Apostolic Succession and Historical Inquiry: Some Preliminary RemarksMay 12th, 2013 | By Andrew Preslar | Category: Blog Posts
Included in the May 2013 issue of First Things is Ephraim Radner’s review of Candida Moss’s book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (HarperOne). I found Moss’s arguments against the historicity of early Christian martyrologies to be particularly familiar and interesting in the light of some recent discussion over at Jason Stellman’s blog concerning the historicity of the early Christian accounts of Apostolic Succession. 
Apostolic Succession at the Bar of Skepticism
Moss’s arguments and Radner’s responses concerning Christian martyrs in the Roman Empire are all but isomorphic with the arguments put forward by some contemporary historians and the responses by other historians concerning Apostolic Succession in the first two centuries of the Church. Like accounts of martyrdom, bishop lists can serve to galvanize a community in the face of various pressures (both internal and external). Both the (so-called) martyrs and the (putative) successors to the Apostles serve an obviously rhetorical role in the narrative of the developing catholic Church, and there are analogues for each in both Jewish and pagan histories.
So, what follows? Are the early bishop lists and martyrologies both shams because they have non-Christian precedents and play a moral and polemical role in the Church’s self-understanding and witness (both then and now)? Of course not. Accepting the early Church’s testimony regarding these things is not a matter of gullibility but of taking into account positive evidence while recognizing a logical fallacy where it exists in the hermeneutics of suspicion. Of course these ancient Christian authors had moral, theological, and in some cases polemical purposes in composing their accounts of the Church’s history. For that matter, any standard introduction to the New Testament will emphasize the distinctive theological viewpoints of the four Evangelists. Each Gospel was written for a different audience, and the central narrative is arranged and supplemented to suit the authors’ peculiar purposes. The Gospels are theological documents, written for religious reasons. Are they therefore unhistorical?
At the conclusion of his review, Radner points out the radical skepticism that motivates Moss’s dismissal of Christian martyrology. Like other forms of radical skepticism, this dismissal is not based on evidence, but is predicated upon an a priori suspicion or outright hostility towards its object:
Christian martyrdom’s power, which is a historical phenomenon and stands as an important piece of evidence in its own right, is bound to its religious meaning. The two cannot be separated, and together they shed light on the early Church’s witness. Minimalist readings of that early record are certainly possible. But Moss draws radically negative speculative conclusions from it: It is all a sham.
This isn’t history but an ideologically charged refusal to deal with the moral consistency of Christian martyrdom, both in the first centuries and as it is still in fact suffered. This refusal marks an indifference in the face of Christian martyrdom’s deep political challenges. The indifference itself hints at the irrelevance of her main project.
Like Christian martyrdom, Apostolic Succession is “a historical phenomenon and stands as an important piece of evidence in its own right.” Furthermore the principle of Succession “is bound to its religious meaning.” Like martyrdom, Apostolic Succession sheds “light on the early Church’s witness.” And as with martyrdom, “[m]inimalist readings of that early record are certainly possible.” It is this last point that serves as an excuse for the skeptic: “It is all a sham.”
John Henry Newman wrote that to “just be able to doubt” is no excuse for not believing. Otherwise, skepticism would be a universal solvent when applied to historical claims, and any theological claim with an historical element could not be received with the full assent of faith. The Resurrection of Our Lord is the most obvious case in point for Christians. The primary historical evidence for the Resurrection consists in the written accounts of four persons who claim to have seen (or are recorded as having seen) the risen Christ (Peter, John, Matthew, and Paul), though no one is supposed to have been a witness of the Resurrection itself. The earliest (extant) written accounts of the Resurrection were produced some twenty years after the event. Other than Saul, there are no corroborating witnesses from outside the early Christian community, for the very good reason that the Risen Christ only appeared to his followers, and then only in private–e.g., the Upper Room and the Road to Emmaus, not the Jerusalem Temple or the court of Pontius Pilate. In other words, although the evidence for the Resurrection is very good in its kind, it could have been a lot better. Some might say that it should have been a lot better, given how much was and is riding on it. And since the actual evidence is not better than it actually is, the confirmed skeptic will not believe.
Apostolic Succession and the Criterion of Faith
The gist of Apostolic Succession is that there is an ordained Christian ministry, distinct from (though not unrelated to) the priesthood of all believers, which ministry is sacramental in character, being conferred through the imposition of hands by at least one already ordained minister, some but not all ordained ministers receiving this gift in its fullness (inclusive of the authority to ordain), and only those who have been ordained to ordain can validly ordain others.  In that this ministry was given by Christ to the Apostles, it is Apostolic. In that it has been entrusted by the Apostles to other men, there is a Succession to the ordained Christian ministry. In that this succession essentially involves a visible rite by which the ordained ministry is sacramentally bestowed by one who has already received this gift in its fullness, it is objective and historical. In that this objective and historical dimension of the succession has been observed ubique, semper, ab omnibus, it is unbroken. 
Apostolic Succession, so understood, is a solid and impressive feature of Church history. It is like a mountain range: full of unexplored details, but abundantly evident in the main. Ordination by the laying on of hands is clearly Apostolic; ordination by those who have been ordained to ordain is the prevailing practice in the Church throughout history; the college of bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome (as a point of emphasis) is a materially evident and historically continuous thing (which Catholics call “the Magisterium”), being a touchstone of orthodoxy as witnessed by the history of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Church Fathers.  The objections to Apostolic Succession, by contrast, are built upon conjecture about periods or areas for which we do not have much evidence, some possible exceptions to the rule of mediate ordination (e.g., the early Christian prophets), and (less theoretically) the experience of many Christians in ecclesial communities that lack sacramental Apostolic Succession but nonetheless enjoy an authentic life of faith and good works in some sort of communion with other like-minded communities. 
Ultimately, the challenge presented by the principle of Apostolic Succession is that, like the Resurrection and the accounts of the early Christian martyrs, once it is admitted as historically plausible, it presents us with a call to faith, which we must either accept or reject. And this call to faith requires submission to a living and visible authority on earth. Just as the Christian martyr lays down his own life for the sake of something greater–the hope of a better Resurrection–a Catholic lays down his private judgment for the sake of something greater–the teaching authority of the Church. Both acts undeniably involve loss. But the question, “Is there really something greater to be gained?” is one that only faith can finally answer.
It is important to respond to critics who challenge the historical basis for the Christian traditions of the Resurrection, Martyrdom, and Apostolic Succession. There is, after all, an historical basis for each of these, and it can be found both in the early documents and subsequent development of the Church.  The arguments of the critics, which are more or less probable speculations, can be and have been responded to on historical grounds by way of offering more or less probable speculations in defense of the Church’s doctrine and practice concerning the nature and transmission of the ordained ministry.  Even supposing that the arguments of the skeptics are roughly on par with the arguments of believers on this matter, from any Christian point of view which accepts the theological claims about Christ and the Church found in the New Testament the position of the skeptic is seen to be heavily burdened by untoward implications, namely, ecclesial deism and solo scriptura.
Those who accept Apostolic Succession, on the other hand, avoid both of those problems precisely by embracing the historical episcopate as a sacramental gift from Christ, through the Apostles, to the Church. In that Holy Orders is a sacrament, it involves an outward sign (the imposition of hands) which contains and conveys an inward grace (the charism of teaching, governing, and sanctifying).  The outward sign provides the inquirer with an objective marker in his search for the locus of the Church’s interpretive authority. The grace of the sacrament provides part of the rationale for believing that the college of bishops is uniquely equipped to be God’s instrument for preserving the Church in unity (governing), holiness (sanctifying), and truth (teaching), such that one is never justified in preferring his own private judgment to the definitive judgment of the Magisterium in matters of doctrine nor in otherwise separating himself from the communion of the Church.
Apostolic Succession and Private Interpretation
Of course, the inquirer into the historical and theological basis for Apostolic Succession, who does not yet accept it on the basis of the Church’s authority (which is to have faith), cannot plead the Church’s authority as reason for accepting the doctrine except by way of begging the question. But one of the things he can do, without either marshaling all of the historical data into an undisputed synthesis or presupposing the authority of the Catholic Magisterium and the truth of the Catholic doctrines of Holy Orders and Apostolic Succession, is evaluate the following hypothetical syllogism:
If Apostolic Succession (as understood by the Catholic Church) is guaranteed by the laying on of hands in sacramental succession from the Apostles, then all one needs to identify true doctrine is to identify those who are in succession from the Apostles, who are by this fact uniquely equipped to teach the truth.
Given that Christ founded only one Church (the universal Church)–as attested by the singular ecclesia used in Matthew 16:18–such that the three-fold charism of teaching, governing, and sanctifying, while most obviously operative in the local churches, presupposes, depends upon, and is ordered to the life of this one, universal Church, the inquirer is justified in asking further “Where should I look for the true interpretation of divine revelation in the event that not all sacramentally ordained bishops are in communion with one another, teaching the same doctrine?” The Catholic answer to this question is to look to the bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome. There are biblical and historical data, subject of course to a variety of interpretations, upon which the Catholic position concerning the distinctive role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of the universal Church is based. But, again, one need not marshal an undisputed synthetic account of the whole historical data set or else presuppose the truth of Catholic teaching concerning the papacy in order to evaluate the following hypothetical syllogism:
If the bishop of Rome is the visible principle of unity for the universal Church, such that those sacramentally ordained bishops not in communion with Rome are in schism from the Church, then all one needs to identify true doctrine is to identify the college of bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome. One need not adjudicate between competing colleges of bishops on the basis of one’s own doctrinal opinions–here accepting the teaching of this college, and there of another college–in order to determine what is orthodoxy. One can simply accept by faith the teaching that comes from the college of bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome.
Thus, Apostolic Succession and the Papacy together constitute objective grounds for distinguishing between human interpretive opinions and the divinely authorized interpretation of special revelation. These grounds are objective in that they do not predicate the validity and authority of the Christian ministry, nor the veracity of its teaching, upon the ordained ministers agreeing with one’s own interpretation of the doctrinal content of divine revelation. As to the reason for supposing that this is an important point, I will only add here (to what I have said elsewhere) that the following proposition is (at best) deeply counter-intuitive, yet it seems to follow from any historically plausible position other than Catholicism:
“My own interpretation of whatever writings I deem to be canonical is the measure of the universal Church that Christ founded.”
Please note the qualification, “historically plausible.” This post is not intended to discount the need for reasonable investigation of history. One can find numerous sects or individuals making extravagant claims to authority, which, if true, would obviate the need to ultimately depend upon one’s own hermeneutical abilities. Ecclesial claims, however, are necessarily rooted in history due to the Incarnation. The Church is the Body of Christ, and the Christ is Jesus of Nazareth. Any plausible claimant to be the Church that Christ founded must, therefore, have historical roots in the first century. Furthermore, unless one is prepared to accept ecclesial deism (with its concomitant restorationism) the claimant to ecclesial authority must be able to give a reasonable account of its own continuity-in-identity-through-change-over-time (after the manner of a seed growing into a tree) with the visible Church that Christ founded some 2,000 years ago. 
For those not driven by radical skepticism predicated upon indifference or outright hostility towards the hierarchical principle embodied by the historic episcopate and the primacy of the pope, the historical evidence for the same, while it cannot compel one to believe, is sufficient when taken with other biblical and theological considerations to warrant faith in the Catholic claims concerning ecclesial authority. If we were to consider matters from either the historical-critical or the epistemological / theological perspective alone, the case for Catholic faith would seem to be unproven relative to the historical data or else predicated upon philosophical and theological arguments that any group or individual making sufficiently audacious claims to interpretive authority could easily appropriate. But the case for Catholicism is not restricted to the purview of any single academic discipline. We do not have to chose between history, epistemology, and theology (etc.). We can consider all relevant matters by way of faith seeking understanding, or personal opinion seeking faith.
 Much to this effect has been argued in detail in the article “Holy Orders and the Sacrificial Priesthood.”
 Some critics of Apostolic Succession suggest that it entails that the entire Christian Ministry could be lost if only one link in the chain of succession has been broken. But the tactile succession from the Apostles via the successive laying on of hands is better likened to a grid than a chain, as pointed out by John Spalding in his essay, “The Apostolic Succession Unbroken.”
 See Vladimir Soloviev, Russia and the Universal Church, “Part Two: The Ecclesiastical Monarchy Founded by Jesus Christ” for an account of the place of Peter in the life of the Church with special reference to the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon and the “Robber Council” of Ephesus. For the testimonies of the Fathers to the Bishop of Rome as a touchstone of orthodoxy and catholic communion, see Edward Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority: A.D. 96-454.
 The Catholic Church’s understanding of non-Catholic churches and ecclesial communities is expressed in Unitatis Redintegratio, the “Decree on Ecumenism” of the Second Vatican Council.
 For a presentation of the evidence from Tradition and Sacred Scripture, see the following sections of Bryan Cross’s extended response to Michael Horton on the topic of sola scriptura: “Apostolic Succession,” and “Bishops.”
 Felix Cirlot’s Apostolic Succession: Is it True? An Historical and Theological Inquiry (1948) is perhaps the most extensive defense of Apostolic Succession on historical-critical grounds. In addition to the detailed case made by Cirlot in response to common objections to the historicity of Apostolic Succession, see the summary account of Holy Orders in the pre-Nicene era by Aidan Nichols OP in Holy Order: Apostolic Priesthood from the New Testament to the Second Vatican Council (1990), 35-47.
 For an overview of the changes in the Catholic Church considered as organic developments, see “A Response to Scott Clark and Robert Godfrey on ‘The Lure of Rome’.”