Church Order Conspectus – matter of definition

After having been added as co-author on the blog, I’d like to reply once more on the matter of defining the church order tradition, and in regards to Stewarts conspectus (see post of January 6th 2016), on which texts we could include in the list and which not.

In my dissertation, I analyze the emergence of the church orders in the context of Church history from its beginning to the early 4th century. I’ll therefore exclude here the Church Orders from the 4th to 5th centuries. I start with the premise that the texts we normally regard as Church Orders (Didache, Traditio Apostolica, Didascalia, Apostolic Church Order) share some features with regards to content. Building on Stewarts working definition, I’d propose five features:

First, the lack of a central authority in the emerging Church. Especially after the death of the Apostles, the communities were in need of a broadly accepted authority, even more so when problems went beyond singular communities or house churches. The authors present themselves as such authorities and their texts as binding for everybody.

Second, the apostolic claim and the pseudonymity. It is clearly a sign that the anonymous authors lacked authority or that they hoped to give their texts more persuasive force this way. It also originates from the fragmentation of the early church in different house communities or schools and the fact that ancient schools tended to construct some kind of lineage.

Third, questions of authority. It is apparent that Church Orders were written in contest with other Christian authorities or leaders, e.g. prophets, patrons, widows. The texts therefore deal with hierarchy and offices to regulate Church life.

Fourth, the process of canonization, which of course is complex, but most of the early Christian texts deal with the question, what is truly Christian? It leads to the formation of a canon and simultaneously, to the construction of heresy and orthodoxy. Most Christian texts deal with integration and demarcation of other doctrines or schools. So do the Church Orders, when they treat heretic literature, false teaching etc.

Fifth, problem-oriented. This is central to my argument. These texts were written to address concrete problems and questions in Christian communities, and therefore, we deal with texts written by Christians for Christians.

It is symptomatic that many modern scholars try to define the Church order tradition but fail to do so. I’m not happy neither! Steimer, Mueller, Metzger and others, in the end, always recur to the content: the attempt to “direct the conduct of Christians and of the church”. What I’d like to propose is that we should see the Church Orders in their early Christian context, and this links them to other Christian texts. There are many more texts that share all or most of the above-mentioned features. (Certainly, not all features are equally present in all texts.) And crucially, I think, some texts are not essentially different from the Church Orders, but are sometimes not called so.

We already named the Pastorals, which are in my opinion a fictional trilogy clearly with Church Order character. I’d propose the letters by the Apostolic fathers in general, although there is more differentiation necessary (we dealt with 1 Clement, but see Alexandre Faivre for reflections on other letters). But what with deutero-Pauline letters like Ephesians, Colossians, the Johannine letters?

Stewart argues that these letters were written only to one community and not to the whole Church. But then, letters were expected to be read out aloud, to circulate in a town, or sometimes to be sent on to other cities and communities (like other letters were written to be publicized, e.g. Pliny, Seneca). What is important in my opinion is that letters were clearly problem-oriented and dealt with actual questions.

The recourse to the apostolic authority is a good point too in my opinion. But where do we find it more explicit than in the deutero-Pauline letters?

Enough for now, I await vigorous opposition.

daniel vaucher





Filed under Church orders in genera(l)

2 responses to “Church Order Conspectus – matter of definition

  1. First of all I am glad to welcome Daniel Vaucher as co-author. Perhaps I should have done this long ago, but I did not realize that I could. I only found out by mistake when I pressed the wrong button on the administration page!
    Now the focus of the debate seems to have moved to defining church orders. I’m not sure that this is useful in itself as this is not an ancient category or genre, but a scholarly convenience, and if we struggle to define what we mean then that seems to be me less than convenient. However, anything that makes us think is good so…
    Vaucher proposes five circumstances which give rise to this literature:
    The lack of any central authority in the first centuries.
    The claim of apostolic authorship or claim. This relates to the first circumstance.
    The disputed claim to authority (i.e. there may be other defined groups which might claim authority.)
    The beginnings of canonization, including the construction of the boundaries of orthodoxy.
    The fact that the orders are written “for Christians by Christians” to address concrete issues in Christian communities.
    I may be slightly picky on some aspects of Vaucher’s characterizations here, but fundamentally I agree that the issue of authority (or the lack therefore) leading to an apostolic claim is significant, and also agree that these orders deal with concrete issues. My issue is with the fourth of Vaucher’s points. Whilst I welcome his observation that the origin of the church-order tradition predates the canonization of literature, beyond distinguishing Christians from Jews I do not see much in the church orders as generally recognized about the demarcation of other doctrines and schools. The church orders concentrate on practice, and not doctrine. Thus even the Didascalia which is certainly, at one level, concerned to demarcate Christians and Jews, does not major on differences regarding (say) the status of Jesus, but on purification and baptism.
    This, I think, puts a brake on including material which would end up making the whole category unusable; that is to say the orders “direct the conduct of Christians and of the church”, and do so directly.
    As a worked example of this let us take Epistula Barnabae, among the “Apostolic Fathers” (another secondary category one may note!) It is anonymous, but the attribution to Barnabas is likely to be early, if not original. It also addresses a real issue (the applicability of the ritual law of the old covenant to Christians) and is apparently addressed more generally than to a specific congregation. There is, moreover, a prima facie engagement with the church order literature through the inclusion of two-ways material, and in addition there is an underlying discussion of (the vacuum of) authority, as brought out by Smith (in his article “The Epistle of Barnabas and the Two Ways of Teaching Authority” discussed below.) Accepting that the text was generated in the same conditions and out of the same context as the church order literature means that it is helpful to have this text in mind in discussing church orders, but we come back to the fact that there is nothing whatsoever about “church order”, more narrowly defined, within the letter. It does come down to content.
    I suppose we should ask why we are even interested in church order literature. Actually looking at the dearth of comments perhaps not many people are! But those of us who are interested are probably less interested in the literature an sich (though there are fascinating intellectual problems thrown up by it) than by what the literature tells us about the realia of congregational life, about church order (episkopoi, diakonoi and the like) and, principally (certainly this was my entrée) liturgy.
    Is there really any point in expanding the category, a secondary category which is only there to be useful, until it becomes so large that it is no longer useful?
    This comment is written in great haste when there are, sadly, more pressing matters facing me. Had I but time I would also work through Ephesians and/or Colossians as an example. However, it would be remiss not to welcome Daniel Vaucher as co-author, and no welcome, I thought, would be more fitting than a shower of cold water (or even living water) on his over-heated enthusiasm.


  2. danivaucher

    Even when hasty, this was a substantial and eligible response. I’ll defend my argument rather shortly though, since I plan to write on the issue elsewhere.
    I’m convinced that we need to define the field of our research, simply in order to demarcate it. Hence we choose the Church Orders and exclude, say, the New Testament epistles, even if they <> too. I think it is better if we expand the category of Church Orders than if we focus narrow-mindedly on Did, TA, DA and CEA. Stewart’s conspectus (see earlier post) was an exemplary attempt to do so. We should simply pay more attention to the parallels and analogies between our texts and others from the same period.
    This – on the other hand – makes me agree with Stewart that the category itself is a scholarly convenience, and therefore, not very useful. In my paper on early Christian slavery I focussed on “normative” Christian texts, which included the Church Orders, but not exclusively. Again, contextual and methodological parallels to other Christian texts like the Pastorals or the Apostolic fathers.
    I do not disagree that there are substantial differences between e.g. the Didascalia, the TA or Colossians/Ephesians. But there are such differences between our Church Orders too (see Faivre, La documentation canonico-liturgique de l’église ancienne 1980!).

    Liked by 1 person

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