The Paradigmatic Bishops of History- Ignatius

Can you prove Jesus didn’t have a rap crew named the Disciples?

B. Ignatius

BOH begins this section by strangely taking issue with the fact that I’ve conceded that Ignatius is strong support for the episcopal position. I state, “If we are to believe Ignatius, the threefold view of ministry is one that was divinely instituted *and* which had spread throughout the world.”

To that BOH states responds that Ignatius does *not* necessarily believe in a threefold view of the ministry.  This is a rather curious tact, because I was attempting to grant that Ignatius is the clearest statement of a threefold ministry.  In Ignatius we see a distinction between bishops, presbyters, and deacons in a way that we do not see in any other literature of this time. BOH continues to a comment that I made under my initial article wherein I was referring to the New Testament time period and I stated, “There is nothing from the canonical or extra-canonical data that shows any evidence of a single presbyter-bishop presiding over a city.”

To be fair, my comment was not as clear as it should have be—I was thinking of archeological or literary data from the first century in this comment and stating “extra-canonical” was very unclear. I do apologize for that confusion. Just to be clear, I was only attempting to be fair and acknowledge that Ignatius appears to be a piece of evidence in favor of the CtC position. This good-will attempt seems to have been completely misunderstood.

In my argument, I attempted to address the prima facie problem of Ignatius by arguing that the three-fold division of ministry is not as widespread as Ignatius appears to indicate. I noted Ignatius reports that some are meeting without the sanction of the bishop; something Ignatius finds corrosive to the unity of the church.

In response BOH states,

Brandon thus treats the existence of baptized persons who subsequently disregarded or rebelled against the authority of their bishop as evidence against St. Ignatius’s statement about bishops being settled everywhere to the utmost bounds of the earth by the will of Jesus Christ. Or, at least Brandon’s use of this passage as evidence against the truth of St. Ignatius’s statement about the ubiquity of bishops presupposes that the Christians doing all things apart from their bishop were not persons who were rebelling against the authority of their bishop.

At no point do I argue congregations were acting properly or that they were not rebelling against their bishop.  The only thing I claimed was Christians in Asia Minor were meeting but not interacting with their bishop in a way that Ignatius believed appropriate. I was not arguing that these dissenters were Presbyterians (as BOH insinuates I’m claiming) or that the dissidents were the true followers of Christ.

Here is how I described this piece of information:

This internal discord does not necessarily mean that Ignatius is not maintaining an Apostolic practice, but it is worth noting that even those in Ignatius’s general geographic area disagreed with him about the importance of the bishop.

The only thing that I am doing is noting that in Ignatius’s own words, there are those who take a different perspective.  No matter the claim of BOH, it is not selective use of sources to acknowledge Ignatius’s own admissions regarding certain groups. It is also not “using loaded language” to say the Ignatius was fixated on the episcopate, since he mentions the bishop and his role in 6 of his 7 epistles. Such language is a descriptive—it is something that Ignatius fixes his sights on in important ways in 6 of 7 epistles. I certainly did not intend this language to pre-determine interaction with the data or to unfairly characterize Ignatius. To conclude that I had used such a word because, “Brandon does not agree with St. Ignatius,” is not accurate. If the word prejudiced the case, then I would like to know how so that I can remedy that mistake, but BOH has not shown how such language unfairly characterizes Ignatius.

My intention in demonstrating Ignatius’s significant writing on the bishop was to demonstrate that its absence in the letter to the Romans is conspicuous.  One could come up with any number of scenarios for why the bishop wasn’t addressed. Perhaps the recent bishop had died, perhaps the bishop was under intense persecution, perhaps Ignatius did not know the bishops name, perhaps he simply forgot, perhaps a Martian instructed Ignatius to omit it, or perhaps Ignatius was unaware of a bishop because there was not one. Some of these possibilities are more likely than others and all of them are speculative to one degree or another. In the very least, I note in my original article,

Even if we concede, for the sake of argument, that Ignatius’s silence is not in favor of a Presbyterian form of government, it is at best not in favor of the episcopal argument in the city of Rome.

There is the possibility that there was a bishop and I would not fault someone for remaining agnostic based upon the information in Ignatius. BOH, however, argues that Ignatius *proves* that the threefold office existed in Rome,

The very act of referring to himself as the bishop of Syria, in view of his other statements about the authority of bishops in relation to mere presbyters, and his humble approach to the Church at Rome, implies that he believed that the Church in Rome had a bishop.

This is one possible interpretation of the evidence, but definitions would need to be deeply parsed at this point in order for the statement to be helpful.  If by “bishop” BOH means a monarchical leader then this would require a sustained argument. . William Schoedel, for example argues,

We conclude that the threefold ministry (bishop, elders, deacons) was surely in place in the communities known to Ignatius and that the authority of one bishops was recognized (see on Tr. 3.1.) But there are signs that the situation was still somewhat in flux (see on Ephe. 2.1-2) and it seems likely that Ignatius gave greater weight to episcopal authority than did most of those with whom he came in contact. In any event, episcopacy does not yet seem to have been reinforced by the idea of succession (see on Eph. 3.2; Trallians inscr). And the ministry is still genuinely collegial. Thus a requirement to obey the elders along with the bishop is taken for granted.[1]

Schoedel even goes on to note that upon examination, the threefold division of the ministry is not quite as apparent as it may seem to be on an initial reading.

Additional considerations have attempted to situate Ignatius’s letters in their second century context. Ignatius’s concept may have been a precursor to the threefold office, but many believe that discord in the Antiochene church caused him to project his idealized church order in his letters. Internal discord in Antioch became so pronounced, that Ignatius sacrificed himself to bring peace to the church (See Lotz, Schoedel, Trevett, Brent, and P.N. Harrison). If Ignatius has failed to bring unity to the Anitochene church and he acknowledges that this partially attributable to himself (Schoedel notes unusually high instances of self-effacement in Eph 2:2; 8:1; 12:1; 21:2; Mag. 12.1; 14.1; Tr 4.2; 13.1; Sm 11.1; Rom 9.2 which suggest such a possibility) then this can show forces surrounding Ignatius’s letters and martyrdom.

Along these lines, Allen Brent argues that Ignatius’s letters were strongly shaped by the “imperial cult.” Brent’s highly technical argument is difficult to succinctly summarize, but Brent argues that Ignatius viewed himself as rivaling the pagan mystery religions. Brent draws out the parallels between the officiant of those services and the structures of their worship to show that Ignatius is drawing connections between the competing Roman religions. The point is not so much that Ignatius is “making up” the threefold office, but that Ignatius’s experience of discord and apologetic against the imperial cult caused him to interpret church structures in an unprecedented manner.[2]

All of these considerations seek to highlight one trend in academic research on the Ignatian letters: Ignatius’s views of ministry present one possible position on church polity in the early church.

Those interested in the full picture ought to consult the works and read through the more detailed argument, however, even if you find such an explanation unpersuasive or too technical, consider something noted by Peter Lampe. Since Christianity was a Jewish movement, Christians first met in synagogues. In Antioch (Ignatius’s residence) the synagogue was ruled by an “atnach” or single leader presiding over the entire Jewish worshipping community.  In Rome, however, there was no “atnach” only loosely federated (i.e. fractionated) synagogues with their own structures. Since the church grew out of the synagogue (at least in Rome) is it any surprise that we see a monarchical episcopate in Antioch before it arises in Rome? The simple fact that one may assume that the monarchical episcopate existed in Antioch therefore it also existed in Rome is a non sequitur. It is far more likely that the fluidity in language and function of bishop and presbyter in the various communities allowed them to communicate with one another even if not everyone conceived of the episcopate the way Ignatius did.

At this point I ought to admit that none of this *compels* anyone adopt my position on Ignatius. Yet, in my initial article I simply set out to prove that one must dig deeper into Ignatius to verify he was a “slam-dunk” case for the episcopal position. After casting some level of doubt upon the breadth of Ignatius’s church order, I then went on to discuss other possible diverse perspectives on polity, beginning with texts believed to be from Egypt.

BOH questions the utilization of these sources for numerous reasons, the first of which is that some of them are “gnostic,”

But if Burke means the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, one wonders why this should be admitted as evidence against the Catholic tradition, for that work is Gnostic and teaches a heretical Docetic Christology! In that work the true “Savior” does not die on the Cross, but only the physical Jesus.

The fact that something is a Gnostic text does not mean that nothing of historical value can be gleaned from the document. Learning and reading from documents provides insight into the world of the writer and sheds some light into the concerns and issues facing the author and his intended audience. This misses the entire point however, and that is that this monarchical figure is not portrayed at all in these documents. Such silence is not itself, abstracted from the entire case, *proof* that there was no bishop, instead, the silence of the document is merely cited as a fact.  It may not refute the episcopal position, but it does not support it either. And I certainly do not claim that this is necessarily the strongest argument against the episcopate. I merely mention it as a source to consider.

BOH objects to this historical process, saying,

We have no reason to believe that the authors of the documents in question intended to describe exhaustively the existing polity or leaders of the Church in Egypt, because they do not even address the general subject. Moreover, because the difference between the likelihoods of the available explanations of the direct data (i.e., silence in these three texts) is inscrutable without presupposing what is in question, this data is not evidence for one of these explanations over the other available explanations, all other things being equal.

First, it is worth noting that if one attempts to argue that every historical record *must* attempt to exhaustively describe itself, then there would be virtually no way to dispute the possibility of anything. We could postulate that while partaking in the Supper the Apostles did a handstand while Thomas beat-boxed and Peter rapped the Ten Commandments.  Because none of the historical records exhaustively describe the events, the argument from silence, per this wooden criteria, is ruled out. Second, the argument from silence is often a cumulative argument where the silence in one piece of data is corroborated by the silence in another piece of evidence. If one myopically approaches one piece of evidence as if it must satisfy all of the criteria at the same time this is setting delimiting restrictions on the data set. Under such an approach a cumulative case is impossible. In isolation the “Egyptian” texts are inscrutable, but this evidence is not being cited in a vacuum, it is being cited in a cumulative case. When evidence is allowed to reinforce and correct other pieces of evidence a proper historical method has been utilized.  I want to emphasize again that the Egyptian texts are not a strong piece of evidence, they are merely an ancillary piece of literary data that do not mention a monarchical bishop.

BOH goes on to claim that we do in fact have evidence that there were bishops in Asia Minor and Egypt. Bishop Lists exists for Alexandria, Anitoch, etc. etc., Therefore, all of this third and fourth century material attesting to these bishops is proximate data and therefore explains the silence more effectively. BOH says,

Hence by that fourth principle, instead of treating the late second and early third century data as evidence of a corruption of earlier polity on the arbitrary presupposition of discontinuity, that data is rightly treated as informing and contextualizing the earlier underdetermined data.

Nowhere in my article do I use the word “corruption” outside of Chrys Caragounis’s claim that Clement is corrupting early church governance—something I explicitly disagree with in the article. I consistently use the word “development,” and for good reason.  I’ve nowhere claimed the development of episcopacy was a corruption. As a matter of fact, I have stated that when operating collegially, episcopacy has much to offer Christianity and was instrumental in retaining orthodoxy in the Patristic period. To claim that because I believe the episcopacy developed because of “an arbitrary presupposition of discontinuity” is incorrect. My entire case has been an attempt to show why the third and fourth century bishop lists show signs of development in church order and not undisturbed continuity. Instead of engaging that argument, BOH authoritatively asserts that one holds to a notion of development because of “arbitrary presuppositions.”

BOH continues by arguing that the silence about any major development in ecclesiology is evidence that no change occurred. In explaining why I do not agree BOH speculates,

 He creates his argument by drawing a stipulated, question-begging, and methodologically loaded circle around only the silence he can use to tell a just-so story about how the Church went wrong, while ignoring or dismissing the silence that would falsify that story. Again, that is an example of the selective use of data.

I never tell a story about how the Church went wrong. As a matter of fact, I stated that those who believe the episcopate historically developed are not in my “cross-hairs.” This misunderstanding has caused BOH to construct a caricature of my position and the position of the academics I’ve cited. This caricature is seen even in the description of the issue,

No one in the third and fourth centuries claims that the Apostles instituted only [mere] presbyters and deacons,

Not only do none of third or fourth century centuries claim the apostles instituted only [mere] presbyters and deacons, neither did I—or anyone else I cited. The use of the word “mere” indicates that I believe there were not people with the authority of bishops, but that is not true.

I simply do not believe there was a monarchical episcopate—because I don’t see any indication of its existence in the first and second century. I find references to a monarchical episcopate more reliably explained by a development in church office. BOH, however argues that the third and fourth century categories are identical to the first and second centuries because,

“we cannot justifiably assume we are in a better position to know the early history of each particular church.”

The methodological problem with this is that there are discernible errors in third and fourth century histories and BOH’s methodology provides us with the option of either full-scale acceptance or denial.  Thankfully, Christian historians are not forced into such a bifurcation.

BOH then turns to my use of the Didache and claims,

Yet the portrait of the Didache does not count as evidence for the “presbyterial” thesis over and above the episcopal thesis, because the text is equally compatible with either thesis.

So why is the Didache equally compatible with either thesis? Because, there is the possibility that the travelling prophet/apostle and/or teacher described in the Didache could function like a bishop.  The Didache also reports he can celebrate the Eucharist (10.7) and the Didache may be written during a transitional period with Apostles still alive.

While the exegetical conclusions are strained, BOH misses the broader contextual point, which is that the Didache provides a different picture of polity than Ignatius. Simply because it is possible for a Prophet to reside in one city does not mean that it such was a regular occurrence. As a matter of fact, the Didache explains about the prophet/apostle (11.4-6),

Let every Apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord, but let him not stay more than one day, or if need be a second as well; but if he stay three days, he is a false prophet.

It’s true that 13.1 allows the stipulation that a prophet may stay among a particular locale, but there is no indication to this frequency.  Given Chapter 11, it appears that prophet/apostles traveled regularly and did not ordinarily stay in one locale.  Ignatius, on the other hand, indicates that a bishop resides over a particular community, as he is the bishop of Antioch.

BOH throws out a number of possible options (without a sustained argument for any of them). Maybe there are three orders referenced in the Didache within the “apostles and prophets,” or “bishops and deacons…with mere presbyters latent in the episcopal order; or in the ‘bishops’ and ‘deacons’ with one bishop being over the college of other bishops.” I want to take great pains to admit: this is all possible—but that doesn’t mean that it is likely. If they *are* likely that would require some demonstration that each possibility was equally likely in order for the ILD principle to be violated. Since no argument has been presented, BOH merely makes an assertion about the ILD principle being violated. This charge is not sustained by argumentation.

Finally, my citation of the Didache was simply to demonstrate that early Christian ecclesiology is not monolithic with Ignatius’s view.  As BOH cites me,

we should be careful to press the Didache too hard, but, it is simply another piece of evidence to show in the area of Asia Minor that the threefold office was not as widespread as Ignatius indicates at the end of the 1st century/beginning of the second century

The Didache illustrates that Igantius’s ecclesiology is not identical to other polities in the region in the late first and early second century. If the Didache is written in the 70s or 80s it still presents a problem for BOH if the Apostolic church governance instituted by Paul to Timothy and Titus was to institute bishops “city by city.” Clearly there were multiple churches operating without this ecclesial polity—to the point where they could write to others (whether catechumens or churches) about normative ecclesial structure. This diversity of ecclesial structure is also witnessed in Polycarp.


[1] William Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch Hermenia 22.

[2] For further reading on this consult Allen Brent “Ignatius of Antioch and the Imperial Cult” Vigilae Christianae 52, (1998): 30-58. Brent also published a book exploring this concept in further detail: “The Imperial Cult and the Development of Church Order: Concepts and Images of Authority in Paganism and Early Christianity Before the Age of Cyprian.” For more information see the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Imperial-Cult-Development-Church-Order/dp/9004114203


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