I wrote a rather long response to a comment concerning Irenaeus’ work Adversus Haereses being cited in the course of a debate about Sola Scriptura. Since I spent an unusually long time interacting with Irenaeus in my reply, I thought it might be good to make a post out of it so that at least I myself can have an easy access to my notes for the future. What follows below also contain further notes than my original comment.
A Roman Catholic wrote,
“Also, in Book 3 Chapters 2-4 Irenaeus shows the necessity of the Church and Her Traditions.”
My Response: Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses Book 3 Chapter 2-4 does show the importance of the church and tradition. I might be mistaken, but I don’t think a contextual reading of these three beautiful chapters necessarily rule out Sola Scriptura, while it does pose dilemmas for those who are against Sola Scriptura from a Roman Catholic position:
(a.) In the opening lines of Paragraph 1 of Book 3 chapter 1 (contextually before chapters 2-4), Irenaeus gave this fascinating statement: “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” (cited: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103301.htm). Note how Irenaeus made a statement about the Scripture being handed down by the Apostles. It is the Scriptures that is “to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”
(b) Continuing in the same flow of Irenaeus’ view of Scripture as the ground and pillar of our faith, he then gives a description of the Gnostics in the very first lines in chapter two, which ironically fit the descriptions of Roman Catholics who argue that the Scripture is ambiguous or lacking full authority when it is interpreted in ignorance of “traditions”: “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” (cited: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103302.htm). To assert that the Scripture is ambiguous (as oppose to the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, which Sola Scriptura rests upon) is not something Irenaeus favored, and those who hold this position in order to argue against Sola Scriptura will have some problem with citing Irenaeus as a friend to their cause.
(c) Irenaeus’ talk about tradition in chapters 2-4 in no way threaten Sola Scriptura, since nowhere does Irenaeus state that Scripture must be interpreted by traditions.
(d) Remembering the point made in (c), we can further evaluate traditions discussed in chapters 2-4. Roman Catholics invoking the discussion in chapters 2-4 to support the idea that the Apostles handed down traditions down to the modern Roman Catholic Church makes an interesting leap of logic: The traditions might have been handed down to the church in Irenaeus’ day, but it’s another thing to claim that it has been handed down to the modern 21st Roman Catholic Church.
(e) Per (d), a Roman Catholic might argue from Book III, Chapter three, paragraph 2 that Irenaeus pointed to the church in Rome as the standard of measuring orthodoxy, as the last lines states, “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” (cited: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103303.htm). Sola Scriptura does not mean that it is forbidden to have as a general rule of thumb of seeing how others are doing in the issue of faith and practice (though Scripture is the ultimate authority), just in case one may stray, which was a good point that Irenaeus made. However, nowhere did Irenaeus say that the church in Rome can never err, since he does qualify his statement with the following conditional, “inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.”
(f) Building upon (e), Roman Catholics cannot cite Book III Chapter three to substantiate that the church physically situated in Rome can never err, since in the fourth paragraph Irenaeus describe the church in Ephesus having the same status of bearing witness to the truth according to the Apostolic tradition handed down to it: “Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles” (cited: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103303.htm). If Ephesus has the same status as Rome, and if one were to apply the same form of argumentation Roman Catholics used on others, why then does the Roman Catholic not accept the Second Council of Ephesus on the basis of this kind of argument?
(g) After discussing about traditions in chapters 2-4, notice that Irenaeus goes on to say the following in the opening lines of chapter five, “Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, John 14:6 and that no lie is in Him” (cited: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103305.htm). Note that Irenaeus was not going to carry out a refutation of the Gnostics by simply appealing to traditions as his authority. Instead, he says “let us revert to the Scriptural proof…,” that is, he wishes to appeal to Scripture to refute someone.
(h) In light of Irenaeus’ view of Scripture, one might ask why is it then that Irenaeus even discussed about traditions in chapters 2-4? I think the answer lies in the first line in chapter 2, when Irenaeus referring to the Gnostics, said “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” (cited: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103302.htm). It seems that Irenaeus brought tradition to counter the Gnostics’ claim that those who are orthodox operating with a clear (as oppose to the Gnostics charge of “ambiguous”) interpretation of the Scripture in of itself has the problem of being “ignorant of tradition,” As the same sentence shows, while Irenaeus disapproved of their accusation that Scripture is ambiguous, Irenaeus then dealt with the Gnostic objection that they were ignorant of “tradition,” by showing that by their own game those who were orthodox were the recipients of the Apostolic faith since they were taught by the Apostles directly (which explains the very personal nature of Irenaeus claim that he saw the Apostle John teaching as a youth in chapter 3 paragraph four.