Apostolic Succession

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In Christianity, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession (or the belief that the Church is 'apostolic') maintains that the Christian Church today is the spiritual successor to the original body of believers in Jesus Christ composed of the Twelve Apostless. Different Christian religious denomination interpret this doctrine in different ways.

In episcopal churches, the Apostolic Succession is understood to be the basis of the authority of bishops (the episcopate). Specifically in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, the Apostolic Shelshelet as passed on through Peter is also the basis for the specific claim of papal primacy. Within the Anglican Communion this is seen more as a symbolic precedence, not unlike the Eastern Orthodox Church Patriarch of Constantinople. In any event, all these communions recognize Apostolic Succession as the determining criterion of a particular group's legitimacy as a One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church Church.

Mainstream Christianity

Catholic and Orthodox Churches

The Catholic Church (including its rites), Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Assyrian Church of the East, Independent Catholic Churches, Anglicanism and some others hold that apostolic succession is maintained through the consecration of their bishops in unbroken personal historic episcopate.[1] In Catholic and Orthodox theology, the unbrokenness of apostolic succession is significant because of Jesus Christ's promise that the "gates of hell" [2] would not prevail against the Church, and his promise that he himself would be with the apostles to "the end of the age".[3] According to this interpretation, a complete disruption or end of such apostolic succession would mean that these promises were not kept as would an apostolic succession which, while formally intact, completely abandoned the teachings of the Apostles and their immediate successors; as, for example, if all the bishops of the world agreed to abrogate the Nicene Creed or to repudiate the Bible.

Both Orthodox and Catholics believe that each of their teachings today is the same as or is in essential harmony with the teaching of the first apostles, although each might deny this about the other, at least where the teachings of each are in conflict. This form of the doctrine was formulated by Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century, in response to certain gnosticism. These Gnostics claimed that Christ or the Apostles passed on some teachings secretly, or that there were some secret apostles, and that they (the Gnostics) were passing on these otherwise secret teachings. Irenaeus responded that the identity of the original Apostles was well known, as was the main content of their teaching and the identity of the apostles' successors. Therefore, anyone teaching something contrary to what was known to be apostolic teaching was not, in any sense, a successor to the Apostles or to Christ.

Roman Catholics recognize the validity of the apostolic successions of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Old Catholic, and some Independent Catholic Churches. The Eastern Orthodox do not recognize Roman Catholics nor any other group as having Apostolic Succession, examples of economia such as the reception of Catholic priests by "vesting" rather than by re-ordination, notwithstanding.

Other Churches

Some Lutheran Churches, the Churches of the Porvoo Communion, and the Old Catholic Church (which is also in communion with the Anglican Communion) also believe that they ordain their bishops in the apostolic succession in line from the apostles.

Pope Leo XIII stated, in his 1896 Papal bull Apostolicae Curae that the Roman Catholic Church believes specifically that the Anglican Communion's consecrations are "absolutely invalid and utterly void" because of changes made to the rite of consecration under Edward VI of England, thus denying that Anglicans participate in the apostolic succession. A reply of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York (1896) countered Pope Leo's arguments.

The language of Leo's statement was reinforced in the accompanying commentary to Ad Tuendam Fidem:

With regard to those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively, but are not able to be declared as divinely revealed, the following examples can be given: the legitimacy of the election of the Supreme Pontiff or of the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations... [4]

The Church of Sweden's apostolic succession is, according to some reports and despite its Lutheranism, seen by the Roman Catholic Church as having been maintained[citation needed] , and following the establishment of the Porvoo Communion an increasing number of Anglicans could alternatively trace their succession through Swedish bishops as well as Old Catholic Church bishops, whose holy orders are recognized as valid by Rome. The Utrecht Union, is in full communion with Archbishop of Canterbury since the Bonn Agreement (religion) of 1931. It should also be noted that since the issuance of Apostolicae Curae, many Anglican jurisdictions have revised their ordinals, bringing them more in line with ordinals emanating from the early Church.

In addition to a line of historic transmission, Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy churches additionally require that a hierarch maintain Orthodox Church doctrine, which they hold to be that of the Apostles, as well as communion with other Orthodox bishops. The Eastern Orthodoxy have permitted clergy ordained by Catholic and Anglican bishops to be rapidly ordained within Orthodoxy. However, this is a matter of Economy (Eastern Orthodoxy) and not recognition of Apostolic Succession, although in some cases, Roman Catholic priests entering Eastern Orthodoxy have been received by "vesting" and have been allowed to function immediately within Orthodoxy as priests, which is still merely economia and not recognition of Apostolic Succession.

The Armenian Apostolic Church, which is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches, recognizes Catholic episcopal consecrations without qualification (and that recognition is reciprocated).

Protestant Churches

Bishops in the United Methodist Church do not claim to be within the historic episcopate in the same way as Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox bishops. They do, however, claim a corporate ("connectional") and theological form of Apostolic succession, and are not adverse to ecumenical acts which would further establish their ministry within the historic episcopate, though such would have to be accomplished without repudiating or otherwise questioning the validity of their current orders and ministries. Methodist episcopal succession derives from John Wesley, who was an ordained presbyter of the Church of England but not himself a bishop and thus not officially authorized to consecrate others. Wesley justified his practice of ordaining bishops (which he called "general superintendents") and elders (i.e., presbyters) for the methodists in the new United States of America in 1784 by appealing to a perceived need and by citing a minority opinion among the early Church Fathers (and an ancient precedent from the Church of Alexandria) which held that presbyters ("priests" or "elders") could, at least collectively, indeed ordain other such presbyters and even consecrate, or "set apart" bishops in certain emergency situations. Based upon this argument, the United Methodist Church understands all of its Elders, not just its Bishops, as being part of an Apostolic succession of the entire body (or "conference") of ministers: "In ordination, the church affirms and continues the apostolic ministry through persons empowered by the Holy Spirit." (Book of Discipline paragraph 303). In other words, they understand apostolic succession as being rooted within the Presbyterate. This does not mean, however, that all elders may ordain; quite the contrary, only those elders who have been elected and consecrated as bishops can further the apostolic succession through the ordination of bishops, elders, and deacons within the United Methodist Church. In this way, the United Methodist episcopacy functions as if it were within the historic episcopate.

Accepting, but moving beyond, this position a few Methodists do affirm that their bishops stand in a form of the historic, as well as theological, Apostolic Succession (i.e., in the Anglican fashion); their argument is that Wesley's ordinations, and therefore the subsequent line of Methodist bishops, are legitimate due to the critical nature of the circumstances extant at that time. Some Methodists even make an appeal to the "Legend of Erasmus," which asserts that, while on a visit to London in 1763, the Greek Orthodox bishop of the Diocese of Arcadia, Crete, secretly consecrated Wesley to the episcopacy. That Wesley actually met with Bishop Erasmus during the bishop's visit to London is not questioned; what is questioned is that Erasmus did more than simply "confirm Wesley in his ministry among the methodists in England and America." When Wesley was asked if Erasmus had made him a bishop, he offered no personal response but, rather, took the unusual course of authorizing a representative to reply that he had not requested episcopal consecration within the Greek Orthodox line. Many take this as a sufficient denial, and it was enough to keep Wesley out of jail, but those who believe that Wesley was actually consecrated make the following arguments to the contrary: (1) Wesley personally remained silent on the subject, (2) Wesley took the unusual step of having someone to speak on his behalf, and (3) Wesley never actually denied being consecrated a bishop, what he denied was requesting consecration from Erasmus. This distinction may seem meaningless to us today, but it is actually quite substantive given the circumstances of the 1700s. Were Wesley actually consecrated a bishop by Erasmus, he would not have been able to publicly affirm such without falling prey to the stipulations of the English Acts of Supremacy (1534 & 1559). To keep from being charged with treason, and to keep his head, it is argued that Wesley skirted the question altogether by offering a "non-denial denial." Given the circumstances, the argument actually makes some sense: Wesley was asked if he had been made a bishop by Erasmus; his response was that he had not requested consecration ... which actually doesn't answer the original question! After all, episcopal consecration could have been Erasmus' idea, not Wesley's. If Wesley had affirmed that he had been made a bishop, or even if he had just confessed that he had requested consecration, he would have been placing himself in jeopardy of treason against the crown! Wesley was a self-professed Whig and a faithful "son of the English Church," to publicly violate the Oaths of Supremacy would have been entirely repugnant to him on both political and theological grounds ... not to mention that he was understandably fond of his own neck. Hence, the argument concludes that Wesley obfuscated the entire issue by distancing himself from the question and by answering in such a way as to deflect further inquiry. Despite the beliefs of many Methodists and other Anglicans -- beliefs which were finally articulated after Wesley's death -- it worked; while the question never died out entirely, Wesley remained a presbyter of the Church of England until the day he died. Contrary to the "Legend of Erasmus" stands the undeniable fact that, beginning with the American Revolution in the 1770s, Wesley did request episcopal consecration for several of his preachers and, indeed, for himself, so as to provide sacramental ministry for the Methodists in the break-away colonies. Had Wesley already been consecrated a bishop by Erasmus, why would he have requested such consecrations for others or for himself? Nevertheless, the "Legend of Erasmus" remained a very popular argument throughout much of the 1800s and, while still garnering a following among some proponents today, it is not accepted by a vast majority of Methodists nor even by most of those who affirm a form of Apostolicity for their bishops. (see the External Links below)

Apostolicity as doctrinal continuity

Most Protestant churches would deny that the apostolicity of the Church rests on an unbroken episcopacy. They generally hold that one important qualification of the apostles was that they were chosen directly by Jesus and that they witnessed the resurrected Christ. According to this understanding, the work of these twelve (and the Apostle Paul of Tarsus), together with the prophets of the twelve tribes of Israel, provide the doctrinal foundation for the whole church of subsequent history through the Scriptures of the Bible. To share with the apostles the same faith, to believe their word as found in the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is the only sense in which apostolic succession is meaningful, because it is in this sense only that men have fellowship with God in the truth (an extension of the Reformation doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura). The most meaningful apostolic succession for most Protestants, then, is the faithful succession of apostolic teaching. There is, of course, much disagreement among various Protestant churches about the exact content of apostolic teaching.

It is worth noting, however, that some Protestant Charismatic movement churches include "apostles" among the offices that should be evident into modern times in a true church, though they never trace an historical line of succession.

Those who hold to the importance of episcopal apostolic succession would counter the above by appealing to the New Testament, which, they say, implies a personal apostolic succession (from Paul of Tarsus to Timothy and Apostle Titus, for example) and which states that Jesus gave the Apostles a "blank cheque" to lead the Church as they saw fit under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.[5] They appeal as well to other documents of the very early Church, especially the Epistle of St. Clement to the Church at Corinth, written around 96 AD. In it, Pope Clement I defends the authority and prerogatives of a group of "elder (religious)s" or "bishops" in the Corinthian Church which had, apparently, been deposed and replaced by the congregation on its own initiative. In this context, Clement explicitly states that the apostles both appointed bishops as successors and had directed that these bishops should in turn appoint their own successors; given this, such leaders of the Church were not to be removed without cause and not in this way. Further, proponents of the necessity of the personal apostolic succession of bishops within the Church point to the universal practice of the undivided early Church (up to 431 AD), from which, as organizations, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox (at that point in time one Church until 1054, see Great Schism), as well Oriental Orthodox and the Assyrian Churches have all directly descended.

At the same time, no defender of the personal apostolic succession of bishops would deny the importance of doctrinal continuity in the Church. As stated above, Irenaeus explicitly ties the two together.

Latter-day Saints (Mormons)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also sometimes referred to as Mormons or LDS) has a similar, but unique position. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus Christ directs his church at all times through Revelation#Latter Day Saint concept of Revelation in response to prayer. However, individuals are entitled to revelation only for that Calling (Mormonism) over which they have authority. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that everyone is entitled to revelation concerning themselves; a head of household is entitled to revelation for his or her family; a bishop has the authority to receive revelation concerning the congregation over which he presides (a Ward (Mormonism)). Only ordained apostles have the authority from the Lord to receive revelation for doctrine for the entire church. An example of what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints calls church-wide apostolic revelation can be found in Template:Sourcetext where Peter had prayed and received revelation from God that the gospel could now go forward to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. [6] Hence, the scripture where Christ says "upon this rock I will build my church" is interpreted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a reference to revelation:

"When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that when Christ asked his disciples who they think he is, Peter had the right answer because he prayed and received revelation: "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven." They believe that when Christ said "upon this rock I will build my church", the rock of which he was speaking was revelation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that certain aspects of the church will change over time. For example, at one time Christ said not to preach to the Gentiles, and later Peter was given a revelation when it was time to start.[7] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that the need for constant ongoing revelation is critical to conduct the affairs of the church.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Christ chose apostles and gave them the authority to receive revelation for the church by the laying on of hands. It further teaches that the apostles passed this authority onto others by choosing and ordaining new apostles by the laying on of hands (such as Paul and Matthias). Those individuals then had the appropriate authority to receive revelation for and officiate over the church in that office at that time:

"And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that an apostasy occurred, where the apostolic authority was taken from the earth at some time after the original apostles. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refers to the resultant loss of revelation and falling away from the teachings of Jesus Christ as the Great Apostasy#The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that this was predicted when Amos said that there would be a "famine of hearing the words of the Lord" in Template:Sourcetext, and by Paul when he was talking about the second coming "that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first" in Template:Sourcetext.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains that the authority from God needed to be restored to the earth, which took place when God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ, First Vision to Joseph Smith, Jr. near Palmyra, New York in 1820 and called Joseph as a prophet to restore Christ's church to the earth with correct doctrines and practices. [This has caused a major furor among all other mainstream church denominations who do not accept "latter day revelations" as authoritative.]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that near the time that Joseph formally organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, the apostles Peter, James and John appeared to Joseph, laid their hands on Joseph and restored to him the apostolic authority to govern the church.[8], and that Joseph was visited by other heavenly messengers at different times, each one conferring upon him the particular authority or keys for which they had stewardship. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains that John the Baptist restored the Aaronic Priesthood, Peter James and John restored the Melchizedek priesthood (Mormonism), with other heavenly messengers such as Moses and Elijah restoring the keys to the gathering of Israel and the sealing power of Elijah. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Joseph was given the authority like the apostles of old, to confer to others specific priesthood authority by the laying on of hands. It further believes that all of the various keys of this authority have been and are passed on to worthy, male members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints according to their particular offices. In this way, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims that apostolic authority was restored to the earth through the original twelve apostles and apostolic succession continues today through the ordination of new apostles as the older apostles pass away.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses teach that apostolic succession is an erroneous doctrine. They base this teaching on several lines of reasoning. Four of which are:

1. Peter was not the "rock" the 'church' was built on.[9]
2. There is no evidence Peter was in Rome.[10]
3. The claimed line of successors from Peter to the Pope is questionable.[11]
4. They contrast the replacement of Judas Iscariot and the death of the apostle James. The account names Matthias as successor to Judas. Acts does not mention any successor being named for the faithful apostle James.[12]

Episcopi vagantes

Episcopi vagantes (Episcopus vagans, singular) (Latin for "wandering bishops") are persons who have been consecrated as bishops in a Christian church in some irregular fashion, especially those claiming to have valid Roman Catholic orders although their consecrations were not authorized by the Roman Catholic Church, or those having orders that the Catholic Church considers valid although the bishop in question is not a member of the Catholic Church or any other communion. The Catholic Church generally considers at least some such consecrations valid but illicit, following the principle of "once a bishop, always a bishop." The Catholic Church distinguishes jurisdiction (the power to govern lawfully) from sacramental power (the power to sanctify, consecrate, and ordain validly). Episcopi vagantes have the latter sacramental power if they have been validly consecrated, even outside the Roman Catholic Church.

Eastern Orthodoxy follows another view, considering any consecration outside of the church as a whole as spurious. This is because, unlike for Roman Catholics, Orthodoxy traditionally has considered apostolic succession to exist only within the church as a whole, and not through any authority held by individual bishops. However, the normative view of the Roman Catholic Church and the disagreements on "validity" by some Orthodox patriarchs, bishops, and theologians, allows for the curious phenomeon of episcopi vagantes among Orthodox as well.

Many episcopi vagantes claim succession from the Old Catholic See of Utrecht, or from Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, or Eastern Catholic Churches; a few others from Roman Catholic bishops that have consecrated their own bishops after disputes with the Vatican.

Many, if not most, bishops so labelled are associated with Independent Catholic Churches. These bishops may be very liberal or very conservative, including a large number of gay and lesbian clerics. Episcopi vagantes include a significant number of conservative "Continuing Anglicans," who have broken with the Anglican Communion over various issues such as Prayer Book revision, ordination of women, and sexual orientation differences.

According to the normative position of Roman Catholicism, the consecration of a bishop is valid, even if outside the forms and norms of the church, so long as the bishop is in an indisputable line of succession of bishops dating back to the Apostles and the rites of consecration are properly performed (see Apostolic succession). That is why Roman Catholics maintain that they recognize the validity of consecrations in Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Old Catholic, and the Assyrian Churches but do not recognize Anglican consecrations.

A small minority of Roman Catholic theologians doubt the validity of ordinations of bishops or priests not for the service of a Christian community, but for the individual's isolated personal advantage. This view is not supported by Rome and Rome's decrees. Nor is it rejected.

Some people have claimed consecration as bishop in situations where it is questionable whether the consecration ever actually took place, which is a separate issue.

The term episcopi vagantes is usually seen as a pejorative term by members and clergy of Independent Catholic, Old Catholic, Continuing Anglican and similar sects.

Sources and external links


  1. Apostolicity - Catholic Encyclopedia article
  2. (Matthew 16:18)
  3. (Matthew 28:20)
  4. Doctrinal Commentary by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger accompanying Ad Tuendam Fidem, a Motu Proprio statement of Pope John Paul II, 18 May 1998
  5. Gospel of Matthew 18:18 and Acts of the Apostles Chapter 15, for example
  6. Although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is at times compared to the Gnostics, who felt free to modify existing scriptures, this restriction greatly limits how existing doctrine can be modified. In general, a doctrinal change must be proposed by the President / Prophet, approved by the General Authorities, and sustained by the general body of the church before becoming official doctrine.
  7. Template:Sourcetext
  8. Template:Sourcetext
  9. Reasoning From the Scriptures pp 37-44
  10. ibid
  11. ibid
  12. (Acts 12:2; Insight on the Scriptures pg. 129 Vol. I)