Friday, October 08, 2010

The Late Development of the Bishop of Rome

John Bugay has posted on Hermas and the structure of the early Roman church before. I don't have anything original to add to that discussion.

However, I'd like to provide some corroboration by Roman Catholic scholars Raymond Brown and John Meier, whose book received both the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur (bold mine):

There is no doubt that it [The Shepherd of Hermas] was written at Rome (Vis. 1.1.1.; 2.1.1; 4.1.2); and the suggestion that Clement would send it abroad (Vis. 2.4.3) may mean that Hermas' revelations had church status in Rome...[characterizing the letter] Bernard ("Shepherd" 34-35) may be closer to the mark: "Thus I Clement, like Hermas, is a Christian work which leans heavily on late-Jewish and early Jewish-Christian tradition and apologetics, and this raises the question as to the composition of the Roman Church in the late first and early second centuries. There would appear to be grounds for thinking that the influence of the Jewish-Christian element in the Church remained strong into the second century." I would rephrase slightly, for I think of Rome as containing a dominant Jewish/Gentile Christianity that had strong loyalties to Jerusalem and the Jewish tradition. The author of Hermas may have been ethnically a pure Gentile, but he would be representative of that continuing strain of Christianity. The indication that there was still a church structure of presbyter-bishops and deacons433 indicates how conservative the Roman church was.1

The footnote (#433) referenced above reads (bold mine):

433. See p. 163 above. All the references to presbyters and bishops are in the sections that some would judge chronologically early. However, if the men sitting on the bench in Man. 11.1 are presbyters, then the structure of presbyter-bishops lasted into the 140s. Telfer, Office 61, however, thinks it unquestionable that by the time Hermas was finished there was a single-bishop at Rome.2

Page 163 (and the previous page) reveals the following discussion (bold mine):

An older generation of Roman Catholic scholars assumed that the single-bishop practice was already in place in Rome in the 90s or earlier; and they opined that, as fourth pope (third from Peter), Clement was exercising the primacy of the bishop of Rome in giving directions to the church of Corinth. The failure of Clement to use his own name or speak personally should have called that theory into question from the start, were there not other decisive evidence against it. As the ecumenical book Peter in the New Testament (done by Roman Catholics and Protestants together) affirmed, the connection between a Petrine function in the first century and a fully developed Roman papacy required several centuries of development, so that it is anachronistic to think of the early Roman church leaders functioning as later popes (see footnote 275 above). Moreover, the Roman episcopal list shows confusion...All of this can be explained if we recognize that the threefold order of single-bishop, with subordinate presbyters and deacons, was not in place at Rome at the end of the first century; rather the twofold order of presbyter-bishops and deacons, attested a decade before in I Peter 5:1-5, was still operative. Indeed, the signal failure of Ignatius (ca. 110) to mention the single-bishop in his letter to the Romans (a very prominent theme in his other letters) and the usage of Hermas, which speaks of plural presbyters (Vis. 2.4.2) and bishops (Sim. 9.27.2), make it likely that the single-bishop structure did not come to Rome till ca. 140-150.3

Some observations:

1. This work received both the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur. It therefore carries more general weight than those whose only qualifications as Catholic apologists are a keyboard and an internet connection.

2. Brown and Meier are established Catholic scholars. They therefore carry more weight than otherwise unknown lay-Catholic apologists on the subject.

3. Brown and Meier state their position in direct contrast to previous generations of Roman Catholic scholars. Even on something as important as the nature of the church government of Rome, with particular application to the power and authority of the bishop(s) there, Catholic scholarship has not been consistent. This observation plays into a variety of problems with Roman Catholicism, some of which are fairly obvious.

4. There are lay-Catholic apologists who object to the term "Roman Catholic." This, however, is how Brown and Meier both refer to themselves and previous generations of scholars within their own denomination. If it's acceptable for Brown and Meier, and morally consistent with Catholicism proper (via the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur), it should be acceptable to lay-Catholic internet apologists.


1. Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983, 2004), 203-204.

2. Ibid., 204.

3. Ibid., 162-163.


Andrew said...

Yeah, but Brown and Meier are not true Scotsmen.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Andrew's comment above is prescient.

" Brown and Meier are established Catholic scholars. They therefore carry more weight than otherwise unknown lay-Catholic apologists on the subject."

Only Catholics who swear by the Kool-Aid (and therefore deemed as True Kool-Aid Drinking Catholics) have credibility with the Kool-Aid Drinking Catholics.

Otherwise, they're just Catholic in name only and their arguments are readily dismissed, well-credentialed Catholic scholar in good standing with Mother Church or not.

BBB said...

Just to add on to the Scotsmen thing... I recently met a super traditional Catholic (young earth, geocentrist, hates Raymond Brown) at a Biola event. It was strange and disturbing.

What I realized, though, is that he was essentially a Sungenis follower. His opinions on almost everything related to Catholicism were based on the arguments of Sungenis: his opinion of the mass, of Raymond Brown and Meier, geocentrism, young earth creationism, other Catholic apologists, etc. Now, Sungenis is smart n all, but I wouldn't be comfortable basing my Catholicism so heavily on him. IOW, I don't want to be a Sungensian Catholic.

I also have a question about the early papacy arguments above. I've heard the argument before that Ignatius' writings show that Rome had a singular bishop indirectly, due to his claims that a church needs a bishop in order to be a church. I forget where the quote is... anyway, it is argued that Ignatius would not have written such things, and then still consider Rome's church to be valid, if Rome had no singular bishop. How would you respond?

Matthew D. Schultz said...

BBB writes:

I've heard the argument before that Ignatius' writings show that Rome had a singular bishop indirectly, due to his claims that a church needs a bishop in order to be a church. I forget where the quote is... anyway, it is argued that Ignatius would not have written such things, and then still consider Rome's church to be valid, if Rome had no singular bishop. How would you respond?

I'm not familiar with that appeal; I could do a better job evaluating the argument if I had access to the passage in question.

A preliminary response would simply be that scholars like Meier and Brown don't seem to find that an important consideration (as far as I have checked, they don't discuss that in this work), and I'd trust them as representative interpreters of the Catholic tradition; it's likely they are putting forth much better (in terms of what Rome considers "best") historical arguments than whatever someone on some obscure website has to offer.

That said, assuming Ignatius' comments about what constitutes a valid church have been correctly construed by lay-Catholic apologists (an assumption which, unfortunately, I find myself needing to question at every turn), and keeping in mind the evidence Meier and Brown adduce above, it seems more likely that Ignatius' standard allows for exceptions, or that he has in mind the need for one or more bishops, and/or not necessarily a bishop in the particular governmental form Roman Catholic lay-apologists expect.

If you can find the passage, I'd like to do more research on it.

BBB said...

Hey Matthew, sorry for the late reply. Didn't think I would find it, but I happened upon what I think is the right quote.

It's from the letter to the Trallians. In 3.1 Ignatius says "In like manner let all men respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a church."

The Catholic argument, I think, is that the man who said something like this could not then turn around and praise the church of rome as "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" (Letter to the Romans 1:1) If they didn't even have a bishop.

I don't know if the argument holds any weight or not, but there ya go.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

Thanks for the reference. I'll look into it.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

It looks like Ignatius makes similar comments in all of the other epistles (I’m considering here the non-spurious), minus the one to Rome. For example, in his letter to the Smyrnæans:

See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.


So it’s possible he is speaking specifically to each community about the qualifications necessary for its unique church body to remain valid. Otherwise, why would Ignatius, if he thought this such an important matter to outline for every other church, fail to address it in his letter to the church at Rome? It seems the argument would be stronger if Ignatius only made this kind of comment in one letter, not all the other six.

And then there’s a completely different approach:

The author of 'to the Romans', in complete contrast with the one(s) of the other six letters, did not see the necessity to have a bishop heading a Christian community. Consequently, and also considering the very distinct style, theme & emphasis of the epistle, it is likely its author was NOT the one of the other six epistles.


This wouldn’t detract from the evidence against an early bishop, but it does solve the apparent issue in an interesting way.

Either way, I would still prefer what Meier and Brown have argued as the best available representation of the Catholic interpretation of church history. Clearly there are a lot of components here, some requiring a level of expertise unavailable to lay-Catholic apologists who think a copy-and-paste job from some Catholic Answers page suffices to address questions of church history.