Friday, December 26, 2008

Polycrates: Proto-Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox?

Patiently crawling through Jurgens' The Faith of the Early Fathers, I came upon a fascinating dispute between two ancient bishops of the Church, Polycrates of Ephesus and Victor of Rome (c. 190 A.D.) (Jurgens, Vol. 1, at 82).  Particularly interesting are the sources of authority to which these men appealed or upon which they apparently acted.

According to Eusebius (Church History, Book V, Ch. 23), the bishops of Asia [Minor] followed a tradition dating Easter on the 14th day of Nisan, the date of the Jewish celebration of Passover.  This occurred regardless of the day of the week on which Passover fell.  However, this was "not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world," who instead celebrated Easter on the day "of the Resurrection of our Savior," Sunday (Id.).

St. Victor, the late-second century Bishop of Rome, desired unity in the worldwide Church's observance of Easter (Catholic Encyclopedia: Pope St. Victor I).  He called together the Italian bishops in what is the earliest known Roman synod.  He also "wrote to the leading bishops of the various districts, urging them to call together the bishops of their sections of the country and to take counsel with them on the question of the Easter festival." (Id.).  In the east, he wrote to Bishop Polycrates, leader of bishops of Asia Minor, to induce him to call a council of Asian bishops to address the matter. 

Responses from all fronts but Asia affirmed the celebration of Easter on Sunday.  Bishop Polycrates rejected Bishop Victor's instruction to change the celebration date (Jurgens, at 83).  Eusebius records that Victor excommunicated the Asian bishops in response, and for this strong-arm tactic, received the reproof of several (Church History, Book V, Ch. 24).  Jurgens states that information of this excommunication is "held in considerable suspicion," and that the likes of St. Irenaeus, who pleaded for toleration for the sake of unity, may have held Victor to a mere threatening of excommunication (Jurgens at 82).  

Little else is known about this early dispute, but much of informative value can be derived.  Some have cited the episode as evidence that Polycrates represents a proto-Protestant Bible Christian, and that the Roman Bishop holds no special authority.  (Note that for such Christians it inexplicably does not follow that we must celebrate Easter on Nisan 14.)  But the events surrounding Polycrates' letter of rejection have also been interpreted as showing the opposite proposition, i.e., Victor's headship over "Catholic Christendom" (Cath. Encyc.: Pope St. Victor I). 

So was Polycrates' view of authority proto-Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox?  In his letter rejecting Sunday Easter, he clearly states the authorities by which he refuses Victor's instruction.  He first cites the Nisan 14 Easter tradition in Asia, held by the likes of the Apostle Philip, the Apostle John, Polycarp, and other departed saints, as well as his own bishop-kinsmen who preceded him.  He then states that this traditional observance is "according to the Gospel" and an adherence "to the rule of faith."  He notes his seasoned age, his acquaintance with "the brethren throughout the world," and his having "read through the entire Holy Scriptures," and declares that he is not afraid of the threats of men, but must rather obey God.  Finally, he relies upon the consensus of the "most numerous" bishops he called together upon Victor's request, who approved of Polycrates' own view (Church History, Book V, Ch. 24). 

Polycrates' appeal to having read the Holy Scriptures, and his chiding use of Acts 5:29 ("We must obey God rather than men.") notwithstanding, it seems hard to mistake his view of authority for the Protestant one.  He relied upon tradition and other authorities before Scripture, and he lived in an age of an open canon.  Polycrates hardly can be claimed to have abided by the rule of sola Scriptura.  Whichever of these two adversaries one fancies in this dispute, one is fancying some view of authority other than the Protestant one.

Far more from Polycrates' letter resembles the Orthodox view on authority: a primary reliance on tradition, including an invocation of named Apostles preceding him in his particular church; adherence to the "rule of faith"; the supposed universality of the held belief; the Holy Scriptures; and the agreement of a council of bishops (see Tradition in the Orthodox Church, available here).  Indeed, the authority to which Polycrates appealed in rejecting Victor seems distinct from the Catholic view only in his rejection of the universal authority of the Bishop of Rome.

But whatever we say of Polycrates, we must not lose sight of Victor -- calling for councils, ruling on a divisive matter, receiving obedient rebuke (save for Polycrates).  And ultimately, although the details are lost to history, one must take note of the fact that Victor's determination carried the day.  It is interesting that papal primacy has not been so self-evident as to be a sine qua non of faithful catholicity throughout the ages, especially in the east.  Rather, its necessity in the face of heresy or adversity seems to have propped up progressively germinating forms of the doctrine.  Whatever the lesson of Polycrates and Victor for today, it is much nearer an analogy to the dispute between the separated Orthodox and Latin Churches than to the dispute between the Latin Church and Protestant groups. 

Friday, December 19, 2008

Individual vs. Collective Authority

In the third part of my Authority series I wrote:  "Likewise, when we perform acts as the Christian Church, unless we believe these acts flow from our individual capacities, we need authority from God (because we act as agents of His capacity)."  One challenger noted that Catholics recognize baptisms done even by 'infidels'.   Another, that Jesus approved of a man driving out demons in His name, even though he had not received apostolic approval to do so (Mark 9:38-41).

St. Nicholas casting out demons from idol shrines

With these comments and separate conversations I had with friends, I encountered no dispute with the basic principle that one must have authority before one can act on another's behalf.  The challenges were that my basic principle didn't make sense in practice.  How can we say that Christ can't choose to call an individual today to do acts for the good of His Church?  E.g., how do we know Calvin wasn't given the authority that we believe God gave to the Apostle Paul?

In light of this, I believe my principle requires a distinction between individual and collective Christian authority.  I mentioned this in the third Authority post, but perhaps too much in passing.  I said "when we perform acts as the Christian Church, unless we believe these acts flow from our individual capacities, we need authority from God (because we act as agents of His capacity). It might have been better stated another way: if we presume to act on God's account on behalf of (and over) other Christians, we must identify positive authority to do so.

Certainly when I blog, I do so as an individual Christian.  I do not claim to act on account of a group of other Christians (e.g., my local church, or my denomination).  I do not believe that any of my assertions are binding on other Christians because I have asserted them.  That is why I do not need to identify positive authority to blog about the Faith.  If this were the blog of my XYZ Presbyterian (PCA) Church, then I would need positive authority to speak on that body's behalf.

Likewise, when others show hospitality, or raise a child in the faith, or speak in foreign tongues, or the like, they are fulfilling their individual place in the overall body of Christ.  Most Christian acts, then, are individual acts of the believer, not requiring this immediate assignment of authority from Christ.  When people perform individual acts in the name of Christ, we must let them put their talents to use.

But this is distinct from those who claim to act on behalf of (and over) other believers, or on behalf of the Christian Church.    The talents of driving out demons or speaking in tongues are distinct from the talent of 'apostleship' (cf. 1 Cor 12:28), which inherently involves authority over others. When an overseer claims to exercise Christ's authority over the Christian Church, he must be positively authorized to assume this role.  It is essential that our Church leaders be able to articulate their positive source of authority to exert power over the body of Christ.  This is necessary assurance that the rest of the body is not being led astray -- has not been commandeered by false shepherds.