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Showing posts with label Catholic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Catholic. Show all posts

Wednesday 23 August 2017

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

Preamble
Introducing the Respondents
Seven Epistemological Questions and Responses

Preamble

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.

Footnotes

  • 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!

Monday 14 August 2017

The Apostolicity of the Post-Apostolic Church (Part 2 of 3): Clarifying Catholic teaching on apostolic succession in the early Church

1. Apologetics vs. historiography
2. Addressing some misconceptions about Catholic teaching on apostolic succession
3. What does Catholicism expect from the historical record?

I ended the first article of this series by promising, in the sequel, to provide historical evidence supporting the doctrine of apostolic succession. However, I must beg the reader's patience as I will only get to the evidence in the next article. This article serves as a necessary preamble.

In the previous article we explored the three ways in which the Church is apostolic, from the Catholic point of view: apostolic origins, apostolic teaching and apostolic succession. All Christians today agree that the earliest Church was led and spread by Jesus's apostles. The Catholic Church (along with the Orthodox and Anglicans) affirms that the apostles' teachings were transmitted to posterity in two forms: written scriptures and oral tradition. They likewise affirm that the apostles bequeathed a continuous chain of successors (bishops) to lead the faithful and preserve and interpret their written and oral teachings. These two doctrines enjoyed virtually universal acceptance among Christians for well over a millennium (i.e., c. 300-1500 A.D.) but have remained controversial in the West since their rejection by the Reformers in the 16th century.

1. Apologetics vs. historiography

When an apologist comes to the textual data concerning early church government and authority, his/her aim is to defend a contemporary doctrine of church government that he/she holds (on the assumption that ancient precedents remain normative today). The desire to make one's position as credible as possible may lead an apologist to read the evidence with a theological bias. This could manifest as exaggerated uniformity in the data, tendentious interpretation of problematic texts, etc.

When a contemporary historian comes to the same data, his/her aim is to reconstruct past events and circumstances objectively, without regard to theological convictions. This is good insofar as it mitigates theological bias. However, the desire to be perceived as critical, impartial and/or ecumenical may lead a historian to approach the evidence with a bias against his or her own theological background (or against theology itself). This could manifest as an exaggerated diversity in the data, skepticism of ancient or traditional perspectives (a "hermeneutics of suspicion"), etc.

In this article I am trying to wear both hats in order to achieve a balance of biases. I make no secret of my Catholic theological bias (one I acquired only recently), but I want to be critical and fair in my interpretation of the evidence. The reader may decide how far I have succeeded.

2. Addressing some misconceptions about Catholic teaching on apostolic succession

The Roman Catholic Church of today has a clearly defined hierarchical structure. There are three sacramental ministerial orders—bishops, presbyters (priests) and deacons—each with clearly defined powers. Each local jurisdiction of the Church is ruled by a single monarchical bishop. One of these bishops, the bishop of Rome, also reigns over all the other bishops. The pope, who is regarded as the successor of St. Peter, rules over the other bishops, who are all regarded as successors of the apostles. The pope is the global face of the Catholic Church, a visible marker of its unity.

Some naive Catholics would insist that the above description is exactly what the Catholic Church has always looked like, from the time the apostles died out c. 100 A.D. down through history. However, when many contemporary historians, including Catholic historians, study early Christian texts they paint a very different picture. For instance, they find that monoepiscopacy (monarchical rule by a single bishop over a city or locale) was a gradual development, including in Rome, and not the established norm until the late second century or later. They find that terms like episkopos (bishop/overseer) and presbyteros (presbyter/elder) are used interchangeably in some texts, along with other terms like didaskalos (teacher) and hēgoumenos (leader), and not as the ecclesiastical technical terms they would later become. Most importantly for our purposes here, some historians assert that the doctrine of apostolic succession through bishops developed in the late second century and that the episcopal succession lists published at that time were fabrications.

Ultraconservative Catholic apologists vehemently contest all of the above findings, and sometimes resort to very contrived and far-fetched arguments in the process. Meanwhile, triumphalist Protestant apologists tout the historians' findings as though they have reduced the Catholic faith to an absurd fantasy. They take particular glee in citing Catholic historians as "hostile witnesses" against their own faith.

It turns out that both sets of apologists are misguided. Historical research has shown that the hierarchical structure of the Church underwent development over time. However, what many Protestant apologists have failed to recognise is that Catholic theology allows for such development (within certain parameters). For example, (although the papacy is not our main concern here), one Catholic scholar observes, "It is not prima facie obvious that a high doctrine of the papacy does require that a single bishop exercised magisterial authority in Rome in the immediate post-apostolic age."1

The most famous Catholic proponent of the theory of doctrinal development was, of course, Cardinal Newman in the 19th century. Specifically on the episcopate and the papacy, Newman explained why these structural features of the Church became more visible over time:
While Apostles were on earth, there was the display neither of Bishop nor Pope; their power had no prominence, as being exercised by Apostles. In course of time, first the power of the Bishop displayed itself, and then the power of the Pope...  
When the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated. And, in like manner, it was natural for Christians to direct their course in matters of doctrine by the guidance of mere floating, and, as it were, endemic tradition, while it was fresh and strong; but in proportion as it languished, or was broken in particular places, did it become necessary to fall back upon its special homes, first the Apostolic Sees, and then the See of St. Peter.2
The magisterial document Lumen Gentium from the Second Vatican Council, which formally defines Catholic doctrine about the Church, has the following to say about the origin of apostolic succession:
That divine mission, entrusted by Christ to the apostles, will last until the end of the world, since the Gospel they are to teach is for all time the source of all life for the Church. And for this reason the apostles, appointed as rulers in this society, took care to appoint successors. For they not only had helpers in their ministry, but also, in order that the mission assigned to them might continue after their death, they passed on to their immediate cooperators, as it were, in the form of a testament, the duty of confirming and finishing the work begun by themselves, recommending to them that they attend to the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit placed them to shepherd the Church of God. They therefore appointed such men, and gave them the order that, when they should have died, other approved men would take up their ministry. Among those various ministries which, according to tradition, were exercised in the Church from the earliest times, the chief place belongs to the office of those who, appointed to the episcopate, by a succession running from the beginning, are passers-on of the apostolic seed. Thus, as St. Irenaeus testifies, through those who were appointed bishops by the apostles, and through their successors down in our own time, the apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved.
Notice that Lumen Gentium reaffirms the historical foundations of the doctrine of apostolic succession through episcopacy. However, it does not make any specific claims about when or how monoepiscopacy—open and uncontested rule by one bishop within a region—developed. The Church's dogmatic teaching on apostolic succession is thus at least compatible with a developmental paradigm. Indeed, consider the following excerpts from the post-Vatican II document Catholic Teaching on Apostolic Succession:
The documents of the New Testament show that in the early days of the Church and in the lifetime of the apostles there was diversity in the way communities were organized... Those who directed communities in the lifetime of the apostles or after their death have different names in the New Testament texts: the presbyteroi-episkopoi are described as poimenes, hegoumenoi, proistamenoi, kyberneseis. In comparison with the rest of the Church, the feature of the presbyteroi-episkopoi is their apostolic ministry of teaching and governing. Whatever the method by which they are chosen, whether through the authority of the Twelve or Paul or some link with them, they share in the authority of the apostles who were instituted by Christ and who maintain for all time their unique character. In the course of time this ministry underwent a development... Already in the New Testament texts there are echoes of the transition from the apostolic period to the subapostolic age, and one begins to see signs of the development that in the second century led to the stabilization and general recognition of the episcopal ministry... The absence of documents makes it difficult to say precisely how these transitions came about. By the end of the first century the situation was that the apostles or their closest helpers or eventually their successors directed the local colleges of episkopoi and presbyteroi. By the beginning of the second century the figure of a single bishop who is the head of the communities appears very clearly in the letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who further claims that this institution is established "unto the ends of the earth" (Ad Epk. 3, 2).
Although not a magisterial document, this study was produced by a committee of leading Catholic theologians appointed by the pope. It thus represents a mainstream Catholic perspective on early Church history. It is therefore interesting that the document makes numerous statements in line with the findings of contemporary historians. First, the document acknowledges that there was diversity in the earliest Christian communities both in terms of organizational structure and in the terminology used for community leaders. Second, the document speaks explicitly of "development" and "transitions" in Christian ministry, specifically the "stabilization and general recognition of the episcopal ministry." Third, the document acknowledges that the historical evidence from the late first and early second centuries is too thin to permit dogmatic reconstructions of the development of Christian ministry during this period. These statements might shock some naive Catholics who would like to picture St. Peter's earliest successors making public appearances on the balcony of a basilica. However, they ought also to give pause to Protestant apologists who too easily conclude that the earliest historical evidence concerning Christian ministry is incompatible with Catholic theology.

3. What does Catholicism expect from the historical record?

What sort of evidence would we expect to find in the historical record if the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession were true? Firstly, we would not necessarily expect to find evidence that the apostles left monarchical bishops as their immediate successors. However, we might expect to find evidence that the apostles did leave successors in the form of a divinely ordained office. That is, evidence that they did not merely happen to leave behind some protégés, but created a ministry that they understood to be divinely sanctioned. Secondly, we would not necessarily expect to find evidence that unbroken "succession lists" of bishops going back to the apostles were theologically important immediately after the apostles died. We might, however, expect to find evidence that such succession lists became theologically important within a couple of generations, as living memory of the apostles disappeared and direct links to the apostles could no longer be verified by eyewitness testimony. (As long as there were people around who could recall the apostles' teachings firsthand, their successors would not have the same value as preservers of apostolic teaching as they would acquire thereafter.) Finally, we would not expect to find evidence supporting a Protestant model of Church government and post-apostolic apostolicity over against the Catholic model. For instance, if it could be shown that the apostles provided a fixed, completed canon of Scripture to serve as the sole locus of theological authority after they died (over against any notion of theological authority vesting in ministerial leaders), this would be quite fatal to Catholic ecclesiology.

It must also be emphasised that a relative sparseness of evidence for the idea of apostolic succession within the New Testament is not particularly problematic for Catholic theology. In the apostolic period there was little concern over who would lead the Church after the apostles died, for the simple reason that the earliest Christians anticipated that "Church history" would be more of a sprint than a marathon. The Lord's promised Parousia was believed to be imminent (Phil. 4:5; Jas 5:9; Rev. 22:20; etc.) A community that expects its leadership to become redundant in the very near future does not prioritise long-term succession planning. Thus, that the New Testament leaves us with little information about how the apostles envisioned the Church to be governed in the post-apostolic period is regrettable, but not surprising.

With these preliminaries out of the way, the third part of this study will finally discuss the historical evidence concerning apostolic succession directly. This study is not intended as a comprehensive treatment of the relevant historical evidence, nor is it intended to "prove" the doctrine of apostolic succession. The aim is more modest: to show that the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession is consistent with the historical record. This doctrine cannot, however, be "proven"; it can only be received by faith. The ground for belief in this doctrine is that the Church declares it to be so. Nevertheless, faith and reason are friends and not enemies, which is why a consideration of historical evidence is meaningful.


Footnotes

  • 1 David Albert Jones, "Was there a Bishop of Rome in the First Century?", New Blackfriars 80 (1999): 128.
  • 2 John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 2nd ed. (London: Piccadilly, 1846), 165-67. The excerpts here do not convey the full power of the argument of the section, which the reader is encouraged to consult.

Tuesday 8 August 2017

Why join the Church that produced the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Clerical Sex Abuse Scandal?

Since becoming a Catholic earlier this year, I have had correspondence and conversations with a number of relatives and friends who believe I have made a big error in judgment. They expressed their concerns with care and candour and even a degree of perplexity—joining the Catholic Church is not just inadvisable, it is not worth a moment’s thought. My relatives and friends raised various specific reasons why becoming a Catholic was such a bad idea, such as (what they perceive to be) unbiblical doctrines and a wooden, ritualistic approach to religious life. For most, though, a very clear deal-breaker is the Catholic Church’s shameful history. Questions were posed like, “Why in the world would you want to associate yourself with a church that has committed so many atrocities?” A list would then follow with items such as the usurpation of temporal political power, the Crusades, the Inquisition (and many other acts of persecution targeting Jews and nonconformist Christians), the stubborn resistance to non-geocentric models of the universe, the sale of indulgences and other corrupt practices that precipitated the Protestant Reformation, and—in our own time—the still-unfolding clerical sex abuse scandal. Those who really know their history could undoubtedly add many more examples, but these suffice to make the point: the Catholic Church has a very checkered past, to say the least. Is it not obvious that this is not the true Church but a corrupt distortion? Who could be so naïve as to think otherwise?

Now, I doubt that any non-Catholic has converted to Catholicism in recent times without first having seriously wrestled with this issue. And there are various ways one might try to “get around it,” so to speak. One could dig up dirt on other ecclesiastical traditions to show that their track record is not much better. One could argue that once one understands the historical context, various people and events were not as bad as they first appear. One could point to many positive contributions of the Catholic Church in areas of public health, poverty alleviation, social justice, education, human rights, etc. Or one could disown those who commit(ted) such atrocities as not real Catholics, and dissociate oneself from this past. After all, I didn’t go on the Crusades, and I didn’t burn anyone at the stake. Don’t blame me for things that happened long ago.

There are elements of validity in each of the above approaches to the problem of the Catholic Church’s unsightly past, but in my view none of them comes close to a satisfactory answer. The first three approaches risk denying the seriousness of the problem. The fourth approach risks compromising the catholicity of the Church, which would by definition be un-Catholic. It also risks falling prey to the fallacy of "guilt by association" and its obverse, purity by dissociation. The problem of disreputable doings in the Catholic Church’s past (and present) is addressed not by denying, downplaying or disowning this history, but precisely by owning it. Wait—are you saying you approve of filling the streets of the holy land with Muslim blood, devising elaborate torture machines to “encourage” repentance, or sheltering pedophile priests from justice? Absolutely not. So what exactly am I saying?

To take ownership of the past means three things. It means, firstly, to acknowledge the past. “This happened, and it was terrible.” In this we follow the lead of Pope John Paul II, who offered many apologies on behalf of the Church during his reign. Caution is needed, since some accusations raised about Catholic history may be exaggerated, embellished or downright false. Moreover, negativity cannot be allowed to govern the narrative such that the positive aspects of our Church's history—above all, the faithful saints of all ages—are neglected. All the same, one must not make excuses or whitewash the past, but face it head on.

It means, secondly, to resist dissociating oneself from that past. “This was done in our Church, by our brothers and sisters. It is part of our collective story.” That is not to say that all Catholics, either today or at particularly difficult points in history, are individually guilty of these historical sins. (This would be analogous to the crude anti-Semitic claim that all Jews past and present are Christ-killers.) However, the Catholic doctrine of a visible, concrete Church rules out any ecclesiological gerrymandering whereby we redraw the boundaries of the Catholic Church—past or present—to exclude those popes, bishops, priests, nations or eras that don’t correspond to our ideal. The Catholic Church houses all Catholics, warts and all. As Catholics, we recognize Church history as our history, not someone else’s. As Pope John Paul II said:
Hence it is appropriate that as the second millennium of Christianity draws to a close the Church should become ever more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal. Although she is holy because of her incorporation into Christ, the Church does not tire of doing penance. Before God and man, she always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters.” (Tertio millennio adveniente 33)
Thirdly, it means learning from past mistakes. As the saying goes, “Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.” If that is true of human history in general, how much more is it true of our communal history as the One Body? And it is precisely at this point that the Catholic Church’s checkered past becomes an asset rather than a liability. We have far more mistakes to learn from than any other church, denomination or sect! And learn from them we have. The hard lessons of the past have become part of the Church’s communal memory, part of the Church’s small-t tradition. By owning them the Church ensures they will never be forgotten.

If one needs a biblical justification for this approach to Church history, one need not look far. The Israelites provide an excellent parallel. The Old Testament exemplifies the principle of owning the past, warts and all. The Hebrew Bible was written about Israel, for Israel, by Israelites who fervently believed Israel to be the special people of God. Yet the biblical history of Israel is full of shameful episodes and deeply flawed characters! Even among the heroes of the Bible you find incest, deceit, adultery and murder. The historians who chronicled the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel couldn't find a single king whom they could call “good.” It wasn’t just the leaders, either. The privileged people whom Yahweh had delivered from Egypt with a mighty hand murmured against His servant Moses. Through the centuries they repeatedly forsook Yahweh for foreign idols or mingled Yahweh-worship with abominations. Yet, looking back on such history, the biblical writers make no attempt to disguise it or dissociate themselves from it. It is the history of their people and, paradoxical though it may be, God’s people. Thus they preserve this history for posterity so that Israel can remember what Israel has done and learn from it. In the New Testament, perhaps no passage exemplifies the ownership of a troubled past more than the Matthaean genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17). Matthew gratuitously highlights several women of ill repute in the Saviour’s pedigree: Tamar the incestuous seductress; Rahab the scheming prostitute; Ruth the Moabite; Bathsheba the adulteress. The ignominious “deportation to Babylon” forms one of the historical milestones around which the genealogy is structured. Matthew seems at pains to emphasise that Jesus’s family tree is anything but impeccable.

If the Catholic Church must take ownership of shameful episodes in her past and preserve their memory in order to learn their lessons, this is a feature she shares with her forebear biblical Israel. One must add that this is not simply an unending circle of mistakes. When one studies the Book of Judges, one becomes acquainted with the cycle of blessing, followed by complacency and sin, followed by punishment and suffering, followed by repentance, followed by deliverance and blessing again. However, the full history of Israel is not one of going in circles, of futility. In the post-exilic period, for example, Israel definitively overcame the vice of cultic idolatry that had plagued her for centuries. The Jewish people survived a harrowing test of their religious loyalty in the Maccabean period and Jewish identity became synonymous with monolatry thereafter. Observant Jewry has never since been ensnared in cultic idolatry.

In similar fashion, many values embedded in the Catholic Church’s DNA have been refined through the hard lessons of history. Peace activism, opposition to capital punishment, the Just War doctrine (which makes vanishingly small the circumstances under which war is permissible and then restricts almost to impracticability the means by which such a war can be waged), advocacy for religious freedom, an intense ecumenical programme with non-Catholic Christians and conciliatory dialogue with Jews and Muslims—all of this has emerged from the shadow of the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Catholicism is a truly historical religion. It engages thoroughly with its own history, celebrating the good and lamenting the bad and the ugly. As Catholics, we cannot whitewash our past, because it is part of us. We do not smugly denounce bad people and events from our Catholic past at arm’s length as though they are the Other, something remote and strange. They too belong to us; they are part of our family tree, just as Judah and Tamar and Rehoboam and Ahaz and Manasseh and Jehoiachin were part of Jesus’s family tree. When we denounce their actions it is with a posture of humility, knowing that if they fell, so could we. Therefore we are—paradoxical though it may be—thankful to God for all of our Catholic history. Not thankful that bad things were done, but thankful that we have such a vast communal experience from which to learn.

So, to the question, “Why in the world would you want to associate yourself with a church that has committed so many atrocities?” my answer is, “So that I can take my place in the Church's long and checkered history, take ownership of it and learn from it.”

Further Reading: International Theological Commission (1999). Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past.

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.

Footnotes

  • 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.