This is the second in a two-part series on the sources of authority in Christianity. In the first part, I looked at Apostolic Tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and asked how each of those three major branches of Christianity views the concept — Do they believe there is any Sacred or Holy Tradition apart from the Bible? If so, what does it consist of and how does it relate to the Scriptures?
But many, if not most, Christians believe that Christ not only passed along a body of knowledge to His closest followers but that he also gave them special authority to act and to teach in his name. In this post I would like to look at the concept of apostolic authority in each of these three branches. The questions I would like to answer for each are:
- Did Christ give special authority to the Apostles?
- Do they pass this authority on to others in subsequent generations? That is, is there such a thing as Apostolic Succession?
- Did Peter have authority even above the other Apostles and does this position of greater authority also continue through the generations?
- What is the nature of Apostolic authority? In other words, the authority to do what?
The Roman Catholic Church
I’d like to begin this time by looking at apostolic authority in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is all the way on one end of the spectrum — they say that yes, there was special authority given to the Apostles and that it has been passed down through the centuries and continues today in the bishops of the Church. They also believe that Peter was given even greater authority which he also passed down to each subsequent bishop of Rome (the Pope is the bishop of Rome). This is called the primacy of Peter and I’ll return to it in a minute.
Apostolic authority in the Catholic Church resides with anyone bishop and above (bishop, archbishop, cardinal, pope) but not with the ordinary clergy like your local priest. It is very important for bit Catholics and Orthodox to be able to trace the historical line, that is to be able to say “so-and-so” ordained “so-and-so” all down through the generations. Apostolic Succession is all about the particular people and the transfer of authority from one to another. I do not know if Catholics can actually trace all these lines for each bishop but they can (or claim they can) for the Popes. In Catholicism (in contrast to Orhtodoxy as we will disuss below) there doesn’t seem to be any way to break this line. That is, there is nothing that disqualifies one if they have been thus ordained and made part of the Succession.
It is not my object in this post to discuss the merits of the concept of Apostolic Succession or of the primacy of Peter. I hope to be able to do so in a future post. In case you are interested, however, here are some of the passages which are usually cited to support these concepts:
- in support of Apostolic Succession:
- in support of the primacy of Peter: I have done one post on Matthew 16 which seems to be the major passage in support of Peter as foremost among the Apostles; you can read it here.
What then is the purpose of Apostolic authority in the Catholic Church? Authority to do what exactly? In my previous post, you will hopefully remember, I said that the Catholic and Orthodox churches maintain that there is a continuing oral Tradition (big “T”) which has been handed down from the Apostles. So the first purpose of the position of apostle is to maintain and pass on Sacred Tradition. I don’t really see how it would be possible to claim such a Tradition exists if one does not also believe that there is a line of people charged with perpetuating it.
Beyond this, there is a perceived need to provide accurate interpretation of both the Sacred Tradition and the Scriptures. Though both the Orthodox and Catholics speak against new “traditions,” they also both allow for some progression in the church’s knowledge and understanding.
“This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop [sic] in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.” (Dei Verbum 8)
Lest one think this a democratic process, however, the Catholic Church makes clear that it is the successors of the Apostles alone who have the true authority to teach right doctrine:
“But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place” (Dei Verbum 7
“It devolves on sacred bishops ‘who have the apostolic teaching’ to give the faithful entrusted to them suitable instruction in the right use of the divine books, especially the New Testament and above all the Gospels. This can be done through translations of the sacred texts, which are to be provided with the necessary and really adequate explanations so that the children of the Church may safely and profitably become conversant with the Sacred Scriptures and be penetrated with their spirit.” (Dei Verbum 25)
The key point here being that the ordinary believer is not able to “safely” interpret the Scriptures without the guidance of the church leaders.
Papal infallibility is a concept not well understood by Protestants and probably merits another post in its own right (and I may get to that too) but I do want to just touch on it here. The flip side of “What authority do the bishops of the Church have?” is “What is required of the members of the Church?” Despite Protestant misconceptions, Catholics do not believe the Pope is always right in whatever he says. Nor is the concept of infallibility limited to the Pope. There are times at which the bishops also are infallible. The best explanation I have found of this idea is in the chart found in the section entitled “Levels” in the Wikipedia entry ion the Magisterium. You can see that chart here. If you examine it, you will find that there are certain matters in which Catholics are required to accept completely what the Church leaders say, to give “the full assent of faith.” In other matters, they are required to submit as to the wisdom of those who have been put in charge of them. But when it comes to what ones local priest says, there is no inherent authority.
The Eastern Orthodox View
The position of the Eastern Orthodox Church on Apostolic Succession is very similar to the Catholic one but there are a couple of notable differences.
Like the Catholics, the Orthodox subscribe to the idea of Apostolic Succession and believe it is very important to be able to trace the historical line of this succession from person to person. The purpose of the continuing office is also similar. It is to pass on the Holy Tradition:
“Holy Tradition is the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration or subtraction.”(“Holy Tradition” from Orthodoxwiki.org)
And to perpetuate the correct understanding of this Tradition (which if you have read my earlier post, you will know includes the Scriptures):
“Likewise, the Orthodox Church has always recognized the gradual development in the complexity of the articulation of the Church’s teachings. It does not, however, believe that truth changes and therefore always supports its previous beliefs all the way back to what it holds to be the direct teachings from the Apostles. The Church also understands that not everything is perfectly clear; therefore, it has always accepted a fair amount of contention about certain issues, arguments about certain points, as something that will always be present within the Church. It is this contention which, through time, clarifies the truth. The Church sees this as the action of the Holy Spirit on history to manifest truth to man.” (“Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology” from Wikipedia.org)
“If the Apostles didn’t say it, it isn’t true. The teaching of the Apostles is the teaching of the Church.” (“How does the doctrine of apostolic succession work in the Orthodox Church?” from Christianity.yoexpert.com)
The Orthodox do not, however, have a doctrine of infallibility of any individual though there is authority in church councils:
“Orthodoxy does not believe in the infallibility of the Pope of Rome, nor of any other individual.
Orthodoxy upholds the reality that the Church, gathered together in Council under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is guided in making correct decisions and in enunciating truth.” (“Infallibility” from the Orthodox Church in America oca.org)
But there is room for the individual believer to have his or her own personal theology on matters on which the Church has taken no specific position:
“Likewise, the Orthodox Church has always recognized the gradual development in the complexity of the articulation of the Church’s teachings. It does not, however, believe that truth changes and therefore always supports its previous beliefs all the way back to what it holds to be the direct teachings from the Apostles. The Church also understands that not everything is perfectly clear; therefore, it has always accepted a fair amount of contention about certain issues, arguments about certain points, as something that will always be present within the Church. It is this contention which, through time, clarifies the truth. The Church sees this as the action of the Holy Spirit on history to manifest truth to man.
The Church is unwavering in upholding its dogmatic teachings, but does not insist upon those matters of faith which have not been specifically defined. The Orthodox believe that there must always be room for mystery when speaking of God. Individuals are permitted to hold theologoumena (private theological opinions) so long as they do not contradict traditional Orthodox teaching. Sometimes, various Holy Fathers may have contradictory opinions about a certain question, and where no consensus exists, the individual is free to follow his or her conscience.” (“Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology” from Wikipedia.org)
As I said earlier, the Orthodox do not accept the primacy of Peter. Though they recognize that the current Pope is the historical successor of Peter they do not view him as a legitimate bearer of Apostolic authority. This is because, unlike the Catholics for whom the historical connection is sufficient, the Orthodox also have other criteria by which they determine legitimate succession. For them one in the apostolic line can sacrifice their position by not adhering to right doctrine or by not remaining in communion with their fellow bishops:
“To be within Apostolic Succession, bishops must not only be traced historically, but they must also conform to Orthodox doctrine and be in communion with the rest of the Holy Episcopacy descended from the Apostles that conform to these standards. This is different than the understanding given in Latin theology, which heavily influences all of Western Christianity, teaching that Apostolic Succession in simply an historical matter. In this way, Romans may accept other churches Apostolic Succession as “valid”, meaning that they also accept their sacraments/mysteries as valid. Somehow, under this line of thinking, one can be “valid” but at the same time considered “illicit” because, for the Latins, any bishop not ultimately under the Roman Pontiff is outside of the Church.
Orthodoxy does not allow for such conditions. To be within Apostolic Succession means not only to hold historical ties back to the Apostles, but also to hold spiritual ties through agreement in doctrine with the other Orthodox bishops. It is because of this mystical understanding that all bishops outside of Orthodoxy, even with historical claims, are outside of Apostolic Succession. The Pope of Rome, for example, may have a legitimate claim as the successor of St. Peter. Actually, the Orthodox Church would readily admit that this is a simple historical fact. However, when the Roman Patriarch broke in doctrine from the other Orthodox bishops, he removed himself from that Apostolic Succession, deviating from the Faith and therefore breaking the spiritual succession of the Orthodox Faith that was originally transmitted by St. Peter. Essentially, either a bishop is Orthodox…or he is not.” ( “How does the doctrine of apostolic succession work in the Orthodox Church?” from Christianity.yoexpert.com)
My understanding of this is that the Roman Catholic Church would acknowledge that the Orthodox bishops stand in the line of Apostolic Succession but that the favor is not returned and that the Orthodox deny that the current Pope retains his Apostolic authority.
The Protestant View
It is always hard to generalize with Protestants since they are such a varied group. When it comes to Apostolic Tradition and Succession the Anglicans are the most notable exception. They, like the Orthodox accept both Tradition and Succession though they reject the primacy of Peter. In general, however while Protestants accept the special position of the Apostles who were eye-witnesses to Jesus’ ministry (except for Paul who nonetheless also saw Christ face-to-face on the road to Damascus), they deny that this established permanent positions which were to be passed on to others. Rather, they speak of the Apostolic age which came to a close with the writing of the New Testament as it was then, in their view, no longer necessary since the written Word was available and thenceforth took precedence. There is a lot more that could be said about where authority comes from in Protestantism and this is a subject I would like to pursue. But since the topic of this post is Apostolic Succession I will just leave it for now with saying that Apostolic authority does not continue for most Protestants.
To sum up this post as well as the previous one, here is how the various branches stand on these issues of authority within the church: All agree that there were Apostles who had special authority given them by virtue of their close relationship with Christ who were also entrusted with His teachings. They also all accept the Scriptures of the New Testament as an accurate, truthful and inerrant record of at least some portion of those teachings.
Protestantism says that:
- The New Testament is all we have remaining of the apostolic teaching. It alone is authoritative in the church and there is no Tradition (big “T”) apart from the Bible to which believers must adhere.
- There is no apostolic succession in the sense that there are positions which are handed down from person to person. The apostolic age ended with the writing of the New Testament. The unique apostolic authority was no longer needed after the written word was available.
- The Bible itself is the final arbiter of right doctrine.
The Roman Catholic Church says that:
- There are two pillars of the church: Scripture and Sacred Tradition. These two together constitute the authoritative teaching of the church.
- There is an apostolic succession in which the authority delivered from Christ to the first apostles is handed down through the generations to the present day. This line is unbroken and cannot be abrogated. The purpose of the Apostolic Succession is both to preserve Sacred Tradition and to provide right interpretations of Tradition and Scripture.
- Among the first apostles, Peter held a place of preeminence and this position has been passed down to every succeeding bishop of Rome, each one in turn standing as the one head of the church and the “vicar of Christ.”
The Orthodox churches say that:
- The Scriptures are a part of the Holy Tradition which was delivered to the apostles. They were written down because they were the most important parts of Tradition. They must be interpreted in the context of the Tradition of which they are a part.
- There is an apostolic succession in which the authority given by Christ to the first generation of apostles is passed down through the ages. While the historical line must be unbroken for a bishop’s authority to be established, the place of a given bishop (and any who would then claim descent from him) can be lost through a failure to adhere to right doctrine or to continue in unity with the rest of the bishops.
- No special place was given to Peter among the apostles and the bishops of Rome have lost their legitimacy long ago.
- Those in the line of apostolic succession hold the Holy Tradition of the church and determine what qualifies as right doctrine though there is a certain amount of leeway given for personal theologies on matters on which dogma has not been established.