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Exegetica: Roman Catholic Apologists Practice Eisegesis in Scripture and Patristics

 


James White

In scanning a recent article by Mark Bonocore I noted an interesting example of the constant presence of anachronism in Roman Catholic apologetic treatments of both the Bible and patristic sources.  In this case, he is responding to an un-named Protestant who wrote the following:

Clement wrote only a little earlier than Ignatius and clearly didn't share Ignatius' ecclesiastical view. Granted, Clement is from the West, but from him it seems clear that both Rome and Corinth of about 100 CE didn't have an Ignatian like monarchical episcopate but just local presbyter governance. It is true that Ignatius like the NT speaks of episkopoi; but also like the NT, he only means local presbyters.

This anonymous writer is surely correct.  Indeed, he is supported in his position by the vast majority of historical scholarship, both Catholic and Protestant.  For example, Roman Catholic scholar Joseph F. Kelly wrote in The Concise Dictionary of Early Christianity (1992, p. 2), "The word 'pope' was not used exclusively of the bishop of Rome until the ninth century, and it is likely that in the earliest Roman community a college of presbyters rather than a single bishop provided the leadership."  This is echoed by Protestant church historian J.N.D. Kelly who wrote:

In the late 2nd or early 3rd cent. the tradition identified Peter as the first bishop of Rome. This was a natural development once the monarchical episcopate, i.e., government of the local church by a single bishop as distinct from a group of presbyter-bishops, finally emerged in Rome in the mid-2nd cent. (p. 6).

When speaking of Linus, Anacletus, Clement, Evaristus, Alexander, Telesphorus, and Hyginus (to A.D. 142), Kelly consistently notes the same thing: there was no monarchical episcopate in Rome at this time.

When we combine this fact with a fair reading of the anonymous epistle traditionally attributed to "Clement" we certainly discover that the churches at Rome and Corinth did indeed have a plurality of elders, not a monarchical episcopate.  The fact that Rome could write to Corinth and consistently use the plural of "elders" and never once speak in the singular name of the "bishop of Rome" at the time shows this clearly.  At the same time, Ignatius' epistles plainly present the monarchical idea existing at the very same period of time, primarily in the Eastern churches.  The unnamed Protestant writer is certainly speaking in line with the majority of scholarship on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide.

Now we should note at the very beginning that Mr. Bonocore's response is obviously little more than an e-mail (or possibly a post on a discussion board), so it may not be fair to look overly closely at it. But since it has been posted as an article on a website it seems fair to respond to it.  The first assertion Bonocore makes is that since Ignatius uses episkopos in the monarchical sense, when he speaks of bishops who are "settled everywhere" (Eph. 3) that this somehow means that Rome must have had a monarchical episcopate as well. But the idea that Ignatius is saying something about the organization of the church at Rome by his comment is unfounded.  Upon what basis is this assumption made?  We are not told. When Ignatius wrote to the church at Rome, did he address this monarchical bishop?  No.  In fact, his letter to the Romans is the only one where he does not address the bishop by name.  This is considered strong testimony by most scholars in support of what J.N.D. Kelly said above.

But most troubling was the citation given of Clement's epistle to the Corinthians.  Remember that the title is traditional: the epistle does not give a name of the writer(s).  The first troubling item is the way in which the quotation is given:

"Since then these things are manifest to us, and we have looked into the depths of the Divine knowledge, we ought to do in order all things which the Master commanded us to perform at appointed times. He commanded us to celebrate Sacrifices and services (the Eucharist), and that it should not be thoughtlessly or disorderly ....He has Himself fixed by His supreme will the places and persons (the appointed presbyters) whom He desires for these celebrations, in order that all things may be done piously according to His good pleasure, and be acceptable to His will. So then those who offer their oblations at the appointed times are acceptable and blessed, but they follow the laws of the Master and do not sin. For to the high priest (the bishop) his proper ministrations are allotted, and to the priests (the presbyters) the proper place has been appointed, and on the Levites (the deacons) their proper services have been imposed. The layman is bound by the ordinances for the laity. ......Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate those who blamelessly and holily have offered its Sacrifices." (1 Clement to the Corinthians, 44:4)

I say this is troubling because this is not merely from section 44 of the epistle: it is actually cobbled together from a number of places in the epistle.  It is hard for almost any reader to follow any flow or context when the only reference given is to the very last line of the quotation, nothing more.  The second troubling thing is the insertion, without notification or explanation, of parenthetical commentary that is not found in the original text.  Taking out these a-contextual comments, utilizing a standard translation, providing the actual context, and providing references, we get:

These things therefore being manifest to us, and since we look into the depths of the divine knowledge, it behooves us to do all things in [their proper] order, which the Lord has commanded us to perform at stated times. He has enjoined offerings [to be presented] and service to be performed [to Him], and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours. Where and by whom He desires these things to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable unto Him. Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen. (40)

Let every one of you, brethren, give thanks to God in his own order, living in all good conscience, with becoming gravity, and not going beyond the rule of the ministry prescribed to him. Not in every place, brethren, are the daily sacrifices offered, or the peace-offerings, or the sin-offerings and the trespass-offerings, but in Jerusalem only. And even there they are not offered in any place, but only at the altar before the temple, that which is offered being first carefully examined by the high priest and the ministers already mentioned. Those, therefore, who do anything beyond that which is agreeable to His will, are punished with death. Ye see, brethren, that the greater the knowledge that has been vouchsafed to us, the greater also is the danger to which we are exposed. (41)

The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labors], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus saith the Scripture in a certain place, “I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.” (42)

And what wonder is it if those in Christ who were entrusted with such a duty by God, appointed those [ministers] before mentioned, when the blessed Moses also, “a faithful servant in all his house,” noted down in the sacred books all the injunctions which were given him, and when the other prophets also followed him, bearing witness with one consent to the ordinances which he had appointed? For, when rivalry arose concerning the priesthood, and the tribes were contending among themselves as to which of them should be adorned with that glorious title, he commanded the twelve princes of the tribes to bring him their rods, each one being inscribed with the name of the tribe. And he took them and bound them [together], and sealed them with the rings of the princes of the tribes, and laid them up in the tabernacle of witness on the table of God. And having shut the doors of the tabernacle, he sealed the keys, as he had done the rods, and said to them, Men and brethren, the tribe whose rod shall blossom has God chosen to fulfill the office of the priesthood, and to minister unto Him. And when the morning was come, he assembled all Israel, six hundred thousand men, and showed the seals to the princes of the tribes, and opened the tabernacle of witness, and brought forth the rods. And the rod of Aaron was found not only to have blossomed, but to bear fruit upon it. What think ye, beloved? Did not Moses know beforehand that this would happen? Undoubtedly he knew; but he acted thus, that there might be no sedition in Israel, and that the name of the true and only God might be glorified; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (43)

Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office (literally, "name") of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that ye have removed some men of excellent behavior from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honor. (44)

A careful reading of the text reveals a few basic things.  First, the author(s) of the letter are reproving the Corinthian church for having ejected their elders.  They demonstrate that the church is a place of order (a problem Corinth had long before, as evidenced by Paul's letter to them).  The Old Testament witness is brought forward in the first sections, demonstrating that God has the right to order His worship as He sees fit.  Unfortunately, Mr. Bonocore draws from this Old Testament section as if it is applied in detail by the authors to the current situation (an unwarranted action).  Clement knows only of elders and deacons in the church at Corinth.  A quick scan of the relevant Greek data in the Thesaurus Lingaue Graece demonstrates that Clement's normal usage when referring to those who filled the office is plural.  The singular uses of episkope are made in reference to the episcopate as a whole.  There is not a shred of evidence that Clement differentiated between the office of bishop and presbyter within the text itself.  Despite this, after giving the parenthetically-filled citation noted above, Bonocore says,

So, the three-fold ministy (sic) was indeed recognized by Clement of Rome.

He bases this upon a misreading of the above text, focusing upon the Old Testament illustration used by Clement.  However, as J.B. Lightfoot rightly commented on this passage, "Does the analogy then extend to three orders?  The answer to this seems to be that...this epistle throughout only recognizes two orders, presbyters and deacons, existing at Corinth....Later writers indeed did dwell on the analogy of the threefold ministry; but we cannot argue back from them to Clement, in whose epistle the very element of threefoldness which gives force to such a comparison, is wanting."  (J.B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Clement, Volume 2, 123).  Bonocore then provides more anachronistic eisegesis of the text in Clement by moving more then two centuries into the future, and a thousand miles away geographically, to a quotation by Athanasius, where Athanasius does use the term "Levite" of a deacon.  Are we to conclude that because one writer in the fourth century uses "Levite" of "deacon" that every writer in all preceding centuries followed the same path?  Surely not.  But this is all that is offered in support of this assertion.  A fair reading of the text forces us to reject such fanciful interpretation.

Bonocore goes on to admit that the terms presbyter and bishop were used interchangeably (he seems to limit this to Europe, for some reason).  Such is surely the case.  Interestingly, Jerome commented upon this very fact in the late fourth and early fifth century.  Note his words:

In both epistles commandment is given that only monogamists should, be chosen for the clerical office whether as bishops or as presbyters. Indeed with the ancients these names were synonymous, one alluding to the office, the other to the age of the clergy. NPNF2: Vol. VI, The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 69 - To Oceanus, 3.

However, Bonocore errs in that he assumes, incorrectly, that Ignatius' words, quoted above, mean that a three-fold ministry existed in Rome (it didn't), and that Clement likewise presents such a distinction (the epistle, as we have seen, does not).  From this faulty basis he moves on to rightly say that the terms were used interchangeably in the Bible as well.  There is surely no distinction made between episkopos and presbuteros in the New Testament as to office, qualifications, and duties.  For the person who follows the advice given by Clement above regarding God's right to define His own worship and those who will carry it out, this should be enough: the inspired Scriptures give us two offices in the church (elders and deacons), and woe to the one who will add to what He Himself has commanded!  But Rome has, surely, gone far beyond the Scriptures at this point.  Following her lead, Bonocore sees evidence of a three fold ministry in the text of Scripture.  But this is another example of eisegesis, this time reading into the text of Scripture itself.  He writes,

Yet, even in NT times, while the TERMS "bishop" and "presbyter" were still being used interchangeably, it is also clear that each city-church possessed an "arch-presbyter" (what we would call a "bishop") -- a singular leader of the church. For example, this was clearly the role of James in Jerusalem:

Acts 21:17-19: "When we reached Jerusalem the brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day, Paul accompanied us on a visit to James, and all the presbyters were present. He greeted them and proceeded to tell them in detail what God had accomplished among the Gentiles through his ministry."

Galatians 2:12: "For until some people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles..."

There is no question that James had a position of leadership in Jerusalem: but making Jerusalem normative for all churches, as Bonocore does, is utterly unwarranted.  Where do we find Paul ordaining "arch-presbyters" in the churches?  We do not.  James' position was apostolic and unique: to extend his unique ministry in Jerusalem to the entirety of the church is as unwarranted as the conclusions drawn earlier from the words of Ignatius.  But his error becomes even more pronounced when he attempts to find more scriptural backing:

Similarly, Timothy held the office of monarchical leader in Ephesus. For, using the singular "you" in Greek, Paul instructs Timothy how to manage the Ephesian church saying,

1 Tim 5:17-22 -- "Presbyters who preside well deserve double honor ...Do not accept (you singular) an accusation against a presbyter unless it is supported by two or three witnesses. Reprimand (you singular) publicly those who do sin, so that the rest also will be afraid. I charge you (singular) before God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels to keep these rules without prejudice, doing nothing out of favoritism. Do not lay hands (you singular) too readily on anyone..."

Therefore, Timothy was the one who both ordained presbyters and sat in judgment of them.

So, while there was yet no distinction between the TERMS "bishop" and "presbyter," the practical distinction of the offices was already fully established.

Is it a sound argument to note that Paul wrote a letter to a single elder (Timothy), and since he used singular personal pronouns in writing to him, this means Timothy was the only elder, or, held a position of priority over anyone else?  Surely not!  Such involves the same kind of leap in logic we have seen previously.  There is no rational reason to conclude from these words that Timothy was an "arch-presbyter" and hence a three-fold ministry existed in the New Testament.  Paul is giving general instructions to Timothy (and through him to the entire church, knowing that Timothy, ministering in Ephesus as he did, would pass these truths along just as the gospel had gone forth from Ephesus into all of Asia Minor).  He is not creating in Timothy a new office, higher than elder, by addressing the letter to him.  These commands are just as valid today.  All elders in Christ's church receive these words and operate upon their basis to this very day.

And so we see that this attempt at inserting a three-fold ministry into the Scriptures fails.  And just as importantly, in the field of Roman Catholic apologetics, we are again reminded of the fact of history that Rome itself did not see the need for a monarchical episcopate until the middle of the second century.  How very strange if, indeed, the concept of the singular bishop of Rome as the singular successor of Peter is actually "apostolic" in origin.

 


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