The Paradigmatic Bishops of History- Canonical


IV. Canonical data

A. Acts

In my original article I wrote the following,

In summary, we see the church in Acts purposefully establishing elders in every city, and we see these elders assembling with the one another to deliberate about matters that touch on the practice and doctrine of the church. Collectively the churches make decision among the elders and apostles and locally the church is governed by a multiplicity of presbyters.

Note that at this point no conclusion has been drawn regarding the incompatibility of Acts with Catholic ecclesiology. In noting Acts 20:17 where Paul calls the presbuteros “episkopous” I make the tempered claim that, “The lexical equivalence of the words does not mean that there could not be a distinction among the presbyters, but the existence of differentiation is not apparent in Acts.” In other words, I do concede that it is possible that there are differences among the presbyters, but the operation of presbyters in Acts does not give an indication of such a distinction.

Even so, BOH responds,

Brandon treats the Jerusalem council as evidence against Catholic (and Orthodox) polity for three reasons: because St. Luke mentions six times that presbyters are present at the council, because the final decision is conciliar (i.e., “is represented as the entire deliberative assembly’s decision”), and because the council includes representation from local congregations (i.e., Antioch, Jerusalem, outside Judaea, etc.)

Nowhere did I argue that Acts is inherently incompatible with Apostles ordaining bishops.  Instead, we see presbyters equally sharing in decision making and being charged to provide “episkopous.”  Again none of this is inherently incompatible with a monarchical episcopate, but it does reinforce the idea that multiple presbyters exercise “episkopous.” The fact that we don’t find anyone acting with supreme jurisdictional authority is perhaps suggestive, though not determinative.

Regarding Acts 20:28 (wherein the presbyters are told to exercise “oversight”) BOH explains,

the First Vatican Council uses the language of this passage to describe the modern office of bishop, noting that “bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the Apostles by appointment of the Holy Spirit tend and govern individually the particular flocks that have been assigned to them.” Here the Church has no difficulty understanding the “presbyters” of Acts 20 as being “bishops,” called together in a kind of regional synod to hear St. Paul’s farewell and final instruction.

While Vatican I may use this passage to argue for a distinction between presbyters and bishops, this says nothing about the legitimacy of Vatican I’s claim. Perhaps Vatican I’s exegesis is correct, but BOH has merely claimed that it is possible for presbyters and bishops to be distinct groups in Acts. They have not argued why this perspective is more likely than that multiple presbyters exercised oversight together.  To make the value judgment that because the Catholic view is not necessarily ruled out that it is therefore equally viable with my proposal is an opinion of the authors, not a violation of the ILD principle.

B. Pastorals

The strongest argument for BOH comes from the Pastoral Epistles. I note that there are numerous things that ought to be investigated to see what the Pastoral Epistles are arguing. I particularly focused upon the use of “episkope” in the singular. BOH attempts to describe my argument and responds by saying,

In his section on the Pastorals, Brandon first appeals to the fact that St. Paul explains that he left St. Titus in Crete to appoint presbyters in every town (St. Titus 1:5), and then two verses later says, “For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless … ” (St. Titus 1:7), as if this is a problem for Catholic doctrine. However, the use of the distinct terms already suggests two distinct offices, even if they conceptually overlap.

There are numerous problems packed into these few sentences. First, I don’t appeal to this “as if it is a problem for Catholic doctrine.” I only point out that the group described in Titus 1:5 is the *same* as the group described in Titus 1:7. In other words, there is a lexical equivalence between the terms. I do believe this fact has consequences for our arguments, but it is not in itself a refutation of the RCC.

The strange thing about the flow of the argument is that right after saying that the use of distinct terms suggests two distinct offices, they cite Paul Owen who admits,

I believe the presbyters in Titus 1:5 are the same people being described in verse 7. I am taking kata polin in the distributive sense of “city by city.” Paul speaks of presbyters in the plural because he is speaking of multiple cities in Crete. And he speaks of “presbyters” either because the two terms are still interchangable at this point, or because the “bishop” is selected from among the presbyters.

Dr. Owen leaves open the possibility that the two terms are being used interchangeably, which is an admission to the most important point that I was arguing for, namely, that presbyters and bishops are not distinguishable at this point in the history of the Church.  Dr. Owen postulates another possibility (city by city), but it introduces much more difficulty into the text than if we assume the presbyters are being described. J.P. Meier explains,

[T]he switch from plural to singular takes place in vs. 6, with “tis”, so that there is nothing at all surprising about the singular “ton episkopon” in vs.7. It may be, of course, that the singular in vs. 7 is also due to the fact that the author is here quoting a set of list requirements, a list in which “ton episkopon” is firmly embedded. Such a list of qualities or virtues necessary for a particular office was well known in the Hellenistic world. But such a possibility in no way neutralizes the fact that the author does equate the episkopos of the traditional list with the presbyteroi about whom he has been talking…the singular “ton episkopon” in 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7 can be easily explained as a generic singular embedded in a traditional list.

Thus, the best exegetical argument is in favor of an equivalence between presbyters and bishops instead of viewing them as distinct orders.

Without offering exegetical considerations, BOH opines that even if my argument about the equivalence were correct, it’s still possible that there could have been multiple bishops with only one operating with jurisdictional authority. Thus,

Brandon assumes that St. Paul means the latter, and that there is no distinction between presbyter-bishop and mere presbyter. But again, because of the ILD principle, the data is not evidence for that assumption.

This is another non-sequitur. The existence of multiple interpretive possibilities does not necessitate they are all equal. The positions are not inscrutable and, in my estimation, favor the presbyterian model.  I must emphasize again that this does not mean that the presbyterian thesis is correct, it simply means that the evidence is not objectively “inscrutable.” I did exegetical work to demonstrate why this equivalence existed in the Pastorals, but BOH does not engage at the exegetical level. They remain at the paradigmatic.

In an attempt to explain my argument from 1 Timothy 5, BOH states,

Here Brandon infers from the fact that St. Paul mentions a plurality of presbyters in 1 Timothy 5:17 to the conclusion that when St. Paul specifically refers to the “office of bishop” [ἐπισκοπῆς] in 1 Timothy 3:1, it is “highly unlikely” that St. Paul has in mind the “office of bishop.” But that is a non sequitur.

I should disambiguate my position and correct my use of language. My argument is that while the use of the singular appears to lend credence to the episcopal position, a deeper look at Greek syntax demonstrates otherwise. Paul uses the plural in 1 Tim 5:17 (πρεσβύτεροι) immediately followed by the singular in 5:19(πρεσβυτέρου). When speaking of the officers generally “Do not admit a charge against an elder,” he uses the singular, even though he has indicated in 5:17 that among the elders, those ruling well are worth of double honor (which indicates there are multiple presbyters among them). Thus, the use of the singular in 1 Timothy 3 is similar to the use in 1 Timothy 5, where it is clear he is referring to multiple presbyters. Moreover, this same pattern is used.  Moreover, if Pauline authorship is assumed for Titus and Timothy, we see that he uses a very similar formula in Titus 1:5, 7. Maier’s comments immediately above also explain that Paul’s use of the singular could very well have been part of a preexisting list, with the generic singular being a constituent portion of that list. These considerations caused me to claim that the Pastorals speaking of a single monarchical bishop was “highly unlikely.” Such language was probably too strong and it would have been preferable to argue that I believe these facts make it more likely that he is referring to multiple bishops. I do believe my position is the one that makes the best sense of the data, but I should have been more careful with my use of language.

Finally, I note that the Pastoral Epistles only (potential) allusion to ordination is found in 1 Timothy 4:14-16. Here, we see that Timothy received “ordination” by the hands of the presbyters. This is one of the few examples of something resembling ordination in the NT and it is noteworthy that ordination is not conferred by a bishop (or even bishops), but by presbyters.

BOH argues that the ordination in question may be to the second order, in which case presbyters can show solidarity with the bishop and lay their hands upon them. It could also be to the third order, in which case it could have been only the presbyter-bishops that laid their hands on Timothy, not mere presbyters. What do these possibilities mean for my argument?

According to the ILD principle, the data of 1 Timothy 4:14 is not evidence for Presbyterian polity over Catholic polity.

Of course, the only thing that BOH has done is list possible ways that 1 Timothy 4 could exist in continuity with Catholic teaching—they’ve not shown that those possibilities are equally as likely. Nevertheless, the response concludes on the Pastorals,

Thus all the data from the Pastorals to which Brandon points in support of his thesis is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine, and not non-question-beggingly and scrutably less likely under the truth of Catholic doctrine. For this reason, none of the data to which he appeals from the Pastorals is evidence for his position or his thesis. Brandon’s mistake here is treating data that has multiple possible explanations as though it has only one possible explanation, namely, his own position, or presuming in question-begging fashion that his own position is the best explanation for the data.

As has been demonstrated, this argument is a bare assertion that at most points leaves my actual arguments unexplored. It is also untrue that I believe the data only has one explanation. For example, I said to Dr. Owen in Comment #140,

In other words, the “proper” (I put quotes because there are other grammatical possibilities) way to render the article is as a generic article and not as a monadic article, which is how the manner in which I understand you taking the usage of the article.

I acknowledge that there are other interpretations, but I do not share the assumption of the response article that every possible interpretation is equally valid. When this is combined with the data from Acts, and particularly Acts 20:17, 28 my argument is that the data begins to tip the scales towards the “presbyterian” option in the Pastorals and Acts.

C. Catholic Epistles

This section is a brief sketch, and I highlight a few potential pieces of evidence on the Catholic Epistles. I briefly summarized William Lane’s detailed article on the possibility of Hebrews being written to the letter of Rome.  I noted that this evidence should be carefully considered, but that if Hebrews is written to Rome, then the mention of plural leadership in Rome provides what I described as “corroborative evidence.” It is entirely possible that the plurality of leaders at Rome contained those separated by second and third degrees of holy orders—but is that *equally* as likely as there being multiple presbyters exercising episcopal oversight in one location? Perhaps, but there is little substantiation for why BOH believes this narrative.

1 Peter 5 is also an interesting case as the textual variant indicates that presbyters were commanded to either shepherd or, according to the variant, “episkopountes.” As with Hebrews 13:7, caution ought to be exercised in this regard, but at the very least the variant tells us what some scribes assumed: the presbuteroi are involved in episkopountes. The response article does not believe this is the case and counters,

given the ILD principle, the possibility that these presbyters were either all presbyter-bishops or that they were a mix of presbyter-bishop(s) and mere presbyters shows that this textual variant is no evidential support for Brandon’s argument or position over the alternative explanations. That is because the text is fully compatible with the falsity of his notion that there is no such thing as a distinction between presbyter-bishops and mere presbyters, and because the data in these verses is not non-question-beggingly and scrutably less likely under these other possibilities.

Once again, no attention is given to the substance of the argument, it is merely asserted that because there is a possibility that there could be a distinction between presbyter and bishop, therefore they are equally likely.  No attempt is made to explain the variant or place the variant in conversation with other scriptural passages cited from Acts or the Pastorals. Instead, we are merely told that the Catholic position is as equally likely as the presbyterian.

BOH believes, however, that 1 Peter 5 not only is not supportive of my position, as a matter of fact, it undermines my thesis. After all, Peter can be an Apostle and also identify himself as a presbyter. Thus, it is conceptually possible for an elder to be an apostle and one who exercises oversight in a different way than other presbyters. That’s a fair point, but I cite it as evidence for my position for the following reasons:

  1. Peter notes that he is shepherding/ruling with multiple presbyters (similar to Acts 15).
  2. This practice is conceivably widespread, since it is going to all presbyters throughout the dispersion. Thus, governance is by presbyters at multiple locations.
  3. Peter is indeed an Apostle who is also a presbyter, but my article has not argued that presbyters cannot also be Apostles. My argument is that there is no discernible distinction between presbyters and bishops, something that exegetical examination of 1 Peter 5 confirms.
  4. Even Peter seeks to indicate that he is not above the presbyters, but is like them, a presbyter. Apostles could commend presbyters, by virtue of their Apostolic office, yet Apostles did not act unilaterally or without blessing from other Apostles and presbyters. Thus Acts 15 was convened and decided not by the Apostles but by the Apostles and elders. In addition, Peter’s behavior was likewise subject to rebuke since he acted inconsistently with the Gospel (Gal 1).

BOH concludes the canonical section with a few arguments.  It begins by saying,

In the final paragraph of this section Brandon states that in Scripture, “There is no mention of a threefold office, much less a monarchical bishop,” as if this supports his thesis. This, however, is an argument from silence. As explained above, an argument from silence in a text carries evidential weight only when the conjunction of the four necessary conditions is met.

My statement could not be an argument from silence because it is not an argument. It is simply stating what was discovered in the canonical section. BOH does not attempt to dispute this fact, but responds saying we have no way of knowing if the NT authors were writing to provide an exhaustive prescription for ecclesiastical polity. Certainly they did not write an exhaustive ecclesiastical polity, but BOH assumes that since the writing is not exhaustive that their interpretations of what it does say are equally viable—but there is scant exegetical argument in this entire section to substantiate this equivalence.

For the sake of clarity, BOH’s paradigm may be accurate and mine may be deeply flawed, however, BOH’s methodology does not allow for fruitful engagement between competing narratives. This may seem like an overstatement, but I will quote BOH from the Pastorals again,

none of the data to which he appeals from the Pastorals is evidence for his position or his thesis.

According to BOH none of the data is even admissible as evidence. This is a recurring theme in BOH. To underscore how antithetical to this is to historical inquiry, recall Wright’s example of competing paleontologists. BOH’s response is equivalent to one of the paleontologists claiming the other’s reconstruction does not present any evidence because the data can equally be accounted in her narrative. This doesn’t encourage conversation, it entrenches paradigms in dogmatism. Unfortunately, BOH opts for dogmatism over conversation in the canonical section.

D. Summary

In Acts we are told of presbyters whose job is to oversee (episkope) the church. Presbyters and bishops are used in interchangeable ways to describe these officers in the Pastorals. Timothy is even ordained by the body of presbyters. Hebrews, potentially written to the Roman Church, uses a term that is only used in Rome to describe the leadership of the church by “proegoumenoi.” Peter writes about the church being overseen (episkope) by the presbyters. All of this demonstrates that the leadership of the church was governed by multiple men in an official capacity instituted by the Apostles. To argue that there was a distinction among these men is possible, but no argument has been made as to why it is equally likely to believe there was a distinction between presbyters and bishops. This is merely an assertion for which BOH has not sought any grounding in the text of Scripture.


3 thoughts on “The Paradigmatic Bishops of History- Canonical

  1. “To argue that there was a distinction among these men is possible, but no argument has been made as to why it is equally likely to believe there was a distinction between presbyters and bishops”

    Well, do you believe there was a distinction or not? In situations where a church had more than one presbyter-bishop, did one member of that college serve as the “head” for the purpose of jurisdiction – making and speaking decisions?

    1. Jonathan,

      Thanks, again, for the comment! No, I don’t think there was a distinction. I do believe presbyter-bishops shared varying functions in the church, but none of them was the “‘head’ for the purpose of jursidiction.” I’m not even entirely sure what you mean by that. Do you mind fleshing that out?

  2. It is interesting that a large portion of this debate follows a very similar structure and argumentation to that of the mid-seventeenth century English Civil War debate between Episcopalians like Joseph Hall, James Ussher and Henry Hammond and the Presbyterian members of the Westminster Assembly and their contemporaries (e.g. the ‘Smectymnuus’ divines or James Durham). One of the key parts of that debate that seems to be missing here (forgive me if it was me that missed it) was the proper identification of the ‘Angel’ in the seven Asian churches of Revelation 2-3 – i.e. is the ‘Angel’ a supernatural entity, a mono-bishop, a synecdoche for the collective of presbyters or the messenger-scribe of the Church (in a similar identification to Hermas’ Clement)? Do you have any thoughts on this topic?

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