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§ 46. Episcopacy at the time of Irenaeus and Tertullian.


In all these points the idea of the episcopate in Irenaeus, the great opponent of Gnosticism (about 180), is either lower or higher. This father represents the institution as a diocesan office, and as the continuation of the apostolate, the vehicle of the catholic tradition, and the support of doctrinal unity in opposition to heretical vagaries. He exalts the bishops of the original apostolic churches, above all the church of Rome, and speaks with great emphasis of an unbroken episcopal succession as a test of apostolic teaching and a bulwark against heresy.202202    Comp. Adv. Haer. III. 3, §1, 2; 4, 1; IV. 33, §8. I remember what great stress the late Dr. Posey, when I saw him at Oxford in 1844, laid on the testimony of Irenaeus for the doctrine of an unbroken episcopal succession, as the indispensable mark of a genuine Catholic church; while he ignored the simultaneous growth of the primacy, which a year afterwards carried his friend, J. H. Newman, over to the church of Rome. The New Testament is the only safe guide and ultimate standard in all matters of faith and discipline. The teaching of Irenaeus on episcopacy is well set forth by Lightfoot (l.c. p. 237): Irenaeus followed Ignatius after an interval of about two generations. With the altered circumstances of the Church, the aspect of the episcopal office has also undergone a change. The religious atmosphere is now charged with heretical speculations of all kinds. Amidst the competition of rival teachers. all eagerly bidding for support, the perplexed believer asks for some decisive test by which he may try the claims of disputants. To this question Irenaeeus supplies an answer. ’If you wish,’ he argues, ’to ascertain the doctrine of the Apostles, apply to the Church of the Apostles.’ In the succession of bishops tracing their descent from the primitive age and appointed by the Apostles themselves, you have a guarantee for the transmission of the pure faith, which no isolated, upstart, self-constituted teacher can furnish. There is the Church of Rome for instance, whose episcopal pedigree is perfect in all its links, and whose earliest bishops, Linus and Clement, associated with the Apostles themselves: there is the Church of Smyrna again, whose bishop Polycarp, the disciple of St. John, died only the other day. Thus the episcopate is regarded now not so much as the centre of ecclesiastical unity, but rather as the depositary of apostolic tradition."01

At the same time the wavering terminology of Irenaeus in the interchangeable use of the words "bishop" and "presbyter" reminds us of Clement of Rome, and shows that the distinction of the two orders was not yet fully fixed.203203    Comp. Adv. Haer.III. 2, §2; IV. 26; V. 20; and his letter to Victor of Rome in Eusebius, H E. V. 24.02

The same view of the episcopal succession as the preserver of apostolic tradition and guardian of orthodox doctrine, we find also, though less frequently, in the earlier writings of Tertullian, with this difference that he uniformly and clearly distinguishes bishops and presbyters, and thus proves a more advanced state of the episcopal polity at his time (about 200).204204    De Praescr. HaeR.C. 32, 3603 But afterwards, in the chiliastic and democratic cause of Montanism, he broke with the episcopal hierarchy, and presented against it the antithesis that the church does not consist of bishops, and that the laity are also priests.205205    . Non ecclesia numerus episcoporum. De Pudic. c. 21. Comp. § 42, p. 128.04



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