Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Early Church II-3: Bishops and Succession

If you haven't read section 1 you may find it here:

II-1: The Martyrs
II-2: The Lapsed and the Problem of the Martyrs
II-4: The Rule of Faith

 II-3: Bishops and Succession

We'll now move backwards in time and go along a simultaneous track in history. We'll look at the early Church from a different angle at the Church as she developed, namely the office of bishop. We discussed last week that the office of bishop was the highest office in the local Church. While absolute agreement among all bishops is very rare, they did in fact communicate with each other regularly and sought the advice of elder churches. Their concord and meetings with one another on important issues was a tradition kept from the time of the Apostles in the Council of Jerusalem.

Peter, chief among the Apostles, was given a unique ministry by Christ himself to strengthen his brothers and Scripture itself shows how he lead them. Peter and his successors spoke with the final authority on matters concerning the whole Church but, at the same time, he shared this responsibility with his brothers. That he spoke with firmness was not a matter of power but of responsibility.

While some would abuse this responsibility and others call the chair of Peter into question it remains that the Church as a whole in the early centuries of Christianity appealed to Rome (e.g., Clement of Rome) and regarded her as the highest Church.

The model of the Twelve Apostles, their authority, and succession developed over the early centuries of the Church. We would do well to gather a sense for the office of bishop as it developed in the early Church. In order to do this it seems appropriate to see the very prayer for the ordination of a bishop. This prayer is taken from a text called “On the Apostolic Tradition,” which was attributed to the (anti)pope of that time Hippolytus (217-236). His authorship has since been called into question and now stands as a text of unknown authorship, even though it seems widely used. There were conflicts that arose as a result of the “Lapsed” controversy and Hippolytus was set up as a pope, eventually an antipope. He reconciled with the Church at a later time and is listed as a man of learning and eloquence by later saints and authors. He was martyred in 236 AD, and legend says it was being quartered alive by horses.

While it's difficult to date a prayer like this, some have attributed it as early as 215 AD which most of the work is said to have been written. While others have said this work came later (such as the early-middle 300s) we can be somewhat safe in assuming that whatever was written down in this fashion was likely in practice beforehand. Many prayers like this were recorded in handbooks and rulebooks such as this in order to ensure a unity of practice. The prayer, we find, speaks to the bishop receiving the same spirit of governance that Christ received from the Father. Christ, giving this spirit of leadership to the Apostles is similarly handed down to those the Apostles selected. The prayer states,

“Even now pour out from yourself the power of the Spirit of governance, which you gave to your beloved child Jesus Christ, which he gave to the holy Apostles, who set up the Church in every place s your sanctuary, for the unceasing glory and praise of your name. … And let him have the power of high priesthood, to forgive sins according to your command, to assign duties according to your command, to loose every tie according to the power which you gave your apostles, to please you in gentleness and with a pure heart. (On the Apostolic Tradition, ch. 3:3, 5)

This is how the Church regarded the office of bishop: that it was a divine call from God to govern and shepherd his flock. He was to lead them to God and He was to make an account not only for himself but for all he shepherded. Paul tells Timothy, for example, to “attend to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in both tasks, for by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you” (1 Tim 4:16).

As time marched on, however, new difficulties arose. The Church was spreading rapidly throughout the Empire and in order to keep up with the demands of charity placed upon the Church the Apostles and bishops appointed deacons, priests, and their successors to govern the Church and perform her duties.

Each man, though, is not always endowed with the appropriate skills for the task appointed to him, and even those who are skilled at governance and leadership are subject to chance, accident, deception, and error. Some bishops, because of an overwhelming need, appointed many presbyters yet could not test their character sufficiently. Some presented this or that man as suitable for priesthood and many assented to such a suggestion. The bishop's domain, at times too large for his own good, appointed this man a priest only to have his vices and weaknesses expand under the weight of leadership. Some priests and bishops gave scandal by their deeds whereas others produced error by their words.

Not every priest or bishop did this maliciously, but the effects of error are disunity. Those who are unable to respond with humility when confronted with their error then become susceptible to both pride and anger. The prideful seek to gather others to them. The angry seek to cause dissent and disobedience among the faithful. There were those who claimed at that time, as some even do today, that the 'Holy Spirit is with me' and that by their use of Scripture they were justified in what they said.

Such people are difficult to deal with—on the one hand one must be gentle with them because the zeal fore their faith is likely real. In turn, one's knowledge of Scripture and ability to connect it to the holy Tradition of the Apostles and Church is essential. In these instances “It is good sense in a man to be slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook and offense” (Prv 20:11).

Another problem was that there were those who were keenly aware of this Tradition. They arose claiming that they were taught by the Apostles and that they themselves were their successors, but then proceeded to preach contrary to them. If they had come from a far-off land how could one dispute with their claim, especially if they were intelligent and charismatic?

It was the holy Tradition that would be the safeguard of our faith at this time. We should always be aware that when the Church emphasizes one thing at a certain time it is likely because the contrary error is most prevalent. During this period of time, the 2nd century, there were those who claimed to have a special knowledge of God and life (such as the Gnostics). There were others who denied that apostolic authority and Tradition had any weight, but rather their own interpretation of Scripture was sufficient. We'll see this more pronounced in part III when speaking of Christ and the Trinity.

Scripture itself warns us of this problem and how we should deal with it. Paul writes that “We instruct you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us” (2 Thes 3:6).

He claims, rather, that “we [your leaders] wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so you might imitate us” (3:9). He further explains that “If anyone does not obey our word as expressed by this letter, take note of this person not to associate with him, that he may be put to shame. Do not regard him as an enemy but admonish him as a brother” (3:14-15).

Paul also urges, “Therefore, brother, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2:15).

Where Scripture is profitable and useful, it was also the case that the example of the Apostles, not all of which are recorded (just like all the deeds of Christ are not reported), was a test by which one could determine the nature and character of others.

From here we will look at the origin of the “rule of truth” which became later on the “rule of faith” (regula fidei) and how such a notion was used to combat heresy and be a model for unity among the faithful.