Eric Jay, “From Presbyter-Bishops to Bishops and Presbyters”: A Review and Response

In our discussion on the now-silent thread Let Us Build Our Faith On Christ, Bobby Valentine inserted Eric Jay’s article, �From Presbyter-Bishops to Bishops and Presbyters� into the discussion (right about here, scroll down about half-way). A resume of my points of contention at that point in the thread would be helpful.

I had argued that

1. The first century Church looked the way St. Ignatios and St. Clement describe. It’s not a matter of interpretation of any NT passages. It is simply the case based on sheer historical record.

2. If the first century Church looked the way St. Ignatios and St. Clement describe it, then the RM interpretation of what the first century Church looked like is just flat wrong.

3. Given 1 and 2, it’s not the case that the NT and St. Ignatios and St. Clement contradict, but that the RM interpretation of the NT conflicts with St. Ignatios and St. Clement.

4. If the RM interpretation of the NT conflicts with the established facts of history, then the RM interpretation cannot be true, and if the RM interpretation of the NT is false, then it is a good idea to try to understand the NT in light of first century history.

To which Bobby responded:

The church structure reflected in Ignatius does not seem to be known in other second century writers. Eric G. Jay (Emeritus Professor of Theology @ McGill University in Toronto) has published a masterpiece of historical research on Christian ministry in the second century.

[. . . snipped. . .]

Jay is from an episcopal background, as I recall. He surveys in considerable depth the Didache, Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Hermas, Justin, Hegesippus, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus . . . it is a model of fairness and objectivity. Throughout Jay is in conversation with Gregory Dix and his classic work on early christian ministry and concludes that in a number of places Dix is simply wrong.

In spite of the fact that Jay’s conclusions are contrary to his own church structure he offers these fine words at the conclusion of his study,

“[i]This survey shows, I maintain, that for about a century and a half the church’s ministry was basically prebyteral. There would, perhaps, be speedier progress in ecumenical conversations between episcopal and presbyterian churches if, on the one hand, this were frankly recognized, and if, on the other hand, the cogency of the needs which prom[p]ted the eventual emergence of the monepiscopate were acknowledged”[/i] (p. 162).

Bobby gave several more replies to my points, most of them oriented around Jay’s article. Others in the thread also made criticisms. I responded with a rather broad series of connections between New Testament and Ignatian ecclesiology, which also received further comments/criticism. I resummarized my argument for the thread in this way:

In any case, the point of my post was not necessarily to provide a locked and tight case from the New Testament that an Ignatian model of Church polity is clearly stated in the New Testament.

Rather, the point of my post was twofold: to underline verses almost no one ever talks about in RM interpretations of NT Church polity and to show that when one looks at all the evidence from the New Testament–instead of just merely combing verses for the terms bishop or elder–and all the evidence from the first century Christians (though of course I presented only two sources), then it becomes clear that there is continuity between the New Testament and St. Ignatios and that minimally what St. Ignatios describes as first century Church polity has at least an incipient foundation in the NT.

This is my problem with most scholarship I’ve read on these matters. They look for the obvious–always a good thing, of course–but they also miss the forest for the trees. There’s a whole lot more there than the simple presence or absence of the terms bishop and elder and the explicit description of Church structure.

I wanted to describe the background at some length so as to get a feel for what had been stated and argued, and how Jay’s article fit into that context. With this context in mind, I wish now to review and respond to Jay’s article.

Bobby’s citation of Jay above does not quite capture the full argument that Jay is making. But this is not to imply any distortion on Bobby’s part, for Jay’s concluding statement belies the carefully crafted conclusion to his survey that he had already constructed and which I here quote in full:

My contention has been that in the second century a development of the structure of the Christian ministry which had originated in the first century was brought to its conclusion. The single order of presbyters who were also called bishops becomes two distinct orders: monarchical bishop with ordaining power and presbyters. The stages were:

1. The election by the local college of presbyters of a chairman or president. This must have occurred in many churches during the latter part of the first century. It was a natural step, arising from the need for a responsible leader for any group which existed for a serious purpose. There were analogies in the archisunagogos who directed the worship in the synagogues of Jewish communities and in the presiding officers of the gerousiai, senates, and multitudinous clubs and societies of the Graeco-Roman world. The functions alloted to the president of the Christian presbytery varied according to the need of the community. In Syria and Asia Minor conditions (schismatic tendencies and incipient heresy) led to the recognition of the president as the focus of the church’s unity and the overseer of baptisms and eucharistic worship. As such he became known as �the bishop� (ho episkopos) prior to the writing of Ignatius’ letters (c. 110-115).

In Rome at the end of the first century the president had not acquired the title of �bishop.� Apart from the responsibility of implementing pastoral and disciplinary decisions of the presbytery he appears to have had the important duty of communicating and maintaining good relations with other churches.

2. Gnosticism reached the height of its influence and popularity in the west. c. 150-180. The Gnostic claim to possess a corpus of truth derived secretly from the apostles through a succession of teachers was met by the assertion that the true doctrine of the apostles has been preserved in the church by a series of authoritative teachers in an unbroken line from from the apostles (Hegesippus, Irenaeus, Tertullian). These are the presidents of the presbyterates who have, in turn, received the apostolic �canon of truth� or �rule of faith� from their immediate predecessors in office. They are now styled �bishops.�

3. The final stage is indicated in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus and must have been reached in Rome late in the second century. The bishop is now the sole ordainer, and he himself is consecrated, after election, by another bishop or other bishops. To allot to the church officer who was already acknowledged to be the guardian of the church’s integrity of doctrine and worship the chief role in the continuance of that tradition by the consecration of those who were to succeed to this guardianship in the churches was but a small step and a seemingly logical one. It was eventually to lead to a different conception of apostolic succession from that taught by Irenaeus: namely, the tracing of a bishop’s succession through his consecrators rather than through the predecessors in his see (kathedra). The bishop, as Hippolytus presents him, is the summa sacerdos, whose order is superior to that of all other ministers of the church by virtue of his consecration.(161-162; emphases added)

Immediately following this conclusion is the final paragraph originally cited by Bobby in the thread above.

With due allowance for lack of clarity regarding what is meant by the term monepiscopate, and quibbling over whether presbyteral or episcopal more correctly designates pre-late second century polity, I cannot but see that Jay supports the basic line of the argument I gave: which is, when one looks at the function of (what Jay designates as) the president of the presbyters, even as early as the late first century, the president was performing episcopal functions. Namely:

* the focus of the church’s unity (Ignatios)
* the overseer of baptisms and eucharistic worship (Ignatios)
* the responsibility of implementing pastoral and disciplinary decisions of the presbytery (Clement)
* the important duty of communicating and maintaining good relations with other churches (Clement)

Indeed, Jay says quite clearly about the Ignatian churches:

It is likely that, a presbytery having been chosen, the advantages of having a single spokesman and arbiter in liturgical and disciplinary matters were soon realized. But monepiscopacy cannot have been achieved much before the year 90. (141; emphasis added)

This, however, seems to contradict his conclusion. He follows this immediately with:

The ministerial structure described in the Ignatian epistles is usually termed �monepiscopacy.� But it does not seem to have been the monepiscopacy of bishops whose authority is claimed by reason of succession from the apostles. (141)

And here is where the confusion focuses: what do we mean by monepiscopus? For though he has taken some care to reject any notion that a bishop functioned in Rome in the late first century, later, when he discusses Justin Martyr’s writings, he notes:

There can be no doubt that in Rome, as elsewhere, the need for what Streeter calls a �president of the presbytery� became apparent at a very early stage. . . .

. . . the practical advantages of choosing a president must have been clear to the presbyters of Rome. . . . The president would be expected to have a special care for the welfare, protection, and expansion of the Christian community; and as his responsibilities increased, so he would begin to be thought of as having a special status.

The president of the presbytery was probably the principal celebrant of the eucharist. But it is not likely that other presbyters were precluded from this sacramental function. From the beginning presbyters had celebrated the eucharist. (148, 149; emphasis added)

In fact, it was at �non-episcopal� Rome (pun intended) that the names of the presidents of the presbytery had been kept in local memory (and which Hegesippus compiled) (cf. 149)–very much in continuity with the later understanding of apostolic succession in the episcopate.

Jay later remarks:

The need for a president of the college of presbyters had been recognized before Irenaeus’ day, certainly at Antioch and in Asia minor, and doubtless in Rome. Ignatius saw him as the center of the church’s unity and guardian of the purity of its worship. In Rome, probably as early as Clement, he was seen as the local church’s representative in relations with other churches. (153-154; emphasis added)

Jay wants to contend that presbyteral, and not episopcal is the proper term to mark pre-late second century Church polity. He does this by making the assumption that the terms presbyter and bishop are synonymous. But here is where such a focus on terms falters, and this has been my point from the beginning.

Even Jay is forced to admit that historically speaking many of the fundamental functions of that later ministry that he terms monepiscopus already existed before the end of the first century. Indeed, according to Jay’s survey, the only later developments to the previously named functions are all simply developments of those functions: ordination and co-consecration (discipline and worship) and apostolic succession (doctrine and ecclesial representation).

In fact, in functional terms, one is on just as solid ground to refer to the �president of the presbytery� as a bishop as one is to call him the president, for the practice of such oversight is continuous with the first century/New Testament Church, which frequently uses the term bishop in the context of such oversight (Acts 20; 1 Timothy 3, 5; Titus 1).

So while on technically precise definitional grounds, I gladly concede that the monepiscopus was not exactly what the first century office was called, functionally speaking, the leadership of the Church by a bishop/president of the presbyters in the first century/New Testament Church is, even on Jay’s account, unquestionable. Thus, my claims that the first century/New Testament Church polity was episcopal continue to be supported by the evidence.

5 thoughts on “Eric Jay, “From Presbyter-Bishops to Bishops and Presbyters”: A Review and Response

  1. The Family is doing quite well!

    Juliana is just beginning to display her smile and little talking sounds. It’s always such a beautiful thing to see.

    Basil loves his sister…sometimes a bit too much. He wants to hug and kiss her constantly.

    Glory to God for these blessings.

  2. “Throughout Jay is in conversation with Gregory Dix and his classic work on early christian ministry and concludes that in a number of places Dix is simply wrong. ”

    THAT gets my dander up. Dix’s work is the basis for the entire liturgical ressourcement movement of Western Christianity. Where are the Anglo-Catholics when you need them!

    It just goes to show you the problem with scholarship. You end up having to change the entire structure of the Church just because one interpretation falls out of favor.


  3. Ken:

    Yeah, ironic, huh. Dix was the man back in the day. Now he’s a whipping boy.

    My main gripe with Christian historical scholarship is that it is nearly always divorced from the life and worship of the Church and then imposed on the Church from outside.

    And of course, as you say, interpretations and fads change regularly, and promote themselves as “scholarship.”


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