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Apostolic Succession or Theological Continuity?

In a post I wrote a while back on the New Monasticism, I had a lengthy discussion with a Roman Catholic interlocutor that eventually became largely about the issue of apostolic succession and how that relates to the differences in protestant and Catholic ecclesiologies.  In the course of that discussion here was one of the comments that he made:

I was listening to some Catholic talk-radio thing one time, and a guy who said he was a Neo-pagan called in to excoriate the host for what “Catholics did to my community in the Middle Ages.” By “his community”, he meant European folk-spiritualists who had been persecuted. I thought to myself, “In what way is this modern day man a ‘member’ of that ‘community’? If by reading some books he comes to hold 100% of the same opinions as did they, does that make him a ‘member’?”

Is the ‘Church’ a collection of teachings? Or a continuous collection of people? Or a continuous collection of people who hold to certain teachings?

I think this question is excellent.  I was hard pressed to answer it at the time, and I think I am now even harder-pressed to answer it.  The crux of the issue seems to come down to the following issue: does the existence of the church derrive from a continuity of doctrinal belief with the ancient church or does it depend on more than that?  Is it enough for us to simply believe what we think that the apostolic church believed, or must we have some sort of organic and historical connection to the apostolic church through some sort of tangible succession? 

I am curious to hear what protestants might say in response to this question.  Can we just “become” a church when we read the Bible and decide we believe what we think the early church believed?  The constant cropping up of “emerging churches” populated largely by evangelicals who are disenchanted with their experience of denominations and/or independent Bible churches seem to be a clear example of this kind of thinking.  They insist that the are going to be “ancient-future” Christians who are a continuation of the apostolic church even though they’re generally just a bunch of twenty and thiry-somethings who get together and decide that their ideas about what church should be are the best.  How is that different from the neo-pagan in the comment above?  Or does it matter?  Is the reality of the church merely something that exists wherever certain things are believed?  I can’t help but conclude that such an ecclesiology is very vaccuous and I’m not sure I see a truly viable protestant alternative to such an ecclesiological deficit.  So I suppose the real question is whether or not it is posible to have an ecclesiology that is at once protestant and “high”.   And on that point I’m at a loss as to a fully satisfying explanation.


  1. Can we just “become” a church when we read the Bible and decide we believe what we think the early church believed?

    I don’t see why we have to subscribe to what we think the early church believed. In fact, I’d consider it deeply suspicious if the church didn’t evolve with the increasing understanding of the reality in which we lived. God is not done revealing Himself to us, even if we are in the post-Messianic era.

    Certainly, if you move too far away from an existing theology, you’re going to hit a point where other communities of faith don’t recognize you as being one of their brethren. And it takes a much less minor difference for you to have an irreconcilable split, even with those who seem so similar in action.

    But as long as people are striving to love each other, their enemies, and God as revealed by Jesus, then they’re a Christian church. As far as I’m concerned, we can save the intellectual debates and infighting until we’ve got everyone at least that far.

    Friday, September 14, 2007 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  2. And the problem with the Neo-Pagan is that modern Neo-Paganism has zero to do with the European folk spirituality. Protestants at least subscribe to the same holy text and most of (all of, by some counts) the dogmas of the early Christian church. Neo-Pagan Goddess-worship is an ananchronistic projection of a belief structure onto superstitious practices.

    Friday, September 14, 2007 at 7:10 pm | Permalink
  3. Of course it’s not enough to say ‘we think what they thought,’ since the church of Christ is not constituted by people thinking certain things. The church of Christ is constituted by the Spirit. We are reconstituted pneumatologically at baptism, dying to ourselves and being reborn in Christ, as members of Christ, one with our fellow congregants and with those members of Christ from every age. We are truly one church with all the faithful not because we’ve got the right arrangement of thoughts or even because we were baptized by somebody whose genealogy purports to reach back to the apostles, but because the Spirit has made us so.

    We can, however, choke the seeds that have been planted in us, or distort the good work that has been begun in us. That is, Christians can lose their faith and break the unity given them by the Spirit. No church is unthreatened by apostasy, not even–some early reformers thought–that church which claims apostolic succession. If such a church has ceased to be faithful to Christ, not just getting ideas wrong but actually allying herself with darkness, no genealogy will save her from having broken unity with the faithful church of every age. Those who hear the good news and believe it, who give their lives to the one who has been raised, whether by hearing it preached or by reading of it in the Scriptures–these too can truly be made one with the apostolic church by the Spirit’s power.

    That’s all said rather too confidently, but take it as a somewhat desperate suggestion from one who deeply feels the force of this question. This is part of a last ditch effort on my part to make sense of how one could respond to the depth of the Catholic and Orthodox accusation of self-invention, which if true is ecclesiologically devastating. I do think pneumatological communion needs to be given priority in this question, but of course apostolic succession at its best is understood pneumatologically (Zizioulas being the best example here). On the other hand, I think Yoder makes a fairly powerful case against foreclosing the possibility of apostasy.

    Friday, September 14, 2007 at 10:49 pm | Permalink
  4. Bobby Grow wrote:

    This is an excellent point and question. I think it is a both/and. We are a people who commune around teaching that witnesses to the living dynamic Lord of the universe. Clearly Christianity is not a monolith, except in essentials, so other than agreement on whom Jeus was/is—I don’t see why it is necessary to hold to the idea that we must affirm a particular ecclesiological polity and gvt. in order to find continuity with the past, when in fact the dynamic that ultimately provides continuity is supra-temporal (but not atemporal) in Christ. I suppose it depends on which way one is looking at this: bottom-up or top-down.

    Saturday, September 15, 2007 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  5. WTM wrote:

    No one would mistake me for a proponent of any of the ‘young evangelical’ moods that seem to be garnering attention these days (such as those you mention toward the end of your post). But, that does not mean that we need a historical ‘succession’ as reified as that of the Roman and Orthodox churches. One might well have succession without having apostolic succession in the usually understood sense.

    Saturday, September 15, 2007 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  6. Ron Short wrote:

    I’ve just began exploring ecclesiology outside the evangelical context. I love Simon Chan’s book, Liturgical Theology, especially the first chapter. I’d love to hear your thoughts on his ecclesiology.

    Saturday, September 15, 2007 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Travis, I don’t disagree with you on that. In fact that is the thrust of my question. How can protestants fill out the theological content of their understand of succession? Any ideas toward that end? My point was that the Roman and Orthodox churches have a well developed theology of succession. Whether or not theirs correct is another issue, my point is they have one. Protestants as a whole do not generally articulate a well developed theology of succession beyond simply claiming to hold to what the apostles taught (‘we believe what they believed, therefore we’re part of them’). I’m curious what sort of more substantial theology of succession we might produce as protestants.

    Ron, I also love Chan’s book. In fact he commented on my blog a while back on this post.

    Saturday, September 15, 2007 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  8. WTM wrote:

    Historical succession seems to me to be less of a question than a given. If a Christian person exists, one must assume a historical continuity. Other than that, I tie apostolicity to Scripture in the usual Reformed fashion.

    Saturday, September 15, 2007 at 6:06 pm | Permalink
  9. Jon wrote:

    I’m of the opinion that Christian catholicity is bound in the “Word and Sacrament”, where the Sacraments are administered and the Gospel rightly preached.

    We are sacramentally bound, organically, into the Church through our Baptism, and the visible and continued expression of our catholicity and our koinonia is the Eucharistic Supper.

    It seems that the intent of Apostolic Succession was originally to demonstrate an organic link in both the faith and praxis of the Church to her apostolic roots; it eventually was extended to the sacramental administration–only a person with valid apostolic orders may administer the Eucharist. I think even here the visibility of the Church Catholic is stressed upon the Eucharist.

    Rome does not believe Protestants have a valid Eucharist because Protestants do not have valid apostolic orders, and it is the Eucharist that continually binds us together in catholic unity as the Church, as the very Mystical Body of Christ.

    Thus I think the essential question is what makes a valid Eucharist valid? Is it proper sacerdotal authority via apostolic succession? Is it the words of institution? Is it having the right opinion on the nature of the Eucharist? Is it something else?

    If we have valid Sacraments, then we have valid sacramental union, and thus communion with Christ’s one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

    Saturday, September 15, 2007 at 7:48 pm | Permalink
  10. Ben wrote:

    Jon– Rome does not hold the Protestants to have a real Eucharist because the Protestants (largely) don’t hold themselves to have a real Eucharist. In other words, they have broken with the faith of the apostles, and so cannot have valid apostolic succession. On the other hand, a group which held to the reality of the Eucharist and yet were strangers to apostolic succession would also have an invalid Eucharist. It’s not either/or, but both/and: To be apostolic is to come from the apostles AND to teach what they taught. Body and Soul. This is why the Catholic Church holds the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox (as well as the Church of the East, to have a valid Eucharist, and why there was much questioning back-and-forth as to the validity of Anglican orders (What was the teaching of the Anglicans? Who were the normative representatives of that teaching? Etc.)

    I have come to see apostolic succession in terms analogous to the promise made to Abraham– what was genetic according to the flesh is now genetic according to new birth in the spirit: baptism and confirmation.

    This has to be balanced against Christ’s words: “Those who are not against us are with us,” (Mk 9:40, Lk 9:50)–though I think it should be stressed that the man who he was talking about isn’t the main story, not the primary mode of Christian discipleship stressed in the Gospels, but rather an allowance made to the freedom of the Spirit– for this reason does the Catholic Church hold even Protestant baptisms to be valid.

    I’m glad you’ve brought this topic up again, Holden, as a Catholic I have always been stumped by Protestant ecclesiology. Perhaps I am simply unexperienced, but anytime I read Protestant ecclesiology I can agree with, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the reality on the ground, as preached or as lived by the Protestant groups.

    A final question for Protestants: Can one baptise ones self? Why or why not?

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  11. Ben wrote:

    Real quick: In my first paragraph I spoke of the reality of the Eucharist, for “real” replace with “valid according to the teachings of the Catholic Church.” I realize that makes the argument somewhat circular, but that was the point. I just want to clarify so that some don’t get upset. Ok. Sorry.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 11:27 am | Permalink

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