Irenaeus and the church at Rome in his day

Irenaeus was one of the most important church fathers of the second century, who was bishop of Lyon, France, (in Irenaeus’ day, called Lugdunum, Gaul) and who wrote around 180-200 AD, his famous work, Against Heresies, that was against Gnosticism and other heretical groups.  This article is about a famous passage about the church at Rome in his day:  (on Against Heresies 3:3:2)

Does it mean “every church must agree with the church at Rome” ?  or does it mean “every church resorts to the church of Rome, because everyone travels to Rome, since it is the capital of the Empire, and so the apostolic doctrine is preserved there, since all the other churches and faithful Christians go to Rome, so that what the church at Rome  reflects the true apostolic doctrine at that time”?

NOTE Footnote 3313 – “The Latin text of this difficult but important clause is, “Ad hanc enim ecclesiam propter potiorem principalitatem necesse est omnem convenire ecclesiam.” Both the text and meaning have here given rise to much discussion. It is impossible to say with certainty of what words in the Greek original “potiorem principalitatem” may be the translation. We are far from sure that the rendering given above is correct, but we have been unable to think of anything better. [A most extraordinary confession. It would be hard to find a worse; but take the following from a candid Roman Catholic, which is better and more literal: “For to this Church, on account of more potent principality, it is necessary that every Church (that is, those who are on every side faithful) resort; in which Church ever, by those who are on every side, has been preserved that tradition which is from the apostles.” (Berington and Kirk, vol. i. p. 252.) Here it is obvious that the faith was kept at Rome, by those who resort there from all quarters. She was a mirror of the Catholic World, owing here orthodoxy to them; not the Sun, dispensing her own light to others, but the glass bringing their rays into a focus. See note at end of book iii.] A discussion of the subject may be seen in chap. xii. of Dr. Wordsworth’s St. Hippolytus and the Church of Rome.”

Irenaeus and Apostolic Succession (Part 6) by Jason Engwer:

“Irenaeus seems to have written shortly after Hegesippus, and he comes much closer to Dave Armstrong’s view of apostolic succession than any previous source. But that isn’t saying much.
Irenaeus believed in a form of Roman primacy, but not a papacy. Even Roman Catholic scholars have acknowledged that the passage Catholics most often cite from Irenaeus on the subject (Against Heresies, 3:3:2) has been abused in support of Catholicism. For example:

“All churches must agree with it [the Roman church] on matters of doctrine because they must agree with the apostolic tradition preserved by the apostolic churches….In any event this is a striking testimony though not, in my view, as decisive as some have argued. The context of Irenaeus’ argument does not claim that the Roman Church is literally unique, the one and only in its class; rather, he argues that the Roman church is the outstanding example of its class, the class in question being apostolic sees. While he chose to speak primarily of Rome for brevity’s sake, in fact, before finishing, he also referred to Ephesus and Smyrna….The German Catholic scholar, Norbert Brox of Regensburg, has claimed that the argument is framed entirely within a western context. At first I found this argument weak, but after comparing Irenaeus’ argument to its expansion as found in Tertullian’s De praescriptione haereticorum (36), (cf. next chapter), I find Brox’s argument more convincing.” (Robert Eno, The Rise Of The Papacy [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1990], pp. 39-40)

“It is indeed understandable how this passage has baffled scholars for centuries! Those who were wont to find in it a verification of the Roman primacy were able to interpret it in that fashion. However, there is so much ambiguity here that one has to be careful of over-reading the evidence….Karl Baus’ interpretation [that Irenaeus wasn’t referring to a papacy] seems to be the one that is more faithful to the text and does not presume to read into it a meaning which might not be there. Hence, it neither overstates nor understates Irenaeus’ position. For him [Irenaeus], it is those churches of apostolic foundation that have the greater claim to authentic teaching and doctrine. Among those, Rome, with its two apostolic founders, certainly holds an important place. However, all of the apostolic churches enjoy what he terms ‘preeminent authority’ in doctrinal matters.” (William La Due, The Chair Of Saint Peter [Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999], p. 28)

The historian Eric Osborn, in a recent study of Irenaeus, concludes:

“The subjection of all churches to Rome would be unthinkable for Irenaeus.” (Irenaeus Of Lyons [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], p. 130)

The Roman primacy Irenaeus refers to is a result of non-papal factors, such as the Roman church’s historical relationship with two prominent apostles, its familiarity to other churches, and probably its location in the capital of the empire. Irenaeus believed in a form of Roman primacy that doesn’t imply a papacy.

Why are Catholics going to this passage in Irenaeus to begin with? A few hundred pages of Irenaeus’ writings are extant, and we have descriptions of some of his non-extant writings. He frequently addressed issues of authority, repeatedly appealing to the authority of the apostles, the authority of those who knew the apostles, the authority of scripture, etc. He never appeals to papal authority, nor does he ever even mention it. Yet, Catholics so often tell us that the papacy is the foundation of the church, the center of unity, that it’s the solution to a wide variety of problems in Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy, etc. How likely is it that Irenaeus would have believed in the concept of a papacy, yet would have said so little of it? The fact that discussions of the papacy in Irenaeus place so much emphasis on this one passage, which doesn’t actually say anything of a papacy, is revealing.

In the same section of his treatise, Irenaeus goes on to refer to the importance of the churches in Smyrna and Ephesus, and the reasons he gives for the prominence of those churches have nothing to do with a permanent status established by Jesus and the apostles. Other sources before and around the time of Irenaeus, such as Ignatius of Antioch and Tertullian, give non-papal reasons for the importance of the Roman church. Irenaeus probably held a high view of that church for similar reasons, and the same can be said of his high view of Smyrna and Ephesus.

Notice that the opening segment of this section in Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 3:3:1) gives a practicalexplanation for the significance of the apostolic churches and their bishops. He says nothing about Matthew 16, an office established by Jesus, infallibility, etc. Rather, Irenaeus is (correctly) appealing to these churches’ (and their bishops’) historical proximity to the apostles. His reasoning is much like what we see today in Christian apologetics, an appeal to concepts like the earliness of a source, geographical proximity to an event in dispute, and eyewitness testimony. Irenaeus is presenting us with a historical argument that any Protestant could accept. No papacy is involved.

He mentions bishops in all three churches (Rome, Smyrna, and Ephesus), although he doesn’t name any of them in the case of Ephesus. His focus is on churches, not bishops. There’s a difference between a non-jurisdictional primacy of the Roman church and a jurisdictional primacy of the Roman bishop. And there’s a difference between a primacy that results from practical factors and a primacy that results from a permanent office established by Jesus and taught by the apostles. The evidence suggests that Irenaeus and other early sources had the former in view, even though Catholics read the latter into their comments.

In addition to Irenaeus’ focus on the Roman church and its primacy for non-papal reasons, note that he repeatedly refers to Peter and Paul together, without placing Peter in a position of higher authority. (He mentions Peter before Paul here, but that sort of ordering is inconclusive, and he reverses the two, mentioning Paul first, elsewhere.) He repeatedly refers to how the Roman church reflects the traditions of the apostles (plural). The apostles Peter and Paul (plural) founded the Roman church. They (plural) appointed Linus as bishop of Rome. Clement is referred to as the Roman bishop appointed in third place from the apostles (plural), Sixtus is referred to as the sixth from the apostles (plural), and Eleutherius is referred to as the twelfth from the apostles (plural). Clement is commended for his knowledge of the traditions of the apostles (plural). The Roman church is commended for reflecting the traditions of the apostles (plural) in a document we today call First Clement. Irenaeus had many opportunities to assert a jurisdictional primacy of Peter. He never does it. He doesn’t even refer to a non-jurisdictional primacy. Over and over, he places Peter and Paul together. There’s no reason to conclude that he viewed Peter and the bishops of Rome as Popes. The foundational doctrine of Catholicism, the papacy, is unknown to Irenaeus.”  Jason Engwer at Triablogue

See also footnote 3796, on “a more potent principle” (propter potiorem principalitatem) at the Elucidation by the editors on the passage in Against Heresies 3:3:2.

Bishop Wordsworth inclines to the idea that the original Greek was ἱκανωτέραν ἀρχαιότητα, thus conceding that Irenæus was speaking of the greater antiquity of Rome as compared with other (Western) Churches. Even so, he shows that the argument of Irenæus is fatal to Roman pretensions, which admit of no such ideas as he advances, and no such freedom as that of his dealings with Rome.


An Eastern Orthodox view of the famous Irenaeus passage on the church in Rome in his day:


Pastor David King on Irenaeus at Turretinfan’s website:


Mr. Marshall continues:

Irenaeus (ca 180) also wrote: “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church (i.e. the Church of Rome), on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:3:2

David King Responds: How are we to understand the words of Irenaeus here? I’m content to defer to the explanation offered by J. N. D. Kelly. He states, while commenting on this passage from Irenaeus that

This interpretation [i.e., the one implied by Mr. Marshall], or some variant of it, has been accepted by many, but it is awkward to refer in qua to hanc … ecclesiam, and anachronistic to attribute such thinking to Irenaeus. Hence it seems more plausible to take in qua with omnem … ecclesiam, and to understand Irenaeus as suggesting that the Roman church supplies an ideal illustration because, ‘in view of its preeminent authority’ based on its foundation by both Peter and Paul, its antiquity and so on, every church—or perhaps the whole church—in which the apostolic tradition has been preserved must as a matter of course agree with it. There is therefore no allusion to the later Petrine claims of the Roman see.See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper, 1960), p. 193.

But, even if we did permit the meaning you suggest implicitly, Irenaeus does not speak for the church universal with respect to the primacy of Rome or its pope. And to be sure, the eastern churches never recognized, let alone acknowledged, Roman and/or papal primacy.

Elucidation by the editors on the Irenaeus passage (Against Heresies 3:3:2):


“Now, the authors of the Latin translation may have designed the ambiguity which gives the Ultramontane party an apparent advantage; but it is an advantage which disappears as soon as it is examined, and hence I am content to take it as it stands. Various conjectures have been made as to the original Greek of Irenaeus; but the Latin answers every purpose of the author’s argument, and is fatal to the claims of the Papacy. Let me recur to the translation given, in loco, from a Roman Catholic, and this will be seen at once.

For he thus renders it:

  1. In this Church, “ever, by those who are on every side, has been preserved that tradition which is from apostles.” How would such a proposition have sounded to Pius IX. in the Vatican Council? The faith is preserved by those who come to Rome, not by the Bishop who presides there.
  1. “For to this Church, on account of more potent principality,

it is necessary that every Church (that is, those who are, on every side, faithful) resort.” The greatness of Rome, that is, as the capital of the Empire, imparts to the local Church a superior dignity, even as compared with Lyons, or any other metropolitical Church. Everybody visits Rome: hence you find there faithful witnesses from every side (from all the Churches); and their united testimony it is which preserves in Rome the pure apostolic traditions.

The Latin, thus translated by a candid Roman Catholic, reverses the whole system of the Papacy. Pius IX. informed his Bishops, at the late Council, that they were not called to bear their testimony, but to hear his infallible decree; “reducing us,” said the Archbishop of Paris, “to a council of sacristans.”

Sustaining these views by a few footnotes, I add (1) a literal rendering of my own, and then (2) a metaphrase of the same, bringing out the argument from the crabbed obstructions of the Latin text. This, then, is what Irenaeus says: (a) “For it is necessary for every Church (that is to say, the faithful from all parts) to meet in this Church, on account of the superior magistracy; in which Church, by those who are from all places, the tradition of the apostles has been preserved.” Or, more freely rendered: (b) “On account of the chief magistracy [of the empire], the faithful from all parts, representing every Church, are obliged to resort to Rome, and there to come together; so that [it is the distinction of this Church that], in it, the tradition of the apostles has been preserved by Christians gathered together out of all the Churches.” Taking the entire argument of our author with the context, then, it amounts to this: “We must ask, not for local, but universal, testimony. Now, in every Church founded by the apostles has been handed down their traditions; but, as it would be a tedious thing to collect them all, let this suffice. Take that Church (nearest at hand, and which is the only Apostolic Church of the West), the great and glorious Church at Rome, which was there founded by the two apostles Peter and Paul. In her have been preserved the traditions of all the Churches, because everybody is forced to go to the seat of empire: and therefore, by these representatives of the whole Catholic Church, the apostolic traditions have been all collected in Rome

and you have a synoptical view of all Churches in what is there preserved.” Had the views of the modern Papacy ever entered the head of Irenæus, what an absurdity would be this whole argument. He would have said, “It is no matter what may be gathered elsewhere; for the Bishop of Rome is the infallible oracle of all Catholic truth, and you will always find it by his mouth.” It should be noted that Orthodoxy was indeed preserved there, just so long as Rome permitted other Churches to contribute their testimony on the principle of Irenæus, and thus to make her the depository of all Catholic tradition, as witnessed “by all, everywhere, and from the beginning.” But all this is turned upside down by modern Romanism. No other Church is to be heard or considered; but Rome takes all into her own power, and may dictate to all Churches what they are to believe, however novel, or contrary to the torrent of antiquity in the teachings of their own founders and great doctors in all past time.”


About Ken Temple

I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I am a sinner who has been saved by the grace of God alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), through faith alone (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:28; 4:1-16), in Christ alone (John 14:6). But a true faith does not stay alone, it should result in change, fruit, good works, and deeper levels of repentance and hatred of my own sins of selfishness and pride. I am not better than you! I still make mistakes and sin, but the Lord is working on me, conforming me to His character. (Romans 8:28-29; 2 Corinthians 3:16-18) When I do sin, I hate the sin as it is an affront to God, and seek His forgiveness in repentance. (Mark 1:15; 2 Corinthians 7:7-10; Colossians 3:5-16 ) Praise God for His love for sinners (Romans 5:8), shown by the voluntary coming of Christ and His freely laying down His life for us (John 10:18), becoming flesh/human (John 1:1-5; 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8), dying for sins of people from all nations, tribes, and cultures (Revelation 5:9), on the cross, in history, rising from the dead (Romans 10:9-10; Matthew 28, Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24; John 20-21; 1 Corinthians chapter 15). His resurrection from the dead proved that Jesus is the Messiah, the eternal Son of God, the word of God from eternity past; and that He was all the gospels say He was and that He is truth and the life and the way to salvation. (John 14:6)
This entry was posted in apostolic succession, church history, Dave Armstrong, Development of Doctrine, early church history, Irenaeus, Roman Catholicism. Bookmark the permalink.