Jerome and the Office of Bishop: An Excursus to the Discussion

'Saint_Jerome_in_his_study',_painting_by_Filippino_Lippi,_c._1493,_El_Paso_Museum_of_Art

I have something to say about Jerome and the issue of the Episcopal Office and the Presbyteral Office. For centuries, Protestants have been appealing to the fact that Jerome states that the Office of Bishop is equal with the Office of Presbyter, and therefore not de essentia with the Church Christ founded. The details of this prove to be a considerable point. But my purpose here is ulterior. I think that whatever conclusion one comes to from studying Jerome’s statements on the Office of Bishop, more is said by the same that would exclude the same from any sort of proto-protestant ecclesiologist. I here explain.

St. Jerome writes in his “Contra Jovinianus” the following:

But you say, the Church was founded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism.” (Book 1.26)

The concept of choosing a singular unitary Head to govern a corporate plural membership is rooted in Chris’s choice of St. Peter vis-a-vis the Apostles, and not some post-apostolic recognition that a single Monarchical Head would be more conducive to the well management of ecclesial affairs. There is no doubt that this effect is there, potentially, but it is not “post-apostolic”. Rather, it comes from the very wisdom of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ, as implied by Jerome’s commentary here.  From this passage, it is clear that Jerome believed that Peter alone was given a certain Chair of Presidency in relation to the Apostles such that Peter’s will set as the standard, the many will’s of the Apostles would cohere into unity. It is no surprise, therefore, that the early Fathers of the Church understood that Peter’s primatial Chair undergirds the Office of Bishop in relation to the local church. This is why Cyprian can pronounce, ever so rightly, that the whole Episcopal body is descent from the “Chair of Peter”. Each and every duly ordained and licitly governing Bishop is a successor of Peter, therefore, at least in relation to the realm of his leadership. For individual Bishops, that is a single diocese. The same logic, but with different nuance, would apply to the Office of Archbishop or Metropolitan, and therefore also Patriarch. However, as we shall see below, Jerome has something further to say for a unique application of this concept towards the Chair in which Peter sat personally in the city of Rome.

It just so happens St. Jerome did not believe that this schism-suppressing Headship died out with the Apostles. For in his letters to Pope St. Damasus of Rome (366-382), regarding a Christological dispute concerning the word “Hypostases” and whether there was truly one or three, he writes the following:

I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter…though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the Victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eatenIf you think fit enact a decree; and then I shall not hesitate to speak of three hypostases….I beg you also to signify with whom I am to communicate at Antioch. Not, I hope, with the Campenses; for they — with their allies the heretics of Tarsus — only desire communion with you to preach with greater authority their traditional doctrine of three hypostases.” (Letter 15)

In the context, Jerome is experiencing the massive schism in Antioch, and so the setting is Church division. It is no surprise, therefore, that the same “Headship” invested in Peter by Jesus Christ in order to suppress schism is here operative in the successor of Peter, Pope Damasus, and, for that matter, in order to suppress the schism of the East. In the first place, that would entail that the schism-suppressing Office of Rome is one which, as opposed to other individual Bishops, extends to the universal Church (i.e. so far as Syria). If Jerome says that Peter was appointed Head so that there might not be an occasion for schism, he understands the same for the Pope of Rome. What is going on here is that he believes that the Pope is divinely appointed as universal Head so that there might not be an occasion for schism in the universal Church. This is why Jerome says that “outside” the Chair of Peter (i.e. Rome), the Paschal Lamb is not rightly eaten.

All this to reach my excursus point: If the Protestants are so keen on honing in on St. Jerome for a defense of their ecclesiastical polity, why must they ignore his comments on the divine foundation and perpetual nature of the Papacy? Well, it is, of course, because they don’t really believe St. Jerome is an authority to be heeded unless their interpretation of Scripture supports it. What this redounds to is the “solo scriptura” principle that Catholics have been rightly accusing Protestants of for centuries. Thus, the next time we hear from a friendly Protestant on how their polity of equal presbyters as being the only divine law appointed by Christ for ecclesial government, and how this was the ancient understanding “as testified by Jerome“, please feel it necessary to share this brief article.

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