The Historic Basis For Episcopal Practices, Reconsidered

The North American Anglican, as is their purpose, has recently published two articles explaining and defending different aspects of historic episcopal polity. The first was an explanation by Alexander Whitaker of Anglicanism’s retention of the term “priest” to describe their ministers, the second a survey of the patristic basis for historic episcopacy by Drew Keane. Both of these article represent the problem that Presbyterians like myself have had with episcopal polity: the conclusion is determined in advance, then a justification is sought out for the practice.

Whitaker asks rhetorically,

But if in the New Testament there are no Christian priests as we know them, and if Scripture identifies Christ as our one great high priest and the church as a priesthood—where and what is the basis for having some other sort of priest at all?…Anglicans would respond that these questions should be pointers to why it is right to have priests, and what functions they serve. Indeed, it could be said that Anglicans have priests because Christ is our one priest and because his Church is a priesthood of all believers (emphasis original).

No Reformed Presbyterian should have a problem with Whitaker’s description of a priest’s function, but Whitaker’s rhetorical question raises our crucial critique. If scripture does not call New Testament ministers priests, why should Anglicans? Why not elder, pastor, or minister? The real reason that Anglicans (and Roman Catholics before them) call their ministers priests is because of the Latin Vulgate. The New Testament Greek πρεσβύτερος (prebooteros, “elder”) was often translated into the Latin as presbyter (prezbeeter), a term which could not only mean “elder”, but “priest.” The English word “priest” originated from this Latin term. So why do Anglicans call their ministers priests? Not because of their theology of priesthood, which is just the retroactive explanation, but because of a quirk of the English language. So why not use biblical nomenclature instead?

Similarly, Keane in his survey of the historical basis for episcopacy concedes that after the 1660 restoration the Anglican church became much more demanding in its ministers accepting its polity. He even begins his article by citing the 1662 BCP, which states, “It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.” Consequently, after 1662 only those who accepted episcopal polity were ordained into the Anglican church because after the restoration, “the the historic pattern of Christian ministry became a definitive part of the Anglican identity.” And citing Article XXXIV of the 39 Articles, Keane states that “continuity with antiquity” was one of the chief reasons to maintain episcopacy, and quotes Richard Hooker to say that if a practice does not conflict with scripture and is helpful it ought to be kept. So Keane does appear to affirm that episcopal polity is biblical and ought to be followed, even if to his credit he is willing to admit that, “a three-fold order as such cannot be found in the pages of the New Testament and was not universally known during the Apostolic Age.”

And it is this admission that is the chief Presbyterian problem with episcopacy. Keane observes that there was fluidity and development in the three-fold office in apostolic times. He cites Ignatius (c. 107) as the the earliest (and lone) example of a church father employing episcopal polity, but, as I have noted before, Ignatius does no such thing, but rather uses the terms bishop and elder interchangeably. Keane also employs Jerome’s 4th century epistle on Titus as an example of a church father noting progression and development in episcopal polity, but what Keane fails to mention is that Jerome laments this development as a deviation from scripture: the very quote cited by Keane concludes with “so also bishops may understand that they are greater than presbyters more by custom than by the veritable ordinance of the Lord.” It was for this reason the Swiss Reformed in the Second Helvetic Confession (§18, 1562) cited Jerome as a patristic authority against episcopacy and for Presbyterianism.

Regardless, what Keane’s survey shows is that the BCP’s claim, and the current Anglican view, that episcopacy is found in the pages of the New Testament and writings of the church fathers is false. A progression of polity that historically develops in wisdom and custom (which is exactly what Thomas Cranmer and Hooker claimed) is the opposite of a polity present from the Apostles and “evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors.” Like with the term “priest”, the reason that Anglicans maintain an episcopal polity is not for either scriptural or apostolic reasons, but rather appeals (unconvincingly) to them to justify current practices. The Presbyterian response to all this, and to Hooker’s observation about continuity with antiquity in particular, is Why not use an ecclesiastical model that can appeal to divine warrant in scripture and maps onto patristic practice rather than following the customs of men?