Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Apostolic Succession In Perspective: Review and Introduction

Before I start back into some of the historical processes regarding the Synagogue and teachings and elders, I’d like to stop and take stock of what I’ve written, and put it into the perspective of the overall discussion.

Here’s a key statement from the Keith Mathison piece; which may be found in Bryan Cross’s extended dialogue with Michael Horton:

Of course the inquirer has to determine whether there is a succession of authority from the Apostles to the bishops of the present day, and whether Christ gave to St. Peter and his successors the primacy. But just as our discovery of Christ does not entail that the basis or ground of His authority is our judgment that He is the Son of God, and just as a first century Roman citizen’s discovery of the Apostles would not entail that the basis or ground of their authority is his judgment that they were sent by Christ, so the contemporary inquirer’s discovery of the Catholic Magisterium extending down through the centuries by an unbroken succession from the Apostles to the present day does not entail that the basis or ground of this Magisterium’s authority is the inquirer’s judgment that it is the divinely authorized teaching authority of the Church Christ founded. The reasons by which he grasps its authority are not the ground of its authority, whereas without apostolic succession the only ground for the authority of any confession or pastor is its or his general agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture.
It is said that “it all comes down to authority,” and this, in many ways, is the focal point of Roman Catholic claims to authority. Let’s take a look at the authority claim that Bryan is making (which I believe to be consonant with what Rome has taught in the past, although, I would say, Rome is in some ways “re-calibrating” this “story” in our lifetimes):

The Inquirer has to determine:

1. Whether there is a succession of authority from the Apostles to the bishops of the present day

2. Whether Christ gave to St. Peter and his successors “the primacy”.

Of course, the answer to both of these is “no”.

There are three things, according to Cross, the authority of which are not dependent on [“not entailed by”] the enquirer’s “discovery” of them:

1. Christ is the son of God

2. The Apostles’ authority during the first century

3. The Catholic Magisterium extending down through the centuries by an unbroken succession from the Apostles to the present day.

He says, “without apostolic succession the only ground for the authority of any confession or pastor is its or his general agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture,” but that is a meaningless philosophical construct that doesn’t matter, because if “apostolic succession” is not historically viable understanding of “church authority,” then it is not, and the “philosophical necessity” posited by Bryan is just simply meaningless.

It’s at point 3 where Protestants can and do and must understand and draw the line that this item #3 was not “from the beginning” – this point #3 was a development that occurred, took place in the second part of the second century in the forges of what Oscar Cullmann called the “post-Apostolic” period, the period of the Apostolic Fathers. The early generations of the church relied on an “oral tradition” to carry through the Apostles’ teaching (δόγματα –see Papias, for example); but this oral tradition failed to stem the tide of [mostly local Roman] heresies in the turbulent capital of the Roman world, which itself was the site of the comings and goings of people and religions from all over the world. Names like Carpocrates and Basilides and Valentinus and probably a dozen others all claimed to draw upon Christianity in some way, according to Everett Ferguson, “Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation” (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 2005). It was during this time that “the early church adopted strategies that with varying degrees of effectiveness continued to be employed in subsequent centuries (pg 105).

The orthodox church, the church which relied on the (δόγματα) of the Apostles at first relied upon an “oral tradition” to defend and distinguish itself from this “gnostic soup,” but that attempt could not provide the defense that was needed. And I’ve described it in the past. It is at this point we see the emergence of other defense mechanisms that were more successful, and which seemed to have been solidified in the subsequent centuries:

1. The fixing of a canon of the New Testament as a doctrinal norm

2. The standardization of an office of monarchical bishop, present in some areas of the east but not in the west

3. The notion of “succession”

These “developments” gave shape to the church that Irenaeus knew in the late second century, and which writers like Tertullian and Hippolytus wrote about early in the third century.

The short “short summary” of the result of this process is provided by Francis A. Sullivan, “From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church” (New York: The Newman Press ©2001 by the Society of Jesus [“Jesuits”] of New England). Sullivan says:

While most Catholic scholars agree that the episcopate is the fruit of a post-New Testament development, they maintain that this development was so evidently guided by the Holy Spirit that it must be recognized as corresponding to God’s plan for the structure of his Church (pg 230).
Sullivan is among those theologians who are sort of at the forefront of the “recalibration” that I noted above. Even though this represents a tremendous concession (and the Bryan Crosses of the world resist it with all the wishful thinking they can muster), it is still not going far enough. It is at this point, around these historically-verifiable elements of church history, where Protestants must (and will, I believe) take issue with Roman Catholics: while there is no question that God enabled “the one true church” to survive this period, the resultant “structure” was merely an expedient of the time, crafted by the individuals of the time, and not some sort of divinely-mandated “structure” that God intended for all time. (Here is the point at which to understand the method of God in his response to Paul’s plea: “My grace is sufficient for you.” What worked in the past will be a disaster for the future. Do not rely on “the structure,” God says. “Rely on me.”)

In my posts citing F.F. Bruce and Roger Beckwith on the synagogue structure that was in place during New Testament times (and which I hope to continue to work with), the following statement from Sullivan is evident:

This structure was in development during the New Testament era, but even at the close of that period the Church did not yet have a structure 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 during the development of the basic structure necessary for its long-term survival (230).
And of course, upon this, again, it turns. It is mere assumption that this is some sort of “divinely mandated structure.” In a comment the other day, PeaceByJesus reminded us of the meaninglessness of claims to “unbroken succession” from that time till the Reformation.

The history of this entire period and of course, the leadership structure of Medieval church history, scream mightily that this is the point at which Protestants can and do and should draw the line, and say, “we reject this so-called authority, the rotting fruit of which is evident throughout history, and the supposed cleaning-up of which [at Trent] was merely cosmetic. Roman dogma had permitted a creeping rot to infest itself, and from Trent onward effectively anathematized the Gospel, the kerygma, “the precepts or the teachings (δόγματα) of the Apostles”.

John Calvin went into tremendous detail about much of this in his Institutes. Without having the historical perspective that we have today, Calvin wrote a summary of this process that someone like Francis Sullivan is only now catching up to.

I’ll stop here for now, with a reminder. Viisaus noted in a recent comment, “Or in other words, the Reformers pointed out that it was more important to be successors of apostles in SPIRIT rather than (to claim) to be their successor in FLESH.” I would extend that remark – not only successors of the Apostles in Spirit, but in the very teachings (δόγματα) of the Apostles, which, in our day, can be found only in the Scriptures.

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