On the Apostolic Succession

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

16 thoughts on “On the Apostolic Succession

  1. Christopher


    Could you restate this question (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?) differently as I’m not quite tracking.

    Fr. Haller has pointed out that when Fr. Huntington came up with the Quadrilateral, “historic episcopate”, he meant more leader as in the early community along the lines of St. Irenaeus and not necessarily some of the later accretions that apostolic succession took on, especially assumptions of a monarchical episcopate, a tendency to dismiss if not denigrate lay participation, and cut off consecration from its roots in Baptism.

    I like Robert Jensen’s suggestion that clergy are set aside within the community as a Gospel company to insure the proper preaching and presiding in the community. That in no wise implies that lay Christians should not also be about the Gospel, and sometimes, we take better care than some of our priests and bishops.

    I would suggest Lutheranism marked off clergy not merely in terms of roles but in terms relationship to the whole, and if we take seriously that Christian ontological categories cannot think in terms of being (which often implies some static reality) without relationship, there is room for reapproachment in this matter. To my mind, some folks misuse Luther’s “Island scenario” to justify lay presidency, when in fact Luther makes clear the community (which itself must also care for apostolicity) should set someone aside, which is a change in relationship.

    This apostolic leadership is bound up with Creeds, Canon, and Sacraments. I’m puzzled why the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist were not mentioned by you as signs or marks of the Church, indeed, those that make the Church.

    CCM essentially acknowledged that though Lutherans in the U.S. did not retain apostolic succession as such, they did retain the kerygma and as such remained apostolic. As I have suggested, it could be argued in light of many of our best divines past that we required to much of our ELCA kin, suggesting a sort of unchurching when frankly Lutherans have generally retained a solid focus on the Gospel and matters like the Real Presence when Anglicans can fudge in ways that St. Irenaeus might find problematic. Indeed, we sometimes, as you hmmmm that may be in apostolic succession but dismiss the Creedal dogmas of Incarnation and Trinity and use the Scripture like tp.

    I’m currently reading a fine work on polity that I’ll blog about that offers various models of leadership and governance in the church from episcopal, charismatic, and congregational categories. Three forms of episcopate are mentioned: Monarchical (Roman Catholic, some Anglicans), Managerial (United Methodist), and Pastoral (some Anglicans and definitely Episcopalians, and the Eastern Orthodox). The latter makes room for recognizing that the laity are an important part of church life, governance, and theological inquiry in ways that the first position does not.

  2. The young fogey

    Thanks, Derek. I knew you weren’t trying to set me up when you said below that a point to back up my position is the apostolic ministry. Quite so. One of the legs the Anglo-Catholic Movement could stand on. (That and belief in a lasting Real Presence after the service as stated in the 1662 Prayer Book, making Reservation and Benediction theologically possible in Anglicanism.)

    But again this leads back to ‘Is the church infallible or not?’

    (Fr Scott, Catholics also believe the church is indefectible but that doesn’t mean every member, even the Pope, is perfect in his judgement or opinions!)

    As you mentioned, Derek, some Lutherans (the Swedes and the churches derived from them, except in America) claim apostolic bishops but Lutheran ecclesiology is so weak (different from the rest of Lutheran doctrine, which is very clear-cut) this was never considered essential.

    Which brings us back to the Anglicans.

    I think I understand the thinking in Apostolicæ Curæ. Does succession without passing on the faith of the church really mean anything? (Is that succession or simply an attempt at magic, like many vagantes do?) Leo XIII hung everything on orthodoxy about the Eucharist. The 1552 Prayer Book, even though it wasn’t widely used, seems to back him up. So after the Communion service the curate shall have the remaining bread and wine for his own use. Full stop. What did that mean? Not very encouraging from our point of view. 1662 can be read as Catholic but the Pope’s point was the damage was done in the mid-1500s. Much like most Lutherans lost their claim to having apostolic bishops.

    The Orthodox are even stricter as you know. For them it’s all about being in the church and not ‘lines of succession’ although those are needed too. The only orders we know have grace are in the Orthodox communion, they say; any claim to orders outside the church is mere speculation and shall always remain so!

    Right. We agree on the necessity of the episcopate as a mark of the church.

    Not just a book or canon of books but a living voice, a magisterium. (Certainly Orthodoxy agrees with this notion of a magisterium, part of the church not something set over it… which is really what the Western form of Catholicism teaches too.)

    If that’s so, then whatever they teach that has been received by the church (such as the big seven councils) is irrevocable, ¿no? Yes, the creeds, but more. You mention canons for example.

    So… something that claims apostolic succession and even believes the creeds, but has left the church otherwise, is not Catholic.

    And right, Muslims (the Mormons of Eastern Christendom) and Mormons are not ‘non-Nicene’ or ‘pre-Nicene’ Christians! They are non-Christians.

    The Anglican fathers who came up with the Quadrilateral were on the right track – it’s true as far as it goes – but like we don’t stop at two sacraments (in the mediæval church just about every quasi-sacramental act was counted among the sacraments) the creeds alone don’t cut it.

    An Episcopal priest in my blogroll once agreed there are communion deal-breakers and not just modern Controversial Issues™. She brought up infant baptism. The Baptists are our Christian brothers, she said and I agree. But are they fully in the church? Is our holy mother the church wrong to baptise babies as they claim? These things matter.

    So the bare minimum has got to be more than what’s been suggested so far.

    BTW Rome’s criteria for valid orders and thus a true Eucharist, for churchness as opposed to being an ‘ecclesial community’ (Protestant non-church), are interesting to ponder. They’re much looser than the Orthodox (whom they recognise as a church like themselves). They are 1) like you, very basic credal orthodoxy (so basic the so-called Nestorians were recognised historically), 2) a claim of unbroken apostolic succession (the ‘lines’ thing – but them what got it don’t feel like they have to prove it) and 3) unbroken Catholic teaching and practice about the Eucharist.

  3. The young fogey

    P.S. To clarify: she doesn’t believe modern Controversial Issues™ are communion deal-breakers in her church but agrees there are divisions between Christians that can’t be glossed over.

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    Christopher, the precise question that I’m looking at is whether the criterion of Apostolic Succession implies any teachings—specifically moral teachings—not found in the creeds.

    I think not, myself, but it’s the only way I can see to import moral and ethical content into “the faith once delivered”.

    I do not include the sacraments here as Irenaeus doesn’t make them explicit. I should, of course, include them as you note.

    Let’s not forget, however, that the Lutheran formulation of Real Presence often means far less than you might think or hope. Trust me—been there, done that.

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    YF, which Orthodox communion was that again? Which line using which kalendar?

    So… something that claims apostolic succession and even believes the creeds, but has left the church otherwise, is not Catholic.

    But this is the issue at hand, isn’t it? An assertion doesn’t solve the problem. It would be one thing if “the church” of which you speak was not a political body that was manipulated by and for political purposes. (To whom does Ireland belong? And according to whom?) Is a rejection of that structure and its more corrupt manifestations a rejection of Christianity and its teaching?

    Can the issue of infallibility truly be separated from the visible, political instantiations of the church in incarnate reality?

  6. Marshall Scott

    Derek, we return to the issue of whether the episcopacy is of the esse, the bene esse, or the pleni esse of the Church. We also wrestle with an issue of whether episcopacy is of the esse, the bene esse, or the pleni esse of the faith. So, if I understand Young Jon, the Christian Orthodox approach is not simply about the Church as institution but about the Church as Body of Christ – so, raising the question about whether in fact the Baptists are Christian.

    I push the point because it seems to me bene esse or pleni esse positions allow for our Trinitarian but non-episcopal siblings to be recognized as Christians; while an esse position at least might not, and perhaps could not. Even if the office does not have the title, among connectional churches, and even presbyterial synodical churches, we can identify episkope; and that might be enough. But there are those Trinitarian bodies (in the United States the Churches of Christ [non-instrumental] would be an example) so militantly congregational as to make episkope virtually unrecognizable. (For example, the body in question requires rebaptism for changes in congregation; they do not recognize even the baptisms of like-minded, associated congregations.)

    We have understood the Quadrilateral, I think, through a pleni esse lens much of the time. That allows us not only to reach out in ecumenical relations, but also to feel we offer something for Protestant ecumenical partners: we have bishops, and retain them on behalf of other Protestant Christians(whether they want it or not, much less whether they appreciate it). The mutual recognition underlying CCM included that while the Lutherans had maintained the apostolic tradition, we would share with them historic succession (a position that would have been much easier if we’d required Krister Stendahl to participate in all ELCA ordinations to the episcopate instead of an Episcopal bishop).

    Episkope is addressed in the New Testament, a need perceived in the first Christian generation. We have understood it as rooted in the Apostolate; but what that means is a post-Apostolic development. We continue to wrestle with whether it is integral to the core of the faith, necessary for the protection of a core of faith, necessary to the maintenance of the community of faith even if the community strays from the core, or all three.

    By the way, Young Jon: I understand your point. There are, as you know, many of us who consider ourselves catholic and orthodox who believe in indefectability but cannot embrace infallibility in the Church below the Head, which is Christ; at least until we experience the Kingdom in all its fullness.

  7. The young fogey

    Good point, Derek. I mean the commonly understood Orthodox communion, the big one with the patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow in it that has churches using either kalendar (C’ople uses the new; Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church, the biggest Orthodox church, the old). Of course I know what you’re getting at. The schismatic Old Believers and schismatic Old Calendarists are rather like the Lefebvrists in the Roman communion, in practice a separate church out of communion but not a separate church in principle. They’re outside the Orthodox communion but obviously still ‘part of the family’, directly related to it (even though the Russian Old Believers have been out of communion almost as long as there have been Protestants); if reconciled to the main church they’re received economically in their orders if they still have clergy (some Old Believers don’t).

    The Catholic faith is paradoxical orthodoxy: sinless church (faith’n’morals), sinful people (political instantiations in incarnate reality).

  8. Derek the Ænglican

    Ah—but do the sinful people ever preach what they practice?

    That is, does the teaching of people trapped in a condition of both sin and limitation ever partake of that sin and limitation to a greater degree than divine inspiration? The rubber hits the road in official church on Jews and slavery as well as Controversial Issues. (Of course, here I think we’re back to infallibility… )

  9. Derek the Ænglican

    Fr. Scott,
    At the end of the day I find the Lutheran arguments convincing, seeing apostolic succession more in the intention to teach what the church has taught than in the “magic hands” of the vagantes that YF reminds us about.

    (That’s not to say that I think the Lutherans and others are *right* on everything, but that they intend to be right—just as we do.)

    btw, I do believe on the basis of my experience and that of others that there is a mystical Spirit thing that happens in ordinations and consecrations. I can’t quite wrap words around it fully, but I do think it needs to be said…

  10. Christopher


    is whether the criterion of Apostolic Succession implies any teachings—specifically moral teachings—not found in the creeds.

    I think not also.

    I do think their is some thing to that experience of ordination and consecration as well, but that experience has tended to be taken as separable from Baptism rather than held within this root sacrament. If we understand that our being/person is something not static but also shaped by others and our roles, then a shift in relationship within and with the community makes perfect sense and I would suggest the Spirit is at work in this shift in relationship as well as the one who gives grace to the receiver to live out his change in relationship.

  11. The young fogey

    Well, if I believed a sinful people made it impossible to know the truth I’d stay home on Sunday. (And as you know a lot of people use that as an excuse to do just that: ‘Church? They’re hypocrites who just want my money. I’m spiritual not religious.’)

    Yeah, it comes back to infallibility. The Episcopal online reaction to Bishop Lipscomb’s conversion in November made that clear to me. No need to get bogged down in potentially hurtful arguments about Controversial Issues™ — here’s THE dividing line between Catholics and Protestants; those issues are just presenting symptoms of that. (We believe we can’t change some things; Protestants think they can.)

    I don’t find the Lutheran argument convincing (but you knew that) but understand its appeal as better than magic hands just like I feel for Martin Luther reacting (making mistakes) to the corruption he saw.

    When Episcopalians are grandfathering in non-episcopal Lutheran pastors (and Porvoo’s done the same in Europe) and Mark Hanson claims the episcopate through the Anglicans (who claim Old Catholic succession now) it’s appealing to dump the ‘lines’ game a different way from the Lutherans and just be Orthodox: ‘Are you in the church? (The body of Christ – well put, Fr Scott.) No? Get back to us when you are.’

    Rome conditionally reordains Dutch-touch ex-Anglicans anyway.

  12. Marshall Scott

    Actually, Derek, I also believe there is some necessary grace conveyed in ordination – or, better, perhaps, sufficient, as in “My grace will be sufficient for you.” It is about charism, the gift of the Spirit significant for the ministry to which one is called. I continue to think about an “indelible mark.”

    I do find the Lutheran argument very important (and, having learned Church History under Don Armentrout, that isn’t really a surprise). While I think there is some charism for the episcopate, received (if not exactly conveyed) in the laying on of hands, I also think the intent of the episcopate is maintenance of the apostolic tradition, and that intent can conceivably be met through some other process. So, it can’t be sufficient that there is succession by itself, as YF points out: the vagantes are out there. On the other hand, the principle you point out, that we “know the family history,” does seem a trustworthy mechanism.

  13. Derek the Ænglican

    Well, if I believed a sinful people made it impossible to know the truth I’d stay home on Sunday.

    But that’s not what I’m saying, is it?

    Rather, into our body of truth we include things that from our human and sinful perspective seem like truth—but are not. And (here comes my protestant side) is where the Church must ever be a body reforming itself. Naturally for it to be true Reformation, it must be at the impulse and direction of the Spirit, yet carried out by sinful people which is why it should be a careful process.

  14. The young fogey

    I know that’s not what you’re trying to say.

    The Pope for example can have wrong opinions. And there are things people mistake for doctrine that aren’t: limbo for example (the reigning Pope doesn’t believe in it, which is fine), rules on clerical celibacy or ‘if you could change your mind about meat on Friday why not same-sex unions?’ The question is whether the church can define error as doctrine which seems to be what the framers of the Articles (but not other classic Anglicans like Laud) believed. And of course both the conservative and the liberal sides in the Anglican row think they’re being moved by the Spirit. (Protestantism is self-refuting.) So hello, infallible church.

  15. Jon

    Hmm, I think you’re skipping over the question of who counts as the church too quickly here, young fogey. I’m also inclined to think that insisting on an infallible anything tells us more about how badly humans want to be in control and how low a view of reality they have, tnan it tells us about reality. So both the conservative and the liberal claim that the Holy Spirit is on their side. So what? No human can compell the Spirit, so unless one side can prove their claim somehow it is a mostly pointless claim. The Spirit is wherever the Spirit is; it is our job to try to conform our teachings to the reality rather than to assume that reality conforms to our teachings.


  16. The young fogey

    And there are some hefty contenders, Jon: il Papa (who is patriarch of the English); holy Orthodoxy; the Oriental communion of Copts, Armenians and others; good Vincentian-canon Catholics of Utrechtian heritage such as the Polish National Catholic Church (who also used to be affiliated with the Episcopal Church)…

    I see church infallibility as a God-given limit on our desire to control because once something’s defined and received it can’t be taken back.

    Which is how we see conforming to reality (how the ancients, the Schoolmen and classic Anglicans defined reason BTW). Trying to revoke defined and received teaching for something more fashionable is, to us, assuming that reality conforms to one’s ideas.

Comments are closed.