Going back to a particular conversation I had with an NT scholar recently, one thing he asked in his adamant denial and objection to Apostolic Succession is whether the Church is served by dogma with no historic foundation. I would agree that the Church is not nor can it be founded on such. This means negative dogma (the denial of Apostolic Succession) must be examined as to whether it has roots in history and Scriptures (spoiler alert–it doesn’t). One of this NT scholar’s primary objections to Apostolic Succession is that “it is committing the same blasphemy against the sovereign freedom of God to choose his people in creative love, from generation to generation“. But that is not only an invalid objection but entirely a baseless objection as well as a false caricature of Apostolic Succession. Indeed, the main point of Apostolic Succession is that God has always and has been continuously acting and moving his Church throughout the ages. He doesn’t intervene when he wants and then drops out but rather is continuously acting. Apostolic Succession hardly proposes a blasphemy but rather states of God that he is always acting within the Church.
Of course, the article of this particular NT scholar’s seems not to understand what Apostolic Succession is either. It doesn’t state that God chooses one genealogy such as Jacob over Esau but rather it states that God has appointed apostles (Matt. 16:19, 18:18) to carry out his mission and doctrine here on Earth and that to ensure the doctrine is not polluted or overcome by the Gates of Hell (Matt. 16:18-19), it is only those who are authorised to be the successor of the Apostles by the Laying Down of Hands and of following the right doctrine who are among those authorised by the Church with teaching authority. The appointment of Jacob over Esau is not about Apostolic Succession at all (well, it could be, but that would not refute the doctrine). It is one of those instances where too little proves too much. Not only that, but looking through Wesley’s letters, I cannot find a place where he seeks to contradict Apostolic Succession stating in 1745 to a Mr Westley Hall that…
‘That the validity of our ministry depends on a succession supposed to be from the Apostles, and a commission derived from the Pope of Rome and his successors or dependants.’
We believe it would not be right for us to administer either baptism or the Lord’s supper unless we had a commission so to do from those bishops whom we apprehend to be in a succession from the Apostles. And yet we allow these bishops are the successors of those who were dependent on the Bishop of Rome.
But we would be glad to know on what reasons you believe this to be inconsistent with the Word of God. The Letters of John Wesley
I would and am truly curious to know precisely where John Wesley ever called Apostolic Succession a “fable”. But that’s besides the point as Wesley isn’t precisely correct on everything. The Church, being a communion, does not rely on an individual’s opinions but rather on the collected beliefs of the Church as instituted by Christ. Sometimes, even saintly men state opinions as facts even when the Church regards them as opinions and even saintly men make errors in their theology even when they think it free from error. In the end, it is not the individual man whose beliefs are relied on but the Church’s.
But to assess whether we are to view Apostolic Succession as a genuine doctrine or a false doctrine, we must first consider the Biblical and historical evidence. Indeed, the Bible itself is the main evidence that Apostolic Succession is a legitimate and upstanding doctrine in the Church to be believed by all in whatever form! Where did the Scriptures derive from? St Irenaeus contends in the following against different heretical groups…
For if what they have published is the Gospel of truth, and yet is totally unlike those which have been handed down to us from the apostles, any who please may learn, as is shown from the Scriptures themselves, that that which has been handed down from the apostles can no longer be reckoned the Gospel of truth. Against Heresies, III.11.9
…demonstrating that the Scriptures are derived from the Apostles themselves. In order to be Scriptures they must be an authentic writing of an Apostle himself or at least someone authorised by the Apostle (which is why so many numerous NT scholars who oppose the Church contend that pseudapigraphy was enacted by people claiming Apostolic authority). The Gnostics themselves knew that the Church would not accept anything that was without an Apostle’s handwriting either so they doctored such pseudo-Gospels as The Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Thomas, The Acts of Andrew, The Acts of John, etc. They presented these in order to show themselves as the Apostles’ successors but they were proven quite wrong. The Scriptures went through a process where they were proven to be authentic and then they were compiled together by the Church with the declaration that these were truly authentic because it was only someone who could succeed the Apostles who knew that these Scriptures were authentic. God guided the entire process. It was not that the Scriptures were written and God dropped out after they were proven authentic and then someone else came along to inform people they got the whole thing all wrong. That is simply bad theology.
To the Jews?
I just wanted to comment a bit on this very poor theology by the NT scholar the other day. That Jesus’s mission being directed to the lost sheep of Israel somehow runs counter-intuitive to the doctrine of Apostolic Succession or that St Peter’s mission going to the Jews proves that as well. In the end, it is one of those things where what seeks to prove too much, proves too little. Further, neither Jesus nor St Peter went strictly to Jewish people. In fact, John Wesley, commenting on Matt. 16:19 writes of St Peter’s bearing the keys of the Kingdom of God, “He first, after our Lord’s resurrection, exercised the apostleship, Acts 1:15. And he first by preaching opened the kingdom of heaven, both to the Jews, Acts 2:14 &c., and to the Gentiles, Acts 10:34 &c.” Further, in the context of Matt. 15:24, Jesus is not looking to contend that he has not been sent to Gentiles for he has in fact been sent into the world and he came into the world, his own, and the world knew him not (John 1:1-14) and Jesus also makes it a point to include Samaritans and sworn enemies of the Jews into his Gospel message (John 4, Luke 10:25-37). Jesus came to the whole world. The point being made in Matt. 15 is to show to the woman that by acknowledging herself as a mere dog, not proclaiming herself an entitled child as the Jews did, that “He might make her faith manifest…that He might proclaim aloud this saying, that He might crown the woman. Be it unto you even as you will. Now what He says is like this: Your faith indeed is able to effect even greater things than these; nevertheless, Be it unto you even as you will.” (Homily 52 on Matthew, St John Chrysostom). In other words, Jesus is showing who the true children of Israel are by allowing this woman to become little and show her faith, lifting her up to the status of a genuine Child of Israel. Similarly, did St Peter write about the chosen ones in 1 Pet. 2:9-10.
But whomever the Apostles wrote to, went to, or were sent to, does not impinge on the doctrine of Apostolic Succession because the Church is a community and St Paul and St John the Apostle both wrote to seven Churches indicating by seven, a number of completeness–they wrote to all the Churches by writing to seven (Bauckham, New Testament Theology: The Book of Revelation, 16-17). Jews and Gentiles have a new identity in Christ (Gal. 3:27-30) so the lost sheep of Israel are those among the Church and needing to be found by the Church.
St Ignatius of Antioch (a.d. 35-108)
St Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop in the first century a.d. and was discipled to St John the Apostle (as the Church traditionally accepts both St John the Divine and St John the Apostle as the same person and no significant evidence has been presented to state otherwise, I tend to go along with what the Church holds traditional–if you can prove that the two were not the same, please do so) along with St Polycarp. He writes the following:
Apart from Him, let nothing attract you, for whom I bear about these bonds, these spiritual jewels, by which may I arise through your prayers, of which I entreat I may always be a partaker, that I may be found in the lot of the Christians of Ephesus, who have always been of the same mind with the apostles through the power of Jesus Christ. (Epistle to the Ephesians, ch. 11)
As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters. (Epistle to the Magnesians, ch. 7)
it becomes every one of you, and especially the presbyters, to refresh the bishop, to the honour of the Father, of Jesus Christ, and of the apostles. (Epistle to the Trallians, ch. 12)
In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church. Concerning all this, I am persuaded that you are of the same opinion. For I have received the manifestation of your love, and still have it with me, in your bishop, whose very appearance is highly instructive, and his meekness of itself a power; whom I imagine even the ungodly must reverence, seeing they are also pleased that I do not spare myself. But shall I, when permitted to write on this point, reach such a height of self-esteem, that though being a condemned man, I should issue commands to you as if I were an apostle? (ibid, ch. 3)
I flee to the Gospel as to the flesh of Jesus, and to the apostles as to the presbytery of the Church. (Epistle to the Philadelphians, ch. 5)
In these statements we can see, if not the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, a clear intimation and hint of a blueprint emerging on scenes.
St Irenaeus of Lyons (a.d. 130-202)
He of course wrote Against Heresies referenced earlier. He was discipled by St Polycarp who was discipled by St John the Divine. We find his writings the following:
The truth is to be found nowhere else but in the Catholic Church, the sole depository of apostolic doctrine. Heresies are of recent formation, and cannot trace their origin up to the apostles.
1. Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. Revelation 22:17 For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?
2. To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established.
3. For, prior to Valentinus, those who follow Valentinus had no existence; nor did those from Marcion exist before Marcion; nor, in short, had any of those malignant-minded people, whom I have above enumerated, any being previous to the initiators and inventors of their perversity. For Valentinus came to Rome in the time of Hyginus, flourished under Pius, and remained until Anicetus. Cerdon, too, Marcion’s predecessor, himself arrived in the time of Hyginus, who was the ninth bishop. Coming frequently into the Church, and making public confession, he thus remained, one time teaching in secret, and then again making public confession; but at last, having been denounced for corrupt teaching, he was excommunicated from the assembly of the brethren. Marcion, then, succeeding him, flourished under Anicetus, who held the tenth place of the episcopate. But the rest, who are called Gnostics, take rise from Menander, Simon’s disciple, as I have shown; and each one of them appeared to be both the father and the high priest of that doctrine into which he has been initiated. But all these (the Marcosians) broke out into their apostasy much later, even during the intermediate period of the Church. (Against Heresies, Bk III, Ch. 4)
This is an even stronger claim for Apostolic Succession being eminent within the second century Church following the Apostles than St Ignatius’s statements. This, I would contend, is a rather explicit statement of Apostolic Succession.
St Hippolytus of Rome (a.d. 170-235)
St Hippolytus of Rome wrote an extensive writing called The Refutation of All Heresies. We read the following in his writings:
none will refute these, save the Holy Spirit bequeathed unto the Church, which the Apostles, having in the first instance received, have transmitted to those who have rightly believed (Refutation of All Heresies, Bk I)
So another emphatic point on Apostolic Succession made. In fact, the whole of The Refutation of All Heresies attacks sects that claim to be based on Apostles (as these heretical sects also knew that only teachings succeeding the apostles would be approvable) and demonstrates their heresies do not descend from the Apostles.
Kingdom of Heaven
I think there is no stronger evidence for Apostolic Succession than Christ himself having passed on the keys of the Kingdom of God to St Peter and the rest of the Apostles (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). But I am more than aware that the NT scholar has pointed out that the Greek does not support this reading. Which I am rather skeptical of. Especially seeing as the word implemented is in fact not strictly eschatological. Further, the context of Matt. 16:16-19 suggests that the kingdom of God in this instance is being equated to the Church as Jesus states “you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18) right before stating St Peter is to be given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is not to say that the Kingdom of God is not an eschtological term for St Maximus the Confessor writes regarding the Psalms, “if some have interpreted these words [in Ps. 44] as being about the Church, there is nevertheless nothing at all that impedes understanding them about the Holy Theotokos” (Life of the Virgin, 6). Basically, the NT scholar has consented to an either/or hermeneutical approach which at not one point has ever been excepted in the Church hermeneutic for in the hermeneutical approach of the Church, there is no either/or. If the Kingdom of God can be understood to mean both the Church and something eschatological, the approach is a both/and. But an either/or hermeneutic when it comes to disputing a given theology indicates an agenda is infecting one’s hermeneutic and that is bad theology.
The infallibility of the Church
Having said all of the above, I think the main issue for this particular NT scholar is in a failing to comprehend the infallibility of the Church which in and of itself is also highly Scriptural. The main problem is that most Protestants think that when the infallibility of the Church is asserted, what is meant is that sin is being denied as evident in the Church. Sin is not being denied as existent. This is why we have the sacrament of penance to restore us to order when we fall short of the glory of God. Joseph Ratzinger asks the following question, “Is the Church not simply the continuation of God’s deliberate plunge into human wretchedness; is she not simply the continuation of Jesus’ habit of sitting at table with sinners, of his mingling with the misery of sin to the point where he actually seems to sink under its weight?” (Introduction to Christianity, 343). Another further point to make about the infallibility of the Church is that it is not the people’s sins which make it infallible but the guiding authority of the Holy Spirit in it.
It is only in connection with doctrinal authority as such that, practically speaking, this question of infallibility arises; that is to say, when we speak of the Church’s infallibility we mean, at least primarily and principally, what is sometimes called active as distinguished from passive infallibility. We mean in other words that the Church is infallible in her objective definitive teaching regarding faith and morals, not that believers are infallible in their subjective interpretation of her teaching. (Catholic Encyclopedia, “Infallibility”)
Scriptures supplementing this include
1 Tim. 3:15 which speaks of the Church as the Pillar and Ground of Truth. If it is possible for the Church to be wrong on a given doctrine, how then can Jesus, who is Truth, be infallible in his teachings when he stands on the ground of the Church?
Matt. 16:18 which states the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against Her. If it is possible for the Church to err into heresy, then the Gates of Hell would have conquered it! But the Church is safeguarded from straying into heresy by Christ himself. It is his bride (Eph. 5:22-31) and he protects it from entering into heresy. To state the Church can err is equivalent to stating Christ can fail to protect his Bride!
1 Cor. 12:12, Eph. 4:16, Col. 1:18 which proclaim and indicate the Church is the Body of Christ. This is not figurative language merely. It is really, genuinely, the Body of Christ. If the Church is the Body of Christ than it is in fact divine and of divine origin. How can God create something that is not infallible? To deny the infallibility of the Church is to suggest God is not infallible!
To say the Church is not infallible is simply bad theology.
There is quite strong evidence in both history and in Scriptures that Apostolic Succession is a genuine doctrine. If such, then the main question ought to be asked–what should we do with this knowledge? Negate the doctrine and label it a fable because of our own obstinance and want to create a “new” church in contrast. State the Church and those who have come before us in the faith are wrong for this is their faith in the whole Community of Believers? Or ought we not to accept it? Ought we not to find God’s guiding light in the Church never-ceasing? How beautiful is that that he is with us until the end of the ages (Matt. 28:20) and has never left the Church at any point protecting her from falling into heresies even when its people are the most sinful!