Archive | July 2018

The Prophet as Both Lion and Lamb: the Example of Menno Simons

LionLamb
Menno Simons (1496-1561) was so significant a figure in Anabaptism in the Low Countries that the movement could be divided into three phases: “before Menno”, “under Menno” and “after Menno”. His travels in the church’s service took him from the Rhineland across the Baltic lands to Danzig (Gdansk) in Poland, always in danger, with a price on his head – and accompanied by his wife and children! Records show that he won followers wherever he went – some of whom died as martyrs, refusing to renounce the truths he had taught them. In the judgement of the Mennonite Encyclopaedia:

“Menno’s significance lies in the fact that he prevented the collapse of the northern wing of the Anabaptist movement in the days of its greatest trial and built it up on the right Biblical foundation. He did this as its leader, speaker, and defender, through his preaching as he journeyed from place to place, and through his simple and searching writings. Particularly the Foundation-Book did much to restore the original Anabaptist concepts and principles, which were in grave danger of being lost.

“His writings were effective not so much because of their superior and logical qualities as a theological system, but because behind them stood a man formed according to the Scriptures who sincerely and honestly wanted to give all for the Christian church and the glory of God. Through Menno’s courageous and devoted life a distinctive witness in the Reformation movement, representing a Christian brotherhood and a Christian way of life, was preserved.”

He knew full well that he could be arrested at any moment. He also knew the crucial importance of unity among the scattered groups of Anabaptists who claimed allegiance to him. He had to mediate and be diplomatic, yet set a tone that others could follow. He called leaders’ conferences, he encouraged debate, he urged brotherly grace. This has led to Menno being treated in the history books as a moderate among the Radical Reformers. Given the tight line he had to keep, this would hardly be surprising. Many of his writings restate the root principles and doctrines of Anabaptism and plead for wholesale acceptance of them.

Menno's grave at Bad Oldesloe, Germany

Menno’s grave at Bad Oldesloe, Germany

Thus far we have the lamb-like side of a true prophet of God – a nature drawn from Jesus the Lamb himself. But what of the lion? A prophet is more than a skilled counsellor and pastoral guide. There is the cut of the two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12) to prophetic ministry, again drawn from Jesus (Revelation 19:15).

Certainly, Menno was no lamb! One of his writings can serve as our example: ‘The Reason Why Menno Simons Does Not Cease Teaching And Writing’, written in the 1540s, is outspokenly hard-line in its exposure of sin, its naming of idols, and its call to repentance and a holy life.

“When I look to find a magistrate who fears God, rightly performs his office and uses his authority properly, I find, as a general rule, nothing but a wine-sodden Lucifer. Again, when I look to find true pastors and teachers, such as are sent of God, quickened by the Holy Spirit; who sincerely seek the salvation of their brethren; who are not earthly-minded, but preach the saving word of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, in purity of heart, and who are blameless in their doctrine and life – I find instead nothing but robbers of the glory of God, and murderers of souls; deceivers, blind watchmen, mute dogs, masters of sects who are carnally, earthly and devilishly minded; enemies of the cross; serving their bellies instead of serving God; false prophets, idolaters, vain talkers, liars, and tricksters.

“If any person does not believe my words, let him prove their walk by the word of the Lord; let him compare their doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life with the doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life of Christ, and even common sense will teach you who has really sent them, and what fruits their teachings bear!”

Menno would not be the first apostolic radical to be accused of being kindly when present and tough when writing from afar – St Paul had the same thing levelled at him [2 Corinthians 10:1]. Perhaps the underlying principle here is to show grace and understanding to open hearts, while slicing into falsehood and self-centredness in backslidden or blind hearts, with a view to winning them. We see Jesus Christ Himself doing this, so we may safely conclude that this is the heart of the true radical. And yes, where necessary, it is obnoxious!

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A Very Human Reformer: Martin Luther Struggled With Depression and Nightmares

 

Image: Teologia Hoy

On 31st October 1517, exactly 500 years ago, the German priest Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his 95 ‘Theses’ (subjects for debate) to the door of his church in Wittenberg – the church door in those days doubling up as a community notice board. Luther is rightly remembered as a champion of church reform, who translated the Bible into German, wrote vernacular hymns, and freed the glorious truth of justification by faith from the overburden of empty tradition.

Luther could also be touchy, aggressive and opinionated, but what is less well known is that doubt and fear of death played a major part in Luther’s psyche throughout his life. He knew phases of dark depression. Particularly in later life, with all his triumphs behind him, he experienced seasons of terror that God had utterly forgotten him and abandoned him to hell. His prayers and cries were met only with silence. He felt alone in the universe. For more detail, read this post by Chris Anderson.

At one point, the crushing doubt about his calling led him to such a deep pit of gloom that he wrote, “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.’” He had nightmares, sweats and heart palpitations.

It is a peculiar – but very human – mixture: on the one hand, penning books and hymns in praise of God’s glorious gift of freedom in Jesus Christ, but on the other suffering haunting reproach, guilt, condemnation and cosmic fear.

Richard Marius, in his study of Luther, offers a very telling image: ” For Luther, Christ was like a campfire projecting a circle of light against the vast dark of earthly life. Whenever the darkness threatened to encroach upon that illuminated ground, Luther flung more of his volatile ink onto the fire, causing it to flame up again in his own heart, and keeping the darkness at bay.”

Portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

So Luther the great champion of doctrinal reform becomes Luther the troubled human being, one of us, someone we can relate to when we hit the rocks of life or hang on cliffs of horrible despair. If he found a way through, then we can surely learn from it and find hope.

The answer that Luther found was to allow tribulation to drive him to prayer and Scripture and above all, to God’s promises. ‘God has need of this: that we consider him faithful in his promises [Heb. 10:23], and patiently persist in this belief.’ [The Babylonian Captivity of the Church]  Luther concluded that God uses the assaults of doubt to strip us of self-assurance. In other words, we are unable to wholly grasp the promise of God and our salvation, which saves us from the danger of placing our confidence in ourselves and our own understanding.

In this life, God does not lift the Christian out of human nature, nor does he reveal himself beyond any shadow of doubt. Even to discover God’s saving grace does not necessarily mean escaping spiritual conflict and ‘desert’ experiences. Rowland Croucher writes: ‘As odd as it seems, doubt serves to protect us from ourselves. When we can’t trust our capacity for faith, we have to go back to trusting God and only God. Doubt serves another purpose in the life of faith. If we’re willing to put the energy and effort into the struggle, rather than just walk away, it can serve to keep us engaged with God.’

How Did the Early Methodists Handle Leadership Succession?

John-Wesley

Leadership succession in early Methodism was marked with a certain theological ambiguity, which stemmed from its founding father, John Wesley. Throughout his long life, he liked to consider himself a true son of the Anglican church, not the leader of a sect. As a true churchman, he believed there was divine merit in an apostolic succession, as it conveyed the historic commission of Jesus to Peter.

Wesley felt keenly the criticism that, in founding Methodism, he had stepped outside the Anglican branch of apostolic succession. He was also well aware that, having been only an Anglican priest and not a bishop, he could not himself ordain anyone to a higher office than that – but would need to in order to cover Methodism’s spread in two continents.

So it was that, against the advice of some of his inner circle, Wesley contacted Erasmus (Gerasimos), Orthodox bishop of Arcadia in Crete, now living in exile in Amsterdam. Wesley had Erasmus’s credentials checked with the Metropolitan (Archbishop) of Smyrna and was satisfied. So, on a visit to London in 1763, Erasmus consecrated Wesley a ‘bishop of the Christian Church’ and ordained several Methodist preachers as priests.

Wesley could not make known his episcopal consecration because of strict laws in England (statutes of Praemunire) forbidding any activity seen to promote foreign powers – in this case, the Pope. But it gave him the authority that he felt he needed for proper ordination in a recognised succession. It was on that basis that he consecrated Thomas Coke to be bishop of the Methodists in America.

At home, Wesley determined to appoint John Fletcher as his successor.  Swiss by birth, Fletcher was an Anglican priest but became an ardent Methodist. From 1757 onwards, when Fletcher was 28, he became Wesley’s coadjutor. Wesley wrote in his journal: “Mr. Fletcher helped me again. How wonderful are the ways of God! When my bodily strength failed, He sent me help from the mountains of Switzerland; and a help meet for me in every respect: where could I have found such another?” Fletcher quickly became the most influential person in Methodism next to John and Charles Wesley.

John Fletcher of Madeley

John Fletcher of Madeley

Fletcher’s numerous writings clarified and synthesized Wesley’s developing ideas. Wesley said they frequently consulted one another on the most important issues and that their friendship was sealed with mutual loyalty. Wesley further said: “We were of one heart and one soul. We had no secrets between us for many years; we did not purposely hide anything from each other.” Wesley spoke of “the strongest ties” between them and wrote of Fletcher: One equal to him I have not known—one so inwardly and outwardly devoted to God. So blameless a character in every respect I have not found either in Europe or America; nor do I expect to find another this side of eternity.

In 1773, Wesley invited Fletcher to become his successor. He told him that he was the only person qualified to serve as his sole replacement, noting his popularity with the preachers and his “clear understanding…of the Methodist doctrine and discipline.” Fletcher did not think it was the proper time to take on this responsibility. He believed his continuing task was to write as an interpreter of Wesley’s theology. In 1776, Wesley repeated the invitation, adding: “Should we not discern the providential time?”

Again, Fletcher declined. He knew that he was in failing health. So Wesley decided on a different path of action. At the Methodist Conference of 1784 (Fletcher’s last before he died aged 55), Wesley announced that, for the British Isles at least, he would nominate 100 preachers to serve jointly as his successors. For America, being free of laws of Praemunire meant Thomas Coke could act appointed the great circuit rider, Francis Asbury, to succeed him as the head of transatlantic Methodism.

Thomas Coke ordains Francis Asbury as bishop of the American Methodists

Thomas Coke ordains Francis Asbury as bishop of the American Methodists in 1784

It is perhaps noteworthy that the handing on of the bible that Wesley used for field preaching became a traditional symbol of Methodist succession.

Early Quakers and Leadership Succession

Early Quakers with broad-brimmed hats meeting local officials

The Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as Quakers, made a big impact in Britain and America, particularly in the 17th century. Unconventional, largely working class, and given to headline-grabbing methods of spreading the gospel, they carried unusual power – which they attributed to the “inner light” of God in each member. For a good overview of Quaker faith and practice, follow this link.

When it comes to leadership succession (the subject of this series of posts), we search in vain for any succession planning among the early Quakers. There may be two main reasons for this: their accent on mission and, linked with it, the persecutions and imprisonments that they faced. Potential successors to their pioneer and founder, George Fox, might not live to see the day, nor be available for training!

The "inner light" of God's Spirit in the heart was a central tenet of Quakerism

The “inner light” of God’s Spirit in the heart was a central tenet of Quakerism

One scholar writes: ‘George Whitehead, by his age, his consistent character and eminent services, approached nearest to the position of successor to George Fox in Britain. His connection with Quakerism dated from its commencement in the north, and he was one of the “valiant sixty” sent out on mission to plant new ‘societies’ in 1654. At eighteen years of age he was the Quaker apostle of Norfolk, and through all the fiery trial of the first generation he bore his full share of labour and of suffering. His comrades succumbed to the rigours of imprisonment; but he survived to the venerable age of 87, and fulfilled 68 years of ministry. When they buried him in Bunhill Fields, in 1722-3, the Quakers lost the last link which connected them with the birth-time of their society.’

Sources vary on Fox’s successor in America, some suggesting John Woolman, others William Penn, but it is noteworthy that nowhere is a direct, appointed succession mentioned.

Quaker founder George Fox (1624-1991)

Quaker founder George Fox (1624-1691)

This would be entirely consistent with Fox’s insistence on the “inner light” – the Holy Spirit’s inspired guidance in all things. To structure and plan over much would be to overrule the Spirit by the human. Although some might say that the Society of Friends eliminated the clergy, it is more accurate to say that it eliminated the laity. Every Friend (member) was ‘a saint in Christ Jesus’ and should be a minister of religion, a prophet, a mystic, an evangelist, a church administrator – and a potential apostle.

The Quakers have continued to this day, but in a very different form and spirit from the origins. There is still no succession planning, for the same reasons as above, but a web search throws up plenty of material on “Quakers in Transition”. This is telling. Having deliberately thrown out ‘apostolic’ succession and other things of “hireling ministry” (as they called it, see John 10:12-13), and having with time lost the inspirations and the prophetic anointing of their origins, it remains to be seen how they will handle issues of leadership transition and succession.

 

“Faithful Succession”: Protestant Responses to Apostolic Succession

torch

My last post looked at the model of leadership succession that held unquestioned sway in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches for nearly 1500 years. Then came the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. Their champions re-examined many of the centuries-old traditions of the established Church and pressed for sweeping change in doctrine and practice.

What do Protestant theologians make of Apostolic Succession? There is no fixed consensus. Some conservative Anglicans believe that apostolic succession is important as a link to the first church. I once met a bishop of an independent Episcopal denomination in America who carried with him a ‘family tree’ showing his supposed succession going right back to St Peter.

Protestants who reject apostolic succession generally do so from three angles:

  1. It is a historical fallacy. Early church history is sketchy and records are incomplete. It is hard to justify a clear and undisputed timeline of leaders from the Apostles to the present day.
  2. It was political expediency, invented by corrupt leaders to establish power and control.
  3. It is irrelevant. It may have been useful in combating heresy in the first centuries, but it is not explicitly found in the Bible, so we are under no obligation to hold to it. Besides, they point out, the New Testament uses ‘bishop’, ‘presbyter’ and ‘priest’ as alternative names for the same office.

For a fuller exposition of these points and more, see this discussion and this article.

In general, Protestant denominations deny the need of maintaining episcopal continuity with the early Church, holding that the role of the apostles was to be a foundation and that a foundation is not constantly re-laid, but built upon (Eph.2:20). When the apostles died, runs the argument, they were replaced by their writings. 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 meaningful continuity.

William Booth, founding General of the Salvation Army, and his appointed successor, Bramwell Booth, c.1900

William Booth, founding General of the Salvation Army, and his appointed successor, Bramwell Booth, c.1900

There is, however, a Protestant belief in what we might call a “faithful succession” – a spiritual connection to the heart, vision and practice of the first Apostles, in four main areas:

  1. Perseverance in the apostles’ teaching

  2. Commitment to preaching and the proclamation of the gospel

  3. Right celebration of the sacraments, principally baptism and communion

  4. Commissioning others into key areas of service by prayer and the laying on of hands.

Today, Anglicans are passed over by traditional Roman Catholics as being outside the apostolic succession. Anglicans in turn question the validity of Methodist holy orders, because John Wesley stepped outside the apostolic succession to promote his movement. But whose apostolic succession are they meaning? They went out from us, but they were not of us (1 John 2:9) can be used by anyone as a convenient stick to beat others with!

Some Protestant churches, such as Anglicans / Episcopalians, Lutherans, Moravians and Methodists, maintain a version of Apostolic Succession, which they prefer to call “historic episcopate“. I hope to devote a post or two to some examples.

‘Apostolic Succession’ in the Church – How Did it Develop and What Can it Teach Us?

An artist's impression of St Paul commissioning Timothy

An artist’s impression of St Paul commissioning Timothy

For 1500 years, until the 16th century Reformation, apostolic succession in varying degrees was the unquestioned norm for ecclesiastical hierarchy, both in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Protestants tend to throw it out as yet more papist baggage. So, what are the points at issue here? There seem to be three notional stages of development in the concept of Apostolic Succession.

Continuity of teaching.  The Church as a whole was the vessel into which God’s truth is poured, and bishops were seen as the conduit for this purpose. One bishop succeeding another in the same bishopric meant that there was continuity to this truth. This position was formulated in the early 2nd century as a response to Gnostic claims of having received secret teaching from Christ or the apostles. It emphasised the public manner in which the apostles had passed on authentic teaching to those whom they entrusted with the care of the churches they founded, and that these in turn had passed it on to their successors: What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2). Ignatius of Antioch, in his “Epistle to the Smyrnaeans” writes: See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.

Continuity of function.  Bishops were also seen as successors to the apostles in that the functions they performed (preaching, governing and ordaining) were the same as the Apostles had performed. Tertullian, Irenaeus and others (late 2nd century) introduce explicitly the idea of the bishop’s succession in office as a guarantee of authenticity, since it could be traced back to the apostles. Irenaeus writes at length on this in his “Against Heretics”; for example: It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times.

‘Let them produce the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that a bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men.’           Tertullian, ‘Prescription Against Heretics’, late 2nd century.

An early representation of Apostles “holding” the Church

Continuity of grace.  Apostolic anointing and grace were held to be automatically transmitted from the Apostles by each generation of bishops through the laying on of hands. This was believed to guarantee the continuity and faithfulness of the Church. Thus, only bishops and priests ordained by bishops in the apostolic succession could validly celebrate the sacraments.

This late 4th century development suited a time when schisms (e.g. Arianism) troubled the Church, and where there were rival bishops – even rival Popes. The ‘true’ apostolic succession had to be protected. The idea comes from 2 Timothy 1:6, where the Apostle Paul laid his hands on Timothy, by which act a gift of God was planted in him. This is the most contentious aspect of apostolic succession, and there are serious problems with it. Passages like Acts 20:17 and Acts 20:28 show authority bestowed only over a local congregation – no apostolic authority is given over the church universal. And what are we to make of men who were apostolically commissioned but then backslid and deserted, like Demas? (2 Tim.4:10)

Even so, many a church today can produce impressive credentials, traced right back to the first Apostles, in support of their minister’s divine right to perform the sacraments (one example here). I conclude with a few of my  own thoughts and reflections on the subject.

Issues of succession logically come to the fore with the second generation and those following. 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. 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, and John’s to Asia Minor. This was not without its tensions, however, even in the first generation: “I follow Paul”, “I follow Peter”, “I follow Christ” (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.

A chart of the supposed apostolic succession of the bishops of Glastonbury, UK

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.

Postscript

Responding to my first posting of this piece, Paul F Pavao (via Facebook) offered some further considerations, which I gratefully reproduce here.

‘Tertullian argued that the fact that all these separate churches have preserved the same truth is part of the power of the argument because “Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues.” Prescription Against Heretics ch. 28

Today, the churches, even the Catholic and various Orthodox churches do have various issues. They have officially split over these issues. The Church of the East and the Coptic Church have been excommunicated since the fifth century. By Tertullian’s argument error has crept in.

So, when you say “this was believed to guarantee the continuity and faithfulness of the Church,” I agree that at the end of the second century, when Irenaeus and Tertullian wrote, and even into the late third century, apostolic succession had successfully guaranteed the faithfulness of the Church. Afterward, though …’

 

 

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