I. The chief sources for this chapter are the Epistles of Ignatius, the works of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and especially Cyprian, and the so-called Constitutiones Apostolicae,
II. See the Literature in vol. I. § 58, particularly the works of Rothe, Ritschl, Lightfoot, and Hatch.
41. Progress in Consolidation
In the external organization of the church, several important changes appear in the period before us. The distinction of clergy and laity, and the sacerdotal view of the ministry becomes prominent and fixed; subordinate church offices are multiplied; the episcopate arises; the beginnings of the Roman primacy appear; and the exclusive unity of the Catholic church develops itself in opposition to heretics and schismatics. The apostolical organization of the first century now gives place to the old Catholic episcopal system; and this, in its turn, passes into the metropolitan, and after the fourth century into the patriarchal. Here the Greek church stopped, and is governed to this day by a hierarchical oligarchy of patriarchs equal in rank and jurisdiction; while the Latin church went a step further, and produced in the middle ages the papal monarchy. The germs of this papacy likewise betray themselves even in our present period, particularly in Cyprian, together with a protest against it. Cyprian himself is as much a witness for consolidated primacy, as for independent episcopacy, and hence often used and abused alike by Romanists and Anglicans for sectarian purposes.
The characteristics, however, of the pre-Constantinian hierarchy, in distinction from the post-Constantinian, both Greek and Roman, are, first, its grand simplicity, and secondly, its spirituality, or freedom from all connection with political power and worldly splendor. Whatever influence the church acquired and exercised, she owed nothing to the secular government, which continued indifferent or positively hostile till the protective toleration edict of Constantine (313). Tertullian thought it impossible for an emperor to be a Christian, or a Christian to be an emperor; and even after Constantine, the Donatists persisted in this view, and cast up to the Catholics the memory of the former age: “What have Christians to do with kings? or what have bishops to do in the palace?” The ante-Nicene fathers expected the ultimate triumph of Christianity over the world from a supernatural interposition at the second Advent. Origen seems to have been the only one in that age of violent persecution who expected that Christianity, by continual growth, would gain the dominion over the world.
The consolidation of the church and its compact organization implied a restriction of individual liberty, in the interest of order, and a temptation to the abuse of authority. But it was demanded by the diminution of spiritual gifts, which were poured out in such extraordinary abundance in the apostolic age. It made the church a powerful republic within the Roman empire, and contributed much to its ultimate success. “In union is strength,” especially in times of danger and persecution such as the church had to pass through in the ante-Nicene age. While we must deny a divine right and perpetual obligation to any peculiar form of government as far as it departs from the simple principles of the New Testament, we may concede a historical necessity and great relative importance to the ante-Nicene and subsequent organizations of the church. Even the papacy was by no means an unmixed evil, but a training school for the barbarian nations during the middle ages. Those who condemn, in principle, all hierarchy, sacerdotalism, and ceremonialism, should remember that God himself appointed the priesthood and ceremonies in the Mosaic dispensation, and that Christ submitted to the requirements of the law in the days of his humiliation.
42. Clergy and Laity
The idea and institution of a special priesthood, distinct from the body of the people, with the accompanying notion of sacrifice and altar, passed imperceptibly from Jewish and heathen reminiscences and analogies into the Christian church. The majority of Jewish converts adhered tenaciously to the Mosaic institutions and rites, and a considerable part never fully attained to the height of spiritual freedom proclaimed by Paul, or soon fell away from it. He opposed legalistic and ceremonial tendencies in Galatia and Corinth; and although sacerdotalism does not appear among the errors of his Judaizing opponents, the Levitical priesthood, with its three ranks of high-priest, priest, and Levite, naturally furnished an analogy for the threefold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon, and came to be regarded as typical of it. Still less could the Gentile Christians, as a body, at once emancipate themselves from their traditional notions of priesthood, altar, and sacrifice, on which their former religion was based. Whether we regard the change as an apostasy from a higher position attained, or as a reaction of old ideas never fully abandoned, the change is undeniable, and can be traced to the second century. The church could not long occupy the ideal height of the apostolic age, and as the Pentecostal illumination passed away with the death of the apostles, the old reminiscences began to reassert themselves.
In the apostolic church preaching and teaching were not confined to a particular class, but every convert could proclaim the gospel to unbelievers, and every Christian who had the gift could pray and teach and exhort in the congregation. The New Testament knows no spiritual aristocracy or nobility, but calls all believers “saints” though many fell far short of their vocation. Nor does it recognize a special priesthood in distinction from the people, as mediating between God and the laity. It knows only one high-priest, Jesus Christ, and clearly teaches the universal priesthood, as well as universal kingship, of believers. It does this in a far deeper and larger sense than the Old (Exo_19:6); in a sense, too, which even to this day is not yet fully realized. The entire body of Christians are called “clergy” (κλῆροι), a peculiar people, the heritage of God.
On the other hand it is equally clear that there was in the apostolic church a ministerial office, instituted by Christ, for the very purpose of raising the mass of believers from infancy and pupilage to independent and immediate intercourse with God, to that prophetic, priestly, and kingly position, which in principle and destination belongs to them all (Eph_4:11-13). This work is the gradual process of church history itself, and will not be fully accomplished till the kingdom of glory shall come. But these ministers are nowhere represented as priests in any other sense than Christians generally are priests, with the privilege of a direct access to the throne of grace in the name of their one and eternal high-priest in heaven. Even in the Pastoral Epistles which present the most advanced stage of ecclesiastical organization in the apostolic period, while the teaching, ruling, and pastoral functions of the presbyter-bishops are fully discussed, nothing is said about a sacerdotal function. The Apocalypse, which was written still later, emphatically teaches the universal priesthood and kingship of believers. The apostles themselves never claim or exercise a special priesthood. The sacrifice which all Christians are exhorted to offer is the sacrifice of their person and property to the Lord, and the spiritual sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise. (Rom_12:1; Phi_2:17; 1Pe_2:5; Heb_13:16). In one passage a Christian “altar” is spoken of, in distinction from the Jewish altar of literal and daily sacrifices, but this altar is the cross on which Christ offered himself once and forever for the sins of the world.
After the gradual abatement of the extraordinary spiritual elevation of the apostolic age, which anticipated in its way the ideal condition of the church, the distinction of a regular class of teachers from the laity became more fixed and prominent. This appears first in Ignatius, who, in his high episcopalian spirit, considers the clergy the necessary medium of access for the people to God. “Whoever is within the sanctuary (or altar), is pure; but he who is outside of the sanctuary is not pure; that is, he who does anything without bishop and presbytery and deacon, is not pure in conscience.” Yet he nowhere represents the ministry as a sacerdotal office. The Didache calls “the prophets” high-priests, but probably in a spiritual sense. Clement of Rome, in writing to the congregation at Corinth, draws a significant and fruitful parallel between the Christian presiding office and the Levitical priesthood, and uses the expression “layman” (λαΐ́κος ἄνθρωπος) as antithetic to high-priest, priests, and Levites. This parallel contains the germ of the whole system of sacerdotalism. But it is at best only an argument by analogy. Tertullian was the first who expressly and directly asserts sacerdotal claims on behalf of the Christian ministry, and calls it “sacerdotium,” although he also strongly affirms the universal priesthood of all believers. Cyprian (d. 258) goes still further, and applies all the privileges, duties, and responsibilities of the Aaronic priesthood to the officers of the Christian church, and constantly calls them sacerdotes and sacerdotium. He may therefore be called the proper father of the sacerdotal conception of the Christian ministry as a mediating agency between God and the people. During the third century it became customary to apply the term “priest” directly and exclusively to the Christian ministers especially the bishops. In the same manner the whole ministry, and it alone, was called “clergy,” with a double reference to its presidency and its peculiar relation to God. It was distinguished by this name from the Christian people or “laity.” Thus the term “clergy,” which first signified the lot by which office was assigned (Act_1:17, Act_1:25), then the office itself, then the persons holding that office, was transferred from the Christians generally to the ministers exclusively.
Solemn “ordination” or consecration by the laying on of hands was the form of admission into the “ordo ecclesiasticus” or “sacerdotalis.” In this order itself there were again three degrees, “ordines majores,” as they were called: the diaconate, the presbyterate, and the episcopate — held to be of divine institution. Under these were the “ordines minores,” of later date, from sub-deacon to ostiary, which formed the stepping-stone between the clergy proper and the people.
Thus we find, so early as the third century, the foundations of a complete hierarchy; though a hierarchy of only moral power, and holding no sort of outward control over the conscience. The body of the laity consisted of two classes: the faithful, or the baptized and communicating members, and the catechumens, who were preparing for baptism. Those church members who lived together in one place, formed a church in the narrower sense.
With the exaltation of the clergy appeared the tendency to separate them from secular business, and even from social relations — from marriage, for example — and to represent them, even outwardly, as a caste independent of the people, and devoted exclusively to the service of the sanctuary. They drew their support from the church treasury, which was supplied by voluntary contributions and weekly collections on the Lord’s Day. After the third century they were forbidden to engage in any secular business, or even to accept any trusteeship. Celibacy was not yet in this period enforced, but left optional. Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, and other distinguished church teachers, lived in wedlock, though theoretically preferring the unmarried state. Of an official clerical costume no certain trace appears before the fourth century; and if it came earlier into use, as may have been the case, after the example of the Jewish church, it must have been confined, during the times of persecution, to the actual exercises of worship.
With the growth of this distinction of clergy and laity, however, the idea of the universal priesthood continued from time to time to assert itself: in Irenaeus, for example, and in an eccentric form in the Montanists, who even allowed women to teach publicly in the church. So Tertullian, with whom clerus and laici were at one time familiar expressions, inquires, as the champion of the Montanistic reaction against the Catholic hierarchy: “Are not we laymen priests also?” It is written, he continues: “He hath made us kings and priests (Rev_1:6). It is the authority of the church alone which has made a distinction between clergy and laity. Where there is no college of ministers, you administer the sacrament, you baptize, you are a priest for yourself alone. And where there are three of you, there is a church, though you be only laymen. For each one lives by his own faith, and there is no respect of persons with God.” All, therefore, which the clergy considered peculiar to them, he claimed for the laity as the common sacerdotal privilege of all Christians.
Even in the Catholic church an acknowledgment of the general priesthood showed itself in the custom of requiring the baptized to say the Lord’s Prayer before the assembled congregation. With reference to this, Jerome says: “Sacerdotium laici, id est, baptisma.” The congregation also, at least in the West, retained for a long time the right of approval and rejection in the choice of its ministers, even of the bishop. Clement of Rome expressly requires the assent of the whole congregation for a valid election; and Cyprian terms this an apostolic and almost universal regulation. According to his testimony it obtained also in Rome, and was observed in the case of his contemporary, Cornelius. Sometimes in the filling of a vacant bishopric the “suffragium” of the people preceded the “judicium” of the clergy of the diocese. Cyprian, and afterwards Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustin, and other eminent prelates, were in a manner pressed into the bishopric in this democratic way. Cyprian, with all his high-church proclivities, declares it his principle to do nothing as bishop without the advice of the presbyters and deacons, and the consent of the people. A peculiar influence, which even the clergy could not withstand, attached to the “confessors,” and it was sometimes abused by them, as in their advocacy of the lapsed, who denied Christ in the Decian persecution.
Finally, we notice cases where the function of teaching was actually exercised by laymen. The bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea allowed the learned Origen to expound the Bible to their congregations before his ordination, and appealed to the example of several bishops in the East. Even in the Apostolical Constitutions there occurs, under the name of the Apostle Paul, the direction: “Though a man be a layman, if experienced in the delivery of instruction, and reverent in habit, he may teach; for the Scripture says: ‘They shall be all taught of God.’” The fourth general council at Carthage (398) prohibited laymen from teaching in the presence of clergymen and without their consent; implying at the same time, that with such permission the thing might be done.
It is worthy of notice that a number of the most eminent church teachers of this period, Hermas, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Arnobius, and Lactantius, were either laymen, or at most only presbyters. Hermas, who wrote one of the most popular and authoritative books in the early church, was probably a layman; perhaps also the author of the homily which goes under the name of the Second Epistle of Clement of Rome, and has recently been discovered in full both in the original Greek and in a Syriac translation; for he seems to distinguish himself and his hearers from the presbyters.
43. New Church Officers
The expansion of the church, the development of her cultus, and the tendency towards hierarchical pomp, led to the multiplication of offices below the diaconate, which formed the ordines minores. About the middle of the third century the following new officers are mentioned:
1. Sub-deacons, or under-helpers; assistants and deputies of the deacons; the only one of these subordinate offices for which a formal ordination was required. Opinions differ as to its value.
2. Readers, who read the Scriptures in the assembly and had charge of the church books.
3. Acolyths, attendants of the bishops in their official duties and processions.
4. Exorcists, who, by prayer and the laying on of hands, cast out the evil spirit from the possessed, and from catechumens, and frequently assisted in baptism. This power had been formerly considered a free gift of the Holy Spirit.
5. Precentors, for the musical parts of the liturgy, psalms, benedictions, responses, etc.
6. Janitors or sextons, who took care of the religious meeting-rooms, and at a later period also of the church-yards.
7. Besides these there were in the larger churches catechists, and, where the church language in the worship was not understood, interpreters; but the interpreting was commonly done by presbyters, deacons, or readers.
The bishop Cornelius of Rome (d. 252), in a letter on the Novatian schism, gives the number of officers in his church as follows: Forty-six presbyters, probably corresponding to the number of the meeting-houses of the Christians in the city; seven deacons, after the model of the church at Jerusalem (Act_6:1-15); seven sub-deacons; forty-two acolyths, and fifty-two exorcists, readers, and janitors.
As to the ordines majores, the deacons during this period rose in importance. In addition to their original duties of caring for the poor and sick, they baptized, distributed the sacramental cup, said the church prayers, not seldom preached, and were confidential advisers, sometimes even delegates and vicars of the bishops. This last is true especially of the “archdeacon,” who does not appear, however, till the fourth century. The presbyters, on the contrary, though above the deacons, were now overtopped by the new office of bishop, in which the entire government of the church became centred.
44. Origin of the Episcopate
Besides the works already cited, compare the special works and essays on the Ignatian controversy, published since 1837, by Rothe (close of his Anfänge, etc.), Hefele (R.C.), Baur, Hilgenfeld, Bunsen, Petermann, Cureton, Lipsius, Uhlhorn, Zahn, Lightfoot (I. 376 sqq). Also R. D. Hitchcock on the Origin of Episcopacy, N. Y. 1867 (in the “Am. Presbyt. & Theol. Review” for Jan. 1867, pp. 133-169); Lightfoot on the Christian Ministry (1873); Hatch on the Organization of the Early Christian Church (1881); Renan, L’Eglise chrétienne (1879), ch. VI. Progrés de l’épiscopat; and Gore, The Ministry of the Church (1889).
The most important and also the most difficult phenomenon of our period in the department of church organization is the rise and development of the episcopate as distinct from the presbyterate. This institution comes to view in the second century as the supreme spiritual office, and is retained to this day by all Roman and Greek Christendom, and by a large part of the Evangelical church, especially the Anglican communion. A form of government so ancient and so widely adopted, can be satisfactorily accounted for only on the supposition of a religious need, namely, the need of a tangible outward representation and centralization, to illustrate and embody to the people their relation to Christ and to God, and the visible unity of the church. It is therefore inseparable from the catholic principle of authority and mediation; while the protestant principle of freedom and direct intercourse of the believer with Christ, consistently carried out, infringes the strict episcopal constitution, and tends to ministerial equality. Episcopacy in the full sense of the term requires for its base the idea of a real priesthood and real sacrifice, and an essential distinction between clergy and laity. Divested of these associations, it resolves itself into a mere superintendency.
During the lifetime of the apostles, those eye- and ear-witnesses of the divine-human life of Jesus, and the inspired organs of the Holy Spirit, there was no room for proper bishops; and those who were so called, must have held only a subordinate place. The church, too, in the first century was as yet a strictly supernatural organization, a stranger in this world, standing with one foot in eternity, and longing for the second coming of her heavenly bridegroom. But in the episcopal constitution the church provided an extremely simple but compact and freely expansible organization, planted foot firmly upon earth, became an institution for the education of her infant people, and, as chiliastic hopes receded, fell into the path of quiet historical development; yet unquestionably she thus incurred also the danger of a secularization which reached its height just when the hierarchy became complete in the Roman church, and which finally necessitated a reformation on the basis of apostolical Christianity. That this secularization began with the growing power of the bishops even before Constantine and the Byzantine court orthodoxy, we perceive, for instance, in the lax penitential discipline, the avarice, and the corruption with which Hippolytus, in the ninth book of his Philosophumena, reproaches Zephyrinus and Callistus, the Roman bishops of his time (202-223); also in the example of the bishop Paul of Samosata, who was deposed in 269 on almost incredible charges, not only against his doctrine, but still more against his moral character. Origen complains that there are, especially in the larger cities, overseers of the people of God, who seek to outdo the pomp of heathen potentates, would surround themselves, like the emperors, with a body-guard, and make themselves terrible and inaccessible to the poor.
We consider, first, the origin of the episcopate. The unreliable character of our documents and traditions from the transition period between the close of the apostolic church and the beginning of the post-apostolic, leaves large room here for critical research and combination. First of all comes the question: Was the episcopate directly or indirectly of apostolic (Johannean) origin? Or did it arise after the death of the apostles, and develope itself from the presidency of the congregational presbytery? In other words, was the episcopate a continuation and contraction of, and substitute for, the apostolate, or was it an expansion and elevation of the presbyterate? The later view is more natural and better sustained by facts. Most of its advocates date the change from the time of Ignatius in the first quarter of the second century, while a few carry it further back to the close of the first, when St. John still lived in Ephesus.
I. For the apostolic origin of episcopacy the following points may be made:
(1) The position of James, who evidently stood at the head of the church at Jerusalem, and is called bishop, at least in the pseudo-Clementine literature, and in fact supreme bishop of the whole church. This instance, however, stands quite alone, and does not warrant an inference in regard to the entire church.
(2) The office of the assistants and delegates of the apostles, like Timothy, Titus, Silas, Epaphroditus, Luke, Mark, who had a sort of supervision of several churches and congregational officers, and in a measure represented the apostles in special missions. But, in any case, these were not limited, at least during the life of the apostles, each to a particular diocese; they were itinerant evangelists and legates of the apostles; only the doubtful tradition of a later day assigns them distinct bishoprics. If bishops at all, they were missionary bishops.
(3) The angels of the seven churches of Asia, who, if regarded as individuals, look very like the later bishops, and indicate a monarchical shaping of the church government in the days of John. But, apart from the various interpretations of the Apocalyptic ἄγγελοι, that office appears not co-ordinate with the apostolate of John, but subordinate to it, and was no more than a congregational superintendency.
(4) The testimony of Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of John, in his seven (or three) epistles from the beginning of the second century (even according to the shorter Syriac version), presupposes the episcopate, in distinction from the presbyterate, as already existing, though as a new institution, yet in its growth.
(5) The statement of Clement of Alexandria, that John instituted bishops after his return from Patmos; and the accounts of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Eusebius, and Jerome, that the same apostle nominated and ordained Polycarp (with whom Irenaeus was personally acquainted) bishop of Smyrna.
(6) The uncertain tradition in Eusebius, who derived it probably from Hegesippus, that the surviving apostles and disciples of the apostles, soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, elected Symeon, the son of Klopas and a cousin of Jesus, bishop of that city and successor of James. But this arrangement at best was merely local, and not general.
(7) The tradition of the churches of Antioch and Rome, which trace their line of bishops back to apostolic institution, and kept the record of an unbroken succession.
(8) A passage in the second of the Pfaff Fragments of Irenaeus, which speaks of “second ordinances of the apostles” (δεύτεραι τῶν ἀποστόλων διατάξεις). Rothe understands by these the institution of the episcopate. But aside from the doubtful genuineness of the Fragments, these words are at all events of unsettled interpretation, and, according to the connection, relate not to the government of the church at all, but to the celebration of the eucharist.
(9) Equally uncertain is the conclusion drawn from an obscure passage in the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, which admits of different interpretations. The apostles, it is said, foreseeing the future controversy about the name of the episcopal office, appointed bishops and deacons, and afterwards made the disposition, that when they should fall asleep, other approved men should follow them in office. Rothe refers “they” and “them” to the apostles as the main subject. But these words naturally refer to the congregational officers just before mentioned, and in this case the “other approved men” are not successors of the apostles, but of the presbyter-bishops and deacons. This view is sustained by the connection. The difficulty in the Corinthian congregation was a rebellion, not against a single bishop, but against a number of presbyter-bishops, and Clement reminds them that the apostles instituted this office not only for the first generation, but provided for a permanent succession, and that the officers were appointed for life, and could therefore not be deposed so long as they discharged their duties. Hence he goes on to say, immediately after the disputed passage in chapter 44: “Wherefore we think that those cannot justly be thrown out of their ministry who were appointed either by them (the apostles), or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole congregation; and who have with all lowliness and innocency ministered to the flock of Christ, in peace, and without self-interest, and were for a long time commended by all.”
(10) Finally, the philosophical consideration, that the universal and uncontested spread of the episcopate in the second century cannot be satisfactorily explained without the presumption of at least the indirect sanction of the apostles. By the same argument the observance of Sunday and infant baptism are usually traced to apostolic origin. But it is not quite conclusive, since most of the apostles died before the destruction of Jerusalem. It could only apply to John, who was the living centre of the church in Asia Minor to the close of the first century.
II. The theory of the post-apostolic origin of the episcopate as a separate office or order, and its rise out of the presidency of the original congregational presbyterate, by way of human, though natural and necessary, development, is supported by the following facts:
(1) The undeniable identity of presbyters and bishops in the New Testament, conceded even by the best interpreters among the church fathers, by Jerome, Chrysostom, and Theodoret, and by the best scholars of recent times.
(2) Later, at the close of the first and even in the second century, the two terms are still used in like manner for the same office. The Roman bishop Clement, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians says, that the apostles, in the newly-founded churches, appointed the first fruits of the faith, i.e., the first converts, “bishops and deacons.” He here omits the πρεσβύτεροι, as Paul does in Phi_1:1, for the simple reason that they are in his view identical with ἐπίσκοποι; while conversely, in c. 57, he enjoins subjection to presbyters, without mentioning bishops. The Didache mentions bishops and deacons, but no presbyters. Clement of Alexandria distinguishes, it is true, the deaconate, the presbyterate, and the episcopate; but he supposes only a two-fold official character, that of presbyters, and that of deacons — a view which found advocates so late as the middle ages, even in pope Urban II., a.d. 1091. Lastly, Irenaeus, towards the close of the second century, though himself a bishop, makes only a relative difference between episcopi and presbyteri; speaks of successions of the one in the same sense as of the other; terms the office of the latter episcopatus; and calls the bishops of Rome “presbyters”. Sometimes, it is true, he appears to use the term “presbyters” in a more general sense, for the old men, the fathers. (2Jo_1:1 and 3Jo_1:1). But in any case his language shows that the distinction between the two offices was at that time still relative and indefinite.
(3) The express testimony of the learned Jerome, that the churches originally, before divisions arose through the instigation of Satan, were governed by the common council of the presbyters, and not till a later period was one of the presbyters placed at the head, to watch over the church and suppress schisms. He traces the difference of the office simply to “ecclesiastical” custom as distinct from divine institution.
(4) The custom of the church of Alexandria, where, from the evangelist Mark down to the middle of the third century, the twelve presbyters elected one of their number president, and called him bishop. This fact rests on the authority of Jerome, and is confirmed independently by the Annals of the Alexandrian patriarch, Eutychius, of the tenth century. The latter states that Mark instituted in that city a patriarch (this is an anachronism) and twelve presbyters, who should fill the vacant patriarchate by electing and ordaining to that office one of their number and then electing a new presbyter, so as always to retain the number twelve. He relates, moreover, that down to the time of Demetrius, at the end of the second century, there was no bishop in Egypt besides the one at Alexandria; consequently there could have been no episcopal ordination except by going out of the province.
III. Conclusion. The only satisfactory conclusion from these various facts and traditions seems to be, that the episcopate proceeded, both in the descending and ascending scale, from the apostolate and the original presbyterate conjointly, as a contraction of the former and an expansion of the latter, without either express concert or general regulation of the apostles, neither of which, at least, can be historically proved. It arose, instinctively, as it were, in that obscure and critical transition period between the end of the first and the middle of the second century. It was not a sudden creation, much less the invention of a single mind. It grew, in part, out of the general demand for a continuation of, or substitute for, the apostolic church government, and this, so far as it was transmissible at all, very naturally passed first to the most eminent disciples and fellow-laborers of the apostles, to Mark, Luke, Timothy, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, which accounts for the fact that tradition makes them all bishops in the prominent sense of the term. It was further occasioned by the need of a unity in the presbyterial government of congregations, which, in the nature of the case and according to the analogy of the Jewish ἀρχισυνάγωγος (Mar_5:35, Mar_5:36, Mar_5:38; Luk_8:41-49; Act_18:8-17), required a head or president. This president was called bishop, at first only by eminence, as primus inter pares; afterwards in the exclusive sense. In the smaller churches there was, perhaps, from the beginning, only one presbyter, who of himself formed this centre, like the chorepiscopi or country-bishops in the fourth century. The dioceses of the bishops in Asia Minor and North Africa, owing to their large number, in the second and third centuries, can hardly have exceeded the extent of respectable pastoral charges. James of Jerusalem, on the other hand, and his immediate successors, whose positions in many respects were altogether peculiar, seem to have been the only bishops in Palestine. Somewhat similar was the state of things in Egypt, where, down to Demetrius (a.d. 190-232), we find only the one bishop of Alexandria.
We cannot therefore assume any strict uniformity. But the whole church spirit of the age tended towards centralization; it everywhere felt a demand for compact, solid unity; and this inward bent, amidst the surrounding dangers of persecution and heresy, carried the church irresistibly towards the episcopate. In so critical and stormy a time, the principle, union is strength, division is weakness, prevailed over all. In fact, the existence of the church at that period may be said to have depended in a great measure on the preservation and promotion of unity, and that in an outward, tangible form, suited to the existing grade of culture. Such a unity was offered in the bishop, who held a monarchical, or more properly a patriarchal relation to the congregation. In the bishop was found the visible representative of Christ, the great Head of the whole church. In the bishop, therefore, all sentiments of piety found a centre. In the bishop the whole religious posture of the people towards God and towards Christ had its outward support and guide. And in proportion as every church pressed towards a single centre, this central personage must acquire a peculiar importance and subordinate the other presbyters to itself; though, at the same time, as the language of Clement and Irenaeus, the state of things in Egypt, and even in North Africa, and the testimony of Jerome and other fathers, clearly prove, the remembrance of the original equality could not be entirely blotted out, but continued to show itself in various ways.
Besides this there was also a powerful practical reason for elevating the powers of the bishop. Every Christian congregation was a charitable society, regarding the care of the widow and orphan, the poor and the stranger as a sacred trust; and hence the great importance of the bishop as the administrative officer by whom the charitable funds were received and the alms disbursed. In Greek communities the title bishop (ἐπίσκοπος, ἐπιμελιτής), was in wide use for financial officers. Their administrative functions brought them in close relation to the deacons, as their executive aids in the care of the poor and sick. The archdeacon became the right arm, the “eye” and “heart” of the bishop. In primitive times every case of poverty or suffering was separately brought to the notice of the bishop and personally relieved by a deacon. Afterwards institutions were founded for widows and orphans, poor and infirm, and generally placed under the superintendence of the bishop; but personal responsibility was diminished by this organized charity, and the deacons lost their original significance and became subordinate officers of public worship.
Whatever may be thought, therefore, of the origin and the divine right of the episcopate, no impartial historian can deny its adaptation to the wants of the church at the time, and its historical necessity.
But then, this primitive catholic episcopal system must by no means be confounded with the later hierarchy. The dioceses, excepting those of Jerusalem, Ephesus, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome, must have long remained very small, if we look at the number of professing Christians. In the Apocalypse seven such centres of unity are mentioned within a comparatively small compass in Asia Minor, and at a time when the number of Christians was insignificant. In the year 258, Cyprian assembled a council of eighty-seven bishops of North Africa. The functions of the bishops were not yet strictly separated from those of the presbyters, and it was only by degrees that ordination, and, in the Western church, confirmation also, came to be intrusted exclusively to the bishops.
45. Development of the Episcopate. Ignatius
It is matter of fact that the episcopal form of government was universally established in the Eastern and Western church as early as the middle of the second century. Even the heretical sects, at least the Ebionites, as we must infer from the commendation of the episcopacy in the pseudo-Clementine literature, were organized on this plan, as well as the later schismatic parties of Novatians, Donatists, etc. But it is equally undeniable, that the episcopate reached its complete form only step by step. In the period before us we must note three stages in this development connected with the name of Ignatius in Syria (d. 107 or 115), Irenaeus in Gaul (d. 202), and Cyprian in North Africa (d. 258).
The episcopate first appears, as distinct from the presbyterate, but as a congregational office only (in distinction from the diocesan idea), and as yet a young institution, greatly needing commendation, in the famous seven (or three) Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch a disciple of the apostles, and the second bishop of that see (Evodius being the first, and Hero the third). He is also the first who uses the term “catholic church,” as if episcopacy and catholicity sprung up simultaneously. The whole story of Ignatius is more legendary than real, and his writings are subject to grave suspicion of fraudulent interpolation. We have three different versions of the Ignatian Epistles, but only one of them can be genuine; either the smaller Greek version, or the lately discovered Syriac. In the latter, which contains only three epistles, most of the passages on the episcopate are wanting, indeed; yet the leading features of the institution appear even here, and we can recognise ex ungue leonem. In any case they reflect the public sentiment before the middle of the second century.
The substance of these epistles (with the exception of that to the Romans, in which, singularly enough, not a word is said about bishops), consists of earnest exhortations to obey the bishop and maintain the unity of the church against the Judaistic and docetic heresies. With the near prospect and the most ardent desire for martyrdom, the author has no more fervent wish than the perfect inward and outward unity of the faithful; and to this the episcopate seems to him indispensable. In his view Christ is the invisible supreme head, the one great universal bishop of all the churches scattered over the earth. The human bishop is the centre of unity for the single congregation, and stands in it as the vicar of Christ and even of God. The people, therefore, should unconditionally obey him, and do nothing without his will. Blessed are they who are one with the bishop, as the church is with Christ, and Christ with the Father, so that all harmonizes in unity. Apostasy from the bishop is apostasy from Christ, who acts in and through the bishops as his organs.
We shall give passages from the shorter Greek text (as edited by Zahn):
If any one is able to continue in purity (ἐν ἀγνείᾳ i.e., in the state of celibacy), to the honor of the flesh of our Lord, let him continue so without boasting; if he boasts, he is lost (ἀπώλετο); if he become known more than the bishop, he is corrupt (ἔφθαρται). It is becoming, therefore, to men and women who marry, that they marry by the counsel of the bishop, that the marriage may be in the Lord, and not in lust. Let ever thing be done for the honor of God. Look to the bishop, that God also [may look] upon you. I will be in harmony with those who are subject to the bishop, and the presbyters, and the deacons; with them may I have a portion near God!” This passage is one of the strongest, and occurs in the Syriac Epistle to Polycarp as well as in the shorter Greek recension. It characteristically connected episcopacy with celibacy: the ascetic system of Catholicism starts in celibacy, as the hierarchical organization of Catholicism takes its rise in episcopacy. “It becomes you to be in harmony with the mind (or sentence, γνώμῃ) of the bishop, as also ye do. For your most estimable presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted to the bishop as the strings are to the harp.” “It is evident that we should look upon the bishop as we do upon the Lord himself.” “I exhort you that ye study to do all things with a divine concord: the bishop presiding in the place of God (εἰς τόπον θεοῦ), and presbyters in the place of the college of the apostles, (εις τόπον συνεδρίου τῶν ἀποστόλων), and the deacons, most dear to me, being intrusted with the ministry (διακονίαν) of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before all ages, and in the end appeared to us.” “Be subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Christ [was subject] to the Father according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ and to the Father and to the Spirit, in order that the union be carnal (σαρκική), as well as spiritual.” “It is necessary, as is your habit, to do nothing without the bishop, and that ye should be subject also to the presbytery (τῶ πρεσβυτερίῳ), as to the apostles of Jesus Christ.” “As many as are of God and of Jesus Christ, are also with their bishop.” “Let all of you follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ [follows] the Father; and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons as the ordinance of God. Without the bishop let no one do anything connected with the church. Let that eucharist be accounted valid which is [offered] under the bishop or by one he has appointed. Wherever the bishop is found, there let the people be; as wherever Christ is, there is the catholic church. Without the bishop it is not lawful either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast.”
This is the first time that the term “catholic” is applied to the church, and that episcopacy is made a condition of catholicity.
“He that honors the bishop, shall be honored by God; he that does anything without the knowledge of the bishop serves the devil.”
This is making salvation pretty much depend upon obedience to the bishop; just as Leo I., three centuries later, in the controversy with Hilary of Arles, made salvation depend upon obedience to the pope by declaring every rebel against the pope to be a servant of the devil! Such daring superabundance of episcopalianism clearly betrays some special design and raises the suspicion of forgery or large interpolations. But it may also be explained as a special pleading for a novelty which to the mind of the writer was essential to the very existence of the church.
The peculiarity in this Ignatian view is that the bishop appears in it as the head and centre of a single congregation, and not as equally the representative of the whole church; also, that (as in the pseudo-Clementine Homilies) he is the vicar of Christ, and not, as in the later view, merely the successor of the apostles, — the presbyters and deacons around him being represented as those successors; and finally, that there are no distinctions of order among the bishops, no trace of a primacy; all are fully coordinate vicars of Christ, who provides for himself in them, as it were, a sensible, perceptible omnipresence in the church. The Ignatian episcopacy, in short, is congregational, not diocesan; a new and growing institution, not a settled policy of apostolic origin.
46. Episcopacy at the Time of Irenaeus and Tertullian
In all these points the idea of the episcopate in Irenaeus, the great opponent of Gnosticism (about 180), is either lower or higher. This father represents the institution as a diocesan office, and as the continuation of the apostolate, the vehicle of the catholic tradition, and the support of doctrinal unity in opposition to heretical vagaries. He exalts the bishops of the original apostolic churches, above all the church of Rome, and speaks with great emphasis of an unbroken episcopal succession as a test of apostolic teaching and a bulwark against heresy.
At the same time the wavering terminology of Irenaeus in the interchangeable use of the words “bishop” and “presbyter” reminds us of Clement of Rome, and shows that the distinction of the two orders was not yet fully fixed.
The same view of the episcopal succession as the preserver of apostolic tradition and guardian of orthodox doctrine, we find also, though less frequently, in the earlier writings of Tertullian, with this difference that he uniformly and clearly distinguishes bishops and presbyters, and thus proves a more advanced state of the episcopal polity at his time (about 200). But afterwards, in the chiliastic and democratic cause of Montanism, he broke with the episcopal hierarchy, and presented against it the antithesis that the church does not consist of bishops, and that the laity are also priests.
47. Cyprianic Episcopacy
The old catholic episcopalianism reached its maturity in the middle of the third century in the teaching and example of Cyprian, bishop and martyr of the church in North Africa. He represents the claims of episcopacy in close connection with the idea of a special priesthood and sacrifice. He is the typical high-churchman of the ante-Nicene age. He vigorously put into practice what he honestly believed. He had a good opportunity to assert his authority in the controversy about the lapsed during the Decian persecution, in the schism of Felicissimus, and in the controversy on heretical baptism.
Cyprian considers the bishops as the bearers of the Holy Spirit, who passed from Christ to the apostles, from them by ordination to the bishops, propagates himself in an unbroken line of succession, and gives efficacy to all religious exercises. Hence they are also the pillars of the unity of the church; nay, in a certain sense they are the church itself. “The bishop,” says he, “is in the church, and the church in the bishop, and if any one is not with the bishop he is not in the church.” And this is the same with him as to say, he is no Christian. Cyprian is thoroughly imbued with the idea of the solidary unity of the episcopate, — the many bishops exercising only one office in solidum, each within his diocese, and each at the same time representing in himself the whole office.
But with all this, the bishop still appears in Cyprian in the closest connexion with the presbyters. He undertook no important matter without their advice. The fourth general council, at Carthage, a.d. 398, even declared the sentence of a bishop, without the concurrence of the lower clergy, void, and decreed that in the ordination of a presbyter, all the presbyters, with the bishop, should lay their hands on the candidate.
The ordination of a bishop was performed by the neighboring bishops, requiring at least three in number. In Egypt, however, so long as there was but one bishop there, presbyters must have performed the consecration, which Eutychius and Hilary the Deacon expressly assert was the case.
48. The Pseudo-Clementine Episcopacy
Besides this orthodox or catholic formation of the episcopate, the kindred monarchical hierarchy of the Ebionitic sect deserves attention, as it meets us in the pseudo-Clementine Homilies. Chronologically this falls in the middle of the second century, between Ignatius and Irenaeus, and forms a sort of transition from the former to the latter; though it cannot exactly be said to have influenced the Catholic church. It is rather a heretical counterpart of the orthodox episcopate. The organization which consolidated the Catholic church answered the same purpose for a sect. The author of the pseudo-Clementine, like Ignatius, represents the bishop as the vicar of Christ, and at the same time, according to the view of Irenaeus, as the vicar and successor of the apostles; but outstrips both in his high hierarchical expressions, such as κάθεδρα θρόνος τοῦ ἐπισκόπου, and in his idea of the primacy, or of a universal church monarchy, which he finds, however, not as Irenaeus suggests and Cyprian more distinctly states, in Peter and the Roman see, but, agreeably to his Judaistic turn, in James of, Jerusalem, the “bishop of bishops.”
The Manichaeans had likewise a hierarchical organization (as the Mormons in modern times).
Montanism, on the other hand, was a democratic reaction against the episcopal hierarchy in favor of the general priesthood, and the liberty of teaching and prophesying, but it was excommunicated and died out, till it reappeared under a different form in Quakerism.
49. Beginnings of the Metropolitan and Patriarchal Systems
Though the bishops were equal in their dignity and powers as successors of the apostles, they gradually fell into different ranks, according to the ecclesiastical and political importance of their several districts.
1. On the lowest level stood the bishops of the country churches, the chorepiscopi who, though not mentioned before the beginning of the fourth century, probably originated at an earlier period. They stood between the presbyters and the city bishops, and met the wants of episcopal supervision in the villages of large dioceses in Asia Minor and Syria, also in Gaul.
2. Among the city bishops the metropolitans rose above the rest, that is, the bishops of the capital cities of the provinces. They presided in the provincial synods, and, as primi inter pares, ordained the bishops of the province. The metropolitan system appears, from the Council of Nicaea in 325, to have been already in operation at the time of Constantine and Eusebius, and was afterwards more fully carried out in the East. In North Africa the oldest bishop, hence called senex, stood as primas, at the head of his province; but the bishop of Carthage enjoyed the highest consideration, and could summon general councils.
3. Still older and more important is the distinction of apostolic mother-churches, such as those at Jerusalem, Antioch) Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. In the time of Irenaeus and Tertullian they were held in the highest regard, as the chief bearers of the pure church tradition. Among these Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome were most prominent, because they were the capitals respectively of the three divisions (eparchiae) of the Roman empire, and centres of trade and intercourse, combining with their apostolic origin the greatest political weight. To the bishop of Antioch fell all Syria as his metropolitan district; to the bishop of Alexandria, all Egypt; to the bishop of Rome, central and lower Italy, without definite boundaries.
4. Here we have the germs of the eparchal or patriarchal system, to which the Greek church to this day adheres. The name patriarch was at first, particularly in the East, an honorary title for all bishops, and was not till the fourth century exclusively appropriated to the bishops of the three ecclesiastical and political capitals of the Roman empire, Antioch, Alexandria and Rome, and also to the bishop of Jerusalem honoris causa, and the bishop of Constantinople or New Rome. So in the West the term papa afterwards appropriated by the Roman bishop, as summus pontifex, vicarius Christi, was current for a long time in a more general application.