Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Irenaeus on the authority of the New Testament

"...the Lord of all gave the power of the Gospel to his apostles, through whom we have come to know the truth, that is, the teaching of the Son of God...This Gospel they first preached. Afterwards, by the will of God, they handed it down to us in the Scriptures, to be "the pillar and ground of our faith".

Irenaeus (c 130-202), Against Heresies, 3:67.

Comment: In view here is not so much the subject of inspiration but of apostolicity. Irenaeus here anticipates the orthodox Lutheran teaching that the scriptures of the New Testament are authoritative because of their origin with the apostles, either by authorship or approval. Therefore, they do not need the subsequent approval of the church to be authoritative, for the Gospel and the NT scriptures have their origins in God's chosen and authoritative "apostles" - messengers or "sendlings" (Loehe's term?)- and are self-authenticating by virtue of this fact (autopistia; "My sheep hear my Voice"!). The holy scriptures are therefore logically prior to the church, and not the other way around, as Rome would have it (and we might also say the Gospel is logically and temporally prior to the scriptures, going back even to the proto-evangelium announced to Eve [Gen 3:15]).
The subsequent canonising of the scriptures by the church some 300 or so years after their composition simply confirms this authority in a formal manner and excludes the various apocryphal writings from the canon. But the ground of the authority of the New Testament in the church is not Tradition or Canonisation (i.e. derived from the church) but Apostolicity (i.e. derived from God, mediately through the apostles).
Formally, Rome does not deny the Apostolicity of the NT scriptures, of course, but practically, more and more over the course of its history, it has tended to ground their authority in the church's reception of them, and to ground the believer's hope of certainty of religious truth in the church, rather than scripture. This is a great contradiction that the advocates of Rome have not squarely faced, and it may even be tantamount to usurping God's prerogative to define the content of the Faith, especially with the definition of the Marian dogmas, which, as Rome admits, find no basis in the Apostolic testimony.

(Interestingly, in the same treatise, Irenaeus affirms his belief in the inerrancy of scripture (2:28,2; 2:35 & 3:5,1).)

My imaginary Roman interlocutor may raise the issue of Augustine's comment to the Manicheans to the effect that he was moved by the church to receive the scriptures, and I shall indeed deal with that question in due course, d.v..

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