“The Issue of Authority in Early Christianity”

Jun 11th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Dr. Kenneth Howell earned an M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, an M.A. in Linguistics and Philosophy from the University of South Florida, a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Science, and a second Ph.D. from Lancaster University (U.K.) in the History of Christianity and Science. He was a Presbyterian minister for eighteen years and a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary for seven years. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1996. He is presently Director of the John Henry Cardinal Newman Institute of Catholic Thought and Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Illinois. At last year’s Deep in History conference, he gave the following talk, titled “The Issue of Authority in Early Christianity.”

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  1. I love these kinds of issues even though I’m not a believer. Kind of like political and legal philosophy except more interesting (more me.)

  2. Bryan,
    Is there an mp3 version of the talk? I seem to see only videos.


  3. Hello Tysen,

    Good to hear from you; it has been probably two years or more since I’ve heard from you. And if I remember correctly, you’ve got a better grasp of the history of Christianity than do many Christians. You remind me of those persons in the first three centuries who were not Christians, but when the Christians were being ready to be executed, these people, seeing the faith of the Christians in the face of impending torture and death, would run over and stand with them, saying “I too, am a Christian,” and be martyred with them. The Church counts them as martyrs no less than the others, even though their baptism was only by blood, and their faith was acquired only minutes before they departed this life. May the Sacred Heart of Jesus grant to you the gift of faith enlivened by hope and inspired by charity. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sanct. Amen.

    Feel free to write me privately, if you wish. I wish very much to be able to call you a brother in Christ, and a fellow worker in the Kingdom. Eternal things are at stake, and so nothing temporal is of greater priority.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  4. Jacob,

    I’m unaware of a free mp3 version. I just googled it, and the only one I see is the one CHN is selling.

    In the peace of Christ,


  5. If you plug in the URL here, you can convert it to MP3:


  6. One of the interesting points in this talk comes from the implication of two verses discussed early in the talk. First, in the gospel of Mark, the Pharisees say, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7) Mark’s point is not to call into question Christ’s divinity, but precisely to substantiate it. This man Jesus claims to forgive sins, but only God can forgive sins. Either he is a blasphemer, or He is God. By healing the paralytic, Jesus demonstrates that He also has the divine authority to forgive sins.

    Secondly, in the gospel of John, Jesus speaking to the Apostles says, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:23) Now, the Apostles were not God. So, since God alone can forgive sins, and since Jesus tells the Apostles that they can forgive sins, and since the Apostles are not God, there is an [apparent] contradiction. The solution is that Christ graciously granted to the Apostles a participation in His divine authority, by giving them a kind of participation in his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), such that when in the Name of Christ they forgave (or retained) someone’s sins, it was not only they (i.e. mere creature) who was doing so, but also the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians when he writes, “I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with [or ‘within’] me.” (1 Cor 15:10), and speaks elsewhere of “Christ in you” (Rom 8:10).

    Christ gave this gift (of forgiving sins) to the Church by giving it to the Apostles. But, the Apostles could live at the most for only seventy years or so after Christ’s Ascension. So either this was a temporary gift to the Church, or it was intended to be handed down from the Apostles to the bishops. And the whole Church believed that this gift was handed down to the Apostles’ successors, to be perpetuated within the Church. Not a single Church Father claimed that the power to forgive sins died out when the last Apostle died.

    For example, St. John Chrysostom (347-407), bishop of Constantinople, writes:

    For if any one will consider how great a thing it is for one, being a man, and compassed with flesh and blood, to be enabled to draw near to that blessed and pure nature, he will then clearly see what great honor the grace of the Spirit has vouchsafed to priests; since by their agency these rites are celebrated, and others nowise inferior to these both in respect of our dignity and our salvation. For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For it has not been said to them, “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.” (Matthew 18:18) They who rule on earth have indeed authority to bind, but only the body: whereas this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants. For indeed what is it but all manner of heavenly authority which He has given them when He says, “Whose sins ye remit they are remitted, and whose sins ye retain they are retained?” (John 20:23) What authority could be greater than this? “The Father has committed all judgment to the Son?” (John 5:22) But I see it all put into the hands of these men by the Son. For they have been conducted to this dignity as if they were already translated to Heaven, and had transcended human nature, and were released from the passions to which we are liable. Moreover, if a king should bestow this honor upon any of his subjects, authorizing him to cast into prison whom he pleased and to release them again, he becomes an object of envy and respect to all men; but he who has received from God an authority as much greater as heaven is more precious than earth, and souls more precious than bodies, seems to some to have received so small an honor that they are actually able to imagine that one of those who have been entrusted with these things will despise the gift. Away with such madness! For transparent madness it is to despise so great a dignity, without which it is not possible to obtain either our own salvation, or the good things which have been promised to us. For if no one can enter into the kingdom of Heaven except he be regenerate through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink His blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will any one, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious? (On the Priesthood, III)

    So if Christ intended this power to forgive sins to be perpetuated in the Church until He returns, then it would mean that He intended a certain kind of participation in divine authority (and in divinity) to be perpetuated until He returns. And that has very important implications. It means that we need real clear criteria for determining who has this divine authority and who doesn’t.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  7. Bryan (re. #6),

    You wrote:

    And that has very important implications. It means that we need real clear criteria for determining who has this divine authority and who doesn’t.

    Indeed. That’s why I’m eagerly awaiting the article on apostolic succession. And I know others are too.

  8. Just made an mp3 from the video above, but i’m not sure how legal it is to post it here, given that the CHN folks are selling an mp3 on their website.

  9. Bryan,

    Dr. Ken Howell is such a class individual. When I was coming into the Church he gave time to me and was a real source of edification.

  10. Great Video Bryan, I am watching it now. My old PCA Pastor was at RTS Jackson while Dr. Howell was beginning to discern the Church. He said he talked openly about it in class. He also told me he was one of the best Professors he had at RTS Jackson.

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  11. Bryan, in your Tu Quoque article you say… “In various places I have argued previously that without apostolic succession, creeds and confessions have no actual authority.”

    I’m hoping you can help me with one of my main concerns with Apostolic Succession… Mainly that Paul himself in Gal 1:8 appears to subvert that same authority with the authority of the Gospel. So even if an Apostle preaches another gospel you aren’t to listen to him (Gal 1). As an example he points to Peter as an example of leading Jewish Christians away from the true Gospel (Gal 2). If Peter, whom you call the first Pope, could get the Gospel wrong, even as an Apostle, what confidence should I place in the succession of such Apostles?

    I’m not sure if this is the right place for this comment, but I cannot find a more targeted “Apostolic Succession” article where you only focus on this issue. Please feel free to move this comment elsewhere if it’s misplaced.)

  12. Hello Salvadore, (re: #11)

    Welcome to Called To Communion. We are in the process of preparing an article on apostolic succession, but in the mean time, you could see Section IX: Apostolic Succession of my article replying to Michael Horton’s last comment in the Modern Reformation interview. Regarding the passage in Galatians 1, I addressed that in Section XI: The Authority of the Magisterium in Relation to Scripture of that same article. As for the rebuke in Galatians 2, see chapter 23 in Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics.

    If that does not answer your question, then please ask a follow-up question under the Sola Scriptura article.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  13. Bryan,

    I hope you are doing well. I am wondering, will there be a Called to Communion article on apostolic succession soon?

    If not, are there any books you can recommend that discuss this?

  14. Christie,

    That article is on indefinite hold, and I don’t see it being completed any time soon. As for books other than primary sources, you might start with the work by the Anglican Cirlot, titled Apostolic Succession: Is it True?.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  15. Christie,

    True story: Just two days ago, I went online, for the umpteenth time, to search for an *affordable* copy of Cirlot’s book. But I did one thing differently this time: I said a quick prayer before browsing around my usual used books sites. In less than 30 seconds, I found a copy (in “good” condition) of Apostolic Succession: Is it True? An Historical and Theological Inquiry for $22! As I write this, the book is in the mail.

    The bad news is that this was the one and only *affordable* copy that I have seen in almost two years of searching. There are a couple of copies available through Amazon for just under $100. Expensive, but a vast improvement over the $300-350 range that I had been seeing previously. So, say a prayer, and try to find the book–there is nothing else like it in print (that I can find). Cirlot went on to publish a booklet, “Apostolic Succession at the Bar of Modern Scholarship.” This is easier to find than the book, and more affordable. I also bought the booklet on Wednesday.

    Cirlot’s defense of the validity of Anglican Orders (contra Pope Leo XIII), Apostolic Succession and Anglicanism: A Defense of Anglican Orders and Catholicity has recently been brought back into print. Hopefully, his more general work on AS will someday be republished as well. From what I gather, Apostolic Succession: Is it True? is the best resource available on this topic.

    Anyway, once I’ve read the book(s), I’ll try to put together a report and post it here–call it a much-belated article on Apostolic Succession!


  16. Christie,

    The book “Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words,” by Rod Bennett, is not specifically about apostolic succession, as such, but it does provide many excerpts from the writings of four of the earliest Church Fathers (and from other Church writings as well) that give one a clear picture of Catholic belief, practice, and ecclesiology in the early Church. One of the “four witnesses” is actually an early Pope, St. Clement of Rome. This book was of great help to me in moving from Reformed Protestantism back to the Catholic Church. It shows very well that the early Church was the Catholic Church.

    “Four Witnesses” helped me to convince me to return to the Church at a period of my life when it would have been much, much easier and less painful to simply stay where I was. However, the truth is the truth, and I had to follow it where it led me!

  17. Andrew and Christie,
    Although it’s nice to actually own a book, sometimes the cost is just too much, especially when one is looking for a number of expensive books. I’ve found inter-library loan to be a great alternative. I live in Chicago and although the Chicago Public Library doesn’t have too great of a theology collection, it does participate in inter-library loan with many great academic theological libraries across the county. For example, the CPL doesn’t have a copy of Felix Cirlot’s book, but http://www.worldcat.org shows the nearest participating libraries which do have a copy. A free loan is a nice thing.

  18. Kenneth Howell discusses his two most recent books on the Church Fathers:

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