Sunday, May 15, 2011

Church Authority: Part I

I ran across this meditation together with the Gospel readings for Mass a while ago:

We have grown accustomed to make a clear distinction between Peter the rock and Peter the denier of Christ – the denier of Christ: that is Peter as he was before Easter; the rock: that is Peter as he was after Pentecost, the Peter of whom we have constructed a singularly idealistic image. But in reality, he was at the same time both of these… Has it not been thus throughout the history of the Church that the Pope, the successor of Peter, has been at once Petra and Skandalon – both the rock of God and a stumbling-block? In fact, the faithful will always have to reckon with this paradox of the divine dispensation that shames their pride again and again.” (Pope Benedict XVI) – from Magnificat magazine for 19 April

There are several issues related to authority that I had to work through in order to move from being evangelical to Catholic. While I was unconsciously and then consciously attracted to the Catholic Church, the papacy was my go to example of what separated me from Catholics. It took the convergence of what seemed like several unrelated trends in my life to get me to reconsider this boundary between me and the Catholic Church.

One of them was, quite frankly, the discovery of bishops. In the New Testament, reference is made to “episcopoi” – which in English can be translated as bishops or overseers. Before, I read these Scriptures through the lens of my own experience and associated this term with “head pastors”. Early Christianity threw me a curveball when it turned out that they took the Bible seriously and all pretty much adopted a governing structure that looked quite different from what I had experienced. 

Here’s a smattering of the sort of quotes that were part of my discovery.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Philadephians, 4:1, 110 A.D.:
"Be ye careful therefore to observe one eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup unto union in His blood; there is one altar, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow-servants), that whatsoever ye do, ye may do it after God."

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8:1, 110 A.D.:
"Let that Eucharist be held valid which is offered by the bishop or by the one to whom the bishop has committed this charge. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."

These two quotes were taken from this website

Now, to dive into some of my personal psychology, I had been led to believe that the Catholic Church slipped into heresy some time in the early middle ages, so I really thought that the earlier you went back from then the more Christians would be “my kind” of Christians. (A perusal of one of my elementary school history texts from A Beka Book over the last Christmas break confirmed to me that I had indeed been presented with this narrative in writing at some point in my life). So 110 AD is a bit disconcerting in that respect, because it’s hardly the middle ages. You have to ask how many generations have passed from when the last apostle died. Could there have been large scale change? Maybe the Christian faith was preserved, but as far as Church structures go the Church moved into heresy practically out of the gate? Some evangelicals will say so. The guys at this link think that Ignatius had already changed the New Testament model by leaps and bounds. I didn’t go that way—I just held this in my head and let it simmer. I first read Ignatius near the beginning of 2007.


"Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry" (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]). – Pope clement I

"It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about" (Irenaeus Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).

"The true knowledge is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere" (ibid., 4:33:8).

The above three quotes are from this website

So by 189 Irenaeus thought that this model of the succession of bishops was characteristic of all of the Christian churches everywhere, and this was a bulwark of how the true faith could be known. He did not say that there were some people who followed this “episcopal” model, but there were other Christians who had a different governing structure. The bishops and the Church’s governing structure were tied to both teaching authority, orthodoxy, and to a “valid” Eucharist. Again, this differed from my understanding and made me uncomfortable. I really had no idea how a communion could be either valid or invalid. It wasn't something we ever talked about. And I also strongly believed that orthodoxy was completely and utterly unrelated to any Church or institution

As a sidenote, the understanding of the Eucharist is perhaps the greatest link between the Catholic Church of today and the early Church that is also strongly lacking in my experience of evangelicalism. I should write more on that later. For now, I do thank God that evangelicals are beginning to recover something of the centrality of the Eucharist. The gap in this regard is still massive, however. This link provides an excellent sample of quotes on the subject. Irenaeus is also reputed to be connected to the Apostle John through only one other person (who he learned from as a child), which adds to his credibility. 

There’s so so much more about bishops in the writings of the Church fathers. If you’re interested in these thoughts at all, please start reading them. They’re available in all sorts of cheap books and on the internet for free.

The realization that Church authority could be envisioned in a way other than how I had directly experienced it opens space for us to return to Scripture. But since my purpose is not merely to present Catholic arguments which others can and do and will present better than me but to show how I engaged them and made judgments, another attempt at retroactive self-analysis might be in order.

My “original” understanding of Church authority was essentially unexamined, as is to be expected for most young people. I somehow recognized that pastors had authority, but I think I had no idea how or why. Most authority was charismatic. We respected the pastor because he appeared to know more than we did, seemed particularly close to Jesus, prayed a lot, or manifested the particular gifts of the Spirit in a highly visible way.

Up to the time I encountered these kinds of passages in my readings, I had tried to understand proper Church structure through some sort of synthesis between what I had read in the Bible and what I had observed, but no convictions had solidified in this regard. I guess my mind works more like a melting pot than a steel trap; I just absorbed this new information and barely took notice that it was slowly working its way into the categories I already held. It still seemed to me that Catholics had missed the boat by making the Papacy a bigger deal than it had been in the earliest centuries, and that assessment gave me breathing room to try to slowly try to figure out both what had and should have happened to the Church Christ founded. 

This set the stage, though, for later explorations. The quote from the beginning of this post was meant to show something of what clicked for me at the end of those explorations. The Papacy is hard to accept, but I really think that this difficulty is tied to the difficulty of understanding and accepting grace. Things like bishops and apostolic succession at first seemed foreign to me, but in the end it was my faith in God's grace, more than my knowledge of Church history that allowed me to embrace and accept God's gift of the bishops and the papacy.