The Four Authorities for Revealing the True Revelation of Jesus Christ to His Church

St. Irenaeus [c. 130-200 AD], Christian Bishop of Lyons, was the second generation from the Apostles and a disciple of St. Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna who was himself a hearer of the Apostles and a disciple of St. John the Apostle.  His writings contain the oldest existing writings of a bishop and references to the same New Testament books that are in our canon today.  Sadly, only two of Irenaeus' works have survived the ravages of time: The Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-called, also known more simply to history as Against the Heresies, and the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, which was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century.  In these two surviving works, St. Irenaeus insisted that the proper teaching of the revelation of Jesus Christ could only be taught through using both the Holy Spirit inspired writings given to the Church before the birth of Christ (known by his time as the Old Testament) together with the Holy Spirit inspired writings of the Apostles and their disciples which we call today the New Testament.  He also insisted that these books could be properly understood only by those people who accepted four authorities.

Irenaeus four authorities for revealing the revelation of Jesus Christ to His Church:

  1. The first authority is the "rule of truth" as put forth in the "Creed of the Apostles" (Apostles' Creed) which is the belief in One God, who Jesus Christ revealed to the New Covenant people as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19).
  2. The second authority is the whole canonical body of Sacred Scripture, given by the Holy Spirit to the Old Covenant Church and to the New Covenant Church which we call the Old and New Testaments.
  3. The third is the apostolic tradition. That is the Oral Tradition which is the deposit of faith handed down, once for all, from Jesus to St. Peter and the Apostles and by them to their successors who are the Pope and bishops of the universal Church founded by Jesus. It is a teaching tradition which is preserved intact in the Church to the present (Irenaeus was speaking of his present but we who are Catholic believe this deposit of faith extends to our present). In this point, St Irenaeus refutes the contemplation of Christ only according to the Scriptures which was an issue in his day as well as today.
  4. The fourth authority is the interpretation of the revelation of Jesus Christ both oral and written as exercised by the ministerial priesthood —the successors of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, together with the apostolic college of the Bishops of the Catholic (universal) Church.

St. Irenaeus makes the point that the bishops' very lives as direct successors to the Apostles provide the Church with a visible witness that the true teaching about Christ is still being preserved and preached. In this point, Irenaeus links the preaching of the Apostles and the other New Testament writers to its source in the Book of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament), the Psalms, and the Prophets of the Old Testament and the interpretation of the revelation of Jesus Christ which belongs only to the successors of the Apostles as led by God the Holy Spirit. The oral teaching, only a portion of what was written down (Jn 21:24-25), was presented to the Apostles during Jesus' three year earthly ministry and continued after His Resurrection during the forty days He taught the Kingdom of His Church until His Ascension (see Lk 24:25-26, 44-49 and Acts 1:3).

The Catholic Church continues to support these four authorities as the only legitimate interpretation of the revelation of Jesus Christ to His Church.(1)  Very little has changed since Irenaeus' time with regard to the attack on the teachings handed down to us from Jesus to His Apostles and disciples.  In Against Heresies St. Irenaeus criticizes the heretics that have disregarded the order and connection of the Scriptures, as revealed through these four authorities. He accuses "these heretics" as having rearranged or disregarded the order of the body of truth as taught by Christ, presented to the Church, and interpreted by the power of the Holy Spirit through the ministerial priesthood much like taking a mosaic of a king and rearranging the stones to form a picture of a dog or fox while claiming that this is the original picture.  Each faction of professing Christian churches that has separated from the authority of the Church founded by Jesus Christ has its own mosaic rearranged to its own standards and doctrine, but it is only the universal Catholic Church that contains the body of truth which reveals the living, unchanging, glorified Christ in an unbroken image of true teaching from Christ to His Apostles and disciples and to the faithful of the Church today.

1. That "Catholic Church" is a title for the Church founded by Jesus Christ is found in its earliest surviving source in a letter of St. Ignatius Bishop of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans in c 107/110 AD, in which he writes: "Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church" (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8.1). Ignatius was the bishop of the church at Antioch, Syria where as we know from Acts 11:26 that followers of Christ were first called "Christians."  It was one of the first faith communities outside of the Holy Land and also the first faith community home of St. Paul. It was the church at Antioch that send Paul on his missionary journeys to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:20-26; 13:1-3).

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2005 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.