Anointed Men or Special Places? Some Thoughts on Apostolic Succession

An early representation of Apostles "holding" the Church

An early representation of Apostles “holding” the Church

In my last post I outlined the development of the concept of Apostolic Succession in early church times. Here are some of my thoughts and reflections.

The New Testament is the work of the first generation of Christians. They easily deferred to the Apostles appointed by Jesus Himself, or to others of trusted and proven calling, like Paul and those whom he appointed. Issues of succession logically come to the fore with the second generation and those following.

Most scholars have no problem accepting that the Apostle Peter commissioned James, the Lord’s brother, to be in charge of the church at Jerusalem, while his own focus shifted to Rome. John, meanwhile, was influential in Asia Minor. This led to tensions even in the first generation: “I follow Paul”, “I follow Peter” (1 Corinthians 3:4). But greater tensions were to come when Constantinople and Rome operated independently as the East and West of the Empire. Roman Catholic scholars tend to regard this as a lamentable departure from what Jesus intended. Another way to view it is as a logical and eminently practical extension, pointing towards geographically autonomous apostolic circuits with their own senior and junior apostles, appointing their own ministers.

Apostolic leaders from Nigeria and UK at a recent conference

Apostolic leaders from Nigeria and UK at a recent conference

While many Protestant scholars see succession as only in the ministry of the word, the principle of apostolic succession marries the word to the witness. It carries the extra stamp of anointed humanity in the person of a duly commissioned man. There are two extremes to avoid here, as later church history has shown: at one end the placing of God’s word on so high a pedestal that human vessels count for nothing, and at the other the “anointed vessel” whose life might not match the claim.

Historically, the crunch came when Gnosticism in its various forms championed a free and speculative interpretation of God’s word. For a time, referral to a recognised apostolic man was sufficient for “the sure word as taught” to be established (Titus 1:9), but with the passing years, this no longer sufficed. It became necessary to have fixed points for the testimony of truth, and these were found in the so-called apostolic sees, that is, in those places where the apostles had been active.

The focus moved from the truly apostolic (anointed, commissioned men known to the churches and trusted by them) to places and systems. These became the schools of training. Local churches no longer had a relationship with a trusted apostle. The apostolic place now commissioned its senior bishops, increasingly with a trouble-shooting role.

The fact that, in Roman Catholic and Orthodox denominations, apostolic succession based on the supposed sanctity of particular places has continued to this day, has something to say to us. The church hasn’t died! This shows either a disturbing ignorance or an amazing trust on the part of rank-and-file church members, who are content to receive whoever is sent to them as being God’s choice for them, just because “that’s how it’s done”. And indeed, it works – at least for maintenance, if not for mission or movement.

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

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