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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Apostolicity of the Post-Apostolic Church (Part 1 of 3): Apostolic origins, teaching and succession, and non-traditional perspectives

Virtually any Christian would agree that "apostolic" is an attribute the Church ought to have. Indeed, "apostolic" is among the four characteristics of the Church specified in the Nicene Creed (the others being "one," "holy" and "catholic"). But what does it mean for the Church to be "apostolic" in the post-apostolic period—indeed, some nineteen centuries after the original apostles died? Contemporary Christian answers to this question vary but fall into three broad categories.

Most Protestant movements view today's Church as "apostolic" only to the extent that it remains faithful to the apostles' doctrines and practices as preserved in the New Testament. This might be termed indirect apostolicity. However, during the past two centuries some Christians have taught that the office of "apostle" has been prophetically restored. Consequently, some churches today—particularly the various "Apostolic Church" sub-denominations and some Pentecostal churches—call their leaders "apostles." This might be termed direct apostolicity.

These are both relatively new answers to the question of what it means for the post-apostolic Church to be apostolic. There is a third answer that was uncontested for well over a millennium of Church history (say, from the third through fifteenth centuries) and is still maintained today by Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Christians. This answer portrays the apostolicity of the Church in three aspects: apostolic origins, apostolic teaching and apostolic succession. Before explaining further, let us note the extent to which it agrees with the two newer answers described above. The traditional answer agrees that faithfulness to apostolic teaching as preserved in the New Testament is essential to the Church's continued apostolicity. It agrees with one group of Protestants that the office of "apostle" was unique and confined to the early church. However, it agrees with the other group of Protestants that the post-apostolic Church retains a direct kind of apostolicity.

Again, the traditional, Catholic-Orthodox-Anglican view understands the Church's apostolicity under three aspects: apostolic origins, apostolic teaching and apostolic succession. Herein I will focus on the Roman Catholic expression of apostolicity. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
The Church is apostolic because she is founded on the apostles, in three ways: 
  • she was and remains built on "the foundation of the Apostles," The witnesses chosen and sent on mission by Christ himself; 
  • with the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, The "good deposit," the salutary words she has heard from the apostles; 
  • she continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ's return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, "assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church's supreme pastor" (CCC 857)

The first bullet point highlights the importance of the ancient apostles—something all Christians acknowledge—and stresses their uniqueness. While the sense of the Greek word apostolos is something like "envoy," it gradually became a technical term in Christian circles, denoting those individuals that the risen Jesus personally, verbally commissioned to build and lead the Church. "The Twelve" were of course the most famous group of apostles (Mark 3:14; Rev. 21:14; etc.), but there were others. Also described as apostles within the New Testament are Paul (Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:1; Acts 14:14; etc.), Barnabas (Acts 14:14; 15:2), James the Lord's brother (Gal. 1:19) and possibly Andronicus and Junia(s) (Rom. 16:7)—this last case being most controversial because it may refer to a female, Junia, as an apostle (though both the name and whether these two are being called apostles are ambiguous). There were, at a minimum, sixteen people who held the office of "apostle" (the Twelve, Matthias as Judas's replacement, James, Barnabas and Paul), but perhaps many more than that.1

Paul seems to imply in 1 Cor. 15:8-9 that being a witness of Jesus's resurrection was a prerequisite for being an apostle (cf. Acts 1:22-26). Moreover, Paul's words "Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me" suggest that the timing of his apostolic commissioning (after Jesus's ascension) was exceptional and that he was the last apostle to be commissioned. There is no indication in the New Testament that more apostles were expected in the future, nor is there any indication that the patristic, medieval or Reformation-era Church ever anticipated a latter-day restoration of the apostolic office. Thus the claim that the apostolic office was recreated unexpectedly ex nihilo in the nineteenth or twentieth century is biblically and historically suspect.

According to the second bullet point above, the Church remains apostolic by handing on the apostles' teaching. The Catechism elsewhere elaborates on the two forms that this teaching took:
In keeping with the Lord's command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways: 
  • orally "by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received - whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit"; 
  • in writing "by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing" (CCC 76)
Thus, from a Catholic/Orthodox perspective, apostolic teaching consists not only of the New Testament (in which most of the apostles are not represented as authors) but also of oral apostolic teachings known as "apostolic tradition." This idea may sound strange to Protestant ears, but again it was uncontested in the Church for over a millennium. An example of a practice followed unquestioningly by most Protestants that rests more on apostolic tradition than the New Testament is that of meeting on Sunday for worship and not keeping Saturday as the Sabbath. As Protestant biblical scholar Craig Keener, a leading authority on Acts (and not a Seventh-Day Adventist) states,
Those who regard second- and third-century traditions as normative will observe Sunday, but this need not be normative for churches that start only from Scripture.2
Now, unquestionably the apostles transmitted teachings orally that they considered to have as much authority as their writings (2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Cor. 11:2, 34; 2 John 12; 3 John 13-14). The problem is, how do we know nineteen centuries later what these oral teachings were? We have all probably played the game "Telephone" ("Chinese Whispers" in the U.K.) where a message is whispered from ear to ear around a circle or down a queue of people. The point of the game is to show how radically the initial message changes through this iterative transmission process.3 Authentic "apostolic tradition" could, therefore, not be preserved so as to retain its authority unless the Holy Spirit were somehow involved in the oral transmission process. Enter the doctrine of apostolic succession.

The Catechism explains the relationship between apostolic teaching and apostolic succession thus:
[The apostolic preaching was]...continued in apostolic succession[:] "In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority." Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time. This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, "the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes." (CCC 76-78)
And again:
"The criterion that assures unity amid the diversity of liturgical traditions is fidelity to apostolic Tradition, i.e., the communion in the faith and the sacraments received from the apostles, a communion that is both signified and guaranteed by apostolic succession." (CCC 1209)
Without this Spirit-guided apostolic succession there would be no basis for trusting that any teachings of the apostles had been preserved orally. Therefore the Catholic/Orthodox claim that the Church has reliably transmitted "apostolic tradition" stands or falls with the doctrine of apostolic succession.

We have seen that the doctrine of apostolic tradition rests on the doctrine of apostolic succession. The latter is a tangible, historical claim: namely, that the bishops of the Church today are in an unbroken line of succession going back to the apostles, who set this process in motion. However, it would be a serious mistake to view the doctrine of apostolic succession as merely a matter of history or ecclesiastical politics. It is a theological idea: apostolic succession is a process believed to have been initiated and perpetuated by the Holy Spirit in order to safeguard the Church and her gospel. It is one of the means by which Christ fulfilled his promises to found the Church on a rock so that the gates of Hades might not prevail against her, supply the Church with the Holy Spirit perpetually, nourish the Church, be with the Church until the close of the age (Matt. 16:18; 28:20; John 14:16-17; Eph. 5:29).

Apostolic succession is a big part of the Catholic/Orthodox answer to the question, "What became of the Church after the apostles died?" Post-Reformation Christian movements tend to offer different—and very pessimistic—answers to this question: the Church was devastated by a great falling away and became largely corrupt, whether rapidly or gradually. Hence the need for reform or, in more radical sectarian circles, restoration of the long-lost apostolic faith. Such movements point to numerous New Testament passages about doctrinal corruption and heresy that would afflict the post-apostolic Church (2 Thess. 2:3-12; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 4:3-4; 1 John 4:1-3). According to post-Reformation thinkers, the power grab resulting from "apostolic succession" claims caused or accelerated this corruption. By contrast, from a Catholic/Orthodox perspective apostolic succession is a divinely ordained protection against heresy. (We will see later that St. Irenaeus made exactly this point in the second century.)

What provision did God make for the survival of the early Church? According to 19th-century Christadelphian apologist Robert Roberts, the provisions God made were the apostles and their writings, the New Testament. "Apostolic tradition," he insists, could not have worked.
If the early churches, consisting of men and women fresh from the abominations and immoralities of heathenism, and without the authoritative standard of the completed Scripture which now exists, had been left to the mere power of apostolic tradition intellectually received, they could not have held together. The winds of doctrine, blowing about through the activity of 'men of corrupt minds,' would have broken them from their moorings, and they would have been tossed to and fro in the billows of uncertain and conflicting report and opinion, and finally stranded in hopeless shipwreck. This catastrophe was prevented by the gifts of the spirit. Properly qualified men, as to moral and intellectual parts, were made the repositories of these gifts, and empowered to 'speak and exhort, and rebuke with all authority.' They 'ruled' the communities over which they were placed, feeding the flock of God over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers... In this way the early churches were built up and edified. The work of the apostles was conserved, improved, and carried to a consummation. The faith was completed and consolidated by the voice of inspiration, speaking through the spiritually-appointed leaders of the churches. By this means the results of gospel-preaching in the first century, when there were no railways, telegraphs, or other means of a rapid circulation of ideas, instead of evaporating to nothing, as, otherwise, they would have done, were secured and made permanent, both as regards that generation and succeeding centuries.4
Now, Roberts's picture of the early church is fraught with inconsistencies. During the first century, most "converts" to Christianity were Jews and Gentile God-fearers. It was in the second and third centuries that converts consisted largely "of men and women fresh from the abominations and immoralities of heathenism". Thus, according to Roberts's own model, the Holy Spirit and apostolic authority vanished precisely when they were needed most. Furthermore, the second-century Church was still "without the authoritative standard of the completed Scripture which now exists". The apostles did not bequeath to the Church a completed New Testament canon; it took generations for the boundaries of the canon to take shape and centuries to be finaliseda task left to post-apostolic ecclesiastical authorities. What provision did God make for the interim period when there were no longer apostles and there was not yet the "authoritative standard of the completed Scripture"? Roberts does not answer this question, but his logic requires that God must have made some provision and not merely abandoned the post-apostolic Church. Is it not at least plausible that, just as God used Spirit-led apostles to preserve and transmit the teachings of Jesus after His ascension, so God used other Spirit-led men to preserve and transmit the teachings of the apostles—the apostolic tradition—after the apostles died?

Thus, far from demonstrating that ecclesiastical authority and the Holy Spirit were no longer needed after the apostles, Roberts's own arguments suggest the opposite. His rejection of "the mere power of apostolic tradition intellectually received" is moot if the apostolic tradition was transmitted by the Holy Spirit rather than merely the human intellect as Robert assumes. This assumption in turn rests on the assumption that the apostles had no divinely appointed successors, which rests on an argument from silence, namely that God "never, so far as we have any evidence, appointed 'successors' [to the apostles]."5

If, then, we can produce evidence for apostolic succession, Roberts's model of God's plan for the early Church—already severely weakened by the chronological gap between the apostles and the availability of a complete New Testament—will come crashing down. In the second half of this article, we will look at evidence for apostolic succession in Christian writings from the late first through late second centuries.


  • 1 Paul in 1 Cor. 15:6 refers to more than five hundred people who met the condition of having witnessed the risen Lord, though this does not necessarily mean they were all apostles. Didache 11.3-6, written probably toward the end of the first century, refers to apostles quite generically, as though they were fairly numerous, although by this time probably nearly all of the aforementioned sixteen had died. One must bear in mind, however, that ecclesiological terminology was not standardized in the first century, so it is not certain that the author of the Didache understood the term "apostle" as technically as Paul, for example, seems to have done.
  • 2 There is some limited anecdotal evidence in the New Testament that the first day of the week held special significance—see Keener's comments on Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor. 16:2—but nothing like a decree that the Sabbath has been set aside or supplanted by the first day of the week.
  • 3 In my own experience, the message has sometimes been preserved almost perfectly, rather amusingly undermining the point the facilitator was trying to make! Nevertheless, the principle is valid that errors gradually accumulate through iterative oral transmission of a message.
  • 4 Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray, p. 148.
  • 5 Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray, p. 147, emphasis added.

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