Bishops of History Response, Catholicism, Fractionation

The Paradigmatic Bishops of History- Peter Lampe


VII. Fractionation

a. Peter Lampe

Fractionation (small cells without definitive centralized coordination) is one of the most important areas for those interested in the social-historical circumstances of first and second century Rome, and that is why I spent 20+ pages explaining the ground-breaking work of Peter Lampe. You can access that review from the way back machine here. My impression is that many did not realize that this article was meant as a supplement to the initial article on fractionation. If you have not read it, I would strongly encourage you to do so for a more robust understanding of the topic.

One of the things that I should have perhaps made clear is that scholars are uncertain about when the monarchical episcopate came about.  I conservatively estimated c. 150 (after the first half of the second century), but it is truly unclear. It does appear that there were powerful bishops by this time, but Catholic scholars such as Allen Brent postulate that the monarchical episcopate was not well established until the third century. What everyone acknowledges (at least of those who accept fractionation) is the formation of the episcopacy was fluid and was not even yet settled at the time of Irenaeus. Many additional developments would occur and were occurring.

BOH claims that I am in a predicament using Justin Martyr as evidence for fractionation because it comes from 165 AD—but Anicetus and Polycarp met with one another in AD 155, according to Irenaeus. Thus I’m arguing for fractionation at a time when we know bishops existed. Thus, BOH argues,

To avoid refutation of his argument here, Brandon would have to claim that St. Irenaeus contrived the meeting between St. Polycarp and St. Anicetus…St. Justin’s implication that there were multiple house churches in Rome, each having its own “presider,” “lector” and “deacons” is fully compatible with there being a head presbyter-bishop over the Church in Rome.

This is a false dilemma, however, because the episcopal office was still fluid, even in 155 AD. Given that the minister of external affairs operated in the late first century, it seems entirely plausible that these men operated as the minister of external affairs for their churches. Their importance grew as the Christian movement grew in stature, sophistication, and underwent intense struggles with Gnosticism. The meeting of these men is therefore unsurprising and not detrimental to the argument for fractionation.

BOH then goes on to attempt to describe fractionation and why it is compatible with episcopacy. At this point, I must admit that my paragraph, while intended to be very brief, was probably insufficient to communicate effectively. BOH lodges two initial criticisms of fractionation,

Just because there was great diversity in Rome, and Christians in Rome mostly met in house churches, it does not follow that there was no bishop sitting on the seat of St. Peter… his argument is that he provides no principled difference between the fractionation conditions sufficient to demonstrate the non-existence of a monepiscopacy, and the fractionation conditions sufficient to demonstrate the non-existence of a presbytery

The first criticism would require substantial engagement with Lampe to show why the type of diversity and decentralization he describes are compatible with a monarchical episcopate. Lame is not arguing that diversity shows that an episcopate was impossible. Lampe’s argument, however, is that the fractionation of the city is evidence that it was led by a group of loosely confederated presbyters that met in house churches.

The second criticism is simply wrong. Lampe clearly notes that the Church had a concept of catholicity and that the various presbyters viewed one another as brothers in the faith. We know that they did meet (per Hermas), but we don’t know the frequency of those meetings. A cursory reading of my review or Lampe would have unearthed Lampe’s argument from Romans 16, 1 Clement, Hermas, Justin Martyr, and Eusebius (particularly his report of the Eucharist being shared among churches) for showing the “presbyterial” shape of Roman ecclesiology.

In attempting to deal with Lampe, BOH resorts to using a list of evidence fabricated entirely by Bryan’s misreading of Lampe. I attempted to clarify Bryan’s fabrications in Comment #104. Eventually, after being unable to effectively communicate about the problems with Bryan’s list, I encouraged him that if he wanted to make an effort to actually engage Lampe, the best course would be to actually interact with the disparate sections in Lampe’s argument. Bryan responded with “Ok” in Comment #115, but he has continued to use his fabricated list instead of actually engaging Lampe.

Bryan’s approach in this regard is to identify various pieces of data scattered throughout the book and conclude that those pieces of evidence can still fit into a Catholic framework. Such is the fruit of the myopic approach to history and a haphazard approach to literature. Lampe is building a narrative with each piece of evidence in each section that provides a sketch of what likely happened and what likely did not happen.

That would be akin to an artist and an art critic discussing a painting of a sequoia. The critic, focusing upon each individual stroke, would tell the artist, “That stroke is consistent with a bush. This stroke is also consistent with a bush. There are leaves, branches, a trunk, and roots. Each of those things is compatible with the painting being a bush, therefore it is a bush.” Of course, the artist would look on in wonderment as he had drawn a sequoia tree, which has a much larger base than a bush, much wider branches, much longer roots, and bigger leaves. The drawing may have some ambiguity between the two in certain areas, but if the entire picture were taken into account, the differences between the two things would be quite apparent. The critics myopic approach, however, limits him to only seeing a bush—but if he took a step back and noted how each brushstroke worked in concert, he would see the sequoia.

Since BOH does not actually engage with Lampe, there is unfortunately not much interaction in this section. I will highlight a few important points for consideration, however.

Roman Chrisitanity came out of synagogues in Rome  (cf. Acts and Cassius Dio). When a dispute arose of “Chrestus” Prisca and Aquilla were banished to Corinth (explaining an ecclesial connection between Corinth and Rome cf. 1 Clement) and Christians stopped worshiping in Jewish synagogues. These synagogues in the city of Rome met in private residences and were not centrally coordinated. The churches continued to worship in separate house communities as Paul notes in Romans 16 *yet* they still maintained a sense of broader communion in the city of Rome and among other Christian communities.

Immigration, geography, and socio-economic factors all converged to perpetuate fractionation of Roman Christianity.  Immigrants flowed in and out of Rome and they retained the customs of their home churches while they typically lived in areas with other immigrants. This helps explain things like the Quartodeciman controversy in Rome, where various house communities functioned on unique ecclesial calendars. Poverty of early Roman Christians is easily discernible in the literary record (1 Clement, Hermas) and in the geographic locales of ancient titular churches.

The fractionation of Roman Christianity allowed not only for tolerance of different theological opinions, but it also created an atmosphere where groups like the Valentinians coexisted with orthodox Christian groups. Even Marcion was originally received by the orthodox communion until he sought to convene the presbyters and convince them of his theological opinions. All of this was the product of fractionation.  Lampe does not indicate (as some may want to suggest) that this means there were Christianities instead of Christianity. Lampe, rather, merely argues this theological pluralism is explained by the fractionation of Roman Christianity.

Once more, however, BOH claims to incorporate all of the data by claiming that it is “fully compatible” with BOH’s narrative. In fact, *any* historical hypothesis can claim the evidence is fully compatible with its narrative, so this is not a defeater to a competing narrative. The question at hand is which narrative best accounts for all the data and BOH has not accurately outlined the data in this portion of the argument nor has BOH provided anything remotely close to a comprehensive narrative. In the Allen Brent section, I will elaborate on the material I initially cited and explain how BOH has problems integrate this data.


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