Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Apostolic Church (Part II): Apostolicity of Doctrine & Mission


“We believe the successors of the apostles only in so far as they tell us those things which the apostles and prophets have left in their writings.”  Thomas Aquinas (On Truth, 14.10-11)



In our first post we considered the fourth mark of the church, according to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: Apostolic. We concluded that this mark consists properly of “apostolicity,” or faithfulness to the apostolic tradition.  In addition to an “apostolicity of doctrine,” this entails the further dimension of “apostolicity of mission.”  That is to say, apostolicity consists of both gospel doctrine and gospel obedience.  However, in the Catholic tradition, “apostolicity of mission” is understood very precisely in terms of apostolic succession - the chain of duly ordained bishops throughout history linking the church to the apostles of Christ.  

This particular conception of the church's continuity finds its roots in the ancient appeal to the apostolic foundation of the churches originally framed by the orthodox opponents of Gnosticism (i.e., Irenaeus,[1] Hegesippus and Tertullian[2]).  Over against the Gnostic claim to a “secret tradition,” derived from the apostles, these early fathers argued that any authentic “apostolic traditions” would have been preserved and expressed in the churches’ official doctrine and practice by virtue of their historical proximity to the apostles and “apostolic men.” However, this common sense appeal to an empirical connection with the apostles’ ministry[3] appears as a plank in the argument for fidelity to the apostolic tradition – not an additional leg in defining apostolicity.  Hence, in Tertullian’s basic proof for the “apostolic” character of a church, a demonstrable succession of bishops appears unessential:

But should they [the heretics] even effect the contrivance [of producing a list of bishops from the apostles], they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner. To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine...[4]
           
Over time, the evidential argument for a lineal succession of presbyters and bishops was “expanded,” as Justo Gonzalez explains, to become an ecclesiastical norm, according to which “a true bishop had to be one consecrated by a bishop (or bishops) who was himself consecrated within the succession, and so on, back to the apostles.”[5] Early church historian Everett Ferguson writes,

Apostolic succession as formulated by Irenaeus was from one holder of the teaching chair in a church to the next and not from ordainer to ordained, as it became... Apostolic succession arose in a polemical situation as an effective argument for the truth of Catholic tradition against Gnostic teachings. As so often happens to successful arguments, it came to be regarded as an article of faith, not just a defense of the truth but a part of truth itself.[6]


But in its final expression, this “article of faith” becomes an ecclesiastical fence, consigning all those outside the supposed line of succession - the precise identity over which there is no small contention - invalid presbyters, whose assemblies are “sects,” not churches in communion with the “one true church.”[7] As a result, these “lines of succession” follow the major fault lines in Christendom today.   Here I agree with Peter Leithart that when we define “apostolic” in this way, we seem to lose something of the “catholic” aspect.

If I were to become Catholic or Orthodox, I would have to conclude that I have never participated in a full Eucharistic service. I would have to conclude that neither I nor my pastor friends have ever stood in loco Christi in the liturgy. I would go from a church where every baptized Christian is welcome at the Eucharist to a church that excludes hundreds of millions of validly baptized Christians, and I would never again share the Lord’s Supper with Protestant friends or family members. Becoming Catholic or Orthodox would, in my estimation, make me less catholic, not more.

Apostolic Succession in the First Century Church 

But if this understanding of “apostolic succession” is in fact a few steps removed from the sub-apostolic fathers,[8] how much further is it removed from the apostolic age?  Patristic scholar R.L. Williams writes,

Scholars do not expect to find in the New Testament a precursor of the monepiscopacy in succession from the apostles. While bishops are mentioned, they are not clearly single bishops. There are only hints in that direction. No succession seems to be associated with them. Furthermore, what can be said of the possible existence of a line of succession in the New Testament is not based on apostleship....Luke knows succession terminology [Acts 7:4524:27], but he never applies it to Christian leaders....The Pastorals provide officials to continue protecting their churches (Titus 1:579-14; cf. 2 Tim 2:2) but not to continue the office or position held by the apostle or his lieutenant.[9]

“Monepiscopacy” is that form of church government in which a single bishop presides over a church or churches in a region.  According to this structure, there are three tiers of ecclesiastical office: bishop (episcopos), elder/priest (presbyteros) and deacon (diakonos).  Though this three-tiered hierarchy has often been presumed throughout church history to be the pattern of the first century church, it is now generally recognized that such was not the case.[10]  Rather, as Chrysostom and Jerome pointed out, in the apostles’ usage presbyters are identical to bishops.  Jerome explains the emergence of the mono-episcopate (a single bishop distinct from the college of presbyters) in the second century as a development of “church custom” – as opposed to dominical appointment[11] – from what began as a “chief among equals” role.[12]

In the earliest stages of the sub-apostolic church, however, we find a two-fold office: elder/bishop and deacon.  For instance, Clement, who Irenaues tells us “saw the blessed Apostles and conversed with them, and had yet ringing in his ears the preaching of the Apostles and had their tradition before his eyes,”[13] writes,

So preaching everywhere in country and town, [the apostles] appointed their first fruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe. And this they did in no new fashion; for indeed it had been written concerning bishops and deacons from very ancient times; for thus saith the scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith (1Clement 42:4-5).

Similarly, the Didache, an ancient Christian treatise dated between the late first and early second century, reads,

Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers." (15)

This reflects the twofold structure we see exemplified in the New Testament itself (e.g., Phil.1:1; 1Tim.3:1-13).  Of the two offices, it is the office of bishop/elder that the task of preserving and advancing the apostolic tradition is especially entrusted.  

In 2 Timothy 2:2, we find the clearest expression of ecclesiastical “succession” in our Bibles.  Here Paul instructs Timothy to entrust to “faithful men who will be able to teach others” the content he has heard from the apostle publicly and repeatedly.  Paul’s referring of course to his pattern of teaching, which he commanded Timothy to guard only a few verses prior:

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

There is undoubtedly then an “evangelical succession” envisioned by the apostles, in which the gospel message – or what Tertullian would later call, “the rule of faith”[14] - is passed on from generation to generation throughout the course of the church’s history and mission. We can therefore affirm with Roman Catholics a “material succession” in the church, consisting in “a series of persons from the apostolic age to the present.”

But who are these persons?

Paul describes those to whom Timothy is to pass on “the good deposit” as “faithful men who are able to teach others.”  In the context of the Pastoral letters, this would certainly include, if not consist entirely of, the elders/bishops Timothy was enjoined to install in Ephesus (and Titus in Crete).  These men were to be marked by faithfulness in their public, personal and familial life.  Moreover, they were to be “able to teach,” (1Tim.3:2).  Similarly Paul tells Titus regarding this office (πρεσβυτέρους):

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (1:9)

Though the whole body of Christ, having been corporately entrusted with “the faith” (Jude 3), was called to be faithful and able to instruct and admonish one another (e.g., Col.3:16; Eph.4:15), these men were appointed in the church as “overseers” of the “household of God,” stewarding the deposit of the apostles’ doctrine in giving sound instruction and refuting error.  This is precisely how Clement understands the succession of leadership from the apostles to proceed in the churches:

Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those ministers already mentioned [bishops and deacons], and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry (1Clement 44). 

Similarly, in contrast to the traditional doctrine of apostolic succession through the monepiscopacy, “Irenaeus's succession was collective rather than individual. He spoke of the succession of the presbyters (Haer. 3.2.2), or of the presbyters and bishops (4.26.2), as well as of the bishops (3.3.1).”[15]  

However, the supposed lineal succession of bishops from the apostles onward is critical to what Roman Catholic theologians call the “formal succession” of the Church:

… the legitimate transmission of the ministerial power conferred by Christ upon His Apostles… [in which] no lacuna can be allowed, no new mission can arise; but the mission conferred by Christ must pass from generation to generation through an uninterrupted lawful succession.

This scheme sounds watertight – and that of course is the whole point.  It has to be in order to guarantee the Apostolic character of the Church, as Rome understands it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to hold water.  As we've seen, it goes well beyond the biblical and historical evidence to claim an uninterrupted lawful succession of bishops tracing back to the apostles.  Moreover, if there is a biblical succession from the apostles (and there is), it cannot be construed as a succession of apostles.  Beyond the replacement of Judas by Matthias in Acts 1, which entailed qualifications no man after the first century could possibly fulfill, there is no suggestion in the New Testament of a “succession” of apostles, whether through the bishops[16] or otherwise.  As Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung writes:

As direct witnesses and messengers of the risen Lord, the apostles can have no successors…Apostleship in the sense of the original and fundamental ministry of the first witnesses and messengers died out with the death of the last apostle.[17]

What is bequeathed is the apostles’ “pattern of sound words,” not their mantle. 

However, if the apostolic message was passed on through the elders/bishops, what about apostolic authority?  With the great responsibility of “guarding the good deposit,” there surely came an accompanying authority. In fact, there did.  And this authority was divine, having been invested in the apostles through God's revelation of Christ to/in them and commissioning of their ministry (ἐπιταγῆς, 1Tim.1:1; Titus 1:3; Rom.16:26; παραγγέλλω, 1Tim.1:3; 6:13; cf. 1Cor.7:10, 25). They in turn invested authority (ἐπιταγῆς, Titus 2:15; παρ-αγγέλλω, 1Tim.4:11; 5:7; 6:17) into the so-called “apostolic assistants” or lieutenants - for these acted on the apostle’s behalf, and with a measure of his authority, to “put into order what remained.”

Accordingly, the content of their charge (παραγγελία, 1Tim.1:5, 18),[18] which again finds its source in the Lord Himself (e.g., 1Thess.4:2), and is constitutive of the apostolic “tradition” (e.g., 2Thess.3:6) and “sound doctrine in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which [Paul has] been entrusted,” (1Tim.1:10-11) is committed to Timothy that he may in turn instruct others (1Tim.1:18).  And the leaders installed by Timothy and Titus were in turn entrusted with the same charge (cf. 1Tim.1:3-11; Titus 1:5-9) within each local assembly.  Finally, as we read in 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul envisions that such men will, with “the charge” entrusted to them, identify, instruct and empower other men to do likewise.  This is the true apostolic succession.  

All this to say, the elders/presbyters have been entrusted with a weighty authority, handed to them by Christ through the charge of the apostles, to faithfully lead the church of the living God.  Having said that, we must recognize that the authority of this charge is not located solely in the council of elders (πρεσβυτέριον, 1Tim.4:14; cf. 2Tim.1:6).  The authority belongs to Christ and has been diffused through the entire extent of His Body.  If the leadership of the church has legitimate authority within the church to call the members to obedience (Heb.13:17), then the church itself has legitimate authority[19] to recognize and appoint - and, if need be, remove - its own leaders (e.g., Acts 6:3-6; cf. 2Cor.2:1-11; Rev.3:20). So we are not surprised to read in the Didache the ancient charge to “appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord,” (15).  Even Cyprian of Carthage, who raised the episcopate to its most exalted position, notes that the people (laity) have this responsibility and authority:

On which account a people obedient to the Lord's precepts, and fearing God, ought to separate themselves from a sinful prelate, and not to associate themselves with the sacrifices of a sacrilegious priest, especially since they themselves have the power either of choosing worthy priests, or of rejecting unworthy ones .[20]

This is critical because sometimes, as Ambrose noted, it is the churches that are faithful over against their leadership:

That many times have the clergy erred; the bishop has wavered in his opinion; the rich men have adhered in their judgment to the earthly princes of the world; meanwhile the people alone preserved the faith entire.[21]

This problem would prove no minor nuisance in early Christendom, as Athanasius knew all too well. He writes regarding the apostasy of the official “Church in his day: “the fact is that [heretics] hold the places [in the Church], but you the Apostolic Faith…you are outside the places indeed, but the Faith, within you.”[22] The locus of authority, then, isn’t the church itself or an organ of the church - faithful though they may be - but the Word of God.  After all, even the command of the apostolic office was to be resisted were it not “in line with the gospel” originally established through that same organ (Galatians 2:11-14; 1:8-9).  It is from this divinely authoritative Word, then, that leaders are to lead; and it is in submission to this gospel that the church is to follow.  Hence the Didache describes how we discern who the true teachers and leaders are:

My child, remember night and day him who speaks the word of God to you, and honor him as you do the Lord. For wherever the lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord... Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him. But if the teacher himself turns and teaches another doctrine to the destruction of this, hear him not. But if he teaches so as to increase righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord (4, 11, 15). 

Through a bright line of faithful men and women - some ordained and some not - the word of God has been transmitted to us.  This “great cloud of witnesses” constitutes the “material succession” of the church from the apostles.  And as we pass on faithfully to others the good deposit, maintaining not only “apostolicity of doctrine” in the preservation of the gospel, but also “apostolicity of mission” in its advance, so we find ourselves within the “one holy catholic” line of succession, extending through all the illustrious saints of the church, to the glorious apostles, and finally to Christ Himself.  But this isn’t our only connection to the sovereign Head of the Church. “For wherever the lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord,” even to the end of the age (Matt.28:18-20). 



[1] "It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about" (Against Heresies 3:3:1).
[2]Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men.” (The Prescription against Heretics, 32).
[3] E.g., Irenaeus argues, "Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time" (Against Heresies, 3:3:4).
[4] Prescription against Heretics, 32, 37-39.
[5] Essential Theological Terms, (Westminster John Knox Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-664-22810-1), p. 15.  Similarly, Philip Schaff writes, “To estimate the weight of [Iraneaus’] argument, we must remember that these fathers still stood comparatively very near the apostolic age, and that the succession of bishops in the oldest churches could be demonstrated by the living memory of two or three generations. Irenaeus in fact, had been acquainted in his youth with Polycarp, a disciple of St. John. But for this very reason we must guard against overrating this testimony, and employing it in behalf of traditions of later origin, not grounded in the scriptures.” (History Of The Christian Church, 2:12:139)
[6] Encyclopedia Of Early Christianity (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999), pp. 94-95.   He goes on to explain, “The sacramental understanding of ordination that grew up in the fourth and fifth centuries shifted the emphasis to a succession from ordainer to ordained, but the earlier historical type of succession was preserved in the lists of local bishops." (p.95)  Similarly, William DiPuccio writes, the original concept of apostolic succession (which included deacons or presbyters as well as bishops) was not so much a succession of ordination, as a succession of living faith and truth as these are embodied in the Scriptures and the ancient Rule of Faith.” 
[7] A popular, online Catholic encyclopedia asserts, “Apostolicity is not found in any other Church. This is a necessary consequence of the unity of the Church. If there is but one true Church, and if the Catholic Church, as has just been shown, is Apostolic, the necessary inference is that no other Church is Apostolic. (See above quotations from Newman, "Diff. of Anglicans", 369, 393.) All sects that reject the Episcopate, by the very fact make Apostolic succession impossible, since they destroy the channel through which the Apostolic mission is transmitted. Historically, the beginnings of all these Churches can be traced to a period long after the time of Christ and the Apostles. Regarding the Greek Church, it is sufficient to note that it lost apostolic succession by withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the lawful successors of St. Peter in the See of Rome. The same is to be said of the Anglican claims to continuity (MacLaughlin, "Divine Plan of the Church", 213; and, Newman, "Diff. of Angl.", Lecture 12.) for the very fact of separation destroys their jurisdiction. They have based their claims on the validity of orders in the Anglican Church. Anglican orders, however, have been declared invalid. But even if they were valid, the Anglican Church would not be Apostolic, for jurisdiction is essential to the Apostolicity of mission. A study of the organization of the Anglican Church shows it to be entirely different from the Church established by Jesus Christ,” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01648b.htm.   Similarly, John Henry Newman earlier argued, “We [priests of the Church of England] have been born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. The Lord Jesus Christ gave His Spirit to His Apostles; they in turn laid their hands on those who should succeed them; and these again on others; and so the sacred gift has been handed down to our present bishops, who have appointed us as their assistants, and in some sense representatives. ... we must necessarily consider none to be really ordained who have not thus been ordained,” (Tracts for the Times - Number 1, pp. 2-3)
[8] Regarding Clement and Ignatius, Ferguson writes, “1 Clement 42-44 taught the apostolic institution of the offices of bishop and deacon in the church. After the appointment of the first bishops and deacons, the apostles provided for the continuation of these offices in the church. This was not the same as the later doctrine of apostolic succession, and it is to be noted that Clement included deacons as well as bishops in his statement. Ignatius, the first witness to only one bishop in a church, did not base his understanding of the ministry on succession. The one bishop was a representative of God the Father, and the presbyters had their model in the college of apostles (Trall. 3),” (Ibid.).
[9] Robert Lee Williams, Bishop Lists (Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2005), pp. 47, 60-61.
[10] “It is a fact now generally recognized by theologians of all shades of opinion, that in the language of the New Testament the same officer in the Church is called indifferently “bishop” (episkopos) and “elder” or “presbyter” (presbyteros).” J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, (Crossway: 1994), p.109.  This was often recognized by the ancients too. Chrysostom (c. 350 - 407), for instance, wrote, “presbyters of old were called bishops...and the bishops presbyters.
[11] Commentary on Epistle to Titus, 1:5. 
[12] “When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself. For even at Alexandria from the time of Mark the Evangelist until the episcopates of Heraclas and Dionysius the presbyters always named as bishop one of their own number chosen by themselves and set in a more exalted position, just as an army elects a general, or as deacons appoint one of themselves whom they know to be diligent and call him archdeacon.”  D.A. Carson similarly explains the emergence of the third office of “bishop” in this way: The changes came about for many reasons. The first step occurred early in the second century. The church was expanding so fast Christians were happy to embrace a lot of roving teachers who were able to communicate the Christian faith to people in one locale, then move on to another locale, and so forth. Moreover, this was culturally acceptable because there were a lot of roving "philosophers" in those days who earned their money by such itinerant lecturing. But eventually some of these roving preachers proved to be heretical or near-heretical. Alternatively, and equally sadly, some who were formally orthodox became grasping or greedy. Eventually rules were imposed on the churches about what should be done in this regard. There is a very famous document dated from the beginning of the second century, some years after the last of the New Testament documents was written, called the Didache, which gives a handful of rules about what to do. If a traveling teacher comes by and he wants to stay for more than three days, don’t trust him. If he asks for money, don’t trust him. You give him a bed and food, but if he asks for money he is probably a charlatan. And above all, if he does not adhere to the glorious gospel of our blessed Jesus, then do not trust him, even if he formally adheres to the other stipulations. The fact that such rules existed hints at the scope of the problem. So eventually, what happened was almost predictable. I myself have been to parts of the world where the church is expanding very quickly, and very large numbers of immature believers desperately need serious teaching. Sometimes in one small geographical area you find, say, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty churches, most of which are painfully ill-taught. But among this collection of churches, there might be two or three that are led by pastors who really are better informed, better trained, more discerning, and more widely read, than the common run of pastors. Pretty soon they are consulted by the others. This group of two or three more mature pastors soon exercises remarkable (even if informal) influence over pastors and churches that are less gifted. Who else will protect these small and immature churches from dangerous teachers – not least if those dangerous teachers come like wolves in sheep’s clothing? One can imagine the leaders of smaller, weaker churches saying to an itinerant, "You know, I don’t know if I should take you on or not. Go see Pastor Jim over there, have a chat with him, and if he says you’re okay, you’re okay." So the itinerants go and get checked out by Pastor Jim. Well, de facto, Pastor Jim is now exercising a kind of veto ministry over everybody else in that area. He is becoming a bishop in the second-century sense. Thus the bishop was soon seen as the one who defined doctrine and in some sense protected the churches in his region. Not too surprisingly, already by about A.D. 115 to 120, Ignatius goes so far as to say that where the bishop is, there is the church. You cannot imagine anyone saying that sort of thing in any New Testament document. But however good the motives that called forth these developments, the plain historical reality is that now the church was lumbered with the beginnings of a fledging power structure that would attract more and more authority to itself. It is not difficult to understand the further developments that took place across the centuries,” from a transcript of a talk given at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. 
[13] Against Heresies 3.3
[14] "Now, with regard to this rule of faith - that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend - it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen 'in diverse manners' by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; then having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics." (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, 13)
[15] Ferguson, Ibid.
[16] Ferguson notes, “Hippolytus is apparently the first for whom the bishops were not simply in the succession from the apostles but were themselves successors of the apostles (Haer., praef.),” Ibid.
[17] Cited in E. Clowney, The Church (Inter Varsity: 1996), p.77
[18]παραγγελία strictly, of passing on an announcement a proclaiming; in the NT (1) as a directive from an authoritative source order, command, charge (Ac.16.24); (2) as doctrinal teaching about right living instruction (1Th.4.2).  Derivative of παραγγέλλω, strictly, pass on an announcement; in the NT (1) as issuing a directive from an authoritative source command, give (strict) orders, direct, instruct (Mt.10.5),”
[19] It is striking that even in the apostolic era, “no names” initiated and established church plants without official authorization (see Acts 11:19-26).  Note that even after Barnabas arrives from Jerusalem, there is no indication that his coming conferred any legitimacy or authority to the Antioch church, but merely affirmed the work the Lord had done through these entrepreneurial “laymen.”
[20].He goes on: “For which reason you must diligently observe and keep the practice delivered from divine tradition and apostolic observance, which is also maintained among us, and almost throughout all the provinces; that for the proper celebration of ordinations all the neighbouring bishops of the same province should assemble with that people for which a prelate is ordained. And the bishop should be chosen in the presence of the people, who have most fully known the life of each one, and have looked into the doings of each one as respects his habitual conduct. And this also, we see, was done by you in the ordination of our colleague Sabinus; so that, by the suffrage of the whole brotherhood, and by the sentence of the bishops who had assembled in their presence, and who had written letters to you concerning him, the episcopate was conferred upon him, and hands were imposed on him in the place of Basilides." (Ep.67:3, 67:5; cf. 54:6).
[21] Cited in John Daille, A Treatise On The Right Use Of The Fathers (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1843), p. 158.
[22] "I know moreover that not only this thing saddens you, but also the fact that while others have obtained the churches by violence, you are meanwhile cast out from your places. For they hold the places, but you the Apostolic Faith. They are, it is true, in the places, but outside of the true Faith; while you are outside the places indeed, but the Faith, within you. Let us consider whether is the greater, the place or the Faith. Clearly the true Faith. Who then has lost more, or who possesses more? He who holds the place, or he who holds the Faith? Good indeed is the place, when the Apostolic Faith is preached there, holy is it if the Holy One dwell there....But ye are blessed, who by faith are in the Church, dwell upon the foundations of the faith, and have full satisfaction, even the highest degree of faith which remains among you unshaken. For it has come down to you from Apostolic tradition, and frequently has accursed envy wished to unsettle it, but has not been able. On the contrary, they have rather been cut off by their attempts to do so. For this is it that is written, 'Thou art the Son of the Living God,' Peter confessing it by revelation of the Father, and being told, 'Blessed art thou Simon Barjona, for flesh and blood did not reveal it to thee,' but 'My Father Who is in heaven,' and the rest. No one therefore will ever prevail against your Faith, most beloved brethren. For if ever God shall give back the churches (for we think He will) yet without such restoration of the churches the Faith is sufficient for us. And lest, speaking without the Scriptures, I should seem to speak too strongly, it is well to bring you to the testimony of Scriptures, for recollect that the Temple indeed was at Jerusalem; the Temple was not deserted, aliens had invaded it, whence also the Temple being at Jerusalem, those exiles went down to Babylon by the judgment of God, who was proving, or rather correcting them; while manifesting to them in their ignorance punishment by means of blood-thirsty enemies. And aliens indeed had held the Place, but knew not the Lord of the Place, while in that He neither gave answer nor spoke, they were deserted by the truth. What profit then is the Place to them? For behold they that hold the Place are charged by them that love God with making it a den of thieves, and with madly making the Holy Place a house of merchandise, and a house of judicial business for themselves to whom it was unlawful to enter there. For this and worse than this is what we have heard, most beloved, from those who are come from thence. However really, then, they seem to hold the church, so much the more truly are they cast out. And they think themselves to be within the truth, but are exiled, and in captivity, and gain no advantage by the church alone. For the truth of things is judged," (Athanasius, Festal Letter 29).

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Apostolic Church (Part I): What is It? And Are We Part of It?

According to the Nicene Creed, we confess one holy catholic and apostolic church.  “One” refers of course to the unity of the church, despite her particular and varied expressions “scattered throughout the whole world.”[1] Though diverse, dissonant and sometimes even divided, each local church is an individual (and limited) embodiment of the church catholic, as each congregation is spiritually united under one Head, Jesus Christ - sharing one faith, by one Spirit, in one Lord and "one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all," (Ephesians 4:4-6).  Holy” refers to the distinctive character and otherworldliness of the church, not only as sanctified by the blood of Christ and precious to God, but, as a result, set apart in its manner of life from the “way of the world” (cf. John 17:14-19).  “Catholic” (from katholou, meaning “entirely,” or “all”) speaks to the universality of the church.  The church is universal, not only in the sense of being a unity-in-diversity (a “universe”), but primarily as transcending space, in terms of its geographic extent, history, in terms of its temporal extent, and even heaven and earth itself (Hebrews 12:22-24).  Perhaps the great hymn, The Church's One Foundation, expresses best the paradoxically perfect though yet imperfectly realized communion of the church in the present age:

Though there be those who hate her,
And false sons in her pale,
Against a foe or traitor
She ever shall prevail.

Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed:
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!

’Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace forevermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.

Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won.

But what do we mean by “apostolic”?  In Ephesians, the great epistle on the glorious nature and destiny of the church, Paul speaks of the apostolic foundation of the church:
…you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord (Ephesians 2:19-22).
The one holy catholic church is built upon the foundation of the apostles.  It is basically this attribute that we call “apostolic.” Apart from this attribute, there is no “one holy catholic” church.

But what is the foundation of the apostles?  In brief, it is: (1) the revelation received directly from Christ by the apostles (Eph.3:3-5; 1Cor.3:10-11 [2:1-2]; cf. 11:23; Gal.1:11-12, 15-17), (2) proclaimed, preserved and proven in their ministry through the extraordinary agency of the Holy Spirit (John 14:25-26; 16:4-15; 1Cor.2:4, 14-16; 1Thess.1:5; Heb.2:3-4; etc.), and (3) passed on or entrusted to the church “once and for all” (Jude 3; 1Cor.15:3ff.; 2Tim.1:13-14; 1Tim.6:20; etc.). Hence, it is sometimes called the apostolic tradition.  Paul in fact refers to teachings he passed on to the churches as “traditions” (παραδόσεις, traditio):

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2Thess.2:15; cf. 1Cor.11:2)

Similarly, Athanasius would later describe, “the actual original tradition, teaching and faith of the catholic church, which the Lord bestowed, the apostles proclaimed and the fathers safeguarded.”[2]

This tradition handed down from the apostles was to be safeguarded “by the power of the Holy Spirit,” (2Tim.1:14).  But whereas the apostles received this foundational revelation of Christ by direct disclosure – apart from the agency of men (οὐδὲ γὰρ ἐγὼ παρὰ ἀνθρώπου παρέλαβον αὐτὸ οὔτε ἐδιδάχθην, ἀλλὰ διʼ ἀποκαλύψεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, Gal.1:12) - the same could not be said of the tradition’s subsequent transmission. It would be through the human (all too human) medium of the saints that the apostles’ “good deposit” was to be both preserved and passed on to others (e.g., 2Tim.2:2).[3] 

After laying the church’s foundation “once and for all,” the apostles entrusted its preservation, and the church’s continuing development upon it, to the church itself (1Cor.3:10-15; cf. 11:2).  So if the church was/is to prove faithful to this charge, it must continually look to the apostolic foundation on which it stands.  And this is precisely what we see among the earliest church fathers:

For [the Apostolic Fathers and Greek Apologists] Christianity seems to have implied a complex of belief and practice (in Clement’s phrase, ‘the rule of our tradition’, or in Justin’s ‘following God and the teaching derived from Him’) which in the final resort went back to Christ Himself.  But if He was the supreme teacher, the immediately accessible authorities both for the facts about His Person and for His message were (a) the prophets, who had foreseen every detail His ministry, and (b) the apostles, who had worked with Him and whom He had commissioned.  This two-fold appeal to the united witness of the Old Testament and the apostles was characteristic of the age; it is aptly illustrated by Polycarp’s summons to the Philippians to accept as their standard Christ Himself along with ‘the apostles who preached the gospel to us and the prophets who announced our Lord’s coming in advance’.[4]

In other words, the firm foundation of the church consisted essentially of the Old Testament, on the one hand, and the teachings of the apostles on the other, as the unified and authoritative witness to Christ.[5] But the teaching and testimony of the apostles was not necessarily understood as confined to the New Testament documents themselves.  Kelly observes that there is “nothing to suggest, and general probability makes it unlikely, that [these early] Christian teachers had these books specifically in mind on the majority of occasions when they refer to the apostolic testimony.”[6] 

There was within the primitive church a recognized “pattern of teaching” (τύπον διδαχῆς, Rom.6:17), according to which varied expressions of “the gospel” were formulated.  This is evidenced by the numerous, distinct yet consonant summaries of the Christian message found throughout the New Testament (e.g., Col.1:15-20; Phil.2:6-11; 1Tim.3:16; etc.).  Paul also frequently makes reference to a “pattern of sound words” (2Tim.1:13-14; cf. 2:2; 1Tim.1:10-11; 6:3; Titus 2:1; etc.), which constituted the basic content of “the faith,” (τοῖς λόγοις τῆς πίστεως καὶ τῆς καλῆς διδασκαλίας, 1Tim.4:6).  This pattern is at once grounded in the scriptures, being codified in the apostolic writings, and yet transcends them.  

Moreover, these “sound words” were not delivered as theoretical or abstracted doctrines, but as embedded in the apostles’ mission and manner of life.  This moral aspect was a critical dimension of the apostolic pattern, which the churches were called in turn to imitate (Phil.3:17; 1Cor.4:16-17; 11:1; 2Thess.3:9; etc.).  So then, the original transmission of this “complex of belief and practice,” to use Kelly's phrase, occurred not only through the written word but also through firsthand encounters with the apostles - both in hearing the “spoken word” (2Thess.2:15) and in personally experiencing the character of their ministry:

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9)

Of course, not long after the first century, such personal encounters would become a phenomenon of the past.  Within one generation, precious few could claim with the early father, Papias of Hierapolis,

I take pleasure … only in those who reported their memory of the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the Truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders arrived, I made enquiries about the words of the elders—what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and John the Elder, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from the books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice.

Nevertheless, the “pattern of sound words” continued to be faithfully expressed in the post-apostolic church.[7]  No doubt, this was substantially due to the fact that, in both certain details and overall shape, the pattern established by the apostles was preserved in the books of the New Testament.  Additionally, however, this pattern would also find (unwritten) expression in the character and ministry of the churches themselves, which traced their roots back to the apostles.[8] 

According the design of our Lord and His apostles, this pattern was to be reduplicated in the “life and doctrine” of the church’s leadership[9] for the benefit of the whole community (1Tim.4:11-16; cf. 2Tim.3:10-15) – both in their manner of life (1Tim.4:12; Titus 2:7; 1Pet.5:3), and in their teaching (e.g., 1Tim.4:6; 2Tim.2:2) and administering (e.g., 1Tim.5:19-21) of “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth,” (1Tim.3:14-16).  And so the church itself embodied, however imperfectly at points, the apostolic pattern.[10] 

But what exactly constituted the medium of the church’s unwritten tradition, and what precisely was contained therein, was not clearly defined - particularly within the first four centuries of the church.  Tertullian, for instance, spoke of “the rule of faith” (regula fidei) as the sum of the unwritten tradition tracing back to the apostles, and found it enshrined in the institutional life of the churches.  Irenaeus similarly spoke of “the canon of truth” in reference to the apostolic "pattern” and summary of the gospel message.  It was according to this “rule” and “canon” that Scripture was to be properly read, over and against the obscure interpretations of the Gnostics. Nevertheless, the “rule of truth” was itself a reflection of the apostolic record contained in the New Testament canon.  If it was understood as distinct from Scripture, it wasn’t conceived of as independent of Scripture.  Hence, despite the hopeless distortions of heretics, “Irenaeus was satisfied that, provided the Bible was taken as a whole, its teaching was self-evident.”[11] It isn’t surprising then that the “term ‘rule of faith’ or ‘rule of truth’,” as Jaroslav Pelikan observes, “seems sometimes to have meant the ‘tradition,’ sometimes the Scriptures, sometimes the message of the gospel.”[12] In fact, according to its ancient usage, the “tradition” - understood as the church's broad reflection of the “testimony of the apostles” - was typically understood as entailing Scripture, and even as “enshrined in Scripture.”[13]

Logically, as it must have done chronologically, the testimony [of the apostles] stood prior to the documents, and it would be more correct to say that the latter were valued precisely because they were held to enshrine the former.  Admittedly there is no evidence for beliefs or practices current in the [earliest] period which were not vouched for in the books later known as the New Testament.[14]

Continuing into the 3rd and 4th century, the unwritten tradition was comprehended as the venerated enunciation of biblical doctrine.  Even the great champion of tradition, Basil of Caesarea, made it clear that, “in their traditionally transmitted teaching the fathers have only been following what Scripture itself implies.”[15]  And for precisely this reason, as our corporate witness to the established “apostolic foundation” and re-presentation of the “pattern of sound words,” the unwritten tradition of the church is indispensable for our understanding “the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints.”

However, obviously not all of the elements of ecclesiastical “tradition” are of equal importance or authority.[16]  Certainly some elements were later innovations, read back into the apostolic writings and primitive church, such as the three-tiered ecclesiastical office.  Moreover, not only has “the process of accretion” continued far beyond the early fathers,[17] but some ancient elements of the tradition have subsequently been more or less discarded by the church.[18] Therefore, we are ever faced with the task of discerning which aspects of the ecclesiastical tradition(s)[19] are true and vital expressions of the apostolic tradition.  After all, mere pedigree of observance is no warrant of truth. “Custom without truth is the antiquity of error,”[20] was the famous response of Cyprian of Carthage against Pope Stephen, after insisting on the authority of the canonical Gospels and Epistles over against certain ecclesiastical traditions.  And so we follow the pattern of the fathers themselves in looking to the Holy Scriptures as our absolute authority in all matters of doctrine and practice.[21] For here we find infallibly embodied the great apostolic tradition.  

In this process, we must admit our own fallibility, both as individuals and as churches in Christ.  There are some elements of the tradition that we will wrongly reject or ignore.  There are others that we will mistakenly embrace as “apostolic.”  And some issues are “matters of indifference,” such as aesthetic preferences in our corporate worship or liturgical practices (e.g., mode of baptism), that we have wrongly divided from one another over.  What is essential is that we teach faithfully the gospel message as encapsulated in the apostolic “pattern of sound words” and infallibly articulated in Scripture, if we would be an “apostolic” church.[22]  This written testimony, together with the living voice of the Spirit of God, unswervingly guide us as we strive to discern, preserve and pass on the great tradition of the church, in fulfillment of the commission with which Christ has charged us (Matt.28:18-20). 

Of course, in all of this we mustn’t forget that the apostolic pattern also entails a manner of life – first and foremost epitomized in Christ (Phil.2; 1Pet.2-3) and subsequently exemplified in the apostles (Phil.3; 1Cor.4).  And it is only in this moral context that the doctrines of “the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2Pet.3:3) are properly understood and applied.  In fact, it is this manner of life that the entire apostolic tradition and charge is aimed at producing among us:

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1Timothy 1:5)

Whatever then advances this goal, in accordance with the “sound words” we’ve received by the faithful transmission of the church through the ages (see 1Tim.1:6-20), is true to the apostolic tradition.  If this pattern of words and life is actually and progressively reflected in our church communities, then we rightly confess ourselves as belonging to “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”


[1] Irenaeus writes, “As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points of doctrine just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth,” Against Heresies, 1:10:1-2.  Cf.  Theodore of Mopseustia's commentary on the Nicene Creed.  The “Church,” he writes, refers to “all the congregation of the faithful who worship God in the right way and those who after the coming of Christ believed in Him from all countries till the end of the world and the second coming of our Saviour from heaven, which we are expecting...They called the Church 'holy' because of the holiness and the immutability which it will receive from the Holy Spirit, and 'Catholic' in order to refer to all those who believed in all countries and at all times, and 'one' because only those who believed in Christ will receive the future good things, and it is they who are 'one holy Church'.
[2] Ad. Serap. I, 28
[3] This is true of both the transmission of the sacred text and the so-called “unwritten traditions” of the apostolic church.
[4] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (Harper One, 1978), p.31
[5] Ibid., p.34
[6] Ibid., pp.33-34
[7] Cf. Ignatius, Ephesians 18:2; Polycarp, Philippians 2:1; Justin Marty, First Apology 13; 61:3, 10; etc.
[8] Irenaeus wrote against the Gnostics, “the true gnosis is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the church throughout the world, and the character of the body of Christ in accordance with the succession of the bishops,” Haer.4.33.8.  Cf. Tertullian, Praescrip.21.
[9] Cf. 1 Clement 42; 2 Clement 17:5.
[10] Irenaeus felt the need to further safeguard the veracity of church’s witness to the apostolic testimony (for he claimed that it was “guarded and preserved without any distortion of the Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, neither adding nor subtracting anything”) by appealing to an unbroken succession of bishops, going all the way back to the apostles.  This is an understandable and persuasive appeal, though it would later be the impetus for a full-blown doctrine of apostolic succession of bishops. Additionally, he appears to have proposed that the bishops were endowed by the Spirit with an extraordinary spiritual gift, guaranteeing an infallible preservation of the truth (charisma veritatis cerium) - though this interpretation is questioned by some scholars.  
[11] Kelly, p.38.  Irenaeus writes that, in the canon of the New Testament were recorded "the voices of that church from which every church has its origin, the voices of the mother city of the citizens of the new covenant," (Haer. 3.12.5)
[12] The Emergence of the Christian Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1971), p.117.
[13] Kelly, p.39.  Regarding the use of the concept of “tradition” in the sub-apostolic church, Kelly writes, “the apostolic testimony had not yet come to be known as ‘tradition’,” (p.34).  This conception would find its critical development in the works of Ireneaus and Tertullian. Irenaeus, in response to the Gnostics’ claim of a “secret tradition,” was the first to “apply the word ‘tradition’, in a novel and restricted sense, specifically to the Church’s oral teaching as distinct from that contained in Scripture.” (p.37). Tertullian appears to be the first to extend the meaning of “tradition” to cover what had been customary in the church's past, and goes even further than Irenaeus to stress the “rule of faith” as distinct from Scripture against heretical exegesis.  But even so, the tradition of the church was conceived as an ecclesiastical expression of the content essentially contained in the Scriptures.   E.g., for Irenaeus what the apostles preached in their spoken word they "handed down to us in the Scriptures as the pillar and bulwark of our faith," (Haer.1.1.3).  This view continued into the 3rd and 4th century, during which it “was taken for granted that … [the divine or apostolic ‘tradition’] was embodied in Holy Scripture, and found a parallel outlet in the Church’s general unwritten teaching and liturgical life…and the use of the term ‘tradition’, with or without such qualifications as ‘ecclesiastical’ or ‘of the fathers’, to describe this latter medium now became increasingly common,” (p.42). 
[14] Ibid., p.33
[15] Ibid., p.46-47.  Kelly goes on to note that “all the instances of unwritten tradition [during this period] lacking Scriptural support which the early theologians mention will be found on examination to refer to matters of observance and practice (e.g., triple immersion in baptism; turning East for prayer) rather than doctrine as such, although sometimes there are matters (e.g., infant baptism; prayers for the dead) in which doctrine is involved,” (p.47).
[16] “…it is essential to note that doctrinal, liturgical, and exegetical material of quite different sorts was all lumped under the term “tradition,” from the Christological interpretation of specific passages in the Old Testament to a chiliastic interpretation of the apocalyptic vision,” Pelikan, p.115.
[17] Ibid.
[18] E.g., chiliasm is rejected by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church.
[19] In Tertullian’s usage, one tradition of the church might even be said to be at variance with another (see De virg. vel. 2).
[20] Epistle 73: 2, 3, 8, 9
[21] E.g., Father Augustine writes, “I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error,” Letter to Jerome (82).  Similarly, Theodoret writes, “I yield obedience to Holy Scripture alone,” (De recta fidea ad regin. 2 [PG 76, 1204]).  Cyril of Jerusalem declared, “with regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scirptures… For our saving faith derives its force, not from capricious reasonings, but from what may be proved out of the Bible,” (Cat. 4, 17).  Kelly writes of the Nicene period, “Yet, if the concept of tradition was expanded and made more concrete in these way, the estimate of its position vis-à-vis Scripture as a doctrinal norm remained basically unaltered.  The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by the latter is the fact that almost the entire theological effort of the fathers, whether their aims were polemical or constructive, was expended upon what amounted to the exposition of the Bible.  Further, it was everywhere taken for granted that, for any doctrine to win acceptance, it had first to establish its Scriptural basis,” (p.46).  Regarding the high regard in the post-Nicene church for the earlier fathers, Kelly avers, “there was no question of their being regarded as having access to truths other than those already contained, implicitly or explicitly, in Scripture…the authority of the fathers consisted precisely in the fact that they had so faithfully and fully expounded the real intention of the Bible writers,” (p.49).   E.g., Theodore of Mopsuestia writes of the Nicene Creed, “Even the words of the creed contain nothing but an explanation and interpretation of the words found in the teaching of our Lord.
[22] Pelikan writes that, according to Tertullian, “all churches that taught rightly could be called primitive and apostolic, because they shared the tradition preserved in the churches founded by the apostles,” pp.118-119.