Jerome on the Tri-fold Ministry


In this post I will attempt to address texts in St. Jerome which are alleged to challenge the view of the tri-fold ministry’s origin, structure, and necessity held by Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican Cathlics.  I will argue that Jerome agrees with their view of the ministry.

Charles Gore’s The Church in the Ministry is an excellent piece of apologetic for the tri-fold ministry. Though his biblical arguments are helpful, they are not as great as those of Cirlot’s Apostolic Succession: is it True?. Where Gore really shines is his treatment of the patristic texts that are used against the view of the tri-fold ministry held by Orthodox, Roman, and some Anglican Catholics. On our view, the tri-fold ministry of bishop, presbyter, and deacon is three distinct offices. These offices are Apostolic institutions, and intended to be permanently distinct. Only bishops can actually confer the gift of ministry through the laying-on of hands in ordination.  Call this the first view of the tri-fold ministry.

There is a second view of the tri-fold ministry that claims to have patristic precedent and Apostolic institution.  According to this view, there are only two essentially distinct offices passed on through the succession of the laying-on of hands.  Deacons are the lower tier, and bishop and presbyter are both names for the second tier.  The New Testament teaches the identity of presbyters and bishops, and there is no transferable tri-fold ministry in Scripture that has Apostolic sanction.  Members of the second tier of ministry can ordain.  However, the Church can and should have a tri-fold ministry.  It is advantageous to Church order to do this, even if it is not necessary for the existence of the Church.  There can be a distinction between two levels of the second tier of ministry, and we can use the title bishop for the top level, and presbyter for the bottom, so long as we understand that we aren’t endorsing an essential, Apostolicly-instituted distinction between the two.

In support of this second view is usually offered the equivalence of presbyter and bishop in the New Testament, and the fact that there are strands of patristic tradition that support the equation of bishops and presbyters, including the ability of presbyters to ordain.  My purpose here is not to dispute the equation of bishop and presbyter in Scripture (I deny it, but I don’t have time to explain why or in what sense).  I will consider one standard patristic argument for this claim, namely various texts in St. Jerome that imply that bishops and presbyters are actually the same office, and that the distinction between them is one that is just necessary for Church order.  These texts are taken by proponents of the second view to imply that according to Jerome, the distinction between the bishops and presbyters is not a binding, unrevisable, authoritative institution about what is necessary for the Church to exist.

Joseph Lightfoot’s Commentary Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians and Essay on the Christian Ministry make use of several of Jerome’s citations to support the second view of the tri-fold ministry stated above.  One example of a text where Jerome seems to imply that presbyters and bishops are the same in all but name is the following:

This has been said to show that with the ancients presbyters were the same as bishops: but gradually all the responsibility was deferred to a single person, that the thickets of heresies might be rooted out.  Therefore, as presbyters know that by the custom of the Church they are subject to him who shall have been set over them, so let bishops also be aware that they are superior to presbyters more owing to custom than to any actual ordinance of the Lord.

Commentary on Titus (1:5)

It seems clear that Jerome is supporting the second view of the tri-fold ministry articulated above.  Specifically, he is denying that there is anything more to the difference between presbyter and bishop than a decision by the church to have some people in the second tier of ministry in submission to other people in the second tier of ministry.  Other aspects of Jerome’s view on the ministry include the following in Lightfoot’s excursus on “The synonymns ‘bishop’ and ‘presbyter'”:

But in the fourth century, when the fathers of the Church began to examine the apostolic records with a more critical eye, they at once detected the fact [that bishop and presbyter are the same office].  No one states it more clearly than Jerome.  ‘Among the ancients,’ he says, ‘bishops and presbyters are the same, for the one is a term of dignity, the other of age.’ [Epist. lxix (I.p.414sq., ed. Vallarsi).]  ‘The Apostle plainly shows,’  he writes in another place, ‘that presbyters are the same as bishops… It is proved most clearly that bishops and presbyters are the same.’ [Epist. cxlvi (I. p.1081)  Again in a third passage he says ‘If any one thinks the opinion that the bishops and presbyters are the same, to be not the view of the Scriptures but my own, let him study the words of the Apostle to the Phillipians,’ and in support of his view he alleges the scriptural proofs at great length [Ad Tit. i.5 (VII. p. 695).]

Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, p. 98-99

Lightfoot’s conclusion is very natural to draw: Jerome held to a view of Church government according to which presbyter and bishop are two levels of function within the same office, distinguished by the Church as a way of keeping order in response to circumstances.  It would also be very intuitive to expect that, first, Jerome would say that both levels have the same powers; second, that the trifold ministry is not a necessity produced by Apostolic institution; and third to cite examples of presbyterian ordination throughout Church history (for it would be counterintuitive to make a claim about Church order that has no precedent in Church history).

The problem is that Jerome explicitly denies the first and second points above, and implicitly denies the third point.

Speaking of the views of the ministry held by the so-called Ambrosiaster, and a commentator who was once thought to be St. Augustine, and St. Jerome, Gore points out:

…neither of these writers disputes the present authority of the threefold ministry or the limitation to bishops of the power of ordination. They do not maintain that, even in the extremest circumstances, a presbyter—a presbyter of the existing Church—could validly ordain… ‘What does a bishop do,’ says St. Jerome, even when he is minimizing the episcopate, ‘that a presbyter does not do, except ordination?’ The bishop and the presbyter are to one another as the high priest and priest of the old covenant.

Once more, they do not regard the present three-fold arrangement of the ministry as an innovation of the post-apostolic Church, so that it should lack the authority of the Apostles. The present constitution represents their ordering…

Jerome… seems to hold that, while Christ instituted only one priestly office, it was the exigencies of church life which led to its being sub-divided under apostolic sanction into the presbyterate and the episcopate. At any rate, whether the distinction was ‘ordained by Christ Himself’ or of apostolic authority, these writers were agreed that (as the names ‘bishop’ and ‘presbyter’ are used in the New Testament of the same officers) the presbyters originally were also bishops, and it was because of the dangers of rivalry and division which threatened this arrangement from the first that it was determined that in future only one power should have the authority and name of the episcopate, the rest receiving only the commission of presbyters. How much truth there is in this view is not now in question. They thought also that this original identity of the presbyterate and episcopate had left its mark on the subsequent constitution of the Church in such sense that presbyters and bishops still share a common priesthood, and that (waiving the question of confirmation) there is nothing which is reserved to a bishop except the function of ordination. Jerome used this view with powerful effect to exalt the priesthood of the presbyter, as against the arrogance of Roman deacons on the one hand, and on the other against the overweening self-assertion of bishops. It was a bad custom, he thought, which prevailed in some churches, that presbyters should not be allowed to preach in the presence of bishops. The bishops’ exalted dignity is a thorn in Jerome’s side; ‘as if they were placed in some lofty watch-tower, they scarcely deign to look at us mortals or to speak to their fellow-servants.’ [in Gal. iv.13] A priest should indeed by subject to his bishop (pontifiex) as to his spiritual father, but ‘bishops should know that they are priests, not lords, and they must give their clergy the honor of clergy, if they wish their clergy to pay them the honor of bishops.’ [Ep. lii. 7.]

Now when we have clearly considered this view, we shall see surely that it is not what it is sometimes represented as being. It is not a ‘presbyterian’ view. It does indeed carry with it the conception of the great Church order being the priesthood; it emphasizes the distinction of presbyter and bishop is nothing compared to the distinction of deacon and priest. Moreover, it involves a certain tentativeness in the process by which the Apostles are held to have established the church ministry; it admits a survival of an older constitution into the later life of the Church. But it does not carry wit it the idea that the presbyter, pure and simple, the presbyter of the settled church constitution, has the power under any circumstances to assume episcopal functions. It teaches something quite different, viz. that the earliest presbyters were ordained with episcopal functions—were, in fact, bishops as well as presbyters—till the subsequent ordination of presbyters without Episcopal functions put an end to the old arrangement and brought about—not episcopacy—but what we have called monepiscopacy.


In the appended note F “The Theory of the Ministry Held by Ambrosiaster, Jerome, etc.” Gore gives additional citations:

(b) His recognition of the apostolic authority of the [monarchical] episcopate. [trans:’…the Church, consisting of many grades, ends in deacons, presbyters, and bishops.’] (adv. Lucifer. 22) ; [trans: ‘For what function, excepting ordination, belongs to a bishop that does not also belong to a presbyter?… All (bishops) alike are successors of the Apostles’] (Ep. cxlvi. ad Evangelum). The present monoepiscopal constitution is attributed to (apostolic) decree (in Tit. i. 5): [trans: “All within this sphere is of Apostolic decree.”]* The apostles are represented as ordaining bishops and priests: [trans: “those who have been made apostles, have ordained the singular offices of the presbyterate and the episcopate.”]* (in Matt. xxv. 26).

(c) His theory of the original identity of bishops and presbyters. This he (Ep. cxlvi. ad Evangelum) proves from the language of Scripture, and continues: [trans.: ‘When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself.’] Then follows the passage about Alexandria,** and the conclusion just quoted, [trans: “‘For what function, excepting ordination, belongs to a bishop that does not also belong to a presbyter?”] So to the same effect in Tit. i. 5: “‘Likewise, any presbyter is a bishop.”* At first [trans: “the presbyterate in synod governed the Church.”]* then factions arose, ‘I am of Paul,’ etc. On this account [trans: “‘all within this sphere is of Apostolic decree so that one elected presbyter is placed in charge over the rest of the presbyterate.”]* He would therefore have the bishops in his own day recognize that [trans: “they are superior to presbyters more owing to custom than to any actual ordinance of the Lord.”] Of course this is strong language. St. Jerome does not measure words when his temper is up, as it is with the bishops. But even so I do not think it can be fairly taken to mean that Jerome ever held a presbyter of his own day to be the same as a bishop, even in an extreme case. The conclusion he draws in the text is only that bishops should govern the Church ‘in commune,’ i.e. with the co-operation of the presbyters, ‘in imitation of Moses, who, when he had it in his power to rule the people alone, chose seventy elders to judge the people with him.’ Still earlier he had said, in the adv. Lucifer. 9: [trans.: ‘the well-being of a Church depends upon the dignity of its chief-priest, and unless some extraordinary and unique functions be assigned to him, we shall have as many schisms in the Churches as there are priests.’] The distinctive powers of the bishop had their origin, according to Jerome, in moral necessities, but those necessities were paramount, and the result of the change involved in the limitation of the episcopate was one that could not be reversed.

p. 337-338

(Translations above are borrowed from Schaff and Wace’s Vol 6 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers unless otherwise noted in the asterisks.)

Though Gore does not quote it to my knowledge, there is a translated statement by Jerome in the Schaff and Wade series which pertains to the monarchical episcopate as an Apostolic institution. Jerome is trying to criticize the beliefs of a person who is proposing that deacons are equal to presbyters. In his letter CXLVI to Evangelus, Jerome states:

Of the names presbyter and bishop the first denotes age, the second rank. In writing both to Titus and to Timothy the apostle speaks of the ordination of the bishops and of deacons, but says not a word of the ordination of presbyters; for the fact is that the word bishops includes presbyters also. Again when a man is promoted it is from a lower place to a higher. Either then a presbyter should be ordained a deacon, from the lesser office, that is, to the more important, to prove that a presbyter is inferior to a deacon; or if on the other hand it is the deacon that is ordained presbyter, this latter should recognize that, although he may be less highly paid than a deacon, he is superior to him in virtue of his priesthood. In fact as if to tell us that the traditions handed down by the apostles were taken by them from the old testament, bishops, presbyters, and deacons occupy in the church the same positions as those which were occupied by Aaron, his sons, and the Levites in the temple.

At first it might seem that Jerome is saying that presbyters and bishops are simply the same thing. And it is true that initially the bishops and presbyters were identical according to Jerome. But as he stated earlier in the letter, Jerome thinks that “subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself.” Why, then, does Jerome keep emphasizing the equivalence of presbyters and bishops in the Apostolic age?  The answer is obvious when we consider the context of the letter.  By exalting the presbyterate into identification with the episcopate, he can undercut the assumption that deacons could be equal to presbyters.  The argument, then, is something like this:

1. Deacons can’t be equal to bishops

2. Anything that could be equal to a bishop is greater than a deacon

3. Therefore if presbyters can be equal to bishops, then presbyters are greater than deacons

4. Presbyters were once bishops (and thus they can be equal to bishops)

Conclusion: therefore, presbyters are greater than deacons.

Clearly Jerome thinks that in the present age, a bishop and a presbyter are not identical.  The question that then needs to be addressed is “when and by whom did this change come about?”  Apparently, Jerome identifies the source of the change with the Apostles.  For he thinks that the present, fixed character of the tri-fold ministry (where bishops have a power that presbyters don’t–ordination, as he stated earlier in the letter) is “handed down by the Apostles”.  The quote above also emphasizes the distinctness of their ministries by comparing presbyter with Aaron’s sons and bishop with Aaron himself.  The difference is one between priests and high priest (something which hearkens back to The Didache and St. Hippolytus’ On the Apostolic Tradition).  Although this isn’t as great a difference as that between Aaron’s sons and the Levites, high priesthood is clearly different from and inherently above preisthood simpliciter; and this isn’t merely a matter of function, but of office.

We have addressed issues 1 and 2 that we would expect Jerome to agree with.  First, it has been shown that he thinks that the bishop alone can ordain; he denies this power to the presbyter.  Subsequent argument about the Episcopate in Alexandria will make this even clearer than already.  Second, it has been established that the three distinct offices are Apostolic institutions.  The explanation, therefore, for why Jerome says that bishops are superior to presbyters “more owing to custom than to any actual ordinance of the Lord” is that the common priesthood of the bishop and presbyter is an ordinance of the Lord; Christ, of course, directly instituted the priesthood.  This is being contrasted with the way that presbyter and bishop became distinct.  It wasn’t Christ speaking directly, but an Apostolic decision, that divided the directly divinely-ordained priesthood into two levels.  This fits perfectly with Jerome’s attempts to emphasize the similarity between presbyter and bishop; the bishop is not superior because Christ made his office superior directly, but because the Apostles did, which is not as big of a deal.

Next we must examine a portion of Jerome’s Letter to Evangelus where he tries to support the similarity between presbyter and bishop by means of, first, an explanation of how the two offices became distinct, and then an example from Church history of how closely-related the two offices are.  Jerome writes:

When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself.  For even at Alexandria from the time of Mark the Evangelist until the episcopates of Heraclas and Dionysius the presbyters always named as bishop one of their own number chosen by themselves and set in a more exalted position, just as an army elects a general, or as deacons appoint one of themselves whom they know to be diligent and call him archdeacon.  For what function, excepting ordination, belongs to a bishop that does not also belong to a presbyter?

As stated above, the fact that presbyter and bishop were subsequently distinguished by means of an Apostolic decision and not directly by Christ helps to emphasize how similar they are.  The example Jerome gives also shows presbyters having functions like those of bishops, further closing the gap between the two offices.  At this point, many presbyterians have arued that Jerome is giving an example of presbyterian ordination: he is saying that Alexandrian presbyters ordained the bishop in Alexandria.  If this is what Jerome is saying, and he approves of this as valid ordination, then he agrees with the second theory of the tri-fold ministry or else is a presbyterian.  And if this is an accurate report of Church practice, it would be a counterexample to the claim that only occupants of the third tier of ministry (bishops and Apostles) can ordain.

But is this what Jerome is saying?  Here, I will simply quote Cirlot’s excellent and thorough treatment of this issue.  Concerning Alexandrian ordinations, Cirlot writes:

St. Jerome compares what happened at Alexandria, according to his information, to an army making their general, and to deacons choosing one of themselves whom they knew to be industrious, and calling him archdeacons.

Neither of [these illustrations] chosen by St. Jerome supports the idea of the presbyters ordaining their own Bishop…

[Jerome would have a strong argument] if he had been able to argue that even in his day the only thing that a Bishop could do which a presbyter could not do was to ordain, and that in Alexandria as recently as the second quarter of the preceding century the presbyters had still enjoyed even that privilege.

I am aware, of course, that this is exactly what some take St. Jerome to mean by what he has written. But if it is what he meant, he has certainly not made the strongest possible statement of his case. He has, on that hypothesis, passed lightly over the strongest single point in his argument, trusting the tense of the verb to do unaided what could have been done much better by some such adverbial phrase as “even today” added to the verb facit when he adds, “Quid enim facit excepta ordinatione episcopus, quod presbyter non faciat?” Nor has he used one of the words commonly used to express ordination, or even appointment, but rather the Latin words “unum ex se electum” and “in excelsiori gradu collocatum episcopum nominabant.” … the words electum, collacatum, and nominibant are not the usual words used for this purpose, and that the words commonly employed are conspicuous by their absence from St. Jerome’s vocabulary in the crucial sentence, through he shows his knowledge of their proper use by saying excepta ordinatione in the sentence immediately following. On the whole, then, it seems not unfair to say that the very thing St. Jerome has failed to say, even though it would have strengthened his case to say it clearly and explicitly, and even though it would have been perfectly easy to say in a vocabulary already well established, is that the Alexandrian presbyters not only chose their own Bishop out of their number, but ordained him. Certainly neither of the examples he has chosen gives any countenance to that conception.

Y. But perhaps it will be objected, “If he did not mean that, then what did he mean?” I think he could have meant at least two other things, both quite different from the interpretation we have rejected just above. One of these is that the new Bishop-elect did not receive any additional ordination, because the situation St. Jerome believed to be primitive and original everywhere had survived at Alexandria down to the Episcopates of Heraclas and Dionysius, and consequently it was fully understood by all that when a presbyter was ordained at Alexandria it was intended that he would afterward need only election and installation but no additional Ordination to succeed to the Episcopate.

Apostolic Succession: is it True? p.373-374

Cirlot concludes that this second view is more plausible than the first. But he gives several arguments (which I will summarize) that these first two interpretations are both implausible. If we assume that one of the first two interpretations is correct, then we run into these problems:

1. St. Epiphanius, a contemporary of Jerome disputed with an Alexandrian presbyter named Aerius over the validity of Presbyterian ordinations. But if Jerome’s idea was historically serious, then Aerius would have used it. But Epiphanius doesn’t have to deal with it as an objection.

2. No indication is given in St. Clement of Alexandria or Origen (both contemporaries of the phenomena described) that there was any difference in ordination at Alexandria.

3. St. Clement thinks that the Apostle John had to go to surrounding Churches to ordain after his return from exile. This action is distinguished from i. Establishing bishops and ii. Organizing churches. This implies that in St. Clement’s day, presbyters could not ordain. Otherwise, why would he represent the aged John going on these far journeys?

4. Origen shows no trace of interacting with any change in the amount of authority that the Bishop at Alexandria was considered to hold. We have reason to think he would have spoken out if this had been the case.

5. How could St. Hippolytus in the early 200s have said what he did about ordination of presbyters if some of his contemporaries rejected his view and practiced otherwise? He would have been well-informed probably, even if he wasn’t an Alexandrian, so he probably would have known if something was going on in Alexandria that he would disagree with so strongly. Hippolytus seems to assume that there are no ordinations by presbyters of any office ever in his On the Apostolic Tradition.

6. The so-called Ambrosiaster had the same axe to grind as Jerome about the problems with bishops being jerks. But he never uses the story about Alexandria. So this means it probably wasn’t widely-circulated.

7. In the story of Abbot Poemen, certain heretics visited him and tried to disparage the Archbishop of Alexandria by saying that he had been ordained by mere presbyters. If this was talking about the Archbishop who was alive at the time, St. Athanasius, then it is obviously false. But it would have been an ineffective accusation, unless it would be a fatal defect if it were true. Also, if there had been ordinations by presbyters as recently as 80 years prior to Athanasius, then the way they accused him of being ordained would have been considered normal, and not a problem.

8. Cirlot also lists several plausible ways in which Jerome could have misinterpreted a fairly innocent phrase like “the presbyters at Alexandria got their bishop ordained” and confused it with “the presbyters at Alexandria ordained their bishop. I will not list these here, however. These are not arguments, but explanations for what could have resulted in Jerome acquiring misinformation, if indeed it is misinformation.

Having argued against the first two interpretations, Cirlot proposes what he considers to be a better interpretation that fits with considerations 1-8:

For all these reasons, I am inclined to think that we ought to put on the narrative of St. Jerome a third possible interpretation which avoids all or nearly all of the difficulties listed above, and which in addition seems to me to satisfy the language he uses at least as well as the other interpretations. That is, that the Alexandrian presbyters had two prerogatives peculiar to them as contrasted with presbyters elsewhere. One of these was that they alone had exclusively in their hands the election of their Bishop [note: Jerome uses the word electum]. The other was that no one was eligible except one of the presbyters [note: Jerome says ex se]. The fact that St. Jerome does not say “ordained” but nominibant was due, I would suggest, to the fact that he was not in a position to say the former, the word that would have greatly strengthened his argument if the facts as he knew them had allowed him so to speak. The Bishop, I suppose, was always ordained by the other Bishops of neighboring cities in Egypt. That was known to St. Jerome and to all, and he could not use this fact to support his argument. But he can minimize it, so to speak, by pointing out that it is the only thing a presbyter cannot do. If he had been able to minimize it still further by emphasizing that even this was formerly a prerogative of the Alexandrian presbyters, and had only recently ceased to be so, we may, I think, be reasonably sure he would not have failed to do so. Nor would he have rested content with using the present tense of a verb when the words “even today” or some other words would have made his point so much clearer and stronger. Nor would he have chosen such bad examples, had he meant that for almost two centuries in Alexandria the presbyters had been conceded the power to ordain.

Pg. 379

When we take into account Cirlot’s arguments, it seems he is correct: Jerome was not arguing that at Alexandria, presbyters ordained their bishop.  And if he had been able to make this argument, he would have.  The absence of examples of presbyterian ordination in Jerome’s account implies that he thinks it has not happened, and this makes it unlikely that he would agree that it could (or should) happen.  So in addition to this not being an example of presbyterian ordination in Church history, it shows that Jerome probably thought it wasn’t possible (as if the statement immediately following about bishops differeing from presbyters in power of ordination was not clear enough).


In conclusion, Jerome seems to deny the three things we would expect if he held to the second view of the tri-fold ministry.  First, he thinks that bishops have the power of ordination that presbyters lack; second, that the trifold ministry is a necessity of the Church produced by Apostolic institution; and third, he implicitly denies that presbyterian ordination is, has been, or could be Christian practice.  We can describe Jerome’s view as follows: bishop, presbyter, and deacon are three distinct offices. These offices are Apostolic institutions, and intended to be permanently distinct. Only bishops can actually confer the gift of ministry through the laying-on of hands in ordination.  This is the definition of the first view of the ministry and succession, the one held by Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican Catholics.  Despite the fact that he initially seems to support the second view of the tri-fold ministry, he in fact supports the first, and is not a counter-example to the claim that the Catholic Church throughout history has held the first view.

*  Thanks to David Kaufmann for help with translation of these Latin phrases.  Thanks also to Zakk Price for assistance with Latin.

** See further down in this post for Gore’s and Cirlot’s treatment of the text. It turns out that it supports the first monoepiscopate view, not the second.


2 Responses to “Jerome on the Tri-fold Ministry”

  1. Tim A. Troutman Says:

    Nice work. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.

  2. William Tighe Says:

    I posted the following on “Energetic Processions” in November 2009; from this posting of yours I gather that you believe St. Jerome’s position on the matter to be similar, if not identical, to that of Theodore’s:

    I cannot locate it at the present time, but Theodore of Mopsuestia’s views (expressed in a Commentary on the Epistles to Timothy and Titus) is that while the apostles were alive “episkopos” and “presbyter” denoted the same men holding the same office. When the apostles, he continues, began to appoint men as successors to *their own office and ministry* these men, deeming themselves to be unworthy of the title “apostolos” took for themselves the name “episkopos,” leaving the old “presbyter episkopoi” with the title of “presbyter.” I find this not without some problems, but far more plausible than what is taken to be St. Jerome’s view, that bishops evolved upwards from among the presbyters.

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