Apostolic Succession

views updated Jun 11 2018


While there is general agreement among Christians that the Church of Christ is and must be apostolic in its doctrine and its ministry, the doctrine of apostolic succession on which the Christian Churches remain divided is expressed in the statement of Vatican II that "by divine institution the bishops have succeeded to the place of the apostles as shepherds of the Church" (Lumen gentium 20). Catholics, Orthodox and most Anglicans believe that the episcopate is a divinely willed element of the structure of the Church; Protestants see it as the result of a purely human, historical development in the post-New Testament period. At the same time there is a broad consensus among scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, that in the New Testament one does not find evidence to support the theory that before the apostles died they appointed a bishop in charge of each of the churches which they had founded. Rather, it is generally agreed that with the exception of Jerusalem, where James the brother of the Lord exercised leadership, at the close of the New Testament period each local church was being led by a group of men, called "elders" (presbuteroi ) or "overseers" (episkopoi ). Most Catholic scholars agree that the historic episcopate is the result of a development that took place in the post-New Testament period, and that a satisfactory argument for the doctrine that bishops are the successors of the apostles by divine institution cannot be drawn from the New Testament or from early Church history alone, but must be based on a combination of historical evidence and theological reflection. Such an argument can be developed in the following steps: (1) The post-New Testament development of the episcopate is homogeneous with the development of the presbyterate that took place during the New Testament period. (2) By the end of the second century, the Christian churches were being led by bishops whom they recognized as the successors to the apostles, and as transmitters of the genuine apostolic tradition. (3) As the churches received certain writings as the written norm of their faith, so they received the teaching of their bishops as the living norm of their faith. The Holy Spirit, who maintains the Church in the true faith, must have guided the Church in its reception of these norms of its faith, since error about the norms would have led to untold errors in faith. Therefore the Holy Spirit must have guided the development of the episcopate as it guided the development of the New Testament canon. Such guidance of the Spirit justifies the belief that bishops are the successors of the apostles by divine institution.

Homogeneous Development. When we look to the parts of the New Testament that were written during the sub-apostolic period (from about 67 to the end of the first century), we see that as the Church came to realize that it had to think in terms of future generations, it also developed a form of local leadership that would provide for continuity in doctrine and practice. 1 Peter 5, Acts 20 and the Pastorals all witness to the fact that by the 80s, each local church, including those of the Pauline tradition, had a group of leaders who were called "elders" or "overseers." 1 Peter and the Pastorals also witness to the continuation of the pastoral care exercised over a number of churches by co-workers of an apostle, as in the Pastorals, or by one who writes in the name of the apostle himself, as in 1 Peter. Furthermore, Acts 20:1735 and 2 Tim 4:18 witness to the conviction of Christians of the subapostolic period that it was Paul himself who, when fore-seeing his own death, had entrusted the ongoing care of the church of Ephesus to its presbyters, and had bequeathed his own ministry of evangelization to Timothy. The Pastorals also witness to the concern of the sub-apostolic Church for the safeguarding and faithful handing on of the "deposit," which was to be provided by the careful selection of leaders who would be "apt teachers" (1 Tim 3:2) and would "hold to the true message as taught so as to be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents" (Tit 1:9). In these letters it is also clear that it was an important task of the apostolic co-workers to select the right persons for ministry in the local churches, and to ordain them by the laying on of hands.

The development of ministry that took place in mainline Christian churches during the sub-apostolic period was a response to the realization that provision had to be made for the continued life of the Church into future generations, and that this called for a stable structure of ministry that would guarantee the faithful handing on of all that the Church had received from the apostles. While this did not mean the end of charismatic ministry (cf. 1 Peter 4:1011), it did call for the choice and ordination of responsible pastors and teachers: "faithful people who would have the ability to teach others as well" (2 Tim 2:2). The choice and ordination of such people was in the hands of individuals like Timothy and Titus, but the local leadership was entrusted to a group of presbyters, among whom some "presided well" and some "toiled in preaching and teaching" (1 Tim 5:17).

The post-apostolic development of ministry was consistent with what took place during the period of the New Testament. Just as during the sub-apostolic period the need was recognized for a structure that would provide stable and continuing leadership in the churches, and that need was met by the development of the presbyterate, so also in the post-apostolic period the growing threats to unity and the need for a form of leadership that could more effectively maintain unity in the face of those threats, led to the development and general acceptance of the episcopate. The episcopate provided the instrument which the post-NT Church needed to be able to maintain its unity and orthodoxy in the face of the dangers that threatened it. The greatest threat to the unity of the Church in the second century came from the spread of Gnosticism. This danger was particularly evident in the church of Rome, where various exponents of this heresy established themselves, and formed communities of their followers, claiming to possess a secret apostolic tradition that surpassed what was being taught in the ordinary Christian communities. Most modern scholars are agreed that the development of the episcopate was the Church's answer to this threat to its unity, but they differ in their assessment of its significance. Protestants judge it to have been a merely natural response to the need for stronger leadership, while Catholics believe they have good reason to recognize it as guided by the Holy Spirit.

Bishops as Successors to the Apostles. The few extant Christian writings from the late first and early second century do not allow us to reconstruct the process by which the Christian churches moved from the leadership of a group of presbyters to the leadership of a single bishop. The Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians, known as 1 Clement, which dates from about 96, attributes to the apostles the appointment of the first generation of local church leaders, with the directive that when these died, other "approved men" should be appointed to succeed them. But it is clear from 1 Clement that in the last years of the first century the church of Corinth was still being led by a group of presbyters, with no one bishop in charge. Most scholars think the same would have been the case in Rome at that time. On the other hand, the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch witness to the fact that by the second decade of the second century the churches of Antioch and Ephesus, and some others in the vicinity of Ephesus, were being led by a single bishop, assisted by presbyters and deacons. However, Ignatius sheds no light on our question as to how the transition to episcopal leadership had taken place, nor does he speak of himself or those other bishops as "successors to the apostles." A few years later, one of them, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, wrote a letter to the church of Philippi, in which he mentioned the presbyters and deacons, but said nothing about a bishop in that church. Similarly, the Shepherd of Hermas, written in Rome sometime around 130, speaks of "the elders who preside over the church," with no reference to a bishop there.

The few extant documents of the period suggest that the development of the episcopate took place at varying rates of speed in various regions of the church, but do not reveal exactly how it took place. However, one may affirm on solid historical ground that by the end of the second century, every Christian church about which information has come down to the present was being led by a single bishop, that these churches recognized their bishops as the rightful successors to the apostles, and that they received their teaching as normative for their faith. For these facts there is clear evidence in the writings of Hegesippus, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. The move from these facts to the conclusion that the development of the episcopate was guided by the Spirit calls for reflection on the theological significance of the reception by the Church of the norms for its faith.

Reception of the Norms of Faith. It was the consensus to which the Christian churches arrived during the second and third centuries concerning the reception of four Gospels, the letters of St. Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Catholic Epistles, that substantially fixed the canon of the New Testament. By virtue of this consensus the Church recognized this collection of writings as normative for Christian faith. It is obvious that an erroneous decision about the norm of its faith would have led the Church into incalculable errors on particular matters of faith. If one believes that the Holy Spirit maintains the Church in the true faith, one must also believe that the Holy Spirit guided the Church in its discernment of the books that would constitute a written norm for its faith.

The fact that in the course of the second century the Gnostics also appealed to these writings makes it evident that the Church needed another norm by which to be able to judge which interpretation of the New Testament corresponded to the authentic apostolic faith. The Gnostics claimed that their interpretation was based on a secret tradition originating from one of the apostles, and handed down by a succession of their teachers. The response of Christian writers, such as Hegesippus, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, was to appeal to the tradition handed down from the apostles by the succession of bishops in the churches. The fact that in all those churches one found the same "rule of faith," in contrast to the great diversity of Gnostic teachings, proved that the churches that were led by bishops had maintained the genuine apostolic doctrine. These writers, from different regions of the Church, witness to the recognition of the bishops as the authoritative bearers of the apostolic tradition, and to the reception of their teaching as normative for Christian faith.

It would have been just as disastrous for the Church to have made the wrong decision about the living norm of faith by which it countered the threat of Gnosticism, as it would have been to make a wrong decision about the reception of the New Testament as its written norm. There is as good reason to believe that the Church was guided by the Spirit in the recognition of its bishops as successors of the apostles and authoritative teachers of the faith, as there is to believe that it was guided by the Spirit in its discernment of the books that make up the New Testament.

From this it follows that there is also good reason to believe that the development of the episcopate itself was guided by the Spirit, since it was to play such a primary role in maintaining the Church in the true faith. Without the leadership of its bishops, the early Church could hardly have achieved a consensus on the canon of Scripture, nor could it have overcome the very real threat which Gnosticism posed to its unity and orthodoxy. The structure of the Church was in the process of development through the period of the New Testament, but at the close of that period the Church did not yet have a structure that would have been adequate to meet the challenges it would face during the second century. Catholics see no reason to think that the Holy Spirit who guided the Church during the period of the New Testament, would have ceased to guide it as it developed the basic structure it needed for its long-term survival.

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[f. a. sullivan]

Apostolic Succession

views updated Jun 08 2018

Apostolic Succession. A belief in Christianity that the authority of the ordained ministry, in word and sacrament, is protected by the continuous transmission of that authority through successive ordinations by those who were themselves validly ordained.