This article is a continuation of a previous post, where I begin my three article journey responding to Zach. In this piece I will look at Apostolic Succession through a historical lens, bringing together many of the “Fact Checks” from my previous post. We will clearly define what is meant by Apostolic Succession and why theological cohesion was sought by the early Church, as well as the condemnation of heresy. In my next article I will discuss scriptural and historical evidence for Apostolic Succession.
As with many debated topics, Apostolic Succession can be made into a straw man by its detractors. To clarify, the Catholic/Orthodox belief in Apostolic Succession does not claim that Christ established rules for fasting, systematic theology, or even the title of Bishop! Instead, Apostolic Succession is the belief that Christ entrusted his mission of salvation to a group of Galilean men to go forth and change the world. These Galileans left the first Bishops as their successors to lead the Church. The successors of the Apostles continued to ensure the Gospel message of Jesus’s resurrection spread throughout the world. As time goes on and our teleology becomes more clear, that continuity between the first witnesses of the resurrection and the bishops of today is the primary hallmark of Christ’s Church.
In the words of Tertullian:
“Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, (our rule is) that no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed; for no man knows the Father save the Son, and he to whomever the Son will reveal Him. (Matthew 11:27) Nor does the Son seem to have revealed Him to any other than the apostles, whom He sent forth to preach—that, of course, which He revealed to them. Now, what that was which they preached—in other words, what it was which Christ revealed to them—can, as I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the gospel to them directly themselves, both vivâ voce, as the phrase is, and subsequently by their epistles. If, then, these things are so, it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches—those moulds and original sources of the faith must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the (said) churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, Christ from God. Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savours of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God.” (Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 21)
Much like the Church of today and at the time of Martin Luther, the Early Church was not perfect. Peter, first to believe, was caught as a hypocrite by Paul and called out on it (Galatians 2: 11-13). Wealthy donors to the Church lied about their donation (and were punished by God) (Acts 5: 1-10). One just has to read through Paul’s letters to learn about the issues arising in many Christian Churches that Paul was running around to try to fight against. Sexual immorality, greed, heresy, and other sins ran rampant then as they do now. Nevertheless, Apostolic Succession ensures that truth will always come forth in the Church’s doctrines. As Tertullian wrote, anything that goes against the teaching of the Church, just as with the Apostles and God, must be judged to be false. The gates of hell never prevailing against the Church is God’s promise to protect what the Apostles began, in all of its human brokenness and corruption (Matthew 16:18-19).
While it seems good to have this illusive authority, what is “the teaching of the Church”? Simply put the Church’s teaching what is produced when the Apostles come together and agree on an understanding of divine revelation. Apostolic Succession simply postulates that the successors of the Apostles have the same authority to come together and identify dogma as the Apostles themselves. True teaching matters; whether something is a good or a sin is important to know and speak clearly about. Protestants are right to emphasize the opening of discussion and having real arguments about truth. But without authority, they are unable to ever declare a conclusion to their debates. Zach is correct to point out there were many theological viewpoints in the early Church that varied in significant ways. Yet, just as a sculptor chips away at marble to reveal his image, theological debates become more nuanced as the Church furthers her understanding of God’s revelation. Debate, yes, but once a decision is reached we must trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in its decision.
It is often implied in Protestant circles that the Church before Constantine was “purer” and filled with a variety of Christian groups with variance in theology, much like the Protestant churches of today. The narrative continues that when Constantine came and the Church became “institutional,” certain people sought to use their power to condemn those they disagreed with, creating the Catholic/Orthodox narrative of one true continuous body of Church teaching.
However, there are a few holes in this case. First, the early Church was not more pure and sinless than any other age in the Church (see the above paragraph). Secondly, most individuals in the early Church, even those whom the Church would ultimately side against theologically, emphasized the need for theological unity and cohesion among Christians. St. Paul worked tirelessly to fight Church divisions in his letters to the various Churches. Tertullian points out that St. Paul condemns heresy to the level of schism and dissension, “which undoubtedly are evils” (Chapter 5).
In short, Apostolic Succession was given by the Apostles, through the authority of Christ, to successors to preserve the Church unto the ages. Yes, the Church is meant to be a forum for debate and discussion, but it also needs to reach resolution and conclusion. This is why Bishops are called into conclave when choosing the Pope or at the ecumenical councils. They are “locked up without the key” until a decision is reached! The Church is not meant to stagnate in theological indecisiveness until Christ comes again but to address the questions that arise so that we can go forth and spread the Gospel unto the ends of the earth!