A significant challenge to the historical case for the Apostolic succession of the Trifold ministry is that St. Clement of Rome teaches (1 Clement 44) a succession of only two tiers of ministry. The only offices that are described as continuing after the Apostolic age are “bishops and deacons”. But when he speaks of “bishops”, Clement means local ministers of the second tier—what we now call elders—not monarchical rulers who can rule one or more congregations and have the exclusive power to ordain. It seems like St. Clement’s apostolic succession is a succession of presbyter-bishops much as Presbyterians understand ministry, not monarchical bishops as Episcopalians (whether Roman, Orthodox, or Anglo-Catholic) understand the ministry. To answer this objection, I will quote from Felix Cirlot’s Apostolic Succession: Is It True? Cirlot argues that there are three tiers of ministry referred to in 1 Clement 44, not just two, and that succession is traced through the highest tier of ministry.
In order to make his argument comprehensible, I will first clarify Cirlot’s terminology. For Cirlot, the word “bishop” has one of two meanings in the primary sources (New Testament and Fathers) depending on the specific source we are reading. In the primitive sources prior to St. Ignatius of Antioch (such as the New Testament, The Didache, and St. Clement), Cirlot thinks that “bishop” is equivalent to what we now mean by “elder”; this is a concession to the Presbyterian interpretation of primitive polity. In sources that adopt the terminology of St. Ignatius, bishop means the monarchical ruler of the highest tier of ministry who has the exclusive power to ordain. The word “presbyter” also has two meanings depending on the source we are reading. In the New Testament and perhaps other sources that don’t use Ignatian terminology, it means “minister”, and is used of Apostles, “bishops” (second tier ministers) and possibly deacons. In post-NT sources, the word “presbyter” means elder, or local minister of the second tier. For more explanation of this terminology, see my post Apostolic Succession (1): Presbyter=Bishop? The word “deutero-Apostle” means for Cirlot a person who has office in the first tier of ministry, was ordained by an Apostle and not specially commissioned by Christ to ministry, is not yet labeled a (monarchical) bishop according to the Ignatian terminology, and is not necessarily tied to a seat or ruling over a specific location (Cirlot would identify Timothy and Titus as belonging to this group). The word “deutero-Apostle” is not used by the Fathers or the New Testament, but is Cirlot’s convenient way of labeling this kind of officer which we would now recognize as a monarchical bishop.
With this terminology in mind, we can now understand Cirlot’s argument:
In 1 Clement 44 we have language which shows that, in St. Clement’s opinion, the Apostles ordained at first, and that after their deaths or departure certain other persons called “other eminent men” ordained in their stead. The crucial problem raised by these difficult and highly controverted words we must now study carefully. It will be convenient to give a translation of the passage, italicizing [and bolding] the words of which the interpretation is in dispute, and then state briefly the three main interpretations proposed by scholars. After that we can attempt to decide which is the most probable view. St. Clement says (XLIV.1-3):
“Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife for the title (onomatos) of the episcopate. Therefore, for this reason, since they had received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the aforementioned (bishops, or possibly bishops and deacons, harking back to XLII.4-5) and afterwards a codicil they added (dedokasin) so that (hopos), if they should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to the ministry of them. Those (tous) therefore appointed by these (hup’ ekeinon) or afterwards by other eminent men, the whole Church assenting, and who have ministered blamelessly to the flock of Christ, humbly, peaceably, and disinterestedly, and for a long time have received favorable testimony from all, these men we think to have been unjustly ejected from their ministry.”
One interpretation holds that it was the appointed bishops (and deacons?) who are contemplated as possibly falling asleep, and to whose ministry consequently the “other approved men” should succeed. On this interpretation hup’ ekeinon can mean either the Apostles or the bishops, who are supposed by this interpretationto be those to whom the power of Ordination passed after the Apostles were no longer available, if indeed they had not held it from the first. If it means the Aposltes, the “other eminent men” will be the first set of presbyter-bishops who, having been themselves ordained by the Apostles, ordained their own successors. If hup ekeinon means the bishops, the “other eminent men” will mean the second set of ordaining presbyter-bishops, those ordained not by the Apostles but by the first set of ordaining bishops. On this interpretation we would have first Apostolic Ordination and after their deaths—if not before—presbyterian ordination. For there can be no reasonable doubt that the bishops here mentioned are members of the Order of the ministry which was second in rank while the Apostles were still alive. Lightfoot, Easton, and Lowther-Clarke seem to hold this interpretation.
[From Cirlot's footnote #352, he states the interpretation as follows:
"Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife for the title of the episcopate (in the primitive sense). Therefore, for this reason, they had received perfect foreknowledge, the Apostles appointed the aforementioned Bishops (and deacons?) and afterwards the Apostles added a codicil to the effect that if these bishops (and deacons?) should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. The bishops appointed, therefore, by the Apostles, or other bishops appointed afterwards by the first bishops to membership in their self-perpetuating Sanhedrin, the whole Church assenting, and who have ministered blamelessly… these men we think to have been unjustly ejected from their ministry."]
A second interpretation of this passage makes those who might fall asleep and the approved men who should succeed to their ministry to mean the same as on the first interpretation. But it diverges from the first interpretation by interpreting hup ekeinon exclusively of the Apostles, and then interpretst “other eminent men” of deutero-Apostles [or what we would call “early monarchical bishops before the name ‘monarchical bishop’ came about”] like St. Timothy and St. Titus. On this interpretation there is no contemplation or implication of ordaining by presbyter-bishops alone, even as colleges. This seems to be the interpretation favored by Gore, Turner, and many others.
[From footnote 352, Cirlot states this interpretation in the following way:
"Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife for the title of the episcopate in the primitive sense. Therefore, for this reason, since they had received perfect foreknowledge, the Apostles appointed the aforementioned bishops (and deacons?) and afterwards the Apostles added a codicil to the effect that if these bishops (and deacons?) should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. The bishops appointed, therefore, by the Apostles, or other bishops appointed afterwards by deutero-Apostles like Timothy and Titus, the whole Church assenting, and who have ministered blamelessly... these men we think to have been unjustly ejected from their ministry."]
The third interpretation agrees with the second as to the meaning of hup’ ekeinon and “other eminent men” but diverges from both the other interpretations by interpreting those who might fall asleep as the Apostles, and consequently seeing in “other approved men” who “should succeed to their ministry” successors to the Apostles rather than to the presbyter-bishops. On this interpretation the “other approved men” and “other eminent men” are the same men, only described in different words. On this interpretation, as on the second, there would be no Ordinations by presbyter-bishops[…]. But on this interpretation we would have clearly implied, and all but explicitly asserted, what has to be read between the lines on the second interpretation—a belief that the Apostles had deliberately provided to themselves successors who ordained later bishops and deacons just as the Apostles had ordained the first bishops and deacons. Salmon, Puller, and Dom Gregory Dix hold this interpretation.
[In footnote 352, Cirlot explains this interpretation:
"Our Apostles knew, throught our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife for the title of the episcopate in the primitive sense. Therefore, for this reason, since they had received perfect foreknowledge, the Apostles kept strictly in their own hands the appointment of the earliest bishops (and deacons?) and afterwards the Apostles added a codicil to the effect that, if the Apostles should all or nearly all die before the Parousia, other well-proven men should succeed to the ministry held by the Apostles. The bishops, therefore, appointed afterward by the successors of the Apostles like St. Timothy and St. Titus, the whole Church assenting, and who have ministered blamelessly... these men we think to have been unjustly ejected from their ministry."]
It can hardly be denied that all three of these interpretations are possible. But this is far from saying they are all equally satisfactory, viewed from the standpoint of scientific history. The third interpretation seems to be decidedly more probable than either of the others for a variety of reasons, as follows:
1. We have three Greek verbs in the third person plural, and it seems certain that in the case of the first two—“appointed” and “added”—the Apostles themselves are the subject. But no Greek words come between the verb “they added” and the next verb “if they should fall asleep” except hopos, ean. Why, then, assume a change of subject? In order to get “the aforementioned” as a subject we have to go back not only into the preceding clause, but into the one before that. No doubt this would be perfectly permissible if the change in subject were necessary to make sense, or to fit into the historical context as we know it from other evidence. But where any such reason is lacking, it seems a highly arbitrary procedure. The other interpretation is grammatically much more probable.
2. The future “falling asleep” is implied to be (a) doubtful, and (b) an event on which the need of successors would depend. Both of these points suit the interpretation that takes the Apostles as the subject of “fall asleep” better than that which takes the first bishops as the subject. For the number of bishops in colleges in so many local Churches would be so great that there could be little doubt that some of these would be continually falling asleep. But with the Apostles, the death of some would not create a very serious crisis as long as others remained alive. It would be only if the majority of them fell asleep, or all or nearly all who were available in any particular section of the Church, that successors would be needed. And there seems to have been a confident expectation on the part of the apostles that at least some of them would survive until the Parousia. It was only “afterwards” (i.e. around the time when St. Peter and St. Paul saw their own survival as seriously doubtful) that they “added the codicil” which we are trying to decipher.
3. Why are the terms “bisho” and “presbter” not used instead of the cumbersome and [non]-technical phrases “other approved men” and “other eminent men,” if it be indeed the former group that are meant by the latter two phrases? No reasonable answer is available. But if these two circuitous phrases meant a higher and different Order, the deutero-apostles, then an answer is easy. It was because this higher Order had no one generally accepted name or title, and because St. Clement was apparently one of those who (as we saw above in Chapter XVIII on The Extension of the Apostolate) was inclined to use the term “Apostle” quite narrowly. This appears clearly in his chapter XLVIL.3-4, where we read, “With true inspiration he (St. Paul) charged you concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos, because even then you had made yourselves partisans. But that partisanship entailed less guilt on you; for you were partisans of Apostles of high reputation, and of a man approved by them.” It seems clear that here we have the term “Apostle” carefully and quite deliberately withheld by St. Clement from Apollos. Instead is applied to him one of the two vague and non-technical terms which we found in Chapter 44.
4. The use of the term “other” favors the same conclusion. It is customary to use that word to add extra men (or whatever may be in question) to some already mentioned. Now it is almost certain for reasons to be given in the next paragraph, that hup’ ekeinon refers to the Apostles. But if so, the word “other” before “eminent men” is quite out of place, if the “eminent men” are presbyter bishops. For presbyter-bishops are not mentioned elsewhere in this context in the same construction as the “other eminent men.” To say “…by the Apostles or afterward by other eminent men etc.” clearly implies that the Aposltes were the original body of eminent men to whom the others were later added as instituters or ordainers of some of the bishops at Corinth. The use of “other” before “approved men” is less decisive, because it is easier to interpret “those who might fal asleep” as referring to the bishops than it is so to interpret hup’ ekeinon. But it points in the same direction, though more weakly, once we have seen that on other grounds the interpretation we are accepting has the advantage anyway.
That hup’ ekeinon means the Apostles is supported, in addition to several grammatical and contextual arguments, by the fact that otherwise, in a context where it seems clear that St. Clement is taking care to distinguish and cover the cases of all the different bishops at Corinth, however appointed, he would have entirely left out the bishops ordained by the Apostles on any other interpretation. Yet it is hardly likely that all these were yet dead. It is very likely that he is, in verse 3, distinguishing bishops ordained by the Apostles from bishops ordained by others later. It is far less likely that he is distinguishing those ordained by bishops the Apostles had ordained from those ordained by later bishops whom the Apostles had not ordained.
5. The interpretation accepted here takes full account of men like St. Timothy and St. Titus and the whole Order of deutero-Apostles, instead of ignoring them, as does the first interpretation. And this makes our interpretation more likely to be correct.
6. But the most important reason of all, I think, is the argument from the context; or, to put it differently, from the general purport of what St. Clement is saying. He seems to ascribe to the Apostles supernatural knowledge of prospective trouble about “the office of bishop” (whether rightly or wrongly is irrelevant to our present purpose) and to set out to tell us what steps they took to obviate the anticipated strife. First of all, during their lifetime, while they still expected to live until the Parousia, they kept the right to ordain in their own hands. Afterward, in prospect of their own deaths or forced departure to remote regions, they arranged for successors to themselves, who should continue to reserve to themselves the power to ordain which the Apostles had so rserved, and with the same desired results. Therefore (the word emphasizes the strict logical connection between what has been said and what is to follow) it is totally illicit to eject from office (and presumably replace with others) those ordained by the Apostles or by their successors, who had by explicit and well-known arrangement of the Apostles (the codicil referred to by St. Clement) the same exclusive power which the Apostles had had as long as they lived; namely the power to ordain. This interpretation adheres more closely to the text than either of the others, and requires less to be read between the lines. Above all it solves (may I say by refusing to create it arbitrarily) an exceedingly difficult problem which, as we shall see below, the first interpretation gratuitously creates. I mean, of course, the problem (canvassed in Division II of this chapter) created by a hypothesis that colleges of presbyters at one time had the power to ordain. By gratuitously I do not mean to deny that there is some sort of a case to be made out for the alleged fact which, if it be a fact, creates the problem. But I do mean that the case is far too weak to be deemed equally probable with the reconstruction we propose, even apart from the fact that the former raises a serious historical problem which our reconstruction does not raise.
The two other interpretations both labor under the weakness of making the context of 1 Clement 44 fail to provide the solution to the very problem to which the opening sentences of Chapter 44 lead us to expect some sort of a solution. We have, on either of these interpretations, much ado about nothing. The mountain labors and brings forth a mouse. They tell us of foreseen trouble, and begin to tell us of steps taken to obviate it; but they never finish. Instead, we have to read the solution between the lines. Both interpretations make St. Clement say that all the Apostles did was to decree that the bishops, “if” they died, must have successors. But that was already known to all, and was what created the occasion for the expected trouble. It is not a way to prevent such trouble! Only the interpretation here adopted makes Clement mention what was the step taken to forestall the inevitable strife. On the others he passes it over in silence, and goes on to draw a very controversial conclusion without making clear the premises on which it depends. Moreover, on these two interpretations, nothing he has actually said justifies the second part of the inference he introduces by his “therefore”.
We come, then, to the conclusion that the third interpretation given above, just after we quoted the passage, is far and away the most probable, despite the fact that it has not been held by many scholars in the past. If this conclusion is correct, it will follow that 1 Clement provides no evidence whatsoever for Presbyterian ordinations, but rather expresses or clearly implies that the power to ordain was reserved for the Apostles and later their direct successors, the deutero-Apostles. This agrees with the conclusions we reached from our study of the evidence of the pastorals above.
It also agrees with the most probable inference from the evidence of St. Ignatius. In his Epistles we find him speaking of the Church of Antioch as (to use Gore’s very expressive phrase) a widowed Church, bereft of its Bishop, and not apparently able to elect and ordain one for itself. It shall have God for its Shepherd and Jesus Christ alone for its Bishop—and the love of the Roman Church, to which he is writing. No doubt that is why he is willing and even anxious for a few Bishops from the nearest Churches to be included—in the delegations he asks to have sent to comfort and help his widowed Church. It sounds much more as if the appointment of his successor would be difficult to arrange than easy. And this is much more comprehensible if only monarchical Bishops or any surviving itinerant deutero-Apostles could ordain such a successor than if it was clearly understood by all that a successor could be ordained by his own presbyters, or promoted to the office without any further Ordination beyond that which had already made him a presbyter.
Finally, Tertullian explicitly adds “apostolic men” to “Apostles” as those to whom a succession of Bishops in his day might be traced back in order to assure its legitimacy.
Thus we come to the conclusion that both the contemporary evidence and the settled belief of the Church as soon as the period of silence is over concur in favoring the view that Ordination was at first by Apostles and later on by their successors, and that their successors—in the full sense needed to be able to ordain—were not understood to be the colleges of presbyter-bishops, but either itinerant deutero-Apostles or else localized deutero-Apostles, i.e. monarchical Bishops.
Cirlot’s argument implies that St. Clement of Rome is not a counterexample to the primitive existence of the monarchical episcopate. Instead, it is more plausible that St. Clement’s epistle teaches the same view of the ministry as St. Ignatius of Antioch, not something like presbyterian ecclesiology.