A Good Argument?

In From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of Episcopacy in the Early Church Father Francis A. Sullivan, S.J. presents what seems to be a solid argument in favor of episcopacy.  His conclusions come at the end of an extensive study which argues that the 3-fold ministry of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons is not found in the New Testament.  But, as a good Roman Catholic, he must have some reason for accepting the later episcopal development.  His theological argumentation for episcopal government is as follows:

1. The post-New Testament development is consistent with the development that took place during the New Testament period.

2. The episcopate provided the instrument that the post-New Testament Church needed to maintain its unity and orthodoxy in the face of the dangers of schism and heresy threatening it.

3. The Christian faith recognized the bishops as the successors to the apostles in teaching authority.  The reception of the bishop’s teaching as normative for faith is analogous to the reception of certain christian writings as canonical and normative for faith.  The Holy Spirit guided the Church in determining both norms, for error about the norms would have led to untold errors in faith. (225)


2 thoughts on “A Good Argument?

  1. The question is one of name and thing. Arguably, the first “bishops” were charismatic leaders, analogous to modern Hasidic rebbes, whose role and office after 70 AD became more and more administrative (not surprisingly, we see a fallling away from the original administrative function of the diaconate at the same time), along the lines of Roman civil servants in whose image they were made over. As Baxter said, the primitive episcopacy eventually assumed more and more the “diocesane frame”. Eastern theologians have tended to recognize this, and from Simeon the New Theologians to the present day Athonites and their spokesmen, have suggested that the original “episcopal” charism eventually passed to the monks, who remained “spiritual”. The closest anyone in the West seems to have come to recovering at least the pastoral character of primitive episcopacy were men like Baxter, Bishop Bedell, and Bishop John Forbes of the Reformed church of the United Kingdom, who argued for and practiced pastoral episcopacy in synod, as opposed to what was then called prelacy. The point is that “bishop” means a number of different things, and is not a historically univocal term. Despite the romantic expectations of Rome-leaning seekers, even the best Roman theologians no longer hold to mechanical succession, or a reified idea of charism somehow passed on by the same. So the three points of Fr Sullivan regarding early episcopacy would need to be carefully qualified historically and ecclesiologically before they could be of any use in undertaking a discussion about the role of episcopacy in the Church today. One might accept his theses, while not accepting that any peculiarly Papal conclusions follow from them. Much would depend on how what one intended to include under “post-New Testament period”, what one meant by “successors”, and what by “analogous to the reception of certain Christian writings”. Certainly, by all accounts, the authority of an early bishop as exegete, casuist, and pastor was never the same as the authority accorded the Word of God in Scripture. The primitive bishops themselves testify that such was not the case.

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