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Traditional Theology of the Magisterium, pt. 3: Evidence from Tradition

Above: the martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

In the last installment of this series on the Traditional Theology of the Magisterium, we presented an argument mapped out by Joachim Salaverri to show that Scripture provides clear and ample support for the foundational Catholic doctrine that Christ endowed his Church with an authoritative, perpetual, and infallible magisterium. This time, we will be looking at the evidence of Tradition for additional support.

Because it is sometimes alleged by opponents of the Church that the idea of an authoritative magisterium is a late invention, I will focus on three outstanding representatives of the first two centuries of the Church, all of whom have close historical connections with the apostles themselves: St. Clement of Rome (c. 35–99), St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 50–107), and St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130–202).

St. Clement of Rome (c. 35–99)

Clement of Rome is the first of the Apostolic Fathers. He was ordained by St. Peter himself and later succeeded St. Peter as the fourth bishop of Rome.[1] His genuine letter to the Corinthians, written around 95 a.d., is one of the treasures of early patristic literature. It reads in many ways like a sequel to St. Paul’s canonical letters to the Corinthians. Clement’s reason for writing is to address a sedition that had arisen in the church at Corinth, an attempt by some few people to usurp or overthrow the authority of the elders (presbyteroi). Against this, he appeals to the hierarchical order established in the Church by God, saying:

The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe.[2]

In this succinct passage, we can see the same thread of the argument from Scripture that was drawn out in the previous article: Jesus Christ entrusted to his Apostles the same mission He had received from the Father, and they entrusted this same mission to their successors, the bishops and appointed deacons to assist them; and this mission includes teaching with authority: “The apostles have preached the gospel to us… established in the word of God… proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand… preaching through countries and cities…”

Pope Clement’s letter to the Corinthians is also noteworthy for its testimony to the papal primacy, which is a part of the Church’s teaching on the magisterium that we haven’t touched on very much yet. In considering what evidence we can see for the papal primacy—the unique authority granted to St. Peter and his successors over the universal Church—the first thing to note is that the church of Corinth is located in Greece, where there would have been many other prominent bishops nearby to whom they could have appealed, and yet they appealed to Rome. Corinth itself was an apostolic see founded by St. Paul. The church at Athens was another nearby apostolic see, also founded by St. Paul. In the earliest division of ecclesiastical jurisdiction into the three original patriarchates, Corinth would have fallen within the territory of Antioch rather than Rome. And yet the Corinthians appealed to Rome. In the opening of his letter, Clement says, “we feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us.”[3] This at least hints at the idea that the Christians in Corinth regarded the bishop of Rome as a universal authority, to whom any church could turn in order to settle local disputes.

Toward the end of his letter, Clement makes it crystal clear that he understands himself to be exercising a God-given authority over this distant church. For after teaching, correcting, and exhorting the them to leave strife behind and return to the unity of brotherly love, he warns them, saying: “If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger.”[4]

St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 50–107)

Ignatius is another important witness to the earliest traditions of the Church received from the apostles. Whereas Clement was closely connected to St. Peter, Ignatius was a disciple of St. John the Apostle. He converted to Christianity at a young age; one tradition even holds that he was one of the children whom Jesus took into his arms and blessed when he said, “Let the little children come unto me” (Matt 19:14). As bishop of Antioch, Ignatius was arrested by Roman soldiers and taken to Rome to be killed in the Colosseum. While a prisoner en route to Rome, he wrote seven letters—six to various churches and one to his friend St. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, who had also been a disciple of St. John.

Ignatius speaks frequently in these letters about the importance of obedience to the bishops. To the Ephesians, he writes:

It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, that by a unanimous obedience you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing (1 Cor 1:10) and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified.[5]

Again, he says: “Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.”[6] And again: “It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.”[7]

To the Magnesians, who are governed by a youthful bishop, St. Ignatius says that in submitting to him, they submit to God the Father who has established him:

Now it becomes you also not to treat your bishop too familiarly on account of his youth, but to yield him all reverence, having respect to the power of God the Father, as I have known even holy presbyters do, not judging rashly, from the manifest youthful appearance, but as being themselves prudent in God, submitting to him, or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of us all.[8]

He exhorts them to do nothing without their bishop’s consent: “As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters.”[9] Again he says: “Be subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.”[10]

The same theme appears in his letter to the Trallians:

For, since you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, you may escape from death. It is therefore necessary that, as you indeed do, so without the bishop you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall [at last] be found.[11]

Ignatius warns the Philadelphians to avoid schismatics:

For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. The unity of the Church is reflected in the one Eucharist and in the one Bishop: Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.[12]

Again he says: “Give heed to the bishop, and to the presbytery and deacons… Do nothing without the bishop.”[13]

Perhaps the most striking passage of all occurs in the letter to the Smyrnaeans, where the first recorded use of the term ‘Catholic Church’ appears:

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.[14]

These constant commands to obey the bishops is conspicuously absent in Ignatius’s letter to the Romans. To the church at Rome, which “presides in love,”[15] he says: “You have never envied any one; you have taught others,”[16] which may be an implicit acknowledgment of the primacy of Rome, whom he does not presume to teach or command. Instead, he only begs that the Roman Christians will not intervene to save him from the arena, saying: “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”[17]

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130–202)

Irenaeus is one generation removed from Apostolic Fathers such as Clement and Ignatius. He was born too late to come into immediate contact, like they had, with the apostles themselves. But he learned the Christian faith at the feet of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who had been a disciple of St. John, and was eventually made the bishop of Lyons, in present-day France. His magnum opus is his massive refutation of Gnosticism in five volumes called Adversus Haereses (“Against Heresies”).

Matthas Scheeben—an excellent 19th century German theologian who is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in Catholic theology—does a masterful job of developing the argument for the magisterium drawn from the writings of St. Irenaeus.

Here I will quote Scheeban’s commentary on Irenaeus with quotations from Adversus Haereses and Scheeban’s emphasis in italics:

  1. In Scheeben’s words, “First he emphasizes (Against Heresies III, 3, 1) the existence and the importance of the outward apostolic mission and succession in the teaching ministry.”[18] Then quoting Irenaeus:

All, therefore, who wish to see the truth can view in the whole Church the tradition of the apostles that has been manifested in the whole world. Further, we are able to enumerate the bishops who were established in the Churches by the apostles, and their successions even to ourselves. These neither taught nor knew anything similar to what [the heretics] senselessly prate about. For if the apostles had known of any hidden mysteries that they taught to the ‘perfect’ separately and privately from the rest, they would most certainly have handed them down to those to whom they entrusted the Churches themselves. For they willed that the men whom they left behind as their successors and to whom they gave their own teaching office should be perfect and blameless in every respect.

“After demonstrating the continuity of the apostolic succession by the example of the Church of Rome, the passage [of Irenaeus] continues:”[19]

In this order and succession, the tradition that is in the Church from the apostles and the preaching of the truth have come down to us. And this is the fullest proof that it is one and the same life-giving faith that has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and has been handed down in truth.

“Next still other disciples and successors of the apostles are pointed out, and then chapter 4 continues:”[20]

Since there are, then, such great proofs, it does not behoove to seek further among others for the truth, which can be obtained easily from the Church; for the apostles most abundantly placed (i.e. deposited) in her, as in a rich receptacle, every thing that belongs to the truth, so that every one who desires can take from her the drink of life. . . . What if the apostles had not left us the Scriptures; ought we not, then, follow the dispositions of tradition, which they handed down to those to whom they entrusted the Churches? To this disposition many nations of the barbarians who believe in Christ give assent, having salvation written in their hearts through the Spirit, without paper or ink, and guarding carefully the ancient tradition.

  1. “Then he points out on the other hand that the juridical continuance of the preaching mission of the apostles, through the Holy Ghost dwelling in the Church and animating her, also possesses a supernatural guarantee of truth. Thus in the following passage (III, 24):”[21]

The Church’s preaching is everywhere established, and continues the same, and has testimony from the prophets and the apostles and all the disciples (as we have shown) throughout the beginnings and the middles times and the end. . . . This faith we safeguard, having received it from the Church. It is like some excellent deposit in a suitable vessel, that always, under God’s Spirit, rejuvenates itself and rejuvenates the vessel in which it is. For this, God’s gift (i.e. the Holy Ghost), has been entrusted to the Church, as life-breath to the first-fashioned (i.e. a soul to his body), so that all the members receiving it might be vivified. And in this gift has been deposited the Communion of Christ, that is, the Holy Ghost, the pledge of imperishability, the strength of our faith and the ladder of ascent to God. For in the Church, [Paul] says, God has placed apostles, prophets . . . and all the rest of the Spirit’s ministries. Of him all those do not partake who do not agree with the Church, but defraud themselves of life by their evil doctrines and wicked practices. For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where God’s Spirit is, there is the Church, and all grace; and the Spirit is truth.

  1. “Finally he combines the two considerations, apostolic succession and the supernatural guarantee of the Holy Ghost, in the following passage (IV, 26):”[22]

Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church, those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But it is also incumbent to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, considering them either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. . . . Where, therefore, the gifts of the Lord have been placed, there it behooves us to learn the truth, namely, from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles, and among whom exists that which is sound and blameless in conduct, as well as that which is unadulterated and incorrupt in speech. For these also preserve this faith of ours in one God who created all things; and they increase that love for the Son of God, who accomplished such marvelous dispensations for our sake: and they expound the Scriptures to us without danger, neither blaspheming God, nor dishonouring the patriarchs, nor despising the prophets.

In summary, then, we have in the writings of St. Irenaeus, dating from the second century, only one generation removed from the apostles themselves, a complete doctrine of an authoritative teaching office, passed on from the apostles, with the certain gift of truth: in other words, a perpetual and infallible magisterium of the Church exercised by the bishops descended from the apostles.


[1] Tertullian, De Praescript., xxxii.

[2] Clement, First Letter to the Corinthians, 42.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid., 59.

[5] Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, 2.

[6] Ibid., 5.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ignatius, Letter to the Magnesians, 3.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10] Ibid., 13.

[11] Ignatius, Letter to the Trallians, 2.

[12] Ignatius, Letter to the Philadelphians, 4.

[13] Ibid., 7.

[14] Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8.

[15] Ignatius, Letter to the Romans, salutation.

[16] Ibid., 3.

[17] Ibid., 4.

[18] Matthias Scheeben, Handbook of Catholic Dogmatics 1.1, trans. Michael Miller (Emmaus Academic, 2019), 91.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 92.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 93.

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