What about Apostolic Succession?
I want to examine the topic of “Apostolic Succession.”
This is a term primarily used in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, but also in Anglican churches, suggesting that their tradition is a true church (or even “the true church”). because it can trace a direct line from the apostles to its own bishops/ministers.
It assumes an unbroken succession or line formed by the laying on of hands from the apostles to bishop to bishop to bishop down to the present day.
Furthermore, it contends that those outside this line of succession cannot lay claim to be true churches, because they are not the inheritors of this visible tradition.
At its root “Apostolic succession” raises the question of the authority and the essence or being (ens) of any tradition which claims to be a church.
Recall the questions of the chief priests and elders in the temple to the Lord Jesus, “By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” (Matt 21:23).
Notice that the Lord Jesus did not come from either a priestly or ruling family. His authority did not come from his priestly lineage, but from his authoritative teaching as the Word made flesh.
The Founding of the Church
We turn now to the founding of the church.
See Matthew 16:13-20.
The founder is Christ. He builds his church on Peter’s confession, not on Peter himself (vv. 16-18). He promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. In other words, he promises to preserve and maintain it. He gives to Peter the keys as a representative of the apostles (v. 19). He later addresses similar teaching not to Peter alone but to all the apostles (see Matt 18:18-20).
The Foundation of the Church
In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul uses various metaphors to describe believers, noting that they are “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus himself being the chief corner stone” (v. 20). Notice also his prayer in Ephesians 3:20-21 where he makes reference to glory being given to God “in the church” (v. 21).
Does built on the foundation of the apostles have any reference to an unbroken succession of bishops/minister from the apostles?
Or, does it refer to those who hold to the doctrinal and practical teaching of the apostles?
Acts 2:42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
Note: The focus was on the apostles’ didache.
Galatians 1: 8 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.
9 As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
Note: Paul said that even if he (an apostle) preached a false gospel, let him be anathema. Right teaching prevails over personal office—even of an apostle.
Colossians 2: 6 As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him:
7 Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.
Note: Establishment in the faith in key, not adherence to any apostle.
2 Timothy 2:1 Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
2 And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.
Note: The emphasis is not merely on the fact that men be tapped who are associated with the apostle but that they be faithful teachers.
The Marks of a True Church
What make a true church to be a true church?
Does a historical claim to have bishop/ministers who were ordained in a line of succession going back to the apostles necessarily make a true church?
Or, are there some other, more central distinguishing marks of a true church?
The classic Protestant view has been that a true church bears three distinguishing marks (see Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 576-588).
1. The true preaching of the Word (John 8:31, 32, 47; 14:23; 1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 9).
Berkhof: “The true preaching of the Word is the great means for maintaining the Church and enabling her to be the mother of the faithful” (577).
2. The right administration of the sacraments (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 11:23-30).
Berkhof: “The sacraments never should be divorced from the Word, for they have no content of their own, but derive their content from the Word of God; they are in fact a visible preaching of the Word” (577-578).
3. The faithful exercise of discipline (Matt 18:18; 1 Cor 5:1-5, 13; 14:33, 40; Rev 2:14, 15, 20).
Berkhof: “This is quite essential for maintaining the purity of doctrine and for guarding the holiness of the sacraments. Churches that are lax in discipline are bound to discover sooner or later within their circle an eclipse of the light of truth and an abuse of that which is holy” (578).
Rather than linear apostolic succession, Protestants have focused instead on spiritual apostolic succession, in continuity in teaching and practice with the apostles. A church “succeeds” the apostles not because it has a bishop/minister who can trace an unbroken line of ordination back to the apostles, but because it is consistent with the teaching and practices of the apostles as they are set forth in Scripture.
Calvin on Apostolic Succession
John Calvin addressed the issue of apostolic succession in his Institutes (see especially 4.2.1-5). Here are a few quotes:
“That is, wherever the ministry remains whole and uncorrupted, no moral faults or diseases prevent it from bearing the name ‘church’” (4.2.1).
“It therefore follows that this pretense of succession is vain unless their descendants conserve safe and uncorrupted the truth of Christ, which they have received at their fathers’ hands, and abide in it” (4.2.2).
“But especially in the organization of the church nothing is more absurd than to lodge the succession in persons alone to the exclusion of teaching” (4.2.3).
“To sum up, since the church is Christ’s Kingdom, and he reigns by his Word alone, will it not be clear to any man that those are lying words [cf. Jer. 7:4] by which the Kingdom of Christ is imagined to exist apart from his scepter (that is, his most holy Word)? (4.2.4).
“[Paul] means that apart from the Lord’s Word there is not an agreement of believers but a faction of wicked men” (4.2.5).