You are here

Authority in the Early Church

University of St. Andrews

Chadwick opens with two lectures on the ‘vicars of Christ’. The authority of Christ is self-evident to his disciples. With the power of the keys, entrusted to Peter, authority is delegated to all the apostles, and to the entire Church. After Christ’s ascension, the locus of authority is not likely to have been obvious. The difficulty of defining apostleship is in part connected with the difficulty of determining the role of the Twelve. Authority is linked with continuity. St Paul as a charismatic apostle does not fit the normal, i.e., Lucan picture of apostleship. He probably played a considerable part in forcing closer definition of apostolic authority, and by his defence of his own apostolate, he may have been largely instrumental in bringing about the narrowing of the title to the Twelve. On the other hand, Paul’s claim to have received a commission from the risen Lord places the decisive element in authority not in a contact with the Jesus of history but in the exalted Lord of faith and in the Spirit in the Church.

In the third lecture, Chadwick treats ‘the crisis of ministerial authority’. The deferred hope of the Lord’s return meant that the Church had to reconcile itself to the fact of its own survival, and the problem of the credentials and authority of ministers without direct contact with the apostles arose. A dispute at Corinth centering on this issue had to be settled by external intervention on the ground of corporate solidarity and historical continuity. Ignatius in the East had a different solution to the problem, marking the beginnings of a root divergence between later Easter and Western ecclesiologies. Ignatius, confronted by Gnosticism, also raised the curtain for the dispute about the biblical canon.

Lecture 4, ‘Authority and Reason in Early Greek Theology’, points out that the growing volume of pagan criticism of Christianity made indispensable a fair and reasoned vindication of the Christian revelation. Justin Martyr was confident that Christianity could be made acceptable to reason without any sacrifice of its distinctiveness and developed the threefold argument of popular apologetic from miracle, prophecy and missionary expansion. The ‘Hellenisation of Christianity’ is only one aspect of this story, which at a deeper level is the Christianisation of Hellenism.

The two following lectures cover Scripture, tradition and reason in Irenaeus and Tertullian. Gnosticism claimed to offer a higher and more reasoned gnosis in contrast to bare faith, but it was ultimately rejected because it reasoned too little rather than too much. Its appeal to Scripture and tradition forced a reply, and Irenaeus is the first to distinguish Scripture and tradition as contrasting norms of orthodox belief (though they remain mutually dependent). Irenaeus’ concept of orthodoxy is biblicist, and this is a reflection of his view that there is a frontier human reason may not cross without clear authorisation. In Tertullian, we find the problem of a contemporary magisterium raised by the Montanist claim that the Paraclete’s three prophets gave infallible interpretations of an uncertain Scripture. Tertullian thus illustrates the difficulties raised by an appeal to sola scriptura. He appealed to liturgical tradition as a supplementary source (though not in a matter of doctrine), and in controversy with heretics denied the utility and propriety of appealing to Scripture at all. But he is misread when interpreted as father of the Counter Reformation, as he saw the power of the keys as vested in the community as a whole rather than in a transcendent hierarchy. Conversion to Montanism left Tertullian with his final dilemma of reconciling progress and prophecy with doctrinal immutability.

In the seventh lecture, Chadwick examines bishops, councils and apostolic sees. The bishop is representative and spokesman of his church, so the Church Universal may be represented by the numerus episcoporum. This becomes the basis of conciliar theory. Cyprian of Carthage illustrates the growing pains with his treatment of the particular authority of an individual bishop over his church, of the relation of bishops to each other and of the place of the Cathedra Petri within the universal episcopate. Turning to the authority of the creeds in the eighth lecture, Chadwick notes that the baptismal confession gradually developed into a test of orthodoxy. It did not, however, become a norm of authority accepted as independent of or supplementary to Scripture. But in the fourth century, the Arian controversy led to a multitude of conciliar definitions, the Nicene Creed becoming imposed by Constantine as a virtual act of uniformity involving both Church and state. It eventually became established as a uniquely authoritative formula and the only permissible supplement to Scripture. The problem of authority raised in a peculiar form by the existence of rival creeds and rival councils had to be solved by ratification, whether by the Christian emperor or by the pope or by the consent of the faithful.

Lecture 9 is devoted to authority in Augustine, whose conversion is no panic flight from the abyss of scepticism into the safe arms of authority, but recognition of the harmony of reason with authority on the ground of the inner concord between Neoplatonism and Christianity. As his thought developed, his sense of the meaning of faith deepened; but he gradually moved away from youthful optimism. His Christianity demanded a critique of Platonism, and he realised that his faith committed him to certain credenda involving metaphysical beliefs. In controversy with the Manichees, he developed an advanced doctrine of biblical inerrancy and of the Church as being in itself a vindication of the Christian position. The authorities to which he appealed in doctrinal debate are the Universal Church, councils, apostolic sees, eminent theologians and, far above all others, Scripture. The discussion raised the question of the area of permissible doubt and of the distinguishing between fundamentals and non-fundamentals in doctrine.

The concluding lecture considers Peter’s chair. The rise of Roman authority was a gradual process, advancing with successive controversies (Easter, Baptism, Donatism, Arianism). The involvement of the West in Greek church affairs led to misunderstanding and a deterioration in relations, illustrated by developments from Damasus and Leo to Gregory the Great. The growing concept of a contemporary Petrine magisterium and of Rome as a unique touchstone for unity left uncertainty and obscurity concerning the relation of the bishop of Rome to other bishops (especially whether, and if so on what ground, he is said to succeed St Peter as they do not). It also left for future controversy the reconciliation between the old, positive evaluation of church councils and the developed ideology of primacy.

  • St. Andrews