Monday, July 21, 2008

Development of Papal Jurisdiction Amidst the 3rd Century Roman Political Climate

My previous two discussion (here and here) on the controversy surrounding Paul of Samosata in Antioch examined the various synods against him which occurred in the mid to late 260s. While the final synod had pronounced him excommunicated, he refused to give up his see and the Church was powerless to forcibly evict him since he was under the protection of queen Zenobia, who had recently ascended to the throne of the Palmyrene empire following the assassination of her husband.

When the emperor Aurelian re-captured Antioch in 272 AD, eviction became possible. Eusebius relates for us that the bishops then petitioned Aurelian:
and he decided the matter most equitably, ordering the building to be given to those to whom the bishops of Italy and of the city of Rome should adjudge it. Thus this man was driven out of the church, with extreme disgrace, by the worldly power.
If he had only mentioned the city of Rome, it would be easier for "Romanists" to show how this edict closely parallels the theological argument behind Rome's primacy yet we are faced with additional difficulties in doing so since he felt compelled to mention the other bishops of Italy since no theological argument whatsoever can be made in defense of their sees having legitimate influence in matters outside their jurisdiction.

Yet since a theological argument can be made in defense of Rome's primacy, one cannot reasonably dismiss the development of Roman primacy as if it were purely secular or political in nature. Not only can this argument be made and powerfully defended until this day, it had already enjoyed notable use by Roman bishops for at least 50 years by the time this edict had been issued. That is, starting with Pope Callistus if not earlier, Rome had already been explicitly arguing on the grounds of Matthew 16:18 that she was entitled to the promises which Christ addressed to St. Peter so it would be an utterly incompetent argument to claim Rome's ecclesial primacy developed solely as a result of her political primacy.

Furthermore, as in our previous discussion, we must again state that in order for us to have a sensible discussion on this development, we must first admit that hierarchical development itself is not necessarily corruption and then admit that there is a possibility that this development occurred not out of arbitrary human intervention but out of legitimate necessity guided by the Holy Spirit. Or put another way, the possibility, (however unlikely we decide it to be), must exist that this development which is here seen to be visibly aided by a secular force not only could have been divinely protected but may even have been a direct expression of divine providence.

In fact, supposing for a moment that one adjusted his or her perspective and entertained the possibility of this edict being providential instead of detrimental, it slowly begins to make perfect sense fitting neatly into an uninterrupted line of hierarchical development stretching nearly 2,000 years, occurring for various reasons and addressing a broad range of issues.

If we can admit, (and we can), that it was divinely appointed that the political force of the Roman empire be used to accomplish God's plan under Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate and much later under Constantine, then why not under Aurelian? If we insist on arguing (again ipso facto) that Aurelian's edict demonstrates that Rome's primacy developed purely because of secular influence... oh how much trouble we would find ourselves in when we find that certain doctrines which we all hold to be orthodox have been visibly protected by secular authorities! My meager defense here certainly does not prove that since it happened in this particular way that it was necessarily God's providence, only that one must find other grounds on which to attack than merely asserting that political forces participated in the development of this element of Church hierarchy and therefore it is corruption instead of organic development.

Having established as insufficient the aforementioned argument that the development of Rome's primacy was a corruption and having proposed understanding it within the framework of divine providence rather than worldly corruption, we can proceed in examining the text. Secular governments have always had a vested interest in the peace of their citizens and few things threaten peace like religious discord (and I needn't bring up any modern examples to prove this point). So, while humanly speaking, we owe a great deal to Constantine for the precision and unanimity by which Christianity can speak of the Blessed Trinity today, we can say something similar for Aurelian in the development of the papacy because of this edict which occurred some 50+ years before Nicaea.

It is also worth noting that the in the text itself, particularly in the last sentence, we see evidence that the bishops immediately interpreted this action from Rome as God Himself using a "worldly power" as a tool to accomplish good ends. It is also paramount in this discussion to point out that we learn of no theological objection whatsoever and we would well expect to had this been seen as a corruption. The bishops of the Church had a strong handle on that which was genuinely developed tradition and that which was corruption or novel doctrine. In our day, no one for a second could miss the crucial theological implications of such a proposal how much less those bishops who were immersed in a world where separation of Church & state was unthinkable? Arguments from silence may typically be the weakest, but when the silence is deafening, they can be powerful.

We know for certain that the theological argument for Rome's primacy based on Matthew had already been in use for over a generation; it is also clear from the fact that nearly every major event which threatened Church stability has until this time involved Rome in some capacity that some sort of argument which demanded communion with Rome as a test for ecclesial legitimacy had also enjoyed wide circulation.


So then, I have argued first that the hermeneutic of continuity not only allows for but demands development of doctrine. Secondly, I have attempted to demonstrate that hierarchical development was also simultaneously theologically justifiable and necessary in my examination of that development up through the mid third century (with painfully brief summaries of significant developments up until that time). Next I have argued that certain developments of that hierarchy must be refuted on grounds other than the "ipso facto" argument that hierarchical development equates to corruption and finally, I have argued here that the development of the papacy (the pinnacle of hierarchical development) cannot be dismissed on the mere grounds that it was influenced or aided by secular policies.

Therefore, it is not a stretch in the least to state with confidence, as I do, that these developments occurred squarely in the context of divine providence especially when we consider the hermeneutic of continuity keeping in mind that great quotation from one John Chrysostom (regarding Pentecost):
the apostles “did not come down from the mountain carrying, like Moses, tablets of stone in their hands; but they came down carrying the Holy Spirit in their hearts… having become by his grace a living law, a living book.”
Because as the Church was already well aware, genuine development hereof demands that this "living law" did not and could not end with the apostles - it continued on through the controversies of the early Church and continues on until this day. Thus, the "living law" delivered to the apostles on Pentecost was delivered to their successors. It enabled them to deal authoritatively with the doctrinal dispute at Antioch in Acts 15, it allowed the bishops of the third century to deal with Paul of Samosata in the same city "by divine direction", it allowed the Catholic Church to accept the development of papal jurisdiction (however God's providence saw fit to bring it about), it allowed her to say no to evils like contraception and abortion in our day and when further questions arise, it will allow the Church to be ready and willing to deal with them by divinely appointed authority.


Phil Snider said...

Hi Tim;

I've read your series which I think is a good, balanced approach. There is something I'd like to highlight.

First, on the subject of Aurelian and Constantine, I would be very careful about using Aurelian's intervention as equivalent to Constantine. Constantine's involvement in church affairs occured because he was sympathetic and interested in the result. Therefore, he had the good of the church in mind and did provide many services to that end. If he was occasionally wrong, it wasn't through ill will.

On the other hand, let's remember that Aurelian was a pagan and, accordign to Eusebius, was planning a persecution of Christians. Aurelian's decision was strictly based on an interpretation of Roman law. This makes his decision slightly more dodgy for your purposes becuase you are trying to use Aurelian's intervention as the secular arm which only makes sense in a Constantinian and immediately post-Constantinian context. That is, the 'Constantinian' theory which you are employing here is misapplied here because it is predicated on the political authority actually being Christian. This simply isn't true with Aurelian. Now, I grant that God could have used Aurelian for building up his church and cutting off heretics, but it is a very different process. With Constantine, Constantine was, arguably, working with God. With Aurelian, God was working despite Aurelian.

That said, I think you're right that the argument about the corruption of the Church which is so prominent in Protestant polemic doesn't stand well. There were aspects of corruption and the defense of orthodoxy in all periods including the patristic one. The creation of hierarchy was designed to address these problems (something which too many Anglicans don't get, as the current controversies indicate). I also think you're right to connect this to doctrinal development. The two go hand in hand.

onionboy said...

Hi Tim, an aside - I just saw my art on your page, the Welcome Home button. :) Looks like we came Home the same year. Cool. Welcome home! (we arrived in jan o6)

P.S. Left a comment follow up to your recent comment on the Cat's site.

George Weis said...


I really do think this series is excellent. I appreciate your thoughts and comments. I can usually easily understand what you are laying down. Thanks brother!



P.S. Don't let me forget to do the reorientation... I have 2 more days this week!

Joseph said...

Phil:That is, the 'Constantinian' theory which you are employing here is misapplied here because it is predicated on the political authority actually being Christian.

I don't think Tim was trying to force this logic into his "'Constantianian' theory". Perhaps I need to re-read his post.

Phil:With Constantine, Constantine was, arguably, working with God. With Aurelian, God was working despite Aurelian.

Right, this was an essential point (though not the major point) of Tim's post, from what I understand. That would negate the charge above.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Joseph - you nailed it on the head. I kept meaning to reply but hadn't got around to it yet.

I mentioned Pilate along with Constantine to emphasize that concept.