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Do you agree with the claim by the Orthodox Church that "apostolic succession" has been in affect from the time of the apostles to our current church age?

October 15, 2012

Also see: Bishops and the Catholic Church

Both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox branches make the claim of apostolic succession and seem to place an extraordinary importance on it, using it as a legitimizer.

Some early Christian writers (like Clement of Rome) mention the concept, and others (like Hegesippus and Ireneaus of Lyons) represent the chain of leadership for several early churches, naming the succession of bishops. They do this to show that the "orthodox" are the legitimate expression of the body of Christ against the Gnostics who could not make this claim.

I do believe that apostolic succession was in place from the earliest days. Luke represents leadership succession in Paul's ministry in Acts 19. Paul represents the same in the Pastoral epistles. I think Peter and Paul probably laid hands on the man (or men) who would take over as bishop(s) of Rome once they both were handed over to death. I do believe leadership was passed from bishop to bishop in each generation in each major city or region.

Is Apostolic Succession a Myth?

There are many Protestant groups that attack the Catholic Church over their use of apostolic succession. It is easy for Protestants to be insecure on this point - because we have cut ourselves off from the chain of Christian history by rejecting everything from Constantine to the Reformation.

The truth is that Protestants should see early Christian apostolic succession as their history, the early fathers as their ancestry. Why would we accept the transmission of the New Testament documents through the work of the monastic communities, yet reject almost everything else from that movement? It makes no sense.

Get reconnected to your Christian heritage. Read my review of the DH Williams book, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism. Prof. Williams shows how many Reformers failed to properly represent the history of the Church which helped lay the foundation for Protestant skepticism. You might also want to read the interview I conducted with Prof. Williams.

Part of our Protestant presentation of the early church that leads to poor conclusions is the idea that the early church was close to perfect. This is what led me to do Ph.D. research on the early church; I had it in mind that if we could figure out how they were so good at working out their faith we could emulate it. The more I studied, the more I discovered that the early church had many flaws -- just like us. I would encourage you to read my article, Three Protestant Myths of Early Christianity.

In the end, I DO believe apostolic succession has been in place from the original apostles up to our day. Like everything God does through humans, it is not perfect...in fact, it has been somewhat messy.

The problem: leadership was not always clear and unanimous. There were many conflicts over who was the rightful bishop in many locations and in numerous timeframes (see the examples below). THIS is why I do not agree with using apostolic succession as evidence to give legitimacy to a particular movement, Catholic or Orthodox. Remember, when the original fathers used apostolic succession it was an apologetic against Gnostics. In the modern world when Catholics or Orthodox believers use apostolic succession it is to show that their branch of faith is more legitimate than Protestants (or one another). I do not think either branch would say that NO others are Christian, yet that WAS the original use of apostolic succession.

Clement of Rome
Beginning with Clement of Rome in the late 90's we have struggles over the office of bishop. In 1 Clement 44-46 we are presented with some in Corinth who have deposed their bishop. It appears that the purpose of Clement's letter is to rebuke them for this action.

Ignatius of Antioch
Some in Antioch apparently did not accept Ignatius as the legitimate bishop. Some scholars suggest that this is what led to his arrest - literal unrest in the streets caused the Romans to crack down on the church. The letters of Ignatius certainly represent one of the earliest calls for submission to the bishop.

Cyprian of Carthage
In the middle of the third century some were unhappy with Cyprian of Carthage and replaced him with a rival bishop [Read the story].

Donatus or Caecilian
Who is to say whether Donatus or Caecilian was the "correct" bishop in 312-313 AD to serve in Carthage? You can read about this dispute here: The Donatist Issue.

There are other examples like this. During the time of Arius there were disputes in Egypt that keep the apostolic succession from being clear-cut. Is it ALWAYS correct to see the "catholic" (or "orthodox") man as the rightful bishop? What if he had charges against him and other bishops did not recognize his authority?

Al B.

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