St Irenaeus, the second century Father who wrote against heretics, and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, a nineteenth century agreement on what makes Anglicans Anglicans, have something in common. Here’s the most relevant part of the latter which can be found in full in your Book of Common Prayer:
But furthermore, we do hereby affirm that the Christian unity . . .can be restored only by
the return of all Christian communions to the principles of unity exemplified by the
undivided Catholic Church during the first ages of its existence; which principles we believe
to be the substantial deposit of Christian Faith and Order committed by Christ and his
Apostles to the Church unto the end of the world, and therefore incapable of compromise
or surrender by those who have been ordained to be its stewards and trustees for the
common and equal benefit of all men.
As inherent parts of this sacred deposit, and therefore as essential to the restoration of unity
among the divided branches of Christendom, we account the following, to wit:
1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
3. The two Sacraments,–Baptism and the Supper of the Lord,–ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.
4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.
Both Irenaeus and the Quadrilateral affirm that it’s not enough to hold a canon of books. Because, as postmodern theory will happy demonstrate, reading requires some hermeneutical guidelines if the purpose in reading is to find shared meaning. A classic case from the patristic period is the Gnostic tract On the Origin of the World which is a very creative reading of the Garden of Eden story wherein God is the evil demiurge and the serpent is, of course, Jesus… Reading communities, therefore need guidelines. The guard against readings like these is the regula fidei, the rule of faith, which we find embodied in our creeds. But creeds will only get you so far. And this, I submit, is where the third item, the apostolic succession or (in the words of the Quadrilateral) the Historic Episcopate becomes necessary.
What exactly is this for and why is it necessary?
I’ll suggest that it has two main purposes that flow from the apostolic age. First, it was a means of enuring that the bishop you were inviting into your midst really did know what the heck he was talking about. In an age of wandering preachers and evangelists, local churches needed some kind of assurance that the preacher who turned up on their doorstep was someone who should be trusted and who was rooted in the faith. Apostolic succession means that we know who your teacher was, and his teacher, and so on back to the apostles themselves. The point is that you didn’t dream up your spiritual teaching in a cave somewhere (or by the shores of the Black Sea…) and decide to call it Christianity. Rather, you had been taught, trained, and sent out by those who really knew what they were talking about. Irenaeus himself shows us how this worked. He studied at the feet of Polycarp who in turn sat at the feet of John the Elder. He can thus certify that his grasp of the faith is a legitimate one. Yes, bishops can depart from this teaching (can you think of any? Hmm… ) but for the most part, this was a fairly secure way of working.
Second, the succession isn’t just about teaching, it’s also about the transmission of spiritual power. Scripture tells us of the apostolic laying on of hands that conveyed the Holy Spirit to those set apart for leadership. How this transmission of the Spirit differs from the transmission of the Spirit in Baptism is entirely unclear in Scripture, and this raises issues later…
So, in nuce, apostolic succession is the assurance that the people raised up as bishops have a solid grasp of the faith as transmitted from the beginning and receive a share of the Holy Spirit passed by the apostles to those who are leaders in the Church.
These three safeguards are the marks of the church: the canon, the creeds, the apostolic succession.
To use the case that YF mentioned below, Mormons fail on all three counts: they receive Scriptures other than the Old and New Testaments, they do not hold the creeds, and they do not follow in apostolic succession.
So how about Lutherans…? They hold the first two—but what about the third? Bishops only moved to the Lutheran cause in Sweden; in Germany, Denmark and other places there was a break in succession from bishop to bishop for the early Lutherans had no bishops. Luther declared them theologically unnecessary. In a famous statement Luther declared that by Baptism and its granting of the Spirit any Christian is priest, bishop, and pope and that the priesthood marked a difference in roles rather than in ontology. Lutherans (at least, those who care about such things) understand themselves to remain in apostolic succession in that they believe that their faith and practice is in consonance with the faith and practice of the apostles. Remember, the Lutheran and other Reformation orders of service were not simply rejections of Roman cult—they were also attempts to get back to the basics of apostolic practice as seen in the texts of Scripture. (If I recall correctly, the writings of Irenaeus did not become widely available until a point in the midst of the Protestant controversy.)
Now, the reason I bring all of this up is to engage the question of Christian belief. Is it explicitly or implicitly stated in the writings of the Fathers that there is content to the “faith once delivered to the saints” that goes beyond the creeds folded into the notion of apostolic succession? Or, is there an agreement that the bishops hand on a more general Christian ethos—one that is subject to variation based on the cultures in which the Gospel is taking root?
For what it’s worth, the Anglican Fathers of the nineteenth century cited above didn’t seem to think something more comprehensive was included therein identifying: “The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith“