Posted on: January 29th, 2008 Peter Toon on Anglican Bishops

For many years now I have struggled to understand how Anglicans perceive their form of the episcopacy. In Who Runs the Church? 4 Views on Church Government evangelical Anglican Peter Toon makes several helpful points which I had not seen quite so clearly before:

1. The ancient church of the first few centuries which universally developed the historic, diocesan episcopacy is the same church which decided the content of the NT canon; which established the first day of the week as the festival of the resurrection on the Lord’s Day; which created major feasts / festivals such as Easter and Pentecost; which set forth the dogmas of the “blessed, holy, and undivided trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost and of the one person of Jesus Christ, made known in two natures, divine and human. (This is in contrast, BTW, to the later doctrinal developments specific to the Roman and Eastern traditions, which took much more time to develop.) (24) Do we really want to accept its verdict on these things, but reject the way it developed the historic episcopate?

2. The development of the diocese and its sole bishop came about as follows: “as city churches (with their one bishop and several presbyters) established missions in nearby towns, presbyters went to the smaller churches to serve as pastors, and so it was that bishops came to have multiple churches in their care and presbyters came to be pastors of individual churches.” (25)

3. Comparing and contrasting what Ignatius and Irenaeus say about bishops is instructive for seeing how the office developed early on. Ignatius of Antioch (circa 105) establishes the monepiscopacy, consistent with three office Presbyterianism. But for “Irenaeus of Lyons (died c. 200), some six or seven decades later, the primary emphasis was upon the bishop as holder of an apostolic see and thus the sign of continuity in apostolic faith and teaching.” 25

Question: how was the purity of this apostolic teaching established or demonstrated? It could not have been merely from (what we mean by) Scripture, since the canon had not yet been finalized! Rather, it was from lists of Episcopal successions, the earliest of which we have is late 2nd century. (29) So this is not simply an argument from tradition as opposed to scripture. There was no “scripture,” just as there was no “scripture” in Paul’s time. → This is where those suggestions that the apostles taught things that are not explicitly recorded in our Bibles (Thes; I Cor 11:23ff) comes in. The situation in the first 3 centuries is analogous to that. In the absence of the Bible, what is authoritative? Apostolicity / apostolic teaching.

4. The monoepiscopacy, it must be admitted, was at least allowed by the HS. 26

5. When we look to the NT we see that “the visiting apostle or evangelist or representative of the apostle had an authority in certain matters “above” that of the local presbyters / bishops and the local congregation of Christ’s flock. So we see here a kind of two-teared authority which is consistent with the two-teared authority between bishops and presbyters. (27-28)

6. It is possible that James was “a monarchical bishop in Jerusalem.” (Acts 21:18) (27)

7. The Anglican church maintained its Episcopal orders unimpaired: “We do not arrogate to ourselves either a new church, or a new religion or new Holy Orders…. Our religion is the same as it was, our church is the same as it was, our Holy Orders are the same as they were, in substance; differing only from what they were formerly, as a garden weeded from a garden unweeded.” – Archbishop John Bramhall in 1654. (32)

After making these and many other points, Toon has a good discussion of three views on how essential bishops are to the church: the esse view, the bene esse view, and the plene esse view, which I will blog on in an upcoming post.

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