Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Bishop is your high priest and mighty king -- Future of Faith


Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009.

Chapter 6: “The Bishop Is Your High Priest and Mighty King”:
The Rise of the Clerical Caste

If creeds are the topic of chapter five, the clerical hierarchy is the focus of chapter six. Cox, who likes to consult his Harvard colleagues, notes that Helmut Koester has written that Paul’s letters were ad hoc political/administrative works, and not doctrinal/theological. Although there is a lot of the administrative, there is also a lot of theological work – especially in Romans. And, while not taking authority over the broader church, he does seem to suggest that the churches he founded should follow his teaching. To say that Paul didn’t demand uniformity might be a rather naive reading of his letters.

The point that’s made here is that the early leaders, as they organized, felt the need to create the illusion that their positions were deeply rooted in the founding era. Thus, Tertullian suggests that the heretical positions he was opposing weren’t present at the beginning, and thus not orthodox. Cox, of course, wants to suggest that Tertullian may have missed something – for if Thomas is as early as Mark, then the witness is broader. Of course, that is a matter of some debate.

The development of hierarchy and creeds is related to the heresy/orthodoxy debate. Orthodoxy is, in this setting, the views expressed by those in power. Indeed, the picture of apostolic authority is portrayed here as directly related to the desire to acquire power. There is, of course, the possibility that things were a bit more complicated than Cox might suggest. It is interesting, however, to note that the prestige of the Apostles seems to have grown after their deaths – they don’t seem to rate very highly in Acts or in the Pauline letters (authentic or not).

There’s an interesting discussion of an early attempt to extend authority from one congregation to another – 1 Clement. Written in 96 CE, 1 Clement is written from the Roman Church to the Corinthian church, demanding that upstart younger leaders put their previous leadership back in power. Cox sees this as an early sign of a transition from equality to hierarchy. He notes also that this letter is focused not on doctrine, but on who is properly in charge. What’s not noted here is again that Paul was known to affirm his own authority over his churches, a topic picked up in 2 Corinthians. But, the point here is that we’re seeing one of the first signs of digression into the more narrow Age of Belief.

Other early witnesses of a change of dynamics include Ignatius and Irenaeus, both of whom were authoritarian and gave definition to the idea of apostolic succession. Cox, however, wants to make clear that both of these men recognized the continued diversity within the church. What they seem, in Cox’s mind, to be concerned about was a charismatic form of church that didn’t respect authority. He notes the growth of Pentecostalism today as a similar form of church life that worries church leaders. Indeed, the question then as now is one of order. This concern for order grew as the 3rd century progressed. This is seen in a work such as the Didascalia Apostolorum (a Syrian document), which insisted on the bishops absolute authority in the church, and even Origen, whose own theology would be deemed suspect, but at the time affirmed complete obedience to the bishops. Then there’s Cyprian of Carthage, who defined the unity of the church as unity of bishops. In other words, the church was essentially reduced to the clergy. The message – see how far away from the early foundations of Christianity the church had fallen.

But this was only the beginning, for in the fourth century, with Constantine’s embrace of the church and the church’s embrace of Constantine, the church was enveloped by the process of imperialization, a process that led to episcopal power and an enforced common creed. With this, the way of Jesus and the word faith itself was subverted. Faith was now nothing more or less than obeying the bishop and assenting to what he taught. Christian faith has suffered under this distortion to this day, with not even the Reformation able to change this course.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One paints with a rather broad brush. I did not see one place in I Clement where he told them to put the old leadership in place. I did see where he quoted Paul's epistle to them over and over basically telling them they have fallen from how much they had improved which was messing up evangelism in Rome.

Cox appears to be searching for American Democracy or a justification for the extreme free church tradition.

The first three hundred years of the church were more complex than Cox appears to have dug into enough to realize which many Protestants make the mistake of doing.