I have come across what appears to be a remarkable observation in the writings of St. Jerome which serves to appropriately offset his reputation as being a testimony against the ecclesiology of the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Anglican communities. As scholars recognize, St. Jerome curiously speaks of the equation between presbyters and bishops when the first Christian ordinations began (commenting on Titus, for ex), only to say that later on, due to non-dominical causes, the severance between presbyters and bishops came about. From that point, bishops obtained the sole & unique function of ordaining the clergy (including ordaining other bishops, according to the 3-to-1 rule). At times, an over emphasis on this can lead to the neglect of other things that Jerome says about the Church’s essential government. I will not belabor the statements he makes on the dominical status of the Cathedra Petri (chair of Peter) in the Roman episcopate. This latter data, in my opinion, overhauls the Protestant ammunition from Jerome. Rather, I draw attention to another place in Jerome. In his Dialogue with the Luciferians, Jerome addresses the schismatic status of this sect begun with a man named Lucifer, once bishop of Cagliari (in the island Sardinian southwest of the Italian peninsula). This Lucifer broke away from the Church, and had an associate deacon named Hilary. In the midst of his dialogue, Jerome makes a statement about the status of the community that sought to continue the legacy of Lucifer/Hilary and how this community had no ontological means to establish a real Church. The reasons for why the Luciferian/Hilarian sect could not establish itself as a real church is the focus of my post here. Let me cite what Jerome says:
“𝘚𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘏𝘪𝘭𝘢𝘳𝘺 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘦𝘧𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘊𝘩𝘶𝘳𝘤𝘩 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘰𝘯𝘭𝘺 𝘢 𝘥𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘰𝘯, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘊𝘩𝘶𝘳𝘤𝘩 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘰 𝘩𝘪𝘮, 𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘵𝘰 𝘩𝘪𝘮 𝘢𝘭𝘰𝘯𝘦, 𝘢 𝘮𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘭𝘥𝘭𝘺 𝘮𝘶𝘭𝘵𝘪𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘦, 𝘩𝘦 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘯𝘦𝘪𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 𝘥𝘶𝘭𝘺 𝘤𝘦𝘭𝘦𝘣𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘌𝘶𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘵, 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘩𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘴 𝘯𝘰 𝘣𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘱𝘴 𝘰𝘳 𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘴𝘵𝘴, 𝘯𝘰𝘳 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘩𝘦 𝘨𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘣𝘢𝘱𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘮 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘌𝘶𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘵. 𝘈𝘯𝘥 𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘪𝘴 𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘥𝘦𝘢𝘥, 𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘴𝘮𝘶𝘤𝘩 𝘢𝘴 𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘢 𝘥𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘰𝘯 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘰𝘳𝘥𝘢𝘪𝘯 𝘯𝘰 𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘧𝘰𝘭𝘭𝘰𝘸 𝘩𝘪𝘮, 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘴𝘦𝘤𝘵 𝘥𝘪𝘦𝘥 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘩𝘪𝘮. 𝑭𝒐𝒓 𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝒊𝒔 𝒏𝒐 𝒔𝒖𝒄𝒉 𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒂𝒔 𝒂 𝑪𝒉𝒖𝒓𝒄𝒉 𝒘𝒊𝒕𝒉𝒐𝒖𝒕 𝒃𝒊𝒔𝒉𝒐𝒑𝒔. ” (𝘋𝘪𝘢𝘭𝘰𝘨𝘶𝘦 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘓𝘶𝘤𝘪𝘧𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘢𝘯𝘴, 21)
Jerome notes on the status of Hilary as a deacon and how this office prevents him from celebrating the Eucharist, since only bishops and priests can serve at the altar. Moreover, as a deacon, Jerome says (what is quite obvious) that Hilary also could not ordain anyone since ordaining power is not given to man through the sacrament to the order of the diaconate. Finally, he makes the statement that there is “no such thing as a Church without bishops”, which is merely standard orthodoxy of his day, being a mere echo of the early St. Ignatius of Antioch (110 AD). What made this find interesting to me is that Jerome here seems to be speaking of an ontological incapacity of the Luciferians to have a real Church, rather than a moral or disciplinarian insufficiency. In other words, it does not appear as if Jerome is speaking of an incapacity within the Luciferians that is merely a lack of what is customarily required, but not absolutely required. On the contrary, he speaks as if the presence of bishops, who alone have the power to ordain (and therefore replenish more bishops and priests), is an ontological sine qua non for the existence of a church. Lastly, celebration of the Eucharist is impossible without bishops or priests, who are offices that a deacon cannot produce. All this spells out an ontological necessity of the episcopate for a real church.
If my observation is correct, then this (once again) serves to offset the notion that Jerome is, after all, some sort of a voice on behalf of a Church polity which sees the ordained offices of the church and the sacrament of the eucharist as more on the disciplinary side. If Jerome were a baptist, for example, then surely Hilary the deacon could replenish a true Church simply with the truth of the gospel. However, this was simply against the consensus of Christian thought. Jerome was a firm upholder of Apostolic succession as an ontological necessity for ordained offices and the ability to confect the Eucharist on the Christian altar.
[I realize scholarly Protestants don’t make this mistake]
[for lack of time, I will have to shelve the incoming questions that are bound to come in concerning Jerome’s comments about the episcopate of Alexandria which scholars have pointed to for leverage in the opposite direction than where I went with reading Jerome above]