How has the faith been kept true down through the millenia? With persecutions without and heresies within, how can we know the faith we have received is the faith Jesus taught?
That’s the question our Church History class is tackling this week, and the answer we’ve been given is in three parts: “Canon, Rule of Faith, and Apostolic Succession”. To translate into everyday English: (a) the Bible, containing only God-inspired writings; (b) the creed(s), which all believers can agree on; and (c) the passing-down of the faith teachings from apostles to bishops to elders/pastors down through the ages.
I’m not sure I buy it.
I’ll give ’em (a) and (b). I think there’s enough historical evidence that the early church made inspired choices in choosing the books of the New Testament. (The Old Testament was already in place via the Jewish faith.) And the creeds are the one thing that truly define the faith for all believers, no matter the denomination or affiliation.
But I see a real problem with Apostolic Succession. A little historical background:
The apostolic succession argument was used successfully against the Gnostic heresies of the first couple centuries AD, and rightfully so: the bishops (pastors) at the time were only a few generations away from the original apostles. They knew, if not first-hand, then second or third-hand, exactly what the apostles had taught. In some cases they were the ones who wrote down the teachings. (The timeline is roughly this: Sts. Peter and Paul both died around AD65, so there were still many people alive by AD100 who had known them personally. The Gnostic heresies broke out around AD80.)
So for the early bishop/pastors to say “this is the faith I received from the apostles” or “this is the faith my teacher received from the apostles” or even “this is the faith my teacher’s teacher received from the apostles…” — that was a pretty powerful claim to authenticity.
Here’s the problem: the purpose of apostolic succession is to refute heresies, to guarantee the purity of the faith being passed on to the next generation. Today, 2000 years later, apostolic succession is used to confer clerical authority, too often without regard to the state of the inductee’s faith. And so we have bishops and clergy in different parts of the world who deny the Trinity, don’t believe in the God of the patriarchs, make public prayers to Sophia, and so on.
I believe such an apostolic succession is utterly counterfeit. It disregards both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and it makes a mockery of the church tradition it claims to uphold. I believe true apostolic succession is — and must be — spiritual, not physical. IF an ordained person truly loves and obeys Jesus, and acknowledges the scriptures and creeds as true, then he or she is legitimately a part of the succession. If not, then they have removed themselves from the succession by their denial of the faith.
The true faith has been passed down through the ages, that’s certain; but so often it has been in spite of organized religion rather than because of it. The true faith has been passed down from person to person, not so much in the laying on of hands in a cathedral as in the sharing of lives in homes and neighborhoods and in the marketplace.
So if I ever end up getting ordained (still a big if) the “official” apostolic succession will be: bishop —> me. But you and I will know the true succession is already happening, and it looks like this: my pastor’s pastor “Vic” —> my pastor —> me —> my choir and Bible study groups (this succession lives on!)