Friday, March 05, 2004

More on the history of Church hierarchy and Magisteral authority

Conservative Protestants often have difficulty fathoming the notion of an authoritative Magisterium, of teaching authority, such as the Catholic Church claims--especially in connection with the interpretation of Scripture. While few but the most obstinately anti-Catholic Calvinists would insist that the Bible "interprets itself" in any adequate way, most Protestants are repelled by the notion that a HUMAN religious authority should have the last word in interpretation of Scripture. Why can't God interpret his own book for His readers by means of the internal witness of the Holy Spirit? Why not let the truth of an interpretation be tested in the market place of open investigation? Why can't reason, grammar and linguistics help us to sort out, falsify, and verify truth claims made by Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox interpreters? Wouldn't this help prevent us from falling into a morass of subjectivism and undue dependence on human authority? So, at any rate, the Protestant supposes.

What shall we say, then? No one would contest that God knows how to interpret His Word in Scripture. Nobody, I think, would even contest that God could guide individuals in the proper interpretation of Scripture, just as he infallibly guided human individuals to write what He would have them reveal (this, in fact, is what the Catholic Church claims for its prophetic office of Magisterium throughout Church history). I think the problem comes in our empirical circumspection, which reveals a plethora of individuals and groups each claiming to rely faithfully on such divine guidance, yet arriving at mutually incompatible interpretations. I think we can agree that reason, grammar, etc. can help, and assume God expects us to use them. But we also believe that Christ gave Peter and his successors the unique charism of carrying on the prophetic office once borne by Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament, and we would ignore their authority at our peril.

Protestants also like to rebut, or try to rebut, any Catholic claim that such an authoritative Magisterium, or even an ecclesiastical hierarchy, existed in antiquity. In response to the Catholic claim that Pope Clement I of Rome exercised authority over the Catholic churches in Corinth, in Greece, they note, for example, that Clement speaks of overseer-presbyters rather than overseer-priests. And then, if you point out that they neglect to note that the English "priest" is a contraction of "presbyter," suggesting a distinction without a difference, they may turn to the BDAG Greek-English Lexicon (page 862, under entry "PRESBUTEROS" 2b), which explains: "The Engl. word 'priest' comes fr. PRESBUTEROS via Lat. presbyter; later Christian usage is largely, if not entirely, responsible for this development; s. OED s.v. 'priest' B)." Hence, they assume, any notion of a Catholic priesthood is likely a later development. In the first century, they may say, PRESBUTEROS signified an "elder" or older man, as in the 24 elders in Revelation. The primitive congregation's "elder body" was modeled after the ancient Jewish GEROUSIA. The presbyters were not "priests," but ones who were spiritually advanced and discreet (i.e. older men). And they will assume they've made their case.

But many words have multiple significations. The word "LOGOS," for example, means one thing in Heraclitus and another in St. John. The word "ART" (Lat. "ARS", Gk. "TECHNE") means one thing in Plato and another in modern art galleries. The term "PRESBYTEROS" does in fact signify "elder" or "ancient" etymologically, and originally the PRESBYTERI were members of the high council that, under the presidency of the bishop, administered the affairs of the local church. But the word PRESBYTER soon lost its etymological meaning and came to explicitly signify the minister of worship and sacrifice, as in traditional Catholic usage. Hence the term SACERDOS, though not used in the Greek New Testament (though in the Septuagint) was applicable to both bishops and priests, and one became a presbyter by sacerdotal ordination. For a standard account, see the article on "Priest" in The Catholic Encyclopedia.

When confronted with the early fathers of the Church, a Protestant may go so far as to concede that the three offices of bishop, presbyter, and deacon were clearly distinguished already in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch in the first century. Yet this isn't enough of a concession. I see no reason for supposing that the threefold distinction isn't implicit in the NT. Linguistically the Greek terms for deacon, presbyter, and bishop are already in use there. We will be told that we must guard against anachronism here; that, strictly speaking, the first century congregation evidently did not have "deacons," "presbyters" (in the later sense of the term) or "bishops"; that the historical data just do not support this notion--a point even some Catholics concede (I am ashamed to say).

Certainly we must avoid anachronisms. I doubt whether the first Pope, Peter, ever wore a miter (a pointy hat) or carried a crosier (shepherd's staff). However these later developments were wholly faithful and consistent with the meaning of the apostolic faith, the miter symbolizing the tongues of fire that descended upon the heads of the apostles (the first bishops) at Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them, and the crosier symbolizing the shepherds staff and his role as senior shepherd of the flock.

But I completely disagree with the notion that first century parishes had no "deacons" or "presbyters" in the later sense of the term. Despite later refinements of these distinctive offices, it's clear in the NT itself that many of the original congregations had these offices. As you well know, "deacons" were first appointed by the apostles in Acts 6, referred to in Phil 1:1, and their qualifications discussed in Acts 6:3 and 1 Tim. 3:8. Furthermore, their function, as ancillary assistants to the apostles (presbyters and bishops) is clearly signaled.

Again, I see the hierarchical structure clearly implicit, if not spelled out explicitly, in Paul's visits to Peter in Gal. 1-2, and the erstwhile described patterns of choosing Judas' successor (Acts 1) and episcopal presidency at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15); and I see this as wholly consistent with Ignatius' explicit distinctions between the three offices and the later developments and further practical definition of these offices that followed.

Under the pall of the Protestant textbook tradition, the scholarly world remains skeptical. J. Rohde makes this observation: "The monarchical bishop appears first in Ignatius. It is not certain, however, whether Ignatius describes existing conditions or sets up ideal requirements that do not correspond to reality" (Exegetical Dictionary of the NT, Vol. 2:36).

But here I would shift the emphasis to one of exclamation: the monarchical bishop is ALREADY explicitly attested in Ignatius! That in itself is a momentous fact. Yet I see this monarchical structure also already presupposed in the NT-- for example, for starters, in the highly-educated Paul's visit to Rome and what I take to be his submission to the common-fisherman, Peter, who Christ placed in monarchical authority over the other apostles, and his visit again to the college of bishops in Jerusalem 14 years later (both in Galatians 1 & 2).

Again, the scholarly skeptics will reply that we read Paul's letter to the Galatians through different spectacles. They will not think, for example, that Paul "submitted" to Peter's authority or that it seems likely that Paul visited a "college of bishops" when there was no such arrangement in existence at that time. Besides, they will argue, our interpretation seems to militate against the entire tenor of Paul's argument in Galatians that he received a revelation directly from the Lord Jesus and did not have to rely on any human to disclose the good news to him.

For the moment, let us set aside the comment about reading Galatians through different lenses, as well as the remark about there not being any such arrangement as a "college of bishops" at the time. What is important in the expression, "college of bishops," is not what it what it signifies: a colloquy or gathering of elders in the Church who may also be called overseers or bishops. That clearly existed in Acts 15 as it did in Gal. 1-2.

Further, the claim that Paul argued that he did not have to rely on any human witness misses the irony of what transpired in the meeting between Paul and Peter. Everything they have noted about Paul may well be true. He was converted, not by any apostle, but directly by the risen Christ on the Damascus road. He received his apostleship from Christ directly, not from man. Further, he was the most accomplished student and brilliant protege of Rabbi Gamaliel, learned beyond any of the other apostles chosen by Christ from among the ranks of common fishermen, tax collectors, and the like. In fact, for three years, Paul had nothing to do with the other apostles, but went into Arabia, then again to Damascus. But then, after three years, he "went up to Jerusalem to see Peter" (Gal. 1:18), and, wonder of wonders, this accomplished scholar, who could have so easily been arrogant and refused to condescend even to meet with this common fisherman, "abode with him fifteen days"!

It is true that the text nowhere SAYS that Paul was "submitting" to "Peter's authority." But how else would you interpret what's going on here? Why didn't Peter go to see Luke, who was at least a reasonably learned man? Or James? Why Peter? Why is it, circumstantially, that Peter's name is cited 179 times in the New Testament, and the next most often cited disciple (John) cited only 30 times; and why is it that Peter heads every list, long or short, of apostle's names in the New Testament? Perhaps we could get somewhere even if we got our skeptical friends to agree with something merely for the sake of an argument: IF one were to accept the Catholic hypothesis that Jesus' declaration in Matt. 16 signifies the founding of His Church upon Peter and his successors, then all of the Catholic claims would look quite natural! It may not be a conclusive demonstration, but it is an argument with the kind of transcendental structure that Kant uses in his Critique of Pure Reason: look for the conditions presupposed by our experience, which make it possible. If I assume the Catholic claim regarding Matthew 16, many of these other parts of the puzzle resolve themselves.

Paul goes up to Jerusalem and meets with Peter. Then, again fourteen years later, Paul goes up to Jerusalem AGAIN, to share with Peter and the other bishops the content of the Gospel he had been preaching to the Gentiles, and privately, for a gnawing fear that the direction of his ministry had perhaps been in vain. (Gal. 2:1-2) But the elders and bishops confirmed him in his ministry, accepting his erstwhile conviction that he apostleship was first and foremost to the Gentiles, and gave him the "right hand of friendship." Furthermore, in a passing statement pregnant with significance, Paul adds: "All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do." (Gal. 2:10)

What does this sound like to you? Doesn't it look for all the world like Paul, in a period of self-doubt, is checking in with the official party of apostles and their leader, Peter, back in Jerusalem to make sure he's on the right path, to have them confirm his ministry, to be told by someone with an authority he respects that he's on the right path? Isn't this posture echoed when he concludes by saying, as an afterthought, by saying, "All they asked was . . ."? In other words, he was encouraged to be confident in what he was doing already, he wasn't told that his thinking was off base, and "All they asked was . . . [something which was] the VERY THING I WAS EAGER TO DO"! That is, even while tacitly admitting the authority behind their request (they were the ones to whom he went to have his ministry authoritatively confirmed), he declares that the ONLY thing they asked of him (the only thing he hadn't brought up for confirmation by them) was the very thing he was already EAGER TO DO. The concluding clause of his statement loudly sounds his concession of their authority. It's like a rather proud young graduate student going up for examination by his dissertation committee, and coming out and telling his friends that these professors approved everything he wrote, and even the appendix which they suggested that he add to clarify a point was the very thing he had already thought of and was planning on doing anyway!

Protestants often argue the point that ALL believers are priests with respect to the church and the work she has been given to do in this world. To make this case, they are fond of quoting texts such as these:
So as you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but chosen and priceless in God's sight, you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Pet 2:4-5 NET Bible).
A Catholic may wish to respond by suggesting that here the Protestant has conflated two things that ought to be distinguished-- namely, the (1) priesthood of all believers, (2) the ministerial priesthood of those ordained to this special office and charism. To which the Protestant skeptics will typically respond they do not believe that (#2 above) is a legitimate NT ecclesiastical category. To them it will seem that in the first century, all Christians were priests and it was only in that sense that they were priests. Some individuals taken from the body of priests, they may say, perhaps were appointed to oversee the congregation. Nevertheless, this ordination to shepherd the flock of God did not make them priests, for they were already priests in that sense when they became Christians.

What should we say to this? Well, a sacerdotal, sacrificing ministry may not seem like a "legitimate NT ecclesiastical category" if you try to conclusively infer it from the New Testament alone, but if you expand "NT ecclesiastical category" to mean what was going on in the Church of the New Testament era, it appears to be readily confirmed. A number of documents and writers from that era attest to it. We find already in Didache 14:1 the following:
And on the Lord's own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.
We may gather by reading further what kind of sacrifice is intended, for the next verse reads:
And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled.
In other words, the sacrifice envisioned is Holy Communion. Even various New Testament passages attest, if only obliquely, to this conviction:
  • Heb. 13:10 says "We have an ALTAR, of which they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle."
  • Acts 2:42 says "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the BREAKING OF BREAD AND TO PRAYER."
  • 1 Cor. 10:16 says "Is not the cup of thanksgiving [Eucharistic cup] for which we give thanks a PARTICIPATION IN THE BLOOD OF CHRIST?" etc.
It seems clear, to me anyway, that the celebration and commemoration and re-enactment (ANEMNESIS) of the Lord's Supper is here viewed as the High Priestly Sacrifice of the Lord Jesus mentioned in Hebrews, the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ in which all "participate," as Paul says, who partake of the Lord's Body and Blood. "Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing THE BODY OF THE LORD, eats and drinks judgment on himself."(1 Cor. 11:29) All of this is perfectly consistent with the Catholic tradition of a sacrificing priesthood, who, in persona Christi, offers on the altars of the Church the one and same Sacrifice offered by our Lord. This understanding is certainly confirmed by numerous later patristic writers.

Another verse Protestants like to quote is 1 Corinthians 12:12ff., where St. Paul encourages the unity of all in Christ by speaking of each member of the Church as belonging to one body: "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" (1 Cor. 12:21) Etc. The idea is that everybody belongs. My fellow Catholics will want to note, of course, that this analogy does nothing to undermine our assumption that the Church has an earthly head, since the body in Paul's analogy has a head. But the Protestant skeptics will also want to counter this assertion with their question: Where in the Bible is the term for "head" (KEFALE) ever applied to a fallible human? Only Christ, they will say, is said to be the head of the body in Paul's epistles. This, at least, is what they will assume.

How to reply? This position is Protestant literalist gridlock at its worst. But let me begin by indulging this literalism for the moment. It may be true that the term "head" (KEFALE) is nowhere directly applied to anyone but Christ. But now let me go beyond literalism: it seems to me that Paul is using the "Body of Christ" metaphor for the Church precisely as a metaphor to illustrate that, despite differences of authority and gifts among its members, each has its proper place; for he concludes: "And in the Church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, . . . " etc. Then he asks: "Are all apostles? Are all prophets? . . ." etc.

What this suggest to me is that there were some who chafed and resisted the fact that some members of the Christian community (Apostles, in the first place, then others) possessed the status of lawfully appointed or commissioned authorities in the ongoing administration of the Church's affairs. Perhaps, like Korah and his associates in the Old Testament, they resented this. But Paul is insisting that, despite this division of labor, gifts, and corresponding division of authority, all belong together and need one another in the body of Christ. Hence, I see no reason why Paul would have denied that, say, James, was "head" of the Church in Jerusalem, as its bishop, or that another elder, a presbyter, under James' episcopal supervision in Jerusalem was, in turn, "head" of his congregation meeting, perhaps, in a house or small auditorium.

The New Testament uses the term "Rock" or "Foundation" in similar ways. On the one hand, it insists that Christ is the one "Rock," the exclusive "Foundation" of the Church. On the other hand, Christ Himself can declare that Peter is the "Rock" upon which He founds His Church (Matt. 16), and Paul can say in Eph. 2:20 that God's house is "built on the FOUNDATION OF THE APOSTLES AND PROPHETS," even as he goes on to add: ". . . with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone."

Not everything written in the NT is addressed to every believer who reads the NT. For example, when Jesus said "Whosoever's sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosover's sins ye retain, they are retained," he was speaking to those whom He had just breathed upon and infused with the Holy Spirit-- i.e., those bearing the apostolic office. Thus, I would say that neither you nor I have been given the power of binding or loosing gifted to the apostles and their lawful successors, the bishops; but there are priests and a bishop in this very diocese who have that charism through the laying on of hands in succession from the apostles and Christ Himself.

Thus, I don't take the apostle John to be addressing every believer who in the future would read his words when (in John 16:13) he wrote: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." For one thing, it is amply clear that no everyone (or even every denomination) who individually seeks to interpret the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirt succeeds in getting it right: they often blatantly contradict one another.

Again, the Protestant skeptics may or may not admit that John 16:13 strictly applies to the apostles. However, they will insist that other Johannine texts indicate that all Christians are lead into all truth by the Holy Spirit, suggesting that this is the import of passages such as 1 John 2:20, 27.

I would agree with this, with one proviso: that the way in which God ORDINARILY intends for us to be led by the Holy Spirit is not as isolated individuals, but in communion with His one, universal Church. Empirically we know that even many of the most pious and sincere individuals and groups which intend to follow Christ and God's Word in Scripture, have ended up teaching and practicing incompatible things. We also know from Scripture, that Christ has promised to be with His Church until the end of time, and that the promise of the Holy Spirit's guidance into all truth was made, not to separate individuals and groups, but to the apostles whom Christ Himself placed in a position of authority at the foundation of His Church.