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Guettee’s Mistranslation of Irenaeus’ Affirmation of Papal Supremacy

Posted by Tony Listi on November 13, 2014

Vladimir Abbé Guettée, a former Roman Catholic abbot of the 19th century who became an Eastern Orthodox priest, writes the following about a key passage from Irenaeus, in his book, “The Papacy-Its Historic Origin and Primitive Relations with the Eastern Churches”:

Such is the sense of a passage of St. Irenæus, of which the Roman theologians have made the strangest misuse. St. Iræneus, In Hæres. Lib. III. cap. iii. This great theologian, attacking the heretics who sought to corrupt the faithful at Rome, establishes against them the Catholic rule of faith, preserved everywhere and always. “But,” he adds, “as it would be very tedious to enumerate in such a work the succession of all the Churches, we will trace that of the very great and very ancient Church and known of all, which was founded and established at Rome by the two very glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul; which possesses a tradition that comes from the Apostles as much as the Faith declared to men, and which has transmitted it to us through the succession of her Bishops; by that, we confound all those who in any manner whatsoever, either through blindness or bad intention, do not gather where they should; for every Church, that is to say, the faithful who are from all places, are obliged to go toward that Church, because of the most powerful principality. In this Church, the tradition of the Apostles has been preserved by those who are of all countries.” We must quote the text of St. Irenæus, that it may be compared with our translation, “Quoniam valde longum est, in hoc, tali volumine omnium eccelesiarum enumerare successiones; maximæ et antiquissimæ et omnibus cognitæ, a gloriosissimis duobus apostolis Petro et Paullo, Romæ fundatæ et constitutæ Ecclesiae, eam quam habet ab Apostolis Traditionem et annunciatam hominibus fidem, per successiones Episcoporum pervenientem usque ad nos, indicantes confundimus omnes eos, qui quoquomodo, vel per coecitatem et malam sententiam præterquam oportet colligunt. Ad hanc enim Ecclesiam, propter potentiorem principalitatem, necesse est omnem convenire ecclesiam, hoc est eos, qui sunt undique fideles; in qua semper ab his qui sunt undique, conservata est ea, quæ est ab Apostolis, Traditio.”

The Romish theologians choose a bad translation of this passage, in order to find in it an argument in favor of the papal sovereignty. Instead of saying that the faithful of the whole world were obliged to go to Rome, because it was the Capital of the Empire, the seat of government, and the centre of all business, civil and political, they translate convenire ad by the words, to agree with—which is a misinterpretation; they make potentiorem principalitatem refer to the Church of Rome, and they see in this its primacy, whereas these words are only used in a general manner, and nothing indicates that they do not solely designate the capital and principal city of the Empire. Again, they translate, maximæ, antiquissimæ, by greatest and most ancient, without reflecting that they thus attribute to St. Irenæus an assertion manifestly false; for, granting that the Church of Rome was the greatest of her day, she could not certainly be called the most ancient—every one knew that a great number of churches had been founded in the East before that of Rome. Moreover, their translation does not make the author say in conclusion, that the Apostolic tradition has been preserved at Rome, by those who were of all countries—(ab his qui sunt undique,) as the text requires, but like Pius IX, in his Encyclical Letter to the Christians of the East, “In all that the faithful believe,” not reflecting that this is a misconstruction, and that they are thus attributing nonsense to the good Father.

Is Guettee’s translation really better??

The context is Irenaeus denouncing heretics and heretical doctrines and we’re supposed to believe Guettee that “Ad hanc enim Ecclesiam, propter potentiorem principalitatem, necesse est omnem convenire ecclesiam” refers to the political authority of Rome rather than the ecclesial authority of the Church at Rome? The context is clearly not imperial politics or business! Guettee is straining and rationalizing very weakly. The whole context is doctrinal and theological. Irenaeus is not sidetracking into worldly political asides. This is his coup de grace in refuting heretics and he stays on target.

Irenaeus immediately goes on to delineate the succession of the first popes and ground the truth of the faith in that succession:

The blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], 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. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles…. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the apostolical tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Sorer having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate.

In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Against Heresies, 3, 3, 3)

As for “convenire,” which literally translates as “to come with” or “to come together” (like “convene” in English), the translation “to agree with” (or “to resort to”) is perfectly acceptable and appropriate and actually the most logical considering the context is philosophical/theological/doctrinal rather than one of physical motion. The context is the refuting of heretics and the presenting of true Christian doctrines that all Christians should believe. The figurative, spritual, and doctrinal sense of “coming together in one place” is agreement in a unified body of doctrines.

Various Latin dictionaries concur with the very possible translation of “convenire” in terms of agreement:
http://www.latin-dictionary.net/search/latin/convenire
http://www.myetymology.com/latin/convenire.html
http://www.dizionario-latino.com/dizionario-latino-italiano.php?parola=convenio (concordare, essere d’accordo, accordarsi, si è d’accordo)

It is reminiscent of Paul’s and Peter’s commands for complete agreement, unity of mind and doctrine, among Christians:

“I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” 1 Cor 1:10

“…stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel….” Phil 1:27

“…complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Phil 2:2

“I therefore…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call,  one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Eph 4:1-6

“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind.” 1 Pt 3:8

Jesus prays for this unity of mind and doctrine, especially that that unity may convert the world:

“Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one…. I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, 21* that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” Jn 17:11-23

Using Wiktionary for vocab and my own experience with Latin, the following translation of “in qua semper ab his qui sunt undique, conservata est ea, quæ est ab Apostolis Traditio” seems most precise and literal:

“…by which route always, by them who are from all parts, it is preserved, that which is from the Apostolic Tradition.”

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/undique
http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/qua#Adverb_4 (qua…ea…)
http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/quae

The plain direct meaning is that: “In this way (by agreeing with this Church) always, everyone around the world preserves that which is from the Apostolic Tradition.”

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2 Responses to “Guettee’s Mistranslation of Irenaeus’ Affirmation of Papal Supremacy”

  1. Orthodox said

    I’d recommend reading the entire book and the entire explanation of this topic by Guettee, since it is much longer and he supports his translation of convenire with very reasonable explanations.

    • Tony Listi said

      Ok, but I’d appreciate it if you would actually engage what this post argues. Feel free to provide more of Guettee’s explanation, if you’d like, if you believe that the excerpt I cited does not capture certain key points of Guettee’s argument. It seems pretty clear that Guettee imposes a political/imperial/worldly context onto the text, when it is clear that Irenaeus is talking about doctrinal discipline and ecclesial authority.

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