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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.