Jerome & Succession, vs. Gavin Ortlund: Audio Transcript

Jerome & Succession, vs. Gavin Ortlund: Audio Transcript February 5, 2024

Gavin Ortlund is a Reformed Baptist author, speaker, pastor, and apologist for the Christian faith. He has a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary in historical theology, and an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. Gavin is the author of seven books as well as numerous academic and popular articles. For a list of publications, see his CV. He runs the YouTube channel Truth Unites, which seeks to provide an “irenic” voice on theology, apologetics, and the Christian life. See also his website, Truth Unites and his blog.

In my opinion, he is currently the best and most influential popular-level Protestant apologist, who (especially) interacts with and offers thoughtful critiques of Catholic positions, from a refreshing ecumenical (not anti-Catholic) but nevertheless solidly Protestant perspective. His words will be in blue.


Gavin did a video called, “Does Jerome Undermine Apostolic Succession?” (Truth Unites YouTube channel, 8-14-23). I critiqued it in my article, St. Jerome, Papacy, & Succession (vs. Gavin Ortlund) [1-20-24]. Then I did a more compact 30-minute audio-only talk on the same topic on Catholic apologist Suan Sonna’s You Tube channel, Intellectual Catholicism (“Dave Armstrong Responds to Gavin Ortlund on Jerome & the Monepiscopacy,” 2-4-24). This is a transcript of the notes that I prepared specifically for that show (that I recited), with just a few extra tidbits or notes, and some links, added presently. Gavin’s words will be in blue; St. Jerome’s in green.


1) My written response to Gavin on my blog is called “St. Jerome, Papacy, and Succession.” It has most of the references with links, that I’ll be referring to, and more material not in this presentation.

2) He’s a good debater. I differ with him on premises and conclusions drawn from what I think are false premises. We Catholics have our own premises too. Everyone does. We all need to examine our own premises more closely, to see if they can withstand scrutiny.

3) “Monepiscopacy” (or “monoepiscopacy,” as Gavin says) is a 50-cent word meaning “one bishop for each city or area.” Episkopos is the Greek biblical word for bishop. Gavin is claims that St. Jerome said things that imply that this was not the case in the earliest days of the Church. He wrote in his blog article related to his YouTube video:

Jerome’s commentary on Titus 1:5 contains an important testimony about the development of the monoepiscopacy in the early church (in addition to various statements in his letters).

4) In Titus 1:5 (I use RSV), Paul directed Titus to “appoint elders in every town.” The Greek word there is presbyter, which is basically a priest or a pastor. Then Paul goes on to mention “bishop (i.e., episkopos) in verses 7-9, so that he seems to be using the two terms synonymously or interchangeably. And this is Gavin’s argument in a nutshell: Jerome is following Paul, meaning that the two terms are describing the same office, and – so Gavin argues — there goes hierarchical Church government (!), where bishops are higher than elders / priests / pastors.

This is why there are no bishops at all in the Baptist tradition. Another Reformed Baptist apologist, James White, wrote to me in a letter many years ago that he himself was a “bishop” [“I am an elder in the church: hence, I am a bishop, overseer, pastor, of a local body of believers”: 1-10-01]. He’s usually referred to as an elder in his circles, but he believes that bishops and elders or presbyters are the same office, according to Scripture.

5) In Jerome’s commentary on Titus 1:5. he refers to “the very same priest, who is a bishop” and that “bishop and priest are one.” He asserts that before Paul wrote to the Corinthian church “the churches were governed by a common council of the priests.” Jerome also noted that Luke in the book of Acts called the priests in Ephesus “elders” (Acts 20:17 in RSV; Gk., presbyteros) and wrote that Paul sent for them, whereas Paul himself calls the same priests “overseers” (Gk., episkopos), who “care for the church of God” (20:28). So that settles it, right? Well, sure, if these were the only things we read in Jerome’s commentary.

6) Gavin, to his credit, includes the entire context (five paragraphs altogether), of Jerome’s words, and in the context, I submit that Jerome explains what he means by these observations, and does so in a way completely harmonious with the Catholic view. People tend to highlight things in quotations that they agree with. We always need to look at the entire context and also compare a given patristic citation with comments from the same Church father elsewhere in his writings (just as we compare Bible passages on the same topic). Jerome also wrote in the same passage that early on in Church history (certainly in the first century):

it was decreed for the whole world that one of the priests should be elected to preside over the others, to whom the entire care of the church should pertain,

7) In other words, Jerome was saying that when Paul was writing his letters, references to church offices were sometimes used interchangeably, but that very soon, the strong tendency was towards single bishops in cities and areas. Thus, this particular commentary doesn’t prove that Jerome denied monepiscopacy. Quite the contrary: he not only describes it but entirely agrees with it, as I will soon show. Jerome also stated:

at that time they called the same men bishops whom they also called priests, therefore he has spoken indifferently of bishops as if of priests.

8) The “time” Jerome is referring to is when Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians. Scholars believe the date was the late 50s or early 60s. Jerome isn’t talking about his own belief. He was describing how the terminology for church offices was used in the mid-first century, but also noting that it soon changed or developed into a system of episcopacy. Then St. Jerome expressed a similar view for the third time:

to the men of old the same men who were the priests were also the bishops; but gradually, as the seed beds of dissensions were eradicated, all solicitude was conferred on one man.

9) Note that his word “gradually” is essentially describing the process of development of doctrine. But then Jerome expressed something that actually supports one of Gavin’s views, and those of many Protestants:

just as the priests know that by the custom of the church they are subject to the one who was previously appointed over them, so the bishops know that they, more by custom than by the truth of the Lord’s arrangement, are greater than the priests.

10) Jerome reiterates the same thing: bishops are “greater than the priests” and priests are “subject” to them. But this is a custom, rather than “the Lord’s arrangement.” Gavin and many Protestants believe that there is no single God-ordained system of ecclesiology or Church government described in Holy Scripture, and here he claims that Jerome agrees with that. The  Catholic Church teaches that ecclesiology is included in the apostolic deposit; therefore, a hierarchical and episcopal church, including the pope, is ordained by God.

11) So how do Catholics respond? I would by saying that Jerome simply got this aspect wrong [but maybe not: see more on this below]. We don’t regard individual Church fathers as infallible. They get things wrong. So Jerome was in error – so it seems at least in this excerpt — about ecclesiology being God-ordained. Jerome also didn’t like the deuterocanon (the seven books that Catholics include in the Old Testament, that Protestants reject), and didn’t want to include it in his Vulgate translation, but bowed to Church authority and did so. But this wasn’t a cut-and-dried case, either. It’s a mixed bag. In various places [as I have documented] he cited the books of Tobit, Sirach, Wisdom, and 1 and 2 Maccabees as if they were Scripture, and he quoted one of Baruch’s proclamations as having been “made by the trumpets of the prophets” (letter 77, section 4).

12) Lastly, Jerome wrote in his commentary on Titus 1:5:

And they ought to rule the Church commonly, in imitation of Moses who, when he had under his authority to preside alone over the people of Israel, he chose the seventy by whom he could judge the people.

This may at first glance seem to support Gavin’s view of governance by groups of elders, but it actually is fully in accord with the Catholic position. It’s not an “either/or” proposition for us. The pope can be the supreme leader, while also working with bishops and priests (including in solemn ecumenical councils) to govern the Church, just as in the US political system, Senators and Representatives govern and pass bills, which are subject to the presidential veto. Jerome stated that Moses had “authority to preside alone.” He simply chose others to assist him in governing, by delegating authority, which is precisely like the pope and bishops, and bishops having authority over priests in their domain. It doesn’t follow that the pope is not supreme.

13) Though Jerome either was, or may be wrong about Church government being merely a matter of custom, he still bore strong witness to the dominance of episcopacy very early on, as I will demonstrate as I proceed.

14) What St. Jerome refers to in this commentary is, I believe, thfluidity of Church offices in the New Testament. I wrote about it 27 years ago, in 1996 in my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. I even mentioned Titus 1:5: the very passage that Gavin brought up, that Jerome commented on. I wrote:

As is often the case in theology and practice among the earliest Christians, there is some fluidity and overlapping of these three vocations (for example, compare Acts 20:17 with 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1-7 with Titus 1:5-9). But this does not prove that three offices of ministry did not exist. For instance, St. Paul often referred to himself as a deacon or minister (1 Cor. 3:5; 4:1, 2 Cor. 3:6; 6:4; 11:23; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23-25), yet no one would assert that he was merely a deacon, and nothing else. [Appendix Two: “The Visible, Hierarchical, Apostolic Church,” p. 252]

None of this refutes what Catholics believe. This doctrine was to develop, just as every other doctrine does and has. This being the case, not all would fully understand it in the earlier centuries of the Church. But there are plenty of biblical indications of bishops and what their function was, and biblical proof that bishops are the successors of the apostles.

15) Jerome bears witness to the presence of monepiscopacy starting almost immediately after the death of Jesus. There is plenty of evidence in his writings confirming what he thought was actually the case in early Church history, — as best he could determine them in the 4th and 5th centuries when he lived –; of how local churches were governed. But first, let’s see what Gavin claimed about this. In his video on the topic, at 14:26, he said:

All of his prooftexts for the synonymy of presbyter and bishop are after 1 Corinthians. So if Jerome thought that the change to the monoepiscopacy had happened around 50 AD, he wouldn’t cite evidence against that model from the 60s.

16) Let’s look at what Jerome actually wrote about this, rather than indulge in mere speculation. For example, in one of his treatises called On Illustrious Men — a goldmine of information along these lines — Jerome wrote the following about St. James:

James, . . .  after our Lord’s passion [was] at once ordained by the apostles bishop of Jerusalem [which, by the way, is an explicit statement of apostolic succession], . . . Hegesippus, who lived near the apostolic age [c. 110-c. 180], in the fifth book of his Commentaries, writing of James, says “After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem.” . . . And so he ruled the church of Jerusalem thirty years, . . .  (section 2)

This is very early, and we can even know with a high degree of certainty exactly how early it was. It’s believed that James was martyred in 62 or 69 AD. Thus, thirty years as the bishop of Jerusalem means that he assumed that role between 32 and 39 AD, and that this is what Jerome himself believed.

17) But there is more. Jerome says about St. Peter, from the same book in section 1:

Simon Peter . . .  himself chief of the apostles, after having been bishop of the church of Antioch . . . pushed on to Rome . . . and held the sacerdotal chair there for twenty-five years until the last, that is the fourteenth, year of Nero.

Nero died in 68 AD (his reign began in 54). Thus, according to St. Jerome, St. Peter was bishop in Rome from 43 AD until 68 AD. Case closed. Jerome believed that sole bishops of cities were present in the 30s (James in Jerusalem) and 40s (Peter in Rome). Now, of course that doesn’t mean all cities, but at least some major ones had bishops in those times. But Gavin erroneously claimed that Jerome believed that monepiscopacy began “in the mid-3rd century; that’s his view. . . . but it’s certainly not 50 AD.” That’s from his video, at 19:14. If that were in fact true, then Jerome couldn’t mention any bishops ruling cities until around 250 AD. That’s already massively disproven by the examples of James and Peter, over 200 years earlier. But there’s much more. I’ll be interjecting the life dates of the men mentioned.

18) In the same book, On Illustrious Men, Jerome mentions many bishops before that time. He refers to Clement as the “bishop of the church at Rome.” He lived from c. 35 to 99; and to Papias, who lived from c. 60 to 130), as “bishop of Hierapolis.” He says that Clement was “the fourth bishop of Rome after Peter” and that “the second was Linus” (who died c. 76) and “the third Anacletus” (who died around 92). Jerome thought that Ignatius (who died between 110 and 117) was the “third bishop of the church of Antioch after Peter the apostle” and that Polycarp, who lived from 69 to 155, was a ”disciple of the apostle John and by him ordained bishop of Smyrna.” This is a second explicit proof of apostolic succession in Jerome’s writings. Yet Gavin stated at 6:51 in his video, that “Jerome is against apostolic succession in its common definitions.”

19) It goes on and on (all from the same book). Jerome noted how Hegesippus (d. c. 180) “went to Rome in the time of Anicetus [who died in 168], the tenth bishop after Peter, and continued there till the time of Eleutherius [he died in either 185 or 193], bishop of the same city, who had been formerly deacon under Anicetus.” Note here how he specifically differentiates deacon and bishop, at a time before 193. Melito of Asia (who died c. 180) was “bishop of Sardis.” Theophilus (d. c. 183-185) was “sixth bishop of the church of Antioch.” Apollinaris (2nd c.), was “bishop of Hierapolis in Asia.” Dionysius (fl. 171) was “bishop of the church of Corinth.” He mentions several others as bishops, who lived before 250: Pinytus and Philip of Crete, Pope Victor, who “ruled the church for ten years,” Pothinus of Lyons, Demetrius and Clement of Alexandria. Alexander of Jerusalem, Serapion of Antioch, and Theophilus of Caesaria.

20) 106 additional and similar uses of “bishop” occur in this one work alone. Some specifically assume the contrast between bishop and presbyter (the former being a higher office); for example, he noted that Origen (d. c. 253) had “been ordained presbyter by Theoctistus and Alexander, bishops of Cæsarea and Jerusalem”.

21) Jerome also wrote in his Letter 146 to Evangelus, a letter that Gavin mentioned:

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, . . .

Tradition holds that Mark founded the church of Alexandria around 49, and Jerome is already calling him a bishop. According to Eusebius [Ecclesiastical History, II, 24, 1] Mark was succeeded by Anianus as the bishop of Alexandria in the eighth year of Nero (62 or 63).

22) Then Jerome makes a very interesting and revealing analogy:

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.

This tells us two things: 1) perhaps Jerome did believe, after all, that hierarchy and episcopacy were of divine and apostolic origin, and that how ecclesiology in the Church was developing suggested that; 2) the analogy from the Old Testament is precisely about hierarchical authority, with Aaron being similar to a bishop. Thus, it seems that Jerome was either self-contradictory regarding these matters (as he was concerning the Deuterocanon), or changed his position.

23) Gavin makes a great deal out of the fact that Jerome referred to presbyters electing bishops. This is neither here nor there. It’s not necessarily how they are elected, but the fact that the very notion of a bishop above presbyters is upheld. Catholic cardinals, of course, vote on decrees of ecumenical councils, and they vote for popes. It doesn’t follow that there are no such decrees or popes because votes were taken to establish them. I think a big part of the problem is that Gavin wrongly dichotomizes “apostolic” and “development of doctrine.” For example, he states at 27:46 in his video: “This is why, when people defend episcopal Church government and apostolic succession, they often do so as a Holy Spirit-led development, rather than something that’s literally apostolic, like the apostles themselves commanded it.”

His use of “rather” proves that he is drawing this false dichotomy here. But they’re not separate or in conflict at all. Apostolic doctrines develop and they remain the same in essence, by definition, when they do so. The Catholic view is that bishops are the successors of the apostles. There are various biblical arguments for that. How they are elected or appointed is a separate and non-essential question that doesn’t work against apostolic succession. Gavin seems to mistakenly think that it does. By analogy, a US Senator in American government remained the same legitimate political office, even though at one time they were appointed by governors, and then [in 1914] they started being elected by the public.

24) Things also develop at different rates in different places. Jerusalem and Rome had sole bishops very early on. Other regions took longer. This is to be expected and poses no problem for Catholic ecclesiology.

25) Gavin stated at 22:46 in his video: “apostolic succession requires ordination from a bishop.”

This is not necessarily the case in all times and places, either, for the doctrine to be true. The doctrine is that bishops are successors of the apostles in authority. Ordination is itself a doctrine, and, we believe, a sacrament. So it developed as well. In the early centuries it was still developing, so we would fully expect to see different applications and even some disagreements. Some folks simply got things wrong. In Catholic thinking, development of doctrine is simply the way in which the divine institution unfolds. It’s always misunderstood by some in earlier stages, and increasingly understood as time goes on. This is true in all cases of development of all doctrines.

26) St. John Henry Newman’s analysis of the development of both episcopacy and the papacy explains the nature of this process in history:

While Apostles were on earth, there was the display neither of Bishop nor Pope; their power had no prominence, as being exercised by Apostles. In course of time, first the power of the Bishop displayed itself, and then the power of the Pope . . .

[F]irst local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. . . . it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated . . . (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Part 1, Chapter 4, Section 3)

27) Many Protestants casually assume that development of doctrine is fundamentally opposed to the notion of the apostolic deposit. Catholics accept both things and believe that they are entirely harmonious. Cardinal Newman used as his jumping-off point regarding his theory of development, the work of St. Vincent of Lérins (d. c. 445) and his work, The Commonitorium. It contained what is called “his “dictum”: much-beloved of Anglicans: “we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” (ch. 2, sec. 6). This was a general statement of principle, not to be taken absolutely literally.

What many don’t realize, however, is that in the same work, St. Vincent expressed the most explicit statement of development of doctrine to be found in the Church fathers:

The growth of religion in the soul must be analogous to the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same. There is a wide difference between the flower of youth and the maturity of age; yet they who were once young are still the same now that they have become old, insomuch that though the stature and outward form of the individual are changed, yet his nature is one and the same, his person is one and the same. . . .

In like manner, it behoves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits. (ch. 23, sections 55-56)

28) There is no conflict between believing that the apostles received the fullness of Christianity from Jesus and passed down these beliefs, and development of doctrine, where progress and understanding occurs, but nothing essential changes. In other words, development of doctrine isn’t evolution of doctrine.




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Photo credit: collage used on Catholic apologist Suan Sonna’s You Tube channel, Intellectual Catholicism, for the show, “Dave Armstrong Responds to Gavin Ortlund on Jerome & the Monepiscopacy,” (2-4-24).

Summary: Reformed Baptist scholar Gavin Ortlund argues that St. Jerome rejected apostolic succession, and monepiscopacy before 250 AD.  I offer much counter-evidence.


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