Wednesday, June 22, 2011

“How Roman Culture Assured its Continuing Existence by Co-Opting the churches there”

I want to thank those of you who have pointed me in the direction of Michael Patton’s article, “The Rise of Rome in a Nutshell”, over at the Parchment and Pen blog.

Essentially, it’s a good overview. I’d of course like to provide some nuance to his description.

The city of Rome, and the Roman Empire, of course, had existed in their “full glory” long before the church got there. In that sense, it was not Rome that had to “rise”.

In his third paragraph, he mentioned an “institutional” arm of the universal church. As I read more about this, more about the historical backgrounds of the New Testament generally, what happened rather is that the church adopted the ancient Roman culture wholesale, and ended up making Rome a norm, as much as and even more than the teaching of the Apostles. That’s why the Easterners couldn’t tolerate them in the first millennium – they never accepted Rome’s pretentions to having authority over them, and that’s primarily what the Reformers sought to try to remove from their understanding of “what is the church?”

In that sense, Patton’s blog post could be more appropriately entitled, “How Roman Culture Assured its Continuing Existence by Co-Opting the churches there”.

A danger in our day comes when Protestants find themselves with some nostalgia about “the early church,” and then they mistakenly look to Rome as a guide to early church beliefs. With very few exceptions, what people get when they look to Roman Catholicism is not the early teaching of the church, but they end up adopting ancient Roman culture, warts and deities and all.

I also think his explanation of “apostolic succession” is a good one, but somewhat lacking. (And of course, in a blog post, you’re not going to be able to fit in all the details). However, it should be stressed that while the Apostles wanted to make sure that the churches where they ministered had good leadership in place (1 Tim 3 and Titus 1), they never envisioned a concept of “succession” as was represented in his first drawing there. That is, the Apostles looked to the current needs of the churches, to make sure that their churches were adequately cared for. But they never envisioned a “lineage” of “successors” who were by virtue of that lineage going to have “apostolic authority”.

During the latter part of the second century, after the churches had withstood (and continued to face) challenges from many varieties of gnosticism and other religions, some individuals saw the value in “looking back” (thus, in the written/unwritten chart, the arrows should be pointing in the other direction.) The churches found value in looking back at their leadership, and saying to the gnostics, “Your religion begins with your founder [that is, a second-century gnostic], and therefore, it does not have Apostolic roots or Apostolic sanction. We teach what the Apostles taught, and we can point to leaders, who have been a part of our churches since the times of the Apostles, and who continue to teach what the Apostles taught.”

That desire to go “back to the sources” is a legitimate way to help keep the churches on course over time. And so, while this “looking back to the Apostles” was an appropriate apologetic tool in the second century, (and indeed, the Reformers looked back to the Apostles as well -- their method of doing so was to argue that “Scripture Alone” has the apostolic teaching) -- the concept as it was practiced in the second century took on a far greater degree of ossification (and in effect, it enshrined second century Roman concepts of authority as somehow having been “divinely instituted”). In effect, Rome enshrined (and continued to look for ways to enshrine) as “gospel truth” its own leadership structure.

It’s this process of “looking back” where historical inaccuracies are found. In “looking back” to find the names of presbyters in the Roman churches, individuals like Hegesippus and Irenaeus – in the second half of the second century – certainly could come up with names of past presbyters, and in that sense, the early “bishops lists” may have a degree of truth. They may contain the names of individuals who were leaders in the church. In other cities where this method was attempted, there was no historical credibility whatsoever. There were gaping holes in these traditions. And also, in the case of these Roman lists, the leadership structure that was in place in the year 166, for example, was anachronistically projected backward to have existed into Apostolic times.

The “institutionalization” that Patton discusses, thus, occurred very early on in the Roman church.

As I mentioned, Rome, historically has attributed all of this to “divine institution”. That is, they say Christ and the Apostles put such a system in place from the beginning.

But such a system is not evident anywhere in the New Testament (that’s why I’m a Presbyterian!), and today, Roman Catholic theologians say rather, that “God enabled this Roman authority system to be evolved and intended it to become the permanent structure of the church”.

As Francis Sullivan, S.J., writes at the conclusion of his study, “From Apostles to Bishops” Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church” (Mahwah, NJ: The Newman Press, (c)2001, pg 230):
While most [Roman] Catholic scholars agree that the episcopate is the fruit of a post-New Testament development, they maintain that this development was so evidently guided by the Holy Spirit that it must be recognized as corresponding to God’s plan for the structure of his Church. This structure was in development during the New Testament era, but even at the close of that period the Church did not yet have a structure adequate to meet the challenges it would face during the second century. [Roman] Catholics see no reason to think that the Holy Spirit, who guided the Church during the period of the New Testament, would have ceased to guide it during the development of the basic structure necessary for its long-term survival.
At this point, it is very possible to see “apostolic succession” as a concept that was useful at a time but not integral to the structure of the church. The Reformers and post-Reformation era writers certainly saw it this way. But on the other hand, as Francis Turretin noted in the 17th century:
The ancients do not attribute this distinction to divine right, but to human custom. Cyprian: “There is one episcopate, a part of which is held by individuals wholly”. Jerome, in the passage cited earlier on Titus 1, to which must be added another from the epistle to Evangelus, where he confirms by many arguments that “a bishop and the presbyter are the same, and that one was elected afterwards, who should be set over the others, became a remedy in schisms, lest each one drawing to himself might rend the church of Christ. And a little after: “Presbyter and bishop, one is a title of age, the other of dignity, whence both to Titus and Timothy he speaks of the ordination of a bishop and a deacon, but is silent concerning presbyters because in the bishop the presbyter is also contained (Turretin, Institutes, Book 3 pg 203).
[Turretin is not saying here that “every bishop is also a priest”. He is saying, there is no distinction between the offices of πρεσβυτέρους and ἐπισκόποις.]

Given the abuses that were so clearly evident by the popes and bishops of the Middle Ages, it was not only permissible, but necessary, for Christians in good conscience to throw off the mantle of “apostolic succession of offices” in favor of the “apostolic succession of true doctrines” as codified in the Scriptures. That is, Protestants knew they could trust the Scriptures alone for true Apostolic doctrine; they could not trust popes and bishops, and they said so, often at the cost of their lives.

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