In the past few weeks I have been studying some of the writings of the early church in what is referred to as the Patristic period, which ranged from the end of the first century until the middle of the fifth (some extend the period later than that). One of the most important sources from this period is the voluminous work Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons, written in about 180 A.D. According to tradition, Irenaeus was only two degrees of separation removed from John the Evangelist: he was a hearer of Polycarp, who is supposed to have been a follower of John.
In Against Heresies, Irenaeus defends what he claims was traditional Christian doctrine against the errors of the Gnostics. In what is now a famous passage he lays out the 'rule of faith', translated as follows:
The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it. (Against Heresies Vol. 1. 2-3, emphasis added)
Now, a Christadelphian reading this rule of faith will identify important points of similarity with Christadelphian doctrine, but also two notable differences: an affirmation of the deity and incarnation of Christ, and a belief in fallen angels.
Having been raised as a Christadelphian, I never heard much about Irenaeus and other 'ante-Nicene fathers' of the church. Occasionally, a well-read Christadelphian speaker would quote from one of them in support of a particular doctrine or practice, such as believers' baptism. However, I've yet to encounter a detailed attempt to reconcile Irenaeus' rule of faith with the Christadelphian claim that the apostles themselves were unitarians who denounced belief in fallen angels.
For this to be true, a rapid and total doctrinal transformation of the Christian church must have occurred within two generations after the deaths of the apostles; only then could Irenaeus claim that the whole church worldwide were united on these doctrines. One might argue that Irenaeus lied or was mistaken in his claim, but this is unlikely since he was writing in opposition to heretics. Why should he make false or careless statements which would expose his polemic to easy refutation?
One might further argue for the existence of a Christian community who held to Christadelphian doctrine and were consequently not considered part of the true worldwide church by Irenaeus. However, there is no positive evidence for the existence of such a community. Certainly his work Against Heresies makes no mention of any heretical doctrinal position similar to Christadelphian beliefs.
Biblical evidence for the apostasy required by Christadelphians is taken from New Testament passages such as 1 John 4:1-3, which warns against the spirit of antichrist which is "already in the world" and denies that Jesus has come in the flesh. Most scholars regard the object of John's warning as an early form of Gnosticism which was cropping up in Asia Minor toward the end of the first century. There is a double irony in the suggestion that Irenaeus represented the spirit of antichrist opposed by John. In the first place, as we saw above, tradition maintains an historical connection between John and Irenaeus through Polycarp. In the second place, the Gnostics were the primary target of Irenaeus' own warnings against heresy!
Christadelphians have tended to hold church tradition in very low regard. For John Thomas, 'tradition' was a by-word for the speculative excesses of the clergy, both Roman Catholic and Protestant alike. As Christadelphia has come of age, some have promoted a kind of Christadelphian traditionalism which gives a certain authority to the pioneer writings of John Thomas and Robert Roberts. Appeal in this regard has been made to Jeremiah 6:16: "Ask for the old paths!"
Wherever is the consistency in asking for paths which are no more than 150 years old while dismissing as ages of darkness the 17 1/2 centuries between the close of the apostolic age and the writing of Elpis Israel? It might be claimed, along the lines of the Christadelphian-authored book The Protesters, by Alan Eyre, that a faithful remnant of Christians with Christadelphian beliefs can be traced down through the ages and so John Thomas was in reality no innovator. This is historically dubious. For example, among the groups lumped into the historic Christadelphian fold are the Waldenses/Vaudois, the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier, and the Socinians of Poland. However, the Waldenses were Trinitarian, as was Hubmaier, who retained the Catholic designation theodokos (mother of God) for Mary. The Socinians were anti-trinitarian, but believed in a personal devil as expressed in their Racovian Catechism.
Once these groups are taken out of the picture, Christadelphian doctrine is left with very little precedent prior to the 17th century, and it appears that the Age of Reason is as far back as Christadelphian old paths go.
Thus, for those Christadelphians who would make an appeal to Christadelphian tradition, my question is, why ask for old paths only to ignore much older paths, such as the voice of Irenaeus?
And for those Christadelphians who stand behind the Reformers' cry of "Sola Scriptura", my question is, have you no regard for Irenaeus as a witness to the way the early church understood the Scriptures?