the Interior, and that they are better able to interpret the Church than is the Church to interpret herself. Vae soli Woe to him that is alone! Woe to him who having received the Friendship of Christ, and its consequent illumination, believes that he enjoys in its interpretation an infallibility which he denies to Christ’s outwardly commissioned Vicar!

For the stronger the interior life and the higher the degree of illumination, the more is the strong hand of the Church needed, and the higher ought to be the soul’s appreciation of her office.

It is, we are bound to remind ourselves, from the inner circle of Christ’s intimates, from those who know His secrets and have been taught how to find the gate of the Inner Garden where He walks at His ease with His own, that the Judases of history are drawn.