Who was the churchman in charge of the whole world in the fourth century?
According to Gregory of Nazianzus, it was Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria.
Thus in Oration 21 (“On the Great Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria”), referred to briefly yesterday, Gregory writes:
Thus brought up and trained, as even now those should be who are to preside over the people, and take the direction of the mighty body of Christ, according to the will and foreknowledge of God, which lays long before the foundations of great deeds, he was invested with this important ministry, and made one of those who draw near to the God Who draws near to us, and deemed worthy of the holy office and rank, and, after passing through the entire series of orders, he was (to make my story short) entrusted with the chief rule over the people, in other words, the charge of the whole world…. (Oration 21.7)
Gregory says the same again much later in the oration:
He restored too the teaching which had been overthrown: the Trinity was once more boldly spoken of, and set upon the lampstand, flashing with the brilliant light of the One Godhead into the souls of all. He legislated again for the whole world, and brought all minds under his influence, by letters to some, by invitations to others, instructing some, who visited him uninvited, and proposing as the single law to all— Good will. For this alone was able to conduct them to the true issue. (Oration 21.31)
Indeed, already in the third century the title πάπ[π]ας/papa/”pope” (which means “father”) was used in reference to Alexandria’s bishop. This we find in Eusebius, in reference to the Alexandrian bishop Heraclas:
Then after saying some things concerning all the heresies [Dionysius] adds: “I received this rule and ordinance from our blessed father, Heraclas [τοῦτον ἐγὼ τὸν κανόνα καὶ τὸν τύπον παρὰ τοῦ μακαρίου πάπα ἡμῶν Ἡρακλᾶ παρέλαβον]. For those who came over from heresies, although they had apostatized from the Church,—or rather had not apostatized, but seemed to meet with them, yet were charged with resorting to some false teacher,—when he had expelled them from the Church he did not receive them back, though they entreated for it, until they had publicly reported all things which they had heard from their adversaries; but then he received them without requiring of them another baptism. For they had formerly received the Holy Spirit from him.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 7.7)
What were the grounds of Athanasius’ succession to the See of Alexandria, and his consequent prerogative of having “charge of the whole world”? The clue is in the first sentence of the quotation from 21.31: “He restored too the teaching which had been overthrown.” In section 8, Gregory makes it clear that the only legitimate claim to “apostolic succession” is founded on fidelity to the apostolic teaching.
First, he notes how Athanasius came into his position: not by appointment, but by vote (a practice that had been lost to corruption already in Gregory’s own day, as he himself says):
[B]y the vote of the whole people, not in the evil fashion which has since prevailed, nor by means of bloodshed and oppression, but in an apostolic and spiritual manner, he is led up to the throne of Saint Mark…. (Oration 21.8)
He occupies “the throne of Saint Mark,” of course, because Mark traditionally was believed to have been the first Bishop of Alexandria. But does Athanasius ascend the throne by some mechanical process that ipso facto (or ex opere operato, if you like) guarantees his legitimate title to it and then underwrites the authority of his pronouncements? No, actually, but rather the opposite; the orthodoxy of his teaching underwrites the legitimacy of his title:
[B]y the vote of the whole people, not in the evil fashion which has since prevailed, nor by means of bloodshedand oppression, but in an apostolic and spiritual manner, he is led up to the throne of Saint Mark, to succeed him in piety, no less than in office; in the latter indeed at a great distance from him, in the former, which is the genuine right of succession, following him closely. For unity in doctrine deserves unity in office; and a rival teacher sets up a rival throne; the one is a successor in reality, the other but in name. For it is not the intruder, but he whose rights are intruded upon, who is the successor, not the lawbreaker, but the lawfully appointed, not the man of contrary opinions, but the man of the same faith; if this is not what we mean by successor, he succeeds in the same sense as disease to health, darkness to light, storm to calm, and frenzy to sound sense. (Oration 21.8)
Gregory’s position is abundantly clear: unity in the faith, in the teaching (or in “piety,” as it is also called here) authorizes legitimacy in office, and not the other way around. This is the only kind of genuine succession that exists. Any so-called “succession” that does not adhere to the apostolic teaching stands in “succession” only in the way in which disease “succeeds” health or darkness “succeeds” light.
This principle of the logical priority of doctrinal fidelity to legitimacy in office is not an outlier in Gregory, utterly divorced from the mainstream of early Christian reflection. It is rather the catholic doctrine. It goes without saying that its pedigree is primitive and Pauline, since it is delineated already in the first chapter of Galatians. But it is also found in Irenaeus. Before him, it is discernible in the Didache. Later, it turns up in Rufinus of Aquileia. This is so because the criterion of fidelity to the apostolic gospel is the necessary corollary of the doctrine of revelation, which is in its turn the necessary presupposition of the doctrine of the church.
It is not, therefore, a principle about which we should be embarrassed, but one in which we ought confidently to rejoice together with our fathers in the faith, and against all modernist obsession with epistemology, which is really nothing more than an obsession with a disordered and nihilistic skepticism, as William Cunningham pointed out already in 1863. For Gregory is sure that the content of the apostolic teaching is “out there”: it is objective and knowable, such that it can serve as a canon–a yardstick–by which to measure the fidelity of all those who claim authority over other Christians. That was Gregory’s point of view; it should be ours as well.