As our conversation continues, we have witnessed a transformation in the accidents of Mary Campion. Though her substance is still the same, she is now Michael, and so it seems that I should shift the names accordingly. We have now, in my opinion, gotten to the bottom of the disagreements in defining the church. The Protestant view is that the essence of the Church is the Word, found in the preaching and sacraments, as well as embodied in the people of God by the immediate action of the Holy Spirit. This allows for a distinction in terms, with “the visible Church” typically referring to the Church as institution, complete with polity and laws, and the “invisible Church” referring to all believers wherever they may be. For Protestants, the “Church” and the “State” (better termed the “Commonwealth”) can inhabit the same space and time without displacing or doing violence to one another. There is no need for a hierarchical arrangement because the two entities are different in quality, jurisdiction, and telos.
Our second question then was, “What is apostolic succession, and is it a valid theory?” Michael suggests that Apostolic Succession (hereafter AS) is the key to a harmonious society, and he also points (rightly) to Unam Sanctam’s claim that the civic arena must be subordinate to the Church. Unam Sanctam, however, goes further and says that princes must be in submission to the clergy:
Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.
Unam Sanctam goes on to say that the spiritual powers may not be judged by the temporal powers. When you combine this with the particular view of “spirituality of the Church” that Thomas Becket posthumously won over King Henry and the Investiture Contest’s Dictatus Papae (which states that the Pope alone can call general councils, that the Pope cannot be judged by anyone, and that the Pope can remove the magistrate’s authority over his subjects), you get a clear picture of the Roman position.
AS then enters into the picture as a proof of who the “spiritual rulers” are and from where they get their commission. AS is also a sort of lynch-pin argument for Roman Catholic apologists in defining the Church. It often serves the function for Roman Catholics what sola fide does for traditional Protestants. I also know from personal experience that AS can be the single decisive issue in Protestant conversions to Roman Catholicism. I’ve seen it on more than one occasion. But I have a few concerns about AS, some of which seem to be significant enough to warrant its dismissal from consideration.
1) What exactly is meant by “Apostolic Succession”?
a) I have seen this term used by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholics to mean different things, and at times I’ve seen this used in such a way as to say that only these three communions are valid churches. Ironically, it is usually only the Anglicans who are willing to grant that all three of these churches fully qualify. Rome tends to relegate the true succession to only themselves and the East. Then most ironically, the Orthodox restrict the true succession to only themselves. I’ve yet to understand why the first two groups are so willing to give those following them the easy pass, but it does reveal to me the equivocation at work.
b) If AS merely means that a group comes from “within” the historical development of the Christian Church, then this would prove very little. Almost all major denominations would qualify, especially those coming from the magisterial Reformation. Mormonism would be out, along with the various forms of “restorationist” movements (Campbellism, etc.), but Lutherans and Calvinists would be safely “in.”
c) If AS merely refers to a successive ordination rite, or even the manual imposition of hands, then most churches descending from England and Scotland are still in the succession. Though I’m less knowledgeable about the Continent, it would not surprise me if the same case held true there. In England and Scotland, however, we know for sure.
d) If AS is supposed to refer to a gifting of personal charismata, analogous to Elijah and Elisha or Jesus and Peter, then no Christian institution has it.
What I mean is this: Both Biblical examples show us men who work personally together for a season in a teacher/disciple relationship. The teacher imparts his own personal skills, teachings, and even charismatic gifts to the apprentice. Elisha wears the mantle of Elijah, and he does Elijah’s works. Peter’s very shadow had healing power, just as Jesus’ garment could transmit grace. The two men were as one in doctrine, personality, and spiritual gifts. They had the same “face.”
We even see similar succession scenarios in other religions. Peter Escalante used the example of the Shaolin monks, where young men travel to train under a master. Judaism and Islam also have similar phenomena. Once the training is complete, the apprentice walks like the master, talks like the master, etc.
In Christianity there is little similarity to this. Perhaps certain ascetics retained it, which is probably why Simeon the New Theologian believed the true succession to have moved from the bishops to the monks, but the metropolitan bishops certainly did not retain it. It is not unusual for a new bishop to have never so much as met his predecessor, much less trained under him personally for years. In fact, it is not even a “problem” for the new bishop to seriously disagree with or even wholly contradict his predecessor. He certainly does not cease being a bishop if he does so. To this day Rome has the problem of rogue bishops whose orders and sacraments really are “problem cases,” both valid and invalid depending on who you ask and when.
2) If the New Testament were giving us a polity, what would it be?
a) It is often assumed that our modern notion of episcopacy was the earliest form of Church governance, but this is not the case. What we have inherited was achieved through an imitation of the civic polity of late antiquity. On Protestant principles, this is unobjectionable. Richard Hooker pointed out how this agreed with reason and the natural law, in that men are hardwired to order themselves, constructing positive law as is fitting to their context. The English Church had a monarchy. The Swiss Churches had a confederation. The symbols and images of the papacy were all originally supplied by the Caesars and the collegium pontificum.
b) We also know that the earliest church bishops were coordinators of the local eucharistic assembly. Rudolph Sohm via Walter Lowrie (for the English) is essential reading on this point.
c) In the New Testament, we have something of an early church organization, yet it is truly unique. The twelve-fold collegium is retained (Acts 1:15-26) , most likely due to its “New Israel” significance, and the only possible candidate for “bishop” in the Jerusalem church is James (Acts 21:8, Gal. 2:12). This arrangement has not continued, however, most likely because it lost its most poignant significance as the church distanced itself from the synagogue and the Jewish temple was destroyed.
Of course, Paul is himself chosen from “outside” the twelve, and he argues fiercely for his independence (Gal. 1:12). He admits that there are indeed “pillars of the Church,” but he denies that they have a corresponding spiritual supremacy (Gal. 2:6-10). “Succession” for Paul comes in the preaching and hearing of faith and baptism. The unifying marks are found in Ephesians 4:5- One Lord, one faith, one baptism. Paul’s influence is perhaps the strongest intellectual reason for the discontinuity of the earlier church organization.
d) When Paul does need to “pull rank,” he does so by way of personal testimony. 2 Corinthians 10-12 gives us this example. Paul does not appeal to any sort of legal office, at least not of any bureaucratic sort. Rather he “boasts in” the content of his preaching, the suffering he has born for Christ, his personal “track record” of service, and heavenly visions. He even says what things “mark an apostle”: signs, wonders, and miracles (2 Cor. 12:12). Where is this sort of succession to be currently found?
e) The bond of unity in John 17 is a divine person. John 17:20-26 is rather clearly (at least thanks to subsequent theological terminology) a reference to perichoresis, and the divine bond of unity and love is the Holy Spirit (Col 3:14, 1 John 4:13-17). The concluding verses of 1 John 4 also echo Jesus’ words about how the world will recognize his followers (John 13:35). It is not surprising that the same human author penned both statements.
4) Tightly defining the Church by institutional boundaries or seeking to police it by worldly means is to attempt to shepherd the wind.
a) If the Holy Spirit manifests the Body of Christ on earth until the final bodily return of our Lord, then we must be able to say of the Church something very near to that which Jesus says of the wind (John 3:8). It is spiritual in the true sense of that word.
b) Does not a worldly Church run contrary to Paul’s polemic against works? The kingdom is not eating and drinking (Rom. 14:17). It was that very verse which shocked me out of the current fashion of “incarnational” or “trinitarian” sociology (both misnomers, of course). Jesus adds that his followers do not “fight” in the worldly fashion (John 18:36). Anyone who has served in the church for very long understands how “worldly” church discipline can get, though, and a great number of the early church controversies did in fact use worldly weapons. In contrast to this, Paul tells us positively what our weapons are (Eph. 6:10-18).
c) Is not the implication of making church polity essential to the Church to deny the immediacy of the Spirit? It seems to take us back to the older age where God’s dwelling-place was within geopolitical boundaries and temporal-kingdom law, only with a new cultural “look and feel.”
It seems to me that the older Protestant divines were so successful in rebutting AS, particularly in Chemnitz’ Examination of the Council of Trent and in Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, that the issue was definitively put out of the Protestant mind. It truly became a non-issue. Ironically, the older strength has become a weakness, as Evangelicals no longer know quite how to even consider the question. Most “average Joes” will just dismiss it out of hand, and in many ways they are right to do so. The lack of engagement, however, can become a public weak spot, and so I hope my treatment here has been beneficial to the readers.
We will take up the final question of how this all ought to impact our political theology and contemporary issues of “Church and State” in the final installment.