Bishops in the Apostolic Church

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Church Fathers: Saint Basil of Caesarea, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: 17th century icon from Lipie, Historical Museum of Sanok, Poland [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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(01/16/01; rev. 05/07/03)

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The fact remains that, according to historical Christianity, as early as the second century (even according to historians who reject the concept, such as Philip Schaff and the Baptist Kenneth Scott Latourette), there is a episcopate (NT Gk. episkopos = bishop) and apostolic succession, as the dominant mode of ecclesiology. One can not deny it. I can’t imagine any legitimate historian who would deny it.

Obviously Baptists, Anabaptists, Churches of Christ, other non-denominational Protestant groups with congregational government, etc., deny apostolic succession and episcopate (in the historical and patristic sense of these terms), but this does not call into question the fact that this institution existed very early (I say from the beginning) and that it was well attested by fathers as old as Saint Clement, Saint Ignatius and Saint Irenaeus.

the Encyclopedia Britannica (1985 ed., “Episcopate”), for example, states (emphasis added):

. . . The origins of the episcopate are obscure, but in the 2nd century AD, it was established in the main centers of Christianity. It was closely related to the idea of ​​apostolic succession, the belief that bishops can trace their office in a direct, unbroken line back to the apostles and Jesus. . .

During the Reformation in the 16th century, the episcopate was repudiated by many Protestant churches, partly because of its corruption but also because many believed the system was not based on the New Testament. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Old Catholic, Swedish Lutheran and some other churches have the episcopal form of church government. . .

Also, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2nd ed., eds. Cross and Livingstone, Oxford Univ. Press, 1983, “Bishop”, p. 176) agrees (emphasis added):

. . . for Saint Ignatius (early second century), bishops, priests and deacons were already quite distinct. . . Around the middle of the 2nd c. all the main centers of Christianity would have had their bishopsand from then until the Reformation Christianity was everywhere organized on an episcopal basis.

As for the apostolic succession, the same work specifies (p. 76, “Apostolic Succession”):

The fact of the succession of the ministry of the apostles, and of the apostles of Christ, was strongly emphasized by Clement of Rome before the end of the 1st century; and its necessity has been widely taught in the historic Church.

How can we Catholics accept such outrageous “late inventions”! ? The end first century? It’s over 267 years before someone (Saint Athanasius) finally understands the exact 27 books of the New Testament. Yet for many Protestants the NT canon is an unchallenged axiom, while historical episcopate is an unbiblical outrage. It’s a strange world we live in.

In this same second century which saw a rapid development of the episcopate (which even its enemies confirm), the canon of the NT was far from being complete or known. Yet there was still that ethereal, necessarily tradition-bound thing called “Christianity,” functioning quite well despite the impossibility for this second-century “historical entity” to be grounded in any notion of Sola Scripturaas we know and love it today.

JND Kelly (Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: Harper, rev. 1978) also confirms many of my arguments: he states that St. Ignatius “seems to suggest that the Roman Church occupies a special position” (p. 191; section: “The Beginnings of Ecclesiology”). He generalizes:

What these early fathers envisioned was almost always the empirical and visible society; they had little or no idea of ​​the distinction that would later become important between a visible Church and an invisible Church. . . . For a fuller development of the theory of the invisible, pre-existing Church, we must turn to Valentinian Gnosticism. (p.191)

As for the ecclesiological views of Saint Irenaeus:

. . . the identity of the oral tradition with the original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back linearly to the apostles [Against Heresies, 3, 2, 2; 3, 3, 3; 3, 4, 1] . . . Indeed, the bishops of the Church are, according to him, men endowed with the Spirit who have received “an infallible charism of truth” (charisma veritatis certum) [ibid., 4,26,2; cf. 4,26,5]. (p.37)

Historians are therefore virtually unanimous in asserting that the episcopate was firmly in place by the middle of the 2nd century. Similar passages could be found in Latourette (Baptist), Schaff (German Reformed) and Pelikan (then Lutheran). I need not discuss a “modern Roman concept” of a bishop for my point to be firmly established as a historical document. Otherwise my quotes would be meaningless, as they state all the facts of history, obviously not from a partisan, “Roman” point of view (because they are not Catholic). I could easily have argued from an Orthodox or Anglican notion of a bishop.

The Baptist theologian Augustus Strong railed against John Calvin himself (for his “objection to the identity of priest and bishop…on the basis of 1 Tim 5:17”). In his Systematic theology (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1907, rep. 1967, p. 915), Strong quotes with approval a Dexter and his book Congregationalism (p. 52):

Calvin was a natural aristocrat, not a man of the people like Luther. . . He believed in authority and enjoyed exercising it. He could easily have been a despot. . . He transformed ecclesiastical discipline into police control. He confessed that the former was an expedient to which he was compelled by circumstances, though after creating it he quite naturally strove to obtain scriptural evidence in his favour.

So once again we find that honest disagreement leads to personal attacks and slander of motives. Calvin was (we are told) a despot, and came to his ecclesiology based on expediency rather than biblical evidence. This is a rare occasion where I can sympathize with Calvin!

And it was a relatively minor dispute. Calvin was not exactly an ardent defender of the episcopate! He grudgingly acknowledged the historical episcopate (including patriarchs and archbishops, synods and general councils), saying it was “bound to maintain discipline” (Inst., IV, iv, 4). But of course he denies that it was a “hierarchy”. He admits, however, that “the ancient bishops had no intention of fashioning any other form of church rule than that which God has established in his Word.”

If the above scenario was the “intent” of these bishops, then it is certainly a form of government well in line with that of Catholicism as I know and understand it (and far removed from Baptist and Reformed ecclesiology current).

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Meta Description: Contrary to much Protestant opinion, bishops and the notion of apostolic succession appeared very early in the Church.

Meta Keywords: bishops, Episcopal Church government, ecclesiology, hierarchical church, church authority, early Christian ecclesiology

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