Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology: 18.21

Twenty-First Question: The Distinction Between Bishop and Presbyter – Is the episcopate an order or grade of ecclesiastical hierarchy distinct from the presbyterate; and is it superior by divine right? We deny.

Turretin is not concerned here with the notion of bishops as such. What he is concerned about is the notion that bishops posses authority on the basis of divine right as opposed to their being granted temporary custody of authority by a group of equals. Indeed, Turretin ends this section by commenting that while he thinks the presbyterian form of church government is closest to what Christ and the apostles instituted, he is willing to admit for other forms in different places as need for them arises. As long as people grant to him that the presbyterian form is not heretical and not cause for breaking communion between churches, he is happy to allow for other forms of ecclesial government that support the Gospel.

He does, however, offer a number of arguments to undermine the ‘divine right’ version of episcopacy:
  1. “[F]irst, the papal hierarchy has no foundation in the word of God.” (p. 200) It should have been mentioned there if bishops do in fact rule by divine right.

  2. “Second, because bishop and presbyter are everywhere in Scripture taken for one and the same…” (p. 201) Acts 20.28, Philippians 1.1, 1 Timothy 3.2, Titus, 1.5-7, Acts 11.30, Acts 14.23, Acts 15.2, 6, 22, 23.

  3. “Third, we read in Scripture of no ordination of a bishop apart from that of a presbyter.” (p. 202)

  4. “Fourth, Paul in enumerating the various orders of ministers in the church makes no mention of the episcopate.” (ibid) This is a great oversight on Paul’s part if it is as important as the Romansits say.

  5. “Fifth, presbyters as well as bishops received from Christ the same right to the keys of binding and loosing, of retaining and remitting sins by the use of the keys.” (p. 203) Turretin here hits very briefly on the relation between the apostles and their successors and, rightly in my opinion, wants to distinguish between the two.
    “It is gratuitously assumed that bishops are successors of the apostles rather than presbyters. For the apostolic preeminence and power, which depend upon their immediate and extraordinary call, no more admit successors than their infallibility and right of founding the church. In those things which belong to an ordinary ministry, all presbyters are equally successors of the apostles inasmuch as by their calling there belongs equally to them the power of the keys, the preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments…” (ibid)
  6. “Sixth, the ancients do not attribute this distinction to divine right, but to human custom.” (p. ibid) Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, Ignatius.
At this point Turretin launches into a reconstruction of how it might have happened that ecclesial order developed from a college of presbyters to an episcopate. His reconstruction is an interesting read for someone with a decent level of curiosity and a sense of humor, but it does not need to be recounted here. Turretin moves on to summing up the Roman episcopate, which he divides into three components: ‘something divine,’ ‘something human,’ and ‘something Antichristian.’ Turretin is willing to live with the something human about episcopacy, namely that it is a human development of the originally instituted order, but he wants to reject that which is antichristian about it, namely the prideful and tyrannical way in which the pope and his hierarchy exercise their authority.

N.B. This is the conclusion of my series on Turretin's ecclesiology. An index is available on the serials index page.


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