Saturday, February 21, 2004

When did hierarchy develop in Church history?

Most Protestants see no evidence in Scripture or tradition of any sort of hierarchy in the New Testament Church. Increasingly today, Catholics who have been influenced by protestant traditions of interpretation--especially since Vatican II in the early 1960's--agree with that assessment. They would be far more inclined to accept the view that Jesus set up a kind of egalitarian community of believers with nobody having any unique authority over another. For example, one author whom I shall refer to only as E. Foster, writes the following:

Jesus taught his apostles that the greatest disciple in their midst would be the one who served his brethren. Jesus further said that all of you (i.e., the apostles) are brothers without a human leader (Mt 23:8-10). Furthermore, Eph 4:11-16 depicts the apostles as "gifts" bestowed upon the church of the living God in order that all might attain to the oneness of the faith and maturity as the entire body of Christ "promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love" under the invisible leadership and headship of the one greater than Moses, to wit, Jesus Christ. We have no need of human hierarchies or human leaders, according to the Messiah.
However, Jesus' teaching in in Mt. 23-8-10 is a moral exhortation not to arrogantly lord it over others, not a literal prohibition of the use of the term "father." If one reads on, he also tells them not to be called "teacher," but few who find themselves in the vices of literalist gridlock over the term "father" (because of the Catholic tradition of calling priests "father") find themselves similarly gridlocked over the use of the term "teacher." The most obvious meaning of the passage to me seems to be an exhortation to humility later echoed by Paul's remark that none of us ought to think more highly of ourselves than we should, or that the "head" cannot say to the lowly hand or foot, "I have no need of thee," but that all form a unity in Christ, in whom there is neither "male nor female," "slave nor free," etc. But none of this betokens the suggestion that the Body of Christ has no "head" to govern it, or that it has not parts with different functions, some subordinate (as means to ends) to others, as in any organism. Even the Pope has from earliest times referred to himself, in keeping with Christ's injunction, as the "Servant of the Servants of God"; and when this sentiment is authentically incarnated in the pontificate of a truly holy and faithful Pope--as in, for example, St. Pope Gregory I (the Great) or John Paul II--it would be silly to dismiss it as so much hot air.

There is, I think, plenty of evidence of a distinction in authority between apostles and non-apostles. For starters, otherwise, why should Christ have explicitly called, out of the masses that daily followed him in his Galilean ministry, only Twelve, in conformity to the number of Tribes under the Old Covenant; and why should Peter have led the eleven apostles left after the apostasy and death of Judas, in choosing a successor to him ("...let another man his bishopric [EPISKOPEIN] take"-- KJV), carefully seeking the Holy Spirit's lawful guidance?

Yet there is an engrained resistance among most Protestants to the notion of apostolic succession, or that one should attach any such significance to the appointment of a successor to Judas in the Book of Acts. Again, E. Foster writes:

Concerning the "successor" of Judas Iscariot, reading Luke and Acts does not reveal that Peter "presided" over the appointment of anyone to fill Judas' office. Acts 1:23-26 (in translation) uses the plural pronoun "they" instead of "he" to describe the process of selecting another apostle (the Greek verbs employed are ESTHSAN, EIPAN and EDWKAN).
I would agree that the matter cannot be settled conclusively one way or the other by appeal to the New Testament alone; but I don't believe the New Testament was ever intended by its authors to be used in this way. But I think the New Testament, at the very least, is wholly consistent with the kind of claims from Catholic tradition that I've mentioned above, and, at best, attests to their veracity amply, if not conclusively.

In the passage to which Foster refers, for example, it's true that the term "they" (and not "he") us used to describe the actual process of selecting a successor to Judas, but it is also true in this passage, as in numerous other texts, that Peter is singled out for special attention in some way. Here, for example, it says that "Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said..." (Acts 1:15) There is a similar pattern at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:7, where Luke writes: "And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up and said ..." Again, it will be raised as a counterexample that Acts 15:13 brings James into the picture in a similar light, when Luke writes: "And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying..."; and it may be supposed that this "counter-example" annuls the singularity of attention called by Luke to Peter. Yet, despite the fact that the case cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the text alone, Luke's entire account remains utterly consistent with traditional Catholic practice, as the Council of Jerusalem would have taken place in the Diocese of Jerusalem where James was bishop, and after Peter had given his authoritative word as Prince of the Apostles (or the first Pope), it is only natural that the bishop of that diocese, James, "answered, saying..."

Almost no Catholic Bible scholars or Church historians today, let alone Protestant ones, would accept the notion that the New Testament Church had a hierarchy or even an organization to speak of until much later. Protestant Fundamentalists see these as the creation of Medieval Catholicism. Yet careful and honest scholars will admit that some sort of hierarchical structure is evident very early in Church history. A scholar of integrity such as E. Foster is willing to admit that at least a primitive analogy to the structure the Catholic Church now has may be found as early as the time St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in Rome between AD 98 and 117. Foster writes:

Granted, the "diocesan structure" is clear from Ignatius onward. However, it is not clear prior to Ignatius of Antioch, not even in Clement of Rome. Scholars are evidently right on target when they argue that the notion of parishes existing under bishops first appears in Ignatius and not before Ignatius. Hence, support for such an arrangement is apparently not found in the NT.
Yet, while anything like a "diocesan structure" obviously didn't exist early in Jesus' ministry when he first began preaching, any more than the practice of celebrating and commemorating the "Lord's Supper," it seems clear to me that this structure developed rapidly in the aftermath of Christ's Great Commission (Mt. 28). Thus, already in Acts 1 there is Peter's concern to choose a successor to Judas, signaling a desire to sustain the apostolic episcopal structure that Jesus had called into being and commissioned. And it seems quite clear to me in the rest of Acts and in Paul's accounts of his missionary journeys, that when he established churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece, sooner or later one of the presbyters ordained to the pastoral ministry in those communities was elevated and/or ordained to the office of an overseer or bishop, to assist in the governance of the several churches in any given area. This is suggested, I think, as I've mentioned before by some of his remarks regarding Timothy and Titus. Though the terms 'bishop' and 'presbyter' were often used interchangeably, it is also apparent that the term 'bishop' was soon reserved for the presbyter presiding over a parish or a number of parishes (of course, all bishops are also presbyters), and that each city or area (or what would eventually be called a diocese) had one bishop, as well as perhaps a council of presbyters, along with deacons; and that the authority of the bishop was relatively autonomous, save for the pastoral jurisdiction of the universal bishop, suggested, e.g., by Clement.

To be continued...