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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Incarnation: Contradiction or paradox?

"The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation," writes philosophical theologian Brian Hebblethwaite, "is one of the two central doctrines which set out the unique features of Christian faith in God."1 Hebblethwaite goes on to explain that while many religions believe in an infinite and transcendent God and make possible rich spiritual experiences, Christianity goes further in asserting that 
God has made himself known more fully, more specifically and more personally, by taking our human nature into himself, by coming amongst us as a particular man, without in any way ceasing to be the eternal and infinite God.2
The classic, dogmatic statement of the Incarnation doctrine comes from the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.).3 The doctrine contains three fundamental ontological claims: (i) Jesus Christ is truly man; (ii) Jesus Christ is truly God; (iii) Jesus Christ is one person and not two. Opponents of the Incarnation doctrine call it a contradiction, while proponents call it a paradox. What is the difference? A contradiction is a combination of mutually exclusive ideas, like a square circle, or the mathematical statements x > y and x < y. A paradox is an apparent contradiction that may not really be a contradiction. Take, for example, the saying, "Less is more." This saying is paradoxical since the words "less" and "more" are antonyms, but one can readily appreciate the wisdom of the saying (consider, for instance, the decision whether to offer a short speech or a long speech at a wedding.) Or which of us has never heard someone answer a yes-or-no question with "Yes and no"? We do not typically conclude that the respondent is irrational; we suspect that they perceive complexity and nuance in the question that requires a multi-faceted answer. In a word, they perceive a paradox.

The apparent contradictions in the Incarnation's three fundamental ideas are immediately obvious. First, whereas all other known persons are constituted by one nature, this doctrine affirms that Jesus Christ has two natures and yet remains only one person. Second, for specifically divine and human natures to co-exist in a single person seems contradictory, since we associate properties with "divinity" and "humanity" respectively that seem mutually exclusive (e.g., eternal vs. created, immortal vs. mortal, omniscient vs. limited in knowledge, omnipresent vs. locally present, etc.) However, as philosophical theologian Oliver Crisp points out,
we cannot know a priori that the two-natures doctrine is incoherent without first establishing (a) exactly what the constituents of divinity and humanity consist in (or, perhaps better, what divinity and humanity do not consist in), and (b) that these constituents are mutually exclusive of one another.4
Unfortunately, Christadelphians and members of certain other heterodox, sectarian movements commonly do dismiss the Incarnation doctrine a priori as logically incoherent. Indeed, I used to take this dismissive view of the Incarnation myself. My advice to those who consider the Incarnation a basic contradiction unworthy of serious thought is, not so fast. Here I will list four reasons why the logic of the Incarnation demands serious attention.

(1) The Incarnation doctrine has an impressive historical pedigree.

The statement from the Council of Chalcedon that definitively expressed Incarnational Christology was the fruit of over four centuries of intense theological reflection, discussion and controversy involving the entire Church. The resolution achieved at Chalecdon has stood the test of time, too. It has been the touchstone of Christological orthodoxy for over fifteen centuries and remains such among Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans and most Protestant denominations. Indeed, all forms of ancient Christianity that have survived affirm the Incarnation,5 and with the exception of some post-Reformation sectarian movements, all contemporary professedly-Christian groups affirm the Incarnation.

This history, read with a basic principle of respecting elders, forebears and authority,6 ought to make us at least think twice before dismissing the Incarnation as an obvious contradiction. If the Incarnation is basically a stupid idea, how did the entire Church by the fifth century come to a consensus that it was the best Christological synthesis? And how could an obvious contradiction achieve such staying power? It is remarkable, given the heated Christological controversies of the first four centuries of Christianity, that the ecumenical consensus achieved in the fifth century on Incarnational Christology should remain the ecumenical consensus over 1500 years later.7

(2) The Incarnation remains a respectable idea in the academic sphere.

Numerous theologians in Church history have masterfully defended Incarnational Christology (Origen, St. Augustine, St. John of Damascus, St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc.) However, for some sectarians, the Church's theological tradition between, say, 200 and 1500 A.D. is shrouded in darkness and superstition, whereas the achievements of modern academic scholarship blaze brightly. While I could say much against this chronocentrism, I would hasten to add that in the contemporary academy the Incarnation has not been relegated to obscurity. It remains an idea worthy of serious attention among philosophical theologians. For example, no less a publisher than Oxford University Press produced a volume of essays in this decade entitled The Metaphysics of Incarnation exploring the philosophical viability of the Incarnation from a variety of perspectives.8 OUP doesn't publish edited volumes debating the merits of obsolete, Mickey Mouse ideas. Several of the contributors to this volume, and many other scholars, have separately published philosophically rigorous defenses of Incarnational Christology.9

Of course, there are also accomplished academics who reject the philosophical viability of the Incarnation. My claim is not that the mere existence of rigorous philosophical defenses of the Incarnation in contemporary academia vindicates the truth of the doctrine a priori.10 One would really need to be trained in philosophy—which I am not—to engage critically with this scholarly debate. However, the existence of the debate at least shows that the Incarnation cannot be dismissed a priori as logically incoherent.

(3) Paradox plays an indispensable part in Christian theology.

Christian theology is inescapably paradoxical. Take eschatology for instance: biblical scholars today widely agree that New Testament eschatology can be summed up with the obviously paradoxical phrase "already and not yet." The kingdom of God, the new age, has arrived and yet it is still coming. One can point to numerous other theological paradoxes whereby seemingly contradictory ideas are held in tension: grace and merit, faith and works, sin and mercy, predestination and free will, and so on. There are also numerous paradoxes within the Bible pertaining to God's nature and character. That God is apparently gentle and loving in the New Testament but warlike and severe in the Old spawned heresies in antiquity (Marcionism) and provides fodder for skeptics today. The perennial problem of evil represents a paradox in Christian theology: the prevalence of natural and moral evil in the world today appears to conflict with the existence of an omnipotent, perfectly good and perfectly loving God.

The New Testament contains, of course, blatant paradoxes specifically in the area of Christology. A crucified Messiah? A crucified Saviour? "A stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles," says Paul (1 Cor. 1:23). The Gospel of John is so audacious as to interpret Jesus's physical "lifting up" on the cross as his "lifting up" in the sense of exaltation as foretold in Isa. 52:13 (cf. John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). So is New Testament Christology paradoxical? Absolutely. We should not be surprised, then, to find paradox in core Christian dogma about God and Christ.

(4) Non-Incarnational Christologies also face philosophical difficulties.

Many liberal theologians and some sectarians (e.g., Christadelphians) assert that Jesus was/is merely human, that is, ontologically no greater than any other human. (Of course, those who affirm a literal resurrection would assert that Jesus's human nature is now superior to ours.) Proponents perceive this as the simplest and most logical Christology. After all, every other human known to history has been "merely human." However, those who see a "merely human" Christology as the default or natural option may overlook that it is not without philosophical problems. Consider just a few:

i. By all accounts, human conception is an ontologically significant event. Does Jesus's unique human conception in the womb of a virgin not therefore have ontological significance? If so, what is the ontological significance of the virgin birth?
ii. Is the exalted Jesus omnipresent? If not, how does he function as mediator between God and humans? If so, how can a physical, bodily person be omnipresent?
iii. How is it that Jesus was sufficiently like us that he experienced the same frailties and temptations we face, and yet sufficiently unlike us that he never once succumbed to temptation but remained perfectly sinless?
iv. Since the success of God's plan of salvation depended on the perfect obedience of a free human agent (Christ), could God guarantee that his plan of salvation would not fail? If not, was it not a mere gamble rather than a foolproof plan? If so, how did God guarantee this without impinging on Christ's free will?
v. Can a person who is not ontologically one with God be granted the very prerogatives and honours that demarcate God's uniqueness? If God extends his unique "God-ness" to a sub-divine creature, does his "God-ness" not lose its uniqueness (and thereby cease to be "God-ness")?

No doubt proponents of a "merely human" Christology would offer intelligent answers to these questions. My point, however, is that the matter cannot just be settled out of court. Both sides have a case to argue and a case to answer.


My point in this article is not that reason compels us to accept the doctrine of the Incarnation. That argument would require a sharper intellect and a lot more space. My point is simply that reason cannot rule out the Incarnation a priori; that reason compels us to at least seriously consider this doctrine. In fact, anyone who rules out the Incarnation a priori effectively ensures that s/he will never be taken seriously as a Christian theologian.

I have, over time, become more and more convinced that our ecclesiology—our understanding of the nature, purpose and gifted prerogatives (or lack thereof) of the Church—determines, to a large degree, our other theological positions. It is a fact of history that the early Church reached a consensus that the Incarnation best explains the biblical and apostolic witness concerning the person of Christ. If I believe that the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit in her doctrinal deliberations, I will place considerable weight on this historic consensus. If, however, I believe that the Church was left to her own devices and inevitably wandered astray, I will consider it a light thing to cast aside the historic consensus and replace it with my own private judgment (perhaps identified facilely with "what the Bible teaches").


  • 1 Brian Hebblethwaite, The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 21. He adds: "The other central doctrine is that of the Trinity."
  • 2 Hebblethwaite, op. cit., 21.
  • 3 "Following, therefore, the holy fathers, we all in harmony teach confession of one and the same Son our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood, truly God and the same truly man, of a rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father in respect of the Godhead, and the same consubstantial with us in respect of the manhood, like us in all things apart from sin, begotten from the Father before the ages in respect of the Godhead, and the same in the last days for us and for our salvation from the Virgin Mary the Theotokos in respect of the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation (the difference of the natures being in no way destroyed by the union, but rather the distinctive character of each nature being preserved and coming together in one person and one hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, Only-begotten, God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ, even as the prophets from of old and Jesus Christ himself taught us about him and the symbol of the fathers has handed down to us" (trans. Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon: Translated with introduction and notes, vol. 1 [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005], 59).
  • 4 Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 166.
  • 5 In the wake of post-Vatican II ecumenical dialogue, there is now mutual recognition between Chalcedonian Christianity and the Oriental Orthodox (whose rejection of Chalcedonian Christology was the occasion of their existence as a separate communion) as well as the Assyrian Church of the East that historical Christological differences were a matter of semantics rather than substance.
  • 6 Of course, sectarian ecclesiology does not usually think in such terms. Sectarians often exult in their minority status and their rejection of established authority and tradition in line with their self-understanding as a "remnant." The notion of a righteous remnant does admittedly have a strong biblical pedigree. Much more could be said about such "remnant ecclesiology," but for now I will just say this: there are many groups today that make mutually exclusive claims to be God's righteous remnant. Clearly, all but one (if not all) of these groups are mistaken.
  • 7 When I made this argument recently in a Facebook dialogue, my Christadelphian interlocutor asked, "How is your 'long and illustrious pedigree' any more relevant than the 'long and illustrious pedigree' of Mohammed going to heaven on a horse?" The answer should be obvious. Given that one believes in a heavenly, transcendent God (Allah) and that Mohammed is his prophet, the idea of Mohammed going to heaven on a horse is not very paradoxical. Nor was this idea, to my knowledge, the occasion of epoch-making theological controversy in early Islam. I suspect that very few Christians reject Islam specifically because of the Muslim belief that Mohammed went to heaven on a horse (which is, after all, similar to Judeo-Christian beliefs about the prophet Elijah). It is precisely because of the very contentious and complex debates about Christology in the early church that a 1500-year consensus on the Incarnation is remarkable, and not easy to dismiss.
  • 8 Anna Marmodoro and Jonathan Hill, eds., The Metaphysics of the Incarnation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). On a similar note, see Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O'Collins, The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • 9 Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986); Brian Hebblethwaite, The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga, Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1989); James K. A. Smith, Speech and Theology: Language and the logic of the Incarnation (New York: Routledge, 2002); Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003); Marilyn McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Oliver D. Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Richard Cross, "The Incarnation," in Thomas P. Flint & Michael C. Rea, (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Oliver D. Crisp, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (London: T&T Clark, 2009); Andrew Ter Ern Loke, A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation (New York: Routledge, 2016); etc. Of course, the list would become much longer if we extended our scope beyond the English-language literature.
  • 10 I was misinterpreted as making such a claim recently when I made this appeal to scholarship in a Facebook discussion.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Apostolicity of the Post-Apostolic Church (Part 3 of 3): Historical evidence for apostolic succession

In the first part of this series, I outlined the three aspects in which the post-apostolic Church is apostolic, according to Catholic teaching: it has apostolic origins, apostolic teaching (both written and oral) and apostolic succession. In the second part of the series, I clarified what the Catholic Church claims—and does not claim—regarding the early history of apostolic succession. The Church does claim that the apostles themselves, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, instituted apostolic succession, and that today's bishops continue this unbroken line of succession. However, this does not necessarily entail that apostles' earliest successors were monarchical bishops as that office is understood and executed today.

In this third installment, we finally get into historical evidence relevant to the doctrine of apostolic succession.

1. 2 Timothy and Titus
2. Pseudepigraphy in the New Testament
3. 1 Clement
4. Didache
5. Ascension of Isaiah
6. Ignatius and Polycarp
7. Ptolemy's Letter to Flora
8. The succession lists of Hegesippus and Irenaeus
9. Conclusion

1. Timothy and Titus1

Within the New Testament, Paul's Second Letter to Timothy reads very much like the efforts of an apostle (2 Tim. 1:1) who regards his own death as imminent (2 Tim. 4:6-9) to groom a successor for the challenge of carrying on the ministry after he is gone. This successor, Timothy, has been ordained through a formal, public rite of laying on of hands (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6) and has the authority to lay hands on others (1 Tim. 5:22). He is, accordingly, charged with the task of preserving the "pattern of the sound words" he heard from the apostle; "By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you"—the apostolic tradition, which Paul believes the Lord is capable of preserving until "that Day," i.e. the day of the Lord's coming (2 Tim. 1:12-14).2 2 Timothy depicts Timothy as an apostolic delegate on his way to becoming an apostolic successor. (Indeed, an apostolic successor is chronologically what an apostolic delegate is spatially.)

The case of Titus is similar. Paul has left Titus in Crete "to complete what still needed to be done and to appoint elders in every city, as I myself commanded you" (Tit. 1:5), with these elders either equivalent to or including the "overseer" of v. 7. Clearly, Titus is functioning as an apostolic assistant and protégé.3 In light of what we have seen in 2 Timothy, is there any doubt that Paul would have expected Titus to succeed him in shepherding the churches in Crete in the event of his own death? Moreover, Paul addresses both Timothy and Titus as "true child in the faith" (1 Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4). Since a son is his father's successor in many ways, this filial imagery adds weight to the idea that Timothy and Titus are heirs to Paul's ministerial responsibilities.

Most contemporary New Testament scholars reject the traditional view that the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy and Titus) were written by Paul. They regard them instead as pseudepigrapha written after Paul's death, perhaps in the early second century, by members of the Pauline circle. If this is correct, we cannot cite 2 Timothy and Titus as firsthand evidence (that is, evidence from an apostle) of apostolic succession. However, if the Pastoral Epistles are pseudepigrapha then we have early (and still canonical) evidence from within the Pauline circle that Timothy and Titus were understood as Paul's hand-picked successors. We also have evidence that someone within the Pauline circle believed they had sufficient apostolic authority to write a letter in Paul's name. The same argument can be made regarding the Petrine Epistles (especially 2 Peter), which most scholars likewise regard as pseudepigraphic. We have an author or authors writing in the late first or early second century claiming the authority to write in Peter's name. Such a person must regard himself as a legitimate successor to Peter's ministry!

The letter known as 1 Clement was written from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth, probably near the end of the first century, to address an internal dispute in the latter church. During the patristic period the letter was very highly esteemed; in the important fifth-century biblical manuscript Codex Alexandrinus it is bound together with the New Testament! The author does not identify himself but has traditionally been identified as Clement, an early bishop of Rome. The letter narrates the martyrdom of Peter and Paul (5.1-7), whom the author obviously holds in very high regard. It is possible that he knew them personally (Irenaeus and Tertullian claimed as much—see below), since both are believed to have been martyred under Nero about three decades prior. Although the author's intention is not to provide a theory of church leadership, he makes some comments in this respect that are very significant, especially in chapters 40-44. The reader is encouraged to read these in their entirety; I will provide some excerpts, following Bart D. Ehrman's translation (which can hardly be accused of a Catholic bias!)4

In chapter 40, the author refers to the ministerial orders of the old covenant (high priest, priests, Levites and laity) to show that the Master desires "the sacrificial offerings and liturgical rites" to be performed in an orderly fashion. He continues by exhorting the brothers, "let each of us be pleasing to God by keeping to our special assignments with a good conscience, not violating the established rule of his ministry" (41.1). Within the Church, then, there are specially assigned orders, just as under the old covenant. He continues:
The apostles were given the gospel for us by the Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. Thus Christ came from God and the apostles from Christ. Both things happened, then, in an orderly way according to the will of God. When, therefore, the apostles received his commands and were fully convinced through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and persuaded by the word of God, they went forth proclaiming the good news that the Kingdom of God was about to come, brimming with confidence through the Holy Spirit. And as they preached through the countryside and in the cities, they appointed the first fruits of their ministries as bishops and deacons of those who were about to believe, testing them by the Spirit. And this was no recent development. For indeed, bishops and deacons had been mentioned in writings long before. For thus the Scripture says in one place, 'I will appoint their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith.' (1 Clement 42.1-5) 
It would be anachronistic to read "bishops" here in its later technical sense; as discussed in the previous article, it took time for ecclesiological terminology to become standardised. Nevertheless, there is evidently some kind of implied correspondence between the "special assignments" under the old covenant and those within the Church, which include not only apostles but also bishops and deacons. By adducing Scriptural support (in the first-person voice of God, no less) for "bishops and deacons," the author implies that these are not man-made offices but that they were appointed by the apostles as part of "the established rule of [God's] ministry." This writer obviously holds these ecclesiastical offices in very high regard. He continues with the rhetorical question, "And why should it be amazing if those who were in Christ and entrusted by God with such a work [i.e. the apostles] appointed the leaders mentioned earlier [i.e. bishops and deacons]?" (1 Clement 43.1) He proceeds by again drawing on the old covenant as a template for the rule of Christian ministry. He argues that, just as Moses had anticipated strife over the office of priesthood and so offered divine proof (Aaron's blossoming rod) of the Levites' authority,
So too our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that strife would arise over the office of the bishop. For this reason, since they understood perfectly well in advance what would happen, they appointed those we have already mentioned; and afterwards they added a codicil, to the effect that if these should die, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. Thus we do not think it right to remove from the ministry those who were appointed by them or, afterwards, by other reputable men, with the entire church giving its approval. For they have ministered over the flock of Christ blamelessly and with humility, gently and unselfishly, receiving a good witness by all, many times over. Indeed, we commit no little sin if we remove from the bishop's office those who offer the gifts in a blameless and holy way. (1 Clem. 44.1-4)5
This passage is so important to the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession that it is quoted almost verbatim in the discussion of apostolic succession in Lumen Gentium (III.20). What does it tell us about apostolic succession? Firstly, note that the entire passage focuses on bishops, not deacons, suggesting (as do the words episkopos and diakonos) that overseer/bishop is the higher office. Secondly, note that bishop is an "office," just as was the Levitical priesthood according to 1 Clem. 43.2 (cf. also 1 Tim. 3:1). Thirdly, the apostles did not merely create and fill this office as a once-off measure; they legislated for the perpetuity of the office by succession (just as Moses had done for the priesthood). Fourthly, the means by which a vacancy in the office of bishop was to be filled was that, just as the apostles had appointed bishops, so should bishops be appointed by "other reputable men." The writer adds that the bishops who had been deposed in Corinth had been appointed "with the entire church giving its approval."

What we find in 1 Clement coheres well with what we find in 2 Timothy and Titus: the apostles appointed bishops who had the delegated authority to appoint other ministers, including other bishops, thereby ensuring the survival of the apostolic ministry through succession.

Within the Didache, the three most important kinds of ministerial functionaries are apostles, prophets and teachers. Every apostle who comes is to "be welcomed as if he were the Lord" (11.4). Prophets too are very highly regarded: they can give thanks at the close of the Eucharistic meal however they wish; they are not bound by the prescribed liturgy (Did. 10.7). Prophets who speak in the spirit may not be tested; this is an unforgivable sin (11.7). The prophets are to be given the firstfruits of wine, wheat and livestock, "for they are your high priests" (Did. 13.3)! Teachers, too, are to be welcomed as one would welcome the Lord (Did. 11.1-2) and are worthy of their food (Did. 13.2). All three of these ministries seem to be itinerant rather than resident.6 Like the office of bishop in 1 Clement, the role of the prophets and teachers in the Didache seems to be understood by analogy to the Levitical priesthood. Given this and the close link between the prophets and teachers and the apostles, it is possible to understand the prophets and teachers as among, or including, early apostolic successors. Timothy and especially Titus also seem to have been itinerant rather than resident in one local congregation (see Tit. 1:5), and so could easily be classified as "teachers" (or "prophets," if they had a prophetic gift) in Didache terminology.

The Didache also contains a passing reference to bishops and deacons, who are apparently resident as opposed to itinerant:
1 And so, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons who are worthy of the Lord, gentle men who are not fond of money, who are true and approved. For these also conduct the ministry of the prophets and teachers among you. 2 And so, do not disregard them. For these are the ones who have found honor among you, along with the prophets and teachers. (Did. 15.1-2, trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:441).
This passage might give the impression of an autonomous, congregational, democratic leadership structure for the local church, since the congregation is told to "elect for yourselves bishops and deacons." However, the matter is not as simple as that. Firstly, we must remember the voice of the Didachist here: "elect for yourselves" is an imperative from an external authority.7 Secondly, the statement that the bishops and deacons "conduct the ministry of the prophets and teachers" may imply the subordination of bishops and deacons to prophets and teachers (similar to the bishops' and deacons' subordination to the apostles in 1 Clement 42).8 Thirdly, the text is very light on detail concerning how this election process was meant to work: were the bishops and deacons "elected" by vote, by lot or some other means? De Halleux assumes that "the bishops are elected democratically, by a vote of hands raised in assembly," but the text does not say this. Nevertheless, de Halleux helpfully observes that such a democratic process would "not exclude however a consecration of the newly elected by the laying on of hands by their peers."9 One would not necessarily expect to find instructions about ordination or consecration in the Didache, especially if this were understood to be the prerogative of external ministers such as prophets and teachers.10 All told, while the Didache does not contain the kind of unambiguous evidence for apostolic succession that we find in the Pastoral Epistles and 1 Clement, it is consistent with that evidence (after allowances are made for the non-standardised terminology in use in this early period).

The Ascension of Isaiah is an apocalypse that is now understood by scholarly consensus to be a Christian composition, with chapters 6-11 most likely written in the late first century and chapters 1-5 added in the early second century. There is material relevant to ecclesiastical orders in Asc. Isa. 3.13-4.2. The key passage is as follows:
21 And afterwards, at his approach, his disciples will abandon the teaching of the twelve apostles, and their faith, and their love, and their purity. 22 And there will be much contention as his coming and at his approach. 23 And in those days (there will be) many who will love office, although lacking wisdom. 24 And there will be many wicked elders and shepherds who wrong their sheep, [and they will be rapacious because they do not have holy shepherds].(Asc. Isa. 3.21-24)11
The words translated "elders" and "shepherds" are respectively presbuteroi and poimenes.12 Norelli states that the Ascension presupposes a time when the twelve apostles are no more and prophets are regrettably scarce (3.27).13 Moreover, notwithstanding the author's negative perception of the "elders and shepherds," the community structure presupposed by the text is a college of presbyters, among whom the shepherds or bishops seem to be distinguished by particular authority.14 By condemning the presbyters and shepherds for loving office but lacking wisdom, the author may be drawing attention to their lack of charismatic gifts.15

As Knight points out, the situation reflected in Ascension of Isaiah 3-4 is that of "a dispute about authority," centering on "the question of whether the prophets or the institutional leaders should hold authority in the church."16 "The Ascension of Isaiah was written by a group of prophets, perhaps a small group (cf. 2.7-11), who had seen their authority eroded and who found themselves without power in their dealings with the church leaders (3.31)."17 Knight sees the situation in Ascension of Isaiah as a reversal of that in the Didache. In the Didache, the prophets are dominant and the bishops and deacons need to be legitimated in relation to the prophets and teachers. In the Ascension of Isaiah, however, the institutional leaders are dominant and the prophets are in decline. In this sense, the Ascension of Isaiah anticipates the Montanist controversy that would arise a few decades later.18

Seven letters of Ignatius are generally accepted as authentic (in the so-called "middle recension"). Most scholars maintain the traditional dating of the letters to the reign of Trajan (98-117 A.D.) in line with Eusebius's dating of Ignatius's martyrdom (Eccl. Hist. 3.36),19 though some would allow for a slightly later date, c. 125-150.20 Ignatius wrote these letters while en route from Antioch (where he was bishop; cf. Rom. 2.2) to his martyrdom in Rome.

Ignatius has surprisingly little to say about apostolic succession per se, but provides crucial evidence for the monarchical episcopate in the early second century. In the Letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius refers to "the bishops who have been appointed throughout the world [who] share the mind of Jesus Christ" (Eph. 3.2; cf. Smyrn. 10.2).21 The honour that is due the bishop recalls the honour due the prophets and teachers in the Didache: "And so we are clearly obliged to look upon the bishop as the Lord himself" (Eph. 6.1). Even a youthful bishop should receive "all due respect according to the power of God the Father," because to defer to the bishop is to defer to "the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of all" (Magn. 3.1). Ignatius presupposes a three-tiered ministerial order, "the harmony of God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God and the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and the deacons, who are especially dear to me, entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ" (Magn. 6.1). The bishop and presbyters are repeatedly related to the apostles by analogy or association (cf. Magn. 7.1; 13.1-2; Trall. 3.1; 7.1; 12.2; Smyrn. 12.1), though Ignatius never explicitly states that the bishops (or presbyters) are the apostles' successors. Nevertheless, the bishops' ministry is divinely ordained. The bishop of Philadelphia, according to Ignatius, "did not obtain his ministry to the community from himself, nor through humans, nor according to pure vanity, but by the love of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philad. 1.1). The monarchical character of the episcopate is made clear in passages such as Philad. 4.1: "For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup that brings the unity of his blood, and one altar, as there is one bishop together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow slaves." The "council of the bishop" (Philad. 8.1) should be understood by analogy to the Jewish Sanhedrin (with the bishop presumably presiding), for which the same Greek word sunedrion is used.

Ignatius's understanding of episcopacy is corroborated by the testimony of his contemporary, Polycarp of Smyrna. One of Ignatius's letters was addressed to Polycarp and another to his church, and Ignatius refers to Polycarp as "the bishop of the Smyrnaeans" (Magn. 15.1; Polyc. prescript). In Polycarp's Letter to the Philippians we have the earliest reception-history of Ignatius's letters. Polycarp tells the Philippians that he has received Ignatius's letters, that he is forwarding them along with his own letter, because the Philippians "will be able to profit greatly from them" (Phil. 13.1-2). We have here a ringing endorsement of Ignatius's letters, including their characterisation of Polycarp himself as bishop of Smyrna and their monarchical understanding of the episcopal office.22

Polycarp's implicit support for Ignatius's view of the episcopate is highly significant because of Polycarp's importance in early Christian history. Irenaeus, writing a few decades later, likewise refers to Polycarp as the bishop of Smyrna (Against Heresies 3.3.4), reports that he was appointed to this office by the apostles, and mentions his successors. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, which is widely regarded as having a historically accurate core, states that at the time of Polycarp's death (c. 155 A.D.) he had been in Christ's service for 86 years (M. Polyc. 9.3). This corroborates that he was a contemporary of the apostles and could have been appointed by them as a bishop. Thus Polycarp provides a direct link between second-century, monarchical episcopacy and the apostles, which supports the claim that the monarchical bishops of the second century were in fact successors of the apostles.

The Letter to Flora is one of the few surviving examples of literature from the early days of the school of Valentinus, who was a leading Gnostic thinker in Rome during the mid-second century. The fourth-century Church Father Epiphanius preserved the Letter to Flora in full in his heresiological work Panarion. The author of this letter was Ptolemy, a disciple of Valentinus. Irenaeus also discusses and condemns Ptolemy's teachings in Book I of his work Against Heresies (written c. 180 A.D.)

Many scholars believe the Ptolemy who wrote the Letter to Flora is the same Ptolemy martyred in Rome under the prefect Urbicus as discussed by Justin Martyr in his Second Apology (chapter 2).23 This would allow us to date the Letter to Flora to c. 150 A.D. (since Justin's Apologies are generally dated to the early 150s); if the two cannot be identified, it may be a decade or two later.24

The Letter to Flora is basically an argument for the existence of the Demiurge, a divine being who created the world and gave the Law of Moses but who is not "the perfect God." Toward the end of the letter, Ptolemy makes an important claim about the authority behind his teachings:
For, if God permits, you will receive further enlightenment about their principle and their generation, when you are judged worthy of the apostolic tradition that we too have received by succession, and once again you will measure all of our teachings against the words of the Saviour. (Letter to Flora 7.9, my translation)25 
Ptolemy here refers explicitly to a concept of apostolic tradition (tēs apostolikēs paradoseōs) transmitted by succession (diadochē), and claims that "we" (his school) have such a tradition and succession. What is particularly interesting is that he says we too. Throughout the letter Ptolemy has been attempting to refute Christians who disagree with his position on the Demiurge. Thus, by referring to "the apostolic tradition that we too have received by succession," he is effectively conceding that his proto-orthodox opponents have received apostolic tradition via succession. Indeed, it is precisely because his proto-orthodox opponents have a strong claim to have received apostolic tradition via succession that Ptolemy needs to make the same claim.26 Thus, Ptolemy is a hostile witness showing that the notion of apostolic tradition transmitted by succession was well-established in the mid-second century proto-orthodox Church. The mid-second century is precisely when we would expect the theological importance of apostolic succession to have become pronounced, since living memory of the apostles was fading.

In the second half of the second century, we find the first detailed explanation of the doctrine of apostolic succession. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, writing c. 180-185, argues that the catholic Church's ability to trace its doctrines back to the apostles via succession vindicates their validity. This is similar to Ptolemy's earlier claim, but unlike Ptolemy, Irenaeus produces concrete historical data in support: a succession list for the church at Rome going back to the apostles Peter and Paul, whom he names as its founders:27
After founding and building up the church, the blessed apostles delivered the ministry of the episcopate to Linus; Paul mentions this Linus in the letters to Timothy [2 Tim. 4:21]. Anacletus succeeded him, and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement received the lot of the episcopate; he had seen the apostles and met with them and still had the apostolic preaching in his ears and the tradition before his eyes. He was not alone, for many were then still alive who had been taught by the apostles… Evaristus succeeded this Clement; Alexander [followed] Evaristus; then Xystus was appointed, sixth from the apostles; from him, Telesphorus, who achieved martyrdom most gloriously; then Hyginus; then Pius, whose successor was Anicetus. After Soter had succeeded Anicetus, now in the twelfth place from the apostles Eleutherus holds the episcopate. With the same sequence and doctrine the tradition from the apostles in the church, and the preaching of truth, has come down to us. This is a complete proof that the life-giving faith is one and the same, preserved and transmitted in truth in the church from the apostles up till now.28
How historically reliable is Irenaeus's succession list? Contemporary critical historians offer various judgments. Hall asserts that "[Irenaeus's] list is probably valid from Sixtus (also called Xystos) onwards" but that the earlier names were deduced by "inventive manipulation."29  Lampe avers that Irenaeus's list is "with highest probability a historical construction from the 180s...a fictive construction,"30 while emphasizing (in contrast to Hall) that "The names that were woven into the construction were certainly not freely invented but were borrowed from the tradition of the city of Rome... They had belonged to the presbyters of Roman church history." Strand suspects that Irenaeus probably relied on Hegesippus's work (see below) but also "may very well have consulted records at Rome when he visited there ca. 178."31 The upshot is that we should neither uncritically accept this as an authentic list of monarchical bishops going back to the apostles, nor should we dismiss it via a "hermeneutic of suspicion." It is quite probable, given other information about early church order in Rome, that some of the individuals in Irenaeus's list functioned more like leading presbyters than monarchical bishops. This is still sufficient for the doctrine of apostolic succession.

Irenaeus was actually not the first to compile a Roman succession list. This distinction belongs to Hegesippus, c. 160 A.D. Hegesippus's writings do not survive, but fourth-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea tells us:
Hegesippus has left a full record of his beliefs in five books that have come down to us. In them he tells of traveling to Rome and finding the same doctrine among all the bishops there. After some comments about Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, he writes: 'The Corinthian church remained in the true doctrine until Primus became bishop. I conversed with the Corinthians on my voyage to Rome, and we were refreshed by the true doctrine. After arriving in Rome I compiled the succession down to Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. Anicetus was succeeded by Soter and he by Eleutherus. In each succession and in every city, preaching corresponds with the Law, the Prophets, and the Lord.'32
Scholars have proposed two models for the origin of the concept of episcopal succession, one being the succession of philosophers in a philosophical school and the other being "Jewish, Maccabean sacerdotal succession lists."33 The fourth-century writer Epiphanius (Panarion 27.6.1-7) also provides a Roman succession list that he claims to have taken from "certain historical works," widely regarded as a reference to Hegesippus's works.34 Epiphanius's list is identical with Irenaeus's except that Anicletus is called Cletus and that Epiphanius's list ends with Anicetus. Lampe argues that Hegesippus's comments show no concern with "a succession of monarchical bishops from the apostles to the present," but rather with "chain bearers of correct belief."35. I think Lampe's statement is correct up to a point. Hegesippus is explicitly concerned with the succession chain at the level of local churches, and he explicitly ends his list with an individual, Anicetus, who was his contemporary and whom he regarded as holding an individual office (monarchical bishop?), since he "was succeeded by Soter." Though one must concede that Hegesippus is not explicitly interested in a monarchical episcopate here, it does appear that he understood his list to consist of individual leaders in the church at Rome.

At the beginning of the third century, Tertullian makes an argument similar to that of Irenaeus, though he does not provide full succession lists:
But if any heresies venture to plant themselves in the apostolic age, so that they may be thought to have been handed down by the apostles because they existed in their time, we can say, Let them exhibit the origins of their churches, let them unroll the list of their bishops, coming down from the beginning by succession in such a way that their first bishop had for his originator and predecessor one of the apostles or apostolic men; one, I mean, who continued with the apostles. For this is how the apostolic churches record their origins. The church of Smyrna, for example, reports that Polycarp was placed there by John, the church of Rome that Clement was ordained by Peter.36
Tertullian's statement that Clement was ordained by Peter appears to conflict with the list of Irenaeus and Epiphanius, in which Clement is the third successor from the apostles. Epiphanius is already aware of this problem and discusses possible solutions. Bévenot has also suggested a solution under which Linus and Anencletus are mentioned parenthetically in Irenaeus's list.37

Thus we have reasonably early and reliable historical testimony from several writers concerning a succession of individual bearers of apostolic tradition going back to the apostles. The succession lists appear in the historical record right where we would expect them to, because by the mid- to late second century living memory of the apostles had faded, and competing Gnostic claims to have true apostolic doctrine had to be countered.

This article has served to introduce the reader to some of the most important historical evidence related to the doctrine of apostolic succession. The Pastoral Epistles and 1 Clement provide strong evidence that the apostles appointed other individuals to succeed them in their ministry, made provision for this succession to continue beyond the lifetime of their direct successors, and understood this office of "bishop" to be divinely ordained. The phenomenon of apostolic pseudepigraphy (represented, according to many scholars, in New Testament epistles such as 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians and 1 and 2 Peter), suggests that there were individuals in the early post-apostolic period who understood themselves as having apostolic authority to the extent that they could write under an apostle's name. In the Didache and the Ascension of Isaiah, we find some tension between the itinerant leadership of prophets and teachers and the resident leadership of bishops and/or presbyters and deacons. The ministry of the itinerant prophets and teachers is linked closely to that of the apostles, while the ministry of the resident bishops and deacons is identified with that of the itinerant prophets and teachers. In Ignatius of Antioch's letters we find for the first time a strong notion of monarchical episcopacy, a notion that receives the implicit endorsement of no less a figure than Polycarp of Smyrna in his Letter to the Philippians. In his mid-second century Letter to Flora, the Valentinian Gnostic Ptolemy tacitly concedes his proto-orthodox opponents' claim to have received apostolic tradition by succession. By the late second century, we have a well-developed doctrine of apostolic succession substantiated by succession lists for the church at Rome. By contrast, as Jones states, "In no case [in the first and second centuries] do we have any evidence of a loose egalitarian, wholly collegial form of government".38 All of this evidence is consistent with the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession, as defined in the previous two articles.


  • 1 I hope Catholic readers will not take offence at my decision not to use the prefix "St." with the names of apostles and other saints in this article. I do so to avoid the appearance of anachronism in what is primarily an historical study.
  • 2 Towner states that "the command 'guard the deposit' involves both preserving and proclaiming the apostolic gospel", adding that "Within the flow of thought, succession is very much in mind" (The Letters to Timothy and Titus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006], 476). He adds that "at v. 12 it becomes clear that Paul is not simply calling Timothy to a renewal of previous duties; he is rather preparing Timothy to be his successor in the mission" (ibid., 476-477). Again, "The continuity between Paul's ministry and Timothy's (and of those who will follow; cf. 2:1-2, which uses the same language) is underscored in the phrase 'what you heard from me.' It is precisely this apostolic continuity that ensures the purity of the message on into the next generation" (ibid., 477).
  • 3 Concerning Titus's task of appointing elders in every town, Towner writes, "Paul uses a verb that signifies official appointment, but he does not indicate much more about the procedure and how it is to be carried out. Most of the discussion in the commentaries concerns the degree to which the task is Titus's or to be shared by the church. At a minimum, given the Cretan churches' early state, probably the candidates would have been selected by the communities that knew them best, with Titus's delegated apostolic authority being applied as the final seal of recognition and appointment to leadership (signified publicly by the laying on of hands; cf. 1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6)" (ibid., 680).
  • 4 translations of Apostolic Fathers texts are taken, unless otherwise indicated, from Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • 5 Note the vexing text-critical problem surrounding the Greek phrase that Ehrman translates, "added a codicil." Holmes translates, "they gave the offices a permanent character," and comments, "lit. (reading epimonēn, the emendation printed by Lightfoot) have given permanence, i.e., to the offices of bishop and deacon. The witnesses vary widely, with the most likely reading being that of A, epinomēn. But it is difficult to make sense of the word unless one either assumes the existence of a secondary meaning such as 'injunction' (a meaning otherwise unattested) or gives it the same meaning as the cognate word epinomis, a 'codicil' or 'supplement'. The translation would then run something like 'added a codicil' or 'made a decree'" (Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 78 n. 108). The possibility of an apostolic decree is supported by the decree on requirements of Gentile converts found in Acts 15:22-29.
  • 6 Cf. Stephen J. Patterson, "Didache 11-13: The Legacy of Radical Itinerancy in Early Christianity," in Clayton N. Jefford, ed., The Didache in Context: Essays on its Text, History, and Transmission (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 315-318.
  • 7 See Towner's comment in note 3 above about Titus's modus operandi in appointing elders in every town: this may have involved a process where the local congregation elected a candidate whom Titus then approved and ratified. Note also how Ignatius urges Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, to "call a council that is pleasing to God and to elect someone whom you hold most dear and resolved" to travel as a messenger to Syria (Polyc. 7.2). This illustrates how a communal "election" was not necessarily a wholly egalitarian process but could occur under the instructions and supervision of authority figures. Note also de Halleux's comment on the Didachist's voice: "as soon as the compiler emerges timidly from the traditions which he transmits and betrays something of his identity, it is in order to appear as the messenger of a ‘teaching’, in other words as a teacher 1:3; 2:1; 6:1; 11:1-2). However, unlike the prophet, an inspired teacher who receives revelations from on high and penetrates the secrets of the heart, the humble teacher is a man of tradition, of halakah, only concerned with faithfulness in the transmission of the past. That our Didachist fits into this last category, stands out clearly from the content and style of all he has written, and the appeal to the prophet as guardian of the traditional doctrine of the church, sanctioned by the Spirit, would not here be an abuse of language." (André de Halleux, "Ministers in the Didache," in Jonathan A. Draper (ed.), The Didache in Modern Research [Leiden: Brill, 1996], 319).
  • 8 "It is clear that, whenever this instruction was added to the Didache, such persons were not routinely being given high honours—and perhaps never had been. The prophets, not surprisingly, emerge as highly honored persons (see, e.g., Did. 13.3), and together with the teachers their treatment sets the example for the honour to be given these others.” (Jonathan Schwiebert, Knowledge and the Coming Kingdom: The Didache's Meal Ritual and its Place in Early Christianity [London: T&T Clark, 2008], 95).
  • 9 De Halleux, op. cit., 313.
  • 10 Sullivan states, "Would the community have asked a prophet to lay hands on those whom they chose as overseers and deacons? There is no mention of this, but it does not seem unlikely, as this was a gesture of prayer, calling down the Spirit on those chosen for ministry. One can recall that at Antioch, the other prophets laid hands on Barnabas and Saul when they were sent out as missionaries (Acts 13:3)" (Francis Aloysius Sullivan, From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church [Mahwah: Newman, 2001], 90). Similarly, Carrington: "The local churches had a ministry of bishops and deacons which they were directed to appoint for themselves, the first and indeed the only case in which appointments are said to be made by the congregation. In the Acts, seven ‘deacons’ were nominated by the congregation for ordination by the apostles, and possibly the Didache visualized a similar procedure, but it says nothing about the manner of ordination" (Philip Carrington, The Early Christian Church, 2 vols. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957], 1:495). Milavec, too, although he is critical of another scholar for discovering "episcopal ordinations hidden behind the silence of the text," himself states: "While the Didache makes no mention of ordination, one can allow that, given the Jewish roots of the framers of the Didache, the laying on of hands may have been used as the normal means whereby bishops admitted an elected candidate into their circle of bishops" (Aaron E. Milavec, The Didache: Faith, Hope, and Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. [Mahwah: Newman, 2003], 609, 613).
  • 11 Trans. M. A. Knibb, "Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah: A New Translation and Introduction," in James H. Charlesworth (ed)., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols. [Peabody: Hendrickson, 1983/2011], 2:161.
  • 12 Paolo Bettiolo, Alda Giambelluca Kossova, Claudio Leonardi, Enrico Norelli, and Lorenzo Perrone, Ascensio Isaiae: Textus (Brepols: Turnhout, 1995), 45. This passage is, fortunately, part of the fragment of the Ascension that is preserved in a Greek manuscript.
  • 13 Enrico Norelli, Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius (Brepols: Turnhout, 1995), 194-95.
  • 14 This is a loose translation of Norelli's comment, which in Italian reads thus: "La struttura della comunità supposta da AI 1-5 pare fondarsi su di una direzione collegiale di presbiteri, tra i quali sembrano distinguersi i pastori / episcopi dotati di particolare autorità" (Norelli, op. cit., 219).
  • 15 Norelli, op. cit., 195.
  • 16 Jonathan Knight, Disciples of the Beloved One: The Christology, Social Setting and Theological Context of the Ascension of Isaiah (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1996), 198.
  • 17 Knight, op. cit., 202.
  • 18 Knight, op. cit., 202-204.
  • 19 Ehrman, op. cit., 1:205-207.
  • 20 Paul Foster, "The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, part 1," Expository Times 117 (2006): 492.
  • 21 Trans. Ehrman, op. cit., 1:223.
  • 22 Polycarp's letter is from "Polycarp and the presbyters who are with him" (Phil. prescript), which implies his own preeminence and is consistent with a self-understanding as a monarchical bishop with presbyters subordinate to him.
  • 23 Three points favour this identification. First, both men were Christian teachers named Ptolemy living in Rome in the mid-second century. Justin's Ptolemy was denounced and eventually martyred for teaching Christianity to a certain unnamed woman, while Ptolemy's Letter to Flora contains elementary Christian teaching (of a Gnostic variety) addressed to a woman, Flora. The woman mentioned by Justin was involved in a difficult marriage situation but was implored by her Christian advisers to remain in the marriage; the Letter to Flora mentions and reinforces Jesus's teachings against divorce. These parallels seem too great to be coincidental. The main argument against identifying the two Ptolemies is that Justin paints a very favourable portrait of Ptolemy, whereas the Ptolemy who wrote the Letter to Flora is condemned as a heretic from the Valentinian school by Irenaeus and later authors. What is more, Justin himself, in another work, names the Valentinians among the heretics whom he calls "impious atheists and wicked sinners, men who profess Jesus in name only, but do not really worship" (Dialogue with Trypho 35.5-6, Thomas P. Halton, St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, ed. Michael Slusser, trans. Thomas B. Falls [Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2003], 55). This difficulty is not insurmountable, however. Justin's Dialogue with Trypho is generally believed to have been written a few years later than the Apologies (the Dialogue mentions an Apology), so it is possible that Justin was not yet familiar with the Valentinians' teachings when he wrote about Ptolemy. Alternatively, Justin may have been familiar with the Valentinians already but may not have known that Ptolemy was a Valentinian. Thus, while we cannot be certain, it appears likely that Ptolemy the author was also Ptolemy the martyr.
  • 24 In Irenaeus's Against Heresies, he refers twice to Ptolemy's followers and only once to Ptolemy directly, which may suggest Ptolemy himself was no longer active by 180 A.D.
  • 25 Quispel's French translation of the verse is as follows: "Car, si Dieu le permet, vous recevrez plus tard des éclaircissements plus précis sur leur principe et leur naissance, quand vous aurez été jugée digne de connaître la tradition des apôtres, tradition que, nous aussi, nous avons reçue par voie de succession. En ce cas aussi, nous confirmerons nos conceptions par les paroles du Sauveur." (Gilles Quispel, Ptolémée, Lettre à Flora: Texte, Traduction et Introduction [Paris: Cerf, 1949], 69).
  • 26 Quispel notes Clement of Alexandria's observation that the heretics claimed that Valentinus was a hearer of Theudas, a pupil of Paul (Strom. 7.106; Clement rejects this and claims that the heretics arose after the apostles' time, during the reign of Hadrian). Perhaps this is what Ptolemy is referring to in his assertion to Flora about apostolic succession. However, the proliferation of "secret gospels" and the like suggests that the Gnostics did not have a reliable claim to apostolic succession, in contrast to the proto-orthodox Church where the apostles' successors held public ecclesiastical office.
  • 27 He claims that such succession could be proven for every church, but that to avoid tedium he is reproducing the list only for Rome, which he considers the preeminent church.
  • 28 Against Heresies 3.3.3, trans. Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (New York: Routledge, 1997), 7-8.
  • 29 Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 60-61.
  • 30 Peter Lampe, Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus, trans. Michael Steinhauser, ed. Marshall D. Johnson (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 404-406.
  • 31 Kenneth A. Strand, "Peter and Paul in Relationship to the Episcopal Succession in the Church at Rome," Andrews University Seminary Studies 3 (1992): 221.
  • 32 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.22, trans. Paul L. Maier, Eusebius: The Church History: Translation and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 139.
  • 33 Allen Brent, Hippolytus and the Roman Church in the Third Century: Communities in tension before the emergence of a monarch-bishop (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 446.
  • 34 So Strand, op. cit., 221.
  • 35 Lampe, op. cit., 404.
  • 36 Tertullian, Prescriptions against the Heretics 32, trans. Stanley L. Greenslade, Early Latin Theology: Selections from Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Jerome (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1956), 52-53.
  • 37 "Now Clement is ‘in the third place from the apostles’. For us, with this context, 'from the apostles' is equivalent to ‘after the apostles’, and we instinctively think of Linus and Anencletus as being the first two. But ‘after the apostles’ would have been μετὰ τοὺς ἀποστόλους, and not, as Irenaeus wrote, από των αποστόλων. In his mind, the first two were Peter and Paul, the founders of the Roman Church, whom he had just named, and not Linus and Anencletus, in spite of his mentioning them. Had Irenaeus been merely giving the order of those who followed the apostles and had meant to include Linus and Anencletus among them, there was no reason for him to add τρίτῳ τόπῳ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀποστόλων when introducing Clement. He showed by this that he was by-passing those two, putting them in a kind of parenthesis, and linking Clement directly with the apostles. This is a necessary conclusion from the correct use of από in connexion with some ordinal number; it meant 'beginning with, inclusively', and not ‘from’ in the sense of ‘after’… Irenaeus no doubt found Linus and Anencletus mentioned in his source—the first especially, as having been a companion of St. Paul—but he knew that the one to whom had been transferred the full apostolic authority was Clement and no other. That is why he felt it necessary to add ἀπὸ τῶν ἀποστόλων, which otherwise seems so superfluous, and he repeated the phrase twice more (for Sixtus and for Eleutherus), to remove all doubt that it was indeed from and including the apostles that he was making his enumeration. When he wanted to say ‘after’, he used μετά, which occurs three times in the course of his list. He little realized what problems he was raising; even Eusebius mistook his meaning. But Tertullian did not…" (Maurice Bévenot, “Clement of Rome in Irenaeus’s Succession-List,” Journal of Theological Studies 17 [1966]: 102-105.)
  • 38 David Albert Jones, "Was there a Bishop of Rome in the First Century?", New Blackfriars 80 (1999): 138.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Two Christadelphians, Two Evangelicals and Two Catholics answer Seven Epistemological Questions

Introducing the Respondents
Seven Epistemological Questions and Responses


Readers familiar with my account of my journey from Christadelphianism to Evangelicalism to Catholicism will be aware of the role that epistemology has played in my thinking about Christian doctrine. I define epistemology in this context as the study of how we arrive at doctrines worthy of belief or how we distinguish dogma from opinion. It occurred to me that an interesting way of highlighting the epistemological differences between Christadelphians, Evangelicals and Catholics would be to ask members of each group to answer some questions specifically designed to highlight these epistemological differences. So I did. I drew up seven questions (along with some sub-questions) and invited two Christadelphians, two Evangelicals and two Catholics to answer them. These questions and their answers are reproduced verbatim below for the reader's perusal, without any commentary. The purpose of this exercise is not necessarily to show who is right and who is wrong, but to place the different views in sharp relief, side by side. By doing so, I hope that when Christadelphians, Evangelicals and Catholics engage in theological dialogue they will better understand their interlocutor's position and be more introspective about their own.

A few caveats are in order before getting to the respondents and the questions. This is a small, ad hoc, qualitative project. I do not claim that the respondents are statistically representative of their respective religious groups, nor did I make any effort to achieve demographic representativeness (thus, for instance, the respondents are all Anglophone males!) The respondents were handpicked as people I knew on some level whom I thought might be interested in participating and whom I consider to be theologically knowledgeable. The respondents do not claim to be authorized spokesmen for their religious communities. Hence, we do not necessarily have here "the Christadelphian view," "the Evangelical view" and "the Catholic view." We have the views of six individuals, which are however informed to a high degree by these individuals' respective religious affiliations. (Perhaps, as an exercise, the reader can reflect on how s/he would have expressed his/her answers to these questions.) I should also note that none of the respondents saw each other's answers, so they are not directly in dialogue with each other's viewpoints. Finally, a plea to the reader: these six contributors were brave enough to publicly express their answers to these seven challenging epistemological questions. If you choose to comment on any of their answers, please do so in a respectful manner. You may wish to refer to my rules of engagement for online theological discussions for suggestions on how to do this.

Introducing the Respondents

Let me extend my sincere thanks to the six respondents who took time out of their busy lives to offer their views on some challenging theological issues. When quoting the responses in the next section I will use respondents' initials, so I will introduce each respondent by their initials here for easy reference. I asked each respondent to provide some brief biographical information for context.1

DB: Dave Burke was born and raised in a Christadelphian family and is still a member of the Christadelphian community. He is married to Liz, with two children (Johanna and Thomas) and resides in Adelaide, Australia where he works as a freelance business writer. He has 22 years of public speaking and pastoral experience. He is currently studying a Bachelor of Theology degree at a non-denominational Christian university college, and has recently published a guide to Bible study entitled Servants of the Lord: A Bible Study Handbook, which can be purchased from Amazon. Dave maintains an active web presence: see his Academia.edu page, a Facebook page on Christian Origins that he maintains, and two websites to which he is a contributor: Milk to Meat and living-faith.org.2

MM: Mike Macdonald has worked in Banking for 14 years and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing. He and his family reside in the Finger Lakes area of New York. Mike was raised as a Christadelphian, though his parents were not; their family had a Catholic background and they began attending a Christadelphian ecclesia as adults and were eventually baptized. Mike holds beliefs that align with the Unamended community.3 Mike has attended 3 different ecclesias,4 been to many different Bible schools and gatherings,5 and has read from and communicated with many different brothers and sisters of varying beliefs (including from the Amended community), as well as with those of varying religious groups outside of Christadelphia. The website of Mike’s home ecclesia can be found here.6

DD: Derick Dickens is a professor, business leader, Ph.D. student, husband and father who resides in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA. Ordained in 1999 to the Gospel Ministry, Derick has written for several organizations including his own blogs, various news publications, and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Hoping to begin work on his dissertation in a year, Derick’s passion outside of the Bible is Leadership Development, Human Resource Management, and Cultural Engagement. Derick is best known for his humorous speech, “Fun at the DMV” where he won several awards. In 1998, Derick married Lacie where they set off Pastoring Churches, gaining more education, and refining his theology. His theological interests include ecclesiology, soteriology, historic theology, Presuppositional Apologetics and philosophy. Derick is a Presbyterian and holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith. One of his goals in life is to never eat broccoli again. You can find his websites at www.completeinthee.com and www.iopsychology.us.7

SH: Salvador Hayworth grew up in a Christian home. He made a profession of faith and commitment to Christianity when he was seven. He was born again when he was 19. He has had church backgrounds of Pentecostalism, Independent Methodist, Charismatic and Baptist churches as well as independent assemblies. He is not tied to a denomination. He has been an evangelical missionary among the Zulu and directed and produced a documentary drama on the true stories of four people saved out of necromancy and ancestral traditions to follow the Lord (www.allegiancethemovie.co.za). He is now ministering on the East Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa in an independent evangelical Church. (See the KwaZulu mission website.)8

JdH: Jeremy de Haan was born and raised in the Canadian Reformed Churches. During his fourth year at seminary, on his way to becoming a Reformed pastor, Jeremy was prompted by the conversion account of Dr. Peter Kreeft to look more closely at the Catholic faith. The question of epistemology played a big role in this search, and he concluded that the Reformed faith was inconsistent on that foundational point. He and his wife and children were received into the Catholic Church during Lent, 2017. Jeremy and his family reside in West Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. You can read Jeremy’s blog at https://sixteenseasons.wordpress.com.9

CP: Casey Phillips is a self-described Catholic husband, father and Spanish teacher who resides in Kentucky, USA. A former Baptist, Casey converted to Catholicism with his wife Erin in 2014. Since then, Casey has sought to share his Catholic faith through his blog and social media presence (learn more at https://bapticatholic.wordpress.com).10

So, to recap, DB and MM are our Christadelphian contributors, DD and SH are our Evangelical contributors (bearing in mind that DD is a Presbyterian and SH non-denominational) and JdH and CP are our Catholic contributors.

Each contributor received the following instructions pertaining to the seven epistemological questions:
Please answer each question using no more than 150 words (ideally less). In fact, you may wish to answer simply “Yes” or “No” to certain questions if you don’t think your answer requires further qualification. The idea is to clearly state your position rather than to offer detailed arguments in its defence. However, you are welcome to link to or cite material that contains such arguments.

Seven Epistemological Questions and Responses

DB: Yes.

MM: Yes.

DD: Yes!

SH: Obviously there is a huge issue concerning the transmission of texts from the autographs to the present day. The issue of variants must be acknowledged. But I believe that the authors of scripture were all moved by the Holy Spirit to record the message of scripture and all that they first recorded was without error, inspired and, therefore, authoritative.

JdH: I do.

CP: Yes.

DB: The 66 books of the Protestant canon; Textual criticism and historical evidence.

MM: I don’t know for certain. I believe there are likely divinely inspired writings outside of the accepted canon, but I also trust that the canon that has been given to God’s creation contains His saving Gospel message (I’m not aware of any primary Scriptural belief that needs non-canonical writings for support).

DD: I hold to the traditional 66 books. I am not going to address each individual book, but the general principle. Generally speaking, the question seems to ask, “Did the church make the Bible or did the Bible make the church?” The Bible made the church. When there were faithful teachings of the Scripture, the church sprung up. The early church only recognized what occurred when the books of the Bible were properly exposited. In reality, the early church had very little debate over the Books of the Bible precisely because they were created by the Bible and not the other way around. God in His sovereignty put a high standard where other potential rival books were hidden or destroyed. There are no more because none meets the criteria of being inspired like the canon we have. Is there a book in the Bible that shouldn’t be there? Proving a negative is rather difficult, but in general the creation of the church through the preaching of these texts show the insight of the text itself.

SH: 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New. I believe that the NT canon is agreed upon, except for those who would like to also see the inclusion of 2nd century gnostic literature. I find it interesting that the book of Enoch is alluded to by Jude but that is not included in the Roman Catholic apocrypha. NT books bear the stamp of apostolic authority either of apostolic authorship or of a disciple writing under the supervision and authority of an Apostle. As far as the OT, I see the apocryphal books became an issue because the LXX was used by the NT authors. I have yet to see evidence of the books being wholesale accepted by Palestinian Jews of the first century. Because of the priority of Hebrew and Aramaic in the Old Testament, and because of the distinction between the 39 Old Testament books, and the idea that the apocryphal books are somehow deuterocanonical.

JdH: The 73 books of the Catholic canon are Scripture. I have faith that this is true because I believe that the Spirit works through the Church to establish the truth, and the Church declared at the Council of Trent that these 73 books constitute God's written Word. I can, however, grow in understanding and appreciation of this truth through historical study, as well as by simply reading the books themselves.

CP: I affirm the 73 books that compile the canon which is accepted by the Catholic Church. I hold these books to be Holy Scripture because of their historical use among the Christian faithful, and, more importantly, because they were recognized as such by the Catholic Church. By virtue of the authority granted Her by Christ, only the Catholic Church has the ability to recognize and proclaim what books belong in the canon.

DB: Yes.

MM: Yes.

DD: Yes and No! The doctrine of Perspicuity is not universal and is somewhat veiled to the non-Christian. Is the Bible generally clear? Yes! Does that mean there are no difficult passages? No! The other issue here is the word “Individual.” I believe that in general, that true churches have correctly interpreted the Bible. Individualistic interpretations have wandered further. Individualism is not a solid Christian doctrine and should be rejected. While we have the priesthood of the believer, we were called into the church to learn from others who have been deemed faithful in handling the truth. When Calvin opposed the Roman Catholic Church, he was careful to show how the church had held to the doctrines he was espousing. For him, he did not want to be seen as coming up with something new.

SH: I affirm Scripture’s perspicuity for born again believers concerning core doctrines. There are several factors that contribute to the perspicuity of scripture. A person must be born again with a spiritual birth that comes about when one personally trusts in Jesus. For scripture is written that we may believe in Jesus and by faith we are saved. Believing, we have life in Jesus' name. The Holy Spirit needs to illuminate, and open our eyes that we may see wonderful things in the word. We need to accept scripture's judgment over us and if we obey the doctrine we will know that the doctrine is of God. We also are in community with other born again believers and we sharpen one another to search scripture out. We must never believe something just because we were told so. We are more noble minded if we search out scripture to see if these things be so.

JdH: No, I do not affirm that idea.

CP: No. Although many core doctrines can be deduced, it does not follow that all can. Individual interpretation, limited knowledge of context, among other hindrances limit an individual, no matter his or her sincerity, to correctly divine all the fundamental truths of scripture.

DB: I believe they are mistaken, just as they believe I am. I further note that many people who believe the Holy Spirit is necessary for the correct interpretation of Scripture, disagree with each other on essential and non-essential doctrines. This ongoing contradiction militates against the idea that the Holy Spirit is guiding Christians in the correct understanding of Scripture.

MM: There are many reasons why studying the same Scripture can lead to different conclusions, e.g. God’s election/calling, translation/version used, pre-conceived beliefs from human resources used and other influences: familial, societal, cultural, experiences with people of different religions, etc (I can’t imagine anyone whose beliefs haven’t been at least somewhat influenced by at least one of these factors). I respect anyone who has studied Scripture diligently and come to their conclusions, even if different from mine.

DD: See my explanation of the difference between the corporate interpretation and the individual interpretation. Do I still handle differences between churches? Of course, but there is a grounding in Scripture (Sola Scriptura) that is informed by the church (See later answer on the differences between Sola Scriptura and Solo Scriptura). Perspicuity does not mean that all doctrine is clear, but doctrine in general is clear. The Westminster Confession notes,
"All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all (2 Pet. 3:16); yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Ps. 119:105, 130)."
SH: For many different reasons: Presuppositions that blind me. Uncritical commitment to another authority alongside scripture, such as a preacher, pastor or a magisterium. Through gaining a revelation of a truth and taking it beyond the scriptural context and building a whole system on that doctrine without holding it together with other doctrines in biblical tension. Also when we see our understanding is wrong it is easy to embrace a pendulum swing to an opposing view or to take on board the whole body of teaching that those who opposed our understanding hold to without realising that there may be elements within that body of teaching that are not biblical though we gain a revelation of things like sovereignty, free will etc.

DD: Again, the Westminster Confession notes,
"Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed."
JdH: The doctrines of the faith are themselves the lens through which to properly read Scripture. Each of the NT books were written to an audience already possessing the faith and thus equipped to understand the book properly. There is no indication from the Apostles that "diligent, personal study of" their writings alone will give you a sufficient knowledge of the faith, since prior knowledge of the faith is a necessary prerequisite for understanding those writings. Rather, to correctly understand the Christian faith, you must be taught that faith by those to whom it was entrusted. That is, to receive the Christian faith as it really is, you must find the Church. Only then will you understand both the faith and Scripture. Apart from the Church, you lose both.

CP: An infallible authority. As a Catholic, I recognize this authority is the Catholic Church itself, which scripture points out to be the pillar of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

MM: Yes & no (and frankly, uncertain as to identifying when and how this may be done).

DD: Yes! Which is why perspicuity does not necessarily extend to non-Christians. However, it should also be noted, that the Holy Spirit is not perspicuous, only Scripture.

SH: The Holy Spirit does do so.

JdH: As this question is worded, I do affirm it. I wrote in the previous question that I believe that correct interpretation comes from reading Scripture through the lens of the Christian faith. But the correct understanding of the truths of God are available only to those who look with the eyes of faith, which is a spiritual reality. In the same way that man cannot enter into friendship with God apart from the transforming work of God's Spirit, so man cannot understand the truths of God apart from the same transforming work (1Cor. 2:14). Apart from the work of the Spirit, we can understand neither Scripture nor the Christian faith.

CP: The Holy Spirit can do anything, and so a person could be led to the truth but that would not be the normative way.

MM: I believe that calling & election are one way in which a person arrives at Scriptural truths and I certainly wouldn’t exclude the Holy Spirit’s work in that means, but to what extent and when this is done, we can’t say. This is probably the most difficult question for me- I’ve asked for guidance and wisdom concerning beliefs that differ even within Christadelphia and I’m sure those on the other side of these beliefs have done the same. I’m just as sure that this can be said within all religions as well, let alone between varied religions.

DD: I think this goes back to perspicuity. Perspicuity does not mean a lack of problem passages or debatable points, but it merely means that in the essence of the Christian Doctrine, we must and should agree and it is clear. The Spirit does not operate apart from Scripture, which means it corresponds well with the doctrine of perspicuity. The Holy Spirit is also not perspicuous apart from Scripture. Therefore utterances of the Spirit help in interpretation.

SH: The illumination of the Spirit is both individual and communal. Through fellowship and disagreements we begin to discern those who are approved and we must study to show ourselves approved, rightly dividing the word of Truth. I must give account for my own life and doctrine. Differences may come in for many different reasons. I take a multifaceted approach to this subject. Thus the Holy Spirit uses the intellect but intellect is not to be trusted alone. Prayerful attitude, teachability and an awareness of my dependence of the Lord are important. The Lord may reveal through a new believer another aspect of His word, academic study can also aid, sound hermeneutics and charismatic leading are all different tent chords that when held in tension are all ways we can be lead by the Lord.

JdH: I don't believe that any reading of Scripture that runs contrary to the faith as defined by the Church is a reading that has been guided by the Spirit. Such a reading is, by definition, heresy.

DB: No, I believe we can ask God for guidance as well. I simply deny that direct Holy Spirit intervention is necessary. When the Ethiopian eunuch asked for help to understand Scripture, Philip didn’t tell him that he needed the Holy Spirit. He simply explained the passage to the eunuch himself. He didn’t need the Holy Spirit for this. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is necessary to understand Scripture correctly. If this was true, why did the Reformers disagree with the Catholics and Orthodox? Shouldn’t they all share the same interpretation? Protestants and evangelicals have attempted to answer these questions, but their responses inevitably boil down to:
(a) variations on the No True Scotsman fallacy (‘They were not born again/they lacked faith/they were not spiritually mature/they were ignorant of the whole Word of God’)
(b) claims that the individuals in question required additional knowledge from uninspired resources (‘They should have used better Bible study aids’) and/or did not know how to use the resources they possessed (‘They lacked training/their hermeneutics were poor’)
(c) claims that the individuals in question were too reliant on tradition

MM: Certainly not exclusively, but I think that calling & election may sometimes be simply an opportunity and oftentimes we need to search things out and filter through the “strong delusions” and lies with our God-given intellect.

DD: There is mystery, which is one of the debates even among the reformed (Clarkians and Van Tillians/Vos-ians) and non-reformed. However, interpretation is not anti-intellectual either. Because Scripture is not purely intellectual does not mean we say it lacks logic and engagement in the cognitive. Rather, it is to say that that Scripture is logical but it is more than logical too. God is logical but not contained in logic.

CP: No. Christ established a Church with the authority to preach and teach in His name (Matthew 28:19). That said, it makes sense to assume that He knew some would be led astray and would need the Church to guide them. Our faith embraces the great "both and." The Holy Spirit does guide us into all truth as long as we remain within the bounds of Christ's Church.

DB: I would if we had any evidence of it. To date, I have seen no such evidence. However, I do believe that tradition— defined as apostolic teaching that was not recorded in Scripture but transmitted orally, and developed by the Church with or without the help of the Holy Spirit—has a legitimate place in the formation of Christian praxis.

MM: No.

DD: Tradition is a subordinate standard, but the struggles of the church throughout time help inform us. In Reformed circles, we emphasize Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) but reject Solo Scriptura (Only Scripture). Here is the difference. Sola Scriptura means that we learn through preaching as the preacher exposits the text. We can also learn through commentaries and good books on various topics. Solo Scriptura, the view we reject, means that we don’t need preaching to help with interpretation—there can be an individual or private interpretation. Many theologians (reformed and otherwise) have stated concerning theology, “If it is true, it is not new. If it is new, it is not true”; therefore, we believe the church has spoken on the topics throughout history. Because of Sola Scriptura, “Bereans” can and should verify beliefs using Scripture.

SH: I reject the idea of an oral Torah, whether for the Old Testament or New. I believe that Jesus spoke against such a concept when He said that the Pharisees negated the word of God for the sake of their traditions. He did not allow the traditions of the elders to rival scripture and even broke with the seminal teachings that would develop into the notion of the Oral Torah.

JdH: I am unsure about the phrase "developed by the Church." If it means that the Church's understanding of the deposit of faith develops over time, then I affirm the above.

CP: Yes.

DB: If we had any evidence of it, I would consider it equal to Scripture. To date, I have seen no such evidence.

DD: Tradition and history is always subordinate to Scripture. It is a powerful testimony as if all of Church history spoke in one accord on a doctrine, it is highly unlikely that your new interpretation will be true.

JdH: Paul teaches us that all his teachings are authoritative, even those he did not write down: "Stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter" (2 Thess. 2:15). The Apostles do not indicate in their writings that there is any difference in authority between their oral and written communication.

CP: In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 the apostle Paul urges us to hold fast to both oral and written tradition. Scripture and Tradition compromise the complete deposit of faith left by Christ to the apostles.

DB: There is no single rule of faith summarising the beliefs of Christian doctrine according to the ante-Nicene fathers. A few commonalities notwithstanding, Justin Martyr’s rule of faith (the simplest) differs from Irenaeus’. Irenaeus’ rule of faith (the most detailed) differs from Tertullian’s. I believe their respective rules of faith are mostly correct, but somewhat in error. I see no reason why any ANF rule of faith should be binding upon believers. The Christian rule of faith should be distilled from the words of Christ and his apostles in Scripture.

MM: No, I do not deny, if by “rule of faith” it is meant that the Holy Scriptures only are the source of Christian doctrine.

DD: I am not Roman Catholic nor Greek Orthodox. Tradition is important but not infallible. See my discussion of Sola Scriptura above.

SH: I believe in the rule of scripture. I find some agreement with some of what church fathers on some things and reject others things they held to. For me, all church fathers are subject to scripture as I am. I must give my own account for my faith before the Lord. The church fathers pre-Augustine tended to be Chiliasts. I would agree with chiliasm maybe not in the form they held to but it's basic premise, not because the "fathers" believed it but because I see such truth in scripture. The writings of Church fathers may be somewhat helpful in studying scripture, as with studying with other believers but I must base my dogmatic stance on scripture and I cannot use the pre-Nicene fathers as authority to convince someone of the truth of my belief. I can quote some church father to give credence for my source but that is not the same thing. Thus, I hold to the rule of scripture.

DB: No.

MM: No.

DD: Yes!

SH: My understanding of the trinity is that the Father is God, Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God. Not three gods but One God. But the Father is distinct to the Son and to the Holy Spirit in that the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit and the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit.

JdH: I do.

CP: Yes.

DD: Yes, it is explicit in Scripture and necessary to be a Christian church. Here we should note, an explicit teaching does not mean it is phrased the exact way the Council of Nicea used. There is a fallacy of the 1800’s that was derived from a philosophy that primarily wanted very refined and singular statements that summarized an entire doctrine or else, they believed, the doctrine is not taught. This did horrible damage to Systematic and Biblical Theology. The Trinity is explicit and clear. There are few doctrines more clear in Scripture, but there is not one verse that outlines it just like the Council of Nicea. Sola Scriptura mandates we hold to the Trinity.

SH: The truths concerning this are self-evident in New Testament scripture. It is clear that the Son spoke to His Father and the Holy Spirit was sent from the Father and the Son. The Son was regarded by Thomas as "My Lord and My God" Jesus is the Word who was God in the beginning. I don't believe that anybody reading the Bible by itself without indoctrination can come to the idea that Jesus is not God and that He is not distinct from the Father.

JdH: I don't think either of those is the case. I wouldn't affirm that the doctrine of the Trinity is explicit in the same way that Christ's dying on the cross is explicit, or that the institution of the Eucharist and the command to baptize are explicit. But I also wouldn't affirm that "post-biblical reflection on the biblical revelation" is itself dogma. Rather, it is through reflection that the Church deepens her knowledge of dogma, that is, grasps more clearly the contents of the Christian faith. It was by reflecting on the apostolic deposit of faith that the Church affirmed that the doctrine Trinity was part of that deposit.

CP: In this case, post-biblical reflection has correctly and legitimately defined the revelation of the trinity.

DB: Yes, I do, just as the Protestants argue that the Catholics and Orthodox were in grave error until the Reformers emerged, while the Catholics and Orthodox point to the innovations of Protestantism (which contradicted at least 600 years of doctrinal consensus) as grave error.
MM: Yes.

DD: I believe the Trinity is an essential element of the Christian faith. Denying it is to apostatize the Christian faith as it makes God into a different God altogether.

DB: My confidence is grounded in: (a) the belief that God intended Scripture to be understood by normal, everyday people without supernatural assistance (b) the merits of Biblical scholarship, which informs my interpretation of Scripture.

MM: My confidence lies in a combination of things: the grace of God, faith in God’s provision of His word for the world, not merely accepting teachings but proving them (the fact that I have changed my mind after research on certain beliefs helps this confidence), being able to support my beliefs with Scripture, and seeing other sound, wise, and logical people support the same conclusions I have reached. These reasons may be no different than reasons given by someone of another religion, or every religion. What are we to do then? I hope every believer in God searches Him and His truth out diligently. Our beliefs drive our actions and give purpose to our life. In the end, we all must be confident of our stance to the point where we are ready to stand before our Judge, whom I believe is the Lord Jesus Christ. One thing I know is that judgment will be righteous and the Creator of the Earth’s will will be done, it is not always for us to have the answer. I pray that my life/walk, based on my beliefs, will find sufficient grace to be given the reward of serving Him eternally.

DD: My ground of confidence is presuppositional (everyone’s view is at some degree). Without the Bible, it is impossible to prove anything about Christianity or life or even tradition. The Church, doctrine, logic, or any other realm must presuppose an infallible and the primacy of Scripture or else nothing can be proven or known about God. The Bible is perspicuous but that does not mean it is not complex (clarity in teaching versus complexity in thought). For example: the Trinity is clear in Scripture (perspicuous) but it is extremely complex. Perspicuity applies to core doctrine which all Christians agree. Minor issues is where we disagree, which is healthy. When disagreements occur, that should point us to discuss the issues theologically and Scripture focused. While I cannot address all disagreements, I find that among the essential elements of the faith we often align. The other issues should bring us into studying Scripture further.

SH: Unless I can see something taught and/or practised by the Apostles I don't have to believe what any teacher or Magisterium says. If the majority of NT readers were Greek speaking, it would make sense that there was a heavy reliance on the LXX. Sometimes, someone like Matthew favours the MT or another variant. But no one can doubt that the LXX was used. This in itself cannot prove that the apocryphal books were to be regarded as scripture. I found it interesting that when Jerome favoured the priority of the Hebrew Text over Greek that the place of the apocrypha was questioned. Although problems arise with a move to Hebrew roots, I strongly believe that something of the Biblical and Apostolic view was lost in Churches that built on Patristic authority that eschewed the Hebrew roots of the faith, which grew in a supersessionist theology and then later in an amillennial or Postmillennial theology. No authority can be so high as to rival the authority of scripture. All scripture is God breathed. That I cannot say for the notion of an Oral Torah of Judaism or that of an oral tradition within a Magisterium.

JdH: The ground of my confidence is the belief that the Spirit has given His yes or no on a given doctrine not ultimately through my judgment, but through the judgment of the Church. I find no indication in Scripture that my scriptural conclusions are to be the standard of orthodoxy for myself, much less for all Christians – which would be the case if mine truly were the Spirit-enlightened ones. No, Scripture itself points to the judgment of the Church as being the judgment of the Spirit (Acts 15:38), so that is where my confidence lies.

CP: As 1 Timothy tells us, "the pillar and ground of truth" is the Church that Jesus established. Historically speaking, there is no doubt that Catholic Church is the only church that can trace its origins back to the 1st century, and thus the only church that can be labeled as the pillar of truth. If no authoritative voice exists which can adjudicate the canon and the appropriate interpretation thereof, then no one can know the truth. Individual interpretation of scripture has led to rampant divergence and disagreement among the Christian faithful.


  • 1 In the biographies I was less concerned to reproduce the contributor's words verbatim, so I did some light editing here and there to ensure the level of detail in the biographies is similar.
  • 2 Editor’s note: Dave and I have never met in person but have interacted extensively online over the years. Our theological disagreements have been many, but I respect his efforts toward defending the intellectual credibility of Christadelphian theology.
  • 3 Editor’s note: the Unamended community is a “fellowship” or separate communion within the Christadelphian community.
  • 4 Editor’s note: local Christadelphian congregations are called ecclesias.
  • 5 Editor’s note: these terms refer to Christadelphian inter-ecclesial conferences. A Bible school typically lasts a week while a gathering (called a "fraternal" in some countries) is only a weekend.
  • 6 Editor’s note: I know Mike better than any of the other contributors. We are long-time friends and I hold him in high esteem as a man of integrity and conviction, not to mention a classic dry sense of humour.
  • 7 Editor’s note: Derick and I have never met in person; I linked up with him through the Christian Bloggers Network, where he is one of the moderators. He is evidently very busy with his Ph.D studies and a recent move, so I am very grateful for his willingness, as a passionate proponent of Reformed theology, to participate in this project with a Catholic whom he hardly knows.
  • 8 Editor’s note: Salvador and I met through King’s Evangelical Divinity School, where we were studying contemporaneously through distance learning—two of just a handful of students in South Africa studying with this U.K.-based institution. My wife and I were able to visit Salvador and his wife Di briefly in Vryheid where they were ministering at the time and also met them in Cape Town on another occasion. Salvador was a couple of years ahead of me in the program and provided helpful advice about module choices and study strategies.
  • 9 Editor’s note: Although Jeremy and I are both Canadians with strong connections to Hamilton, Ontario, we’ve never met in person. I linked up with him after reading the story of his conversion to Catholicism at Called to Communion, which resonated with me.
  • 10 Editor’s note: Casey and I have never met in person but linked up through the Christian Bloggers Network on Facebook. I am, like him, a "BaptiCatholic" who is passionate about sharing my faith through social media. Unlike him, I’m not able to do so in multiple languages!