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The Hatch-Harnack Theory of Early Christian Organization

The Hatch-Harnack Theory of Early Christian Organization


IN the Bampton Lectures of 1880 Edwin Hatch gave utterance to views which have been fruitful of much examination and discussion. Two fundamental conceptions shaped his exposition of early Christian organization, as there presented: (1) an emphatic view of the great importance which the subject of charities had in the first centuries among Christians; (2) a like emphatic view of the influence exercised upon the Christians by the civil and social institutions of the classic world, as opposed to a dominant influence of purely Jewish institutions.


Hatch gives both of these conceptions a prominent place in his account of the rise and development of the episcopal office, and also allows considerable scope to the second in connection with the office of presbyter.


The first century, he says, was the crisis epoch in the economic history of the Western world. Large numbers were brought down to the plane of pauperism. Even among the heathen the crying need evoked a response, and caused a special stress to be placed upon the virtue of practical philanthropy. But still the Christians were pre-eminent in works of benevolence. "Other associations were charitable; but whereas in them charity was an accident, in the Christian associations it was of the essence."


In proportion as the Church was a charitable association, Hatch argues, the chief administrator of charities in any congregation must have held an eminent position; the tendency must have been in fact to look to him as the foremost official.


A cause still further increasing the importance of the director of charities was the public way in which the benevolence was managed. Offerings for the poor were brought into the sanctuary, and their bestowment was a part of the Sunday service. The conditions suggested that the same person should be president of the service and manager of the charities. In the union of these two functions we have the primitive bishop, the This officer was the head of a congregation or local church, as being the manager of its charities and the leader of its worship.


In this description we have used the singular number; but Hatch, if we judge aright, allows us to use the plural, or to suppose that a committee of several persons shared the functions in question.


In the view of Hatch the name of the officer [], and very largely the idea of the office, were supplied by heathen society. Having noted that the heathen had numerous associations, in some of which the religious interest was foremost, he says: "If we turn to the contemporary non-Christian associations of Asia Minor and Syria--to the nearest neighbors, that is to say, of the Christian organizations--we find that the officers of administration and finance were chiefly known by one or other of two names, not far distant from one another in either form or meaning. The one of these was the other was the name which became so strongly impressed on the officers of the Christian societies as to have held its place until modern times, and which in almost all countries of both East and West has preserved its form through all the vicissitudes of its meaning,--the Greek , the English bishop."


The bishops, or chief almoners in the Christian community, as Hatch seems to infer, naturally were taken front the rank of the presbyters, and one of them was also the likeliest candidate for the chairmanship or presidency of the council of elders. By a gradual advance the office of president acquired great dignity and influence, and its incumbent was singled out as the bishop, the individual head of the local church.


The original function of the presbyters as such, Hatch contends, was purely administrative and disciplinary. They were not teachers or leaders of the worship and only gradually attained to this class of functions.


As respects the source of the presbyterate, Hatch grants that it had a prototype in Jewish communities, and holds that when such communities became Christian they simply put to the use of the new religion an already existing institute. But at the same time he thinks that Gentile communities had in their social and civil organization very distinct patterns for such an institution as the presbyterate, so that they had no need to borrow from outside. "Every municipality of the empire was managed by its curia or senate. Every one of the associations, political or religious, with which the empire swarmed, had its committee of officers. It was therefore antecedently probable, even apart from Jewish influence, that when the Gentiles who had embraced Christianity began to be sufficiently numerous in a city to require some kind of organization, that organization should take the prevailing form; that it should be not wholly, if at all, monarchical, nor wholly, though essentially, democratic, but that there should be a permanent executive consisting of a plurality of persons."


The relation between bishops and presbyters is not very clearly defined by Hatch; but he seems to assume three stages in that relation. Primarily the two terms denoted different classes of officials, the bishops being almoners and also, very generally, teachers and presidents in the Sunday service, whereas the presbyters were a board of administration and discipline. The bishops might be presbyters, but the presbyters were not necessarily bishops. Farther on [about the end of the first century] the presbyters had commonly assumed teaching and ceremonial functions, and so had become assimilated in office to the bishops. In the third stage, one in the group of officers acquired a sort of monarchical authority in the congregation, and so became a bishop in the later sense.


Harnack is at one with Hatch in the importance which he assigns to the administration of charities in the early Church, and the great influence which he assumes to have been exercised upon Christian organization by the institutions of heathen society. He differs by the larger stress which he places upon the charismatic ministry, or the ministers extraordinary, like apostles,evangelists, and prophets, whom he regards as having engrossed largely the teaching function in the Church for a considerable interval after the original apostles had passed off the stage. He differs also by supposing that the had at first no distinct official standing, being simply the elderly men of the congregation who would naturally have an influential voice in matters of common concern. His scheme implies a somewhat slower evolution of the Christian ministry towards its ultimate type than is assumed by Hatch.


In considering the merits of Hatch's theory we cannot escape the conviction that it involves certain improbabilities and difficulties. We find no adequate ground for reducing, as he does, the relative influence of Jewish institutions as models to the first Christians. For a couple of decades the Church was very closely connected with Judaism. Practical necessity must have brought about within this interval at least an incipient organization,--the general basis and framework for the future constitution. Moreover, when the Church extended her borders into the Gentile world, the chief agents of the extension were those who had been trained from childhood in Judaism and who naturally therefore were more dominated by Jewish than by Gentile patterns.


The facts which are cited by Hatch do not sufficiently sustain his theory; at any rate, various critics affirm that his Gentile the supposed prototype of the Christian official, is a rather shadowy and uncertain personage. "The proof," says Heron, "which he offers in support of his theory seems to us to be altogether inadequate. As Dr. Sanday has pointed out, the few allusions that are found to in connection with associations or temples are insufficient to prove that such use of the term was anything but occasional and rare; and M. Waddington infers from a study of the inscriptions that the Christian use of the term was derived, not from Greek associations, but from its occurrence in Syria or Palestine." Church of the Sub-Apostolic Age, pp. 202, 208.


Another objection to Hatch's theory is found in the difficulty of reconciling it with the tenor of New Testament representation, not to say also of post-apostolic literature. We find here no proper warrant for making the management of charities in so emphatic a sense the peculiar function of the primitive bishop, or for distinguishing between bishops and presbyters as to official standing. In fact, any one who believes in the genuineness of the Acts and the Pastoral Epistles cannot easily accept the theory of Hatch. As for Harnack's version of the theory, he admits that it cannot stand, if the Acts and the Pastoral Epistles are writings of the first century.

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