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:
- 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.
- It was political expediency, invented by corrupt leaders to establish power and control.
- 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.
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.
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:
Perseverance in the apostles’ teaching
Commitment to preaching and the proclamation of the gospel
Right celebration of the sacraments, principally baptism and communion
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.
In the early 18th century, a revival took place in middle Europe that has received little attention. It had something most unusual about it: it was a revival among the children.
Lutherans were being increasingly marginalised by the Roman Catholic authorities in Silesia, (the borderlands of Poland and Czech today), but the schoolchildren would not accept this. Some time in 1707, the children of Sprottau (today Szprotawa) started to meet in the field outside the town, two or three times a day, to pray for peace in the land and for freedom of religion. They would read some Psalms, sing hymns and pray, some of them lying prostrate, and close with a blessing.
The movement spread through the mountain villages of Upper Silesia and into the towns. Not all adults were happy about this, fearing the consequences; some tried locking their children in the house, but they would climb out of the windows! In some villages, Roman Catholic children joined the Lutheran children to pray.
Some adults were drawn to the move of God. They would form a circle around the praying children. In some places, the combined number might reach 300 souls. Magistrates brought pressure to bear to disperse these meetings. One bailiff came with a whip, but when he heard the prayers, he could not use it.
Out of this “children’s revival” grew a movement of renewal that touched the area. In time, it found its centre in the Lutheran Jesuskirche church in Teschen (now Cieszyn), which opened in 1750. Here, so many attended services that hundreds had to stand outside the building. Sunday services began at 8 a.m. and continued through the day, in several languages. In turn, the Teschen church provided some of the original members of Count Zinzendorf’s community and fellowship at Herrnhut, known in the English-speaking world as the Moravians.
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.”
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.’