Hanson, R.P.C.

Institutions in the Early Church

Genre: Literatuur




Institutions in the Early Church


Institutions as far as Christianity is concerned must be defined as permanent features in the life of the Christian church whose function is to express and mediate the revelation (the activity of God in Christ, or the Christian gospel, or the Word) which Christianity claims to convey.1 Institutionalism will in this essay be held to mean a state of affairs, or a tendency toward a state, in which the institutions exist, or are thought of as existing, for their own sake alone, without reference to their function of mediating revelation. It should be noted that by this definition the gospel itself is not regarded as an institution,2 but as that which may be mediated through institutions. This essay will also accept the distinction made between order and organization in the Interim Report of the World Council of Churches Commission on Institutionalism.3


Reinterpretation of Jewish Institutions

Institutionally speaking, Christianity did not begin with a tabula rasa. It inherited all the institutions of the Jewish religion which was then in the stage today usually called “late Judaism.”

[98] 1. Compare the sociological definition given in The Old and the New in the Church (London: SCM Press, 1961), p. 57.
2. As it is in The Old and the New in the Church, p. 79.
3. Ibid., p. 78: Order is “the visible complex of institutions which is held to be essential to the continuous existence and identity of the Church as a community in history.” Organization is “the broad range of institutional elements which, under varying historical conditions, express some aspect or other of the community which is structured and sustained by that ‘order.’”


It is worth while enumerating the more important of these institutions: the Temple at Jerusalem with its sacrificial cult and its priesthood; the elaborate observance of the written and oral Torah, as developed by Pharisaic Judaism, including the practice of circumcision, the observance of the major and minor festivals; the Rabbinate; the eldership; the worship of the synagogue; the acceptance of the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament as sacred and inspired. In the earliest days of the Christian church all these institutions were left unmodified,4 though some of them clearly had less significance for the Church than others. The early Church did not, for instance, dream of denouncing or abandoning the Temple cult, as the activity of the apostles within the precincts of the Temple during the earliest days shows, and the care with which Paul guarded himself against the imputation of being disloyal to the cult (Acts 18: 18; 20: 16; 21: 20-26). But the primitive Church cannot have regarded the Temple cult as possessing great importance, if only because it believed that the Messiah, who in some sense supersedes the cult, had already come once and would soon appear again. This is the meaning of Stephen’s speech in Acts, and of many passages in Paul’s letters (such as Romans 8: 1-4; I Corinthians 5: 6-8; Galatians 4: 1-5); later it constitutes one of the themes underlying the Passion-narrative of the Fourth Gospel and forms the central subject of the Epistle to the Hebrews. When the apostles were driven by circumstances to lay down a rule of minimal observance for Gentile Christians, they formulated it in terms of Pharisaic Judaism, with no reference at all to the Temple cult (Acts 15: 28, 29, whichever version of the text we adopt). Though Jewish priests were among some of the earliest converts to Christianity, there is no evidence at all that they were regarded as having any specifically Christian function as priests. Historically speaking, we must regard Christianity as stemming, not from Sadducean Judaism, but from Pharisaic Judaism, with a peculiar emphasis upon the fulfillment of prophecy to which the tradition of the Qumran Covenanters may have made a contribution. One gains the impression that when Jerusalem fell

[98] 4. So E. Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament (E.T. London: SCM Press, 1961), p. 47, Note 3.


to the Romans in A.D. 70 and the Temple cult ended forever, Pharisaic Judaism, though it officially mourned, in secret heaved a sigh of relief. This sigh must have been echoed in contemporary Christianity. In the next century among the Apologists it becomes a shout. Again, though Jesus had been called a Rabbi, the Rabbinate cannot have played an important part in primitive Christianity.5

Pharisaic Judaism managed to preserve most of the traditional Jewish festivals even when the Temple cult had ceased, but within Christianity they appear to have lapsed into disuse in a comparatively short time, with the important exception of the Passover. But even though Christianity retained the observance of Jewish festivals, it modified and molded them to its peculiar convictions about the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth.6 This is eminently true of the one Jewish festival which it retained permanently, the Passover. To have altered this festival into a Eucharist celebrated weekly, or, if we follow Jeremias, daily, was itself a modification of the first importance. But here the action of Jesus himself at the Last Supper provided the justification. Certainly when Justin Martyr wrote his Dialogue with Trypho about a century after the period when Paul was writing his letters, the observance of major and minor festivals was a characteristic which marked off Jews from Christians.7

The question of circumcision and of the observance of the halakah, the intricate corpus of interpretation of the written Torah devised by Pharisaic Judaism, came to a head early in the history of Christianity. It underlies much of the material in Paul’s letters; and Acts gives us an account, probably a simplified and schematized one, of how it was dealt with. Jesus himself had certainly taken a critical attitude toward at least some parts of the halakah,8 though the evidence is not strong that he directly taught that parts of the Torah could be rejected. It can at least be said that the early Church decided that the halakah must be modified for the benefit of Gentile Christians, and that circumcision was not insisted upon in their case. Even as late as Justin’s day, it was admitted that Jewish Christians could be

[98] 5. The arguments, however, of B. Gerhardsson in Memory and Manuscript (Uppsala, 1961) must be given due weight.
6. R. Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting (E.T. London: Thames; New York: Hudson, 1956), p. 187.
7. See Justin, Dialogue 8.4; “Major and Minor Festivals” is a rendering of Greek words whose literal meaning is “festivals and new moons.”
[99] 8. Mark 2: 15-3: 6; 7: 1-23; and parallels.


allowed to follow their own traditions within the fold of the Church.9 As membership of the Church became more and more predominantly Gentile, the question of circumcision must have faded further and further into the background. No doubt Christians of that early period would have told the inquirer that they were not abandoning the Torah’s ordinance of circumcision, but giving it a spiritual (that is, metaphorical or allegorical) interpretation. Alexandrian Judaism, in the persons of such writers as Pseudo-Aristeas and Philo, had already given some encouragement to this course.10 How far early Christians observed the Sabbath, or rather how quickly the observance of the first day of the week in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus ousted the Sabbath, there is almost no evidence to determine. Two of the later documents of the New Testament, the Fourth Gospel and the Epistle to the Hebrews, spiritualize the Sabbath into the rest which Christ has brought his people.11 But it would be unwise to conclude that quite vigorous vestiges of Judaism did not linger for some time in the Christian church.12

How far the early Church retained Jewish liturgical forms is also a difficult question. The earliest evidence for Christian worship which we possess (I Corinthians 10: 14-22; 11: 17-34; 14: 1-40) does not at all suggest the use of fixed forms, except in so far as the Christian Eucharist’s origin in the Passover rite involved it in fixed forms or in a conventional structure. Many scholars hold that at some point between about A.D. 80 and 90 forms of prayer were adopted from the synagogue service and prefixed to the Eucharist, and that this accounts for the origin of the part of the Eucharist called the synaxis. Some have detected clear evidence for the use of fixed forms at a very early date.13 But against this there is strong evidence that from a very early date the celebrant at the Eucharist was at liberty to improvise in the great prayer of the anaphora if he liked, and it is wholly unlikely that this liberty was a second-century development and not an original tradition in the earliest Eucharist.14 Again, the date of the Didache is still an undecided question, and even the Didache contains one sentence implying that the

[99] 9. Dialogue 47.1-4.
10. See R. P. C. Hanson, Allegory and Event (London: SCM Press, 1959), Chap. 2.
11. John 5: 9-18; 7: 14-29; 9: 13-41; Heb. 3: 7-4: 13.
12. Cf. Eusebius, H.E. 5.1.26; Tertullian, Apology, 9.13f,; Minucius Felix, Octavius 30.6; Origen, Hom. on Jeremiah 12.13.
13. E.g., H. F. Von Campenhausen, Kirchliches Amt und geistliche Vollmacht (Tübingen: Mohr, 1953), p. 77. The passages he refers to are Heb. 10: 25; Barn. 19.10; Did. 4.2; 16:2. We might add Mart. Polyc. 14.1-3 and Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.6.3.
14. See R.P.C. Hanson, “The Liberty of the Bishop to Improvise Prayer in the Eucharist,” Vigiliae Christianae, xv.3.


celebrant could choose his own words in prayer.15 We must therefore envisage the early Church as influenced, but not as dominated, by Jewish institutions in its worship.

If we are to count the sacred Scriptures of the Jews as an institution, then they certainly were an institutional heritage raken over permanently by Christianity from Judaism, and one destined to have a lasting, indeed a perennial, influence on the Christian religion. But even here we can mark the freedom and flexibility with which the early Church treated this heritage. It could be said that it was owing to its peculiar interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures that the Church finally broke with Judaism in its determination to see Jesus of Nazareth predicted as Christ in them. And as the Church during the first two centuries moved into a wholly Gentile milieu it found itself engaged in a continual wrestle with the Old Testament, this collection of books which it could not abandon and which yet caused it great embarrassment and great difficulty, both when it faced the Gnostic menace and when it took up the task of reconciling Christian doctrine with Greek philosophy. But whatever we may think of the outcome of this struggle with the Old Testament, we cannot accuse the Church of being either passive or unenterprising in its treatment of it.16

We have already concluded that in the sacrament of the Eucharist the early Church held itself free to adapt and mold existing Jewish institutions according to its own convictions and according to the tradition about Jesus of Nazareth which it had inherited. We can safely say the same about the sacrament of baptism. If we search for parallels for Christian baptism we shall indeed encounter an embarras de richesse. But most scholars today seem to regard the likeliest source of Christian baptism as being the example of Jesus himself when he allowed himself to be baptized by John.17 But baptism was for the early Christians, if we are to judge by the letters of Paul, so overwhelmingly a union or contact with the crucified and risen Christ, so uncompromisingly Christocentric a rite, as to leave very little room for influence from pre-Christian rites or institutions.

[99] 15. Did. 10.7.
16. See J. Daniélou, Sacramentum Futuri (Paris, 1950), and Théologie de Judeo-Christianisme (Paris, 1958); R.M. Grant, The Letter and the Spirit (London: SPCK; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957); R.P.C. Hanson, Allegory and Event.
17. See W.F. Flemington, The New Testament Doctrine of Baptism (London: SPCK, 1953); G.W.H. Lampe, The Seal of the Spirit (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1951); O. Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament (E.T. London: SCM Press; Chicago: H. Regnery Company, 1950); J. Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (E.T. London: SCM Press, 1960).


Ministry and Ministries in the Primitive Church

We have therefore seen reason to conclude that in its attitude to existing institutions the early Church was flexible, creative, and dynamic rather than static and timid. Christianity was not merely a conservative revision of Judaism, but a revolutionary reinterpretation of it. W.D. Davies justly says that Church life in primitive Christianity was spontaneous, creative, and free: “it reveals that live interchange of tradition and freedom which is the genius of great music, art and poetry as of living religion.”18 The spontaneous expansion of Christianity over the whole Roman Empire in a very short time is incompatible with any other character. Such a religion is not at all likely to exhibit dangerous signs of institutionalism. It is important to keep this point in mind when we come to consider the thorny question of the ministry in the early Church.

Many writers have endorsed Streeter’s opinion that almost any tradition of Christianity can find some support for its ministry in the early Church.19 But we are bound to add that none can find their form evidenced as the sole or exclusively authoritative one. There is a baffling variety of ministerial functions evident in the early Church, and the surest way of misunderstanding their significance is to plunge into this variety determined to seize one, and one only, as the significant, original, and solely normative one. This is not to say that there is no doctrine of ministry to be found in the New Testament. In three chapters of his recent study, The Pioneer Ministry, A.T. Hanson has argued convincingly that we can trace at least Paul’s doctrine of ministry and see it as occupying a large place in his thought:

. . . this ministry has a double relationship; it is related to Christ as responsible to him and as being the primary means by which his life is reproduced in the world. And it is related to the Church as serving the Church, and as leading the Church as a whole into the same life which itself is

[99] 18. W.D. Davies, A Normative Pattern of Church Life in the New Testament (London: James Clarke and Company, n.d.), p. 26.
19. B.H. Streeter, The Primitive Church (New York and London: The Macmillan Company, 1930; 2nd repr.), Introd. ix, “everyone has won and all shall have prizes.” Cf. W.D. Davies, A Normative Pattern, and B. Reicke, “The Constitution of the Primitive Church” in K. Stendahl, ed., The Scrolls and the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1958; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957).


exhibiting. There is no suggestion here of the ministry doing anything which the Church as a whole cannot do; it is rather that the ministry is the pioneer in Christian living for the Church, as Christ was the pioneer for all of us.20

The statement of Von Campenhausen that “the doctrine of ministry is not central for early Christian thought”21 is wide of the mark. The truth is that although the doctrine of ministry is an essential part of the gospel in the New Testament, the subject of who are the particular ministers who carry out this ministry and what are their particular functions is treated by the early Church in a very flexible and almost fluid way.

It is true that the original apostles are permanent and unchanging witnesses to the life, the teaching, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this function does not make them into officials with authority to control an institution. The eleven after the resurrection were not considered as church officers whose places have to be filled, but as witnesses waiting in Jerusalem for the full coming of the Kingdom.22 Neither for the twelve (once Matthias has been chosen) nor for Paul was the apostolate an office.23 “What bound together the primitive Church and its apostles in spite of everything was not the unity of the ordered Church but the unity of its witness to Christ and its calling.”24 No apostles have any authority against or over the Word and the Gospel, not even the original apostles.25 In spite of the immense personal authority wielded by Paul as founder and father of his churches and converts, so that he claims that they encounter Christ in his person for salvation or for ruin (II Corinthians 6: 15), he never makes himself into an official possessing official spiritual authority: “not that we have lordship over your faith” (II Corinthians 1: 24; see also Galatians 1: 4, 5; 5: 13; I Corinthians 1: 13; 3: 5,9, 21f; 6: 20). This is because the apostle is constituted for and lives by Christ, and only exists so that Christ shall be testified to and reached through him. His personal authority as a man or as an official is nothing.26 Again, we must recognize the notorious fluidity of the title “apostle” in the New Testament. Its bearers

[99] 20. A.T. Hanson, The Pioneer Ministry (London: SCM Press; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), p. 62; other definitions are on pp. 72, 84, 85, and 88; see also the whole of chaps. 4-6.
21. Kirchliches Amt, p. 332.
22. Ibid., p. 17.
23. Ibid., p. 29.
24. Ibid., p. 31.
25. Ibid., pp. 39-41; cf. E. Schweizer, p. 73 (5m).
26. Von Campenhausen, pp. 47-57.


range from Peter himself to the otherwise totally unknown Andronicus and Junias (Romans 16: 7), who may well have been the historical founders of the Roman church.27

The word “deacon” in the early Church is the title for no less flexible a function. The one point upon which all scholars seem to be agreed is that Luke is misleading when he implies (Acts 6: 1-6) that the primary function of deacons was “to serve tables.” Deacon in fact simply means minister, and the early Church seems to have regarded its deacons (male and female) as ministers in the most general and varied sense.28 To say that the early Church borrowed the word from the Gentile environment is irrelevant, because the word was used in so general a sense as to exclude any particular influence from its origin. In the “presbyter” the Church certainly did take over an existing institution, the Jewish elder; a council of elders used to run each synagogue, though not necessarily to conduct the worship there. But it is significant that scholars have found it difficult to determine what were the functions of the elder in the early Church. Paul never mentions elders, though once (Philippians 1: 1) he groups together episkopoi and deacons in his greeting. Luke represents elders as existing in every church,29 and once describes Paul and Barnabas as appointing elders in the churches of Lystra, Iconium and (apparently) Antioch (Acts 14: 23). He also apparently identifies episkopoi with elders,30 and this identification is certainly found in I Clement (whose author knows of no Christian ministers except presbyter-episkopoi and deacons), in Hermas and probably in the Pastorals.31 If we are to identify these “presbyters” with the “rulers” in the Church occasionally referred to in the New Testament,32 then we can find a function for these elders. This certainly is the function of the episkopos and/or the elder in the Pastorals, in I Peter and in James. In the “presbyter” we seem once again to find a ministry which the early Church, though it took it over from Judaism, used in an independent way.

The same conclusion holds for the much-discussed title episkopos. Conjectures about the origin of this title and the particular function attached to it have been legion. It has been suggested that

[100] 27. So A.T. Hanson, p. 98. For an account of the debate conducted by scholarly opinion on this subject, see O. Linton, Das Problem der Urkirche in der neueren Forschung (Uppsala, 1932), pp. 69-101 and A.T. Hanson, Chap. 10.
28. See Linton, pp. 31-35; Von Campenhausen, pp. 74, 79, 106-107, 116-117; A.T. Hanson, pp. 98-106.
29. Acts 11: 30; 15: 2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16: 4; 20: 17; 21: 18.
30. Compare Acts 20: 17 with 20: 28.
31. Tit. 1: 5-7 and perhaps I Tim. 3: 2-13. Schweizer and Von Campenhausen strenuously deny that Luke is correct in identifying presbyters with episkopoi: Von Campenhausen, pp. 70-72, 87-88, 116-117; Schweizer, pp. 70-71 (5i). One feels that they are protesting too much.
32. E.g., Rom. 12: 8; I Cor. 12: 28; I Thess. 12: 5, 13; Eph. 4: 12; Heb. 13: 7, 17, 24.


the episkopos was primarily a financial officer (Hatch), the exponent of the self-contained and sovereign local community (Harnack), the understudy for the teacher gifted by God (Sohm), the person chosen according to the old Jewish custom for the honor of leading prayer (Linton), the function peculiar to Gentile Christianity (Von Campenhausen), and the descendant of the “superintendent” (epitropos or epimeletes in Josephus) found among the members of the Dead Sea Sect (Caster, and with more caution Reicke).33 There are also those who see in him the direct descendant of the apostles and the sole bearer of their authority.34 The variety of these conjectures exposes the fluidity of this function. This is a title and a ministry which the Church used for its own purposes. The episkopoi with deacons of Philippians, the episkopoi of Acts 20 who are also “presbyters,” the episkopos-presbyter of I Clement and Hermas and the Pastorals (and perhaps the Didache) are none of them quite the same as the monarchical episkopos who appears in the Pastorals also. In Ignatius this monarchical episkopos emerges as the dynamic center of the organic unity of the Church, representative of Christ but not apparently successor of the apostles,35 and in Irenaeus as a self-conscious bearer of tradition, standing carefully in succession to the apostles, though not by consecration. Clearly the episcopate was a ministry subject to development.

Though the picture which the earliest sources gives us is not one of anarchy, the exercise of ministerial authority in the early Church seems to suffer the same fluidity as the other ministerial functions. The apostle’s authority was evidently considerable, even though it was moral rather than official. As we have seen, there are references to “rulers” in the Church, but there is no evidence that such ministers as prophets, teachers, and exorcists received from others authority to minister; they must, however, have been thought of as conveying in their ministrations the authority of the Word. The exercising of authority or the running of administration is sometimes spoken of as one function delegated by the Holy Spirit among others.36 Indeed, it is impossible to resist the arguments of those who maintain that originally all

[100] 33. A. Harnack, Constitution and Law of the Church (E.T. London: William and Norgate; New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910), pp. 192-193; Linton, pp. 31-35, 36-46, 104-112, 200-203; Von Campenhausen, p. 84; T.H. Gaster, The Scriptures of the Dead Sea Sect (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1957), pp. 27-28 and 64-66; Reicke, “The Constitution of the Primitive Church,” pp. 153-156.
34. E.g., A.M. Ramsay, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (new ed., London and New York: Longmans, 1956); K.E. Kirk, ed., The Apostolic Ministry (London: The Canterbury Press, 1947).
35. See Von Campenhausen, pp. 106-107, 107-112, 155, 171-172.
36. Rom. 12: 8, I Cor. 12: 28; Eph. 4: 12.


ministry in the Christian was charismatic, even the most institutional and authoritative. The early Church saw no antipathy between a ministry which was charismatic and a ministry which wielded authority and ran institutions. “All order is an ‘afterwards,’ an attempt to follow what God has already designed. It is not because a person has been chosen as prophet or presbyter that he may exercise this or that ministry, but, on the contrary, because God has given him the charism, the possibility is given to him, through the church order, of exercising it.”37

It is interesting to note that this conception of all ministry as fundamentally charismatic did not die out in the first century. It survived to form what Ellen Flesseman van Leer has called the “Donatism” of the Church of the first three centuries.38 Irenaeus in a famous passage says that bishops "with the succession of the episcopate have received a certain sacred gift of truth (charisma veritatis) according to the Father’s goodwill.”39 Flesseman van Leer is no doubt correct in interpreting this to mean that “God makes those men bishops to whom he commits the gift of his kerygma.”40 Similarly Clement of Alexandria can speak of the apostle John “intending to ordain somebody among those indicated by the Spirit.”41 Consistent with this idea is the conviction evident in Tertullian and in Origen that bishops who behave immorally thereby cease to exercise any clerical function at all.42

In regard to institutions therefore, whether already existing institutions or those which the early Church devised for itself, or received as a tradition from Jesus Christ, we can fairly say that the Church’s attitude in the earliest period was characterized by a remarkable independence and flexibility.


Institutional Consolidation in the Second Century

But this period of fluidity could not last long. Flexibility, variety, the wide distribution of authority among a number of people performing different functions, the rule of the Word dissociated from any permanent and inseparable institution, which characterize the early period, were only possible as long as

[100] 37. E. Schweizer, p. 102 (7m); cf. also pp. 49-50 (30), 145 (15f), 184-185 (22e) and Chap. 23 (a-e); Von Campenhausen, pp. 195 and 324; Linton, pp. 206-211.
38. E. Flesseman van Leer, Tradition and Scripture in the Early Church (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1954), pp. 119-122.
39. Adv. Haer. 4.40.2; cf. 4.42.1 and 4.53.2, and Hippolytus, Elenchos 1, introd. 6.
40. Flesseman van Leer, p. 119. For other views on this passage, see D. Van den Eynde, Les normes de l’enseignement chrétien dans la littérature patristique des trois premiers siècles (Paris, 1933), pp. 181-187; A. Ehrhardt, The Apostolic Succession (London: 1953), pp. 113-114; H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth (London: Mowbray, 1954), pp. 327-328; E. Molland, “Irenaeus of Lugdunum and the Apostolic Succession” (Journ. Ecc. Hist. i, 1950, 25-26).
41. Quis Dives 42.
42. Tertullian, De Fug. in Pers. 10.3; Origen, Comm. on Matt. 20.14 (see Allegory and Event, pp. 330-331.


Christianity was conceived of simply as an invasion of history by God in Christ destined very soon to reach its climax, as the arrival of an overwhelming crisis in which the chief concern (almost the only concern) was the proclamation of the gospel. But there had eventually to take place what Charles Williams in The Descent of the Dove called “a reconciliation with time.” The second century of the Christian era witnesses a process of “setting” in the Church’s life, like a jelly solidifying and stiffening into a mold. The life of the Church “sets” into permanent institutions. This is not to say that there had been no institutions before, but it is impossible to regard any of them as permanent up to this point. We can even see the beginning of this process reflected in the New Testament,43 and its continuation is mirrored in I Clement, the Epistles of Ignatius, Hermas, the Didache and the literature of the subapostolic age generally. During the second century there is an increase in rigidity, in stereotyping, in conformity to a few common types rather than the maintenance of a rich variety, in all aspects of the Church’s life. The gospel becomes in the Pastoral Epistles “sound doctrine”; faith, which Paul had regarded as the great characteristic of the new order brought in by Christ, becomes “the faith once committed to the saints.”44 We find little mention of prophets, evangelists, and interpreters of tongues; and, instead, the threefold ministry of bishop, presbyter, and deacon becomes dominant. Ecclesiastical organization and church discipline come to the forefront in the minds of Christians. I Clement and Ignatius’ Epistles and the Pastorals are preoccupied with the authority of the ministry, and Hermas is engrossed with the subject of penitential discipline. The Eucharist acquires a formal structure, though not yet a fixed liturgy (Justin); the rite of baptism begins its process of accumulating additional ceremonies (Tertullian and Hippolytus). The monarchical bishop is universally installed by the middle of the second century, and he has gained considerable control over the Church. He alone can ordain, though there is some evidence that ordinations by presbyters may have occurred in some places — for example, Alexandria45 and Gaul.46 He alone could celebrate the Eucharist; Justin’s phrase describing the man

[101] 43. In some late passages in Matthew’s Gospel, in the Pastoral Epistles, in Jude, and in II Peter.
44. Sound doctrine: I Tim. 1: 10; 6: 3; II Tim. 1: 13; 4: 3; Tit. 1: 9, 13; 2: 1, 8. Faith once committed: Jude 3; cf. Jude 20 and I Tim. 1: 19; 4: 1; 5: 8; 6: 10, 21; II Tim. 3: 8, 4: 7; Tit. 1: 13, 2: 2.
45. See W. Telfer, “Episcopal Succession in Egypt” (Journ. Ecc. Hist. iii, 1952, pp. 1-13); E.W. Brooks, “The Ordination of the Early Bishops of Alexandria” (Journ. Theol. Stud. II, 1901, pp. 612-613).
46. E. Molland, “Irenaeus of Lugdunum.”


who conducts the Eucharist47 almost certainly means the bishop, though presbyters may have concelebrated; when Clement of Rome wrote his letter, presbyter-episkopoi were the only people allowed to celebrate; but Ignatius insists (betraying perhaps by his vehemence that this is an innovation) that no Eucharist can take place without the bishop.48 By the turn of the third century Tertullian is calling the bishop sacerdos and very shortly afterward Hippolytus describes him as archiereus, which should probably be translated “chief priest” rather than “high priest.” The bishop is peculiarly responsible for teaching. Presbyters also by the middle of the second century are regarded as proper people to teach; one passage in II Clement exhorts the people to pay attention to the presbyters’ teaching.49 We can find one example of a bishop, Sarapion of Antioch, about A.D. 200 instructing his flock about what attitude they should take to an apocryphal work, the Gospel of Peter.50 The second century threw up some bishops of powerful character and intellect with a great capacity for leadership, such as Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Alexander of Jerusalem.51 But it is difficult to determine how much authority was ascribed to their office and how much to their character, or even, as in the case of Polycarp, to their wealth. Late in the second century also the custom of holding synods presided over by bishops began.52

Another powerful contribution to this process of “setting” was the formation of the canon of the New Testament. It used to be thought that this formation took place decisively as a response on the part of the Church to Marcion’s formation of his own canon about the middle of the second century. But more recent scholarship would place the decisive moment earlier, somewhere between A.D. 100 and 120. It is clear that the Gospel of Truth, which most scholars now attribute to Valentinus himself and date to the years A.D. 140-145, already recognizes a canon (though of course it does not use the word canon) consisting of the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John, the epistles of Paul, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse.53 Some confirmation for this may be discovered in some sentences of the Egyptian Gnostic Basilides (flourishing circa

[101] 47. Apology 1.67,5,6; the phrase is ho proestos.
48. Smyrn. 8. 1, 2; cf. Philad. 4.
49. 17. 3-5.
50. Eusebius, H.E. 6.12.1-6.
51. Ibid., Book 6; 8.6; 11.1-6; 13.3; 14.8,9; 19.17; 20.1; 39; 2.3; 27.
52. Ibid., 5.23.1-4.
53. See F.L. Cross, ed., The Jung Codex (London: Mowbray; New York: Morehouse-Gorham Co., 1955), p. 91; Van Unnik, Newly Discovered Gnostic Writings (London, 1960), pp. 39 and 64; J. Doresse, Les Livres Secrets des Gnostiques d’Egypte (Paris, 1957), p. 57.


A.D. 130), quoted by Hippolytus, which refer to John 1: 9 and describe this text as “that which is stated in the Gospels.”54 It might be possible also to discover references to a canon of Paul’s letters in II Peter 3: 16, assuming that this epistle must be dated between A.D. 120 and 150. Marcion, in short, was probably mutilating an already existing canon. Later in the second century the concept of the “rule of faith” (the teaching of the Church considered as identical in content with the teaching of the Scriptures) is used by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and by some others as a criterion by which heretical teaching can be judged and rejected. The phrase is found in some third-century writers (such as Origen, Hippolytus, and Novatian), but later fell into disuse, as the canon of the New Testament became more definite and more dominant throughout the Church and as conciliar creeds took the place of the rule of faith.55 There is no good evidence for the often-repeated assertion that the baptismal, interrogatory creed played any serious part in the stereotyping of doctrine as a safeguard against heresy.56

Both the formation of the canon of the New Testament and the stereotyping of the ministry into that of monarchical bishops with presbyters and deacons were a form of appeal to the historical continuity of the Church with the apostles. The emphasis laid upon the rule of faith by Irenaeus and the writers who use this phrase is another way of calling attention to the same appeal. There certainly was much unrealistic schematizing of history involved in this appeal to continuity with the apostles. It was not accurate to maintain that the doctrine of the Church had remained unchanged since the days of the apostles by the time of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, Hippolytus, and Origen. The second-century claim to the “apostolic succession” of monarchical bishops from the time of the apostles as guaranteeing soundness of doctrine, made with greatest confidence by Hegesippus, by Irenaeus, and by Tertullian, reflects and is involved with the same appeal to historical continuity, and is open quite as much to the charge of being an unverifiable schematization of history.

[101] 54. Hippolytus, Elenchos 7.20; cf. 22.4; 27.5. See Van Unnik, p. 24; B.F. Westcott, Canon of the New Testament (London, 1896, last ed.), p. 301; J.N. Sanders, Fourth Gospel in the Early Church (Cambridge, England: The University Press, 1943), pp. 52-53; H.E.W. Turner, p. 185.
55. See R.P.C. Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church (London, 1962), Chap. 3.
56. Ibid., Chap. 2.


In short, then, the second century witnesses a hardening or solidifying of the hitherto very flexible and fluid life and organization of the Church into permanent institutions, the two most important of which are the canon of the New Testament and the monarchical bishop. The Church becomes conscious of living in history, of having a history, and feels the need to appeal to its historical continuity with the apostles. The process is at the same time the formation of tradition, tradition in doctrine (especially exemplified by the rule of faith), and tradition in practice. Perhaps Montanism sprang up as a protest against this process, but if so the protest was largely ineffective. The formation of tradition in the life of the Christian church was the result of ineluctable forces of history.


Institutional Flexibility and Freedom

But, though we must record the formation of permanent institutions in the Christian church in the second century, we need not conclude that this was the period at which institutionalism gained a decisive hold upon its life. We must not imagine that the second-century Church was a tightly organized, centralized institution, following a single policy with uniform efficiency. On the contrary, it was decentralized and lacking in co-ordinating machinery. Christians from Asia could arrive in Rome about A.D. 160 and find that the Roman Church was celebrating a different day of the week for Easter from theirs without any harsh feelings being aroused.57 A bishop of Jerusalem could about A.D. 200 wander off to an unknown destination, leaving no address, for an indefinite period (presumably presbyters celebrated in his absence).58 As late as the period from A.D. 232 to 255 Origen could spend half his career under excommunication by Rome and Alexandria without the bishops of Caesarea or of the rest of Palestine, or indeed of the East generally, troubling.59

Again, the authority of the second-century bishop was neither absolute nor without rivals. As late as the middle of the second century when Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, writes to Soter,

[101] 57. In the time of Pope Anicetus, Eusebius, H.E. 5.24.16, 17.
58. Ibid., Book 6:9.6-10.1.
59. It is, however, significant that in Origen’s case objections had been made earlier to his teachings as a layman in the presence of bishops. See Eusebius, H.E. 6.19.15-18.


bishop of Rome, he does not write in his own name but in that of his church.60 Cyprian is the first bishop to use the episcopal “we,” and one suspects that he borrowed it from the Roman magistrate.61 Von Campenhausen at the end of his work remarks that the early Christian bishop was not a greedy grasper after power; rather, he displayed the opposite weakness of irresolute uncertainty about his use of the power of the keys. The necessity of administering penance or forgiveness drove him malgré lui into a position of power.62 The authority of confessors, also, from time to time challenged that of bishops or other clergy. We can judge the very high authority attributed to confessors not only by the troubles encountered in the middle of the third century by Cornelius at Rome and by Cyprian at Carthage, but also by the strong language used by Tertullian in his Ad Martyras and by Origen in his Exhortation to Martyrdom.63 Another rival authority to that of the bishop in the second and third centuries was that of the teacher, who was not necessarily ordained and not necessarily confined to one spot. We can discern a number of men eminent for their gifts in teaching the faith, for learning, and for wisdom — Justin, Tatian, Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.64 The Empress Mammaea did not condescend to give an audience to a Christian bishop, but to a Christian philosopher, Origen. It is the Christian teacher, not the Christian bishop, whom we find distorted by legend in the figure of Simon Magus in the Pseudo-Clementine literature (a legend whose origins must go back to the second century), and glorified in fantasy in the Acts of Paul, and caricatured in Lucian’s figure of Peregrinus.

More perhaps than anything else the attitude of the Church to traditional praxis shows that in forming tradition and accepting a “reconciliation with time” the Church had no intention of subordinating the freedom of the gospel to institutions. By the middle of the second century at latest, and perhaps somewhat earlier, it was everywhere unreflectingly assumed throughout the Church that all custom and practice and institutions prevailing in the contemporary Church had existed more or less in the

[101] 60. Ibid., 4.23.10,11.
61. In the Sententiae Episcoporum of Cyprian’s last Council eight of the bishops used “we” and twenty-five “I.”
62. Kirchliches Amt, pp. 329-330.
63. For the influence wielded by confessors see also Eusebius, H.E. Book 5:3.1; 2; 4.1; 2.
64. Perhaps we may discern another in the old man who succeeded in converting Justin whom he charmingly describes in the early chapters of his Dialogue. Was Minucius Felix’s Octavius another?


form then known since the time of the apostles. Irenaeus clearly includes more than doctrine in the original heritage of Christianity.65 An anonymous anti-Montanist author writing about A.D. 192 protests against Montanist devotees prophesying while in a trance; he says that they are acting “against the custom of the Church supported by tradition and long continuance.”66 Clement of Alexandria describes some heretics as using bread and water at the Eucharist “against the rule (canon) of the Church.”67 The assumption that the current institutions and practice and discipline of the Church had always existed in much the same form from the time of the apostles is the very raison d’être of Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition.

But even the firmest believer in the primitiveness of inherited praxis and institutions in the second century acknowledged that praxis and institutions were less important than doctrine, and that it was legitimate for different churches to hold different opinions and to follow different usages about this matter — a concession which was never made about doctrine. The Quarto-Deciman Controversy which broke out at the end of the second century, in the time of Pope Victor, usefully illustrates this point. Irenaeus, though he was firmly convinced that Victor and the Church of Rome were in the right in this debate, reproved Victor for at-tempting to make the controversy a matter for excommunication, whereas it was one of those unimportant points upon which Christians could agree to differ without breaking their unity.68 Tertullian was very much interested in the subject of traditional praxis and institutions, and discussed the subject with particular fullness in two of his works.69 From these and from other material in his works we can gain a reliable idea of what was the attitude of the contemporary Church toward this matter. Long-continued custom was allowed as legitimate and as possibly apostolic, as long as it was not obviously in contradiction to Scripture. But each church was allowed to make and to follow its own customs, and, if it liked, to regard them as apostolic. On praxis churches could differ, but not on doctrine. Cyprian, even though

[101] 65. Adv. Haer. 4.53.2.
66. Eusebius, H.E. 5.16.7.
[102] 67. Strom. 1 (19). 96.1. Cf. Epistola dementis 2.4, “. . . he will bind what ought to be bound and will loose what ought to be loosed as one who knows the rule (canon) of the Church.”
68. Eusebius, H.E. 5. 23. 25.
69. De Corona Militis and De Virginibus Velandis; the latter is written very much under the influence of Montanism and no doubt is not representative of contemporary ecclesiastical opinion. But the former is representative enough; further, we can learn something from the position which Tertullian attacks in his (Montanist) De Ieiuniis Adversus Psychicos.


he bitterly opposed Pope Stephen’s practice in refraining from rebaptizing heretics who returned to the fold of the Church, still maintained that Stephen’s right to do this if he liked must be respected.70

We can therefore fairly conclude that by the turn of the second to the third century, in spite of the inevitable growth within the Church of permanent institutions, the fathers of the Church were, according to their lights, alert to the need to preserve the liberty of the gospel. It is not so much by the preservation of such doctrines as Tertullian’s hotly championed “priesthood of all believers,” which was in the early Church neither characteristic nor widespread, as by its different estimate of tradition meaning doctrine from tradition meaning praxis that the second-century Church preserved this liberty.71 Institutions had not been allowed to stifle doctrine, though doctrine was flowing into a definite mold. Tradition had appeared, as tradition must appear, but the Church knew the proper relation of tradition to gospel. There was of course no conscious examination of institutions as institutions, but there was no conscious imposition of them either. If it was a period during which institutions grew, this was the growth which history brings, not the growth which ecclesiastical power-politics foster.


What Is Normative?

Can we, in the light of this review, identify the original permanent institutions, or the order, of the Christian church founded by Jesus? It is relatively easy to reconstruct early Christian ideas, but extremely difficult to reconstruct early Christian institutions. This is not only because of the nature of the evidence for each, but because early Christianity was genuinely fluid and independent in its attitude toward institutions. We can certainly find plenty of organizations in the earliest period, apostolate, ecclesia, presbyter, deacons, baptism, Eucharist, and so on. An account of the early Church which represented it as functioning

[102] 70. Cyprian, Epistles 72.3.2; cf. 73.26.1; 75.6.1 (the opinion of Firmilian of Cappadocia). On this subject of traditional praxis see Van den Eynde, pp. 158ff., 191ff., 241ff., 252ff.; H.E.W. Turner, pp. 310ff.; 334ff.; R.P.C. Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church, Chap. 4.
71. Von Campenhausen, pp. 165-167, 190-191, 250-257, justly deprecates the attempt to make much of the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” though E. Schweizer devotes a whole chapter to it. See also Linton, pp. 6-7.


without organization, without a ministry or without sacraments, would be a travesty. But the organizations seem to have functioned so flexibly and the forms in which the Church’s life expressed itself were so fluid that we must pause before we can call them permanent institutions, institutions in the sense in which that word was defined at the beginning of this essay, or order. The ecclesia, for instance, no doubt as an institution owed something to the qahal of the people of Israel in the wilderness, and something to the contemporary practice of calling a mass meeting to sound public opinion on some question (as described, for instance, in Josephus). But more than anything else it was the society of those who were called together by the Word and in the Spirit. Both baptism and Eucharist certainly had precedents in Jewish institutions, but these are relatively unimportant compared with the significance of both these ordinances as controlled by Jesus Christ believed in as risen and as living in the Spirit. The original eleven apostles were indispensable historical witnesses to the life and the resurrection of Jesus; but they were not officials of an institution, and there is no satisfactory evidence that they instituted a permanent apostolate to succeed to their functions.72 A permanent form of the ministry did indeed emerge, but only after a period of incoherence and fluidity, during which the thing ministered (the Gospel or the Word) was apparently regarded as more significant than the minister.

There are only two permanent, original elements in Christianity — Jesus Christ and his Church. There are institutional features — baptism, Eucharist, ministry — but they do not control or define the Church, they express it. Jesus did not found a Church as an institution, as Benedict founded his monasteries or Ignatius Loyola founded the Society of Jesus. To see the institutions and doctrine of the primitive Church as flowing directly from Jesus in unbroken continuity is to see them kata sarka, to lapse into “reification,”73 into a complacent identification of human institutions and ideas as divine. The Church can be defined only by Christ, not by institutional features nor by doctrinal propositions “left”

[102] 72. See Von Campenhausen, pp. 31, 325-326.
73. J.L. Adams, “Rudolf Sohm’s Theology of Law and Spirit,” in Religion and Culture, W. Leibrecht, ed. (London, 1958), pp. 226-227 and 234-235.


or “inaugurated” by him. Jesus did not found the Church, he is the Church. Its ultimate norm of doctrine can be only his Word; his Church can be recognized only by faith, not by historical demonstration. These conclusions, desirable perhaps in themselves on theological grounds, seem to be supported by our historical inquiry into the earliest state of the Church.

But Jesus was an historical person and his apostles were witnesses in history to his life and his teaching. The Church was a society of people living in history. It was inevitable that sooner or later the Church should achieve a permanent historical expression of itself, of its gospel and of its purpose. It has been shown that this permanent form for the Christian church was achieved in the second century, though it can be seen to be on the way toward the end of the first century. The Church’s two chief institutions were the canon of the New Testament and the threefold ministry of monarchical bishop, presbyter, and deacon. This ministry cannot be demonstrated to have derived unchanged from the foundation of Jesus himself or his apostles, any more than the limits of the canon can be shown to have been laid down beforehand by Jesus or his apostles. But both institutions were regarded by Christians of the second century as expressing the Church’s historical continuity with the apostles, in doctrine and in structure. The vast majority of Christian communions today recognize the canon of the New Testament as normative. There is no unsurmountable objection to the recognition of this threefold ministry as normative for the structure of the Church, as representing early tradition and as congenial to the gospel. The form of the Church's life in the second century does not represent a fall into institutions from the prelapsarian innocence of the first century, nor a corruption by institutions,74 but a flowing of the life of the Church into an institutional mold at the irresistible bidding of history. Institutions are not in themselves antipathetic to the life of the Church. Institutions do not necessarily imply institutionalism. They are not allergic to the Spirit and the Word. There have of course been periods and places in which

[102] 74. As, in varying ways, has been claimed by Sohm, Harnack, Bultmann, Werner, E. Schweizer, and all exponents of the precarious theory of an Abfall in the infancy of the Church’s life.


institutionalism has stifled the Church. It may well be that such a period can be discerned fairly soon in the history of the Church, perhaps as early as the fifth century, perhaps in places earlier. The rivalry of great sees and the emergence of ecclesiastical power-politics are suggestive pieces of evidence. But there is no justification for concluding that the institutions which the Church of the second century adopted carried in themselves the seeds of an institutionalism that was inevitably destined to strangle the Church’s life.

Institutions therefore were bound in the end to develop not as an obstruction, but as a proper expression of the Church’s mission. The “reconciliation with time” had to take place. If it had not done so, the Church would probably have degenerated into a futile millenniarism or illuminism. But the Church’s institutions must always be judged by the Word which constitutes the Church itself. It is the business of the Church to see that its institutions express this Word and do not hinder it. We do not even have to conceive of the Church as possessing some original institutions (perhaps to be called the Church’s order) which do not need to be judged in this way, and other, later ones, which do. All the Church's institutions are subject to judgment by the Word, even baptism and Eucharist and the ministry. The very raison d’être of the Church is the mediation of Christ himself, the proclamation and administration of his Word and Gospel. No institution exists in its own right, but only to serve this end.

The picture which an examination of the Church of the first two centuries discovers is one of a primitive, perhaps an eschatological, flexibility and freedom, followed by a period of settling into fixed order and permanent institutions. Until the twentieth century, scholars almost invariably fell into the temptation of trying to identify in the period of flexibility and freedom the order and the institutions which were evident in later periods, or which commended themselves to them as clearly the right and proper order and institutions. Alternatively scholars attempted to discern with open minds the prominent and significant institutions in this earliest period and either to correct or to condemn the


institutions of a later period by them. But suppose — as seems highly likely — there were no permanent institutions in that period? The immediate reaction to this supposition is to conclude that the Church of today should do without institutions. This, however, is an illusion. The Church of the second century found it necessary to have permanent institutions. The Church of the twentieth century has no valid reasons at all to fancy itself dispensed from this necessity. Contemporary sects who have attempted to do without institutional forms have only succeeded in producing a different form of institution from other Christian denominations, but no more. The problem of institutions and of institutionalism is not a problem of historical reconstruction, but a problem which underlies most of the questions which occupy the minds of ecumenical theologians today, the problem of the relation of tradition to Scripture. It is not, for instance, our business to reassemble with archaistic precision the circumstances of the worship of the primitive Church, but it is our business to see that traditional forms of worship express (perhaps in contemporary form) the same significance as the worship of the Church of the earliest period expressed. We shall, again, best serve the Church’s ministry, not by identifying in the Old or the New Testament a blueprint for the structure of our ministry, any more than we shall expect to find in the Bible a manual of doctrine or a textbook of ethics. We would do better to consider the traditional pattern of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, and see how they can be integrated fully and effectively into the life of the Church as proper expressions in diverse ways of the ministry in the Church, and by the Church, of the Word of God. We need not assume that the result would be an exact reproduction of the form of ministry of any existing denomination. The evidence provided in the New Testament for the life of the Church in the earliest period will of course be decisive, but as evidence, as raw material, not as the finished institutional product. When we have abandoned our habit of using the New Testament (and, less directly, the Old) as what it is not, we shall find it a sure guide in our use of it as what it is.


Perhaps it should be immediately added that the principles here enunciated do not necessarily rule out (any more than they necessarily imply) any of the major forms of existing ministry — congregational, presbyterian, episcopal, or papal.

We cannot now return to that first rapturous period of freedom and flexibility; we cannot walk the roads of Galilee with Jesus nor travel the sea-routes of the Aegean with Paul. But our final impression must not be of a Church crippled with age and stained by compromise with the world, making do as best it can with antiquated but indispensable institutions, every century leaving further behind it its glorious youth when it enjoyed flexibility and freedom. To think this would be to forget the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit who both reigns in history and is Lord of history and Quickener of history. The Spirit and the Word are as present as ever to the Church. The Word is, as ever, sharper than any two-edged sword, and the Spirit is no less life-giving than when he was experienced by Peter and Paul, Chloe and Andronicus, and Junias.



Bibliography for Essay 4


Flesseman van Leer, E., Scripture and Tradition in the Early Church (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1954).
Hanson, A.T., The Pioneer Ministry (London: SCM Press, 1961; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961).
Hanson, R.P.C, Tradition in the Early Church (London: 1962).
Harnack, A., The Constitution and Law of the Church (London: William and Norgate, 1910).
Linton, O., Das Problem der Urkirche in der neueren Forschung (Uppsala: Almquist und Wiksell, 1932).
Reicke, B., “The Constitution of the Primitive Church” in The Scrolls and the New Testament, K. Stendahl, ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957; London: SCM Press, 1958).
Schweizer, E., Church Order in the New Testament (E.T. London: SCM Press; Naperville, Illinois: Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 1961).


Turner, E.W., The Pattern of Christian Truth (London: Mowbray, 1954).
Van den Eynde, D., Les normes de l’enseignement chrétien dans la littérature patristique dans les trois premiers siècles (Paris: Gabalda et Fils, 1933).
Von Campenhausen, H. F., Kirchliches Amt und geistliche Vollmacht (Tübingen: Mohr, 1953).