Continuing with the early views of the organization of the church as entertained by the early church fathers, we now call attention to Irenaeus. In our preceding article we called attention to the views as expressed by Ignatius, one of the apostolic fathers and bishop of the church at Antioch. The great esteem in which he held the office of bishop appears from all his writings, although we also called attention to the fact that Ignatius also held the office of the presbyter or elder in high regard. Later the office of bishop was held in much higher esteem.
Irenaeus is reputed to have been the first to have advocated the institution of bishop as a diocesan office and as the continuation of the apostolate. From him we quote the following quotation:
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these heretics rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to the “perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were committing the churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon to the church, but if they should fall away, the direst calamity...Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vain glory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; we do this, I say, by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, the very great, the very ancient, and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also pointing out the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the succession of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church, 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....The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anaeletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing in his ears, and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone in this for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith,, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the maker of heaven and earth, the creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham who led the people from the land of Egypt, spake with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that he, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the churches, and may also understand the apostolical tradition of the church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the creator and the maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleuthirius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.
In connection with this lengthy quotation we would make the following remarks. We see readily that this is a rather remarkable quotation. Neither is it difficult to understand that the Romish church of the present, claiming that the pope is indeed the successor of the apostles, feels itself considerably strengthened because of writings such as this quotation of Irenaeus. Irenaeus lived later than Ignatius (he is alleged to have suffered martyrdom in the year, 200 A.D.) and presents here a more advanced development of the episcopate. Of course, the accuracy of these remarks of Ignatius may well be questioned. May we conclude, for example, that his presentation of the successors of the apostles is just as accurate as his remark that it was Abraham who led the people of God out of the land of Egypt? He writes, does he not, that the one God, omnipotent, the maker of heaven and earth, the creator of man, called Abraham who led the people forth from the land of Egypt. However, this may have been merely a slip on the part of this eminent church father and does not, of course, show conclusively that he also erred in his presentation of the historical successors of the apostles.
We do well to bear in mind, however, that his presentation of the successors of the apostles is based upon tradition. Having suffered martyrdom about the year, 200 A.D., he belongs to the age of the church fathers after the era of the apostolic fathers. One can easily understand that this tradition had been fairly well established and entrenched in the consciousness of the church at the time of this church father. Particularly worthy of note is Irenaeus’ reference to the tradition that the church at Rome had been founded and organized by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. We know that Paul was in Rome. Acts 27 and Acts 28 clearly prove this fact. But there is nothing in scripture to warrant the supposition that the apostle Peter, had also been in Rome at one time or another.
Quoting the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, we read concerning Peter the following:
The tradition is that he died a martyr’s death at Rome about 67 A.D., when about seventy five years old. His Lord and master had predicted a violent death for him (John 21:18, 19) which it is thought came to pass by crucifixion under Nero. It is said that at his own desire he was crucified head downward, feeling himself unworthy to resemble his master in his death. It should be observed, however, that the tradition that he visited Rome is only tradition and nothing more, resting, as it does, partly upon a miscalculation of some of the early fathers who assume that he went to Rome in 42 A.D. immediately after his deliverance from prison (Acts 12:17).” Schaff says this “is irreconcilable with the silence of Scripture, and even with the mere fact of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, written in 58, since the latter says not a word of Peter’s previous labors in that city, and he himself never built on other men’s foundations (Rom. 15:20; 1 Cor. 10:15, 16).
And this is not all. The observation of the above quotation that the apostle, Paul, never mentions the labors of the apostle, Peter, in his epistle to the Romans is certainly well taken and much to the point. However, we should notice that Irenaeus informs us that the blessed apostles, having founded and built up the church, committed them into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. There is a tradition that Linus was bishop of the church at Rome, and that his consecration to the government of the Roman church as its first bishop was one of the dying acts of the apostle, Paul. Concerning this Linus we read in 2 Tim. 4:21. And there is certainly nothing in this scriptural reference to suggest anything which might even resemble his elevation to the office of bishop at Rome. And we may surely add that there is nothing in all of holy writ to suggest the thought that the apostles designated and appointed men to be their successors. It is certainly scriptural that the apostolic office was a special office and that it was not transmitted to men who were bishops in the churches then in existence. We have already called attention to the reason why the episcopal form of church government should become as prominent as it did in the early years of the new dispensational church.
Be all this as it may, reading the quotation of Irenaeus, one need not doubt that the office of bishop was held in tremendously high esteem during the New Testament infancy of the church of God. In fact, this noted church father sets forth the thought that these bishops were the successors of the apostles, that Linus was ordained to be the first bishop of Rome by Paul himself. Moreover, he even calls attention to the succession of bishops in the Roman church. This, of course, we do not intend to dispute. But we do dispute the allegation that these bishops were successors of the apostles and appointed and ordained by these apostles.
The Lord willing, we will continue with this high esteem in which the office of bishop was held in our following article. Then we expect to call attention to two other prominent church fathers: Tertullian and Cyprian. It is especially the latter who emphasized the priestly dignity of the bishops and that they were the successors of the apostles.