We are continuing our look at the way the early church organized itself. You can see the earlier posts here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. This post will highlight some of the more important development that would eventually lead to the Roman Catholic claims about the relationship between Peter and Rome’s authority over the church, but the evidence will still show that Rome’s current claims were still not present in the 2nd century. Some of the “development” will actually contradict those claims. Indeed, the kind of development we see is not a mystical or spontaneous development, but rather the messy and gradual stuff of history. Both continuity and discontinuity are present–and yet we still don’t have the Roman Catholic Church.
It also has to be acknowledged that transitioning between “eras” of the early church is rather arbitrary. Our modern minds are trained to think in centuries, but these centuries are themselves based upon the Christian dating system (something that would not be fully in place until around the 9th century). Additionally, Justin Martyr, with whom we will begin, should probably be grouped alongside Polycarp than with Irenaeus. I ended the previous installment where I did more out of concerns for time (my own, as well as the readers), and as I write this post I notice the oddity of my grouping. Thus we shouldn’t think of any dramatic “transition” taking place at this point. Again, the development is gradual and uneven.
History tells us that Justin Martyr was born in Palestine around the year 100 and eventually made his way through Greece and settled in Rome around the 140s. According to Irenaeus, Polycarp visited Rome during this same time, though sure dates cannot be determined. Neither Justin nor Polycarp mention the other in their writings. Still, it is helpful to remember that the men inhabited similar ecclesiastical worlds.
Most of Justin’s writings are defenses of Christianity over and against outside challengers. As such, he does not focus on schism and the opposing topic of church government and authority. But there is one section of his First Apology where we can learn about the governance of the church, indeed the church at Rome, in his day. In chapters 65-67 of the First Apology Justin writes about the worship of the church and some of the functions of its ministers. He states:
Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. …And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion. (First Apology, 65)
Justin does not use either “bishop” or “elder,” but instead the rather unique expression “president of the brethren.” This figure’s activities are liturgical, indeed he is the presider over the Eucharist, and thus he corresponds to Ignatius’ bishop. Additionally, James Tunstead Burtchaell argues that the early office of “bishop” developed as a transformation of the Jewish archisynagogos (From Synagogue to Church, pg. 312), a term he translates as “chief of the community.” This is very close to Justin’s “president of the brethren,” and so we see a common sort of position, even if it lacks the name.
Justin’s “president” operates alongside “deacons.” No “elders” are mentioned. The deacons are liturgical assistants who distribute the eucharistic elements to the people from the president. In the next chapter Justin says that the apostles “delivered” the words of institution to “us,” thus showing a distinction between the apostles and all members of his own congregation. Then in chapter 67, he states:
Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.
Here again, the name “president” is used for the liturgical leader. This same figure also carries out pastoral duties, with the deacons assisting by taking some of the offering to those who are not present.
On a surface level, Justin doesn’t match any of the earlier pictures of early church leadership. He doesn’t have a plurality of elders. His president is a singular figure. But there is no mention of any collegium around him, having only deacons. It could be that Justin does mean to identify a character like Ignatius’ bishop and simply omits any mention at all of “elders” (though they were present at each congregation), or it could be that since Justin’s president is a congregational figure, he is himself one “elder” among other elders, each of whom preside over congregations in the same city. The collection of congregations in Rome would therefore be “the church at Rome,” which existed at that time with “elders and deacons.”
Justin does not mention Peter or Paul, but he does say that Simon Magus came to Rome (First Apology, 26). In that same chapter he mentions the existence of heresies, but makes no appeal to apostolic succession. Justin nowhere speaks of churches or officers holding authority over multiple congregations. So while showing some potential points of discontinuity with the earlier post-apostolic writers, Justin shares with them a general picture of local church officers who recognize themselves as being distinct from the apostles yet continuing in their theological and liturgical tradition.
Irenaeus is next significant writer to mention church leadership, and it is he who provides key elements of later claims to episcopalian authority and apostolic tradition. Indeed, Irenaeus will provide us early claims for both apostolic succession and Roman primacy, and one can see how a kind of development could easily spring from what he writes. It is important to note just how developed Irenaeus understands the episcopal office to be. But it is just as important to notice the specific details, as they also show some interesting points of discontinuity with later tradition. These discontinuities are the kind of interesting wrinkles of real history, and while they show us a more developed institutional church than we might expect at such an early date, they also show that the modern Roman Catholic understanding was still not present in Irenaeus’ day.
From what we know of him, Irenaeus traveled from Asia Minor to Rome and eventually into Gaul where he became a leading churchman. His most famous work, Adversus Haereses (In English, Against Heresies), was written around AD 180, and it went on to hold an enormous influence for all subsequent discussions of church governance. In that work Irenaeus says that the apostles designated successors to hold a sort of teaching office in the church, and he claims that Peter and Paul founded the church at Rome.
Before looking at what Irenaeus says about bishops, it is important to note that he first begins with an appeal to the Scriptures. It is only after his opponents reject this basis and themselves appeal to an unwritten tradition passed down from the apostles through a class of elite church leaders that Irenaeus argues that the successors of the apostles are publicly known. Irenaeus puts the nature of the disagreement in this way:
When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce… (Against Heresies 3.2.1)
This is important to note because it is the heretics who first appeal to a semi-secret tradition which cannot be discovered from a study of the Scriptures. Thus when Irenaeus defends “tradition,” he is opposing this sort of theory. To look at this question in more detail, readers are directed to Dr. Hutchinson’s writings on this topic here, here, and here.
After setting the context Irenaeus states:
…when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. (ibid, 3.2.2)
Irenaeus meets the heretics’ claim to tradition with his own claim to tradition, and he says that the tradition of the apostles “is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches.” Thus, the presbyters, or elders, possess the true tradition. In the next chapter Irenaeus repeats this claim but applies it to “bishops.” He says, “we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times” (3.3.1). Thus far we see a continuance of the older identification of elders and bishops. But Irenaeus adds more when he says, “For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity” (3.3.1).
In that quote, Irenaeus says that the apostles left behind men to whom “deliver[ed] up their own place of government.” That translation is routinely contested. The Latin text could also be rendered “left them their teaching office” or even “handed over their own place of teaching.” Matters are even more complicated when we recall that Irenaeus originally wrote in Greek and that we only have later copies of the Latin translation. Thus we don’t actually know what Irenaeus meant to write here and can’t make much of a case about the nature of the government in view from that particular clause. The meaning is clarified by what follows. Ireneaus goes on to say that the apostles gave “the episcopal ministry” to certain individual men (3.3.3). He then offers a list of bishops which will, in subsequent church history, go on to serve as a common source for nearly all later lists of the kind.
We may not know all of the details about the character of this “episcopal ministry,” but we do see that it holds a position of teaching, that one figure stands out as holding this office over and against others, and that this office-bearer was expected to retain the tradition of the apostles. Thus even as Irenaeus seems to use “bishops” and “elders” interchangeably, he also seems to have a singular officer in mind. But, importantly, Irenaeus points out that authority of these bishops can be verified by the publicly-accessible content of what they taught. They are not a semi-secret class of elite teachers but rather an objective historical testimony to what has existed in the church. Irenaeus even encourages his readers to read the writings of some of these bishops, namely Clement and Polycarp, to see what they wrote firsthand. All of this would then refute the appeals by the heretics to various secret traditions.
In another place in Against Heresies, Irenaeus adds a few more important details:
Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church,—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth. (4.26.2)
Here we see “presbyters” and “the episcopate,” both of which hold a succession from the apostles. Irenaeus will continually use these terms interchangeably, even as he also appears to recognize a singular individual at the top of a hierarchy for each church. In his letter to Victor, a bishop of Rome, Irenaeus refers to Victor’s predecessors as, “the presbyters before Soter, who presided over the church which thou now rulest” (as quoted in Eusebius’ Church History 5.24.14). Thus it is entirely possible that Irenaeus’ bishop comes from a college of elders or operates within them, holding a particular role within that group. It is clear that there is a singular individual atop each church, but he can be called either a bishop or an elder. To say that the presbyters “preside” over the church also links the to Justin Martyr’s “president” mentioned earlier.
But it’s also important to note that Irenaeus connects the authority of the presbyters and bishops to truth and piety. The succession must be one which preserves both the doctrine and the morals of the apostles. This can be seen by what Irenaeus says next, “Those, however, who are believed to be presbyters by many, but serve their own lusts, and, do not place the fear of God supreme in their hearts, but conduct themselves with contempt towards others, and are puffed up with the pride of holding the chief seat, and work evil deeds in secret…” (4.26.3). Notice in this statement, Irenaeus speaks of “those who are believed to be presbyters by many.” This group of people appear after Irenaeus has already devoted a paragraph to those people who have broken away from the succession of presbyters, and thus it appears that he has transitioned to a new group of people. And Irenaeus does not refute these “believed to be presbyters” by appealing to a legal succession. After all, they are believed to be presbyters rather than schismatics. But they are proud and want to hold the highest rank, and so Irenaeus makes a moral critique. He says that these presbyters have an outward appearance which does not match their heart. They condemn the innocent. They eat and drink in excess.
Irenaeus does not believe that these sorts of presbyters should be followed. “From all such persons, therefore, it behoves us to keep aloof, but to adhere to those who, as I have already observed, do hold the doctrine of the apostles, and who, together with the order of priesthood (presbyterii ordine), display sound speech and blameless conduct for the confirmation and correction of others” (4.26.4). He adds to this, “Where, therefore, the gifts of the Lord have been placed, there it behoves us to learn the truth, [namely,] from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles, and among whom exists that which is sound and blameless in conduct, as well as that which is unadulterated and incorrupt in speech” (4.26.5).
And so we see that Irenaeus’ understanding of apostolic succession is not merely a legal succession. It is a succession of teaching (both the office and the truthful content taught) and of proper conduct and judgment. These must all appear together in order to have the apostolic tradition. Irenaeus even mentions the possibility of some having the outward appearance of a presbyter but lacking the actual doctrine and holiness of a presbyter, and he says that we should separate from them.
The Primacy of Rome
Irenaeus is also the first major source who claims a primacy for Rome. Indeed, he holds up the church of Rome as the most dependable church for retaining this apostolic tradition. He even says that all other churches must agree with Rome:
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (3.3.2)
In this statement, Irenaeus seems to imply that any churches who disagree with the Church of Rome must also disagree with the teaching of the apostles. They are even “unauthorized meetings.” Thus, this would appear to be a strong support for the later claims of the Roman Catholic Church, would it not? We have a claim that the apostles founded the church of Rome, that it has a priority over other churches, and that all other churches should agree with it.
And yet the details are actually still different and in important ways.
The most obvious difference between what Irenaeus says and the modern Roman Catholic claim is that Irenaeus maintains that the church of Rome was “founded and organized” by both Peter and Paul. Irenaeus says that this is one reason Rome has pre-eminent authority (also translated “a superior foundation”). It was founded by two apostles and the most glorious ones, at that. This rationale is consistent with the other accolades Irenaeus places on Rome: it is the greatest, most ancient, universally known church, and it is made up of faithful men from all parts of the world. While impressive, this is actually not the same rationale given by the current Roman Catholic Church. Instead, contemporary Roman Catholicism says that the episcopal see of Rome holds the highest authority because Jesus conferred a unique office to Peter individually. Unam Sanctam explicitly rejects the notion of “two heads.” The Council of Florence explains that Peter is the head of the church because he is the vicar of Christ, and thus the jurisdiction of Rome is that of Christ Himself. Thus the singularity of Peter and his unique capacity to represent Christ’s governing authority is what grounds Rome’s place. Irenaeus makes a claim based upon apostolic plurality. Irenaeus’ is really arguing from ethos, appealing to Rome’s proven dependability. Later Roman Catholicism argues that the dependability comes from a prior from divine law.
Irenaeus also argues that Rome is the place which has best preserved the tradition of the apostles, the tradition that he has just argued is publicly accessible and which he will go on to encourage others to verify by studying the Scriptures and the writings of Clement and Polycarp. He does not say that it will always be this way, and it is important to keep in mind that Irenaeus himself counseled Victor of Rome not to excommunicate the eastern bishops who disagreed over the tradition of Easter. In that letter, Irenaeus argued that Polycarp had earlier come into conflict with Anicetus, a bishop of Rome, over the same issue. Polycarp, in his dissent from the Roman tradition, claimed to follow John’s tradition. Thus various apostolic traditions could come into conflict, and Irenaeus felt within his rights to counsel the bishop of Rome. The disagreement is chronicled in Eusebius’ Church History book 5, chapter 24. This is interesting in its own right, but it will become much more important when later theologians and bishops explicitly reject the ruling of the bishop of Rome (namely Tertullian and Cyprian). While Rome enjoyed a primacy due to its history and virtuous attributes, it was not understood to possess a divine right jurisdiction.
We should also question the historicity of some of Irenaeus’ claims. No historian today believes that Peter and Paul literally founded the church of Rome. The writers who will come immediately after Irenaeus will not repeat this claim, but they will argue that Peter and Paul died in Rome and are buried there. It is possible that Irenaeus did not mean his claim literally. The Church at Rome may have been founded by Peter and Paul’s teaching or influence, rather than any direct on-the-ground action. Similarly, Irenaeus describes the church at Rome as “the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome.” Alternate translations render this “the greatest, most ancient, and known to all…” Rome was obviously not the “most ancient” Christian Church, but it is also worth pointing out that Irenaeus is writing at a time when the Christian Faith itself was only about 150 years old. Thus even “very ancient” has to be understood as serving a rhetorical purpose. This is not the only place where Irenaeus makes a puzzling claim involving dates and numbers, and so we have to consider that he my have had assumptions and goals that are no longer familiar to us. Again, Irenaeus appears more to be making a rhetorical appeal to ethos than he does a concrete historical claim.
Summary of Irenaeus
Irenaeus has a lot of contribute to our discussion. He shows that by the middle of the second century, a more defined singular episcopal office had become common. Yet the men who held this office could also still be called presbyters, showing a link to the earlier state of church governance. These men are said to be successors to the apostles, and yet it is also clear that they are not themselves apostles. They are those who were taught by the apostles and can be trusted to continue to maintain the teaching of the apostles. But Irenaeus also expects his readers to verify this claim by comparing the Scriptures and the public teaching of the presbyters and bishops, to see that they match. Irenaeus does not say that the successors of the apostles are expected to deliver new teachings but rather to pass on the teaching that was already taught. Further, Irenaeus believes that the doctrine and morality of the presbyters is relevant to their authority. They are expected to continue in the office given to them by the apostles but also in the teaching and conduct of the apostles. Irenaeus does not say that these men can never fall away, but instead gives his readers appropriate standards by which to judge these men and their teachings, namely the teaching of Scripture and the facts of history.
Irenaeus also says that the church of Rome is a point of unity, indeed that all churches should agree with Rome. And yet again, the reason for this is that it can be shown to have a virtuous and celebrated legacy, as well as a reputation for dependability. Indeed, Rome was privileged enough to be co-founded by both Peter and Paul, and thus filial piety ought to grant it a special place of honor. Irenaeus does not say that the bishop of Rome has episcopal jurisdiction over other churches. Taken together, this is a classical appeal to ethos, the reason that Rome should be trusted is that Rome is trustworthy. And importantly, Irenaeus believes that it can be trusted not to innovate but to pass on the teaching of the apostles.
Thus Irenaeus gives us a case of development in progress. He presents “more” evidence than the earlier writers, but still “less” than is necessary to support modern Roman Catholic claims. Looking backwards from our vantage point in history, we can see where those claims “came from,” but we can also see that these had to be constructed, with new pieces laid atop older ones. And Irenaeus isn’t simply added to. His writings must be curated, and some of his claims must be trimmed away.
There are two fragmentary pieces of evidence from around the same time as Irenaeus which should be considered. The Muratorian Fragment contains the earliest list of canonical books, and historians date it at around 170. In it we read this snipped about an early bishop of Rome, “The Pastor, moreover, did Hermas write very recently in our times in the city of Rome, while his brother bishop Plus sat in the chair of the Church of Rome.” This “Plus” is also rendered “Pius,” in order to match other lists of bishop from the early church, and the fact that he is called a bishop and said to sit “in the chair of the Church of Rome” further shows that a singular episcopal office was present in Rome at this time. We are not told what it was like or how it worked, but it seems clear that it existed as a distinct office.
Hegesippus’ list of bishops is also relevant for this time period. We only have it as quoted by Eusebius, but Eusebius claims to quote Hegesippus directly. In Church History 4.22 we read about bishops in Corinth, Rome, and Jerusalem. Concerning Rome, Hegesippus writes, “when I had come to Rome I made a succession until Anicetus whose deacon was Eleutherus. And Anicetus was succeeded by Soter, and he by Eleutherus. In every succession, and in every city that is held which is preached by the law and the prophets and the Lord” (Eusebius, Church History 4.22.3). The translation of this text is contested, but most scholars seem to understand “made a succession” to mean something like “made a list of successors.” Interestingly, Hegesippus does not take this list all the way back to the apostles, but his list does give further support to individual bishops being recognized as heads of churches at this time. Hegesippus mentions bishops at various churches (Corinth, Rome, and Jerusalem), but he does not mention any of them having authority over other bishops.
The making of bishops lists would become a common activity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Some of them clearly built atop others, and Irenaeus’ list tended to reappear again and again. Yet it is important to note that there were some anomalies. Trevor Jalland notes that the Catalogus Liberianus (c. 354) contains the oddity of a “Cletus” appearing before the “Anencletus” which Irenaeus and others list (Jalland, The Church and the Papacy, pg. 91). This would most easily be explained as a scribal error. “Cletus” is actually the same person as “Anencletus.” Yet the Catalogus Liberianus also puts Clement after Linus and before both Cletus and Anencletus. This has caused many to simply discard the Catalogus Liberianus as a mistaken outlier, but Jalland points out that Epiphanius of Salamis knew of a similar discrepancy and tried to resolve it in his Panarion (c.375). Epiphanius’ explanation is very interesting, to say the least. Epiphanius writes:
For the bishops at Rome were, first, Peter and Paul, the apostles themselves and also bishops — then Linus, then Cletus, then Clement, a contemporary of Peter and Paul whom Paul mentions in the Epistle to the Romans. And no one need wonder why others before him succeeded the apostles in the episcopate, even though he was contemporary with Peter and Paul — for he too is the apostles’ contemporary. I am not quite clear as to whether he received the episcopal appointment from Peter while they were still alive, and he declined and would not exercise the office — for in one of his Epistles he says, giving this counsel to someone, “I withdraw, I depart, let the people of God be tranquil,” (I have found this in certain historical works) — or whether he was appointed by the bishop Cletus after the apostles’ death.
But even so, others could have been made bishop while the apostles, I mean Peter and Paul, were still alive, since they often journeyed abroad for the proclamation of Christ, but Rome could not be without a bishop. Paul even reached Spain, and Peter often visited Pontus and Bithynia. But after Clement had been appointed and declined, if this is what happened — I suspect this but cannot say it for certain — he could have been compelled to hold the episcopate in his turn, after the deaths of Linus and Cletus who were bishops for twelve years each after the death of Saints Peter and Paul in the twelfth year of Nero.)
In any case, the succession of the bishops at Rome runs in this order: Peter and Paul, Linus and Cletus, Clement, Evaristus, Alexander, Xystus, Telesphorus, Hyginus, Pius, and Anicetus, whom I mentioned above, on the list. And no one need be surprised at my listing each of the items so exactly; precise information is always given in this way. (Panarion, Book 1, Section 2, 27.6.1-6)
There are many remarkable features in this section, but for our current purposes we should point out Epiphanius shares Irenaeus’ view that both Peter and Paul were founders of the church at Rome. He even adds the extra claim that they served as bishops there. But then Epiphanius seems to suggest that Linus and Cletus succeeded Peter and Paul and even served together at the same time, and holds open the possibility that Clement was also an ordained bishop at the same time, but chose not to be active in this office until after their deaths. Epiphanius does not believe that Peter and Paul remained in their episcopal ministries in Rome but instead thinks they ordained successors and moved on to other ministries. Though writing in the late 4th century, Epiphanius claims to be working with earlier documents, documents from around the same time as Hegesippus, and he believes that the apostles left a poly-episcopal ministry, at least for a time.
What this means for our purposes is that the term “succession” can not always be assumed to imply a consecutive individual order. While it does mean line of continuity, it is entirely possible that the “succession” that the early writers present was a succession of multiple bishops at the same time, a polyepiscopal or collegial model. Thus instead of a slow and steady development from the collegium of elder-bishops to a monarchical episcopacy, the late first and early second century might actually be a time where both models existed at the same time or in an uneven back-and-forth order.
I would still like to look at Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Cyprian, and so I will have to make at least one more historical post to take us to the third century. After that, I will post some concluding reflections on the evidence and what it means for modern Roman Catholic claims. Finally, I will return to my original plea for Roman Catholics to take this evidence seriously and see how it falsifies the totalizing claims of Rome. For now though, we should lay out some of the more noteworthy findings of this post.
We see a gradual (but not always linear) development from a group of elder-bishops into a church which features a singular bishop at its head. Irenaeus particularly emphasizes these bishops as “successors” to the apostles, tasked with maintaining a unity of tradition. Yet he bases their authority on a combination of their office itself, their faithfulness in doctrine, and their piety. Irenaeus also promotes a sort of Roman priority, but he claims that Rome was co-founded by Peter and Paul. This claim can be found in subsequent historical writers, and at least one of those writers, Epiphanius, claims that Peter and Paul left a polyepiscopal government, at least for a time. This messiness will be important as we see some significant points of challenge and even rupture between leading churchmen in the third century, conflicts which reflect differing views of church authority.