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The Role of the Presbyter: an Investigation into the Adversus Haereses of Saint Irenaeus


Irenaeus constantly spoke of the presbyters who possess the succession from the Apostles; those who, together with the succession of the Episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth. For him the importance of the presbyter was based on apostolic succession: the presbyter was a teacher, and teaching determines faith; it is the means by which the faith is preserved and transmitted. The presbyter is a link in the long line of tradition; tradition which disciplines the faithful and determines the future of the church. For this reason alone the presbyter is important for Irenaeus. And this is the basis for the distinct way in which Irenaeus treats him. The presbyter is the primary minister, yet not necessarily a bishop. He is a leader of the Christian community assigned the task of preserving the faith, teaching it and making sure to defend it against error. He holds the chief seat in the administration of the Christian community, and is always associated with the episcopos or bishop. In the writings of Irenaeus there is no clear distinction made between these two terms.

We must keep in mind that Christianity began as a movement, not as an established system or institution. The early Christians were all Jews and the authorised Jewish minister was the rabbi (presbyter). From the very beginning the apostles founded new communities and directed them. After particular communities were founded a need arose to select local leaders or administrators for each of these communities. We know from the New Testament that in the various local communities different names were given to these men: in Rome they were called presidents, in Corinth they were called governors, in Ephesus the name given to them was shepherds and in Phillipi they were known as caretakers and ministers. It is only in the Pastoral Epistles and in the Acts of the Apostles that we find these administrators called presbyters, episcopoi. Irenaeus adds further information to the development to the Christian hierarchy by expressing his views on the presbyter as servant of the community. In short the role or task of the presbyter was one of service to the Christian community.

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page 130 note 1 A discussion of the details of the life of Irenaeus may be found in many works; for example, see the account given by Vernet F., ‘St. Irénée’, DTC 7:2, 2394–98.

page 130 note 2 For a more detailed discussion, see Vernet F., ‘St. Irénée’. pp. 1537, 80102, 151250; and Quasten J., Patrology, I (Westminster, Md., 1950), 288–93.

page 131 note 1 Quasten , Patrology, I, pp. 254–7. For other critical influences refer also to the recently discovered gnostic documents of Nag Hamadi. Besides Marcion and Valentinus, the influence of Basileides is also of great importance, particularly his idea that we cannot know what God is but only what he is not. This last idea explains in part the agnostic transcendentalism of the gnostics.

page 132 note 1 Benoit P., ‘Les Origines de l'episcopat dans le Nouveau Testament’, Exégèse et Théologie, 2 (1961), p. 232. The idea of one bishop-one see is a case in point. It is a late concept which did not develop until the third century.

page 132 note 2 This is a common practice of Irenaeus: a fact which causes much confusion and numerous misconceptions. We will continue to explore this problem when we present Irenaeus' ideas on the presbyter.

page 132 note 3 Benoit, loc. cit. It should be noted that in these passages the term presbyter is found in the mouth of the Jerusalem narrator (20, 17), but not episcopos; and that the latter term is reported in the mouth of Saint Paul (20, 28).

page 132 note 4 ibid.

page 132 note 5 All is easily explained, if the persons in question are not bishops in the proper sense. Perhaps there are degrees or different roles for each.

page 133 note 1 Benoit , op. cit., Exégèse, p. 233.

page 133 note 2 ibid.

page 133 note 3 ibid., p. 234.

page 133 note 4 Schelke Karl Harmann, Discipleship and Priesthood (New York, 1965), p. 106.

page 134 note 1 Schelke Karl Harmann, Discipleship and Priesthood (New York, 1965), p. 107.

page 134 note 2 ibid., p. 109.

page 134 note 3 ibid., pp. 110–13.

page 134 note 4 ibid., p. 115.

page 134 note 5 Benoit , op. cit., Exégèse, p. 236.

page 135 note 1 ibid.

page 135 note 2 Benoit illustrates this hypothesis in hypothesis in great detail. It appears to be a valid one, and is shared by Schelke. For further information see Benoit , op. cit., Exégèse pp. 236–8; and Schelke , op. cit., pp. 120–5.

page 135 note 3 Benoit , op. cit., Exégèse, p. 240.

page 136 note 1 ibid., p. 241.

page 136 note 2 ibid., p. 242.

page 136 note 3 Compare I Tim. 4.14, 2 Tim. I.6.

page 137 note 1 Benoit , op. cit., Exégèse p. 234.

page 137 note 2 ibid., pp. 243–4.

page 137 note 3 ibid., p. 245. Jewish influences are particularly important here, especially in the community at Rome. Refer, for example, to the Mishnah Sanhedrin concept that every community of 120 is entitled to its “seven of a city”, that is, seven presbyters to govern it (hence, see Acts 1, 15 where the people gathered together with Peter are about 120 in number). Refer also to the fact that in Rome itself the Jewish communities were established in little synagogal communities of 120 each with its group of seven presbyters-unlike Alexandria where the Jewish community established itself on the model of the Jerusalem Temple synagogue which was entitled to twenty-three presbyters. Correspondingly, the Roman Christian communities, as we see in every single instance of the catacomb churches, were established on the Roman-Jewish model, with seven presbyters who are represented in every instance of catacomb painting in a semicircle behind the Eucharistic celebrant. But in Alexandria the Christian community was established on the model of twenty-four presbyters, twelve in the city and twelve in the country districts.

page 138 note 1 ibid., p. 245. Where does the term episcopos come in? At first it seems that the Jewish model was followed: each group of seven presbyters was presided over by one of them, the Archisynagogos. This also held in the Christian communities so long as the local church was called synagogue. But when that changed (though there is still evidence of it in the pastoral epistles and the Apocalypse), the term Archisynagogos was changed, and it would appear that the term episcopos took its place (episcopos = paquid or mebaqqer as used in the Qumran and Damascus documents). Thus it would appear that the Gentile and Jerusalem traditions were conflated, as we see in the pastoral epistles.

It would appear that in Ephesus the Church was made up of several Christian communities on the model of ‘the seven’, but that each was presided over by its own episcopos as the presiding (proestinline-graphics) presbyter. Thus, in Acts 20, 28 Saint Paul sends for the episcopoi of Ephesus. The fact that they are called presbyters by the Jerusalem narrator in 20, 17 indicates that conflation is already present.

page 138 note 2 ibid., pp. 245–6. I cannot here go into a discussion of why the church did not use terms such as hiereus or sacerdos in place of presbyter in this transition period.

page 139 note 1 Roberts Alexander and Rambaut W. H., The Writings of Irenaeus (Edinburgh, 1884), Text of Adversus Haereses 3: 3, 1, p. 415. Hereafter cited as Roberts-Rambaut , Adversus.

page 139 note 2 ibid. For scriptural basis and examples of faith being handed on see Acts of Apostles 14, and the pastoral epistles.

page 139 note 3 Quasten , op. cit., p. 301.

page 140 note 1 Roberts-Rambaut , Adversus: 4; 26, 2, p. 497.

page 140 note 2 Lawson J., The Biblical Theory of Saint Irenaeus (London, 1948), p. 254.

page 140 note 3 Roberts-Rambaut , Adversus: 4: 26, 3, p. 497.

page 140 note 4 ibid., 4: 32, p. 505.

page 141 note 1 ibid., 4: 31, i, p. 504.

page 141 note 2 The Mishnah tradition is enlightening on this question of the authority of the presbyter. Here the presbyter is an authority, but of two types. On the one hand, he is a formally installed authority in one of the sanhedrin (the seven, the 23, and the 70 or 71). Presbyters of the central sanhedrin were the most authoritative (e.g., Saint Paul himself, or Gamaliel). The Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem clearly modelled itself in this way, with a presbyterate of 70 presided over by James (as distinct from the Apostles, who were presided over by Peter). On the other hand, Presbyter (with a capital ‘P’, as it were) was a title of honor applied to certain distinguished and especially authoritative teachers (e.g., Gamaliel, the Presbyter). This use of the term is found in 1 John, 1 Pet., as well as in Irenaeus.

Presbyters are thus bearers of formal and judicial authority, with power to bind and loose and to enact judicial decisions (refer to Matt. 18, as well as my previous remarks above regarding the presbyter as bearer of authority).

page 141 note 3 Roberts-Rambaut , Adversus, 4: 26, 5, p. 498.

page 142 note 1 Roberts-Rambaut , Adversus, 4: 26, 4, p. 497.

page 142 note 2 This is a most unlikely position, but nevertheless it is a possibility, and in fact is a position held by many. It would perhaps be made more feasible if we understood the ordo presbyterii simply as those possessing the authority described above, rather than as a separate group serving the presbyters and episcopoi.

The use of the word “elder” might be confusing here. It is not meant to imply a type of civil councillor or keeper of the morals (as, for example, in Calvin's sense). This should be clear from the context in which I am using it.

page 143 note 1 For more information and greater detail see McKenzie John, Dictionary of the Bible: Bishop, Elder, Priest.

page 143 note 2 Refer to footnotes above.

page 143 note 3 Roberts-Rambaut , Adversus, 4: 12, 1, p. 475.

page 143 note 4 ibid., 4: 12, 4, p. 475.

page 144 note 1 For further information and confirmation see Matt. 15.2, 7.3-5; Acts 4; 11 30; 21.18; as well as the pastoral epistles, especially 1 Tim. 5.17.

page 144 note 2 Refer to McKenzie, op. cit.: Bishop, Priest, Elder.

page 144 note 3 ibid.

page 145 note 1 Roberts-Rambaut , Adversus, 3; 12, 14, p. 436.

page 145 note 2 It must be stressed again, however, that any basis for concluding to a hierarchical structure (beyond that of bishop - presiding presbyter) in Irenaeus is extremely tenuous. At most, it is only vaguely implied (Adversus, 3; 12, 14, p. 436).

page 145 note 3 The question of whether Irenaeus' terminology is semi-technical or technical could, of course, be argued on both sides. In either case, a certain confusion in his use of terms is still present.

page 145 note 4 Again, the question is confused in Irenaeus, and no clear position can be stated with absolute certainty.

page 146 note 1 The rabbi would thus be the normal Jewish equivalent to the Christian minister.

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Scottish Journal of Theology
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