Saint Optatus on Schism : A Critique of an Eastern Orthodox Interpretation

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In our ongoing dialogue concerning the Papal claims vs. Eastern Orthodoxy, Craig Truglia has taken the time to spell out his interpretation of St. Optatus of Milevis’s argument in his Against the Donatists, written against Parmenian, a Donatist Bishop. As recorded previously (see here, here, and here), Truglia sees the Optatian definition of schism as a litmus test for who is really the schismatic in the Latin West vs. Greek East separation, and so it is paramount that St. Optatus truly does exemplify what is alleged. However, below I give my reasons why I have not been compelled by the exegesis of St. Optatus given by Truglia, and why other data serves to lead me contrariwise to the historic Papal position.

When I was wrestling with these issues years back, I recall gravitating to the interpretation of St. Optatus which appeared to be also testified in the writings of St. Cyprian, namely, that the Office of Bishop was instituted in the investiture of our Lord in St. Peter when he said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church“. St. Firmillan, for example, understood the “rock” here to be the Petrine-priesthood of which all bishops partake of (Epistle 74). This is why when Pope St. Stephen was supposedly entering into what St. Firmilian deemed as heresy, the latter accused the former of seeking to establish “many other rocks” or another foundation, i.e. starting another priesthood. Therefore, it is quite apparent that for guys like St. Firmilian, St. Cyprian, and St. Optatus, the “rock of Peter” is, among other things, the foundation of the priestly structure, i.e. the episcopate. This is classical Anglican apologetics, which also seem to support contemporary Eastern ecclesiology. While rebutting Truglia’s argumentation, this will also serve to explain why I, myself, former Anglican, changed positions on this.

The matter is far more complex because guys like St. Optatus, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Boniface, St. Innocent, and St. Leo the Great also understood the Petrine foundation to have established the universal order of the priesthood (the above position), while also having a unique component to Peter’s *actual chair* set up in the Church of Rome. One might say I am veering away from the subject by introducing these other authors. But this is an observation which would carry more import for a secular historian, but should not come up in the dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox who both venerate both the saints of the Church and respect their beliefs when they converge on the level of moral unanimity. In other words, both Catholics and Orthodox should humbly accept that the Fathers, where they are repetitious and emphatic, know more than we do. When and if a Church father or saint makes an error, or a mistake, it is in the rarity, and it can be explained by ignorance or lapse of judgment in good will.

In this case, if what I’m saying is true, it will not suffice to work with this *either/or-zeo/sum* dichotomy of the Chair of Peter as the 1) divinely instituted universal episcopate versus the Chair of Peter understood as the (2) accidental coincidence of the Apostle Peter in Rome and its oft referred to honorific memorabilia.

Rather, one will have to give an account for the divine attribution to both the universal-Petrine-episcopate and the local-Petrine-episcopate-in-Rome.

As for St. Optatus, we know that he does not introduce Peter’s chair in Rome out of a specific argument about a rival altar in the city of Rome between the Macrobius vs Damasus (he eventually gets there), but first and foremost in his effort to explain the general adornments of the true Church.

The progression goes like this:

So we have proved that the Catholic Church is the Church spread throughout the world. We must now mention its adornments

Here, Optatus is concerned with the universal Church’s adornments.

He goes on:

“…and see where are its five endowments, among which the cathedra is the first, and since the second endowment, which is the angelus, cannot be added unless a Bishop has sat on the cathedra, we must see WHO WAS THE FIRST to sit on the cathedra, AND WHERE HE SAT. If you don’t know this, learn. If you do know, blush. Ignorance cannot be attributed to you — it follows that you know. For one who knows, to err is sin. Those who do not know may sometimes be pardoned. You cannot deny that you do know that upon Peter, first, in the city of Rome, was bestowed the episcopal cathedra, on which Peter sat, the Head of all the Apostles, that, in THIS ONE cathedra unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim — each for himself — separate cathedras, so that he who should set up a second cathedra against the unique cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner. Well then, on the one cathedra, which is the first of the endowments, Peter was the first to sit

It is very important to notice that St. Optatus makes no break from speaking to the first universal endowment to the catholic church, which is the cathedra, and the Apostle Peter’s station in the city of Rome. Those who wish to say that St. Optatus goes from a universal endowment to Rome as merely one example among many do not get the benefit of anything in the text for support of this. Rather, St. Optatus sees the universal endowment of the cathedra for the universal church and the historical person of Peter and his station at Rome as one and the very same thing. Craig’s interpretation of the text renders Peter’s association with Rome as a complete after thought. It could have been John Doe for all that matters. Peter’s identity in Rome plays no essential role in the ecclesiastical principles of St. Optatus, according to Craig. Why is that? Because the same Petrine-inheritance is equally possessed by all bishops, and Rome’s special petrine-inheritance of being memorabilia doesn’t involve itself into the essential principles of Optatus’s ecclesiology. It can be there, or it can not be there, and it makes no essential difference. The Chair of Peter in Rome is essentially the same as the Chair of Peter in Carthage, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, etc, etc.

However, for St. Optatus, the situation is clearly different than that. St. Optatus is still on the note of the Church’s universal endowment, and the person of Peter stands as the progenitor of the episcopate itself, with Rome being the locus. In other words, where Truglia is understanding St Optatus as merely speaking about the Chair of Peter as the individual episcopates of city churches, St. Optatus is really after the genesis of the episcopate itself.  If it were the case that St. Optatus is simply looking for the first Bishop in the first Church, he may have chosen James and the Chair of James as the paradigmatic progenitor. But it is Peter, who doesn’t occupy a church until he is miraculously released from prison in Jerusalem, and, like Paul, is  led by the Lord “into another place” (i.e. Rome), c.f. Acts 12:17. And so Peter’s first Church is Rome, establishing his mission there in 43-49, and then, most likely due to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49, Peter finds himself back in Jerusalem for the Council of Jerusalem, and from there Peter went to Antioch from 49 to 54. When Nero revoked the exile of Jews from Rome, Peter returned.

But if , as Craig is reading it, all St. Optatus has in mind is the episcopal throne in general, and its historical first place, then Jerusalem is the first chair of Peter, and James is the first occupant. But we all know this is false.

Then, St. Optatus makes synonymous the Roman chair with the chair that the Apostles (nowhere living near Rome at this time) could not rival with by claiming for themselves their own Chair. Well, how could this be if the Chair-of-Peter-phenomena were merely the local bishopric vis a vis his local flock? The other Apostles are far away on different missions, planting different local churches. Why would the Roman church serve to be a standard cathedra to which unity must be paid by the Apostles if all St. Optatus is seeking to get at with Peter/Rome is the falsification of Macrobius, successor of Victor of Garba? It makes absolutely no sense.

But we don’t even need to get our arms elbow deep into the exegesis of St. Optatus. All we would need are the contemporary witnesses, all of whom lived in different regions than St. Optatus, but who still taught the universal uniqueness of the Roman chair as the source and font of unity to the whole world. That is, after all, what St. Optatus is saying. While local bishops are the sources of unity for their respective dioceses, the Roman chair as the attribute of universal source.

The contemporary witnesses are St. Ambrose (340-397), St. Jerome (347-420), and St. Augustine (354-430). Then I will add two more witnesses who succeed St. Optatus by merely a couple generations. Keep in mind that none of these witnesses were members of the Roman Catholic Church, which Craig believes was created in the rival episcopates in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Constantinople during the Crusades. These witnesses, therefore, are baptized members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and whose authority is upheld by that very Church unto this day.

 

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St. Ambrose

 

(1) St Ambrose:

During the Papal schism between Damasus vs Ursinius, the Roman Church was devastated with the confusion of who the true Pope was. Whenever this happens, it throws the whole universal church into confusion and disarray, since the Papal throne is the universal principle of unity. It was during this time, and for this cause, that Ambrose wrote an epistle (#11 in the Ambrosian collections) to the Emperor Gratian, in order to petition Imperial support for Pope Damasus, the true occupant of the Papal throne. Ambrose writes:

“We might still have besought your Graces not to allow the Roman Church, the Head of the whole Roman world, and the sacred faith of the Apostles to be disturbed; for from thence flow all the rights of venerable Communion to all persons.”

Now, if as Craig asserts, the Roman bishopric is just as much the Chair of Peter as anywhere else in the world, then it should only diffuse the “rights of venerable communion” to the local diocese of Rome. But here St. Ambrose understands the Roman bishopric to be the source of unity and communion for “all persons”. Also notice the universal headship attributed to the Roman church. That echos Optatus as well.


 

 

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St. Augustine


(2) St Augustine

In Augustine’s Psalmus Contra Partem Donati, he utilizes the metaphor of a vine and branches (much like our Lord, c.f. John 15) to signify how the Donatists exemplify their schism from the Church. Picture the Church as the vine, the churches as branches, and the root as the chair of Peter, and then Augustine’s argument here will make perfect sense:

“Why! A faggot that is cut from the vine retains its shape. But what use is that shape if it is not living from the root? Come, brother, if you wish to be engrafted in the vine. It is grievous when we see you thus lying cut off. Number the bishops from the See of Peter. And, in that order of fathers, see whom succeeded whom. This is the Rock which the proud gates of hades do not conquer. All who rejoice in peace, only judge truly.”

Furthermore, in his Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, Augustine gives an apologia for why he is a Catholic. He writes:

“There are many other things which most justly keep me in [the Catholic Church’s] bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. ”

Now, how do we know that Augustine understood “chair of Peter” to refer to the Roman chair? In his 53rd Epistle, Augustine writes the following, and here is it all the more important since Augustine brings up the Donatist claim of a Roman succession:

“For if the lineal succession of bishops is to be taken into account, with how much more certainty and benefit to the Church do we reckon back till we reach Peter himself, to whom, as bearing in a figure the whole Church, the Lord said: ‘Upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!’  The successor of Peter was Linus, and his successors in unbroken continuity were these: — Clement, Anacletus, Evaristus, Alexander… and Siricius, whose successor is the present Bishop Anastasius. In this order of succession no Donatist bishop is found. But, reversing the natural course of things, the Donatists sent to Rome from Africa an ordained bishop, who, putting himself at the head of a few Africans in the great metropolis, gave some notoriety to the name of ‘mountain men,’ or Cutzupits, by which they were known. Now, even although some traditor had in the course of these centuries, through inadvertence, obtained a place in that order of bishops, reaching from Peter himself to Anastasius, who now occupies that see — this fact would do no harm to the Church and to Christians having no share in the guilt of another”

In his Answer to Petilian the Donatist, Augustine writes:

“However, if all men throughout all the world were of the character which you most vainly charge them with, what has the chair done to you of the Roman Church, in which Peter sat, and which Anastasius fills today; or the chair of the Church of Jerusalem, in which James once sat, and in which John sits today, with which we are united in catholic unity, and from which you have severed yourselves by your mad fury?”

Therefore, it is very clear that, for Augustine, the Roman bishopric was the root of the universal Church, and therefore to be a broken branch from that vine is the definition of schism.


 

 

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St. Jerome


(3) St Jerome

In his 15th epistle, Jerome writes to Pope St. Damasus:

““Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds, subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord…. I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter…. 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 eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails…. He that gathers not with you scatters…”

It is obvious that Jerome understand the Petrine-inheritance of Rome to have universal embrace since he contrasts the disunity of the East with the unity of the Roman bishopric, and further states that “He that gathers not with you scatters” in reference to anyone, and not just members of the local Roman diocese.

 


 

 

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Pope St. Boniface I

 

(4) St. Boniface (422)

“The universal ordering of the Church at its birth took its origin from the office of blessed Peter, in which is found both its directing power and its supreme authority. From him, as from a source, at the time when our religion was in the stage of growth, all churches received their common order. This much is shown by the injunctions of the council of Nicaea, since it did not venture to make a decree in his regard, recognizing that nothing could be added to his dignity: in fact it knew that all had been assigned to him by the word of the Lord. So it is clear that this church is to all churches throughout the world as the head is to the members, and that whoever separates himself from it becomes an exile from the Christian religion, since he ceases to belong to its fellowship” (Pope St. Boniface, Epistle 14)

This is very significant because the argumentation of Boniface here is precisely that of Optatus. Where Peter and Rome are the “origin” , the whole episcopate derives its vital efficacy from Peter. But, contrary to Craig, Boniface here teaches Rome is the principle of unity , by divine law, for the universal Church, and therefore the understanding of schism by Boniface would be unequal to Craig’s.


 

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St. Leo the Great

 

(5) St Leo the Great

“And though they have a common dignity, yet they have not uniform rank; inasmuch as even among the blessed Apostles, notwithstanding the similarity of their honourable estate, there was a certain distinction of power, and while the election of them all was equal, yet it was given to one to take the lead of the rest. From which model has arisen a distinction between bishops also, and by an important ordinance it has been provided that every one should not claim everything for himself: but that there should be in each province one whose opinion should have the priority among the brethren: and again that certain whose appointment is in the greater cities should undertake a fuller responsibility, through whom the care of the universal Church should converge towards Peter’s one seat, and nothing anywhere should be separated from its Head” (Epistle 14)

This is also important. Here Leo understands that the Petrine primacy serves as a model , not just for bishops, but also for archbishops. And yet, Leo understands that the unity of the churches converge at Peter’s one seat in Rome, thereby lending to the interpretation which sees Rome as the universal principle of unity.

6 thoughts on “Saint Optatus on Schism : A Critique of an Eastern Orthodox Interpretation

  1. Even if we just take the claim that the Peter-rock identification means that “the Petrine-priesthood of which all bishops partake of” and ” the foundation of the priestly structure,” , this is still a seriously Catholic claim.

    Because it would mean Peter the Apostle is the source and fountain-head of the priesthood as such, and that Peter is signified as the foundation of the priestly structure. If Peter in the end is nothing special, then the priesthood wouldn’t have been founded and identified upon him specifically at all. Yet the very name of Peter is associated with the priesthood as it’s foundation. Peter = the Priesthood.

    The fact that the very principle of the priesthood is rooted in Peter obviously suggests more than what Anglicans or others may say.

  2. I am not going to attempt a full blow rebuttal, though I would commend those reading to look at my article which literally quotes everything St Optatus has to say on the topic–as for citing “authorities,” I can cite Guyette, Denny, (in the past) and the majority of contemporary Roman Catholic scholarship (though liberal) which views the Papacy as a development. So, I think it actually hurts Erick’s position to begin quoting a few scholars, because in reality, Erick himself admitted that the scholars would look at him like he was “big bird” for his traditional view of the papacy and its origins–something the majority of scholarship rejects.

    I am not a supposed “expert,” so I am not going to respond categorically to the topic but to what I have read here and what I have read in Optatus’ writings themselves. As for scholarship, what both Erick and I are doing is in the sense important because we are pushing back against scholarship, which is essentially liberal Protestant and secular in its orientation. So, I appeal straight to the texts, and not the scholars, because if we appeal to the scholars and we are consistent in doing so we eviscerate our own positions respectively.

    Last;y, let no reader take this as an attack on Erick, or on his work or studies.

    Let me state this. St Optatus makes a simple argument: second chairs are schismatic because all first chairs originate in Peter.

    Erick confidently writes:

    “But if , as Craig is reading it, all St. Optatus has in mind is the episcopal throne in general, and its historical first place, then Jerusalem is the first chair of Peter, and James is the first occupant. But we all know this is false.”

    However, this contradicts St Clement of Alexandria who, as recorded by Eusebius, wrote:

    “Then James, whom the ancients surnamed the Just on account of the excellence of his virtue, is recorded to have been the first to be made bishop of the church of Jerusalem…But Clement in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes writes thus: For they say that Peter and James and John after the ascension of our Saviour, as if also preferred by our Lord, strove not after honor, but chose James the Just bishop of Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastical History, Book 2, Chap 1, Par. 2-3)

    So, while Erick may try to backpedal, his historical mistake here underscores that he fundamentally misapprehendsnot only my presentation of the Orthodox interpretation during our debate (where I cited all of these things), but Saint Optatus himself.

    Erick, in his plethora of quotes which were not commenting on the origin of the Petrine Bishopric and the ramifications of this on every Church being Petrine, failed to quote St Cyprian:

    “…that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity” (Saint Cyprian, Treatise 1, Chap 4).

    So, this idea from Eusebius and Optatus that all legitimate Bishops have their origin in Peter is not some sort of fancy Orthodox apologetic. It is plainly in the fathers. The significance of Peter is in that there is an original succession of Bishops and when that succession is broken by a usurper, schism is immediately identified (such as Novatian, according to Cyprian.)

    Why then act incredulous at my argument when Optatus literally presents this idea explicitly, but never explicitly teaches that communion with Rome itself is the chief hallmark of communion? The chief hallmark of communion, according to Optatus and not a bunch of “inferences” which Erick thinks are so justified, are not to have a parallel Bishopric and “communion with the whole world.” This is not me being pithy–this is what Optatus explicitly states. I do not need to infer anything to assert this.

    To the contrary, this is why Erick’s article here relies completely upon inferences and a misapprehension of Petrine succession. If every Bishop is a Peter, then it is simply the task of the observer of schism to find out who is not Peter (i.e. the original Bishop in each see going all the way back to Peter.) So, to make Jerusalem’s succession a “problem” undoes the Orthodox viewpoint, but Erick cannot do this (though he tried.) The inferences are an attempt to undo what Optatus wrote, but he can only do that if readers are going to take what Erick infers above what a saint actually says (something I think Erick himself would caution people against.). He cannot undo Optatus, or Cyprian who had a council of North Africans rejecting Papal Supremacy, nor any of the other writers he quoted if we likewise scrutinized each one of them in more detail, as I have scrutinized Optatus’ in my own article.

    I will leave my reply here and commend everyone to the corpus of Cyprian’s and Optatus’ writings on the subject. As for Augustine, that is a topic which I’ll have to tackle some other time, perhaps.

    God bless,
    Craig

    • Alright, thanks for expanding here.

      I have been reading and writing on St. Optatus for years now, and if you read any of the articles I have on this website or on the Papal Primacy FB Group, I have always gladly recognized that, for Optatus, all bishops have their office originating in the Apostle Peter. So why is this point being brought to bear against my argument? It is embedded into my very stated position. It is strongly emphasized over and over again in all the articles I have on this subject. Craig’s continued efforts to try and wake-me-up to this reality therefore are a wasted effort.

      Again, if we can compare the priesthood to a font and the stream which comes out of that font, Peter was made the font or source, and all who are ordained to the priesthood flow out of this Petrine stream.

      So the Petrine-font is the “Chair of Peter” which is the origin, source, or font of the divinely instituted episcopal government (i.e. the priesthood, is what I prefer). For Optatus, this Petrine-font itself is not just a phenomena which replicates itself in the first bishop of every city-church. This Petrine-font has an historical representative where it all begins, and Optatus’s first point is to describe who and where this Petrine-font historically begins. And this is where Rome is brought into the picture.

      For Craig, there is only one reason why Rome comes into the picture, out of nowhere. In his interpretation, Optatus only brings Rome up so as to prove that Macrobius is a usurping Bishop of the Donatist “priesthood” in the Roman city, and that his “chair” is a separate priesthood than the original. But such a fine and specific point is simply not where Optatus is going initially. He is intending to tell the Donatist where the origin of “the” cathedra is, not just “one” cathedra among many (even though they are the same)

      Because Optatus is looking to identify the one-and-first cathedra, showing the origin of the whole priesthood altogether (and not just Rome), what we are speaking about here is a source which has a universal relation to all bishops. A foundation to a building has a relation to the entirety of the building a top. A brick on the 4th floor has a relation to the rest of the building, but a different relation than the foundation. In the same way, the chair of Peter is the foundation of the whole priesthood, and therefore the rock-chair of Peter is unique in that, unlike other bishops, this chair embraces all.

      This is why St. Cyprian of Carthage describes Rome as “…the chair of Peter, the principal church, from whence the unity of the priesthood took its rise”. Cyprian is speaking about a founding relation of the Church of Rome to all other churches. In other words, the by using the adjective “principal” to modify “church”, he is positing a relation of the Roman Church to all other churches, whereas the Macrobius vs Damasus rivalry only has local significance. In other words, the Church of Rome is the “principiate” of the priesthood, as many of the Church Fathers say. Craig’s exegesis of Optatus has no room for this sort of speak. Sure, maybe an honorific status because Paul preached there and suffered glorious martyrdom. Peter preached and suffered the same. By the blood of these two Saints, the church of Rome arises to this pre-eminence of honor and remembrance. But this is not the line-of-thinking that Optatus and Cyprian are working with. They are speaking about a vital and organic origin to the literal priesthood of the Church.

      As for the ordination of St. James to the bishopric of Jerusalem, I see no reason to back pedal from anything I’ve said. As I’ve explained above, when Optatus introduces the “cathedra”, he doesn’t bring in Rome because he has this knee-jerk desire to get at the Macrobius vs. Damasus situation (that comes afterwards). Rather, Optatus is searching for the Chair which even the Apostles could not replicate amongst themselves, namely, the founding original chair of all chairs. With Craig’s exegesis, there is nothing about the Chair of Rome that binds the Apostles. Why would it? It is just as much the Chair of Peter as the Chair of Jerusalem. Why would the Chair in Rome carry this privilege of being indivisible among the Apostles if all that Optatus wants to show is that Rome vis-a-vis Damasus and Macrobius has one chair which first belonged to Peter and is now held by Damasus. But, the better reading of Optatus sees a far more general principle being made.

      Finally, I know not how to labor more to explain this. Yes, the Chair of Carthage is the Chair of Peter, but it is not the founding Chair of Peter vis-a-vis the universal Church. The founding chair of Peter is that which was given to Peter by the Lord, even several years before his travels to Rome. When Cyprian speaks of the “Chair of Peter”, the locus is not the Roman city, per se, but the voice of our Savior to Simon in Caesarea-Philippi. It is not this or that city-Church, but something which is there in the Apostolic College before any church is even planted. Now, while that is true, Peter carried the Chairmanship wherever he went, and no one else had this but himself. When he traveled to Rome, he stationed his chair there, and this is what draws the attention of Optatus.

      • Craig,

        My explanation here is the point that Optatus is making. He is after the genesis of the universal episcopate, not merely the genesis of individual episcopates. How do we know that? Because he says the following:

        “Peter, that is to say, the first of our line” (2.4)

        How could Peter be the “first” of the line of the city-Church of Milevis? Optatus said Peter received the cathedra *in Rome*, not anywhere in Africa. So how in the world is Peter the “first” for the African episcopal line? Or for every other episcopal line? That is because, for Optatus, Peter is the genesis of the episcopate itself, and that genesis is the Roman bishopric, unto which the Apostles could not rival otherwise there would be more than one cathedra.

  3. In my opinion the foundations for the Papacy are laid and testified to clearly in the Gospels. The special relationship between Peter and Christ is constant. Peter’s unique and blessed profession of faith is consistently testified to. Peter’s personally being invested with the power and authority of the keys by Christ is testified to; Peter’s being personally entrusted with the supreme care of the entire of the Lord’s flock finishes off the last Gospel of John, which also ends with a picture of the Church that Christ still leads and established. All of this is sufficient and divine testimony to the reality of the divinely ordained Papacy in Christ’s Church.

    Furthermore, we know from the constant testimony of Scripture that the Lord orders all things well and becomingly, especially for His people and flock. For me, only the Catholic Church’s ecclesiology can really square with a truly divinely established society: I find all other models either woefully insufficient for maintaining unity, order and good governance or outright contradictory and anarchistic.

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