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§ 44. Origin of the Episcopate.


Besides the works already cited, compare the special works and essays on the Ignatian controversy, published since 1837, by Rothe (close of his Anfänge, etc.), Hefele (R.C.), Baur, Hilgenfeld, Bunsen, Petermann, Cureton, Lipsius, Uhlhorn, Zahn, Lightfoot (I. 376 sqq). Also R. D. Hitchcock on the Origin of Episcopacy, N. Y. 1867 (in the "Am. Presbyt. & Theol. Review" for Jan. 1867, pp. 133–169); Lightfoot on the Christian Ministry (1873); Hatch on the Organization of the Early Christian Church (1881); Renan, L’Eglise chrétienne (1879), ch. VI.Progrés de l’épiscopat; and Gore, The Ministry of the Church (1889).


The most important and also the most difficult phenomenon of our period in the department of church organization is the rise and development of the episcopate as distinct from the presbyterate. This institution comes to view in the second century as the supreme spiritual office, and is retained to this day by all Roman and Greek Christendom, and by a large part of the Evangelical church, especially the Anglican communion. A form of government so ancient and so widely adopted, can be satisfactorily accounted for only on the supposition of a religious need, namely, the need of a tangible outward representation and centralization, to illustrate and embody to the people their relation to Christ and to God, and the visible unity of the church. It is therefore inseparable from the catholic principle of authority and mediation; while the protestant principle of freedom and direct intercourse of the believer with Christ, consistently carried out, infringes the strict episcopal constitution, and tends to ministerial equality. Episcopacy in the full sense of the term requires for its base the idea of a real priesthood and real sacrifice, and an essential distinction between clergy and laity. Divested of these associations, it resolves itself into a mere superintendency.157157    Such is the Swedish and Danish Lutheran, the American Methodist, and the Moravian episcopate, which recognizes the validity of non-episcopal orders. The Anglican church harbors a high-church and a low-church theory of episcopacy, the one derived from the mediaeval hierarchy, the other from the Reformation, but repudiates the primacy as an antichristian usurpation, although it must be confessed to be almost as old as episcopacy, its roots going back to Clement of Rome, or at all events to the age of Irenaeus.56

During the lifetime of the apostles, those eye- and ear-witnesses of the divine-human life of Jesus, and the inspired organs of the Holy Spirit, there was no room for proper bishops; and those who were so called, must have held only a subordinate place. The church, too, in the first century was as yet a strictly supernatural organization, a stranger in this world, standing with one foot in eternity, and longing for the second coming of her heavenly bridegroom. But in the episcopal constitution the church provided an extremely simple but compact and freely expansible organization, planted foot firmly upon earth, became an institution for the education of her infant people, and, as chiliastic hopes receded, fell into the path of quiet historical development; yet unquestionably she thus incurred also the danger of a secularization which reached its height just when the hierarchy became complete in the Roman church, and which finally necessitated a reformation on the basis of apostolical Christianity. That this secularization began with the growing power of the bishops even before Constantine and the Byzantine court orthodoxy, we perceive, for instance, in the lax penitential discipline, the avarice, and the corruption with which Hippolytus, in the ninth book of his Philosophumena, reproaches Zephyrinus and Callistus, the Roman bishops of his time (202–223); also in the example of the bishop Paul of Samosata, who was deposed in 269 on almost incredible charges, not only against his doctrine, but still more against his moral character.158158    Comp. Euseb. vii. 27-3057 Origen complains that there are, especially in the larger cities, overseers of the people of God, who seek to outdo the pomp of heathen potentates, would surround themselves, like the emperors, with a body-guard, and make themselves terrible and inaccessible to the poor.159159    See the passages quoted by Gieseler, vol. I. 282 sq. (Harpers’ ed. of New York.)58

We consider, first, the origin of the episcopate. The unreliable character of our documents and traditions from the transition period between the close of the apostolic church and the beginning of the post-apostolic, leaves large room here for critical research and combination. First of all comes the question: Was the episcopate directly or indirectly of apostolic (Johannean) origin?160160    This is the Greek, the Roman Catholic, and the high Anglican theory. It is advocated by a very few Continental Protestants as Chevalier Bunsen, Rothe and Thiersch (an Irvingite), who trace episcopacy to John in Ephesus.59 Or did it arise after the death of the apostles, and develope itself from the presidency of the congregational presbytery?161161    So the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and some eminent Episcopal writers. We mention Mosheim, Neander, Lightfoot, Stanley, Hatch. Also Baur and Renan, who judge as mere critics.60 In other words, was the episcopate a continuation and contraction of, and substitute for, the apostolate, or was it an expansion and elevation of the presbyterate?162162    Bishop Lightfoot (l.c. p. 194) thus states the question with his own answer: "The episcopate was formed, not out of the apostolic order by localization, but out of the presbyterial by elevation; and the title, which originally was common to all, came at length to be appropriated to the chief among them."61 The later view is more natural and better sustained by facts. Most of its advocates date the change from the time of Ignatius in the first quarter of the second century, while a few carry it further back to the close of the first, when St. John still lived in Ephesus.

I. For the apostolic origin of episcopacy the following points may be made:

(1) The position of James, who evidently stood at the head of the church at Jerusalem,163163    Acts 15:13; 21:18. Comp. vol. I. 264 sqq.62 and is called bishop, at least in the pseudo-Clementine literature, and in fact supreme bishop of the whole church.164164    Ἐπίσκοπος έπισκόπων.63 This instance, however, stands quite alone, and does not warrant an inference in regard to the entire church.

(2) The office of the assistants and delegates of the apostles, like Timothy, Titus, Silas, Epaphroditus, Luke, Mark, who had a sort of supervision of several churches and congregational officers, and in a measure represented the apostles in special missions. But, in any case, these were not limited, at least during the life of the apostles, each to a particular diocese; they were itinerant evangelists and legates of the apostles; only the doubtful tradition of a later day assigns them distinct bishoprics. If bishops at all, they were missionary bishops.

(3) The angels of the seven churches of Asia,165165    Rev. 1:20. For the different views see vol. I. 49764 who, if regarded as individuals, look very like the later bishops, and indicate a monarchical shaping of the church government in the days of John. But, apart from the various interpretations of the Apocalyptic ἄγγελοι, that office appears not co-ordinate with the apostolate of John, but subordinate to it, and was no more than a congregational superintendency.

(4) The testimony of Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of John, in his seven (or three) epistles from the beginning of the second century (even according to the shorter Syriac version), presupposes the episcopate, in distinction from the presbyterate, as already existing, though as a new institution, yet in its growth.

(5) The statement of Clement of Alexandria,166166    Quis dives salvus, c. 42.65 that John instituted bishops after his return from Patmos; and the accounts of Irenaeus,167167    Adv.Haer. III. 366 Tertullian,168168    De PraescR.C. 3267 Eusebius,169169    H. E.III. 3668 and Jerome,170170    Catal. sub Polyc69 that the same apostle nominated and ordained Polycarp (with whom Irenaeus was personally acquainted) bishop of Smyrna.

(6) The uncertain tradition in Eusebius, who derived it probably from Hegesippus, that the surviving apostles and disciples of the apostles, soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, elected Symeon, the son of Klopas and a cousin of Jesus, bishop of that city and successor of James. But this arrangement at best was merely local, and not general.171171    H. E. III. 11. Comp. the fragment of Hegesippus, in IV. 22. Lightfoot (Philippians p. 202) remarks against Rothe’s inference: "The account of Hegesippus confines the object of this gathering to the appointment of a successor of St. James. If its deliberations had exerted that vast and permanent influence on the future of the church which Rothe’s theory supposes, it is scarcely possible that this early historian should have been ignorant of the fact, or knowing it should have passed it over in silence."70

(7) The tradition of the churches of Antioch and Rome, which trace their line of bishops back to apostolic institution, and kept the record of an unbroken succession.

(8) A passage in the second of the Pfaff Fragments of Irenaeus, which speaks of "second ordinances of the apostles" (δεύτεραι τῶν ἀποστόλων διατάξεις). Rothe understands by these the institution of the episcopate. But aside from the doubtful genuineness of the Fragments, these words are at all events of unsettled interpretation, and, according to the connection, relate not to the government of the church at all, but to the celebration of the eucharist.

(9) Equally uncertain is the conclusion drawn from an obscure passage in the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, which admits of different interpretations.172172    Ad Corinth. c. 44: Οἱ ἀπόστολοι ἡμων ἔγνωσαν διὰ τοῦ κυρίουἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ὅτι ἔρις ἔσται ἐπὶ τοῦ ὀνόματος τῆς ἐπισκοπῆς . Διὰ ταύτην οὖ́ν τὴν αἰτίαν πρόγνωσιν εἰληφότες τελείαν κατέστησαν τοὺς προειρημένους καὶ μεταξὺ ἐπινομὴν (or ἐπιμονὴν) ἔδωκαν, ὅπως , ἐὰν κοιμηθῶσιν, διαδέξωνται ἕτεροι δεδοκιμασμένοι ἄνδρες τὴν λειτουργίαν αὐτῶν. " Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife over the name of the bishop’s office [i.e., the office of the ministry, in general; Comp. Acts 1:20; Sept. Num. 4:16; Ps. 109:8; 2 Chr. 23:18]. For this cause, therefore, having complete foreknowledge, they appointed the aforesaid persons [i.e., presbyter-bishops and deacons; Comp. c. 42 and 57], and afterwards they made the disposition [or provided a continuance, if we read with Lightfoot ἐπιμονήν.], that if these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministration."71 The apostles, it is said, foreseeing the future controversy about the name of the episcopal office, appointed bishops and deacons, and afterwards made the disposition,173173    The reading is obscure and disputed. The Alexandrian MS. reads: ἐπινομήν, the Constantinopolitan: ἐπιδομήν (both have EΠI-OMHN). The former word is rare (from or from νέμω or fromνόμος) is not found in the dictionaries; and hence various emendations have been proposed, as άπονομήν (Junius), ἐπιδοχήν (Bryennios), ἐπιβολήν (von Gebhardt and Harnack), ἐπιμονήν (Bunsen, Lightfoot), ἐπιτροπήν (Hilgenfeld), ἐπιλογήν, ἐπινομίαν, ἐπιστολήν, ἐπιταγήν, ἔτι νόμον. Rothe (Anfänge, p. 374) ingeniously translates ἐπινομήν " testamentary disposition" (testamentarische Verfügung =ἐπινομίς ,an after-enactment, a codicil), and identifies it with the δεύτεραι διατάξεις of the fragment of Irenaeus. But this is rejected by the latest editors as untenable. Lightfoot (with Bunsen) reads ἐπιμονήν, permanence (not "life-tenure," as Bunsen rendered it). The drift of the passage, however, does not so much depend upon the meaning of this word as upon the question whether the apostles, or the congregational officers are the grammatical subjects of the following verb, κοιμηθῶσιν.72 that when they should fall asleep, other approved men should follow them in office. Rothe refers "they" and "them" to the apostles as the main subject. But these words naturally refer to the congregational officers just before mentioned, and in this case the "other approved men" are not successors of the apostles, but of the presbyter-bishops and deacons.174174    See also Gebhardt and Harnack (presbyteri et diaconi illi, quos apostoli ipsi constituerunt), the Roman Catholic editor Funk ("κοιμηθῶσιν, sc. episcopi et diaconi de quorum successione Clemens agit"), and Bishop Lightfoot ("the first generation of presbyters appointed by the apostles themselves"). (Comp. also on this whole passage Lightfoot, Philippians, p. 203, where he refutes Rothe’s interpretation; Baur Ursprung des Episcopats, p. 53; Ewald, Gesch. des Volkes Israel, VII. 300; Ritschl, Altkath. K. 358 and 413, and Ilgenfeld, Apost. Väter, 70.73 This view is sustained by the connection. The difficulty in the Corinthian congregation was a rebellion, not against a single bishop, but against a number of presbyter-bishops, and Clement reminds them that the apostles instituted this office not only for the first generation, but provided for a permanent succession, and that the officers were appointed for life, and could therefore not be deposed so long as they discharged their duties. Hence he goes on to say, immediately after the disputed passage in chapter 44: "Wherefore we think that those cannot justly be thrown out of their ministry who were appointed either by them (the apostles), or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole congregation; and who have with all lowliness and innocency ministered to the flock of Christ, in peace, and without self-interest, and were for a long time commended by all."

(10) Finally, the philosophical consideration, that the universal and uncontested spread of the episcopate in the second century cannot be satisfactorily explained without the presumption of at least the indirect sanction of the apostles. By the same argument the observance of Sunday and infant baptism are usually traced to apostolic origin. But it is not quite conclusive, since most of the apostles died before the destruction of Jerusalem. It could only apply to John, who was the living centre of the church in Asia Minor to the close of the first century.175175    Hence Rothe traces the institution to John. And Bishop Lightfoot (Philippians, p. 204) is inclined to this view: "Asia Minor was the nurse, if not the mother of episcopacy in the Gentile churches. So important an institution, developed in a Christian community, of which St. John was the living centre and guide, could hardly, have grown up without his sanction: and early tradition very distinctly connects his name with the appointment of bishops in these parts." He repeats the same view more confidently in his Ignat. and Polyc., I. 377.74

II. The theory of the post-apostolic origin of the episcopate as a separate office or order, and its rise out of the presidency of the original congregational presbyterate, by way of human, though natural and necessary, development, is supported by the following facts:

(1) The undeniable identity of presbyters and bishops in the New Testament,176176    Acts 20:17, 28; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:5; 1 Tim. 3:1-7, 8-13; 1 Pet. 5:1, 2. Comp. the author’s Hist. of the Apost. Ch. §§ 132, 133, pp. 522-531 (N. York ed.); and vol. I. p. 492 sqq.75 conceded even by the best interpreters among the church fathers, by Jerome, Chrysostom, and Theodoret, and by the best scholars of recent times.

(2) Later, at the close of the first and even in the second century, the two terms are still used in like manner for the same office. The Roman bishop Clement, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians says, that the apostles, in the newly-founded churches, appointed the first fruits of the faith, i.e., the first converts, "bishops and deacons."177177    C. 42. Comp. the Commentary of Lightfoot. "It is impossible that he should have omitted the presbyters, more especially as his one object is to defend their authority, which had been assailed. The words ἐπίσκοπὸς and πρεσβύτερος therefore are synonymes in Clement, as they are in the apostolic writers. In Ignatius and Polycarp they first appear as distinct titles."76 He here omits the πρεσβύτεροι, as Paul does in Phil. 1:1, for the simple reason that they are in his view identical with ἐπίσκοποι; while conversely, in c. 57, he enjoins subjection to presbyters, without mentioning bishops.178178    The ἡγούμενοι, c. 1, also, and the προηγούμενοι, c. 21, are not bishops, but congregational officers collectively, as in Heb. 13:7, 17, 24.77 The Didache mentions bishops and deacons, but no presbyters.179179    Ch. 15: Χειροτονήσατε ἑαυτοῖς ἐπισκόπους καὶ διακόνους. See Schaff’s monograph on the Didache, p. 211 sq78 Clement of Alexandria distinguishes, it is true, the deaconate, the presbyterate, and the episcopate; but he supposes only a two-fold official character, that of presbyters, and that of deacons—a view which found advocates so late as the middle ages, even in pope Urban II., a.d. 1091. Lastly, Irenaeus, towards the close of the second century, though himself a bishop, makes only a relative difference between episcopi and presbyteri; speaks of successions of the one in the same sense as of the other; terms the office of the latter episcopatus; and calls the bishops of Rome "presbyters".180180    Adv. Haer. iii. 2, §5. Comp. also the letter of Irenaeus to the Roman bishop Victor in Euseb., v. 24.79 Sometimes, it is true, he appears to use the term "presbyters" in a more general sense, for the old men, the fathers.181181    Comp. 2 Jno. 1. and 1.80 But in any case his language shows that the distinction between the two offices was at that time still relative and indefinite.

(3) The express testimony of the learned Jerome, that the churches originally, before divisions arose through the instigation of Satan, were governed by the common council of the presbyters, and not till a later period was one of the pres-byters placed at the head, to watch over the church and suppress schisms.182182    Ad Titum i. 7. Comp. Epist. 83 and 85.81 He traces the difference of the office simply to "ecclesiastical" custom as distinct from divine institution.183183    Ad Tit. i. 7: "Sicut ergo presbyteri sciunt, see ex ecclesiae consuetudine ei, qui sibi praepositus fuerit, esse subjectos, ita episcopi noverint, se magis consuetudine quam dispositionis Dominicae veritate presbyteris esse majores et in commune debere ecclesiam regere." The Roman deacon Hilary (Ambrosiaster) says, ad 1 Tim. 3:10:"Hic enim episcopus est, qui inter presbyteros primus est." Comp. also Chrysostom Hom. xi. in Epist, 1 ad Tim. 38.82

(4) The custom of the church of Alexandria, where, from the evangelist Mark down to the middle of the third century, the twelve presbyters elected one of their number president, and called him bishop. This fact rests on the authority of Jerome,184184    Epist. ad Evangelum (Opp. iv. p. 802, ed. Martinay): Alexandriae a Marco evangelista usque ad Heraclam et Dionysium episcopos presbyteri semper unum ex se electum in excelsiori gradu collocatum episcopum nominabant, quomodo si exercitus imperatorem faciat, aut diaconi elegant de se, quem industrium noverint et archidiaconum vocent.83 and is confirmed independently by the Annals of the Alexandrian patriarch, Eutychius, of the tenth century.185185    Ed. Oxon. 1658, p. 331: "Constituit evangelista Marcus una cum Hakania patriarcha duodecim presbyteros, qui nempe cum patriarcha manerent, adeo ut cum vacaret patriachatus, unum e duodecim presbyteris eligerent, cnius capiti reliqui undecim manus imponentes ipsi benedicerent et patriarcham crearent, deinde virum aliquem insignem eligerent, quem secum presbyterum constituerent, loco ejus, qui factus est patriarcha, ut ita semper exstarent duodecim. Neque desiit Alexandriae institutum hoc de presbyteris, ut scilcet patriarchas crearent ex presbyteris duodecim, usque ad tempera Alexandri patriarchae Alexandriae. Is autem vetuit, ne deinceps patriarcham presbyteri crearent. Et decrervit, ut mortuo patriarcha convenient episcopi, qui patriarcham ordinarent."84 The latter states that Mark instituted in that city a patriarch (this is an anachronism) and twelve presbyters, who should fill the vacant patriarchate by electing and ordaining to that office one of their number and then electing a new presbyter, so as always to retain the number twelve. He relates, moreover, that down to the time of Demetrius, at the end of the second century, there was no bishop in Egypt besides the one at Alexandria; consequently there could have been no episcopal ordination except by going out of the province.

III. Conclusion. The only satisfactory conclusion from these various facts and traditions seems to be, that the episcopate proceeded, both in the descending and ascending scale, from the apostolate and the original presbyterate conjointly, as a contraction of the former and an expansion of the latter, without either express concert or general regulation of the apostles, neither of which, at least, can be historically proved. It arose, instinctively, as it were, in that obscure and critical transition period between the end of the first and the middle of the second century. It was not a sudden creation, much less the invention of a single mind. It grew, in part, out of the general demand for a continuation of, or substitute for, the apostolic church government, and this, so far as it was transmissible at all, very naturally passed first to the most eminent disciples and fellow-laborers of the apostles, to Mark, Luke, Timothy, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, which accounts for the fact that tradition makes them all bishops in the prominent sense of the term. It was further occasioned by the need of a unity in the presbyterial government of congregations, which, in the nature of the case and according to the analogy of the Jewish αρχισυνάγωγος,186186    Mark 5:35, 36, 38; Luke 8:41-49; Acts 18:8-17.85 required a head or president. This president was called bishop, at first only by eminence, as primus inter pares; afterwards in the exclusive sense. In the smaller churches there was, perhaps, from the beginning, only one presbyter, who of himself formed this centre, like the chorepiscopi or country-bishops in the fourth century. The dioceses of the bishops in Asia Minor and North Africa, owing to their large number, in the second and third centuries, can hardly have exceeded the extent of respectable pastoral charges. James of Jerusalem, on the other hand, and his immediate successors, whose positions in many respects were altogether peculiar, seem to have been the only bishops in Palestine. Somewhat similar was the state of things in Egypt, where, down to Demetrius (a.d. 190–232), we find only the one bishop of Alexandria.

We cannot therefore assume any strict uniformity. But the whole church spirit of the age tended towards centralization; it everywhere felt a demand for compact, solid unity; and this inward bent, amidst the surrounding dangers of persecution and heresy, carried the church irresistibly towards the episcopate. In so critical and stormy a time, the principle, union is strength, division is weakness, prevailed over all. In fact, the existence of the church at that period may be said to have depended in a great measure on the preservation and promotion of unity, and that in an outward, tangible form, suited to the existing grade of culture. Such a unity was offered in the bishop, who held a monarchical, or more properly a patriarchal relation to the congregation. In the bishop was found the visible representative of Christ, the great Head of the whole church. In the bishop, therefore, all sentiments of piety found a centre. In the bishop the whole religious posture of the people towards God and towards Christ had its outward support and guide. And in proportion as every church pressed towards a single centre, this central personage must acquire a peculiar importance and subordinate the other presbyters to itself; though, at the same time, as the language of Clement and Irenaeus, the state of things in Egypt, and even in North Africa, and the testimony of Jerome and other fathers, clearly prove, the remembrance of the original equality could not be entirely blotted out, but continued to show itself in various ways.

Besides this there was also a powerful practical reason for elevating the powers of the bishop. Every Christian congregation was a charitable society, regarding the care of the widow and orphan, the poor and the stranger as a sacred trust; and hence the great importance of the bishop as the administrative officer by whom the charitable funds were received and the alms disbursed. In Greek communities the title bishop (ἐπίσκοπος, ἐπιμελιτής), was in wide use for financial officers. Their administrative functions brought them in close relation to the deacons, as their executive aids in the care of the poor and sick. The archdeacon became the right arm, the "eye" and "heart" of the bishop. In primitive times every case of poverty or suffering was separately brought to the notice of the bishop and personally relieved by a deacon. Afterwards institutions were founded for widows and orphans, poor and infirm, and generally placed under the superintendence of the bishop; but personal responsibility was diminished by this organized charity, and the deacons lost their original significance and became subordinate officers of public worship.187187    The philanthropic and financial aspect of episcopacy has been brought out very fully by Hatch, in his Bampton Lectures on The Organization of the Early Christian Churches, Lect. II.86

Whatever may be thought, therefore, of the origin and the divine right of the episcopate, no impartial historian can deny its adaptation to the wants of the church at the time, and its historical necessity.

But then, this primitive catholic episcopal system must by no means be confounded with the later hierarchy. The dioceses, excepting those of Jerusalem, Ephesus, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome, must have long remained very small, if we look at the number of professing Christians. In the Apocalypse seven such centres of unity are mentioned within a comparatively small compass in Asia Minor, and at a time when the number of Christians was insignificant. In the year 258, Cyprian assembled a council of eighty-seven bishops of North Africa. The functions of the bishops were not yet strictly separated from those of the presbyters, and it was only by degrees that ordination, and, in the Western church, confirmation also, came to be intrusted exclusively to the bishops.



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