In my previous post I considered what can and cannot be concluded from the text of Matthew 16:18-19, which is often used by Roman Catholic apologists to support their specific doctrine of Papal Primacy. In this post I examine the passage most frequently cited by Roman Catholics seeking to bolster their view of Papal Primacy, passage 3.3.2 from St. Irenaeus's Against Heresies:
"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 vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of 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 [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions 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 tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere."
In the first line of interest, St. Irenaeus says "...the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul..." which is interesting for two reasons. First, St. Irenaeus speaks about the church in Rome as a whole, making no effort to emphasize who leads the Church of Rome or drawing any special connection between the episcopate in Rome and St. Peter. In fact, Irenaeus speaks about both St. Peter and St. Paul as those responsible for the Roman Church's existence. Once again, there is no mention of any special connection between St. Peter and the episcopate alone since St. Irenaeus is focused on the Church of Rome as a whole.
If it was St. Irenaeus's objective to demonstrate that the Bishop of Rome is the primate over all Christendom because he succeeds St. Peter, he would have focused his attention specifically on the apostle who grants this authority, St. Peter, and on the Bishop of Rome himself whom Roman Catholics claim is the reason for the Church of Rome's preeminence. Instead, St. Irenaeus focuses on the Church of Rome in its entirety, basing its importance on both St. Peter and St. Paul.
When St. Irenaeus does refer to bishops, he says the following "...; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops." St. Irenaeus speaks of multiple successions of multiple bishops, thus referring to bishops both within and outside of Rome. Like other churches in Christendom, the Church of Rome is important and maintains legitimacy because it preserves and professes the same faith as all the other churches.
The last and final portion best supports the Roman Catholic position, and is the section emphasized by apologists:
"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 tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere."
It is tempting to conclude that Roman Catholic apologists are correct in their interpretation of this passage, but closer examination undermines such conclusions. The first complication for the Roman Catholic apologist is the Latin word convenire, which in the passage above is translated as "agree with," but might also be translated as "come together," "assemble," or "meet." In fact, the Perseus classics resource database, run by Tufts University and held as the preeminent internet resource for classical Latin and Greek, doesn't even list "agree with" as one of the primary options. That said, there are numerous examples in Latin texts of convenire being translated as "agree with" based on the context in which it is used. The relevant question, then, is whether the context of the passage provides a reasonable basis for translating "convenire" as "agree with," and it is here that the debate comes to a standstill since we cannot be sure how St. Irenaeus intended for his message to be translated since both "agree with" and "meet with" fit the context of the passage. What is clear, though, is that once again a passage Roman Catholic apologists claim clearly demonstrates their case is shown to be ambiguous.
Additionally, even if one concedes that St. Irenaeus claims all faithful should agree with the Church of Rome there remain obstacles for the Roman Catholic apologist. The first of these obstacles lies in why St. Irenaeus deems it necessary for faithful to agree/ meet with Rome. Is it because the Bishop of Rome holds Petrine authority over other churches? Is it because the Church of Rome as a whole has demonstrated is faithfulness to Christendom and its mission and thus has garnered respect? Once again, St. Irenaeus's meaning is unclear.
Because Roman Catholic apologists make a positive claim, being that the above passage from St. Irenaeus demonstrates their view of Papal Primacy, it is their duty not only to put forward this quote as self-evident, but to answer the questions I have raised in this post, namely:
1. How does this passage demonstrate that the Church of Rome's preeminence is rooted in the Bishop of Rome who is the unique successor of St. Peter?
2. Why is "agree with" the best translation of "convenire ad" in this passage?
For further reading, I recommend the following: