Tuesday, July 31, 2012

On church “authority” as a harmful impulse

In the search for “hard edges” of doctrine, a writer named Burton asked me this question:

I assume you believe in the necessity of some means of defining orthodoxy versus heresy regarding doctrine and morals. Is this what you mean by the ministerial role of the church? How, exactly, does the church exercise this ministerial role?

Do you see a distinction between heresy and schism? If so, how does the church in its ministerial role define and correct schismatics?

Too, Jason Stellman talked about an early church that thought of itself as authoritative:

Catholics believe they discover in Scripture and the fathers a church that is said to be, and thought of itself as, authoritative.

Aside from the concept of how “a church” might “think”, of this church, Jason equivocates,

The woman at the well eventually concluded that Jesus was the Messiah. Once she discovered this fact, her responsibility was to submit to and obey him all her days, right? But her initial discovery of who Jesus was did not come because he simply claimed to be the Messiah, but rather, he “told her all the things she ever did” (in other words, the initial discovery resulted from something independent of any claim Jesus made about himself). But just because that discovery was made independently, that did not mean she could continue to subject everything Jesus said to her own rationality or interpretive agreement.

It’s similar with people who become Catholic (it’s not a perfect illustration, but it conveys the basic point). They weigh the biblical and historical evidence and make a judgment. But once that judgment is made, they are responsible to obey the church because of its divine authority.

In response to both of these, I said:

Certainly there is a means of “defining orthodoxy vs heresy” and in that regard, a council such as Nicea (325) or Constantinople (381) or Chalcedon (451) is very helpful. But I think that conceptions of “authority” that the churches of these centuries had was not very helpful at all. Ephesus (431) is counted as one of the “ecumenical” councils, and yet, it was an embarrassment and blot on the history of the church. That is being kind to it. Such shenanigans led to major rifts in the church that have never been healed.

In a similar vein, historically, the papacy is at the pinnacle of those harmful claims to authority.

I have a series I’ve written, both at Triablogue and elsewhere, called “the nonexistent early papacy”. I’ve put together this timeline of the early papacy, which is necessarily incomplete but very revealing nevertheless:

135-150 ad: the church at Rome is ruled by a plurality of presbyters who quarrel about status and honor. (Shepherd of Hermas). “They had a certain jealousy of one another over questions of preeminence and about some kind of distinction. But they are all fools to be jealous of one another regarding preeminence.”

Also note in Hermas: “Clement’s” “job” is to “send books abroad.” — Peter Lampe does not think this Clement is the same individual from 1 Clement, but the time frame is appropriate.

235: Hippolytus and Pontianus are exiled from Rome by the emperor “because of street fighting between their followers” (Collins citing Cerrato, Oxford 2002).

258: Cyprian (Carthage/west) and Firmilian (Caesarea/east) both go apoplectic when Stephen tries to exercise authority outside of Rome.

306: Rival “popes” exiled because of “violent clashes” (Collins)

308: Rival “popes” exiled because of “violent clashes” (Collins again).

325: Council of Nicea: Alexandria has authority over Egypt and Libya, just as “a similar custom exists with the Bishop of Rome.” The Bishop of Jerusalem is to be honored.

366: Followers of “pope” Damasus [hired gravediggers armed with pick-axes] massacre 137 followers of rival “pope” Ursinus following the election of both men to the papacy.

381: Constantinople: Because it is new Rome, the Bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy privileges of honour after the bishop of Rome. (This indicates Rome’s “honour” is due to its being the capital.)

431: Cyril, “stole” the council (Moffett 174, citing “Book of Heraclides) and “the followers of Cyril went about in the city girt and armed with clubs … with yells of barbarians, snorting fiercely, raging with extravagant arrogance against those whom they knew to be opposed to their doings…”

451: Chalcedon, 28th canon, passed by the council at the 16th session, “The fathers rightly accorded prerogatives to the see of Older Rome, since that is an imperial city; moved by the same purpose the 150 most devout bishops apportioned equal prerogatives to the most holy see of New Rome …”

Again and again, “they argued among themselves as to who was greatest”. This is the story of the struggle for “authority” in early Christianity. As Jason Stellman pointed out in comment 296, as he studied the early church, he “discover[ed] in Scripture and the fathers a church that is said to be, and thought of itself as, authoritative”. This is the fruit of that urge to think of themselves as authoritative.

As I’ve stated repeatedly in this comment thread, the Eastern church “never”, ever accepted the claims of the papacy.

You asked, “Do you see a distinction between heresy and schism? If so, how does the church in its ministerial role define and correct schismatics?”

On the basis of the things I’ve written above, I’m willing to say, I don’t have all the right answers, but I’m certain it excludes the Roman way.


  1. Stellman: Catholics believe they discover in Scripture and the fathers a church that is said to be, and thought of itself as, authoritative.

    This reminds of one of those 'I have a "friend" that...' conversations.

    Maybe I'm being unfair but following the comments over at Greenbaggins is something of a chore.

    1. Hi Andrew -- I know it's a bit of a chore. But I genuinely believe, this time, the Roman Catholics who came over took a good whuppin, especially because they don't seem to have a positive argument in favor of the papacy.

  2. Hi John

    I was thinking more of Stellman's ventriloquist act. I'm sure I've missed some of his comments so maybe I'm being unfair.

    On the papacy, I agree an argument for it has been noticeably absent.

    Some of the Sola Scriptura responses have also been helpful. It seems this is all the CtC chaps want to talk about, not least because it seems to be having some measure of success. Interpretive paradigm this, that; it seems to me to be a lot of verbiage on their part. Rear end talk. Maybe they'll soon sit down. In the mean time I'm thankful for the time and effort yourself and others similarly well equipped are putting into engaging their arguments.

    I think Steve's 'Orc and hobbits' post nailed it.

    1. Andrew, the old "sola Scriptura is self-defeating because it's not in the Bible" argument is really the only argument they have felt they had since the Reformation. But T-Fan nailed them on it.

      I really enjoy the discussion, and I think that their little problem of the nonexistent history of the early papacy is going to become more and more pronounced over the next few years.