Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hierarchical Development through the Third Century

By the end of the first century, a one bishop hierarchy was in place as proven by the Ignatian epistles and from Clement's epistle to the Corinthians, we know that the Church at Rome felt it her duty to intervene in conflicts in other cities under separate bishops.

In the second century, bishops all over the known world were summoned at Pope Victor's request to hold local synods regarding the Easter controversy. When the Eastern bishops decided under Polycrates to continue their tradition of celebrating according to the Jewish calendar, Pope Victor assumed the authority to excommunicate the entirety of Asia (yet was persuaded against doing so by bishops such as Irenaeus).

In the early third century, Callistus defends (against Tertullian and Hippolytus) the inherent right of the Church to grant absolution even for post-baptismal mortal sins and argues thus based on the primacy of Peter as awarded him by Christ in Matthew 16:18. And later in the same century, the bishops of the Catholic Church began to develop systematic methods for handling conflicts as they encountered a growing need for stricter definition of hierarchy as orthodoxy became more difficult to defend.

When two parishioners disagree with each other, the solution is simple: let the pastor decide. Again, when two priests under a given bishop have a disagreement the solution is simple: let the bishop decide. But what happens when bishops themselves (inevitably) start teaching heresy? The early Church answered following the pattern of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and the synods held at Pope Victor's request a century earlier: let the universal democracy of the bishops dictate orthodoxy. But in the eyes of the Church, as we shall see in the text here (by Eusebius), this wasn't democracy as if it were merely the safest route to take since it would please the greatest number of people, it was divinely protected (which meant Church infallibility).

When Paul of Samosata succeeded Demetrianus at Antioch around the year 260 AD, he resurrected some old errors: he taught that Jesus Christ was "in His nature a common man". In fact he forbade the singing of hymns to Jesus and is reported to have lived luxuriously and likely immorally (having beautiful women with him every where he went). Ah the olden days when luke-warm Christians were rare and luke-warm heretics even rarer.

So a great number of illustrious bishops from the entire Catholic Church assembled in Antioch to deal with this problem. Before progressing any further we should examine this. Would this have happened in the post-apostolic first century? Something similar happened with the Jerusalem council. The most illustrious leaders of the Church gathered in one location to decide an important doctrinal issue. Yet I would contend that this sort of synod would have been unlikely or perhaps impossible in the first century aside from the apostles (who were probably already in Palestine anyway). It would have even been difficult in the first half of the second century. This does not mean that its development is illicit though.

We cannot return to the immediate post-apostolic era of Christianity and expect that we have found the proper hierarchical structure of the Church (before the bishop-presbyter-deacon structure was neatly defined). On the contrary, such a system would have stripped the third century Church of her ability to deal with Paul of Samosata which is why in addition to doctrinal development, hierarchical development is a necessity. We must then follow this development and if ever we determine the development has gone astray, we must be able to point to an exact point in time at which it went from legitimacy to illegitimacy. If we insist on the bishop-presbyter-deacon system of being illicit (as some of the younger Protestant denominations do) then we must revert to a phase in Christianity which would have doubtlessly been unable to preserve orthodoxy until the present age. Development occurred out of necessity and not of worldly corruption.

So much here for the development of the magisterium and the universal democracy of bishops. This is to be continued in an examination of the same subject with emphasis on the bishop of Rome and the development of his hierarchical role in the third century.


R. E. Aguirre. said...

Excellent post Tim. One immense hurdle all other ecclesiological contenders must deal with (i.e., Presbyterian, Congregational, etc)is the simple fact that the entire universal Church of the then known world all agreed and defended the episcopal form (both the West and the East).

There is not even a record of any other forms that were even considered. This would have been an impossibility in the patristic attestation if there was another more ancient governmental form.

The simple and unbiased fact is that since the earliest post-NT records the Church is seen as episcopalian in clerical form. This wide-scale understanding and acceptance can only be accounted because of having Apostolic backing.

R.E Aguirre


George Weis said...


A totally enjoyable post. I read about the controversy a few months back, and enjoyed what I found there in regards to the development of Church Hierarchy.

I think the one thing that tends to create a puzzle is weather or not the need for such a structure was the movement of the spirit, or the ideas of man. If the early structure was a little more loose knit, is it absolutely key to Christianity to have what was a later development? This tends to be one of the biggest hurdles.

I absolutely understand the reasoning for the ever increasing roll of the clergy with all the heretical movements that were jumping out of the woodwork, but I'm still a little taken back by where they ended up. All the pomp and splendor, and the intertwining of spiritual shepherd and political power is a scary thought to me.


Tim A. Troutman said...

Separation of Church & State is a complex discussion and the minds in antiquity wouldn't have been able to fathom it.

We're going to get into some of that in the sequel post.

Andrew Preslar said...

Hey Tim, you wrote:

"When Paul of Samosata succeeded Demetrianus at Rome around the year 260 AD..."
(emphasis supplied).

Shouldn't that be "at Antioch"?

Which goes to the heart of the question: where is the seat of infallibility in the Church? Most definitely NOT at Antioch.

St. John's Sacred Ensemble said...

Oops! Yea thanks for catching that. It should be Antioch not Rome. I'll fix the main version.

Tim A. Troutman said...

And that was supposed to be my normal account not the ensemble's.