Walter Lowrie on Early Church Bishops

In Walter Lowrie’s “interpretation” of Rudolph Sohm, a very convincing case is made that the “bishop” in the early church was a local church, a congregational, minister whose primary job was to preside over the Eucharist, which was a communal feast.  He writes:

Both Gentile and Jewish usage required a president at the feast, and this was particularly the case with regard to Passover, from which the Eucharistic feast was derived.  In the Eucharist there were two functions especially that fell to the part of the president: namely, the breaking of the bread, and the thanksgiving prayer.

~The Church and Its Organization in Primitive and Catholic Times, p 268

He adds that this bishop was selected on the basis of a personal leadership charismata.  The office was necessary for order, and there was naturally a leader who best fulfilled the office.  In the absence of such a person, however, a layman could step up and fulfill the role.  Lowrie quotes Tertullian, saying:

Are not also we laity priests?  …When there are no clergy thou makest the offering and baptizest and art priest for thyself alone.  When three are present, there is the Church, although they be laymen.

~De exhort. cast. c. 7.

To dismiss ideas that this is simply an aspect of Tertullian’s sectarianism, Lowrie adds:

Tertullian does not contend for this principle, he merely assumes it as a premise for his argument: therein lies the proof that it was not an individual opinion of his own, nor a distinctive tenet of Montanism, but a commonly accepted position, a primitive tradition which had not yet been successfully impugned.

~Lowrie, p 269

Lowrie gives extensive treatment to Ignatius, showing that this view of the bishop, that of congregational Eucharistic president, is precisely what is meant and that this is something qualitatively different from the later metropolitan system of bishops as heads of a larger jurisdiction.  Lowrie writes:

We have seen, however, that the single bishop and the whole organization of which he was the head is explained by the nature of the Eucharistic assembly… For Ignatius, the single bishop is the correlative of a single Eucharistic assembly, and he avails himself of the unity of organization which actually existed to press the plea for unity of worship.  This is his great remedy for schism.  He urges this point in all his epistles– except in that to the Romans.  In Ephs. c. 20 he says: “Assemble yourselves together in common, … to the end that ye may obey the bishop and the presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread,” etc. Ib. c. 5: “If any one be not within the precinct of the altar, he lacketh the bread of God.  For if the prayer of one and another hath so great force, how much more that of the bishop and of the whole Church…

…Let that be held a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one to whom he shall have committed it.  Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; even as wherever Jesus is, there is the catholic Church.  It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold an agape.

~ p 295

That last quote of Ignatius presses the point home: the bishop was a congregational minister.  The activities of the church were to be done in his presence, just as the Church acts in the presence of Jesus, because the bishop was regularly present at the local church.  He was to be there for every baptism or agape, except in those cases when he appoints a representative.

When the episcopacy shifted to a metropolitan administrative office, the exception became the norm, and the bishop had to appoint permanent “representatives.”  But in so doing, the presbyters effectively became Ignatian bishops, though without the name and, in a fateful shift in doctrine, without the authority.

An Image of God

From my Sunday School notes, inspired heavily by Crispin Fletcher-Louis-

Exodus 28:5-14

They shall take the gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and the fine linen, and they shall make the ephod of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine woven linen, artistically worked.  It shall have two shoulder straps joined at its two edges, and so it shall be joined together.  And the intricately woven band of the ephod, which is on it, shall be of the same workmanship, made of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine woven linen.

Then you shall take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: six of their names on one stone and six names on the other stone, in order of their birth. With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, you shall engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel. You shall set them in settings of gold. And you shall put the two stones on the shoulders of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. So Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders as a memorial. You shall also make settings of gold, and you shall make two chains of pure gold like braided cords, and fasten the braided chains to the settings.

An ephod is usually used to refer to a statue of a god (Judges 17:5; 18:14-20; Hos. 3:4; 2 Kings 23:7), and when the priest is decked out in full regalia, he is an image of God.

The ephod is also a warrior’s garment, and the priest is dressed for war.  The priests were also armed with spears, and they could kill anyone who attempted to enter into the holy places.

The Urim and Thummim are famously mysterious, but one of the best explanations comes from James Jordan when he points out that these correspond to the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet: aleph and tav.  Hebrew often uses the alphabet for ordering and numbering.  It does this in Psalm 119 and the book of Lamentations.  In Greek the Urim and Thummin would be translated as alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.  Jesus takes this imagery upon himself, as he is the great high priest.

The Church and the early church: Sweet Messiness

There seems to be an assumption that “the Church” is equivalent to a particular institution, and thus “the early church” must be a singular institution to which all of “the fathers” belonged.  Since Ignatius talks about “the bishop,” which he does, then the institution must be one of a sort of apostolic succession, or so the saying goes.

There are lots of problems with this.  Ignatius’ bishop is a local eucharistic president (see Lowrie and Sohm on this) and not a jure divino bureaucratic institution.  “The early church” consisted of several institutional churches, mainly divided along national lines, which then became theological lines: Antioch vs. Alexandria, Rome, Byzantium, Persia, Copts, etc.  “The fathers” is a variegated collection, limited to those authors (by no means a basic representation of pastors) whose works we still have.  Many of the church historians (Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret) belonged to groups considered heretical or partially heretical by today’s “Catholic” Christian.  Origen has become a heretic, but was loved by most of the fathers (Ambrose, Nyssa, Augustine).  Cyril of Alexandria probably should be held with more suspicion, and Nestorius should probably be held with less.  In fact, the Alexandrian bishops all tended to be bad dudes.

And of course, what we usually call “the fathers” tends to be limited to 3rd-6th centuries, with the Second Council of Nicaea coming in quite late in 787.  The truly “early church” are the Jewish Christians (Petrine and Jacobean Christianity) who are almost wholly lost now; there are a few exceptions to be found among the apostolic fathers and the Syriacs.

The Reformers dealt with this problem of “the Church” by appealing to the visible/invisible distinction.  This didn’t mean elect and reprobate, as it later came to mean, but rather the Holy Spirit and polity, with the goal that the two would work together, but the understanding that they did not always do so.  Thus, “the early church” and “the Church” are two very different things.

In fact, sometimes “the Church” can be best seen through actions of “the State” restricting those of the clergy.  I would put Theodosius II in this category when he arrested both parties at the Council of Ephesus and forced them into concord.  Charlemagne is also an example of this, when he rejects Nicaea II and calls the Council of Frankfurt.  This was also how the Papal Schism was settled at the imperial-powered Council of Constance.

We are still moderns though, not ready for the medieval Christendom of kings (the true Christendom), and thus we turn to hierocracy, since it still promises to subvert the state through the church (which again is not actually “the Church” at all).


I’m beginning a study on heaven that will serve as a five-part Sunday School series at my church.  The general outline so far is this:

Class 1: An Introduction to Heaven and Its Place on Earth (With Apologies to Belinda Carlisle!)
Class 2: The Temple: Gateway to God
Class 3: New Covenant and New Temple
Class 4: The Resurrection of the Body
Class 5: Heavenly Questions and Earthly Answers

I will be interacting with the popular works by N T Wright and Randy Alcorn (surprisingly good!) on this topic, as well as C S Lewis’s The Great Divorce. I’ve also got some great stuff by Bruce Chilton, Jacob Nuesnar, Margaret Barker, Gregory Beale, Jon Levenson, and Crispin Fletcher-Louis that I plan on including.  I’m excited about it.

Audio should be up on the church’s website a few days after each Sunday, and I will post links and maybe outlines to go along with them.

John Milton Against the Presbyterians


John Milton (1646)

Because you have thrown off your Prelate Lord,
And with stiff vows renounced his liturgy
To seize the widowed whore Plurality
From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorred,
Dare ye for this adjure the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free,
And ride us with a classic hierarchy
Taught ye by mere A. S. and Rutherford?
Men whose life, learning, faith and pure intent
Would have been held in high esteem with Paul
Must now be named and printed heretics
By shallow Edwards and Scotch what d’ye call:
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing worse than those of Trent,
That so the Parliament
May with their wholesome and preventive shears
Clip your phylacteries, though balk your ears,
And succor our just fears
When they shall read this clearly in your charge:
New presbyter is but old priest writ large.

Pauline Merkabah

In his very fine, but occasionally awful, Rabbi Paul, Bruce Chilton writes of Paul’s heavenly vision.  Connecting it with the both the Damascus road and the pericope of 2 Cor. 12:4, Chilton believes that Paul saw the heavenly merkabah, the chariot of Yahweh.  Chilton writes:

Within the prophetic assembly, Paul shared in the mystical ascent to the third heaven, the place where the Merkabah tradition of the time located the heavenly banquet prepared for the rabbinic sages.  He entered Paradise, the mystical Garden of Eden restored next to the divine chariot, as sages of Israel near in time to Paul also had done.  He did not know whether he was in his body or outside it.  He was “beside” himself, like Jesus (in Mark 3:21) and the Merkabah mystic Ben Zoma (Chagigah 15a in the Talmud) and Peter (Acts 10:10).  In the ecstasy of the chariot, one’s body was forgotten.


This is the same view that Alan F. Segal takes in Paul the Convert.  Both Segal and Chilton believe that Paul saw the same vision that Ezekiel saw in Ezekiel 1, as well as the larger goal of Jewish mystics.  Paul does say that he had a “revelation” in Galatians 1:12, and this of course is the same term that is applied to John’s “revelation”: apokalypsis.