Thursday, May 29, 2014

“Apostolic Succession” a very late “development” for “Churches of the East”

Distorting the history of “the Great Schism”

Over at CTC, David Anders has put up an article entitled “The Witness of ‘Lost Christianities’” – he makes such claims as that these churches ultimately are a “witness” to such things as “the development of Catholic doctrine” and “the importance of the Papacy”. I took issue with one particular claim of his:

David Anders: From your original blog post:

If you compare the “Lost Christianities” to modern, “Bible-alone” Protestantism, you find stark differences. All the ancient Christian communities (even the non-Catholic ones) acknowledge the authority of priests, bishops, and patriarchs. They believe in apostolic succession.

This is entirely not accurate. Samuel Hugh Moffett, writing in A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume 1 (Second revised and corrected edition, © 1998, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books) relates:

There is very little reliable evidence of a developed episcopate in Persia until much before the year 300. It is apparent from the evidence in other parts of the Persian border regions, notably Edessa and Arbela (Adiabene), that ever since about the end of the second century the church had slowly been moving in the direction of greater centralization of authority and that in the third and fourth centuries the process accelerated. What had once been a collection of congregations and preaching points, each apparently independent but knit together by a common loyalty to Jesus Christ [and certainly reflecting an evangelical and congregational governmental structure - jb], became in the first half of the fourth century a nationwide community, with no single head but with graded church structures (bishops, priests, and deacons) separated geographically but in communication with each other (117, emphasis added).

He is very clear about this: No document dating to before the year 200 mentions a bishop. “Later historians, however, labored to fill the gaps with unbroken lines of episcopal succession back to the apostles”. In a footnote, Moffett lists numerous documents from that region, dating to that time, and none of them mentions either a “bishop” or an episcopal office.

This process mirrors the process that Brandon Addison outlined in his article on the early “bishops” of Rome. In the late second and early third centuries, there was an apologetic effort to shore up the notion of “apostolic succession”, even though, especially in this part of the world, it was not a consideration before Irenaeus wrote about it.

Moffett continues to relate other, later documentation which affirms that this is how the process worked:

The years of relative toleration under the late Parthians and early Sassanid emperors would have furnished opportunity for visible, organized Christian leadership to emerge. However, though the evidence is more reliable in the third century, it is difficult to prove the existence of bishops in eastern Syrian and Mesopotamia before the year 300. Even in Edessa the first bishop in the Chronicle of Edessa (c. 550) is Qona, who is reported to have begun the building of the great Cathedral there in 313. The important center of Nisibis [a center of Christian education] had no bishop before 301, and the first bishop mentioned by name there, James of Nisibis or perhaps Babu (it is uncertain which was first), was not a metropolitan and therefore had authority only in his own congregation (118 emphasis added).

In fact, there are records (though disputed) of the first ordination of both “bishop” and “priest” in the capital city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (near modern day Baghdad).

It was not tradition but pragmatic and sometimes sordid ecclesiastical and political developments that eventually elevated the bishop of the Persian capital, Seleucia-Ctesiphon, to headship over all the church of the East (later called the Nestorian church). As late as 270 the small group of Christians in the capital had no bishop, much less a catholicos (or patriarch). In that year, according to the disputed account in the History of the Church of Adiabene), the Christians of Seleucia-Ctesiphon begged Shaklupa, “bishop” of Arbela, who was visiting them, to choose and ordain their first priest, which he did. About 20 years later, perhaps between 280 and 290, the two bishops of Arbela and Susa, deciding that it was now fitting that the capital city should have its own bishop, elevated its priest, Papa bar-Aggai, to the rank of bishop (120).

The concept of priest took more than 200 years to make it to this eastern church, in the capital city of a neighboring empire, even though the “churches of the east” claim apostolic foundation (Thaddeus). Moffett relates that of the late first/early second century hymnbook the Odes of Solomon contains a list of “church officers” of that period, which includes “interpreters”, “narrators”, “confessors”, “preachers”, and “teachers”, noting that this “points to an order much more loosely defined than the bishop-presbyter-deacon formula found in Edessa in the third century” (55).

I think the deeper you look into the history of these churches, the more you’ll find that “episcopacy” is a late “development” that was not a part of the thinking of the earliest Christians there. All of this shows first of all, a reflection of the history of how “apostolic succession” “developed” and further, it enables one to see the truly provincial are the later claims of the Roman church that it somehow, ever, had any sort of jurisdiction over this part of the world.

Much more could be, and should be said about the churches in this part of the world – those especially who have suffered so horrifically at the hand of Islam.

Anders’s use (rather, misuse) of these churches as a “witness” to Roman Catholicism, however, is a distortion of their genuine history and legacy. The thing that never seems to be mentioned (especially among those who plead for the kind of unity the church had the first 1000 years), is that this time period shatters the myth of the notion of a “unified early church”.

One of the most significant, Protestant-like divisions in the early church may be found in the simple designations of “The School of Antioch” or “The School of Alexandria,” both of which held differing views of Scripture, and later, of the person of Christ. Disagreements among these different factions manifested themselves in “The Great Schism,” a schism of church governments of “The Churches of the East,” the separation of the Church of Alexandria, etc.

Moffett, describes this “Great Schism” this way:

What finally divided the early church, East from West, Asia from Europe, was neither war nor persecution, but the blight of a violent theological controversy, that raged through the Mediterranean world in the second quarter of the fifth century. It came to be called the Nestorian controversy, and how much of it was theological and how much political is still being debated, but it irreversibly split the church not only east and west but also north and south and cracked it into so many pieces that it was never the same again. (169)

This is an ugly memory for the "Greco-Roman" church -- it is a far larger and messier divide than the 1054 schism between the Roman and Orthodox churches. It makes a lie of the "unified church" claims of today's Roman Catholic apologists. It is the clearest example that there never was a governmentally-unified church -- especially not "under the papacy" -- ever in the history of the church.

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