Irenaeus: Scripture Interprets Scripture

According to Avery Cardinal Dulles, “At the beginning of the twentieth century, Maurice Blondel sought to carve out a middle path between post-Tridentine and Modernist theories of tradition….To his lasting credit, he rediscovered the capacity of tradition to transmit what was already known in an implicit way but not yet formulated in conceptual terms.” (From the Foreword of Yves Congar’s “The Meaning of Tradition,” (c)1964, 2004, Ignatius edition, pg ix).

Irenaeus knew nothing of an “implicit-but-not-yet-formulated” type of tradition. In the previous quote, I cited him as having stated that everything the Apostles knew as “tradition,” they wrote down in the form of Scripture.

But Irenaeus also goes into some detail about how Scripture is to be understood. In a very Calvinistic vein, he says two things here: Don’t go beyond the word of Scripture (but leave some things as unknown except to God), and we may “remain free from peril” by allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, just as the Reformed confessions have said so:

If we cannot find the solutions for all the questions raised in the Scriptures, let us not seek for another God than he-who-is, for this would be the worst impiety. We must leave such matters as these to the God who made it and correctly realize that the scriptures are perfect, since they were spoken by God’s Word and his Spirit, while we, as we are inferior and more recent than God’s word ahd his Spirit, need to receive the knowledge of his mysteries. And it is not remarkable if we suffer this ignorance in spiritual and celestial matters and all those that have to be revealed, when even among matters before our feet — I mean those in this creation, which are touched and seen by us and are with us — many escape our knowledge and we entrust them to God; for he surpasses us all….

If therefore, even in this created world there are matters reserved for God and others also coming under our knowledge, what harm is done if in questions raised by the scriptures (which are entirely spiritual) we resolve some by God’s grace but leave others to God, not only in this age but in the age to come, so that God may be always teaching and man always learning from God? As the apostle said, when the partial is destroyed these will continue: faith, hope, love. For faith in our Master will always remain firm, assuring us that he is the only true God, and that we should always love him, since he is the only Father, and that we should hope to receive and learn more from God, for he is good and has unlimited riches and a kingdom without end and immeasurable knowledge. If, then, as we have said, we leave certain questions to God, we shall preserve our faith and remain free from peril. All Scripture, given to us by God, will be found consistent. The parables will agree with the clear statements and the clear passages will explain the parables. Through the polyphony of the texts a single harmonious melody will sound in us, praising in hymns the God who made everything.

(“Irenaeus of Lyons,” “Against Heresies,” 2.28.3, Robert M. Grant translation, pgs. 117-118. Emphasis supplied.)

Consider this word from the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”

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4 Responses to Irenaeus: Scripture Interprets Scripture

  1. Lucian says:

    If Scripture interprets Scripture, why does your interpretation of Exodus 20:4 contradict Exodus 25:18?

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