Finding the early church… (pt. 2–the ecclesiastical structure)

Not much is known for certain about the ecclesiastical structure of the early Church. It is argued by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that the apostles had initially chosen from among the early church men endowed with authority from the Holy Spirit and they appointed them as bishops to continue the work of the church (Orthodox Roman Catholic International Dialogue: The Sacrament of Order in the Sacramental Structure of the Church, p. 18). While there is suggestion in Acts 6 that the apostles ordained deacons, it is difficult to say with certainty.

The late biblical scholar Fr. Raymond E. Brown seeks to differentiate from “the Twelve” and a Pauline apostleship but ultimately states that due to an argument from silence holding his account feasible, “the Twelve may have done more than Luke records” (Priest and Bishop, 56). Brown suggests that St. Paul, assuming the credibility that he wrote the letters to Sts. Timothy and Titus, may have indeed appointed them but that would make the succession not from the Twelve but from St. Paul (The Critical Meaning of the Bible, 136-137). Often contended by Protestants is that the word “priest” is a bad translation of “presbyter” since a “presbyter” has no sacrificial role. Brown contends that the argument from Hebrews 10:12-14 is weak since the “author works [the destruction of the Second Temple] into a theological interpretation by claiming that Jesus is a priest who has replaced the priests and sacrifices of Israel” (Priest and Bishop, 13-14). He then contends that the main reason for the silence is that Christians still affirmed the legitimacy of the Jewish priesthood and acknowledged themselves as Jews and they “had to come to think of themselves as constituting a new religion distinct from Judaism” (17). The second development being that they needed a sacrifice which was fulfilled in the unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist (18-19).

Brown was a decent New Testament scholar but suffers from numerous problems that most of the modern scholars face. Namely, that he is attempting to understand the development of the Christian religion from an entirely materialistic perspective. This has its advantages in presentation of the history of Christianity to a modern academic setting in which one cannot simply just use the “God” argument to prove their history. But the materialistic cause also suffers another problem. An authority problem. Authority goes from top-down, not bottom-up. If we assume a material cause of events, then yes, as the development of Christianity from its break with Judaism conducted, the structure eventually molded into a bishop-presbyter structure that it is far more seen in Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy as opposed to the radically anarchic Anabaptist or modern day Piety and Evangelical movements. But that these events were entirely of a human development.

Problematic in Brown’s thesis is that the Eucharist is the object of creation by Christians who celebrated the faith rather than a Tradition given to the Twelve by Jesus himself. This is not to say that Brown is a heretic but rather that Brown has a tendency to over-emphasize the findings of modern day scholarship to a point that in his critical representations of the history of early Christianity neglect to bring in the aspect of a movement deeply affected by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.

When the element of the God-incarnate is factored into the entire story, there develops far more clarity about the situation. The ironic element is that there experiences a further and further shift away from Protestantism’s anti-clericalism when the New Testament evidence is examined with the perspective of the Incarnation. As seen in the previous post, the second century authors were already beginning to contend from the structure of the presbyter-bishop setting given in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 the modern hierarchy that is presented in the sacrament of Holy Orders. The question is whether they understood it as a sacrament or did they understand it in more of an officiating sense? There is an argument of silence on both ends to make. But whether or not one sees their comments as “anachronistic” or not has more to do with whether the Twelve are seen to be in any significant role in the New Testament or can that be established, and also as to whether one is coming from the perspective of seeing the incarnate God in Jesus Christ. If Brown had started from that view, he’d have been taken as a joke by modern academia.


About newenglandsun

A student. Male. Passionate. Easily offended. Child-like wonderer. Growing in faith, messing up daily.
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