Monday, February 19, 2007

St. Ignatius on the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff


Previously, I discussed St. Ignatius' view on the authority of bishops in the early Church. But it is of particular interest to Catholics (and anyone genuinely interested in early Church history) to ask the question, what did this early saint feel about the primacy of the Roman pontiff?

As a Catholic, I wish he spoke more directly with a modern understanding of the role of the bishop of Rome in Church hierarchy but the truth is: he didn't.

In fact, in his epistle to the Church at Rome, the only bishop he even mentions is himself. From a Catholic perspective, one might expect him to at least greet the Roman bishop (who was, at the time, most likely St. Evaristus or St. Alexander I). In most of his epistles, he exhorts the faithful to obey their bishop.

You would especially expect him to do so in his epistle to Rome but in this one he doesn't. He seems to be mainly concerned with them not interfering with his martyrdom (this is a prize he is looking forward to as is consistent with many of the early Christians). Indeed, as is recorded in the account of his martyrdom, he is widely known and revered (by the Christian community) when he arrives in Rome.

I had mentioned that St. Polycarp (bishop of Smyrna) was his fellow disciple of St. John the apostle. The two (Ignatius & Polycarp) were apparently friends though Ignatius was Polycarp's elder by at least 25 years. Ignatius is writing to St. Polycarp (who is now in his late 40s or early 50s and already widely revered as a 'holy' bishop) when he says:

Be, after the Lord, their protector and friend. Let nothing be done without your consent; neither do anything without the approval of God.
Since he exhorts the laity to 'do nothing without the approval of the [local] bishop' it would be most convenient for Catholics if he had exhorted St. Polycarp (a bishop himself) to 'do nothing without the approval of the bishop of Rome' but he doesn't. (He isn't of course denying the primacy of the Roman pontiff, he just isn't affirming it either). Later on in the same epistle he says to Polycarp:
Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God!
One way of reading this passage may be to assume he is speaking in general to all Christians and not individually to St. Polycarp. The context isn't especially clear. But if he were talking individually to St. Polycarp, to whom is he referring to since St. Polycarp himself is the bishop?

Regardless, it is clear that St. Ignatius does not view the primacy of the Roman pontiff in the same light that all Christians would come to view it in within a couple hundred years. It is true that this doctrine (the papacy) is developmental. That is, the papacy wasn't understood properly as the 'head' of the Church until later.

But before any anti-Catholics start celebrating a victory, we should remember a few things. First, this isn't the only doctrine which has yet to be fully developed. The doctrine of the Trinity hasn't even been mentioned yet in any extant writing. It would first pop up later on in this century (second) and not dogmatically pronounced until Nicea (or Nicaea) in the 4th century. By that time, the doctrine of Roman primacy will already have some substantial roots growing but that will have to wait for another discussion. Though its easy to claim that the Trinity has biblical roots, its just as easy to do so for the papacy (and of course neither would be within the scope of this post).

So we must set these two on level ground; that is, its not significant (doctrinally) that the primacy of the Roman bishop was not yet fully developed (or even partially) since the doctrine of the Trinity was not either. And of course, virtually all of Christianity now agrees on the Trinity.

The other thing to keep in mind is that St. Ignatius may not be affirming this particular exclusively Catholic doctrine, but he is by no means denying it. I would argue that it is clear from his writings that he didn't have a full understanding of the doctrine as a modern Catholic would see it but I would also argue that St. Paul didnt have a full understanding of the Trinity as well by how he speaks of it (and / or fails to). Furthermore, he certainly doesn't affirm any exclusively Protestant doctrine in any of his epistles (and only a few early writings do.. and the ones that did of course were instantly deemed to be heresy).

One final thought: the point has been made before that St. Ignatius's writings are consistent with the situation they were written in: that is he wrote them on his way from Syria to Rome to be martyred. This explains his overall lack of clear direction in each epistle and somewhat scattered thought process. In short, these brief epistles were written in a hurry. He told St. Polycarp that he didnt have time to write to all the churches that he wanted to and asked him to do it on his behalf. Whether or not St. Polycarp actually did, we unfortunately only have one extant writing now.

This fact, coupled with the obvious: St. Ignatius was a bishop not a 'Catholic apologist' . That is: he was primarily interested in keeping the flock obedient to the shepherds left by the apostles as opposed to defending the idea of Church hierarchy against Christians who say there is none or more specifically: defending the idea of a Roman papacy to those who claim that either A) Rome's bishop is merely the first among equals or B) Rome's bishop has no significance whatsoever. Presently, the greatest threat to the Church was individualism which would inevitably lead to the 'poison' of heresy.

Protestant historian, Bruce Shelley (whom I keep referring to in order to give the illusion that Im not as biased as I really am hehe just kidding... kinda) in his book "Church History in Plain Language" stated in a round-about way that the three geographic centers of early Christianity (2nd - 3rd century) were Rome, Antioch and Alexandria. I would concur that there is a lot of truth in that statement. In the 1st century it had been, of course, Jerusalem.

During St. Ignatius' time, it is likely that the disagreements that were arising were largely localized and having to do mostly with disagreements between laity and the clergy (I think this is a very fair observation based on his epistles). But as the Church grew, so did the need for clarity of doctrine and for authority.

They didn't even have a specific canon (bible) to refer to in order to make a case for their doctrines. In fact, because of the expense in duplicating written material, practical 'canons ' quickly became an issue of geographical constraints. That is, the church in Smyrna had such and such letters commonly read at mass while the church of Alexandria may have had either a partially or a completely different set of letters depending on which ones were physically available to them. (The Old Testament was most likely much more consistent from church to church as they used the Septuagint). Of course Marcion would later come and offer his canon which the Church would reject and call together a number of councils more or less deciding the issue. (It had to be revisited later at Trent).

Back to my point, even before these councils convened and the Catholic Church decided which books would be in the bible, they had already been wrestling with the issue of how to determine orthodox truth when disagreements arose between churches (and they did). With the aforementioned three centers of Christianity, certain fathers began arguing that Rome held priority because her bishop was the successor of St. Peter (the rock on which Christ would build His Church). Now it began to make sense what Christ had said.

The human mind tends to skip over what it does not understand even without realizing that its doing so. And so up until this point, Christians were doubtlessly skipping over that passage in Matthew 16 without realizing it because they didn't know why Jesus had said it or what it meant. Matthew probably didnt either but he knew it had some significance and thats why he recorded it. If he had understood, I think he probably would have explained it in more detail.

The early 1st, 2nd and even 3rd century Church may not have fully understood it either. This poses no problem to Catholic theology. They didn't yet have a full need for its implications. But as divisions started to rise, Christ's prophecy began to make a lot of sense. His so called apocalyptic prophesies began to make a lot of sense when the temple was destroyed and so His prophesies of St. Peter being the foundation of the Church started making a lot of sense as divisions started to rise and his successor eventually won the title of 'pope'.

3 comments:

japhy said...

I'm in Maryland this weekend; I attended my nephew's First Holy Communion Mass yesterday. We got to the church early to reserve a pew for the eight of us, and then went in search of reading material. I found in the church's vestibule a rack with books for sale. One of them was "Why Is That in Tradition?" by Patrick Madrid.

The reason I bring this up is because the first chapter of the book is devoted to the authority of the Church, and includes some very early references to Bishop of Rome as having primacy. The book is really inexpensive (I got it for $5, Amazon offers it for around $10) but when I get home later today, I'll send you a couple choice excerpts.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

I would appreciate that. I'd be interested to see them. I agree that there are early references to the primacy of the Roman Pontiff as having supremacy. After writing this post, I read (parts of) Steve Ray's "Upon This Rock" which devotes several pages to this epistle of St. Ignatius and he made some good points that I didn't catch.

I still say its not until a little later where we start getting real clear and undeniable patristic support for the Roman Pontiff (say by the 4th century) yet Protestants and Eastern Orthodox still deny it. At any rate, Im looking forward to the excerpts from that book.

japhy said...

St. Clement (Bishop of Rome) (A.D. 80) - Accept our counsel and you will have nothing to regret ... If anyone disobey the things which have been said by [the Lord] through us, let him know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger. Epistle to the Corinthians 1:1, 58:2)

Hermas (A.D. 80) - Therefore shall you write two little books and send one to Clement and one to Grapte. Clement shall then send it to the cities abroad, because that is his duty. The Shepherd 2:4:3

St. Ignatius (A.D. 110) - Ignatius ... to the chruch also which holds the presidency, in the location of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and, because you hold the presidency in love, named after Christ and named after the Father ... You [the Church in Rome] have envied no one, but others you have taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instructions make remain in force. Letter to the Romans 1:1

St. Irenaus (A.D. 189) - [W]e shall confound all ... by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul ... For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. (Against Heresies 3:2:2)

Tertullian (A.D. 210) - But if you are near Italy, you have Rome, where authority is at hand for us too. Demurrer Against the Heretics 6:14:1

St. Cyprian (A.D. 251) - On [Peter] [Jesus] builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep, and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair, and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. ... If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holsd the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church? (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4)

Cyprian (A.D. 253) - Cornelius was made bishop ... when the place of Fabian, which is the place of Peter, the dignity of the sacerdotal chair, was vacant. ... [H]eretics dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the Chair of Peter and to the principal church, in which sacerdotal unity has its source. Letter 55:8, 59:14

St. Damasius, in A.D. 382, writes that the Church in Rome being "at the forefront" of the Catholic Churches throughout the world by the word of Jesus, and that the "fire see is that of Peter the apostle, that of the Roman Church." And St. Peter Chrysologus, in A.D. 449, writes that "we ... cannot try cases on the faith without the consent of the bishop of Rome".