The common view among many of the Reformers and biblical scholars ancient and modern is that the titles of office “presbyter” and “bishop” have identical referents in Scripture. Put simply, every presbyter is a bishop, and every bishop is a presbyter. Calvin asserts this in his commentary on Acts:
Concerning the word overseer or bishop, we must briefly note this, that Paul calleth all the elders of Ephesus by this name, as well one as other. Whence we gather, that according to the use of the Scripture bishops differ nothing from elders. But that it came to pass through vice and corruption, that those who were chief in every city began to be called bishops. I call it corruption, not because it is evil that some one man should be chief in every college or company; but because this boldness is intolerable, when men, by wresting the names of the Scripture unto their custom, doubt not to change the tongue of the Holy Ghost.
Commentary on Acts 20:28-32
Similarly, in his “Essay on the Christian Ministry” Joseph Lightfoot states that “It has been shown that in the apostolic writings the two [titles, presbyter and bishop] are only different designations of one and the same office.” (pg. 192)
In Chapter XIX of Apostolic Succesion: Is It True? Felix Cirlot offers arguments against the standard view that the titles of office “presbyter” and “bishop” are words exclusively both designating the second order of ministry in the New Testament and early post-Apostolic Church. The implications of this for debates between Presbyterians and Episcopalians are significant, undercutting a main argument for the non-existence of a third and highest order of ministry in the Church through which alone office can be transmitted.
THE PRIMITIVE MEANING AND USAGE OF THE TERM “PRESBYTER”
342. One of the most perplexing questions hindering a solution of the history of the origin of the monarchical Episcopate is the relation of the terms “bishop” and “presbyter” in pre-Ignatian sources. By pre-Ignatian I mean, here and elsewhere in this book, not only those sources earlier in date than the Epistles of St. Ignatius, but also sources later in date though representing a late survival elsewhere of the polity of nomenclature originally universal, but which reached its age-long form in Antioch and Asia Minor before St. Ignatius wrote, while still retaining its primitive form in some places at that time and even a bit later.
The more common opinion has been that the terms are strictly and exactly synonymous in the sense that they are completely interchangeable, that every presbyter was a bishop and that every bishop was a presbyter. This opinion was naturally very palatable to any who held the Presbyterian theory, of which it was one of the main pillars. But it was no mere prejudice of the Presbyterians that led their scholars to accept this conclusion. It seemed to be so decisively proved by several clear and unambiguous passages in Acts, in the Pastorals, and in I Clement, that scholars quite free from Presbyterian presuppositions accepted it without reservation. Many Catholic scholars, whether Anglican or otherwise, have accepted it…
343. We see from 1 Peter 5:1 that St. Peter could call himself a fellow-presbyter. It is not satisfactory to explain that this was possible because the highest office includes the lower, as nowadays every Bishop is a priest and presbyter but not every priest or presbyter is a Bishop. Ordination was per saltum at least in many cases in the early Churches. And anyway, it is obvious that St. Peter had not been a presbyter before he became an Apostle. Nor can we get out of the difficulty by supposing 1 Peter to be pseudonymous. For it is just as difficult to explain how such a writer could plausibly represent St. Peter as so calling himself, and still escape detection as a forger.
Again, the theory of the original identity cannot explain how the great Ephesian John could be called “The Presbyter,” not to distinguish him from another John who was not a presbyter, but as a cognomen analogous to “The Apostle” later in the case of St. Paul. Clearly “John the Presbyter” was sufficiently identified by the title “The Presbyter” entirely apart from the use of his name…whatever the sense in which John was a Presbyter, it clearly was not the same sense in which collegiate bishops were presbyters (on Lightfoot’s Theory of course) for he was certainly not a collegiate bishop. Such a bishop would certainly be inferior rather than superior to Diotrephes, to say nothing of being insufficient to gather to himself (even if unhistorically) all the attributes which the later tradition ascribed to him.
344. Then, there is the famous passage in Papias… I now think that the passage in Papias, when restudied more carefully, admits of the identification of the Apostles with “the Presbyters” at least as easily as of the interpretation Chapman accepted following St. Irenaeus and Euesbius. In fact I am inclined to think it rather favors the identification…But if the Apostles are there referred to under the title “the Presbyters,” the passage falls into line with 1 Peter 5:1 and the opening signature of II and III John…
345. Then, we run into a serious difficulty about the usage, well known to all scholars, whereby several of the Fathers at the end of the second and beginning of the third centuries applied the title “presbyter” in the singular or in the plural to men whom they clearly believed to be, and who in some cases at least certainly were, pure and simple monarchical Bishops…For Lightfoot himself has pointed out that, although the monarchical Bishops were still called presbyters, the presbyters were never any more called Bishops. This seems to me to suggest that, whatever was the true explanation of the phenomenon, it was certainly not the one alleged by Lightfoot, that the Church still remembered such an original relation of the later Bishops to the earliest bishops as Lightfoot held to be true. This doubt is greatly increased by the fact that the usage in question is attested in the East as well as in the West, and among Western Fathers who had been under strong and prolonged Eastern influence. Yet surely the Episcopate arose and prevailed so early and so quickly in the East as to make this less likely than, on Lightfoot’s theory, it was in the West. Finally, there is a passage in St. Irenaeus who was one of the chief Fathers addicted to this usage, which shows conclusively that he did not still “remember” that bishops and presbyters had originally been strictly identical. He is describing the event narrated in Acts XX, and he feels obliged to interpret the passage thus, “When the bishops and presbyters who came from ephesus and the other adjoining cities had assembled at Miletus etc.” Those amazing pearls of exegesis seem to show to me quite conclusively that St. Irenaeus was incapable of conceiving a single Church with more than one Bishop, even in the days of St. Paul. Nor could he conceive it as possible that those called presbyters in the narrative passage before St. Paul begins his speech can possibly be the same ones called bishops within the speech. And yet he himself calls bishops presbyters repeatedly, while he also, of course, often uses “presbyters” in the contemporary Ignatian sense. This shows, I think, that the usage did not depend on a memory that presbyters and bishops had ever been identical.
That leaves open, of course, the possibility that the usage in question originated as Lightfoot suggested, and long survived all memory of how it had originated. But this is only a possibility. If accepted, it still will not at all explain the application of the term “presbyters” to Apostles, which as we just saw in sections 343-4 is attested. Nor will it explain why Bishops could still be called presbyters yet presbyters could never any longer be called bishops. Moreover, if presbyters and bishops were originally quite identical, and Apostles could be called presbyters, why could they not also be called bishops? None of these points can be decisive, of course, where the evidence is so scanty. But they all seem to have real weight, and they point, every one of them, in the same direction, which is away from the theory accepted by Lightfoot and so many others.
346. Then there is another very interesting phenomenon. It is that while presbyters, bishops, and deacons are all mentioned or alluded to quite a few times in pre-Ignatian sources, we never hear of presbyters in combination with either of the other two. Of course Lightfoot’s theory would explain easily why bishops and presbyters would never be bracketed. But it provides no explanation why presbyters should never be bracketed with deacons, while bishops are so bracketed at least in Philipians, the Pastorals, Hermas, 1 Clement, and the Didache. Presbyters are mentioned in all but the first and last of these five sources, but whenever the hierarchy is to be dissolved into its constituent orders, the term “presbyters” is always avoided. Yet this ceases in the two very first sources we get reflecting the Ignatian terminology. In view of the scantiness of our evidence such silence cannot, again, be decisive… It will become weighty, I think, if some explanation can be given which will explain all of the irregularities of terminology at the same time… that explanation will be more probable than several discrete explanations woven into a sort of loose combination. And if such an explanation can do justice to the passages which are the stronghold and basis of Lightfoot’s theory—that presbyters and bishops are originally strictly identical—it would at once acquire a strong claim to our acceptance.
347. I have tried all the alternative proposals I have seen by which presbyters and bishops can be treated as groups at least partially distinct. I have come again and again to the conclusion that the presbyters could hardly be a third group intermediate between bishops and deacons…
348. But the fact mentioned above that deacons, though bracketed with “bishops,” are never bracketed with presbtyers in the pre-Ignatian sources, but are immediately when we come to Ignatian sources (St. Ignatius and St. Polycarp) suggests the theory I had not until very recently met in the writings of others that the term “presbyters” might be an early equivalent of our modern terms “minister” or “clergyman”. We do not speak of ministers and deacons, because deacons are just as truly ministers as priests. Can it not be for the same reason that presbyters and deacons were not at first—and later were—bracketed? When we check the evidence, we discover that neither were presbyters ever bracketed in pre-Ignatian sources with any other order of the ministry, with one solitary exception.
That is with Apostles, in Jerusalem, in Acts 15 and does not seem to me a serious difficulty. For we have already established conclusively that Apostles could be called presbyters in the Apostolic age, and hence the term need not be bracketed with Apostles in Acts because the latter were not presbyters, but because the presbyters who were not Apostles had no other specific name such as they later had in the Pauline-gentile world; viz., bishops. Hence, there was nothing else to call them except presbyters. But the usage did not mean presbyters as distinguished from Apostles who were not presbyters, but rather “mere presbyters” as distinguished from those who were both presbyters and Apostles.
This same explanation will explain the Ignatian usage which treats “presbyters” as a specific term, and so brackets it with both Bishops and deacons (St. Ignatius) or with deacons alone (St. Polycarp) where there were no monarchical Bishops, whether normally or only temporarily. For (on the theory I propose) as soon as the term “bishop” was transferred from the second order of the ministry to the localized member of the first, deutero-Apostolic, order, the second order was once again left without any specific title. What could be more natural, then, than to appropriate as the specific title of that order the already existing generic title, presbyters, by which it as also other orders of the ministry, was already frequently called? This appropriation, supposing this theory to be correct, would not necessarily destroy for some time the older usage by which the term presbyter could also be applied, as a generic term, to the higher order of the ministry, and possibly to the lower order also, though we lack any clear case in which a deacon is unambiguously called a presbyter. But it was certainly applied to Apostles before the Ignatian terminology came into being, and quite possibly afterward, if it is the Apostles who are called presbyters by Papias. And it is equally certain that indubitable monarchical Bishops were called presbyters long after the Ignatian terminology had widely prevailed, and presbyters had utterly ceased to be called bishops. Such a theory satisfies all the evidence that we have noticed above as raising difficulties for the theory of the original complete identity of bishops and presbyters. Can it also satisfy the evidence commonly supposed to support the identity?
349. The passage in Acts 20 seems to pass the test successfully. In Acts 20:17 “the presbyters” are summoned, and in 20:28 it is assumed that these (or at least most of them) are “bishops.” This would be smooth sailing if there were no deacons in Ephesus; also if there were deacons there, but the term presbyter was not applied to them…
350. The passage in the Pastorals which is commonly supposed to be most decisive in favor of the originally complete identity is Titus 1:5-7. But all we surely have here is the assumption that in appointing presbyters St. Titus would automatically be appointing bishops…
351. 1 Peter 5:1-2 is certainly even less difficult. It assumes that the presbyters (or at least most of them) would have an office involving oversight (Cf. “overseers = bishops”). But it does not exclude the possibility of there being presbyters of a lower order (deacons) in addition to those who were bishops…
352. The only other passage commonly supposed to prove strict original identity is 1 Clement XLIV:4-5. Here it seems clearly implied that presbyters who had already died were secure against being removed from the episcopate. It is very generally agreed, of course, that the term “episcopate” is used here in the pre-Ignatian sense. But while this passage, like the others already examined, does truly exclude the possibility of the term presbyters being used to designate one order alone unless that order is the episcopate, it does not tell against the relation of the two terms I suppose—certainly not decisively. The terms appear to be used interchangeably—in a sense—but not more so than in Catholic circles today we can use “minister” and “priest” interchangeably. The way St. Clement speaks is sufficiently explained if we suppose the relation of the terms I propose, but that only bishops had been deposed at Corinth, and no deacons, or very few. But those who had already died, whether bishosp or deacons, were secure against the indignity—and worse—of deposition. For still living deacons were certainly subject to such deposition, even if few or none had actually suffered it. Hence St. Clement could easily use the term “presbyters” instead of “bishops” when referring to those who had died before the trouble arose. For surely that would include deacons as well as bishops. Besides, in the very sentence where the term “presbyters” is used, the term “episcopate” is not repeated, but the more general term “place”. This cannot be pressed, I suppose. But at least it leaves open the possibility that the wider term is used interchangeably.
353. It is worth emphasizing once more that the view that “presbyters” is a generic term can stand even if it did not cover deacons but only those who belonged to the two higher orders—Apostles and bishops…
354. To confirm our main result strongly, let us forget for the moment that, at the present time, Bishops may accurately be called priests, and treat the latter term as applicable only to the second order of our present threefold Ministry. Then let us try the experiment of reading these four supposedly decisive passages with “minister” or “clergyman” substituted for “presbyter” wherever it occurs in these four passages, but with “priest” substituted for “bishop” every time. I think we shall see at once that there is no difficulty in any of these passages, so read. The two terms are identical in the sense that ministers and priests are identical to-day, but not in the sense that ministers and clergymen are identical, or in the sense that presbyters and priests are identical (in Anglicanism, of course—not in Protestantism).
355. We are now ready to summarize our two main conclusions on this point. They are that the term “presbyter” was certainly a generic term in pre-Ignatian sources, and the term “bishops” was certainly specific. That is, the term “presbyter” could be applied to at least two distinct orders (the first and the second) of a threefold Ministry, and probably but by no means certainly to the third. But the latter term “bishop” was applicable (in pre-Ignatian sources) to one order only—the second. In many local Churches, the second order was the highest locally represented, except when occasionally members of the first order would visit such local Churches. But the bishops and deacons mentioned in Philippians, for example, were aware beyond all dispute that there was a higher order than either of them, the Apostles. And we have seen in Chapter XVIII of this book that the first, Apiostolic order was extended to others who thus held the same office, and were sometimes called by the same name, though not always or probably normally. I have called these, for convenience, by a title by which they were never actually called in ancient history, but which is accurately descriptive—deutero-Apostles.
It has been seen clearly above that Apostles could be called “presbyters” in the first and second generations of Christianity. It is also clear that by the third generation monarchical Bishops were already in existence in some places, and that these could also be called “presbyters.” It follows, therefore, that deutero-Apostles could be so called also; though we have no actual case attested, unless “John the Presbyter” was a deutero-Apostle, which I cannot believe. It follows that, in places where there was an Apostle, deutero-Apostle, or monarchical Bishop, the “presbyterate” would include this individual (or these, if more than one such were present at the same time), and the collegiate bishops, and possibly or probably the deacons. On the other hand, in places where there was no member of the first order, the “presbyterate” would include at least the “bishops” and possibly or probably the deacons. Hence referring to “presbyters” or “the presbyterate” will neither favor nor disfavor the presence of a member of the higher order, unless something else in the context or in the rest of the evidence gives us reason to affirm or deny such presence. This conclusion, if sound, is of capital importance. And the reasons we have seen in its support are very weighty.