So I leave things with the glaring statement that there can be no consensus between the paradigms of the Church Fathers and the Reformation. I was blessed with some time on Monday to sit at Border's for a few hours and do some studying-up on the Reformation (obviously not an in-depth exploration, but enough to confirm my thesis, I believe). What I found, though, was quite ironic. Though Luther & Calvin both affirmed the need for the individual believer to ground their personalized faith in the Bible and to search its depths for themselves with no churchly mediator, both men supported hierarchical, centralized churches (if only locally) with ties to the state or government. And both were willing to use the government to enforce (their) orthodoxy. According to Bruce Shelley in Church History in Plain Language, "The Reformers were as eager as the Catholics to suppress nonconformity." (pg 302) In a debate with John Eck in Leipzig, Luther said "Neither the church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture." Luther plainly taught "...that common people have a right to search the Bible for themselves..." and yet was more than willing to allow a church of his choosing to establish those very articles and doctrines. (pg 248) From this, I think we can see that even the Reformers themselves did not fully believe in their own doctrine about the individual's authority and ability to read Scripture, or at least thought the doctrine needed to be tempered by a strong ecclesial presence. Regardless, one of the prime legacies of the Reformation is the insistence on private judgment and being directed by personal conscience. How does this square with Patristic thought?
Quite simply; it doesn't. Reading through even the earliest Fathers (those from the 1st and 2nd centuries), it is evident that being a good follower of Christ was closely linked to being a good follower of the church's leaders. From Clement's First Epistle to the Corinthians, we are told "...ye did all things...being obedient to those who had the rule over you, and giving all fitting honour to the presbyters among you." (ch 1) But this is not just a case of submission for the sake of peace or honoring those older in the faith. From this passage, it is clear that Clement sees a special, God-appointed role for the bishop:
"The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefor was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders...with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe." (ch 17)
We can see, then, the clear line of succession starting with God the Father, moving through Jesus to the Apostles and from the Apostles to the bishops they appointed. But this, in and of itself, does not tell us exactly what authority the bishops have. Clearly the Apostles were subject to Christ and the bishops to the Apostles. Drawing this out, we (as "those who should afterwards believe") are to be subject to the bishops (or his representatives). Us to the bishops, the bishops to the Apostles, the Apostles to Christ and Christ to the Father; a very orderly progression. And what of those who would not be subject to the bishops? From Clement again:
"Ye therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue. For it is better for you that ye should occupy a humble but honourable place in the flock of Christ, than that, being highly exalted, ye should be cast out from the hope of His people." (ch 57, emphasis added)
Clement clearly believes that refusing to be in fellowship with and subjection to the bishop (through his presbyters) is to be removed from the "flock of Christ." In his mind, the visible church is, in fact, the Church - the Body of Christ - and she is constituted by her line of succession through the bishop to the Apostles to Christ. Breaking that chain is to break from the body.