—Protopresbyter John S. Romanides
The Church bases Her entire teaching about both the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of God the Word on Her teaching about divine grace. St. Paul writes, “God has placed in the Church, first Apostles, second prophets, third teachers ….”64 In time, most would interpret this passage as indicating that for St. Paul, the prophet was the bishop in the churches of the early Christians. So first there are the Apostles, then the bishops, and after that the presbyters who, according to this interpretation of St. Paul, are teachers in the Church.
If you read St. Paul’s fourteenth chapter in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, you will see that in this chapter he clearly refers to the existence of many prophets, or Christians with the prophetic gift of clairvoyance in the parish of Corinth. Since he writes, “Let the prophets speak in groups of two or three,”65 there must have been at least three prophets, and perhaps there were as many as six or seven. From this, we can conclude that all the prophets in Corinth were not bishops.
So what does St. Paul mean by the word ‘prophet’? his meaning becomes clear in another epistle where the Apostle Paul writes that the mystery of God has not been revealed to previous generations in the way that it has been revealed to his own generation, namely, in the way that it has been revealed “now to the Apostles and prophets.”66 This means that in the Old Testament Christ did not reveal Himself in the way He has now revealed Himself to the Apostles and prophets. At this point, St. Paul is not talking about the Old Testament prophets, but about the prophets in the Church.
First of all, this means that an apostle is someone to whom Christ has revealed Himself in glory. This explains why in chapter fifteen of his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul’s list of all the people to whom Christ appeared includes not only those appearances after Christ’s resurrection, but also after Pentecost. In other words, St. Paul does not distinguish between appearances of Christ before Pentecost and afterwards.
So merely being a disciple of Christ before His crucifixion is not the primary way to know that someone is an apostle. The primary characteristic of any apostle includes having an experience in which Christ reveals Himself in glory to that person after His resurrection. St. Paul writes, “I do not know Christ according to the flesh, but according to the spirit,”67 because in order to know Christ according to the flesh St. Paul would have had to spend time with Christ before His crucifixion, something that St. Paul did not do. After the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, we do not know Christ according to the flesh, but according to the spirit. In other words, we see Christ noetically with the eyes of our soul and in glory during an experience of theosis.
Secondly, St. Paul’s words about the mystery of God now being revealed mean that a prophet is another type of believer to whom Christ has revealed Himself. So when someone acquires this particular experience in which the post-resurrectional Christ appears to him in glory or when someone sees Christ in glory, this experience automatically makes that person either an apostle or a prophet. This means that when St. Paul refers to a prophet, he is speaking about someone who has reached theosis. We can see this dearly in St. Paul’s statement, “ … when one member of the Church is glorified, then all the members of the Church rejoice with him,”68 which he mentions before listing “… those whom
Christ has placed in the Church, first, apostles, second, prophets, and so forth.”69
Moreover, scholars now admit that St. Dionysios the Areopagite’s comments about bishops from that time period reflect this historical reality. In other words, just as the Apostle Paul’s prophet is someone who has reached theosis, so St. Dionysios the Areopagite’s bishop is someone who has reached theosis. Furthermore, at that time the bishops of the Church were selected from those prophets whom St. Paul mentions.70
Now we learn from Nikitas Stithatos that there are people who have been consecrated bishops directly by God Himself, although they are not recognized as bishops by others. Nevertheless, they really are bishops. In other words, by having reached theosis, they have the spiritual authority of a bishop.
At that time, the parish of Corinth was apparently in commotion because believers with “kinds of tongues,” which are the different forms of noetic prayer, or at least some of them, thought that they should be put on par with everyone else. This is why St. Paul tries to restore good order to the Church by telling them that in the Church there are first apostles, then come the prophets, then the teachers, and finally those with kinds of tongues.
In chapters thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen of his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul takes pains to give a thorough presentation of Orthodox ecclesiology. Apparently, in the Apostle Paul’s parishes all the members of the Body of Christ were clearly called by God,71 because everyone had received a visitation by the Holy Spirit in his heart. They were divinely-called members of the Body of Christ, because they were all ordained by the Holy Spirit Himself. So the prophets in his parishes attained to glorification or theosis just like the Apostles did. Meanwhile, the parish’s teachers and those ranked below them had only attained to illumination.
64 I Corinthians 12:28.
65 I Corinthians 14:29.
66 Ephesians 3:5.
67 II Corinthians 5: 16.
68 I Corinthians 12:26.
69 Cf. I Corinthians 12:28.
70 “The prevailing custom was to use the title ‘bishop’ for the first among the prophets in a parish and to refer to the remaining prophets as ‘presbyters,’ although in the beginning it was common for all the prophets to be called ‘presbyters.’ It is noteworthy that the Church at Corinth had at least five prophets (1 Corinthians 14:29). Paul was not very concerned with the title ‘bishop’ or ‘presbyter,’ since he considered them all to be prophets and as such to be at the foundation of the Church together with the Apostles (Ephesians 2:20). As in the case of the Apostles, their ordination was directly from Christ by means of theosis (Ephesians 3:5) and afterwards by means of the recognition of this theosis by their peers who had also experienced theosis.” Father John Romanides, Roman Fathers of the Church: The Works of Gregory Palamas (Thessalonica: Pournara Publications, 1984), vol. 1, p. 7 (in Greek).
71 “Of course, Saint Paul stresses that God is the One Who places each one in the Church. He begins with the Apostles and prophets who have reached theosis and ends with ‘kind of tongues’ (I Corinthians 12:28). These spiritual stages are the result of the baptism of the Spirit, which is distinguished from the baptism of water, as it appears until today in the services of Baptism and Chrismation. Those who are found in this number comprise the royal priesthood. The ‘private persons’ (I Corinthians 14:16) are the laymen who do not have the baptism of the Spirit; they are not yet numbered by Paul among the members that God has placed in the Church.” Ibid., p. 7