"But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition" (Against Heresies 3:3:2 [A.D. 189]).
“Then comes the crucial statement:
For it is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church, on account of its preeminent authority (potentior principalitas), that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful persons] who exist everywhere.
Irenaeus continues by saying that even if there is dispute over a rela¬tively trivial matter one should have recourse "to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question."13 There are a number of problems surrounding the original meaning of the passage quoted above, occasioned in large part by the fact that we know only the Latin translation and not the Greek original of the text. We must always reckon with the possibility that the Latin text as we have it is corrupt. The principal problems are:
1. What is meant by "this church"? Could it refer to any apostolic church that was normative for other churches, with the Roman church cited only as an example? In that case, the original phrase would have to have been something equivalent to "such a church."
2. But if, as seems more probable in light of the surrounding text, Irenaeus was thinking of the Roman church, what does it mean that all others (or perhaps the other apostolic churches) "should agree [or be in accord] with this church [in matters of faith]"? Does this mean that the Roman church represents the au¬thoritative norm of faith for all other churches? Or did Irenaeus mean to say "I have simply traced the list of Roman bishops as an example. It is, however, understood from the outset that every apostolic church offers the same teaching"? Then "should agree" would not be understood as a norm, but as an a priori necessity: it is sufficient to offer a test case on a single point.
3. This is connected to the question regarding the reference of the last clause, "inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful persons] who exist everywhere." Does this mean the Roman church, or every apostolic church?
4. Finally, what is the meaning of "those who exist every¬where"? It is possible that this means that Christians from all over the empire come together in the church at Rome, and they exercise a corrective function in maintaining orthodoxy! But that would introduce a foreign element that does not fit within the train of Irenaeus's thought, because he sees the guarantee of truth here in purely vertical terms, as a connection to the apostles, and not horizontally in the agreement (or mutual correction) of all the churches.
There is no convincing solution that takes care of all the difficulties. However we interpret the passage, we probably cannot deny that it implies that the Roman paradosis had a certain qualified authoritative character, for
1. Even if the text is probably speaking of an a priori agree¬ment, it is not illustrated by just any example, but by something very specific, the potentior principalitas of Rome: That which is the universal tradition of all the churches can be more clearly and re¬liably demonstrated by looking to that of Rome.
2. Also noteworthy is the multiplication of laudatory terms applied to the Roman church ("the very great, the very ancient, and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul"), indicating that it is more than mere example.
3. We note further that Irenaeus apparently knows only the list of Roman bishops, or presumes it is the only one known to his readers. It appears that the list was familiar not only in Rome but also in the churches in Gaul, even though they had been founded from the East and not from Rome.
4. The Jewish Christian Hegesippus also attests, in this same period, that apparently as far as the apostolic tradition was con¬cerned the Roman example could not be arbitrarily replaced by that of Corinth or Ephesus. His interest was the same as that of Irenaeus: preparing lists of bishops to counter the Gnostics. He wanted to say, "See, we stand in the unbroken line of continuity from the apostles!" And even though he came from the East he showed a special interest in the Roman list of bishops, which he researched in the archives at Rome” (Schatz, K 1996, Papal Primacy: from its origins to the present, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, pp.9-10). (NB: Schatz is a German Jesuit church historian).“Both doctrinal unity and apostolic continuity were contrasted with the teachings of the Gnostics….For when neither Scripture nor tradition could convince the gainsayers, Irenaeus insisted that it lay within the power of all in every church who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and 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 times.” Chief among these in authority and prestige was the church at Rome, in which the apostolic tradition shared by all the churches everywhere had been preserved.” (Pelikan, J 1971, The Christian Tradition: A history of the development of doctrine, vol. 1, ‘the emergence of the Catholic tradition (100-600)’, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 117-18)
“If convenire here means ‘agree with’ and principalitas refers to the Roman primacy (in whatever sense), the gist of the sentence may be taken to be that Christians of every other church are required, in view of its special position of leadership, to fall into line with the Roman church, inasmuch as the authentic apostolic tradition is always preserved by the faithful who are everywhere. This interpretation, or some variant of it, has been accepted by many, but it is awkward to refer in qua to hanc…ecclesiam, and anachronistic to attribute such thinking to Irenaeus. Hence it seems more plausible to take in qua with omnem…ecclesiam, and to understand Irenaeus as suggesting that the Roman church supplies an ideal illustration because, ‘in view of its pre-eminent authority’ based on its foundation by both Peter and Paul, its antiquity, and so on, every church – or perhaps the whole church – in which the apostolic tradition has been preserved must as a matter of course agree with it. There is therefore no allusion to the later Petrine claims of the Roman see.” (Kelly JND 1978, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed, Harper Collins, San Francisco, p. 193).