Vol. 3, Chapter V. The Hierarchy and Polity of the Church

Comp. in part the literature in vol. i. §105 and 110 (to which should be added now, P. A. de Lagarde: Constitutiones Apostolorum, Lips. and Lond., 1862); also Gibbon, ch. xx.; Milman: Hist. of Ancient Christianity, book iv. c. 1 (Amer. ed. p. 438 sqq.), and the corresponding sections in Bingham, Schröckh, Plank, Neander, Gieseler, Baur, etc. (see the particular literature below).


48. Schools of the Clergy

Having in a former section observed the elevation of the church to the position of the state religion of the Roman empire, and the influence of this great change upon the condition of the clergy and upon public morality, we turn now to the internal organization and the development of the hierarchy under its new circumstances. The step of progress which we here find distinguishing the organization of this third period from the episcopal system of the second and the apostolic supervision of the first, is the rise of the patriarchal constitution and of the system of ecumenical councils closely connected with it. But we must first glance at the character and influence of the teaching order in general.

The work of preparation for the clerical office was, on the one hand, materially facilitated by the union of the church with the state, putting her in possession of the treasures, the schools, the learning, and the literature of classic heathendom, and throwing the education of the rising generation into her hands. The numerous doctrinal controversies kept the spirit of investigation awake, and among the fathers and bishops of the fourth and fifth centuries we meet with the greatest theologians of the ancient church. These gave their weighty voices for the great value of a thorough education to the clerical office, and imparted much wholesome instruction respecting the studies proper to this purpose. The African church, by a decree of the council of Carthage, in 397, required of candidates a trial of their knowledge and orthodoxy. A law of Justinian, of the year 541, established a similar test in the East.

But on the other hand, a regular and general system of clerical education was still entirely wanting. The steady decay of the classic literature, the gradual cessation of philosophical and artistic production, the growth of monastic prejudice against secular learning and culture, the great want of ministers in the suddenly expanded field of the church, the uneasy state of the empire, and the barbarian invasions, were so many hinderances to thorough theological preparation. Many candidates trusted to the magical virtue of ordination. Others, without inward call, were attracted to the holy office by the wealth and power of the church. Others had no time or opportunity for preparation, and passed, at the instance of the popular voice or of circumstances, immediately from the service of the state to that of the church, even to the episcopal office; though several councils prescribed a previous test of their capacity in the lower degrees of reader, deacon, and presbyter. Often, however, this irregularity turned to the advantage of the church, and gave her a highly gifted man, like Ambrose, whom the acclamation of the people called to the episcopal see of Milan even before he was baptized. Gregory Nazianzen laments that many priests and bishops came in fresh from the counting house, sunburnt from the plow, from the oar, from the army, or even from the theatre, so that the most holy order of all was in danger of becoming the most ridiculous. “Only he can be a physician,” says he, “who knows the nature of diseases; he, a painter, who has gone through much practice in mixing colors and in drawing forms; but a clergyman may be found with perfect ease, not thoroughly wrought, of course, but fresh made, sown and full blown in a moment, as the legend says of the giants. We form the saints in a day, and enjoin them to be wise, though they possess no wisdom at all, and bring nothing to their spiritual office, except at best a good will.” If such complaints were raised so early as the end of the Nicene age, while the theological activity of the Greek church was in its bloom, there was far more reason for them after the middle of the fifth century and in the sixth, especially in the Latin church, where, even among the most eminent clergymen, a knowledge of the original languages of the Holy Scriptures was a rare exception.

The opportunities which this period offered for literary and theological preparation for the ministry, were the following:

1. The East had four or five theological schools, which, however, were far from supplying its wants.

The oldest and most celebrated was the catechetical school of Alexandria. Favored by the great literary treasures, the extensive commercial relations, and the ecclesiastical importance of the Egyptian metropolis, as well as by a succession of distinguished teachers, it flourished from the middle of the second century to the end of the fourth, when, amidst the Origenistic, Nestorian, and Monophysite confusion, it withered and died. Its last ornament was the blind, but learned and pious Didymus (340-395).

From the Alexandrian school proceeded the smaller institution of Caesarea in Palestine, which was founded by Origen, after his banishment from Alexandria, and received a new but temporary impulse in the beginning of the fourth century from his admirer, the presbyter Pamphilus, and from his friend Eusebius. It possessed the theological library which Eusebius used in the preparation of his learned works.

Far more important was the theological school of Antioch, founded about 290 by the presbyters Dorotheus and Lucian. It developed in the course of the fourth century a severe grammatico-historical exegesis, counter to the Origenistic allegorical method of the Alexandrians; now in connection with the church doctrine, as in Chrysostom; now in a rationalizing spirit, as in Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius.

The seminary at Edessa, a daughter of the Antiochian school, was started by the learned deacon, Ephraim Syrus († 378), furnished ministers for Mesopotamia and Persia, and stood for about a hundred years.

The Nestorians, at the close of the fifth century, founded a seminary at Nisibis in Mesopotamia, which was organized into several classes and based upon a definite plan of instruction.

The West had no such institutions for theological instruction, but supplied itself chiefly from cloisters and private schools of the bishops. Cassiodorus endeavored to engage Pope Agapetus in founding a learned institution in Rome, but was discouraged by the warlike disquietude of Italy. Jerome spent some time at the Alexandrian school under the direction of Didymus.

2. Many priests and bishops, as we have already observed, emanated from the monasteries, where they enjoyed the advantages of retirement from the world, undisturbed meditation, the intercourse of kindred earnest minds, and a large spiritual experience; but, on the other hand, easily sank into a monkish narrowness, and rarely attained that social culture and comprehensive knowledge of the world and of men, which is necessary, especially in large cities, for a wide field of labor.

3. In the West there were smaller diocesan seminaries, under the direction of the bishops, who trained their own clergy, both in theory and in practice, as they passed through the subordinate classes of reader, sub-deacon, and deacon.

Augustine set a good example of this sort, having at Hippo a “monasterium clericorum,” which sent forth many good presbyters and bishops for the various dioceses of North Africa. Similar clerical monasteries or episcopal seminaries arose gradually in the southern countries of Europe, and are very common in the Roman Catholic church to this day.

4. Several of the most learned and able fathers of the fourth century received their general scientific education in heathen schools, under the setting sun of the classic culture, and then studied theology either in ascetic retirement or under some distinguished church teacher, or by the private reading of the Scriptures and the earlier church literature.

Thus Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen were in the high school of Athens at the same time with the prince Julian the Apostate; Chrysostom attended the lectures of the celebrated rhetorician Libanius in Antioch; Augustine studied at Carthage, Rome, and Milan; and Jerome was introduced to the study of the classics by the grammarian Donatus of Rome. The great and invaluable service of these fathers in the development and defence of the church doctrine, in pulpit eloquence, and especially in the translation and exposition of the Holy Scriptures, is the best evidence of the high value of a classical education. And the church has always, with good reason, acknowledged it.


49. Clergy and Laity. Elections

The clergy, according to the precedent of the Old Testament, came to be more and more rigidly distinguished, as a peculiar order, from the body of the laity. The ordination, which was solemnized by the laying on of hands and prayer, with the addition at a later period of an anointing with oil and balsam, marked the formal entrance into the special priesthood, as baptism initiated into the universal priesthood; and, like baptism, it bore an indefeasible character (character indelebilis). By degrees the priestly office assumed the additional distinction of celibacy and of external marks, such as tonsure, and sacerdotal vestments worn at first only during official service, then in every-day life. The idea of the universal priesthood of believers retreated in proportion, though it never passed entirely out of sight, but was from time to time asserted even in this age. Augustine, for example, says, that as all are called Christians on account of their baptism, so all believers are priests, because they are members of the one High Priest.

The progress of the hierarchical principle also encroached gradually upon the rights of the people in the election of their pastors. But in this period it did not as yet entirely suppress them. The lower clergy were chosen by the bishops, the bishops by their colleagues in the province and by the clergy. The fourth canon of Nice, probably at the instance of the Meletian schism, directed that a bishop should be instituted and consecrated by all, or at least by three, of the bishops of the province. This was not aimed, however, against the rights of the people, but against election by only one bishop — the act of Meletius. For the consent of the people in the choice of presbyters, and especially of bishops, long remained, at least in outward form, in memory of the custom of the apostles and the primitive church. There was either a formal vote, particularly when there were three or more candidates before the people, or the people were thrice required to signify their confirmation or rejection by the formula: “Worthy,” or “unworthy.” The influence of the people in this period appears most prominently in the election of bishops. The Roman bishop Leo, in spite of his papal absolutism, asserted the thoroughly democratic principle, long since abandoned by his successors: “He who is to preside over all, should be elected by all.” Oftentimes the popular will decided before the provincial bishops and the clergy assembled and the regular election could be held. Ambrose of Milan and Nectarius of Constantinople were appointed to the bishopric even before they were baptized; the former by the people, the latter by the emperor Theodosius; though in palpable violation of the eightieth apostolic canon and the second Nicene. Martin of Tours owed his elevation likewise to the popular voice, while some bishops objected to it on account of his small and wasted form. Chrysostom was called from Antioch to Constantinople by the emperor Arcadius, in consequence of a unanimous vote of the clergy and people. Sometimes the people acted under outside considerations and the management of demagogues, and demanded unworthy or ignorant men for the highest offices. Thus there were frequent disturbances and collisions, and even bloody conflicts, as in the election of Damasus in Rome. In short, all the selfish passions and corrupting influences, which had spoiled the freedom of the popular political elections in the Grecian and Roman republics, and which appear also in the republics of modern times, intruded upon the elections of the church. And the clergy likewise often suffered themselves to be guided by impure motives. Chrysostom laments that presbyters, in the choice of a bishop, instead of looking only at spiritual fitness, were led by regard for noble birth, or great wealth, or consanguinity and friendship. The bishops themselves sometimes did no better. Nectarius, who was suddenly transferred, in 381, by the emperor Theodosius, from the praetorship to the bishopric of Constantinople, even before he was baptized, wished to ordain his physician Martyrius deacon, and when the latter refused, on the ground of incapacity, he replied: “Did not I, who am now a priest, formerly live much more immorally than thou, as thou thyself well knowest, since thou wast often an accomplice of my many iniquities?” Martyrius, however, persisted in his refusal, because he had continued to live in sin long after his baptism, while Nectarius had become a new man since his.

The emperor also, after the middle of the fourth century, exercised a decisive influence in the election of metropolitans and patriarchs, and often abused it in a despotic and arbitrary way.

Thus every mode of appointment was evidently exposed to abuse, and could furnish no security against unworthy candidates, if the electors, whoever they might be, were destitute of moral earnestness and the gift of spiritual discernment.

Toward the end of the period before us the republican element in the election of bishops entirely disappeared. The Greek church after the eighth century vested the franchise exclusively in the bishops. The Latin church, after the eleventh century, vested it in the clergy of the cathedral church, without allowing any participation to the people. But in the West, especially in Spain and France, instead of the people, the temporal prince exerted an important influence, in spite of the frequent protest of the church.

Even the election of pope, after the downfall of the West Roman empire, came largely under control of the secular authorities of Rome; first, of the Ostrogothic kings; then, of the exarchs of Ravenna in the name of the Byzantine emperor; and, after Charlemagne, of the emperor of Germany; till, in 1059, through the influence of Hildebrand (afterward Gregory VII.), it was lodged exclusively with the college of cardinals, which was filled by the pope himself. Yet the papal absolutism of the middle age, like the modern Napoleonic military despotism in the state, found it well, under favorable prospects, to enlist the democratic principle for the advancement of its own interests.


50. Marriage and Celibacy of the Clergy

See Lit. on clerical celibacy in vol. ii, especially Theiner, Lea, and von Schulte.

The progress and influence of monasticism, the general exaltation of the ascetic life above the social, and of celibacy above the married state, together with the increasing sharpness of the distinction between clergy and laity, all tended powerfully toward the celibacy of the clergy. What the apostle Paul, expressly discriminating a divine command from a human counsel, left to each one’s choice, and advised, in view of the oppressed condition of the Christians in the apostolic age, as a safer and less anxious state only for those who felt called to it by a special gift of grace, now, though the stress of circumstances was past, was made, at least in the Latin church, an inexorable law. What had been a voluntary, and therefore an honorable exception, now became the rule, and the former rule became the exception. Connubial intercourse appeared incompatible with the dignity and purity of the priestly office and of priestly functions, especially with the service of the altar. The clergy, as the model order, could not remain below the moral ideal of monasticism, extolled by all the fathers of the church, and must exhibit the same unconditional and undivided devotion to the church within the bosom of society, which monasticism exhibited without it. While placed by their calling in unavoidable contact with the world, they must vie with the monks at least in the virtue of sexual purity, and thereby increase their influence over the people. Moreover, the celibate life secured to the clergy greater independence toward the state and civil society, and thus favored the interests of the hierarchy. But, on the other hand, it estranged them more and more from the sympathies and domestic relations of the people, and tempted them to the illicit indulgence of appetite, which, perhaps, did more injury to the cause of Christian morality and to the true influence of the clergy, than the advantage of forced celibacy could compensate.

In the practice of clerical celibacy, however, the Greek and the Latin churches diverged in the fourth century, and are to this day divided. The Greek church stopped halfway, and limited the injunction of celibacy to the higher clergy, who were accordingly chosen generally from the monasteries or from the ranks of widower-presbyters; while the Latin church extended the law to the lower clergy, and at the same time carried forward the hierarchical principle to absolute papacy. The Greek church differs from the Latin, not by any higher standard of marriage, but only by a closer adherence to earlier usage and by less consistent application of the ascetic principle. It is in theory as remote from the evangelical Protestant church as the Latin is, and approaches it only in practice. It sets virginity far above marriage, and regards marriage only in its aspect of negative utility. In the single marriage of a priest it sees in a measure a necessary evil, at best only a conditional good, a wholesome concession to the flesh for the prevention of immorality, (1Co_7:9) and requires of its highest office bearers total abstinence from all matrimonial intercourse. It wavers, therefore, between a partial permission and a partial condemnation of priestly marriage.

In the East, one marriage was always allowed to the clergy, and at first even to bishops, and celibacy was left optional. Yet certain restrictions were early introduced, such as the prohibition of marriage after ordination (except in deacons and subdeacons), as well as of second marriage after baptism; the apostolic direction, that a bishop should be the husband of one wife, (1Ti_3:2, 1Ti_3:12; Tit_1:6) being taken as a prohibition of successive polygamy, and at the same time as an allowance of one marriage. Besides second marriage, the marrying of a concubine, a widow, a harlot, a slave, and an actress, was forbidden to the clergy. With these restrictions, the “Apostolic Constitutions” and “Canons” expressly permitted the marriage of priests contracted before ordination, and the continuance of it after ordination. The synod of Ancyra, in 314, permitted deacons to marry even after ordination, in case they had made a condition to that effect beforehand; otherwise they were to remain single or lose their office. The Synod of New Caesarea, which was held at about the same time, certainly before 325, does not go beyond this, decreeing: “If a presbyter (not a deacon) marry (that is, after ordination), he shall be expelled from the clergy; and if he practise lewdness, or become an adulterer, he shall be utterly thrust out and held to penance.” At the general council of Nice, 325, it was proposed indeed, probably by the Western bishop Hosius, to forbid entirely the marriage of priests; but the motion met with strong opposition, and was rejected. A venerable Egyptian bishop, Paphnutius, though himself a strict ascetic from his youth up, and a confessor who in the last persecution had lost an eye and been crippled in the knee, asserted with impressiveness and success, that too great rigor would injure the church and promote licentiousness and that marriage and connubial intercourse were honorable and spotless things. The council of Gangra in Paphlagonia (according to some, not till the year 380) condemned, among several ascetic extravagances of the bishop Eustathius of Sebaste and his followers, contempt for married priests and refusal to take part in their ministry. The so-called Apostolic Canons, which, like the Constitutions, arose by a gradual growth in the East, even forbid the clergy, on pain of deposition and excommunication, to put away their wives under the pretext of religion. Perhaps this canon likewise was occasioned by the hyper-asceticism of Eustathius.

Accordingly we not unfrequently find in the Oriental church, so late as the fourth and fifth centuries, not only priests, but even bishops living in wedlock. One example is the father of the celebrated Gregory Nazianzen, who while bishop had two sons, Gregory and the younger Caesarius, and a daughter. Others are Gregory of Nyssa, who, however, wrote an enthusiastic eulogy of the unmarried life, and lamented his loss of the crown of virginity; and Synesius († about 430), who, when elected bishop of Ptolemais in Pentapolis, expressly stipulated for the continuance of his marriage connection. Socrates, whose Church History reaches down to the year 439, says of the practice of his time, that in Thessalia matrimonial intercourse after ordination had been forbidden under penalty of deposition from the time of Heliodorus of Trica, who in his youth had been an amatory writer; but that in the East the clergy and bishops voluntarily abstained from intercourse with their wives, without being required by any law to do so; for many, he adds, have had children during their episcopate by their lawful wives. There were Greek divines, however, like Epiphanius, who agreed with the Roman theory. Justinian I. was utterly opposed to the marriage of priests, declared the children of such connection illegitimate, and forbade the election of a married man to the episcopal office (a.d. 528). Nevertheless, down to the end of the seventh century, many bishops in Africa, Libya, and elsewhere, continued to live in the married state, as is expressly said in the twelfth canon of the Trullan council; but this gave offence and was forbidden. From that time the marriage of bishops gradually disappears, while marriage among the lower clergy continues to be the rule.

This Trullan council, which was the sixth ecumenical (a.d. 692), closes the legislation of the Eastern church on the subject of clerical marriage. Here — to anticipate somewhat — the continuance of a first marriage contracted before ordination was prohibited in the case of bishops on pain of deposition, but, in accordance with the Apostolic Constitutions and Canons, allowed in the case of presbyters and deacons (contrary to the Roman practice), with the Old Testament restriction, that they abstain from sexual intercourse during the season of official service, because he who administers holy things must be pure. The same relation is thus condemned in the one case as immoral, in the other approved and encouraged as moral; the bishop is deposed if he retains his lawful wife and does not, immediately after being ordained, send her to a distant cloister; while the presbyter or deacon is threatened with deposition and even excommunication for doing the opposite and putting his wife away.

The Western church, starting from the perverted and almost Manichaean ascetic principle, that the married state is incompatible with clerical dignity and holiness, instituted a vigorous effort at the end of the fourth century, to make celibacy, which had hitherto been left to the option of individuals, the universal law of the priesthood; thus placing itself in direct contradiction to the Levitical law, to which in other respects it made so much account of conforming. The law, however, though repeatedly enacted, could not for a long time be consistently enforced. The canon, already mentioned, of the Spanish council of Elvira in 305, was only provincial. The first prohibition of clerical marriage, which laid claim to universal ecclesiastical authority, at least in the West, proceeded in 385 from the Roman church in the form of a decretal letter of the bishop Siricius to Himerius, bishop of Tarragona in Spain, who had referred several questions of discipline to the Roman bishop for decision. It is significant of the connection between the celibacy of the clergy and the interest of the hierarchy, that the first properly papal decree, which was issued in the tone of supreme authority, imposed such an unscriptural, unnatural, and morally dangerous restriction. Siricius contested the appeal of dissenting parties to the Mosaic law, on the ground that the Christian priesthood has to stand not merely for a time, but perpetually, in the service of the sanctuary, and that it is not hereditary, like the Jewish; and he ordained that second marriage and marriage with a widow should incapacitate for ordination, and that continuance in the married state after ordination should be punished with deposition. And with this punishment he threatened not bishops only, but also presbyters and deacons. Leo the Great subsequently, extended the requirement of celibacy even to the subdiaconate. The most eminent Latin church fathers, Ambrose, Jerome, and even Augustine — though the last with more moderation — advocated the celibacy of priests. Augustine, with Eusebius of Vercella before him (370), united their clergy in a cloister life, and gave them a monastic stamp; and Martin of Tours, who was a monk from the first, carried his monastic life into his episcopal office. The councils of Italy, Africa, Spain, and Gaul followed the lead of Rome. The synod of Clermont, for example (a.d. 535), declared in its twelfth canon: “No one ordained deacon or priest may continue matrimonial intercourse. He is become the brother of her who was his wife. But since some, inflamed with lust, have rejected the girdle of the warfare [of Christ], and returned to marriage intercourse, it is ordered that such must lose their office forever.” Other councils, like that of Tours, 461, were content with forbidding clergymen, who begat children after ordination, to administer the sacrifice of the mass, and with confining the law of celibacy ad altiorem gradum.

But the very fact of the frequent repetition of these enactments, and the necessity of mitigating the penalties of transgression, show the great difficulty of carrying this unnatural restriction into general effect. In the British and Irish church, isolated as it was from the Roman, the marriage of priests continued to prevail down to the Anglo-Saxon period.

But with the disappearance of legitimate marriage in the priesthood, the already prevalent vice of the cohabitation of unmarried ecclesiastics with pious widows and virgins “secretly brought in,” became more and more common. This spiritual marriage, which had begun as a bold ascetic venture, ended only too often in the flesh, and prostituted the honor of the church.

The Nicene council of 325 met the abuse in its third canon with this decree: “The great council utterly forbids, and it shall not be allowed either to a bishop, or a priest, or a deacon, or any other clergyman, to have with him a συνθείσακτος, unless she be his mother, or sister, or aunt, or some such person, who is beyond all suspicion.” This canon forms the basis of the whole subsequent legislation of the church de cohabitatione clericorum et mulierum. It had to be repeatedly renewed and strengthened; showing plainly that it was often disobeyed. The council of Toledo in Spain, a.d. 527 or 531, ordered in its third canon: “No clergyman, from the subdeacon upward, shall live with a female, be she free woman, freed woman, or slave. Only a mother, or a sister, or other near relative shall keep his house. If he have no near relative, his housekeeper must live in a separate house, and shall under no pretext enter his dwelling. Whosoever acts contrary to this, shall not only be deprived of his spiritual office and have the doors of his church closed, but shall also be excluded from all fellowship of Catholics.” The Concilium Agathense in South Gaul, a.d. 506, at which thirty-five bishops met, decreed in the tenth and eleventh canons: “A clergyman shall neither visit nor receive into his house females not of his kin; only with his mother, or sister, or daughter, or niece may he live. Female slaves, also, and freed women, must be kept away from the house of a clergyman.” Similar laws, with penalties more or less severe, were passed by the council of Hippo, 393, of Angers, 453, of Tours, 461, of Lerida in Spain, 524, of Clermont, 535, of Braga, 563, of Orleans, 538, of Tours, 567. The emperor Justinian, in the twenty-third Novelle, prohibited the bishop having any woman at all in his house, but the Trullan council of 692 returned simply to the Nicene law. The Western councils also made attempts to abolish the exceptions allowed in the Nicene canon, and forbade clergymen all intercourse with women, except in presence of a companion.

This rigorism, however, which sheds an unwelcome light upon the actual state of things that made it necessary, did not better the matter, but rather led to such a moral apathy, that the Latin church in the middle age had everywhere to contend with the open concubinage of the clergy, and the whole energy of Gregory VII. was needed to restore in a measure the old laws of celibacy, without being sufficient to prevent the secret and, to morality, far more dangerous violations of it. The later ecclesiastical legislation respecting the mulieres subintroductae is more lenient, and, without limiting the intercourse of clergymen to near kindred, generally excludes only concubines and those women “de quibus possit haberi suspicio.”


51. Moral Character of the Clergy in General

Augustine gives us the key to the true view of the clergy of the Roman empire in both light and shade, when he says of the spiritual office: “There is in this life, and especially in this day, nothing easier, more delightful, more acceptable to men, than the office of bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, if the charge be administered superficially and to the pleasure of men; but nothing in the eye of God more wretched, mournful, and damnable. So also there is in this life, and especially in this day, nothing more difficult, more laborious) more hazardous than the office of bishop, or presbyter, or deacon; but nothing in the eye of God more blessed, if the battle be fought in the manner enjoined by our Captain.” We cannot wonder, on the one hand that, in the better condition of the church and the enlarged field of her labor, a multitude of light-minded and unworthy men crowded into the sacred office, and on the other, that just the most earnest and worthy bishops of the day, an Ambrose, an Augustine, a Gregory Nazianzen, and a Chrysostom, trembled before the responsibility of the office, and had to be forced into it in a measure against their will, by the call of the church.

Gregory Nazianzen fled into the wilderness when his father, without his knowledge, suddenly consecrated him priest in the presence of the congregation (361). He afterward vindicated this flight in his beautiful apology, in which he depicts the ideal of a Christian priest and theologian. The priest must, above all, he says, be a model of a Christian, offer himself a holy sacrifice to God, and be a living temple of the living God. Then he must possess a deep knowledge, of souls, and, as a spiritual physician, heal all classes of men of various diseases of sin, restore, preserve, and protect the divine image in them, bring Christ into their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and make them partakers of the divine nature and of eternal salvation. He must, moreover, have at command the sacred philosophy or divine science of the world and of the worlds, of matter and spirit, of good and evil angels, of the all-ruling Providence, of our creation and regeneration, of the divine covenants, of the first and second appearing of Christ, of his incarnation, passion, and resurrection, of the end of all things and the universal judgment, and above all, of the mystery of the blessed Trinity; and he must be able to teach and elucidate these doctrines of faith in popular discourse. Gregory, sets forth Jesus as the perfect type of the priest, and next to him he presents in an eloquent picture the apostle Paul, who lived only for Christ, and under all circumstances and amid all trials by sea and land, among Jews and heathen, in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, in freedom and bonds, attested the divine power of the gospel for the salvation of the world. This ideal, however, Gregory found but seldom realized. He gives on the whole a very unfavorable account of the bishops, and even of the most celebrated councils of his day, charging them with ignorance unworthy means of promotion, ambition, flattery, pride, luxury, and worldly mindedness. He says even: “Our danger now is, that the holiest of all offices will become the most ridiculous; for the highest clerical places are gained not so much by virtue, as by iniquity; no longer the most worthy, but the most powerful, take the episcopal chair.” Though his descriptions, especially in the satirical poem “to himself and on the bishops,” composed probably after his resignation in Constantinople (a.d. 381), may be in many points exaggerated, yet they were in general drawn from life and from experience.

Jerome also, in his epistles, unsparingly attacks the clergy of his time, especially the Roman, accusing them of avarice and legacy hunting, and drawing a sarcastic picture of a clerical fop, who, with his fine scented clothes, was more like a bridegroom than a clergyman. Of the rural clergy, however, the heathen Ammianus Marcellinus bears a testimony, which is certainly reliable, to their simplicity, contentment, and virtue.

Chrysostom, in his celebrated treatise on the priesthood, written probably, before his ordination (somewhere between the years 375 and 381), or while he was deacon (between 381 and 386), portrayed the theoretical and practical qualifications, the exalted duties, responsibilities, and honors of this office, with youthful enthusiasm, in the best spirit of his age. He requires of the priest, that he be in every respect better than the monk, though, standing in the world, he have greater dangers and difficulties to contend with. He sets up as the highest object of the preacher, the great principle stated by, Paul, that in all his discourses he should seek to please God alone, not men. “He must not indeed despise the approving demonstrations of men; but as little must he court them, nor trouble himself when his hearers withhold them. True and imperturbable comfort in his labors he finds only in the consciousness of having his discourse framed and wrought out to the approval of God.” Nevertheless the book as a whole is unsatisfactory. A comparison of it with the “Reformed Pastor” of Baxter, which is far deeper and richer in all that pertains to subjective experimental Christianity and the proper care of souls, would result emphatically in favor of the English Protestant church of the seventeenth century.

We must here particularly notice a point which reflects great discredit on the moral sense of many of the fathers, and shows that they had not wholly freed themselves from the chains of heathen ethics. The occasion of this work of Chrysostom was a ruse, by which he had evaded election to the bishopric, and thrust it upon his friend Basil. To justify this conduct, he endeavors at large, in the fifth chapter of the first book, to prove that artifice might be lawful and useful; that is, when used as a means to a good end. “Manifold is the potency of deception, only it must not be employed with knavish intent. And this should be hardly called deception, but rather a sort of accommodation (οἰκονομία), wisdom, art, or sagacity, by which one can find many ways of escape in an exigency, and amend the errors of the soul.” He appeals to biblical examples, like Jonathan and the daughter of Saul, who by deceiving their father rescued their friend and husband; and, unwarrantably, even to Paul, who became to the Jews a Jew, to the Gentiles a Gentile, and circumcised Timothy, though in the Epistle to the Galatians he pronounced circumcision useless. Chrysostom, however, had evidently learned this, loose and pernicious principle respecting the obligation of truthfulness, not from the Holy Scriptures, but from the Grecian sophists. Besides, he by no means stood alone in the church in this matter, but had his predecessors in the Alexandrian fathers, and his followers in Cassian, Jerome, and other eminent Catholic divines.

Jerome made a doubtful distinction between γυμναστικῶς scribere and δογματικῶς scribere, and, with Origen, explained the severe censure of Paul on Peter in Antioch, for example, as a mere stroke of pastoral policy, or an accommodation to the weakness of the Jewish Christians at the expense of truth. But Augustine’s delicate Christian sense of truth revolted at this construction, and replied that such an interpretation undermined the whole authority of Holy Scripture; that an apostle could never lie, even for a good object; that, in extremity, one should rather suppose a false reading, or wrong translation, or suspect his own apprehension; but that in Antioch Paul spoke the truth and justly censured Peter openly for his inconsistency, or for a practical (not a theoretical) error, and thus deserves the praise of righteous boldness, as Peter on the other hand, by his meek submission to the censure, merits the praise of holy humility.

Thus in Jerome and Augustine we have the representatives of two opposite ethical views: one, unduly subjective, judging all moral acts merely by their motive and object, and sanctioning, for example, tyrannicide, or suicide to escape disgrace, or breach of faith with heretics (as the later Jesuitical casuistry does with the utmost profusion of sophistical subtlety); the other, objective, proceeding on eternal, immutable principles and the irreconcilable opposition of good and evil, and freely enough making prudence subservient to truth, but never truth subservient to prudence.

Meantime, in the Greek church also, as early as the fourth century, the Augustinian view here and there made its way; and Basil the Great, in his shorter monastic Rule, rejected even accommodation (οἰκονομία) for a good end, because Christ ascribes the lie, without distinction of kinds, exclusively to Satan. (Joh_8:44) In this respect, therefore, Chrysostom did not stand at the head of his age, but represented without doubt the prevailing view of the Eastern church.

The legislation of the councils with reference to the clergy, shows in general the earnestness and rigor with which the church guarded the moral purity and dignity of her servants. The canonical age was, on the average, after the analogy of the Old Testament, the five-and-twentieth year for the diaconate, the thirtieth for the priesthood and episcopate. Catechumens, neophytes, persons baptized at the point of death, penitents, energumens (such as were possessed of a devil), actors, dancers, soldiers, curials (court, state, and municipal officials), slaves, eunuchs, bigamists, and all who led a scandalous life after baptism, were debarred from ordination. The frequenting of taverns and theatres, dancing and gambling, usury and the pursuit of secular business were forbidden to clergymen. But on the other hand, the frequent repetition of warnings against even the lowest and most common sins, such as licentiousness, drunkenness, fighting, and buffoonery, and the threatening of corporal punishment for certain misdemeanors, yield an unfavorable conclusion in regard to the moral standing of the sacred order. Even at the councils the clerical dignity was not seldom desecrated by outbreaks of coarse passion; insomuch that the council of Ephesus, in 449, is notorious as the “council of robbers.”

In looking at this picture, however, we must not forget that in this, period of the sinking empire of Rome the task of the clergy was exceedingly difficult, and amidst the nominal conversion of the whole population of the empire, their number and education could not keep pace with the sudden and extraordinary expansion of their field of labor. After all, the clerical office was the great repository of intellectual and moral force for the world. It stayed the flood of corruption; rebuked the vices of the times; fearlessly opposed tyrannical cruelty; founded institutions of charity and public benefit; prolonged the existence of the Roman empire; rescued the literary treasures of antiquity; carried the gospel to the barbarians, and undertook to educate and civilize their rude and vigorous hordes. Out of the mass of mediocrities tower the great church teachers of the fourth and fifth centuries, combining all the learning, the talent, and the piety of the time, and through their immortal writings mightily moulding the succeeding ages of the world.


52. The Lower Clergy

As the authority and influence of the bishops, after the accession of Constantine, increased, the lower clergy became more and more dependent upon them. The episcopate and the presbyterate were now rigidly distinguished. And yet the memory of their primitive identity lingered. Jerome, at the end of the fourth century, reminds the bishops that they owe their elevation above the presbyters, not so much to Divine institution as to ecclesiastical usage; for before the outbreak of controversies in the church there was no distinction between the two, except that presbyter is a term of age, and bishop a term of official dignity; but when men, at the instigation of Satan, erected parties and sects, and, instead of simply following Christ, named themselves of Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, all agreed to put one of the presbyters at the head of the rest, that by his universal supervision of the churches, he might kill the seeds of division. The great commentators of the Greek church agree with Jerome in maintaining the original identity of bishops and presbyters in the New Testament.

In the episcopal or cathedral churches the Presbyters still formed the council of the bishop. In town and country congregations, where no bishop officiated, they were more independent. Preaching, administration of the sacraments, and care of souls were their functions. In. North Africa they were for a long time not allowed to preach in the presence of the bishop; until Augustine was relieved by his bishop of this restriction. The seniores plebis in the African church of the fourth and fifth centuries were not clergymen, but civil personages and other prominent members of the congregation.

In the fourth century arose the office of archpresbyter, whose duty it was to preside over the worship, and sometimes to take the place of the bishop in his absence or incapacity.

The Deacons, also called Levites, retained the same functions which they had held in the preceding period. In the West, they alone, not the lectors, were allowed to read in public worship the lessons from the Gospels; which, containing the words of the Lord, were placed above the Epistles, or the words of the apostles. They were also permitted to baptize and to preach. After the pattern of the church in Jerusalem, the number of deacons, even in large congregations, was limited to seven; though not rigidly, for the cathedral of Constantinople had, under Justinian I., besides sixty presbyters, a hundred deacons, forty deaconesses, ninety subdeacons, a hundred and ten lectors, twenty-five precentors, and a hundred janitors — a total of five hundred and twenty-five officers. Though subordinate to the presbyters, the deacons frequently stood in close relations with the bishop, and exerted a greater influence. Hence they not rarely looked upon ordination to the presbyterate as a degradation. After the beginning of the fourth century an archdeacon stood at the head of the college, the most confidential adviser of the bishop, his representative and legate, and not seldom his successor in office. Thus Athanasius first appears as archdeacon of Alexandria at the council of Nice, clothed with important influence; and upon the death of the latter he succeeds to the patriarchal chair of Alexandria.

The office of Deaconess, which, under the strict separation of the sexes in ancient times, and especially in Greece, was necessary to the completion of the diaconate, and which originated in the apostolic age, continued in the Eastern church down to the twelfth century. It was frequently occupied by the widows of clergymen or the wives of bishops, who were obliged to demit the married state before entering upon their sacred office. Its functions were the care of the female poor, sick, and imprisoned, assisting in the baptism of adult women, and, in the country churches of the East, perhaps also of the West, the preparation of women for baptism by private instruction. Formerly, from regard to the apostolic precept in 1Ti_5:9, the deaconesses were required to be sixty years of age. The general council of Chalcedon, however, in 451, reduced the canonical age to forty years, and in the fifteenth canon ordered: “No female shall be consecrated deaconess before she is forty years old, and not then without careful probation. If, however, after having received consecration, and having been some time in the service, she marry, despising the grace of God, she with her husband shall be anathematized.” The usual ordination prayer in the consecration of deaconesses, according to the Apostolic Constitutions, runs thus: “Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Creator of man and woman, who didst fill Miriam and Deborah and Hannah and Huldah with the Spirit, and didst not disdain to suffer thine only-begotten Son to be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle and the temple didst appoint women keepers of thine holy gates: look down now upon this thine handmaid, who is designated to the office of deacon, and grant her the Holy Ghost, and cleanse her from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit, that she may worthily execute the work intrusted to her, to thine honor and to the praise of thine Anointed; to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be honor and adoration forever. Amen.”

The noblest type of an apostolic deaconess, which has come down to us from this period, is Olympias, the friend of Chrysostom, and the recipient of seventeen beautiful epistles from him. She sprang from a respectable heathen family, but received a Christian education; was beautiful and wealthy; married in her seventeenth year (a.d. 384) the prefect of Constantinople, Nebridius; but in twenty months after was left a widow, and remained so in spite of the efforts of the emperor Theodosius to unite her with one of his own kindred. She became a deaconess; lived in rigid asceticism; devoted her goods to the poor; and found her greatest pleasure in doing good. When Chrysostom came to Constantinople, he became her pastor, and guided her lavish benefaction by wise counsel. She continued faithful to him in his misfortune; survived him by several years, and died in 420, lamented by all the poor and needy in the city and in the country around.

In the West, on the contrary, the office of deaconess was first shorn of its clerical character by a prohibition of ordination passed by the Gallic councils in the fifth and sixth centuries; and at last it was wholly abolished. The second synod of Orleans, in 533, ordained in its eighteenth canon: “No woman shall henceforth receive the benedictio diaconalis [which had been substituted for ordinatio], on account of the weakness of this sex.” The reason betrays the want of good deaconesses, and suggests the connection of this abolition of an apostolic institution with the introduction of the celibacy of the priesthood, which seemed to be endangered by every sort of female society. The adoption of the care of the poor and sick by the state, and the cessation of adult baptisms and of the custom of immersion, also made female assistance less needful. In modern times, the Catholic church, it is true, has special societies or orders of women, like the Sisters of Mercy, for the care of the sick and poor, the training of children, and other objects of practical charity; and in the bosom of Protestantism also similar benevolent associations have arisen, under the name of Deaconess Institutes, or Sisters’ Houses, though in the more free evangelical spirit, and without the bond of a vow. But, though quite kindred in their object, these associations are not to be identified with the office of deaconess in the apostolic age and in the ancient church. That was a regular, standing office in every Christian congregation, corresponding to the office of deacon; and has never since the twelfth century been revived, though the local work of charity has never ceased.

To the ordinary clergy there were added in this period sundry extraordinary church offices, rendered necessary by the multiplication of religious functions in large cities and dioceses:

1. Stewards. These officers administered the church property under the supervision of the bishop, and were chosen in part from the clergy, in part from such of the laity as were versed in law. In Constantinople the “great steward” was a person of considerable rank, though not a clergyman. The council of Chalcedon enjoined upon every episcopal diocese the appointment of such officers, and the selection of them from the clergy, “that the economy of the church might not be irresponsible, and thereby the church property be exposed to waste and the clerical dignity be brought into ill repute.” For conducting the litigation of the church, sometimes a special advocate, called the ἔκδικος, or defensor, was appointed.

2. Secretaries, for drawing the protocols in public ecclesiastical transactions (gesta ecclesiastica). They were usually clergymen, or such as had prepared themselves for the service of the church.

3. Nurses or Parabolani, especially in connection with the larger church hospitals. Their office was akin to that of the deacons, but had more reference to the bodily assistance than to the spiritual care of the sick. In Alexandria, by the fifth century, these officers formed a great guild of six hundred members, and were not rarely misemployed as a standing army of episcopal domination. Hence, upon a complaint of the citizens of Alexandria against them, to the emperor Theodosius II., their number were reduced to five hundred. In the West they were never introduced.

4. Buriers of the Dead likewise belonged among these ordines minores of the church. Under Theodosius II. there were more than a thousand of them in Constantinople.


53. The Bishops

The bishops now stood with sovereign power at the head of the clergy and of their dioceses. They had come to be universally regarded as the vehicles and propagators of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and the teachers and lawgivers of the church in all matters of faith and discipline. The specific distinction between them and the presbyters was carried into everything; while yet it is worthy of remark, that Jerome, Chrysostom, and Theodoret, just the most eminent exegetes of the ancient church, expressly acknowledged the original identity of the two offices in the New Testament, and consequently derive the proper episcopate, not from divine institution, but only from church usage.

The traditional participation of the people in the election, which attested the popular origin of the episcopal office, still continued, but gradually sank to a mere formality, and at last became entirely extinct. The bishops filled their own vacancies, and elected and ordained the clergy. Besides ordination, as the medium for communicating the official gifts, they also claimed from the presbyters in the West, after the fifth century, the exclusive prerogatives of confirming the baptized and consecrating the chrism or holy ointment used in baptism. In the East, on the contrary, confirmation (the chrism) is performed also by the presbyters, and, according to the ancient custom, immediately follows baptism.

To this spiritual preëminence of the bishops was now added, from the time of Constantine, a civil importance. Through the union of the church with the state, the bishops became at the same time state officials of weight, and enjoyed the various privileges which accrued to the church from this connection. They had thenceforth an independent and legally valid jurisdiction; they held supervision of the church estates, which were sometimes very considerable, and they had partial charge even of the city, property; they superintended the morals of the people, and even of the emperor; and they exerted influence upon the public legislation. They were exempt from civil jurisdiction, and could neither be brought as witnesses before a court nor be compelled to take an oath. Their dioceses grew larger, and their power and revenues increased. Dominus beatissimus (μακαριώτατος), sanctissimus (ἁγιώτατος), or reverendissimus, Beatitudo or Sanctitas tua, and similar high-sounding titles, passed into universal use. Kneeling, kissing of the hand, and like tokens of reverence, came to be shown them by all classes, up to the emperor himself. Chrysostom, at the end of the fourth century, says: “The heads of the empire (hyparchs) and the governors of provinces (toparchs) enjoy no such honor as the rulers of the church. They are first at court, in the society of ladies, in the houses of the great. No one has precedence of them.”

To this position corresponded the episcopal insignia, which from the fourth century became common: the ring, as the symbol of the espousal of the bishop to the church; the crosier or shepherd’s staff (also called crook, because it was generally curved at the top); and the pallium, a shoulder cloth, after the example of the ephod of the Jewish high-priest, and perhaps of the sacerdotal mantle worn by the Roman emperors as pontifices maximi. The pallium is a seamless cloth hanging over the shoulders, formerly of white linen, in the West subsequently of white lamb’s wool, with four red or black crosses wrought in it with silk. According to the present usage of the Roman church the wool is taken from the lambs of St. Agnes, which are every year solemnly blessed and sacrificed by the pope in memory of this pure virgin. Hence the later symbolical meaning of the pallium, as denoting the bishop’s following of Christ, the good Shepherd, with the lost and reclaimed sheep upon his shoulders. Alexandrian tradition traced this vestment to the evangelist Mark; but Gregory Nazianzen expressly says that it was first given by Constantine the Great to the bishop Macarius of Jerusalem. In the East it was worn by all bishops, in the West by archbishops only, on whom, from the time of Gregory I., it was conferred by the pope on their accession to office. At first the investiture was gratuitous, but afterward came to involve a considerable fee, according to the revenues of the archbishopric.

As the bishop united in himself all the rights and privileges of the clerical office, so he was expected to show himself a model in the discharge of its duties and a follower of the great Archbishop and Archshepherd of the sheep. He was expected to exhibit in a high degree the ascetic virtues, especially that of virginity, which, according to Catholic ethics, belongs to the idea of moral perfection. Many a bishop, like Athanasius, Basil, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Martin of Tours, lived in rigid abstinence and poverty, and devoted his income to religious and charitable objects.

But this very power and this temporal advantage of the episcopate became also a lure for avarice and ambition, and a temptation to the lordly and secular spirit. For even under the episcopal mantle the human heart still beat, with all those weaknesses and passions, which can only be overcome by the continual influence of Divine grace. There were metropolitans and patriarchs, especially in Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome, who, while yet hardly past the age of persecution, forgot the servant form of the Son of God and the poverty of his apostles and martyrs, and rivalled the most exalted civil officials, nay, the emperor himself, in worldly pomp and luxury. Not seldom were the most disgraceful intrigues employed to gain the holy office. No wonder, says Ammianus, that for so splendid a prize as the bishopric of Rome, men strive with the utmost passion and persistence, when rich presents from ladies and a more than imperial sumptuousness invite them. The Roman prefect, Praetextatus, declared jestingly to the bishop Damasus, who had obtained the office through a bloody battle of parties, that for such a price he would at once turn Christian himself. Such an example could not but shed its evil influence on the lower clergy of the great cities. Jerome sketches a sarcastic description of the Roman priests, who squandered all their care on dress and perfumery, curled their hair with crisping pins, wore sparkling rings, paid far too great attention to women, and looked more like bridegrooms than like clergymen. And in the Greek church it was little better. Gregory Nazianzen, himself a bishop, and for a long time patriarch of Constantinople, frequently mourns the ambition, the official jealousies, and the luxury of the hierarchy, and utters the wish that the bishops might be distinguished only by a higher grade of virtue.