Ubi Spiritus, ibi Ecclesia? The Holy Spirit, the Church, the Patristics, and Congar

Good grief, this book is dense! I’ve just read a six-page chapter by Congar on the experience of the Holy Spirit in the early church, and had to stop & blog about it. It’s led me on an interesting lark through some of the patristic writing, and I’ll be showing my work. 😉

On p67, Congar notes that Tertullian, in the Montanist period of his life, considered that the “true Church” ought to be known “by the sign of ecstasy”, while “others” considered that “it should be known by the sign of glossolalia” (speaking in tongues).

This prompted me to consider whether one might (pace ecumenical sensitivities) argue that the modern Pentecostal or charismatic communities who hold similar views of glossolalia as an indispensable sign of true membership in the church should be dismissed as a mere reprise of heretical Montanism. Or, conversely, whether the emergence and spread of these movements might argue that the orthodox church was wrong to condemn Montanism as heresy, and that Tertullian and these unnamed “others” were right.

Both points of view are undoubtedly far too simplistic, but it is interesting to me that in all my upbringing to be suspicious of “those charismatics”, the discussion was always about emotional hysteria, and never any comparison to this early movement to which it clearly seems akin.

I was especially struck by Congar’s quoting of Irenaeus (Against Heresies, III, 24, 1):

Where the Church is, there is also the Spirit of God and where the Spirit of God is, there is also the Church and all grace.

because of its similarities to the saying from Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Smyrneans, 8:2, frequently quoted in Latin as Ubi episkopos, ibi ecclesia: Where the bishop is, there the church is. (Or more literally, “where bishop, there church”.)

Ignatius’ letter is dated to 105-115CE, while the Irenaeus text is dated to about 180CE. So although I first thought that this quotation might provide support for the argument that the papacy (or more generally the bishops) have taken on some of the attributes originally possessed by the Holy Spirit in the church, in fact the chronology does not support that in this case.

Earlier, on p65, Congar discusses the letter of Clement of Rome to the church of Corinth:

[Clement, in his letter of 95 CE], “gave [the Corinthians] this rule: Let each one of us respect in his neighbor the charisms he has received.” (XXXVIII,1) This was the same as saying “respect your presbyters”.

My first reaction was, Really? Because I would have thought this was the same as saying “respect your brother and sister Christians.” Did presbyter not yet mean a person who held a particular leadership role in the church, or is Congar projecting a clergy/lay divide back into the first century?

Looking at 1 Clement to get the context: the previous passage ending chapter 37 is reprising Paul’s metaphor of the body. (And wow, is this an unfortunate chapter break: I don’t think Clement’s argument concludes until 38:2.) Here’s the context in Lightfoot’s translation (which differs from the translation Congar was using, so I’ll bold the text in question), taken from the fabulous Early Christian Writings website:

1Clem 37:1
Let us therefore enlist ourselves, brethren, with all earnestness in
His faultless ordinances.

1Clem 37:2
Let us mark the soldiers that are enlisted under our rulers, how
exactly, how readily, how submissively, they execute the orders given

1Clem 37:3
All are not prefects, nor rulers of thousands, nor rulers of
hundreds, nor rulers of fifties, and so forth; but each man in his
own rank executeth the orders given by the king and the governors.

1Clem 37:4
The great without the small cannot exist, neither the small without
the great. There is a certain mixture in all things, and therein is

1Clem 37:5
Let us take our body as an example. The head without the feet is
nothing; so likewise the feet without the head are nothing: even the
smallest limbs of our body are necessary and useful for the whole
body: but all the members conspire and unite in subjection, that the
whole body may be saved.

1Clem 38:1
So in our case let the whole body be saved in Christ Jesus, and let
each man be subject unto his neighbor, according as also he was
appointed with his special grace.

1Clem 38:2
Let not the strong neglect the weak; and let the weak respect the
strong. Let the rich minister aid to the poor; and let the poor give
thanks to God, because He hath given him one through whom his wants
may be supplied. Let the wise display his wisdom, not in words, but
in good works. He that is lowly in mind, let him not bear testimony
to himself, but leave testimony to be borne to him by his neighbor.
He that is pure in the flesh, let him be so, and not boast, knowing
that it is Another who bestoweth his continence upon him.

It seems clear that Clement is indeed urging that the Corinthians respect those who are in authority over them, but he urges equally strongly that those who are strong, rich, and wise use their charisms for the building-up of the church.

But reading further in 1 Clement (which I think Congar must take for granted that his readers know), I see that at least part of the cause of the letter is that the church in Corinth has deposed some of those who had previously been in ecclesial authority over them:

1Clem 44:1
And our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would
be strife over the name of the bishop’s office.

1Clem 44:2
For this cause therefore, having received complete foreknowledge,
they appointed the aforesaid persons, and afterwards they provided a
continuance, that if these should fall asleep, other approved men
should succeed to their ministration. Those therefore who were
appointed by them, or afterward by other men of repute with the
consent of the whole Church, and have ministered unblamably to the
flock of Christ in lowliness of mind, peacefully and with all
modesty, and for long time have borne a good report with all these
men we consider to be unjustly thrust out from their ministration.

1Clem 44:3
For it will be no light sin for us, if we thrust out those who have
offered the gifts of the bishop’s office unblamably and holily.

1Clem 44:4
Blessed are those presbyters who have gone before, seeing that their
departure was fruitful and ripe: for they have no fear lest any one
should remove them from their appointed place.

1Clem 44:5
For we see that ye have displaced certain persons, though they were
living honorably, from the ministration which had been respected by
them blamelessly.

. . .

1Clem 47:6
It is shameful, dearly beloved, yes, utterly shameful and unworthy of
your conduct in Christ, that it should be reported that the very
steadfast and ancient Church of the Corinthians, for the sake of one
or two persons, maketh sedition against its presbyters.

(You have to smile at the idea of the church of Corinth, or any Christian church, being described as “ancient” in 95 CE!)

So on further reading, I think that Congar is fairly paraphrasing not the particular quote, but the larger thrust of Clement’s argument, when he sums up the rule as “respect your presbyters”.

Note that “bishop” and “presbyter” probably do not yet mean to Clement (or to Ignatius) what we presently understand them to mean. This is a 19th century translation by an Anglican bishop, and thus not shaped by the 20th century insights into the early development of the church. We should also remember that this argument upholding the authority of presbyters and bishops is being made by the bishop of Rome: not a disinterested party.

Discussions of institution and charism often oppose one to the other; and in modern terms, this can easily be recast onto a clergy vs lay power struggle, or indeed onto most of the struggles that either threaten to or ultimately do lead to schism. The question of the relationship between the institutional structure and office of the church, on the one hand, and the presence and gifts of the Holy Spirit, on the other, has emerged again and again in the history of the church. The orthodox answer has been to insist that this is a false dichotomy, and that both are always found together. A cynical response would point out that orthodoxy is declared by the institutions of the church, and they would say that, wouldn’t they.

No wonder Origen considered that “what was most necessary and most permanent in the church . . . was the charism of discernment”! (note 19, p71)

Congar emphasizes that when Irenaeus says “church”, he doesn’t mean only the (then still germinal) hierarchy, but means “the succession of presbyters and of the assembly of brothers [and sisters] in communion with the faith of the apostles.” (68, emphasis mine here & in the following) He goes on to say,

[Irenaeus] recognized that this Church and the Spirit conditioned each other and did so, as it were, at two different but interdependent points of entry. It was for this reason that he stressed not only that where the Spirit is there is also the Church, but also that where the Church is there is also the Spirit. The whole of the history we have to cover and the whole of the theology we must outline are contained within this dialectical tension which is too divine for us to be able to break it without betraying some aspect of it.

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