The Church is Apostolic, pt 2

This is the first part in a series dealing with the word ‘apostolic’. This is a rough draft, as many of my personal writings on this blog are, but I intend to put them out there in order strengthen my arguments as well as to correct them. Invite criticism and opinion, negative and positive, as always. Warning: This is not complete in information, but complete in thought.

The Aftermath of the Decian Percecution

As the Church began to confront what it considered heretical teachers and sects as well as issues over the returning of apostates and the lapsed, the meaning of ‘apostolic’ slowly shifted to emphasize the doctrine and the authority of the Apostles as opposed to those of the heterodox and heretical teachings. For many of the early Christian writers, the Scriptures were the sole basis for Doctrine to prevent such encroachments against the Church; however, Tertullian, like he was so apt to do, began to place a greater emphasis on the Tradition which was handed down than which had been previously found in the Church. It is arguable that Irenaeus placed a significant amount of attention on Tradition, but generally it seems that he focused on the Tradition of interpretation of Scripture which the Church had held when he battled the Gnostics. It was not until after the Decian Persecution (250ad) that Bishops like Cyprian changed the unchangeable Doctrine for the Apostles and by doing this, the Bishops were allowed to become sources for doctrine and, as we well see, salvation. The singular event that brought about the idea that the Bishops carried some special authority due to their ‘succession’ from the apostles was the Decian Persecution.

The Decian Persecution, unlike the others, required citizens to sacrifice to pagan gods in public, usually in the middle of the town. It was immediately after this persecution that the issue of the readmission of apostates arose in the Church, especially northern Africa and the town of Carthage, which was also the hometown of Tertullian who was fondly remembered by Cyprian as ‘the master’. The persecution was especially severe at Carthage, according to Church sources – the official Roman sources are silent on the severity of the Decian persecution. Many Christians fell away, succumbing to the pressures of the persecution, and were thereafter referred to as lapsi, but after the worse of the persecution had passed, they would often ask to be received again into the Church. Their requests were granted early with no regard being paid to the demand of Cyprian and his faithful among the Carthaginian clergy, who insisted upon earnest repentance. The confessors among the more liberal group intervened to allow hundreds of the lapsed to return to the Church.

Cyprian had secluded himself from the persecution for a period of fourteen months due to a ‘vision’ and for ‘the good of all the community’. He now censured all laxity toward the lapsed, refused absolution to them except in case of mortal sickness, and desired to postpone the question of their readmission to the Church to more quiet times. The Schism which broke out was began by a Felicissimus who had been ordained deacon by the presbyter Novatus during the Bishop’s absence. The schism party would be excommunicated which forced an organized opposition.

Upon Cyprian’s return, he defended leaving his post in letters to the other North African bishops, and a tract De lapsis (“On those who fall away”), and called a council of North African bishops at Carthage, to consider the treatment of the lapsed and the apparent schism of Felicissimus (251). Though no Acts of this council survive, we know the majority of the council sided with Cyprian. The libellatici, i.e., Christians who had made or signed the written statements (libelli)of obedience, were to be restored at once upon repentance; but such as had taken part in the required sacrifices to pagan gods could be received back into the Church only on there death bed. Later, even this regulation rescinded, allowing all to be restored if they repented immediately after a sudden fall and eagerly sought absolution; however, members of the clergy who had fallen were to be deposed and could not be restored to their functions.

The aftermath of the persecution strengthened the firm but moderating influence exhibited in Cyprian’s writings, and the following of his opponents grew less and less. He rose still higher in the favor of the people when they witnessed his self-denying devotion during the time of a great plague and famine. He defended Christianity and the Christians in the apologia Ad Demetrianum which directed against a certain Demetrius which charged that Christians were the cause of the public calamities. His most important work is his treastise De Unitate Ecclesiae (On the Unity of the Church). In it, it states: “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother; . . . he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ” (vi.); “nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church” (ix.). It was in this work that he replaced the Church as the sole source of Doctrine and Tradition with the Apostles of whom the Bishops were the direct decedents. For Cyprian, acceptance into the Church no longer meant following the Doctrines of the Church, but submitting to the various Bishops.

In section 4 of De Unitate Ecclesiae, Cyprian associated the authority of salvation to the Apostles, quoting John 20.21. In the next section he associates the bishops with the same authority. “And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided.” In his epistle to the Lapsed, he writes, “Thence, through the changes of times and successions, the ordering of bishops and the plan of the Church flow onwards; so that the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers… when the Church is established in the bishop and the clergy, and all who stand fast in the faith.”

It was this turning from the Doctrine of the Apostles to the Apostles (whose authority survived in the Bishops) themselves and the ‘apostolic succession’ that created the idea that the Church was ‘Apostolic’ in name as opposed to adjective. During the first few centuries, the church was referred to as ‘one’, ‘holy’, and ‘catholic’ (catholic meaning universal as opposed to the local congregation), but after Cyprian, the term ‘apostolic’ was firmly added. The name ‘catholic’ preceded the name ‘apostolic’ by a few centuries.

The Ascendancy of the Episcopate

Cyprian replaced Christ with the Apostles and by doing so, he allowed the Bishops, which he claimed stood in the succession from the Apostles, to modify, or develop, doctrine and to bestow salvation, and with this, it became more important to establish a link to the Apostles which for Cyprian would bring unity in the Church – if a unified episcopate, then a unified Church.

“But that they who are at Rome do not observe those things in all cases which are handed down from the beginning, and vainly pretend the authority of the apostles…” (emphasis mine) -Cyprian, The Epistles of Cyprian, Letter LXXIV.6

It is important to note that Cyprian did not associate Peter with the Roman Papacy that has emerged, and in fact believed that all Bishops were equal. Cyprian saw all bishops as sharing in the one episcopate, yet sharing it in such a way that each possesses not a part but the whole. ‘The episcopate,’ he wrote, ‘is a single whole, in which each bishop enjoys full possession.’ Cyprian did not stress apostolic succession as a test of the validity of the episcopal office, but he emphasized the idea that the bishop was the successor of the Apostles and the legitimate interpreter of the apostolic tradition. Cyprian further says,

“Our Lord, whose precepts and admonitions we ought to observe, describing the honour of a bishop and the order of His Church, speaks in the Gospel, and says to Peter: ‘I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Thence, through the changes of times and successions, the ordering of bishops and the plan of the Church flow onwards; so that the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers.” Cyprian, To the Lapsed, 1 (A.D. 250)

Cyprian’s friend during this time was a man by the name of Firmilian, who once wrote his master,

“Therefore the power of remitting sins was given to the apostles, and to the churches which they, sent by Christ, established, and to the bishops who succeeded to them by vicarious ordination.” Firmilian, To Cyprian, Epistle 75:16 (A.D. 256).

I note the deliberations of the Council of Carthage where Clarus of Mascula rehearsed Cyprian’s theory of the episcopate, when he said,

The sentence of our Lord Jesus Christ is plain, when He sent His apostles, and accorded to them alone the power given to Him by His Father; and to them we have succeeded, governing the Lord’s Church with the same power, and baptizing the faith of believers. And therefore heretics, who neither have power without, nor have the Church of Christ, are able to baptize no one with His baptism.

Tertullian is the first author for whom a collegiate body of Bishops who set above and beyond that of the presbytery is suggested, and even he does not make a true doctrinal matter of it. It is evident with him that it nothing more than a passing thought, as opposed to laying a firm foundation for the practice to continue in the future. In several places he asserts emphatically the universal priesthood of believers but we can also infer from Tertullian’s writings that before 200 the term priest was not in use to designate the bishop and presbyters of Carthage, or indeed any other congregation, and the idea that the clergy was somewhat infallible or somehow invested with great authority was foreign to the Church universal. The prerogatives of the episcopal office were gradually acquired, generally by force or do to apathy of the local congregation. In the ordination of bishops and presbyters it is probable that bishops and presbyters acted together. It is probable that the bishop might, in certain cases, act alone when there was a necessity, such as a persecution. The question whether presbyters could act alone, is still a subject of controversy. There are instances on record where such ordination was disallowed, but earlier it may have been permitted.

In the Western Church, confirmation by the imposition of hands, i.e., salvation, became separated from baptism sometime after 200. As early as the middle of the third century, with the advance of the sacerdotal (or that of a high priestly order) theory, confirmation became an exclusive prerogative of the bishop. In the East, this change did not take place. Infant baptism, infant confirmation, and infant communion were associated together. The right to confirm remained with the presbyters. Clement of Rome tells us that the apostles set over the churches presbyters and deacons, and provided that their places should be filled by other worthy men to be appointed by them with the concurrence of the Church. The design is represented to prevent disorder by keeping up an unbroken succession of officers. This idea of succession was familiar in municipal administration and in private corporations. To Irenaeus and Tertullian, the chain of Bishops — link within link— had come to be the guarantee of the transmission of genuine apostolic teaching in the churches. There is even a gift of truth qualifying them for the service. Earlier, we find in the Epistles of Ignatius that it is not the bishops, but the presbyters, who are the successors of the apostles; and later, in the school of Cyprian, when the sacerdotal idea has taken root, this new element modifies the theory of succession.

The Apostolic Churches

The epithet apostolic (apostolikos) occurs as far back as the beginning of the second century; first, as far as known, in the superscription of Ignatius’s Epistle to the Trallians (about 110), where the bishop of Antioch greets the Trallian Church (en apostoliko charakteri): “in apostolic character”, viz., after the manner of the Apostles, but not with their authority. The word Apostolic becomes frequent enough from the end of this century on, in such expressions as an “Apostolic man”, an “Apostolic writing”, “Apostolic Churches.” Note that it is not a name, but merely a reference held by those who knew the Apostles themselves of in the case of certain congregations, those that were ‘founded’ buy the Apostles. Of these, Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria hold the most significant historical presence.

Tertullian sometimes uses the expression Apostolic Churches (De Praescriptionibus c. xx; Adversus Marceonem, IV, v). All the individual churches could, he believed, be called Apostolic Churches, because they were in some more or less mediate connection with the Apostles. Usually, however, especially among the Western writers, from the second to the fourth century, the term is meant to signify the ancient particular Churches which were founded, or at least governed, by an Apostle and which, on that account, enjoyed a special dignity and acquired a great apologetic importance. To designate these Churches, Irenaeus has often recourse to a paraphrase (Adv. Haer., III, iv, 1), or he calls them the “oldest Churches” (see above for Irenaeus’ phrasology). In the writings of Tertullian we find the expressions “mother-Churches” (ecclesiae matrices, originales), frequently “Apostolic Churches” (De Praescriptionibus, c. xxi). By the time of Tertullian, of the four great ‘sees’ (Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Alexandria) only Antioch and Rome’s bishops could be traced back to an Apostle by direct succession. Alexandria fell in 90 while Jerusalem fell in 135. Rome would fall around 250 and Antioch would fall near that time as well. Each congregation would see interruptions and have others either declare for themselves Bishops or have another elect the bishops for them as was the case for Alexandria.

At the time of the Christological controversies in the fourth and fifth centuries some of these Apostolic Churches rejected the faith that would lead to the Nicene Councils. Thus it happened that the title “Apostolic Churches” was no longer used in apologetic treatises, to denote the particular Churches founded by the Apostles. For instance, Vincent of Lérins, in the first half of the fifth century, makes no special mention in his “Commonitorium” of Apostolic Churches. But, towards the same time period, the expression “the Apostolic Church” came into use in the singular, as an appellation for the whole Church, and that frequently in connection with the older diction “Catholic Church”; while the most famous of the particular Apostolic Churches, the Roman Church, took as a convenient designation the title “Apostolic See” (Vincent of Lérins’s Commonitorium, c. ix). This last title was also given, though not quite so often, to the Antiochian and to the Alexandrian Church.

Interestingly, however, it is not until the fourth century that the idealization of apostles becomes explicitly articulated in terms of a periodization of history that elevates the apostolic age to a status akin to the biblical or classical past. Peter van Deun, for instance, points to Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (II 14.3; III 31.6) as the earliest known Christian text to apply the Greek adjective apostolikos to a time period. Eusebius here delineates the “apostolic period” (apostolikôn chronôn) as encompassing the years from Christ’s ascension to the reign of Trajan (III 31.6). Writing from a self-consciously post-apostolic perspective, he describes this era as a bygone age of miracles and wonders (V 7.6) in which the light of truth shone so brightly that even “heresy” posed no real threat (II 14.3). Eusebius also presents the apostolic age as determinative for all that came after: it was then, in his view, that Christianity spread throughout the known world (III 4.1), while Judaism fell to deserved decline (III 5.3).

It might be rightly said that those that chose to employ the term ‘Apostolic Church’ in the century leading up to Nicaea (and subsequently, the centuries there after) sought to replace Christ as head of the Church with the Apostles, and thuse the Tradition of the Church with the Tradition of the Bishops.

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