Apostolic Succession

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious disputes

In Christianity, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession (or the belief that the Church is 'apostolic') maintains that the Christian Church today is the spiritual successor to the original body of believers in Christ composed of the Apostles. Different Christian denominations interpret this doctrine in different ways.

In episcopal churches, the Apostolic Succession is understood to be the basis of the authority of bishops (the episcopate). In the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, Apostolic Succession is claimed as having been passed through unbroken lines of bishops beginning with the original Apostles. The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally been the most vocal in claiming unique legitimacy in terms of Apostolic Succession based on the assertion that Saint Peter, believed to be the rightful leader of the Church, was the first Bishop of Rome. Other communions such as Anglicanism and Oriental Orthodoxy claim legitimacy on a similar basis. Virtually all Christian denominations consider Apostolic Succession important in some fashion although their definitions of the concept may vary.

Apostolicity as doctrinal continuity

While many churches within the historic episcopate argue that holy orders are valid only through apostolic succession, most Protestant Churches would deny that the apostolicity of the Church rests on an unbroken episcopacy. They generally hold that one important qualification of the apostles was that they were chosen directly by Jesus and that they witnessed the resurrected Christ. According to this understanding, the work of these twelve (and the Apostle Paul), together with the prophets of the twelve tribes of Israel, provide the doctrinal foundation for the whole church of subsequent history through the Scriptures of the Bible. 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 sense in which apostolic succession is meaningful, because it is in this sense only that men have fellowship with God in the truth (an extension of the Reformation doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura). The most meaningful apostolic succession for most Protestants, then, is the faithful succession of apostolic teaching. There is, of course, much disagreement among various Protestant churches about the exact content of apostolic teaching. In addition, Protestants state that the teaching of Apostolic Succession did not arise until 170-200 A.D.

It is worth noting, however, that some Protestant charismatic churches include "apostles" among the offices that should be evident into modern times in a true church, though they never trace an historical line of succession.

Those who hold to the importance of episcopal apostolic succession would counter the above by appealing to the New Testament, which, they say, implies a personal apostolic succession (from Paul to Timothy and Titus, for example) and which states that Jesus gave the Apostles a "blank cheque" to lead the Church as they saw fit under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They appeal as well to other documents of the very early Church, especially the Epistle of St. Clement to the Church at Corinth, written around 96 AD In it, Clement defends the authority and prerogatives of a group of " elders" or " bishops" in the Corinthian Church which had, apparently, been deposed and replaced by the congregation on its own initiative. In this context, Clement explicitly states that the apostles both appointed bishops as successors and had directed that these bishops should in turn appoint their own successors; given this, such leaders of the Church were not to be removed without cause and not in this way. Further, proponents of the necessity of the personal apostolic succession of bishops within the Church point to the universal practice of the undivided early Church (up to 431 AD), from which, as organizations, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox (at that point in time one Church until 1054, see Great Schism), as well Oriental Orthodox and the Assyrian Churches have all directly descended.

At the same time, no defender of the personal apostolic succession of bishops would deny the importance of doctrinal continuity in the Church. As stated above, Irenaeus explicitly ties the two together.

Mainstream Christianity

Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches

The Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Independent Catholic, Anglican Communion and some others hold that apostolic succession is maintained through the consecration of their bishops in unbroken personal succession back to the apostles. These churches hold that Jesus Christ founded a community of believers and selected the apostles to serve, as a group, as the leadership of that community. In Catholic and Orthodox theology, the "College of Apostles" received the sacrament of Holy Orders from Christ, making them the first bishops, and the bishops of the world today, as a group (the College of Bishops) have the same role within the church as the College of Apostles did immediately after Christ's ministry (the Catholic Church additionally holds that within the College of Apostles, Peter was picked out for the unique role of leadership and to serve as the source of unity among the apostles, a role among the bishops and within the church inherited by the pope as Peter's successor today).

These churches hold that Christ entrusted the leadership of the community of believers, and the obligation to transmit and preserve the "deposit of faith" (the experience of Christ and his teachings contained in the doctrinal "tradition" handed down from the time of the apostles, the written portion of which is Scripture) to the apostles, and the apostles passed on this role by ordaining bishops after them.

Catholic and Orthodox theology additionally hold that the power and authority to confect the sacraments, or at least all of the sacraments aside from baptism and matrimony (the first of which may be administered by anyone, the second of which is administered by the couple to each other) is passed on only through the sacrament of Holy Orders, and an unbroken line of ordination of bishops to the apostles is necessary for the valid celebration of the sacraments today. Catholics recognize the validity of the apostolic successions of the bishops, and therefore the rest of the clergy, of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Old Catholic, and some Independent Catholic Churches. The Eastern Orthodox do not recognize Catholics nor any other group as having Apostolic Succession, examples of economia such as the reception of Catholic priests by "vesting" rather than by re-ordination, notwithstanding. Neither the Catholic nor the Orthodox Church recognize the validity of the apostolic succession of the clergy of the Anglican or other Protestant churches, in large measure because of their theology of the Eucharist.

The unbrokenness of apostolic succession is also significant because of Jesus Christ's promise that the "gates of hell" would not prevail against the Church, and his promise that he himself would be with the apostles to "the end of the age". According to this interpretation, a complete disruption or end of such apostolic succession would mean that these promises were not kept as would an apostolic succession which, while formally intact, completely abandoned the teachings of the Apostles and their immediate successors; as, for example, if all the bishops of the world agreed to abrogate the Nicene Creed or to repudiate the Bible.

Pope Leo XIII stated, in his 1896 bull Apostolicae Curae that the Catholic Church believes specifically that the Anglican Church's consecrations are "absolutely invalid and utterly void" because of changes made to the rite of consecration under Edward VI, thus denying that Anglicans participate in the apostolic succession. A reply of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York (1896) countered Pope Leo's arguments.

The language of Leo's statement was reinforced in the accompanying commentary to Ad Tuendam Fidem:

With regard to those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively, but are not able to be declared as divinely revealed, the following examples can be given: the legitimacy of the election of the Supreme Pontiff or of the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations...

The Old Catholic Union of Utrecht, is in full communion with Canterbury and Anglicanism since the Bonn Agreement of 1931. It should also be noted that since the issuance of Apostolicae Curae, many Anglican jurisdictions have revised their ordinals, bringing them more in line with ordinals of the early Church.

In addition to a line of historic transmission, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches additionally require that a hierarch maintain Orthodox Church doctrine, which they hold to be that of the Apostles, as well as communion with other Orthodox bishops. The Eastern Orthodox have permitted clergy ordained by Catholic and Anglican bishops to be rapidly ordained within Orthodoxy. However, this is a matter of economia and not recognition of Apostolic Succession, although in some cases, Catholic priests entering Eastern Orthodoxy have been received by "vesting" and have been allowed to function immediately within Orthodoxy as priests, which is still merely economia and not recognition of Apostolic Succession.

The Armenian Apostolic Church, which is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches, recognizes Catholic episcopal consecrations without qualification (and that recognition is reciprocated).

Protestant Churches

Lutheran Church

Some Lutheran Churches, the Churches of the Porvoo Communion, and the Old Catholic Church (which is also in communion with the Anglican Communion) also believe that they ordain their bishops in the apostolic succession in line from the apostles.

The Church of Sweden's apostolic succession is, according to some reports and despite its Lutheranism, seen by the Catholic Church as having been maintained, and following the establishment of the Porvoo Communion an increasing number of Anglicans could alternatively trace their succession through Swedish bishops as well as Old Catholic bishops, whose holy orders are recognized as valid by Rome. Other Churches within the historic episcopate also see the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland as having mantained apostolic succession.

Methodist Church

Bishops in the United Methodist Church do not claim to be within the historic episcopate in the same way as Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox bishops. They do, however, claim a corporate ("connectional") and theological form of Apostolic succession, and are not adverse to ecumenical acts which would further establish their ministry within the historic episcopate, though such would have to be accomplished without repudiating or otherwise questioning the validity of their current orders and ministries. Methodist episcopal succession derives from John Wesley, who was an ordained presbyter of the Church of England but not himself a bishop and thus not officially authorized to consecrate others. Wesley justified his practice of ordaining bishops (which he called " General Superintendents") and Elders (i.e., presbyters) for Methodists in the newly independent United States of America in 1784 by appealing to a perceived need and by citing a minority opinion among the early Church Fathers and an ancient precedent from the Church of Alexandria, which held that presbyters ("priests" or "elders") could, at least collectively, indeed ordain other such presbyters and even consecrate, or "set apart" bishops in certain emergency situations. Based upon this argument, the United Methodist Church understands all of its Elders, not just its Bishops, as being part of an Apostolic succession of the entire body (or "conference") of ministers:

In ordination, the church affirms and continues the apostolic ministry through persons empowered by the Holy Spirit. ( Book of Discipline paragraph 303)

In other words, Methodists understand apostolic succession as being rooted within the Presbyterate. This does not mean, however, that all elders may ordain; quite the contrary: only those elders who have been elected and consecrated as bishops can further the apostolic succession through the ordination of bishops, elders, and deacons within the United Methodist Church. In this way, the United Methodist episcopacy functions as if it were within the historic episcopate.

Accepting, but moving beyond this position, a few Methodists do affirm that their bishops stand in a form of the historic, as well as theological, Apostolic Succession (i.e., in the Anglican fashion); their argument is that Wesley's ordinations, and therefore the subsequent line of Methodist bishops, are legitimate due to the critical nature of the circumstances extant at that time. Some Methodists even make an appeal to the "Erasmian consecration," which asserts that, while on a visit to London in 1763, the Greek Orthodox bishop of the Diocese of Arcadia, Crete, secretly consecrated Wesley to the episcopacy. That Wesley actually met with Bishop Erasmus during the bishop's visit to London is not questioned; what is questioned is that Erasmus did more than simply "confirm Wesley in his ministry among the Methodists in England and America." When Wesley was asked by a clergyman if Erasmus of Arcadia had consecrated him a bishop, he said: "I cannot answer you." Another source states that when Wesley was asked if Erasmus had made him a bishop, he offered no personal response but, rather, took the unusual course of authorizing a representative to reply that he had not requested episcopal consecration within the Greek Orthodox line. Many take this as a sufficient denial, and it was enough to keep Wesley out of jail, but those who believe that Wesley was actually consecrated make the following arguments to the contrary:

  1. Wesley personally remained silent on the subject,
  2. Wesley took the unusual step of having someone to speak on his behalf, and
  3. Wesley never actually denied being consecrated a bishop, what he denied was requesting consecration from Erasmus.

This distinction may seem meaningless today, but it is actually quite substantive given the circumstances of the 1700s. Were Wesley actually consecrated a bishop by Erasmus, he would not have been able to publicly affirm such without falling prey to the stipulations of the English Acts of Supremacy (1534 & 1559). To keep from being charged with treason, and to keep his head, it is argued that Wesley skirted the question altogether by offering a "non-denial denial." Given the circumstances, many assert that this argument actually makes some sense: Wesley was asked if he had been made a bishop by Erasmus; his response was that he had not requested consecration ... which actually doesn't answer the original question! After all, episcopal consecration could have been Erasmus' idea, not Wesley's. If Wesley had affirmed that he had been made a bishop, or even if he had just confessed that he had requested consecration, he would have been placing himself in jeopardy of treason against the crown! Wesley was a self-professed Whig and a faithful "son of the English Church". To publicly violate the Oaths of Supremacy would have been entirely repugnant to him on both political and theological grounds ... not to mention that he was understandably fond of his own neck. Hence, the argument concludes that Wesley obfuscated the entire issue by distancing himself from the question and by answering in such a way as to deflect further inquiry. Despite the beliefs of many Methodists and other Anglicans -- beliefs which were finally articulated after Wesley's death -- it worked; while the question never died out entirely, Wesley remained a presbyter of the Church of England until the day he died. Contrary to the "Erasmian consecration" stands the undeniable fact that, beginning with the American Revolution in the 1770s, Wesley did request episcopal consecration for several of his preachers and, indeed, for himself, so as to provide sacramental ministry for the Methodists in the break-away colonies. Opponents of the possibility that John Wesley had been consecrated a bishop by Erasmus of Arcadia argue that if Wesley had already been consecrated a bishop by Erasmus, he would have not requested such consecrations for others or for himself. The Greek Orthodox Bishop, Erasmus of Arcadia, is said to have ordained several Methodist lay preachers during Reverend John Wesley's absence from London in 1764,notably, Reverend John Jones.

Nevertheless, the "Erasmian consecration" remained a very popular argument throughout much of the 1800s and, while still garnering a following among some proponents today, it is not accepted by a majority of Methodists nor even by most of those who affirm a form of Apostolicity for their bishops. Interestingly enough, Wesley's consecration as a bishop by Erasmus of Arcadia is affirmed by Unity Catholic Church, an Independent Catholic Church.

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