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The Apostolic and the Post-Apostolic

In conversation with Yves Congar’s Tradition and Traditions, John Webster makes the observation that one can describe the Nouvelle Théologie movement as a sort of theological mood or style that is premised on the claim that the distinction between the apostolic and the post-apostolic ought not to be pressed.

In other words, according this theological style, we should not assume much, if any disjunction between the patristic reception of the apostolic witness and the apostolic witness itself.

Now there may be merit to such a view, but of course it implies a very specific sort of theological historiography that is, in principle quite open to question, especially in light of the radical conflict over interpretation of the gospel that is present in the New Testament itself.

However, the question for all of us interested in theological history and the search for a responsible theological method for studying doctrine and the church historically is intimately connected with this issue. What is the nature of the apostolic witness and what is its connection to its ongoing ecclesial reception? How one answers that question will likely be determinative of how one approaches a whole host of ecclesiological and ecumenical issues.


  1. bobby grow wrote:

    Very simply, I see the ‘Apostolic’ witness, as deposited in the New Testament as distinct and authoritative (given their dominical commission and relative to their writings ‘inspired’ status cf. II Tim. 3:16; II Pet. 16; etc) from any of the post-Apostolic ‘Fathers’ (whether their name is Augustine or not). Certainly the ‘Apostolic’ witness is organic and fluid as it bears witness, by the Spirit, to the living ‘head’ who continually gives the life of His body, the Church, concrete and visible expression (cf. “. . . as He is, so also are we in this world . . .” I Jn 4:17). I think the ‘Apostolic witness’ as deposited in scripture is best viewed as the ‘norming norm’ and ‘canon’ by which all other ‘witness’ or tradition is measured.

    Certainly one’s ecclesiology will give shape to how he/she answers your question.

    Monday, October 6, 2008 at 3:03 am | Permalink
  2. Mike Bull wrote:

    An orthodox preterist viewpoint sees the period between AD30 and 70 as a wilderness testing leading up to the destruction of Herod’s Temple as Jericho (the first conquest). The writer of Hebrews warned the Jews in the latter part of this period not to die in the wilderness as their ancestors did.

    So there would be continuity between the apostles and the church fathers, but it would be a continuity that passes through the death and resurrection of the Jordan. The fathers lived in a new world empire, the oikumene which was to come (Heb 2:5). Revelation pictures the saints as ‘kings from the sunrise’ crossing the great river into the promised land, like Abraham, and like Darius conquering ‘Babylon.’

    Christ ascended as the head of the sacrifice (Enoch/Elijah – firstfruits) and the martyrs from both Old and New Covenants received the kingdom as the body (Noah/the 7000 remnant – booths) after the birth pangs of the tribulation.

    The New Testament canon, I believe, was completed before the Old Covenant was ‘rolled up like a scroll.’ The preaching of the apostles, and especially of John himself, as a Deuteronomic ‘seven thunders’ brought about this end. Jesus hinted that John would remain till his parousia.

    I think much confusion arises from applying the epistles (and Revelation) without first interpreting them in this context.

    Monday, October 6, 2008 at 3:44 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    The advantage to this “theological historiography” is that it is consonant with scholarly approaches to history generally, as well as common sense. That is certainly not the end of the issue nor is it an unquestioned approval of it, but the other prominent approach to the question, espoused perhaps representatively by evangelicals, requires an almost arbitrary privileging of the NT canon as descriptive of the early church at the exclusion of every other possible datum. It seems fairly clear to me that there is no theological basis to this other than to support a certain kind of sola scriptura, which in fact just begs the question.

    Monday, October 6, 2008 at 8:13 am | Permalink
  4. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    If the apostolic witness is “privileged” at all it is precisely on the basis of post-apostolic reflection on the matter. I doubt the post-apostolic church would be very happy about their reception in the tradition, especially by some strands of the reformation and by some ardent Thomists.

    Monday, October 6, 2008 at 8:28 am | Permalink

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