Response to Holy Orders – Part 3B: A Consideration of the NT Data
This is a continuation of the third part of my review of Tim Troutman’s article on Holy Orders over at Called to Communion.
To my readers: I know this interchange can be a bit tedious (and I freely admit that this post is too long, especially for a blog), but I think it is worth your time. If nothing else, this article in particular will make manifest the way a very serious Roman Catholic handles Scripture. Tim is a serious man and his writings should be respected. Further, he’s published “Holy Orders” in part as a proselytizing apologetic against Reformed theology and those who hold to it. The reason I’ve engaged him is not that I’m any kind of specialist, but because I am very interested in knowing how a serious Roman Catholic thinker challenges Reformed thought and also how the same thinker reads Scripture. This post, after some brief introductory thoughts, will examine the NT texts that Tim brings up and will also make a case that “bishop” and “elder” refer to the same office in the NT.
First, I sincerely hope my reader will go and read Tim’s article, specifically Part III. As I mentioned in my last post, I think that my reader will learn a great deal simply by seeing for himself how Tim handles the text of Scripture. His reader will soon find that Tim’s authority really is not the sacred Word. In fact, Tim spends most of his energy explaining away the text to make room for later developments. I have no doubt that he will object to this comment, but the truth of it seems quite evident to me. Let our readers judge. Specifically, Tim makes use of two defensive tactics in his handling of the text of Scripture. 1) He posits verbal confusion in the NT, and 2) he generates historical confusion. First, the verbal confusion: Tim says no less than five times (in as many paragraphs) that the terminology is “not technically specific,” “as yet non-technical,” and “in an early stage of development.” While just about everyone grants that a more technical usage of NT words developed in the early church, it does not follow that the NT terminology is not clear, meaningful and, itself, technical. We’ll flesh this out more as we deal with the text, but do note this particular defensive tactic. Second, historical confusion: Tim offers a good deal of historical conjecture in his article. We read numerous phrases such as “we would expect,” “it would be natural to expect,” “it is entirely possible,” and “there could have been” throughout the whole of the portion wherein he examines the NT data. These same conjectures are conspicuously missing from the part where he examines the development of the early church. Historical conjecture is often of interest and thought-provoking, but it is inappropriate if used as a basis on which to interpret the text of the Bible. Again, more on this below. As a final introductory comment, Tim brings up only four texts of the NT. This is quite astounding to me. I understand that his purpose is merely to show that the episcopacy of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) is not at odds with the NT, but I wonder who his intended audience is. Called to Communion is clearly a site where erstwhile Reformed folk attempt to show the deficiencies of Reformed theology and, by contrast, show how the RCC fills the bill. Reformed people are bound to the Scripture – the Holy Spirit speaking in it is our final authority. If Tim wants to hit his mark of demonstrating that the RCC really does hold to the true apostolic tradition, and thus convince cheerful Reformed folks like me that Reformed Protestantism has missed the mark, then he needs to spend far more time and energy in the Scripture.
The first text Tim addresses is Acts 1:20. Tim says, “The Episcopal ministry, or “bishoprick” as the King James Version translates it, of the Apostles is explicitly stated in Acts 1:20 concerning the replacement of Judas Iscariot.” Most modern translations use the term “office” in this verse, but it is literally “overseeing,” or even “episcopal ministry” as Tim has it. This particular term (Gk.: episcope) is used of the office of the bishop only in 1 Tim. 3 and possibly here. (See the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [NIDNTT], 1:190-191.) I think that Tim brings this text up in an attempt to show that the Apostles were “bishops” and, further, that they had the authority to appoint bishops (in the Episcopal/prelatic sense of that word). We happily admit that the Apostles were bishops, but we hold that “bishop” and “elder” are interchangeable and refer to the same single office in the NT. We shall substantiate that second claim below, but for now we agree that the Twelve were overseers of the flock. I would like to draw attention to the fact that there’s a great deal inimical to Roman Catholic, top-down prelacy in Acts 1, something I’ve already commented on here.
The second text is 1 Peter 5:1 – Tim’s comments:
Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder” in 1 Peter 5:1. But this apparent interchangeability should not be understood as a denial of any possible distinction within the clergy. This passage is not problematic for the monepiscopal system because the language was not technically specific during that early stage of development. Furthermore, like bishops, whatever elders have is received from the Apostles; thus an Apostle is clearly eligible to be called an elder.
Neither the NT nor Reformed Protestants, so far as I’m aware, say that “elder” and “apostle” are interchangeable. We assert that “elder” and “bishop” are interchangeable, because that’s exactly the way that the NT uses those terms. Reformed exegetes have no issue making a clear distinction between the apostolic college and the office of elder. More positively, however, Peter certainly occupied an exalted position as an Apostle and it was with much humility that he conjoined himself with the elders of the church. This does not just show the humble nature of the apostle, but is also shows the exalted nature of the elders of the church of Christ. The elders are such that the apostles number themselves to be among them, to be co-elders. “It is true that the apostle is here setting himself alongside the presbyters with emphatic modesty. It is also true, however, that he is setting them alongside himself” (TDNT: 6:666).
I’d like to take a moment to explore something of a positive tangent based upon Peter’s linking himself with the elders. What is very clear from the NT is that the Apostles linked themselves to the body of elders (1 Pet 5:1; Acts 15; 2 John 1; 3 John 1). The idea is that the Apostolate was a temporary office in the NT. Paul refers to the Apostles and Prophets (both NT giftings/offices) as being foundational to the broader work of the church building (Eph 2:20), which was to be carried on by the permanent officers of the church. The pastor/teacher function (Eph 4:11) refers to the elder/bishop (Acts 20:28 – pastors; 1 Tim 3:1-2; Titus 1:9 – able to teach). Further, Paul was quite eager to get the churches in order, under the rule of elders/bishops before he died, which is evident from the Pastoral epistles. This is the clear movement of rule in the NT, from the Apostles (a temporary office) to elders (a permanent office). I think we will end up getting to this down the road, but we don’t see the Apostles setting up prelatic bishopricks, but presbyteries (pluralities of elders in every town/church). We see the Apostles linking themselves with the local elders, not to a level of officers above the elders that rule them. We see the apostles elevating the elders, not putting them beneath their successors, the Bishops.
Tim moves on to Phil 1:1, his third text and the one on which he spends the great bulk of his time. The text reads, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ – To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons…” Overseers is a translation of the Greek episcopoi, which is also translated “bishops.” In this and the texts below, most modern English translations use the term “overseer,” not bishop, but there is no biblical reason to jettison the term bishop. The face-value reading of this text would indicate that the churches (likely more than one) in Philippi have two leadership offices: bishops and deacons. Now, this text poses quite a problem for Tim’s monepiscopacy, which holds that there is only one bishop per city. If Tim would just affirm that the monepiscopacy was a later development, there would be no argument. Rather, he holds that the monepiscopacy is of apostolic origin. Phil 1:1 is a problem text for this position, to which Tim responds in two ways. First, he reminds his reader that the NT terminology is “in a stage of early development” and then posits that “bishops” probably means “presbytery” or “elders,” but not bishop in the technical sense (the prelatic sense, in which bishops are distinct from and rule over the elders). Second, he argues that even if “bishops” meant what the term came mean (that is, prelatic bishops), that “there could have been some towns” that were under a mobile bishop for a short period of time.
The Agora of Miletus
Before addressing Tim’s arguments specifically, I first want to show that it is evident that the terms “bishop” and “elder” in the NT refer to the same office. In Acts 20:17-18, Paul summons the “elders” of the Ephesian church to him at Miletus and mentions to them to care for the flock over whom the Holy Spirit has made them bishops (vs. 28) and to feed them. Incidentally, Peter admonishes the same thing of the elder/overseers/shepherd in 1 Peter 5:1. In Titus 1:5-9, Paul says,
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Paul says there should be elders in every town (which was also Paul’s practice – Acts 14:23), and then moves on to describe the qualifications of an elder, which he calls a bishop in vs. 7. The list of qualifications for the elder/bishop here in Titus 1 is reproduced by Paul over in 1 Timothy 3. In Timothy, Paul simply lists the qualifications for bishops and then deacons. It is quite evident from these passages that the terms elder and bishop are interchangeable and refer to the same office, which office is often coupled with the office of deacon. Tim’s assertion that Paul has a distinction between elders and bishops is not only unusual but also lacks scholarly credibility: “It is thus natural to suppose that the offices [of elder and bishop -TP] are one and the same in the Pastorals. Only thus can one explain the fact that just after Titus is told to appoint elders (1:5) the portrait of a bishop is given (vv. 7 ff.)” (TDNT 6:667). The NT sees no distinction of office between “elder” and “bishop.” That the early church made a distinction between those words and developed the office of the bishop is without question. But that was not of apostolic origin. Thus, the case that the monepiscopacy is of apostolic origins lacks NT basis and, what’s more, is clearly incongruent with the text of the apostolic writings, the infallible word of God.
Now, what Tim sees as undeveloped and non-technical language, I see as language that is clear, technical, and binding on the church. (Incidentally, the term “elder” is technical enough in the NT to have the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [something of a gold standard for word studies in the NT, even though it is, in the main, lamentably liberal] call it a technical term [see TDNT, 6:666]. So, even Tim’s supposition that the NT language is undeveloped and non-technical is highly suspect.) The binding and clear language of the NT need not be simply mimicked or parroted by the church. (Verbal correspondence is not important.) Fidelity, however, to the substance and intended meaning of the Word of God should be of the utmost importance to the church. Since the NT does not make another office of the bishop (above that of the elder) and the early church did, we judge that the early church was unfaithful to the Word of God. Instead of admitting this, Tim would rather assert that the Bible is unclear, or simply non-technical.
Tim’s second argument makes use of the second tactic mentioned above, which is to assert that there might have been roving prelatic bishops for a time, and that Paul would thus have been addressing them. Assuming for the sake of argument that the NT did distinguish bishops from elders, small towns certainly would not have had a bishop. The problem is that Philippi was not one of those small towns. Paul addressed the “bishops and deacons” of the church of Philippi. Tim’s hypothesis of the mobile bishop both fails to deal with the issue of multiple bishops in Philippi and is mere historical conjecture. As regards Phil 1:1, the text itself stands as clear evidence that elders and bishops were the same office in the NT.
Tim’s final text is Titus 1, which I have already addressed. His comments are:
St. Paul speaks to St. Titus, clearly a bishop, and instructs him to appoint elders in every town. Verses 6 and 7 show that there is already some distinction between the terms ‘elder’ and ‘overseer,’ because St. Paul lists them both. If they were identical in St. Paul’s mind, then the reference in verse 7 would be redundant. This passage also shows that, as the Church has always believed, the fundamental distinction in power between a presbyter and bishop is that only the latter could ordain.
Tim’s analysis of this text is quite unusual and, I think, clearly incorrect. Paul’s supposed “redundancy” is no more than in Acts 20, when Luke says that Paul called the elders together and then tells them that the Holy Spirit had made them “bishops.” Was Paul addressing two different groups in Acts 20? In any event, in this text, there simply is no redundancy. Paul says that he left Titus in Crete, in part, to appoint a session or presbytery (elders) in every town. Then he goes on to detail the qualifications, not of the local session as a body, but of individual bishops that constitute it. So, there is a narrowing of focus from the presbyteriate to the presbyter/overseer, not shift from one office to another. Further substantiation of this interpretation is that vs. 7 further explains vs. 6. Vs. 6 says, “If anyone is above reproach…” and vs. 7 picks that up with an explanation: “For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” Tim’s reading of Titus 1 is manifestly unnatural and highly unusual.
This exhausts Tim’s exegetical work. Evidently, he thinks that he’s established a firm basis that the episcopal hierarchy of the early church is in harmony with the text of Scripture. I assert that he’s failed to establish this, as he has not adequately reckoned with the NT terminology, which is inimical to the rule of bishops. What’s more important for our readers, again, is to understand Tim’s agenda as he comes to the text of holy Scripture. Do you think he approaches God’s inerrant, infallible Word to understand it and have it guide him? Do you think that he seeks the mind of God in the text of Scripture? Will God’s Word rule Tim and the church, or will the church rule the Word of God?
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