Let’s take a statement out of context, shall we?
Irenaeus, in Against Heresies 3.2, writes:
But, again, when we refer [the heretics] 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.
On a first reading, this would seem to be an appeal to tradition as dispositive for the proof of Christian doctrine, rather than, say, to Scripture. But what does Irenaeus mean by this “tradition”?
To determine that, we have to back up. In Against Heresies 3.1, he writes of the “plan of our salvation” that “has come down to us” in the Gospel. How do we know what that Gospel is? We know it “from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us.” What does that mean? It means that we know it by what the Apostles wrote down (leaving aside for the moment some of the specific claims he makes, e.g., Matthew writing in Hebrew, details about Peter in Rome 1, etc.). For instance, how do we know what Peter preached? Mark wrote it down. How do we know what Paul preached? Luke wrote it down. And so on.
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. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessedperfect knowledge,as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.
The position that there was more or different truth to be had and that could not be proved from what was written was the position of his opponents. The first move in refutation is the case from Scripture; when that has been applied, these “heretics” find another ground on which to wage the battle. His opponents allege that, for truth to come from Scripture, tradition must be applied. Why? Because tradition, handed on viva voce, has to be used to interpret the written word and extract the truth from it.
When, however, they 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.1 Corinthians 2:6 And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time inValentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent, who could speak nothing pertaining to salvation. For every one of these men, being altogether of a perverse disposition,depraving the system of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself.
The above paragraph immediately precedes the one quoted at the beginning of this post. When he speaks of “refer[ring] them to the tradition which originates from the Apostles,” we must understand it in light of what comes before and in the general structure of his argument. For Irenaeus, the “tradition which originates from the Apostles,” and therefore the truth that should confound his opponents, was delivered precisely “by means of written documents,” as we just saw above. When Irenaeus speaks at the end of 3.2 of consenting to Scripture and tradition, we must understand that, for him, they have the same content.
Only in light of the foregoing, then, can we understand the role of the Church in its succession of bishops that Irenaeus goes on to describe in 3.3. They are to guard continously (and Irenaeus says that they have in fact done so) “the tradition,” which we have seen to be synonymous with the apostolic Gospel, first preached by the Apostles and later written down.
That this is Irenaeus’ position is only confirmed by what he goes on to say in 3.4. There, he speaks of those who believe based on (oral) tradition alone and not on the basis of what is written–and this because they are what he calls “barbarians”; they cannot read. We can understand the position of these “barbarians” if we imagine (hypothetically) that the Apostles never wrote anything down but only preached their message and then passed it on to others. The faith of those who believed that message, he says, would be the same as those who learned it from the written testimony.
Notice, though, what is necessary to underpin this assertion: the assumption that the two messages, what is preached and what is written, are the same. We must keep this in mind in interpreting what he means by the Apostles “depositing” the truth with the Church and of us “lay[ing] hold of the tradition of the truth.” Irenaeus even states in 3.4.2 what he takes that “tradition” to be: it is basically synonymous with the Creed, and therefore with the central story of Scripture and the message of the Gospel. Because the content of what has been preached to them is the same as what is written, he claims that the “barbarians” are just as well equipped as anyone to ward off the attacks of heretics upon the truth.
1. Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. Revelation 22:17 For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?
2. To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established.
I am not interested here in the particulars of the historical case that Irenaeus makes for the situation “on the ground” in his own day. 2 What I am interested in, rather, is the structure of his argument and the way in which he links up the “pieces” or “strands” of Scripture and tradition. In these first four chapters of Book 3, he argues for an identity of content between the two that is publicly accessible to all comers, learned or unlearned, verifiable by documentation, and opposed to all secret so-called “knowledge” from his adversaries.