by Lawson “Trip” Cox III
When I was 16 years old, I developed an addiction: a Protestant writer named Josh McDowell got me hooked on apologetics and church history through his best-selling book Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith.
One thing that fascinated me in particular were the citations from ancient sources, especially from Christian writers whose works were not part of Scripture, but still were written in the first 150 years or so of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.
Irenaeus of Lyon (A.D. 120-202) was one such writer. McDowell cited this early bishop’s work entitled Against Heresies – written circa A.D. 180 – in several places.
One quote was used to support the authenticity of the Four Gospels and the early church’s knowledge that only these four biographies of Christ are authentic:
So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavours to establish his own peculiar doctrine. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 11, 7)
McDowell also makes the point that “The four Gospels had become so axiomatic in the Christian world that Irenaeus can refer to it [fourfold Gospel] as an established and recognized fact as obvious as the four cardinal points on the compass” (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 63). He backs it up with another citation:
It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 11, 8)
Even more interesting to me was this early writer’s knowledge of who wrote the four Gospels and in which order. I had read some modern speculation that the Gospel of Mark was written first, followed by Matthew, Luke and John. But Irenaeus had a different perspective, and I think his insight carries great weight: Irenaeus was the student of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of the Apostle John! It would be like your college professor teaching you something that his famous college professor taught him. Not quite first-hand testimony, but a lot more close to the source than some modern scholar 20 centuries removed from the original writings. Here’s what Irenaeus wrote:
Matthew…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. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 1, 1)
A Thirst for More
I was fascinated by this ancient evidence for the faith from Against Heresies and over several years gradually developed a thirst to read the entire work. However, it was many years later – not until my mid-30s – that I was able to locate and purchase a complete translation. I found Against Heresies in Volume 1 of the 10-volume Ante-Nicene Fathers…and decided to buy the whole set from ChristianBook.com.
Unexpected Findings: Apostolic Succession and the Papacy
What I didn’t expect to find when reading Against Heresies was the overwhelming evidence that the ancient church was the Catholic Church.
Irenaeus cited apostolic succession as evidence that the heretics of his day were wrong:
…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 also 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. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 3, 1; emphasis added)
He stated that the bishops of his day could all trace their ordinations back to the apostles, but in the interest of brevity, he would only trace the Bishop of Rome’s lineage for his reader:
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 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 Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 3, 2-3; emphasis added)
Unexpected for me in the above passage was that Irenaeus and his fellow bishops saw the Church of Rome as having “preeminent authority” and that “every Church should agree with this Church.” Growing up Protestant, I thought the idea of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome was something that entered the church around A.D. 500 or 600 – an unnecessary and burdensome idea that was rightly rejected in the 1500s by the Protestant Reformers. Yet, Against Heresies presents the Roman Church’s primacy as a well-established teaching circa A.D. 180! My Protestant understanding of church history was simply wrong.
Ceasing to be Protestant
The writings of Irenaeus were only the beginning. Over the next couple of years, I eagerly read many other works by early Christians – Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (the earliest known history of the church outside the Book of Acts), the Apostolic Fathers (students of the apostles…even earlier in time than Irenaeus), and more.
A few months before entering into full communion with the Catholic Church, I encountered yet another quote – this one by John Henry Cardinal Newman, who converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism in the mid-1800s:
And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this. …To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.
(Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Introduction, 5; emphasis added)
What started in my teens as an interest in defending the Christian faith in general eventually led me to the conviction that the church Jesus founded was the Catholic Church, and to be fully Christian, one must be Catholic.