The Papacy

The Monarchial Episcopate

by Mark Bonocore


So, at the time of Ignatius, about a decade after the death of the last Apostle, we find a ***pre-existing situation***, in which the following persons are already ruling as bishops over the following (corresponding) city-churches:

Ignatius = Bishop of Antioch
Onesimus = Bishop of Ephesus (possibly Paul's disciple mentioned in Philemon)
Polycarp = Bishop Smyrna (a disciple of the Apostle John)
Damas = Bishop of Magnesia
Polybius = Bishop of Tralles
[Unnamed] = Bishop of Philadelphia.

So, here, at the very end of the Apostolic age, we have 6 separate city-churches --3 of which the Apostle John himself had recently addressed in the Book of Revelation (Ephesus, Smyrna, and Philadelphia), and 1 which was an unquestionable Apostolic "headquarters" (Antioch) being governed by monarchial bishops. What's more, Ignatius of Antioch, the supposed "inventor" of the monarchial bishop's office, had never visited any of these other churches before. Yet, they all possess monarchial bishops before he gets there. So, with this being the case, one cannot help but ask the question: Who appointed all these monarchial bishops??? ...Especially in places such as Ephesus, Smyrna, and Philadelphia, over which the Apostle John himself had so recently wielded authority (and over the **very same**, still-living Christians who Ignatius addresses in his epistles). Isn't it the most likely and sensible conclusion that St. John himself appointed these bishops to be the leading shepherds of the Asian city-churches in his absence? And, if this is the case, then who appointed Ignatius as monarchial Bishop of far-off Antioch? Given that Antioch was also clearly an Apostolic city-church, it serves to reason that some other Apostle (or the successor of an Apostle) appointed him to the office of monarchial bishop as well (just as Eusebius of Caesarea, St. John Chrysostom, and several other fathers claim about Ignatius). And, if this is the case (as we will see from Scripture itself below), then the office of monarchial bishop was established by the Apostles themselves, and was not some "later development" as Protestants and other modernist wish us to believe.

Ah! But, while all this may be fine for Eastern city-churches like Antioch and Asia, what about Western churches, such as the church of Rome? After all, Ignatius doesn't address a "bishop of Rome" or speak to the Romans as he does to the other (Asian) churches he writes to, telling them to remain faithful to their bishops, etc. So, shouldn't we therefore conclude that the situation was different in Rome, and that Rome was ruled by a "college of equal presbyters" instead? No, we should not. :-) And, for several reasons ...

First of all, it is very true to say that Ignatius speaks to Rome differently than he does to the other city-churches he writes to. To all the others, he gives authoritative teaching and instruction. Yet, his Epistle to Rome is written to a superior authority, to which he does not offer teaching or instruction, but merely begs them not to interfere with his impeding martyrdom in the Roman arena (i.e., many Roman Christians had influential friends in the imperial courts who could have possibly saved St. Ignatius' life, or at least postponed his execution on appeal).

Secondly, critics of the Catholic position are quite right that Ignatius never addresses a "bishop of Rome." However, he never addresses a "college of presbyters" either! In fact, Ignatius never addresses **any** presiding authority for the Roman church, but merely speaks of the Roman church itself as authoritative! For any student of ancient Christianity, this is far from unusual, because a church and the governors of a church were frequently spoken of as one and the same thing (just as the Jews of the Diaspora spoke of the authority of "Jerusalem," when, in actuality, they were referring to the authority of the Sanhedrin presided over by the High Priest). So, those who wish to argue for a phantom "college of equal presbyters" presiding as some "democratic body" over the Roman church in Ignatius' day need to explain to us why the Bishop of Antioch never bothers to address them, as he does the other bishops, presbyters, and deacons of the Asian city-churches. ...And they also need to explain why Ignatius refers to himself as a monarchial bishop when addressing the Romans (as if it was an acceptable and understandable idea), when the Romans were supposedly ignorant of such a concept in their own ecclesiology. Once again, he writes ...

"Remember in your prayers the church of Syria (Antioch), which now has God for its BISHOP instead of ME." (Ignatius TO THE ROMANS, Conclusion)

Furthermore, if one bothers to appreciate the historical context involved, it is quite understandable why Ignatius fails to address a Bishop of Rome in his epistle. It is because, by addressing the Roman bishop by name, Ignatius would have been signing this man's death warrant. In this, one needs to appreciate who and what Ignatius himself was. As Bishop of Antioch, Ignatius was the leading Christian of all Asia. According to Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) oral Tradition, the Apostle Peter set up three primary city-churches (later called "patriarchates"): Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch (in that order of primacy); and these were responsible for maintaining unity throughout the universal Church. As a matter of geographic practicality, the church of Rome was responsible for directly governing Europe and the West; Alexandria was responsible for Egypt, Libya, and East Africa (Ethiopia); and Antioch held immediate primacy in Syria, Anatolia (including the city-churches of Asia) and the Far East (including the spice roads to India and China). In this way, Church unity could be maintained throughout the entire known world. And so, by arresting Ignatius of Antioch, the pagan imperial government had captured one of the most important "ring leaders" of the "Christian cult." All the other Christian bishops (such as Polycarp in Smyrna) would have been regarded as "small potatos," with the exception of the Bishop of Alexandria or, even better, the Bishop of Rome.

Indeed, as one reads Ignatius' epistles, one will notice that the captured saint is being transported from Antioch in Syria to Rome in Italy ***by overland route** (through Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Illyria) at a time of year when sailing would be far easier and quicker. (This is in stark contrast to St. Paul's **oversea** journey to Rome in Acts, where he is shipwrecked precisely because it was a bad time of year to sail). So, the question arises: Why are these imperial officials transporting St. Ignatius by land? Answer: It is because they wished to **parade** their very important captive before the Christians along the way as a sobering example of what was in-store for them if they did not submit to imperial paganism, etc. This is also why Ignatius was permitted to stay with Christian communities along the way and interact with fellow-bishops like St. Polycarp. So, for this reason alone, it is clear why Ignatius (primate of the Church in Asia) would not identify the Bishop of Rome in writing. This was merely a sign of the times. And so, Ignatius uses very couched language when speaking to the Romans; but still makes reference to Roman primacy (something the imperial government was already aware of).

Lastly ... As I will address again later in my responses to Mr. White's direct criticisms, in Chapter III of his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius clearly says:

"...and also BISHOPS, settled EVERYWHERE, to the UTMOST BOUNDS OF THE EARTH, are so by the will of Jesus Christ."

Here, once again, we must remember that, for Ignatius, "bishop" was a term that exclusively referred to the leading presbyter of a city-church. Thus, if "bishops" were "settled everywhere, to the utmost bounds of the earth" in Ignatius' day, then there was clearly a Bishop of Rome as well. And, anyone who wishes to deny that, or maintain that Ignatius only recognized some "college of equal presbyters" governing the city-church of Rome, must explain away this direct statement by Ignatius.

Furthermore, aside from the contextual reasons why Ignatius does not mention a "bishop" for Rome, there were also, as I said, probable semantic ones. Given the fact (as the New Testament illustrates) that the earliest Christians used the terms "bishop" and "presbyter" interchangeably; and assuming that the Ignatian semantic (in which "bishop" is used exclusively for the monarchial leader of a city-church) probably developed first in the East, it would therefore serve to reason that, at the time of Ignatius, the West was still using the original (interchangeable) New Testament terminology, as oppose to the newer (Ignatian) terminology. And very hard evidence for this presents itself in the case of Ignatius' associate St. Polycarp of Smyrna --one of the monarchial bishops who Ignatius meets (and later writes to) during his overland journey to Rome.

Indeed, as we've already seen, Polycarp is unquestionably the monarchial bishop of the city-church of Smyrna:

"I salute your most worthy BISHOP POLYCARP, and your venerable presbyters, and your Christ-bearing deacons, my fellow servants..." (Ignatius TO THE SMYRNEANS, Chapter XI)

And Ignatius speaks of Polycarp as a monarchial bishop again and again in the two separate epistles he sends to him (i.e., "Ignatius to the Smyrneans" and "Ignatius to Polycarp"). Yet, in the months that follow, as Polycarp corresponds with the **Western** (European) city-church of Philipi (in Macedonia), first to check on Ignatius' welfare and then to give them encouragement and advice, we notice a very significant change in the semantic. For, while (in an Asian context) Polycarp is directly called "the bishop" of Smyrna, while addressing the Western (European) Philippians, Polycarp instead identifies himself as...

"Polycarp, ****and the presbyters with him*****, to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi: Mercy to you, and peace from God Almighty, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, be multiplied." (Polycarp to the Philippians, Introduction)

This formula strongly implies a different semantic for the Philippian city-church, as well as the other city-churches of the European West. In other words, the Europeans were not yet using the **term** "bishop" to mean the leading presbyter of a city-church (e.g. Polycarp), but were still apparently utilizing the original, New Testament semantic, in which "bishop" and "presbyter" were interchangeable terms. And, this being the case, it is no wonder that Ignatius, Polycarp, and other contemporary (or earlier) patristic sources do not impose the Asian **terminology** on Rome or the other early Western city-churches. So, the solution is a semantic one; and there was no "later development" of the office of bishop itself. Indeed, if we only possessed Polycarp's "Epistle to the Philippians," and not Ignatius' two epistles "To Smyrna" and "To Polycarp" (in which he repeatedly identifies Polycarp as the monarchial bishop of Smyrna) James White and others like him would, not doubt, try to argue that Polycarp was merely an "equal member" of the Smyrnean college or presbyters, as opposed to its presiding head. :-) However, the naked truth is that no early city-church was ever governed by a "college of equal presbyters"; but rather, like the synagogue system that preceded the city-church, there was always a leading figure who presided as its head. And this fact becomes even more apparent when we turn to the Scriptural evidence.

Mark Bonocore
Catholic Apologist
July 19, 2002