The household of God, says Paul, is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20), and, as E. A. Litton has observed, a foundation does not repeat itself. It is, indeed, evident from the New Testament that the apostolate is an essential ministry; but it is clear also that the apostolate is not and cannot be a ministerial succession. Let us examine this question somewhat more fully, for it is one which looms prominently in discussions concerning intercommunion and reunion at the present time.

The apostolate is essential because it is the foundation of the Christian Church, not only in the temporal sense that the Apostles were the first to carry the Gospel to Jew and Gentile but in particular because to them was entrusted and through them was communicated that fundamental knowledge of the truth whereby the Church of Christ is constituted. To them the Lord himself promised that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things and bring to their remembrance all that he had said to them, and would guide them into all the truth (John 14:26; 16:13). This promise was given to certain individuals, 11 in number (Judas Iscariot having left to put his traitorous plan into effect, John 13:30), who were in the unique position of having received intimate instruction from the mouth of him in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3), but who, not only because of the fallibility of human memory but also because of the imperfection of their comprehension, were in need of the special grace of the pentecostal Spirit so that they might infallibly recollect and then impart and interpret to the world the saving truth which they had learned at Jesus’ feet and of which Christ himself, in his person and work, was the living embodiment. This was the essential foundation on which the Christian Church would be reared.

Plainly, however, the apostolate as a ministry was not communicable. It was limited to those few who had received instruction direct from the Incarnate Word of God himself—to which the further qualification was added that they were witnesses of the fact of Christ’s resurrection. Thus the place vacated by Judas Iscariot was filled by one who had “companied with (them) all the time that Jesus went in and out among (them), beginning from the baptism of John unto the day that He was received up from (them),” and who would with them be “a witness of his resurrection” (Acts 1:21 f.). Paul’s apostleship, though in an external sense exceptional, nonetheless rested on these same two pillars, firstly, that, like one born out of due season, he had seen the risen Lord (1 Cor. 15:8), and, secondly, that the message he proclaimed had been received not from man but through revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1).

The ministry of the apostolate can be spoken of as a continuing ministry only in the sense that the teaching communicated to and through these inspired men continues without interruption to be fundamental to the constitution of the Church. Now their teaching, it is true, was oral—but not only oral, for it was also, in all its essentials, committed by them to writing. In all its various parts, in fact, the New Testament is, quite simply, the doctrine of the Apostles—not, however, of the Apostles as mere men or even as theologians, as though they were professional purveyors of religious thought and philosophy; but as chosen men who, under the control of the Holy Spirit, were accurately reproducing the very teaching of Christ himself. Therefore we see the New Testament to be, even more radically, the doctrine of none other than Christ, the divine Mediator. Herein the unique and fundamental character of the apostolic function becomes unmistakably clear.

In the post-apostolic Church the place of the Apostles has been taken by their writings, which are, and can never cease to be, the authentic doctrine from and concerning the divine Head of the Church. Accordingly, to cite E. A. Litton again, “the New Testament Scriptures are the only real Apostolate which the Church now possesses.… In every Christian society which is in a healthy state Matthew, John, Paul, Peter still decide points of doctrine, order its affairs, and preside in its councils with undisputed authority” (Introduction to Dogmatic Theology, p. 389).

Article continues below

This is far from being an individualistic conclusion; for in reality it is the conclusion of the universal Church, however much some sections may have beclouded the issue with subsequent fancies. The fixing of the Canon of Scripture in the post-apostolic period was the quite definite acknowledgment by the Church that certain books, as distinct from all others, possess an authority which is unique and normative for all time. “The fixing of the Christian Canon of Scripture,” says Oscar Cullmann, “signifies precisely that the Church herself, at a given moment, traced a clear and firm line of demarcation between the period of the Apostles and the period of the Church, between the time of foundation and the time of construction, between the apostolic community and the Church of the bishops, in other words between apostolic tradition and ecclesiastical tradition. If this was not the significance of the formation of the Canon the event would be meaningless.… By establishing the principle of a Canon, the Church recognized in this very act that from that moment the tradition was no longer a criterion of truth. She drew a line under the apostolic tradition. She declared implicitly that from that moment every subsequent tradition must be submitted to the control of the apostolic tradition. In other terms, she declared: here is the tradition which constituted the Church, which imposed itself on her” (“Scripture and Tradition,” in Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 6, No. 2, June, 1953, pp. 126 f.).

Just as, in the phrase “the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” the term “prophets” quite certainly indicates the teaching of God’s messengers of the former dispensation as crystallized and delimited in the Canon of the Old Testament Scriptures, so also the term “apostles” now, since the passing of the apostolic age, quite certainly signifies the teaching of God’s messengers of the New Covenant as crystallized and delimited in the Canon of the New Testament Scriptures. Thus the apostolic ministry today is and only can be the ministry of the New Testament, through which the Apostles themselves continue to preach and teach to the world the saving truth delivered to them by their sovereign Lord and Master. The apostolic minister, therefore, is the prerogative neither of popes nor bishops as such, but belongs to every Christian believer, be he archbishop or the humblest Sunday School teacher, who faithfully hands on the doctrine of the New Testament. The only genuine apostolic succession is a succession of doctrine, not of ministerial orders.

This being so, it is impossible to approve the claim put forward in certain circles that the episcopate is properly the prolongation of the apostolate, that it alone is today the apostolic ministry, and therefore the essential ministry of the Church and a sine qua non before any scheme for reunion or intercommunion with nonepiscopal churches can become effective.

But there are yet other considerations to take into account. In the first place, it is evident that the Apostles had as it were a roving commission, in particular with a view to the founding by them of churches in places where the Gospel had not previously been preached, whereas to a bishop was delegated the oversight of a church or churches already established in one particular locality.

Article continues below

In the second place, there is ample evidence that the episcopate developed not from the apostolate but from the presbyterate. As Bishop Lightfoot says in a famous essay, “the episcopate was formed not out of the apostolic order by localization but out of the presbyteral by elevation” (Dissertation on the Christian Ministry, in Commentary on Philippians, p. 194). Indeed, it is apparent that, to begin with, presbyter and bishop were synonymous terms. Thus, for example, Paul admonishes the presbyters of Ephesus to take heed to themselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit had made them bishops (Acts 20:28). This original identity of order is confirmed by the manner in which Paul writes elsewhere, without need of explanation, of a twofold ministry consisting of bishops and deacons (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1 ff., 8 ff.; 5:17 ff.), the implication being that presbyters and bishops are one and the same order. (Note also Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Pet. 5:1 f.) It must suffice to mention here Jerome, among the fathers of the early Church, who not only points out that “the Apostle clearly teaches that presbyters are the same as bishops” but also explains the relationship as follows: “Of the names presbyter and bishop the first denotes age, the second rank. In writing to Titus and Timothy, the Apostle speaks of the ordination of bishops and deacons, but says not a word of the ordination of presbyters; for the fact is that the word bishops includes presbyters also” (Letter CXLVI, to Evangelus). Technically, then, there are not three but two orders in the ministry: deacons and presbyters, episcopacy being but a distinction within the latter.

As the infant Church grew and became established, so it was a perfectly natural development that one among the presbyters in a particular locality be designated by the rest as their president (or moderator), though only as primus inter pares. Thus the episcopate as an office distinct in this sense from (though still among) the presbyterate had its origin. It is a development which is found at a comparatively early stage in the apostolic Church; for at the Council of Jerusalem, c. 51 A.D. (Acts 15), it is, significantly, James the Lord’s brother, not one of the Twelve, who, as the presiding presbyter or bishop of the church of Jerusalem, presides over the whole representative assembly, which includes the Apostles as well as his fellow-presbyters. Similarly, in writing of his visit to Jerusalem, Paul, no doubt for the same reason, gives precedence to James over the Apostles Peter and John (Gal. 2:9; note also Acts 12:17; 21:18). James, then, though not himself belonging to the apostolate, may be described as the earliest bishop, in accordance with the later significance of that term, and that too at a time when all the Apostles, including Paul—with the single exception of James’ namesake the brother of John, who had been put to the sword (Acts 12:1 f.)—were flourishing. He cannot, therefore, be described as a successor of the Apostles, nor his ministry an extension of the apostolate.

The manner in which the order of deacons originated is clearly described in the New Testament (Acts 6). But what of the order of presbyters? There is little room for doubt that the presbyters of the New Testament churches were in fact a quite natural and probably unpremeditated continuation of the office of elders (presbyters) which was distinctive of the polity of the Jewish synagogue. Synagogue worship had its historical origins in the dispersion of the Jews whereby the great majority of their race was through distance cut off from the Temple worship in Jerusalem. Its form was essentially simple: a weekly gathering for prayer, thanksgiving, and the reading and expounding of the Scriptures. In no sense was there any attempt to reproduce in the synagogue the sacerdotal ministry of the Temple with its elaborate system of sacrifices; for to the Jew it was unthinkable that the Levitical ritual should take place anywhere excepting in the Temple on Mount Zion. Accordingly, the synagogue had no priestly (in the sense of sacerdotal) order of ministry.

Article continues below

In New Testament times there were synagogues in great numbers throughout the Mediterranean world, including Jerusalem, and these formed a natural, readymade springboard for the Christian Church, since the expository and homiletic form of the synagogue service afforded an unparalleled opportunity for the declaration of the Christian Gospel as the fulfillment of the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament Scriptures. It was an opportunity of which our Lord took advantage (cf. Luke 4:16 ff.: “… he entered, as his custom was, into the synagogue on the sabbath day …”), and also the Apostles who as pioneers of the Gospel followed the lead their Master had given in this respect.

The synagogue, then, may be considered as the seed-bed of the Christian Church, both in regard to the form of worship—prayer, thanksgiving, and the reading and exposition of Scripture—and in regard to the form of ministry—presbyterian and nonsacerdotal. (There are some scholars who maintain that the diaconate was also derived from the synagogue; but that is a question which we must leave aside here.) In the centuries that succeeded the apostolic age, however, a doctrine of the ministry was elaborated which was distinctively sacerdotal in character and based upon a pattern not of the synagogue but of the Temple with its Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system. “Though no distinct traces of sacerdotalism are visible in the ages immediately after the Apostles,” writes Bishop Lightfoot, “yet having once taken root in the Church it shot up rapidly into maturity. Towards the close of the second century we discern the first germs appearing above the surface: yet, shortly after the middle of the third, the plant has all but attained its full growth” (Op. cit., p. 244).

It is Tertullian who first describes the ministry in plainly sacerdotal terms, calling the bishop “the chief priest” (summus sacerdos) and defining the Christian ministry as a sacerdotium. The process reaches its fullest expression in the writings of Cyprian. The bishops of the Church now correspond to the high priests of Israel, even to the extent of belonging to an unbroken succession supposedly from the Apostles, answering to the Aaronic succession of the high priests of the Old Testament. This line of succession is viewed as guaranteeing the uninterrupted transmission of sacramental grace from the Apostles onward; and it becomes but a short step to the conception of episcopacy as, in its office and functions, actually constitutive of the Church, and as such the essential ministry.

It need only be said here that such a concept of the Christian ministry is entirely out of harmony with the teaching of the New Testament, and not least that of the Epistle to the Hebrews which makes it unmistakably clear that the Levitical order of priesthood has been superseded by the order of Melchizedek; that of this new order Christ is the one and only Priest, who, unlike the priests of the Aaronic line, continues forever “after the power of an endless life”; that consequently there is henceforth no sacerdotal succession; and that, since the sacrifice Christ offered (of himself) was offered for sins forever and once for all, it cannot be repeated nor re-presented, nor regarded as only one in a succession of sacrifices.

Article continues below

The New Testament itself suggests what are the real essentials of a genuine apostolic succession when it tells us that “they that received the word and were baptized” on the first Whitsunday “continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In other words, to be a successor of the Apostles is not the prerogative of any ecclesiastical order but of every individual who (like the Apostles) has believed the word of the Gospel and been baptized, who faithfully preserves and transmits the doctrine of the Apostles, and who maintains the fellowship of the Apostles in the communion of the Lord’s Table and in public worship. It is this succession which we must work to establish once more in this present generation.

Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

Tags:
Issue: