Why “sound Bible teaching” is slippery, starting with Grosseteste

I have just been enjoying some truly great times with friends in London, including a day trip to Canterbury. In the middle of this holiday, I took a jaunt to Oxford to give a paper about canon law in the era of Robert Grosseteste’s early career, in 1190s England. In explaining to my friends why Grosseteste is an interesting and even important figure, I am quick, quick, quick to point out that he is not a proto-reformer, or even a precursor to Wycliffe, although he levels some very serious words and criticisms at the papal court of Innocent IV (pope, 1243-1254).

The main reason is that, as Southern points out in his biography, Robert Grosseteste, Grosseteste is a thirtheenth-century man. He cannot imagine a church without a pope. As far as he is concerned, if the pope or curia is Antichrist, then the end of the world is nigh. Moreover, Grosseteste was the sort of mind that sought a unifying principle for each field of study. For church order, that principle is the pope.

This is the sort of idea I live with all the time, so it doesn’t sound strange to me anymore.

Now, saying this to Protestant friends who are fans of ‘sound’ Bible teaching (as they call it) and expository preaching and biblical principles, I suddenly realised that this sounds bizarre to this modern context. Indeed, the idea of the pope and papacy is considered by most Protestants as ‘unbiblical’.

But is it?

Specifically, is it ‘unbiblical’ to thirteenth-century man?

It is not as though the rationale behind the plenitude of power and authority resident in the Bishop of Rome has no biblical foundation. (Blasphemy! cry the Reformed.)

We need, when considering people like Grosseteste and Francis and Bernard and Anselm and Aquinas, to keep in mind their understanding of Matthew 16:18, part of an exegetical tradition of the exposition of Sacred Scripture that was 900 years old by Grosseteste’s day, a tradition that saw Christ entrusting the keys to St Peter and making St Peter the foundation of the church. Couple that with a tradition that was 1100 or 1200 years old that traced the authority of Rome’s bishop through a succession of bishops beginning with St Peter, it only makes sense that someone like Grosseteste would consider the Bishop of Rome the visible, ruling head of the church.

Also, don’t forget that the New Testament episcopipresbyteri, and diaconi are uncontroversially still bishops, priests, and deacons.

So, when we think about the medieval reader, it seems pretty straightforward to their perspective that the office of pope is perfectly biblical. And if you read St Bernard’s De Consideratione from 1153, it seems pretty straightforward that the Bishop of Rome has a range of important pastoral duties, drawn from Scripture. De Consideratione is soaked in Bible teaching.

So what on earth, then, is ‘sound Bible teaching’? Can we be sure that we have it and they don’t?

I wonder.


Pope of the Month: St Victor I (also episcopal monarchy & dating Easter)

Two years ago, I decided to include a montly pope in with the Saints of the Week, but only managed three, St Peter, St Clement, and then alleged Anti-pope St Hippolytus, who I later learned wasn’t an anti-pope at all! Since the Saint of the Week returned the first week of November, enjoy the Pope of the Month on the last!

This month, we go back to the days before St Hippolytus to St Victor (Bp of Rome c. 189-198) — a contender for being the first ‘Bishop’ of Rome. One of the most important developments in church organization was that of the monarchical episcopacy, which emerged in the years following the deaths of the Apostles or leaders of the apostolic age in different places at different rates. The letters of St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) reveal that Antioch at the time had an episcopacy that seems to have presided over a board of presbyters. Ignatius as bishop had a liturgical function, a role in protecting orthodoxy, and a prophetic role in leading the church. His letters also show us that many churches in Asia Minor had men called bishops at their heads as well.

The story of the church at Rome is not uncomplicated in this regard. Was Clement the bishop the way we think of them, or one bishop among several? The Roman church was a large body of believers from early days and also relatively wealthy — wealth that was used by the church functionaries to feed the poor and support the ministers. They seem by the time of Clement to see themselves as a united church, not a varied selection of different communities.

1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas reveal a church structure that had a group of officials at its head whose titles were, in the last first and early second centuries, still fluid; is there much difference between a presbyter who presides and the episkopoi? By the middle of the second century, the various churches of the cities of the Mediterranean world were in increasing contact, and this necessitated mutual recognition of leadership. This was the time of proto-orthodoxy seeing various risks to its integrity and the doctrinal soundness of the church in the various groups labelled ‘Gnostic’ as well as the divergent Roman teacher Marcion.

Shortly before Victor’s episcopate in Rome, St Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, gives his famous Apostolic Succession (about which I’ve blogged here) of the city of Rome in Against the Heresies 3.3. Irenaeus finishes with Eleutherius, Victor’s predecessor. This strongly suggests that some form of episcopal monarchy was already established in Rome by the time of Eleutherus’ episcopate. The shape of the episcopacy was yet to be fully determined, however — was he a president over his fellow presbyters or what?

Yes, that Commodus

Victor comes onto the scene around 189 upon Eleutherus’ death. Victor exercised episcopal authority in a variety of ways. According to the Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter VII, Victor used influence at the court of the Emperor Commodus to secure the release of Christian prisoners who were working in the mines of Sardinia. We learn from Eusebius (5.28.6) that he also excommunicated one Theodotus the Tanner for denying Christ’s divinity. Victor is using the office of bishop, that much is clear.

He is most famous, however, for his involvement in the Quartodeciman Controversy — a debate on the date of Easter. In this controversy, we see the international role that bishops play in each other’s churches, as well as the fact that the ancient, ‘primitive’ church was an international community that sought unity in all things.

Quartodecimans were Christians who celebrated Easter on 14 Nisan, at the same time as Jewish Passover. The primarily lived in Asia Minor. It seems to me that their tradition is probably as old as the accepted celebration of Easter on a Sunday. They included in their ranks the celebrated Bishop of Smyrna, St Polycarp. In the days of Anicetus, one of Victor’s predecessors, Polycarp visited Rome, and Anicetus received him warmly, despite their difference over the date of Easter.

In the mid- to late 100s, however, the debate heated up. The date of Easter is a big deal throughout Church history, cropping up here, then again around the time of the Council of Nicaea, then again in the 400s, and then famously at the Synod of Whitby in the 600s (my thoughts on that here). Many of today’s Christians probably wonder what the big deal is — who cares which day people celebrate Easter?

Well, two immediate thoughts. One is an official reason: Traditionally, people fast before Easter. To have some feasting while others are still fasting is just in appropriate. Second, Easter is the chief feast of the Christian year. It is the reason we are Christians. Jesus rose from the dead. To fail to celebrate Easter at the same time is to compromise Christian unity that is visible in the feasts.

When the issue of the divergent Asian celebration of Easter heated up, Eusebius says:

synods and conferences of bishops were convened, and without a dissentient voice, drew up a decree of the Church, in the form of letters addressed to Christians everywhere, that never on any day other than the Lord’s Day should the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead be celebrated, and that on that day alone we should observe the end of the Paschal fast. (Ecclesiastical History, 5.23, trans. Williamson)

The Asian bishops protested, and wrote in their defence that long custom and luminaries such as the Apostles Philip and John and the martyr Polycarp were on their side. Victor responded harshly and, to quote Eusebius, ‘pilloried them in letters in which he announced the total excommunication of all his fellow-Christians there.’ (5.24; this is no doubt why some consider him Rome’s first true bishop)

Other bishops felt that Victor had gone too far by breaking communion with every single Asian Christian, especially since they seemed to be pretty much orthodox. Amongst the more easygoing bishops were Irenaeus who pointed out that cutting churches off because they follow tradition is a bad idea. As Eusebius says, Irenaeus lived up to his name, peacemaker, and corresponded with Victor and other bishops to find a peaceful resolution to the issue.

I guess it seemed to work, since Eusebius does not return to the issue — however, pockets of Quartodecimans continued to exist in Asia Minor for centuries, tradition being on their side.

There is not much more to say about Victor. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes by J. N. D. Kelly simply closes:

According to St Jerome, he was the author of Latin works of moderate quality. Reports that he was a martyr and was buried near St Peter are routine and should be rejected. Feast 28 July.

Authority and the Latter Day Saints (Mormons)

One of the trickiest things to try to deal with these days, especially with the wide multitude of Christian denominations out there, is where you can find authority residing. This was something that came up in the aforementioned conversation with Mormon missionaries. As you may guess, this conversation provided me with a lot of food for thought.

When asked about authority and where it resides in the Church today, I moved into the episcopal/Irenaean line on Apostolic Succession. I said that the authority resides with the bishops within Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy (possibly Lutheranism as well). When asked where the bishops derive their authority, I said that they stand in direct line of succession from the Apostles. The elder who did all the talking kept trying to trip me up with how do I know who has authority, so I recall repeating that the Archbishop of Canterbury stands in direct succession from St Augustine of Canterbury in the 600s who was in succession from the Bishop of Rome, who stands in direct succession from St Peter.

He asked how the authority is transmitted, and I said through the laying on of hands, but that there is also a succession of the teaching ministry of the apostles — the teaching ministry being what was most important for our earliest, second-century apologist for Apostolic Succession, Irenaeus of Lyons. The authority of the apostolic successors such as Clement in Rome (whose First Letter to the Corinthians was treated as Scripture by some!) consisted in maintaining the unwritten rule of faith and transmitting the faith to the next generation of believers. This coinherence of personal authority with the rule of faith and the growing canon of Scripture is part of the messy story of how orthodox Christianity got itself a Bible as well as a set of doctrines and an episcopal structure.

I said most of that — at least, about the coinherence of the teaching ministry of the apostolic successors with the discernment of the Holy Spirit to produce both Trinitarian faith and the New Testament canon.

He still asked where ultimate authority sits, and I said that it resides in the collegiality of the bishops. He then wanted to know about the Reformation, and I explained that it had to do with the failure of the Bishop of Rome in his pastoral duties, as well as a belief that the Bishop of Rome does not have universal jurisdiction, but that I still see him as standing in apostolic succession and an orthodox, Trinitarian Christian with jurisdiction at least in Italy if not further.

I guess he had a script, because he moved on to how wouldn’t it be nice if there was one person in whom authority still resided, as in Mormonism. I asked about Mormon schisms, and he said he didn’t know what I was talking about. I mentioned the groups that broke away that still accept polygamy as well as some others that don’t — what about them? Why doesn’t authority reside with them? He said that the true prophets are the ones that reside in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I didn’t press the issue (see more below, however).

He then said that it just makes sense that God would have a person who held authority and was a prophet leading his people. I proceeded to list off orthodox Christians who also are recorded to have had visions and words from God — and some of them have been bishops, in fact. He sort of looked at me like he had no clue who/what I was talking about.

I think their script is designed for free church/dissenting/American evangelicals who are cessationists (don’t believe in the gifts of the Spirit after the death of St John the Evangelist) and who believe in some sort of similar apostasy. The number of times this poor elder had to ignore me or change tack or laugh awkwardly was probably disconcerting for him.

Had I been on script, I wouldn’t have believed in Apostolic Succession, nor would I have believed any of the stories of saints and prophets from the sub-apostolic age (such as St Ignatius of Antioch) to the mainstream Patristic era (St Cyprian of Carthage, St Martin of Tours) to the Middle Ages (St Francis of Assisi, St Bernard of Clairvaux) to today (Elder St Porphyrios) who have had visions and words from God. Instead, I believe that there is to this day an unbroken sacramental, teaching, apostolic ministry alive in the church as well as prophetic and ‘charismatic’ gifts that never left.

The informed Christian, however, will not be deceived by the Mormon Missionary script, because they, too, have a multiplicity of sects. At the moment of Joseph Smith’s death, there was a schism with some saying Brigham Young was the true successor and others Smith’s son, Joseph Smith III; the former are the mainstream Mormons we meet everywhere, the latter are mostly in Missouri and call themselves the Community of Christ. Later, people rejected Young’s successors when they rejected polygamy; the largest polygamist Mormon group is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (given that Joseph Smith had 33 wives, of whom 10 were still married to other men, and given that celestial marriage means people are still married in heaven and that widowed Mormons can remarry, the polygamists are maybe the truest successors to Joseph Smith).

There’s a nice, clear article at Wikipedia about sects in the Latter Day Saint movement. If you have trouble deciding where God’s real church is found and where authority lies, the Mormon should be just as troubled, if not more so. How could God restore his Church through Joseph Smith only to have what amounts to a Second Great Apostasy immediately following Smith’s death? Why trust Brigham Young more than Joseph Smith III?

I realise that even for the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian, Apostolic Succession is not as cut-and-dried an argument as I made it out to be. If these groups stand in Apostolic Succession to derive authority, why are they in schism? And aren’t Copts, Ethiopians, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenians also within Apostolic Succession? And the Charismatic Episcopal Church? What about them? I concede that we are divided, and that Apostolic Succession leaves outside of it a multitude of Baptist and Presbyterian types. Nonetheless, Mormons are fractured, too.

However, throughout the Old Testament we see periods when the prophets and priests were unholy and turned away from God, yet the people were still held to God by God’s faithfulness to them, and bound by their authority in some way — there was always a remnant, let alone a belief that God could work through the office of the priests even when they were corrupt. The Gospel of John even mentions Caiaphas prophesying Jesus’ redemptive death through the office of High Priest. What this says to me is that however divided we may be now, and however corrupt ecclesiastical institutions may become at times, God is still with His people, and He will always be driving the Church to reform itself and enter into deeper knowledge of Him both corporately and individually, just as he did with the undivided church before 1053. It is this use of broken, fragile vessels that speaks volumes to me of the power and compassionate love of God, not his abandonment of the Church for 1800 years. Such a God is callous and uncaring. End excursus.

I didn’t bring up the weaknesses in my position, mind you, and the conversation moved on to another topic after that. While I enjoy explaining my beliefs to others, it felt a bit-onesided, anyway. Repeatedly, I was told that if I asked God if the Book of Mormon was true, I would feel the Holy Ghost and realise that it is true while reading it. Objections such as the lack of archaeological evidence were ignored.** The question of where God and Jesus came from was also basically ignored. After being told that God has flesh and blood (which would discount the elder’s earlier agreement with me that God is simple in essence), when I asked again where God came from I was told that spirit and intellect have always existed; this says nothing about the person of God if God is flesh. FYI, God used be a man on another planet; Jesus is his biological son by the Blessed Virgin Mary — Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both taught this.

Anyway, suffice it to say that no proper rebuttals of my arguments were made; either Mormon doctrine was quoted, or issues were sidestepped. I have no doubt that some Mormons have some arguments, but I did not meet them two days ago. He did, in his defence, say that he didn’t think he could convince me by argument, but simply wanted to invite me to read the Book of Mormon with an open mind.

When we consider how difficult it can be simply to believe these days, I don’t think I could ever be convinced by the Mormons — I’d be more likely to chuck Christianity altogether and become a Buddhist than to become a Mormon.

**The alleged Hebrew inscriptions in the USA are, in fact, in a palaeo-Hebrew script that did not exist until the Hellenistic Age, and so, if written by Hebrew immigrants to the ancient Americas, they could not have been written by the people discussed in the Book of Mormon. Chances are, then, they are a forgery made by someone trying to use an ancient form of Hebrew who had insufficient knowledge. Like those alleged Viking inscriptions in the northern USA.

Thoughts on Apostolic Succession (with reference to Irenaeus & Tertullian)

The Seventy Apostles

In some church bodies, it is a big deal to be within the Apostolic Succession, for which there are certain rules of succession that apply. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy stand out in this way most prominently, but the Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, and the Armenian Apostolic Church all claim a direct line of episcopal descent from the apostles, as does the Anglican Communion, through the Archbishops of Canterbury, many of whom (as well as some others) were consecrated by the Popes of the Early Middle Ages.

This idea of a succession of church overseers crops up in Irenaeus (d. 202) for the first time, from what I can tell. In Against the Heresies, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, calls to the reader’s mind the orthodoxy of the bishops of Rome, who can be traced from Peter (Pope of the Month here) through Linus and Clement (Pope of the Month here) to Eleutherus (c. 174-189).

Irenaeus is writing against various Gnostic sects and uses the apostolic origins of the bishops of Rome to demonstrate the truth of their teaching — if the apostles had secret knowledge, they would have passed it along to their successors. As it is, what is visible from the standard tradition of the Church of Rome in the days from Justin through Hippolytus (about whom read this but also this) is what we think of as ‘orthodoxy’ or, in some scholarly circles, ‘proto-orthodoxy.’ That is — not Gnosticism.

The purpose of the Apostolic Succession for Irenaeus is to demonstrate orthodoxy. The Bishops of Rome believe the following; they trace their teaching and authority from the Apostles; therefore, we can trust them. Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, c. 190, uses the idea in a similar way.

This is important to consider. Today, Anglicans are passed over by the Church of Rome because a nineteenth-century committee decided we are outside of the Apostolic Succession. Anglicans are concerned about the viability of Methodist holy orders because John Wesley stepped outside the Apostolic Succession to promote their movement. The Orthodox at times claim that Protestants in breaking with Rome have removed themselves (ourselves?) from the Apostolic Succession and tradition, explaining the many strange journeys we have taken in the past 500 years.

For Irenaeus and Tertullian, however, Apostolic Succession is not simply a question of the validity of holy orders or whether a gathering of Christians is a true ‘Church’. Their concern with the Apostolic Succession is the guardianship of orthodoxy. We can trust these teachers to be true because we know where their teaching came from — especially important in a semi-oral culture that did most of its teaching orally. The Gnostics claim special knowledge but are distinct from the Apostles’ visible successors.

To take the question of the Methodists, we know where their tradition came from, and — even if their ordinations were irregular and uncanonical — we know that it is, in fact, within the bounds of orthodoxy. This seems to be the point of the earliest attestations of Apostolic Succession. Why, then, do we use it to exclude Methodists from our Communion?