Apostolicity versus Apostolic Succession?

Jul 14th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Does the Holy Spirit work through a line of men who underwent sacramental ordination, through a collection of divinely inspired texts assembled by men, or in some other way? This seems to be the issue underlying a thoughtful and straightforward “Question and Answer” posting on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s website. 1 The inquirer had put the following question to the OPC respondent: “Do you teach apostolic succession, and, if so, do you

believe ministers outside of the OPC are not really ministers?”  The OPC Answer relies on making a distinction between the Catholic doctrine of “apostolic succession” and the Reformed claim to “apostolicity.” From this distinction the conclusion is asserted that apostolic succession, and its accompanying baggage of “Tradition,” has led Catholics to practices not supported by Scripture.  For the OPC, proper ordination is made by “true churches,” those who are apostolic in belief, and not necessarily by other previously properly ordained men.

Apostolic Succession vs. Apostolicity

The OPC post does a commendable job of articulating the doctrine of apostolic succession, including by making reference to the Catholic Catechism.2  Apostolic succession, the post explains, is the Catholic claim to having an “uninterrupted and continuous line of succession extending from the twelve apostles through the bishops they ordained right up to the bishops of the present day.”  Modern bishops sacramentally communicate to their younger successors the same authority originally given from Christ to the Apostles.  The “particular church” is that, and only that, which remains in submission to its bishop, its proper ecclesial authority.

This is to be distinguished from, and opposed to, the Reformed view of the Church’s relationship to the apostles and their teachings: apostolicity.  Under this paradigm, apostolic patrimony is secured simply by ecclesial conformity to the Bible: “Apostolicity may be defined as receiving and obeying apostolic doctrine as it is set forth in the New Testament.”  No intervention of time or men detracts from the validity of a particular church, so long as it is ‘apostolic,’ or obedient to the written teachings of the Apostles.  Therefore, even without any obedient ordained men to ordain new ministers, the ability to be ordained would not be interrupted.  That is, a linear conveyance of authority through succeeding ordinations is not necessary.  A people truly obedient to the apostolic writings can validly invest an ordinand on their own. “The Orthodox Presbyterian Church recognizes as ministers those men ordained to that office by true churches, which are identified by the attribute of apostolicity.”

Significance of the Distinction

The significant result of this distinction between the doctrine of apostolic succession and the Reformed counterpart of “apostolicity” is a discussion of the way in which the Holy Spirit operates within the Church.  I find it admirable that the OPC respondent picked up on the deeper meaning of apostolic succession to Catholicism — Catholicism does not cherish the Bishop’s office for the Authority ‘Trump Card’ the Bishop wields, but rather because the Holy Spirit operates actively, today, through him. The author’s juxtaposition, then, of the Catholic view with the Reformed view on the Holy Spirit’s primary medium of operation is completely apt.  He tells us that Protestants react to the doctrine of apostolic succession by rejecting an “ultimate appeal to traditions that are distinct from canonical Scripture.” The Westminster Confession is a prominent articulation of this teaching: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”3  Our author asserts that Catholics are in error because they fail to take their traditions to the “touchstone of Scripture,” resulting in “many doctrines and practices with no basis in Scripture,” like the papacy, purgatory, and the mass.

With all due regard to the brevity of the “Question and Answer” format, the conclusions are mistaken.  We are told that apostolic succession is wrong, not because it lacks historical claim or merit, but because it has led to practices that are contrary to the Bible.  But what is and is not contrary to the Bible is quite a debatable point.  Who is to decide that the mass, for instance, is contrary to the Bible, in which Christ tells us, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you . . . For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed”? (St. John 6:53, 55 (RSV).) This is a matter of interpretation.  Since the very point at issue is who is to provide the authoritative interpretation, it is no refutation of apostolic succession to state that the successors have ‘gotten it wrong’ in some interpretation or other.

Further, our author begs the question by judging the doctrine of apostolic succession from the presupposition that sola scriptura is true. He asserts that apostolic succession is improper because it allows for traditions that “are distinct from canonical Scripture.”  The failure, then, in the respondent’s mind, is not some historical inaccuracy of any given tradition claim, but Catholicism’s inability to validate the tradition from Scripture [as interpreted by like-minded Reformed Christians].  But if sola scriptura is false, there is no impropriety in Bishops relying upon traditions “distinct” from Scripture.  Such traditions do not invalidate the doctrine of apostolic succession unless the doctrine is seen as necessarily existing in a sola scriptura paradigm.

Finally, the OPC respondent’s own position is “distinct” from, and also not supported by, the Bible, making his position self-refuting.  He skeptically states that “[e]ven if the unbroken line is historically provable (and it is not), Protestants demur to claims of Roman authority because it is the apostolicity of the church that counts” (emphasis added). But Scripture does not state that it is the “receiving and obeying apostolic doctrine as it is set forth in the New Testament,” and only that, which counts in making a church valid.  This particular assumption within the Reformed tradition is “distinct from canonical Scripture.”  It is also found wanting at the “touchstone” of Scripture, wherein Paul instructs the brothers: “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by letter.” (2 Thes. 2:15 (ESV).)  If apostolic succession is false because it leaves room for teachings distinct from Scripture, then sola scriptura is false for the very same reason.

If early and medieval Christians had always followed the successor-ordinands of the Apostles, believing that the Holy Spirit worked through these men, which part of Scripture authorized the unyoking of our duties of obedience and loyalty to the Bishops?   Which part made the oral traditions of finite duration, and the written ones into a self-executing authority?  What terminated Christ-given apostolic authority at the end of the last-living Apostle’s life?  The sacrament of ordination, conveying the same authority Christ imparted upon the Apostles, which they in turn imparted upon their successor Bishops, is the guarantee of the active (not deistic) hand of the Holy Spirit.

The author mixes together the Tradition question with the Apostolic succession question, and then uses disagreement with the Catholic position on Tradition as evidence against Apostolic succession.  At the end he writes: “It is precisely by the standard of apostolicity that the Roman Catholic Church is measured and found wanting. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church recognizes as ministers those men ordained to that office by true churches, which are identified by the attribute of apostolicity.”  Here he has baldly asserted apostolicity over aposostlic succession in an entirely question-begging manner. And given that apostolic succession was the universal practice of the Church for 1,500 years, simply claiming that the novel position is right because the traditional position is in violation of the novel position does not hold water. If it did, then such assertion-making made by any heretical group would have an equal claim to validity.

  1. Available here. []
  2. As an aside, this treatment, avoiding the straw man, is particularly praiseworthy as a model of ecumenical conduct. []
  3. Westminster Confession of Faith, I.10. []
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4 comments
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  1. Tom,

    I appreciate your exposition of these ideas.

    We are told that apostolic succession is wrong, not because it lacks historical claim or merit, but because it has led to practices that are contrary to the Bible. But what is and is not contrary to the Bible is quite a debatable point.

    I agree that it is a debatable point and would claim that the Bible shows a pattern and precedent for apostolic succession in 1 Timothy 4:14 and in 2 Timothy 1:6. when Paul reminds Timothy of the gift he received from God by the laying on of Paul’s hands. I note this for the benefit of especially any Protestant readers who wonder if apostolic succession has some Biblical evidence for it. These are two passages; I recall there are others as well.

    And given that apostolic succession was the universal practice of the Church for 1,500 years, simply claiming that the novel position is right because the traditional position is in violation of the novel position does not hold water. If it did, then such assertion-making made by any heretical group would have an equal claim to validity.

    Exactly. And if “apostolicity” as defined by this particular Presbyterian community (the OPC) is true, then every Protestant community in the world would make the claim that they are one of the “true” churches because they are “truly obedient” to the the faith recorded by the apostles in their Bibles. Under such a system there is no authority that can determine which of these communities’ teachings correspond with the apostles’ and which do not.

  2. Dear Devin,

    The author didn’t take up any of the biblical support (or historical support in the Fathers) for apostolic succession, but it would have been interesting if he had. I am mindful in a discussion of scripture supporting apostolic succession (or any Catholic doctrine) that it should be made clear to Reformed readers that verses put forward are not offered within a sola Scriptura paradigm.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  3. You’re article can be summed up in a favorite passage of mine:
    ” 1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
    3For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
    (2 Tim 4:3)

  4. […] the authority Christ gave His Apostles and that they gave to their successors, the bishops, and replacing that direct line of authority (Apostolic succession) with a new concept of apostolicity, which meant that anyone could be a valid minister if they “taught what was true”.  […]

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