Arthur Middleton on the Apostolic Tradition

From the beginning of the second century onwards, there is clear testimony as to a rule exercised by the bishops of the Church. It is what we see in Timothy, Titus and Paul, and regards him as holding an authority, which is his because of divine appointment like the Apostles. So the bishop held his episcopate by means of his spiritual descent from the Apostles and, through them, from our Lord himself.


In St Hippolytus of Rome’s treatise on The Apostolic Tradition, c,215 AD, his quarrel with the Church was his opposition to current official innovations in discipline and practice, so he wrote a pamphlet to correct this by a public appeal to older custom. This work greatly influenced the East, in Syria and Egypt, and was known as The Egyptian Church Order, Its inclusion in this `Church Order’ literature saved it from extinction. This work contains two closely connected works, Concerning Ordinations, and On Charismata. In the latter, Hippolytus’ concern is not to depreciate those with special spiritual gifts. He cautions them against boasting superiority over those — who have the ordinary spiritual gifts of the Christian and against those who have the special gifts of the ministry. So his purpose is polemical and his context is the Church’s struggle with Montanism.

The notion that the current movement to feminize Holy Order is a modern and thereby progressive move is mistaken. It has happened before. Montanism gave to the prophet the power to absolve and allowed women to celebrate the Eucharist. Firmilian writing to Cyprian speaks of female priests and bishops among the Quintilianists. Not until Epiphanius (fourth century) were there reports of female clergy in an offshoot of the sect. It willbe worthwhile to digress here to get a picture of the situation that makes today’s movement for female priests read like an action replay. These women were active as presbyters, and their ordination was justified by the text Galatians 3.28. The difference between the sexes was held to play no role, for in Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female.


This same argument serves today as a password in feminist writings about the ordination of women. What Epiphanius and Firmilian describe reflects a milieu that has its roots in Phrygian Montanism and Epiphanius elaborates sources from the foundational period of the sect. Epiphanius counters their Pauline justification with relevant statements by the apostle combining 1 Corinthians 14.34 with 1 Timothy 2.12 and makes reference to the Pauline statements on the order of creation in 1 Corinthians 11.8. The Montanists `ignore the word of the apostle’.

Since the Montanists claimed support — in addition to citing the example of Old and New Testament prophetesses — from Eve, who had eaten from the tree of knowledge, Epiphanius, using Paul, counters with: Adam was not deceived, but first Eve was deceived and became a transgressor: Like other early Church authors, Epiphanius also cites the Yahwist’s account of the Fall, `Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you:

Thus, the deciding argument for the refusal of female priesthood is the appeal to Pauline directives, supplemented with an important consideration, that if women were to have priesthood conferred on them then why not Mary, who would have been more eminently suited than any woman? Furthermore it was John not Mary who baptized Jesus.

The female priesthood of the `Quintillians’ is connected with a theology that — perhaps linked in turn to Galatians 3.28 — regards Christ as androgynous. Epiphanius records the following vision Priscilla the prophetess had at the time of the founding of Montanism: In the form of a woman — so she said — Christ came to me in radiant garb’.

Social influences

The socio-cultural context of Montanism was an influential factor in this movement. In Phrygian paganism, the godmother Cybele was central to its worship, which may have had a subconscious effect on Priscilla’s vision, in which Christ appears as a woman. If Jerome is right, Montanus — the founder of the sect — had earlier been a priest of Cybele.

This created a new hierarchy with new claims, a prophetic succession over against the Episcopal succession, and derived from what was seen as a new revelation to bring new gifts lacking in the Church’s ministry that depreciated the apostolic hierarchy and its apostolic tradition.

In principle this was the problem dealt with in Concerning Spiritual Gifts. The claim to a new revelation and more specifically to a superior kind of ministry emanating from prophets and wonder-workers is treated as novelty by this catholic author and apologist for apostolic order. He argues that the whole apostolic tradition negates such novel claims.