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Tradition in Irenaeus

Wan Wei Hsien has written some reflections on Irenaeus’s concept of “tradition” in his Against Heresies. His concluding thoughts suggest, and I concur, that Irenaeus can sharpen and narrow the way the term is often used:

I wrote at the beginning of this post that Fr. John’s explanation of St. Irenaeus both sharpens and narrows the meaning of the word “tradition” for me. I had often thought of tradition as something “fuller” than scripture–of which scripture was only a “part”. Reading this chapter and St. Irenaeus, however, showed me that this notion actually approximates the Gnostic understanding of oral tradition. Perhaps one can say that, for St. Irenaeus, tradition is the “performance” of scripture in the life of the Church—unwritten but fundamentally tied to its “script”.

Understanding tradition in this way, Wei Hsien says, “My Protestant brothers and sisters don’t seem as far away.” (I don’t recall precisely which faith community Wei Hsien calls home.) I would add that this understanding of tradition may help Protestants come to terms with the validity of “tradition” as an important theological category.

PS: Protestants, especially free-church Protestants, who want to know more about tradition and its importance for the church would do well to pick up a copy of D. H. Williams’ Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism, appropriately subtitled “A Primer for Suspicious Protestants.”



  1. Wan Wei Hsien says:

    Thank you linking the post and the reference to Williams’ book. I am Oriental Orthodox by ecclesial membership, though in a roundabout sort of way.

    It does seem to me that Irenaeus’ understanding of tradition resembles that which some of the early Reformers held. I seem to recall that Melanchton proposed something similar, but I’ve not studied the matter sufficiently so say for certain. Much promise, I think, lies in the rediscovery of our common roots.


  2. Darrell Pursiful says:

    I agree, Wei Hsien. William’s book does a great job of pointing out the Reformers’ desire not to overturn the Tradition but to follow it more faithfully in the face of what they considered Roman excesses. The subtitle is quite apt. The book is a defense of Tradition against the excesses of free-church evangelicalism.


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