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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Comnmendatory Letters

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The earliest trace of the practice connected with these words is to be found in 2 Corinthians 3:1. St. Paul, it would seem, had been taunted by rivals, who came with letters of commendation (ἐπιστολαὶ συστατικαί ) from the Church of Jerusalem with the absence of such credentials in his oWn case, with his attempts to make up for the omission by reiterated selfcommendation. The passage shows the practice was already common, and, of course, necessary. Letters of this kind may have been in previous use among the Jews, and thus'helped to maintain their unity as a people through all the lands of the dispersion. Other instances of it in the apostolic ages are to be found in the letter given to Apollos by the disciples at Ephesus (Acts 18:27), in the mention of Zenas and Apollos in the Epistle to Titus 3:13). The letter to Philemon, though more distinctly personal, has somewhat of the same character. The practice became universal, and it may be said, without exaggeration, that no single practice of the early Christian Church tended so much as this to impress on it the stamp of unity and organization. The bishop of any congregation, in any part of the empire, might commend a traveller, layman, or cleric to the good offices of another. The precautions against imposture might sometimes, as in the instance of Peregrinus, told by Lucian perhaps also in that of the "false brethren" of Galatians 2:4 be insufficient, but, as a rule, it did its work, and served as a bond of union between all Christian churches.

Those outside the Church's pale, however arrogant might be their claims, could boast of no such proof of their oneness. They were cut off from what was in the most literal sense of the term the "communion of saints." It was the crowning argument of Augustine anld Optatus against the Donatists that their letters would not be received in any churches but their owni; that they were therefore a sect with no claim to catholicity, no element of permanence. When Paul of Samosata was deposed by the so-called second council of Antioch, the bishops who passed sentence on him wrote to Dionysius of Rome and Maximus of Alexandria, requesting them not to address their letters to him, but to Domnus, whom they had appointed in his place. The letter of Cyprian on the election of Cornelius: and that to Stephen are examples of the same kind. The most remarkable testimony, however, to the extent and the usefulness of the practice is found in the wish of Julian to reorganize heathen society on the same plan, and to provide, in this way, shelter and food for any non-Christian traveller who might be journeying to a strange city (Sozomen, H.E. 5:16).

As then Church became wealthier ands more worldly, the restrictive side of the practice became the more prominent; it was then what the passport system has been in the intercourse of modern Europe, a check on the free movement of clergy, or monks, or laymen. Thus it was made penal (and the penalty was excommunication) for any one to receive either cleric or layman who came to a city not his own without these letters. Those who brought them were even then subject to a scrutiny, with the alternative of being received into full fellowship if it were satisfactory, or, if it were otherwise, of having to be content with some immediate relief. So the Council of Elvira seeks to maintain the episcopal prerogative in this matter, and will not allow literae confessoriae (letters certifying that the bearer was one who had suffered in persecution) to take the place of the regular commendatory letters. It would appear that the abuse had spread so far that the "confessor's" passport was handed from one to another without even the insertion of the name, as a check payable to bearer. The Council of Chalce(don renewed the prohibition of then apostolic canon against allowing any strange cleric, even as reader, to officiate in another city without the "commendatory letters " from his own bishop. That of Antioch (A.D. 341) makes special restrictions in regard to the various kinds of letters. That of Aries places those who have received commendatory letters under the surveillance of the bishop of the city to which they go, with the provision that they are to be excommunicated if they begin "to act contrary to discipline," and extends the precaution to political offences, or to the introduction of a democratic element into the government of the Church. Thei system spread its ramifications over all provinces. It was impossible for the presbyter who had incurred the displeasure of his bishop to find employment in any other diocese. Without any formal denunciation the absence of the commendatory letter made him a marked man. The unity of the Church became a terrible reality to him.

It will have been noticed that other terms appear as applied to these letters, and it may be well to register the use and significance of each.

1. The old term was still retained, as in the Council of Chalcedon, where the prominent purpose was to commend the bearer of the letter, whether cleric or layman, to the favor and good offices of another bishop.

2. The same letters were also known as "canonical" in accordance with the rule of the Church." This is the word used in the letter from the synod of Antioch, by the councils of Antioch and Laodicea. The Latin equivalent seems to have been the literae formatae, i.e., drawn up after a known and- prescribed form, so as to be a safeguard against imposture. It was stated at the Council of Chalcedon by Atticus, bishop of Constantinople, that it was agreed by the bishops at the councils of Nicaea that every such letter should be marked with certain letters, in honor of the three Persons of the Trinity. In the West the signature or seal of the bishop was probably the guarantee of genuineness. The first mention of the use of a seal-ring occurs, it is believed, in Augustine.

3. From the use of the letters as admitting clergy or laymen to communion they were known as comnunicatoriae in Latin, and by a Greek equivalent.

4. The literae pacificae appear to commend the bearer for; eleemosynary aid. They are to be given to the poor and those who need help, clerics or laymen; especially, according; to the Greek canonists, to those who had suffered: oppression at the hands of civil magistrates. Thel word is used also by the Council of Antioch, as applied to letters which might be given by presbyters as well as bishops,

5. There were "letters dimissory," like those of modern times. The word is of later use than the others, and occurs first in the council in Trullo, in a context which justifies the distinction drawn, that it was used in. reference to a permanent settlement of the bearer, "commendatory," when the sojourn in another diocese was only temporary.


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Comnmendatory Letters'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/c/comnmendatory-letters.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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