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Apostolic Succession

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  • Apostolic Succession

    By Timothy G. Enloe

    In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority." Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 1, Chapter 2, Article 2, Paragraph 77)

    Part and parcel of Roman Catholicism's claim to authority is its conception of Apostolic Succession. As defined above, the doctrine asserts that the Gospel is preserved in the Church by means of a lineal succession of bishops who have handed down the truth from the beginning and who possess the teaching authority of the Apostles themselves. Noting the fact that even heretics claim the support of Scripture for their novelties, it further maintains that without this succession of bishops, one cannot tell where the true apostolic doctrines are being taught. The Catholic Church asserts that this doctrine is taught not only in Scripture, but in the early church as well. The following quote from the Catholic Answers tract, "Apostolic Succession" is illustrative of this idea:

    THE first Christians had no doubts about how to determine which claimant, among the many contending for the title, was the true Church, and which doctrines the true teachings of Christ. The test was simple: Just trace the apostolic succession of the claimants...The Church Fathers, who were links in that chain of succession, regularly appealed to apostolic succession as a test for whether Catholics or heretics had correct doctrine. This was necessary because heretics simply put their own interpretations, even bizarre ones, on the Scriptures. Clearly, something other than Scripture had to be used as an ultimate test of doctrine in these cases.

    Another example is this, from Catholic apologist Gary Hoge:

    Jesus said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt. 28:18). He exercised that authority in many ways, for example by teaching with authority, and forgiving sins. But Jesus knew that He would not remain on earth for long. He also knew that the Church He would establish would grow old before His return. So, according to the Bible, Jesus delegated His authority to His apostles, and He made it clear that obedience to them was the same as obedience to Him (Luke 10:16, John 15:20). The apostles exercised the authority the Lord gave them as they evangelized their world and built the Church (2 Cor. 10:8, 13:10, 1 Thess. 4:2, 2 Thess. 3:14). The doctrine of apostolic succession teaches that the apostles delegated their authority to their successors, who delegated it to their successors, and so on, down through the ages. Thus, in every age the Church continues to wield the same authority as the apostles did. ("Was the Early Church Protestant?")

    Are these claims true? While I do not fancy that I can even begin to give the subject a comprehensive treatment, I do believe that I can show the falsity of Rome's claims. My critique will proceed along three lines: 1) a discussion of the concept of apostolic authority in general, 2) analysis of specific examples drawn from Scripture, and 3) quotations from the early Church Fathers.

    The General Concept of Apostolic Authority and Its Transmission

    No one denies that the Apostles of Christ possessed authority over other believers. But what was that authority? Was it something that was tied to direct revelations given them by Christ (the receipt of which set them apart from everyone else in the Church), or was it simply an "office" instituted by the Lord and designed to be passed on dynastically, as was the Old Testament priesthood? A brief survey of what the authority of the apostles of Christ actually entailed will serve to highlight the extraordinary nature of the Roman Magisterium's claims about itself.

    Ephesians 2:20 tells us that the church (the "building" composed of the saints of God) is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone". It is of no small consequence to the current topic that a foundation is a non-successive structure, the base upon which the rest of the building is constructed. A foundation does not have "successors", nor does it "develop" over time; it is a given from the start of the project. On the contrary, what does "develop" is the structure that rests on the foundation. Thus, there can be no "apostolic succession" in the sense described in the quotes I provided above.

    Furthermore, apostolic authority was directly given by Christ to only a select few, not to anyone who would come after them. We note that while Catholic apologists attempt to make Christ's words in Luke 10:16 ("The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.") and John 15:20 ("...if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.") into a general principle that encompasses not only the original hearers of the words, but their supposed "dynastic successors" also, such a principle is quite plainly absent from the texts themselves. There is no indication in these passages that the authority Christ gave His apostles was some sort of "charism" that they would pass on to others.

    Indeed, what we do find being "passed on" to others in the pastoral epistles of Paul is most definitely not an office replete with successors, but a body of teaching that is said to originate from Christ Himself. For example:

    "As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines..." (1 Tim. 1:3)

    "This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight." (1 Tim. 1:18)

    "I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth." (1 Tim. 2:14-15). It is important to note that this command comes at the end of two full chapters of strictly doctrinal teaching.

    "In pointing out these things [warnings about false teachers] to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the sound doctrine which you have been following...Prescribe and teach these things." (1 Tim. 4:6, 11)

    "Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you." (1 Tim. 4:16)

    "I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality." (1 Tim. 5:21)

    "I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Tim. 6:13-14)

    "O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called 'knowledge'--which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith." (1 Tim. 6:20-21)

    "Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you." (2 Tim. 1:13-14)

    "You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also." (2 Tim. 2:1-2)

    "You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim. 3:14-17)

    "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you...[the elder must be] holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict." (Titus 1:5, 9)

    "But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine...These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you." (Titus 2:1, 15)

    In sum, although Timothy and Titus were certainly ministers appointed by an inspired Apostle, and though we might loosely refer to them as "successors" to Paul, it is more than abundantly demonstrated by the above passages that their authority over their respective churches was derived from their faithfulness to Paul's teachings. In no way did their authority stand alone, as something inherent in their "office". Finally, Paul's express command was that the teachings--not the office--that had been entrusted to them by he himself were to be passed on to other faithful men.

    Analysis of Specific Examples from Scripture

    Catholic apologists often make exaggerated claims about apostolic succession as presented in the New Testament. For example, Dave Armstrong writes,

    "St. Paul teaches us (Ephesians 2:20) that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles, whom Christ Himself chose (John 6:70, Acts 1:2,13; cf. Matthew 16:18). In Mark 6:30 the twelve original disciples of Jesus are called apostles, and Matthew 10:1-5 and Revelation 21:14 speak of the twelve apostles. After Judas defected, the remaining eleven Apostles appointed his successor, Matthias (Acts 1:20-26). Since Judas is called a bishop (episkopos) in this passage (1:20), then by logical extension all the Apostles can be considered bishops (albeit of an extraordinary sort).

    If the Apostles are bishops, and one of them was replaced by another, after the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, then we have an explicit example of apostolic succession in the Bible, taking place before 35 A.D. In like fashion, St. Paul appears to be passing on his office to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:1-6), shortly before his death, around 65 A.D. This succession shows an authoritative equivalency between Apostles and bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles. As a corollary, we are also informed in Scripture that the Church itself is perpetual, infallible, and indefectible (Matthew 16:18, John 14:26, 16:18). Why should the early Church be set up in one form and the later Church in another? ("The Visible, Hierarchical Apostolic Church")

    We first note that the example of Matthias replacing Judas is really irrelevant to apostolic succession as the Catholic Church understands it, because Matthias became an apostle, not a bishop. Even Armstrong himself admits in this piece that the office of Apostle passed away. Indeed, his own comparison of bishops with apostles in this very passage affirms that even were we to grant his basic claim that "apostles became bishops", the kind of bishops that existed after the apostolic age were not the same as the apostles themselves--"the Apostles can be considered bishops (albeit of an extraordinary sort)". This undermines his claim in the next paragraph that since apostles are bishops, the succession of Matthias to the place of Judas shows us something explicit about "an authoritative equivalency between Apostles and bishops".

    Next, it is simply fallacious to argue that Paul was passing on an office to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-6. Note the words of the passage itself:

    "I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come." (emphasis mine)

    The passage is quite clearly speaking of the transmission of sound doctrine--not an authoritative office!--in the face of those who do not want to endure it. Although Timothy certainly possessed a legitimate office as overseer of the church at Ephesus, there is no mention of apostolic authority (in the sense of an office) being passed on to Timothy by Paul.

    A second example of exaggerated biblical claims is this, from the aforementioned Catholic Answers tract, "Apostolic Succession":

    "The role of apostolic succession in preserving true doctrine is illustrated in the Bible. To make sure that the teachings of the apostles would be passed down after the deaths of the apostles, Paul told Timothy: "[W]hat you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2). In this passage he refers to the first four generations of apostolic succession--his own generation, Timothy's generation, the generation Timothy will teach, and the generation they in turn will teach."

    We can easily grant that this passage is teaching the concept of a transmission of authority through the generations. But the key question is, "What authority is being transmitted?" Does this passage give us any reason to believe that the succession of teachers it is speaking of would themselves in their persons possess the same kind of authority as did the Apostles? No, it does not.

    First, we must note that Paul instructs Timothy to entrust the doctrines he has learned to faithful men, which immediately implies that such men are to be held to some kind of external standard by which their faithfulness can be measured. No matter what the Catholic Church may wish to claim about its hierarchy, it is simply a truism that the only thing Paul can be referring to as that which the men to follow are to be faithful to is apostolic doctrine itself. It cannot be that Paul is teaching the idea that mere lineal succession will guarantee the truthfulness of the doctrines being taught by the successors, for he himself had earlier instructed the elders at Ephesus that after he was gone, "savage wolves" would arise from within their own ranks and draw disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30).

    I repeat again for emphasis, mere lineal succession is not what Paul has in mind in his teachings. That there will be a succession of teachers is undeniable, but the key principle to remember is that these teachers must be faithful to what was originally taught by the Apostles. 1 The fact that many groups make this claim for their own hierarchies should serve to make us wary of accepting de fide Rome's claim. This point will be elaborated in the following section, which will examine some of the writings of the Church Fathers.

    The Teachings of the Church Fathers

    "...it is one thing to allow that a bishop has succeeded an apostle at the place of his last labors, and quite another to assume that therefore such a bishop is virtually the apostle himself. Yet this assumption is the ground of all Roman doctrine on this point." 2

    A number of passages from the early Fathers are brought forth by Roman apologists in defense of their Church's understanding of apostolic succession. A primary passage is this one from Clement of Rome (often alleged to be "Pope Clement"):

    "Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. (Clement, Letter to the Corinthians 42:4-5, 44:1-3 [A.D. 80]).

    Now, it is beyond question that the Fathers believed that there was a succession of teachers from the apostles--that the apostles commissioned men to lead the churches in their stead. Not only have we seen that this concept is found throughout the New Testament pastoral epistles (and even in chapter 20 of the book of Acts), but it is found in the writings of Fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. Indeed, it is from Irenaeus' monumental work Against Heresies that Catholic apologists draw a list of successive bishops in the very see of Rome.

    Nevertheless, it is one thing to say that the Apostles made provision for leadership in the churches once they were gone and quite another to say that those so commissioned were to function as if they themselves were Apostles, e.g., that the successors of the Apostles would possess the same infallible doctrinal authority as did the Apostles themselves. What must be noted is that the above quote says absolutely nothing about the most crucial aspect of the Catholic doctrine it supposedly "proves", namely, that (in the words of one Catholic apologist) "in every age the Church continues to wield the same authority as the apostles did." 3 From the quote we are given, the best that can be concluded is that the apostles appointed men to the office of bishop, and made further provision for other approved men to succeed them should they die. Nothing more, nothing less. So why is this portion of Clement's letter quoted as if it "proves" the Roman Catholic contention about the Fathers' view of apostolic succession?

    Another passage often raised is from Ignatius of Antioch:

    Indeed, when you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men but as Jesus Christ, who died for us, that through faith in his death you might escape dying. It is necessary, therefore--and such is your practice that you do nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope, in whom we shall be found, if we live in him. It is necessary also that the deacons, the dispensers of the mysteries [sacraments] of Jesus Christ, be in every way pleasing to all men. For they are not the deacons of food and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They must therefore guard against blame as against fire. (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Trallians 2:1-3 [A.D. 110]).

    This quote does equate the authority of the bishop to that of Jesus Christ, and of the presbytery to the apostles of Jesus Christ, which would seem to confirm the Catholic thesis. However, a few words about that ever-important thing called "context" must be said. First, there are two versions of each of Ignatius' seven undisputed letters, a shorter and a longer version. Some Catholic apologists quote the shorter version, which is not problematic, since many scholars believe that the shorter versions are the authentic ones. Nevertheless, other scholars believe there is reason for accepting the longer versions. Second, it seems beyond reasonable doubt that Ignatius would have been assuming that the bishops he spoke of submitting to were, in fact, faithful proponents of the doctrines taught by the Apostles, and not "wolves in sheep's clothing". These points come together to disconfirm the Catholic assertions in the following manner.

    The longer version of chapter two of "Letter to the Trallians" begins thusly: "Be ye subject to the bishop as to the Lord, for “he watches for your souls, as one that shall give account to God..." Here we see that Ignatius ceratinly had Scripture in the background of his thoughts--specifically Hebrews 13:17. This is important because Scripture does exhort believers to submit to those in authority over them. However, it also lists a number of very strict qualifications for the office of bishop (see 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:7-9). Significantly, especially in the Titus passage, conformity to apostolic teaching is listed as a qualification. The implication of the pastoral epistles on the issue of apostolic succession is precisely what Protestants maintain, e.g., that succession is succession of apostolic doctrine, not of inherent personal authority. In other words, supposing that Ignatius had been confronted with one of the "ravenous wolves" that the Apostle Paul predicted would arise from within the very eldership of the churches (Acts 20:29-30), should we assume that Ignatius would have exhorted believers to obey such a bishop? Would he even have considered such a person to be truly a bishop? I ask these questions rhetorically because I believe the answer should be obvious even to dedicated Roman apologists.

    But if we were to read into the next chapter of Ignatius' Letter to the Trallians, we would find that he explicitly disavows that he has the inherent authority of an apostle: "But shall I, when permitted to write on this point, reach such a height of self-esteem, that though being a condemned man, I should issue commands to you as if I were an apostle?" The longer version reads, "I am indeed bound for the sake of Christ, but I am not yet worthy of Christ. But when I am perfected, perhaps I shall then become so. I do not issue orders like an apostle." (emphasis mine).

    It seems then that Bishop Ignatius of Antioch did not believe that he personally wielded the same type of authority as did the Apostles. 4 If this is so, then Ignatius cannot be advanced as a proponent of the Catholic conception of apostolic succession.

    A third example of the teaching of the Fathers on apostolic succession is this passage from Irenaeus' Against Heresies:

    Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church, — those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismaries puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. (4,26,2)

    A moment's reflection on the passage will show that it says absolutely nothing about the idea that the successors of the apostles possessed in their persons the same authority as did the apostles. Rather, it simply tells us that there has been a succession of teachers who have received the infallible truth. Furthermore, there are other statements in Against Heresies which compel us to recognize that Irenaeus simply did not hold the Roman idea of apostolic succession. Consider these words from 3:3:1--

    ...It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to "the perfect" apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.

    Note that Irenaeus plainly asserts the possibility even in the minds of the apostles themselves, that their successors could possibly "fall away". This is totally in keeping with the teaching of the Apostle Paul (Acts 20:29-30), but inconsistent with the Roman doctrine.

    Interestingly, a bit further on in his work, Irenaeus seems to support the view I mentioned above (that apostolic succession is a succession of sound teaching). After listing the thirteen Roman bishops between the apostles and the current one, he writes: "In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth." (Against Heresies, 3:3:3).

    He continues, "Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time" (ibid., 3:3:4). It would seem that Irenaeus linked apostolic succession to the preaching of the truth, not merely to a lineal descent of men in a teaching office.

    It is very important that we follow Irenaeus' progression of thought, for it impacts not ony the idea of apostolic succession, but of the authority of the Scriptures as well. In this section of Against Heresies (Book 3) Irenaeus tells us his reasons for speaking of an unbroken line of successors to the apostles. In Chapter 1, he writes, "We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith." (emphasis mine). In Chapter 2, he shows us how the Gnostics devalue those Scriptures: "When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce...". (emphasis mine). Finally, in Chapters 2 and 3, he begins his argument from a succession of bishops. I note with some irony that the Scriptures appear first in Irenaeus' line of reasoning and the institution of successive bishops second. In Roman Catholic apologetics, the order is generally reversed. 5

    But lest the point be still unclear, we have another witness to the fact that, for the early church, apostolic succession was a matter of the truthfulness of the doctrine preached by the supposed lineal descendants of the apostles. Tertullian writes,

    "It is usual, indeed, with persons of a weaker character, to be so built up (in confidence) by certain individuals who are caught by heresy, as to topple over into ruin themselves. How comes it to pass, (they ask), that this woman or that man, who were the most faithful, the most prudent, and the most approved in the church, have gone over to the other side? Who that asks such a question does not in fact reply to it himself, to the effect that men whom heresies have been able to pervert ought never to have been esteemed prudent, or faithful, or approved? This again is, I suppose, an extraordinary thing, that one who has been approved should afterwards fall back? Saul, who was good beyond all others, is afterwards subverted by envy. David, a good man “after the Lord’s own heart,” is guilty afterwards of murder and adultery. Solomon, endowed by the Lord with all grace and wisdom, is led into idolatry, by women. For to the Son of God alone was it reserved to persevere to the last without sin. But what if a bishop, if a deacon, if a widow, if a virgin, if a doctor, if even a martyr, have fallen from the rule (of faith), will heresies on that account appear to possess the truth? Do we prove the faith by the persons, or the persons by the faith? 6

    He further writes: "The Lord teaches us that many 'ravening wolves shall come in sheep’s clothing.' Now, what are these sheep’s clothing’s, but the external surface of the Christian profession? Who are the ravening wolves but those deceitful senses and spirits which are lurking within to waste the flock of Christ? " (Ibid, Chapter 4, emphasis mine). Note well that Tertullian is in agreement with the Apostle Paul, and that the last sentence above presupposes a substantive faith external to the persons being discussed by which those persons are being judged. It is simply not the case that the faith is proved by the persons who are teaching it--a fact which totally repudiates the standard Catholic claim about the authority of the institutional Church.

    Conclusion

    Given the fact that heretical teachers can and do arise from within the Church, from within the very hierarchical eldership established by the Apostles, how can Rome honestly maintain that her hierarchical succession is somehow proof that her doctrines are apostolic in origin? We saw that Tertullian and Irenaeus--who supposedly were some of those "good Catholics" spoken of by Roman apologists--expressly deny this idea.

    By locating infallible doctrinal authority within its organizational structure, rather than in an external standard (as in the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura), the Catholic Church effectively removes itself from the possibility of being corrected when it falls into error. Of course, its official teachings expressly deny the possibility that it can fall into error in the first place, but this is simply one more confirmation that the church of Rome cannot be simplistically and numerically identified with The One, Holy, Catholic Church which was established upon the cornerstone of Christ and the foundation stones of the apostles.
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