Posted by: mattcolvin | July 9, 2016

Begging the Question about Episcopacy

Above: Ambrogio Borgognone da Fossano (1453-1523), Ordination of Augustine of Hippo. 

A friend recently recommended Archibald Boyd’s Episcopacy, Ordination, Lay Eldership, and Liturgy: Five Letters as a good defense of jure divino episcopacy (of the plene esse persuasion).

I’m a jure humano man. I believe what the REC believed when it was founded:

“This Church recognizes and adheres to Episcopacy, not as of Divine right, but as a very ancient and desirable form of Church polity.”

And again,

“This Church condemns and rejects the following erroneous and strange doctrines as contrary to God’s Word: First, That the Church of Christ exists only in one order or form of ecclesiastical polity.”

I want to point out the main methodological problems with Boyd’s book. He begins his discussion with these words:

“I conceive that the great Head of the Church did not intend to leave a matter so important as the church’s government to be settled by chance or expediency.” (p. 54)

Thus Boyd forecloses the question. Jure humano is ruled out ab initio with no reasons given other than the author’s prejudice that “so important a matter” as polity could not have been left to human devising. Nevermind that leaving polity to be devised by humans is precisely what God did with Israel of old. Their lower magistrates in the time of Moses were a suggestion of Jethro, not a prescription of the Lord. The monarchy that followed after Samuel was demanded by the people out of a desire to imitate the monarchies of the nations around them. God did not prescribe either of these polities, but accommodated the historical choices that arose jure humano.

Virtually every advocate of jure divino episcopacy begins with this same false assumption. Like the immaculate conception of Mary, it is a projection of its proponents’ sense of what God ought to have done. “Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit.” Well, no. Bring the Scriptures, please. Show us where this three-fold office was instituted. Demonstrate the laying on of hands being applied by the apostles, with instructions to pass it on. No, you say? It isn’t there? Of course not. Because neither Christ nor the apostles was in the business of reinventing the wheel. They were Jews. Jews operated with eldership. Jews had apostleship as a well-known and legally recognized social convention. Jews used the laying on of hands to delegate authority and to create shaliachim. None of these things was invented by the church. That is why there is no discussion of their institution, but only of filling these well-known offices with appropriate persons, by the appropriate ritual means.

Boyd’s argumentation relies on false dichotomizing: either his opponent’s presbyterian interpretation is correct; or else, his own jure divino episcopalianism. Thus, about the letters to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation, he writes:

You are met here with endless difficulties. Your system cannot free you from them. On the system of episcopacy, …the letters to the seven churches are easy of comprehension ; but upon yours, they are confusion itself, they are documents addressed to individuals,—no one can tell who, and for reasons no one can tell why. (Boyd, p. 86)

Given a choice between presbyterianism and Boyd’s jure divino episcopacy, I choose neither.  Neither is able to account for the data of Scripture and history. Neither takes the Jewish background adequately into account.

Boyd glosses over a glaring problem with his own interpretation: namely, that to call the alleged bishops of the seven churches “angels” is a usage without precedent or parallel. The letters also shift freely between the singular and plural second person, a fact for which he has no explanation other than that “portions of them are addressed to the people.” He is unaware that the synagogue of NT times had an officer called the shaliach tsibbur, literally the “messenger of the congregation”. The job of this officer was to lead the congregation in prayers and to make announcements. The main qualification was a loud and clear speaking voice. The shaliach tsibbur was not invested with ruling authority, and was not a priest or Levite or rabbi. In theory, any layman could have filled the office. For our purposes, what matters is that this is precisely the person who would have read aloud such epistles as the ascended Christ commands John to write to the churches. But of course, this Jewish background is not taken into account by Boyd, who bids us rather choose between his claim that the “angels” were bishops, or else his opponent’s that they were presbyters. In support of his view, he cites fourth century church fathers like Augustine and Eusebius — men who were just as ignorant of the Jewish background as he is. (Lightfoot, on the other hand, is aware of it and cites Vitringa on the topic in a footnote, though he does not in the end approve.)

Boyd also claims that Timothy and Titus were bishops, and that 2 Tim 1:6 shows that Timothy was consecrated a bishop by the laying on of Paul’s hands. 1 Tim 4:14, by contrast, addressed to the same Timothy, speaks of the laying on of hands of the presbytery. We thus have a war of prooftexts: Boyd and his fellow jure divino episcopalians camp out on 2 Tim 1:6, while jure divino presbyterians wield 1 Tim. 4:14 as their weapon; and each side finds the other’s prooftext a “problem passage”.

Boyd again marshals his fourth-century church fathers — Ambrose, Jerome, Eusebius, Chrysostom, Leontius of Magnesia — in “proof” of the claim that Timothy was a bishop, all with plenty of taunting and 18th century smack talk directed at his presbyterian opponent.  Yet Lightfoot is clear:

It is the conception of a later age which represents Timothy as bishop of Ephesus and Titus as bishop of Crete. St Paul’s own language implies that the position which they held was temporary. In both cases their term of office is drawing to a close, when the Apostle writes. But the conception is not altogether without foundation. With less permanence but perhaps greater authority, the position occupied by these apostolic delegates nevertheless fairly represents the functions of the bishop early in the second century. They were in fact the link between the Apostle whose superintendence was occasional and general and the bishop who exercised a permanent supervision over an individual congregation. (The Christian Ministry, p. 199)


It requires some explanation to realize just how brilliant a paragraph this is. Lightfoot does not realize, as David Daube does (cf. “The Laying on of Hands” in CWDD vol. II) that there is only one ordination of Timothy, not as a bishop but as Paul’s emissary or shaliach; that the phrase ἐπιθέσεως τῶν χειρῶν τοῦ πρεσβυτερίου in 1 Tim. 4:14 is a direct translation of the Hebrew semikath zeqenim; that this genitive phrase never meant that the presbytery laid hands on a man, but designates the ritual used to make a man an elder. We may thus apply Occam’s razor and realize that the two dueling prooftexts, 1 Tim. 4:14 and 2 Tim. 1:6, actually refer to the same singular event.

(I have discussed some of the phrases in 1 Tim. 1 in light of all this. See also my posts on the ordination of the Seven in Acts 6, and on the ordination of Timothy as Paul’s emissary.)

Lightfoot, I say, is ignorant of all this, but ‭‭he has nonetheless hit upon the very thesis that will make sense of all the data, and though it is not fully specified, it is the same thesis argued more fully in our day by Canon Roger Beckwith: namely, that though Paul did not make bishops, the men whom he had made his temporary shaliachim were natural choices to exercise oversight as the needs of the church and the deaths of the apostles made episcopacy a desideratum. In their earlier career as the emissaries of Paul, the shaliachim of a shaliach of Jesus, an apostle’s apostles, they were indeed “of less permanence, but greater authority” than a bishop. Lightfoot is precisely right.

The Jewish background of the ritual of laying on of hands that is supplied by Daube not only accords perfectly with Lightfoot’s and Beckwith’s theory of the jure humano origin of episcopacy, but it also sheds new light on Acts 6 and makes clear the reasons behind many phrases and choices of words in that passage and in the pastoral epistles.

It is dismaying to me to see the jure divino position making gains in our day even among Anglicans who ought to know better. There really have been no new arguments in its favor since the Oxford movement, and it was rightly weighed and found wanting by Lightfoot, whose scholarship vindicated the earlier jure humano view of the English reformation. Evangelical Anglicans in our day should be proud to profess the jure humano position. It has the best scholarship on its side; it clarifies the Scriptures rather than torturing them; and it has the blessed and beneficial result of encouraging respect and ecumenical charity toward the orders of non-episcopal clergy.



  1. […] Source: Begging the Question about Episcopacy […]

  2. Have you read Bp. Sutton’s small book on the Episcopacy? He draws the polity as a modeled from Aaron/Jethro. I’ll link it here:

    • Yes, I have read it.

  3. That’s a very fine and helpful article, Matt. I am curious about the temporary status of Timothy.So, he’s basically saying that Timothy was delegated temporary Bishop status in order to ordain elders in every city and then later just settle back into being a local elder?

    I appreciate your work.

    • Actually, that is not what I’m saying. Paul is not a bishop. He is an apostle. So when he lays hands on Timothy, he makes him a second-order apostle. Not a bishop. Timothy has full authority to act like Jesus wherever he is sent. And he is itinerant.

      Boyd recognizes that Timothy and Titus do not have “sees” or dioceses. He grants that they are roving. But he still wants to call their authority and role “episcopal”, since they had “oversight”. But this is to prejudice the question of “succession”.

      There is a difference between appointing someone as an heir to an authority formerly wielded by a dead man and appointing someone as a representative to wield the authority of a living man in his absence. Timothy and the other representatives of Paul (Titus, Epaphroditus, etc) are representatives of a living man, not heirs of a dead one.

      Later, Timothy served as bishop of Ephesus, unless second-century sources are retrojecting a contemporary office onto the first century. But that is not what he was appointed as by Paul.

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