The Paradigmatic Bishops of History- Polycarp

C. Polycarp

In this section I’ll provide a bit more detail

Polycarp is a very important person to analyze in conjunction with the polity of Ignatius. Allen Brent explains,

Polycarp does not write as a bishop, like Ignatius, with his own exclusive authority but as ‘Polycarp and his fellow presbyters.’ He never uses the word ‘bishop’ of himself or of anyone else, including Ignatius…In other respects we appear to be living in the world of the Pastoral Epistles (which he quotes), where there are bishops but not single bishops, as we saw was the case with Clement of Rome…’bishop is used interchangeably with ‘presbyter’ and refers to a plurality of ministers.[1]

Paul Hartog and other Patristic scholars argue similarly. The churches that Ignatius wrote to may not have viewed a “bishop” in the same way. Instead, “the bishop” may very well have been the one providing oversight over their particular house community.

At the time I wrote the original article, I had not read Paul Hartog’s work on Polycarp (here) but, I’ve had the ability to read portions of it and his analysis helps to fill in gaps here and in other portions of this paper.

The first insight from Hartog is that numerous historical details concerning Polycarp’s history develop considerably. For example, the relationship between Polycarp and the Apostle John develops from Irenaeus to Jerome. Hartog does not necessarily believe that later reflections are necessarily wrong, but he does note that Tertullian, Eusebius, and Jerome appear to go beyond Irenaeus’s account.

Tertullian refers to John “the Apostle” as installing Polycarp (de praescriptione haereticorum 32.2), as does Jerome (De viris illustribus 17). Yet Irenaeus refers to John “the disciple of the Lord.” Irenaeus elsewhere refers to Papias as “the scholar of John and companion to Polycarp” (Historia ecclesiastica III.39.1). Eusebius criticizes Irenaeus on this point and accuses him of confusion. Based upon the language of Papias himself, Eusebius argues that Papias’ master was not John the Apostle, but the “Elder” of the same name. On the other hand, Eusebius’s conclusions may have been affected by his anti-chiliastic bent. In the end, we cannot rule out a priori that Polycarp was acquainted with the apostle John, although it may remain impossible to disprove that Polycarp is referring to a different “John the Elder” or some other “disciple of the Lord” by that name.

Hartog emphasizes that it is very probable that Polycarp had at least met eyewitnesses of Jesus’s ministry (even potentially the Apostle John). This acquaintance, however is not the same thing as later formal notions of “apostolic succession” in which the apostles places the younger individual in office. Hartog notes changes about Polycarp and “Johns” relationship from Tertullian to Jerome,

When these sources are chronologically arranged, one notices a development toward a closer connection between John and Polycarp which stresses episcopal ordination and apostolic succession (including the role of more than one apostle). Polycarp may have had a few stories of a (brief?) childhood connection with John, and Irenaeus, for his part, may have remembered only little of the material [because he admits he was a “paidia,” or “child” during interaction with Polycarp]. Over a period of time, the retelling of the association may have grown into apostolic ordination… One must remember the looseness of the terms ‘bishop’ and ‘elder’ at this stage of ecclesiastical development. One could be installed a ‘bishop’ in the sense of elder without being installed as a monarchical bishop.[2]

Hartog shows that the Fathers are even critical of one another about their historical detail. Eusebius criticizes Irenaeus for not properly identifying Papias’s teacher, even though Irenaeus would be closer to the events than Eusebius. Eusebius does not appear to have a problem correcting Irenaeus in some details and accepting his testimony in others—even important details that Irenaeus would presumably know since he met Polycarp.  Similarly, Hartog notes that the relationship between Polycarp and John developed through each retelling of the story to the point that by the time of Jerome the ordination of Polycarp is assumed to be in the form of apostolic succession.

This brings Hartog to his ecclesiastical point: one may trace the development of a story from Polycarp’s association with John, to a potential ordination by John as an episkopos, to an ordination of Polycarp as episcopal successor of Smyrna. The progression is small, subtle, and does not require malice, ill-will, or a grand conspiracy. One may argue that it is all a legitimate further elaboration of something that actually happened—and this is a possibility—but just because it is possible does not mean it is likely or equally likely to Hartog’s proposal of development. In fact, Hartog notes an interesting point connected both to the ecclesiastical and methodological points I am drawing out.

In a footnote Hartog explains The Life of Polycarp, Suidas, and the Apostolic Constitutions do not refer to his apostolic ordination at all and the Apostolic Constitutions do not mention him at all. The text of the Apostolic Constitutions reads,

Of Antioch, Euodius, ordained by me Peter; and Ignatius by Paul. Of Alexandria, Annianus was the first, ordained by Mark the evangelist; the second Avilius by Luke, who was also an evangelist. Of the church of Rome, Linus the son of Claudia was the first, ordained by Paul; and Clemens, after Linus’ death, the second, ordained by me Peter. Of Ephesus, Timotheus, ordained by Paul; and John, by me John. *Of Smyrna, Ariston the first; after whom Strataeas the son of Lois; and the third Ariston.*[3]

The reasons for Polycarp’s omission are difficult to ascertain.  Hartog suggests that disputes regarding the Quartodeciman controversy may have motivated the Constitutions to omit Polycarp. Others suggest that Polycarp was not a bishop until later—bringing into question his ordination by John. The precise reason for Polycarp’s omission are obscure, but for BOH this introduces either a methodological concern—is diverging from the Constitutions treating them as “evidential trash”?—or an ecclesiastical concern if Polycarp is not ordained by an Apostle. There is no clear solution on why Polycarp is not listed, but it is certainly something that ought to give us pause in assuming that Polycarp’s position as bishop was precisely the same thing that Ignatius had conceived.

Since it seems probable that Polycarp was a bishop in at least some sense (whether the president of a presbytery or a monarchical bishop), this makes it even more interesting that he does not mention a bishop when writing to the Philippians, and does not identify himself as such either. I thus concluded in my initial article,

The fact that Polycarp does not mention the bishop provides in the bare minimum an indication that Polycarp was not as adamant about the importance of the bishop as was Ignatius.

Subsequent study could turn up other pieces of evidence to show the emergence of presbyterian governance, but these two examples ought to show that the universality of Ignatius’s claims is doubtful.

One may notice in this quote that I have attempted to be measured. What we do know is that Polycarp does not mention a bishop in Smyrna or in Philippi and only mentions presbyters. This at least provides an indication that shares a different focus than Ignatius on church unity—since he writes to the Philippians about threats to unity with a presbyter. Some, like Schoedel, argue that “Polycarp does not mention that he was a bishop, though he surely was.” And others, like Kenneth Berding, argue that Polycarp clearly viewed himself as “one of the elders of Smyrna.”

Hartog proposes a third option and that is that the church in Philippi did not share the same governance as Smyrna. Johannes Quasten agrees and states,

Polycarp makes no mention of a bishop of Philippi but he does speak of the obedience due to presbyters and deacons. One might be justified in concluding that the Christian community of Philippi was governed by a committee of presbyters.[4]

The use of conditional language should give initial cause for concern from Quasten, but he leaves no further comment on the topic. Presbyterian governance is thus a good option—given it is the only option listed, it may in fact be the best option, according to Quasten. Such a determination only serves to highlight that there were churches without monarchical episcopacy at this time.

BOH argues, however, that Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians actually supports its case,

            Moreover, when St. Polycarp’s letter is viewed as a whole, not only is it not evidence against the Catholic position, but it supports the existence and normativity of the episcopacy because St. Polycarp’s communication to the Philippians included St. Ignatius’ teaching on the monarchical bishop, passed along with commendation by St. Polycarp.

Supposedly, because the Philippians wanted the letters of Ignatius from Polycarp, therefore the monarchical episcopacy would have been normative, but this is merely an assertion. In order to make an actual historical argument the response would have to explain why it is not possible that the church did not want to cherish the writings of a fellow Christian willing to die for Christ? BOH’s explanation makes little sense of the fact that Polycarp’s letter nowhere mentions a bishop—particularly considering the issues of unity in the church after a presbyters sin. As Hartog (2013) notes, Polycarp indicates submission to deacons and presbyters but does not mention submission to a bishop at all, in distinction from Ignatius (pg. 96).

Without making an argument for such a position BOH then argues,

If St. Polycarp believed the episcopate to be an innovation departing from the apostolic teaching, wouldn’t he have made sure to add that qualification to his letter? Brandon has simply selected the internal silence he wants to count as evidence, and ignored the internal silence he does not want to count as evidence. And again, that selective use of data is special pleading.

This does not address my thesis or my argument concerning Polycarp. The thesis of my article was focused upon the episcopate in Rome. I even acknowledge that other geographic areas, like Antioch, witnessed the rise of the episcopate earlier.  Thus, if Polycarp were in fact a monarchical bishop in Smyrna, that does not undermine my thesis, because I acknowledge that the monarchical episcopate existed earlier in other areas. The case of Polycarp is certainly not an easy case for a monarchical episcopate, but even if it is conceded, that does not materially impact the fact that Polycarp’s view of the monarchical episcopate is different than Ignatius’s—as Quasten, Hartog, and Andrew Selby demonstrate.

Furthermore, BOH claims that if Polycarp did not share an identical view of episcopal ministry with Ignatius he would have said something about it in his letter. There is no reason given for why this must be the case, however. As Selby illustrates in his article, Polycarp’s commendation of the Philippian church without ever mentioning a bishop seems to be qualification enough that they do not require a bishop. Selby (2012) explains,

…from Ignatius’ perspective, the Philippian community would have failed to meet the criterion for being a church since they lacked a bishop. Still, Polycarp gives no exhortation to appoint a bishop. Neither does he offer an example of another church with a bishop as a subtle hint. Nor does he even refer to himself as a bishop, leading some to suspect he was not actually a bishop but only one of the leading elders at Smyrna. Far from condemning them for their faulty ecclesial structure or even offering a mild rebuke, Polycarp lauds the Philippians with lofty words: “I also rejoice because your firmly rooted faith, renowned from the earliest times, still perseveres and bears fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ” (1.2). Silence in this case speaks volumes in the matter of monarchical episcopacy in Philippi, namely that Polycarp was untroubled by Philippian plurality of leadership just as Paul appears to have been, too (pg. 92).

At this point Selby highlights the crux of my argument concerning Polycarp: Ignatius’s view of the monarchical episcopate is not shared by everyone—even those who may themselves be monarchical bishops. This serves to blunt a reading of Ignatius that all monarchical episcopate had extended throughout the world. It may well have existed in some portions of the world, but it does not seem to extend everywhere, including Rome.

BOH clearly misses the force of the argument when it states,

 But when the eighty-six year old St. Polycarp came to Rome to visit Pope Anicetus in AD 155 to defend the tradition he had received from the Apostle John concerning the date on which to celebrate Easter, why did he entirely overlook what Brandon claims to be a novel and non-apostolic monepiscopacy in Rome?

Since Polycarp did not mention anything to the Philippians about a bishop, there is no reason to believe he would have said something to the church in Rome. Additionally, considering that my position explicitly argues that Anicetus was the minster of external affairs and dealt regularly with foreign delegates, this fact fits into my argument seamlessly.  Moreover, if this was an issue of a dispute on differences between churches in Rome (as argued below), then this interaction is not in any way beneficial for a Roman monarchical leader.

BOH then goes on to explain the Polycarp had encountered Gnostics and convinced them that he had heard the Apostles and claimed that the Gnostic teaching was not Apostolic. BOH then claims,

St. Polycarp’s argument against the Gnostics in Rome would have been vitiated had any of the following been the case: (a) there had been some widespread debate within the Church about whether monepiscopacy was apostolic, or (b) there was a Presbyterian polity in the Church in Rome while all the Churches of Asia had a monepiscopacy, or (c) there was a newly formed monepiscopacy in the Church in Rome, departing thereby from a prior Presbyterian polity.

All of these options are red herrings. Nothing about Polycarp confronting the Gnostic doctrine and proving it was non-apostolic proves anything at all about monepiscopacy. BOH claims if there had not been a monarchical episcopate then Polycarp would have identified it as a non-apostolic practice, but Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians falsifies this.

BOH concludes this section on Polycarp arguing,

So none of the data Brandon points to in relation to St. Polycarp is evidence that St. Polycarp was not a bishop. On the contrary, not only the internal data indicating an unqualified endorsement of St. Ignatius’s teaching, but the external data as well indicates clearly that St. Polycarp was in fact a bishop, even the bishop of Smyrna. Moreover, the very attempt to try to make it seem that St. Polycarp was not a bishop, in light of the magnitude of positive evidence showing that he was a bishop, suggests an ideologically- or theologically-driven agenda.

None of the data I appealed to in my initial article was about Polycarp not being a bishop. The only thing I derive from Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians is,

The fact that Polycarp does not mention the bishop provides in the bare minimum an indication that Polycarp was not as adamant about the importance of the bishop as was Ignatius.

Somehow, BOH takes from this that I am arguing that Polycarp was not a bishop. Even though there is a scholarly debate about what precisely it means that Polycarp was a bishop, BOH claims the case is “clear.” Then BOH claims that disagreement with BOH is the result of “an ideologically or theologically driven agenda.” Since I’ve not taking a position on the topic, I’m sure that Andrew Selby and Kenneth Berding would be interested to find out that their conclusions derive from “an ideological agenda.” As for me, I’ve not taken a position on Polycarp’s standing as a bishop or as a presbyter, so BOH misapplies criticism of that position to me.

To summarize my argument, Polycarp serves to demonstrate that the monarchical episcopate is not as widespread as Ignatius claims.  Even those who may have in fact been monarchical bishops of a kind did not share Ignatius’s vigor for monarchical episcopacy. BOH seems to have completely missed the trajectory of the argument. As a result, my article is not addressed in this section and the complex issues surrounding Polycarp of Smyrna remain unexplored.

[1] Allen Brent Ignatius of Antioch: A Martyr Bishop and the origin of Episcopacy pg. 149. See also  Allen Brent, “The Ignatian Epistles and the Threefold Ecclesiastical Order” The Journal of Religious History Vol. 17, No. 1, (June 1992):18-32.

[2] Quotes taken from Polycarp and the New Testament: The occasion, Rhetoric, Theme and Unity of the Epistle to the Philippians pg. 32-41.

[3] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf07.ix.viii.iv.html

[4] Quasten, 60.


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