I got a long-running e-mail discussion going in one of those wonderfully odd ways God has of putting things together. I’d been friends at Bob Jones University with this guy called Doug. After school we’d gone our separate ways. I ended up in England and he wound up as an English professor in the mid-West. After twenty years we got back in touch in a strange way. I posted a note on an internet religious chat room asking if any Bob Jones graduates were out there wanting to talk. Some complete stranger saw the note, took my address into work and gave it to Doug. Doug e-mails me out of the blue and we start discussing religion. Now three or four years later the debate is still going on.
We’re both from this very fundamentalist background, but we’ve both got a pretty good dose of education since then. I became an Anglican and finally took the step to become a Catholic about six years ago. As a friend of Doug’s said, ‘The trajectory from South Carolina through Canterbury was far more likely to end up in Rome than in Missouri.’ The nice thing about debating with Doug is that he is actually fair, intelligent and well read. He’s not a Catholic but he has taken the trouble to read Catholic writings. He doesn’t agree with the Catholic Church, but at least he knows what he doesn’t agree with. A lot of the people I’ve discussed the church with only disagree with what they think Catholics believe. Not Doug. He knows his stuff and now that he’s an Episcopalian he has become pretty Catholic himself in his ways of thinking and worshipping. He uses the Catholic daily readings, appreciates the solemn liturgy of Holy Week, observes Lent and wishes his evangelical Episcopal Church was maybe a little more Catholic in the way they do things.
Over the years we’ve covered all the bases. I mean we’ve discussed everything about the Catholic Church. One day we end up tapping away at our computers about how the Church is apostolic. Both of us agree that our Christian faith comes to us from the apostles, but I hadn’t really looked hard at just what that means. We did some Bible digging and came up with some pretty interesting stuff. It all has to do with spiritual authority on earth, where the authority comes from, and how we know something is true.
Doug and I actually sorted out the basics together. The argument goes like this: The Gospels make an amazing claim. They give Jesus universal divine authority. Matthew says ‘all authority has been given to him on heaven and earth.’ (Mt.28:18) The Father has placed everything into his hands. (Jn.3:35) He has authority over all people, (Jn.17:2) and his authority has been given to him by his Father in heaven. (Lk. 10:22) In his epistles Saint Paul also affirms the divine authority which Jesus claimed. (I Cor 15:27; Eph.1:20-22; Php.2:9-10)
Jesus knew he couldn’t stay on the earth forever, and the gospels show how Jesus intended his ministry to be continued on earth. He called twelve men to lead his followers. So they could lead the church with power and authority Jesus gave the apostles a share in his own divine authority. So Jesus says the apostles are sent just as the Father sent him. (Jn 20:21) Jesus had the authority to cast out demons and teach the Truth. In Luke 9.1-3 he gives his apostles the authority to do the same. They are to speak the Truth with the same kind of authority Jesus had because Jesus says whoever listens to them listens to Him (Lk. 10:16). At the end of all four gospels Jesus gives the apostles special authority to continue his work. In Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15 he tells them to preach the Truth and baptise. In Luke 24:45-48 he commands them to understand the Scriptures and preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and in John 20:23 he specifically gives them his authority to forgive sins. Jesus must have intended this ministry to continue because in Matthew 28:20 he promises to be with the apostles until the end of time. Then in John’s gospel he promises the Holy Spirit to help with the work of understanding the truth, (Jn.16:13) and says the Holy Spirit will remain with the apostles forever. (Jn.14:16)
The Acts of the Apostles tells how the apostles followed the Lord’s command and went into the whole world to preach the truth, admonish evil and forgive sins. As the foremost apostles, Peter and Paul take the responsibility for proclaiming the Truth of God. Both of them claim their message comes directly from God. The authority to preach God’s Truth is given to the apostles, but the apostles also claim the authority to interpret the Word of God. Paul, for example, takes the authority to forge a new interpretation of the Old Testament which unlocks Jesus’ true identity as eternal son of God. Peter also claims the authority to interpret Scripture the correct way. In his second epistle he says, ‘No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.’ If we are not to interpret the Scripture on our own who is to interpret it for us? Jesus says the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth, so the Holy Spirit plays a part. But Peter himself answers the question in the same epistle. In verse 16-18 of chapter one, Peter claims teaching authority because he was an eyewitness of Jesus' life and glory. Peter has the authority to interpret Scripture because he received the truth direct from Jesus. He then says in verse two of chapter three that the truth was spoken in the past by the holy prophets, but that the commands are now given by Jesus Christ through the apostles.
What is interesting here is that Peter compares the role of the New Testament apostles to the Old Testament prophets. As a practising Jew Peter understood that the prophets were directly inspired by God. Their preaching was considered to be a direct word from God to the people of God. We have already seen that Peter considered his preaching to be 'the Word of God which stands forever.' As such the apostles are the prophets--the God-inspired teachers of the New Testament people of God. When Peter says, ‘No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation’ he also means that only the prophet--that is the apostle-- is entitled and empowered by the Holy Spirit to give the right interpretation.
Paul agrees with Peter. In Ephesians 3:5 he says the mystery of God has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets. It is the same Spirit-led group of men who are the foundation of the church. Paul says in Ephesians 2:20 that his hearers are members of the church, ‘the household of God which is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus as the chief corner stone.’ Jesus is the corner stone of this church, but it is the apostles and the prophets--inspired by God's Holy Spirit--who provide the foundation. When Saint Paul says the ‘church is built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles’, what is interesting is that he does not say the church is built on the foundation of the teachings of the prophets and apostles. He says the church is built on them. In other words, the person and his teaching are a unity. In both the prophets and the apostles, their teaching cannot be separated from the authority by which they teach.
The Apostolic Church
We can agree on this. Doug and I both believe the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. The Bible says that clearly. But now Doug and I start to differ. Doug says his church is also founded on the apostles and prophets because they hold to the faith which was taught by the apostles. I’m not totally happy about this, but on the other hand I can see that a Protestant Church that holds to the Biblical, unchanging apostolic faith is more true than some liberal church that has sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.
I’m holding out for bishops. Catholics believe that the bishops are the successors of the apostles. We think the bishops give us a firm basis for authority. The bishops are our living link with the apostles. Loyalty to them produces unity in the church. From the very earliest days in the church this has been true. So I cut and paste some chunks about the early church to Doug. I remind him about a guy called Clement. Clement was a leader of the Roman church just sixty years or so after the crucifixion. Around the year 150 a French church leader called Irenaeus said about Clement, ‘He not only had seen the blessed Apostles, but had also conferred with them, and had their preaching still ringing in his ears, and their tradition still before his eyes.’[i] I mean, this is really early in church history. It’s even possible that this is the same Clement who Paul calls his ‘fellow worker.’ (Phil. 4:3)
Around the year 95 Clement wrote a letter to the Church at Corinth pleading with them to maintain unity with the properly appointed leaders. In his letter he explains clearly from what source those leaders had received their authority. He writes, ‘The Apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ...and they went out full of confidence in the Holy Spirit...and appointed their first fruits...to be bishops and deacons. Our apostles knew there would be strife on the question of the bishop's office, Therefore, they appointed these people already mentioned and later made further provision that if they should fall asleep other tested men should succeed to their ministry.’[ii]
Another Protestant friend of mine thought Clement was just trying to boost his own authority, but there are writings from all over the ancient world which show that all the Christian leaders believed the same thing. They thought they were the successors of the apostles. Ignatius of Antioch was martyred in the year 115. He was probably instructed by Peter and Paul during their time in Antioch. In writing to the Trallian church he equates the church elders with apostles. ‘When you obey the bishop as if he were Christ Jesus, you are living not in a merely human fashion, but in Jesus Christ‘s way…It is essential therefore, to act in no way without the bishop, just as you are doing. Rather submit even to the presbytery (the body of elders) as to the apostles of Jesus Christ.’[iii] To the Christians at Smyrna Ignatius writes, ‘You should follow the bishops as Jesus Christ did the Father. Follow too the presbytery as you would the apostles …You should regard that Eucharist as valid which is celebrated either by the bishop or by someone he authorises.’[iv]
By the middle of the second century—less than a hundred years after the death of the last apostle, the whole church had recognised the apostolic authority of properly recognised and appointed bishops. The evidence comes from North Africa, Syria, France and Italy, and they all recognise that the proper authority in the church must be descended historically from the apostles. I reminded Doug about Irenaeus. He was a theologian and bishop who wrote around the year 180. Irenaeus actually knew Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, so in Irenaeus we are just one generation removed from the apostles themselves. According to Irenaeus it is because the church leaders have inherited the apostolic authority that they can interpret Scripture properly. So he writes, ‘By knowledge of the truth we mean the teaching of the Apostles; the order of the Church as established from earliest times throughout the world...preserved through the episcopal succession: for to the bishops the apostles committed the care of the church in each place which has come down to our own time safeguarded by ...the most complete exposition...the reading of the Scriptures without falsification and careful and consistent exposition of them--avoiding both rashness and blasphemy.’[v] Elsewhere he says that the bishops of the church not only received the apostolic teaching, but the apostolic authority to define and defend that teaching. ‘We can enumerate those who were appointed bishops in the churches by the apostles and their successors down to our own day…they [the apostles] were handing over to them their own office of doctrinal authority.’[vi]
So I come back to Doug insisting that part of the apostolic faith he wants to hold on to actually includes having bishops. Its clear isn’t it? For the first generation of Christians the apostolic faith meant being part of a church which not only taught the apostolic faith, but had leaders whose authority descended historically from the apostles. According to the early evidence, the church was organised with a chief elder (bishop) in each city, and with elders (priests) to oversee the local congregations. The priests and bishops were assisted by deacons who also exercised a teaching and ministry role. Even in those early days there were some groups who broke off from the established apostolic authority to do their own thing. Ignatius called them to return to the unified church led by the apostolically appointed leaders. Irenaeus insisted that the fullest expression of Christianity was to be found in the churches which traced their authority right back to the apostles themselves. He says of those who broke away from the apostolic church, ‘we challenge them by an appeal to that tradition which derives from the Apostles, and which is preserved in the churches by the succession of presbyters…Those who wish to see the truth can observe in every church the tradition of the Apostles…It is our duty to obey those bishops who are in the church, who have their succession from the Apostles, as we have shown, who with their succession in the episcopate have received the sure spiritual gift of truth according to the pleasure of the Father.’[vii]
We debate back and forth—the computers are hot with our discussion on the issue. I think Doug is finally agreeing that bishops are a good thing. Finally we come up with a kind of synthesis. Maybe a church can be apostolic in four different ways. These four different ways sort of accumulate so you might have one or two apostolic traits, but its best to have as many as possible. After all, why have mere Christianity when you can have more Christianity?
The first and most basic level of apostolicity is faithfulness to essentials of the apostolic teaching. In other words, if a non-Catholic Christian believes the simple gospel, and accepts the ‘old time religion’ it can be said that he shares to a certain degree in the apostolic faith. Inasmuch as any Christian repents of his sin and trusts Jesus Christ as his saviour he participates to some extent in the apostolic faith. Both Doug and I are happy about this. Its inclusive. Nobody is left out.
This is fine as far as it goes, but there is more on offer than that. There are some other questions to ask too. The individual who repents of his sins and trusts Jesus Christ as his saviour is taking part in the apostolic faith, but where does he turn for his answers and his doctrine? Without another authority he’s on his own. Also, if there is nothing else but personal experience, that single individual is cut off from a large measure of the apostolic faith. It is a bit like a person looking through a keyhole into a ballroom. They certainly see part of the ballroom, and what they see is true enough; but there is far more to be seen than that. According to the New Testament, individual believers have to be baptised into the body of Christ, and the body of Christ has recognised leaders. In other words, the person looking through the keyhole has to come into the ballroom and join the party. A second level of the apostolic faith means an individual joins a church and so participates in some sort of recognised ordained ministry. If an individual joins a church with an ordained ministry, or if he or she is ordained, then by virtue of that fact they are sharing in the second degree of apostolicity. Almost all Christians belong to a church with some sort of ordained ministry, and that ministry is usually patterned on the guidelines in the New Testament. Because they belong to a church with an ordained ministry, most Christians also share in this second degree of apostolicity. That’s fine. Doug’s happy. I’m happy. We’re still including people rather than excluding. This means any Christian who goes to church probably shares in a little bit more of the apostolic faith than just the lonely wandering Christian.
Two levels is better than one, but there’s more. I keep reminding Doug that the New Testament and the documents of the early church show that the apostles established a recognised historical succession for the church leadership. The historical succession is important because through it a particular church claims a living link with the apostles, and therefore claims that their teaching and authority structure is part of that church founded two thousand years ago. This is a kind of pedigree. What’s more likely to be true? A Church founded two thousand years ago or one founded two hundred years ago? The third level of the apostolic faith means a denomination or individual shares in some way in apostolic succession. In other words, those churches that have bishops who claim historical succession from the apostles may share in this third level of apostolicity. The Orthodox, the different Anglican groups, and some other Catholic-minded Christian denominations would all claim to share in this third level of apostolic authority. Even if their claims to apostolic succession are spurious, their desire to be a part of this higher level of apostolicity shows an awareness and a sharing in something greater. This is good. Doug and I are still happy about including everyone. The stress is not on who is out, but on who is most completely in.
Christians can share in one level of apostolicity by believing the simple gospel message. They go ‘further up and further in’ when they join a church with an ordained ministry. They penetrate further into the mystery of the apostolic Church once they have entered a denomination which claims to share the historic connection with the apostles through the ministry of bishops. But I suggested that there are four levels of apostolicity. Now I’m pushing things. I want a fourth level because this is where the rubber meets the road. The fourth level is being a part of the historic Catholic Church. The Anglicans claim apostolic succession. Eastern Orthodox enjoy a high degree of apostolicity, but only the Catholic Church expresses historic apostolic authority in a universal way. This is a whole ‘nother ball game, but it is enough to say that in the Catholic Church there is a fullness of the apostolic faith which is not present elsewhere. In the Catholic Church there is a universal authority connected right back to the apostles Peter and Paul which is recognisable and dynamic in the world today.
This universal authority is both faithful to the apostolic faith, and yet able to apply that faith to the needs of the present day. I cut and paste a snippet from John Henry Newman over to Doug. It comes from Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Like most of Newman’s stuff it is not exactly pithy and punchy. Long sentences and big words. But its worth wading through. Here it is:
If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must, humanly speaking, have an infallible expounder, else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties; between latidudinarian and sectarian error. You must accept the whole or reject the whole… it is trifling to receive all but something which is as integral as any other portion. Thus it would be trifling indeed to accept everything Catholic except the head of the body of Christ here on earth.
In other words, if you don’t accept the universal apostolic authority of the successor of Peter, then you only have a partial apostolic faith. You don’t have what Jesus expected—one shepherd for the one flock. (Jn. 10:16) Without that single voice of authority Newman says you will fall into one of two errors. Either you will sacrifice agreement on doctrine in order to maintain a semblance of unity (this is what many of the mainstream Protestant denominations opt for) or you will have agreement on doctrine and practice, but end up in a little sect. (This is what the independent Protestant churches choose). The only way to have both agreement on doctrine and inner unity is to have a central, recognised authority.
In the Catholic Church this authority is historical, Biblical and apostolic. It is the successor of Peter. When Catholics therefore say they believe in ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ it is not just an idea. It is a person who lives and speaks to us. He is the successor of the one on whom Christ founded the Church; (Mt.16.18) the one to whom Jesus entrusted his authority as the Good Shepherd of the Sheep. (Jn.21.15-17)
Not by the Faith Alone
This phrase has been batted around by Doug and me a fair bit. But usually the ‘not by faith alone’ tag is used in reference to our debates about faith and works. But the ‘not by faith alone’ tag works here too. It suddenly dawns on me at church one day while we’re saying the Nicene Creed. We don’t actually profess to believe in ‘One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic faith.’ We profess to believe in ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ We’d been discussing how somebody could profess to believe in the apostolic faith, but the early Christians didn’t use that term. Instead they spoke about believing in ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ The penny dropped, as we say in England. Bing! The light went on.
My fingers were itching to get back to the computer. I said to Doug, ‘You can’t really have the apostolic faith unless you are in the apostolic church.’ I was happy to concede that a single person on a desert island could repent of their sins and believe and trust in Jesus and therefore hold to the apostolic faith. Even so, it is necessary for that person, as soon as possible, to join the church and belong to the body of Christ. The branch cut off from the vine withers and dies.
From the very beginning the faith has never been separated from membership in the family of God. The Jews couldn’t conceive of following Jehovah for instance, without also being a Jew. Likewise, it is impossible to really hold to the apostolic faith without belonging to the apostolic church. To simply hold to the faith without belonging to the Church is playing head games. Belonging to the church makes it real. Saying you are a Christian without belonging to the Church is like saying you love your fiancée, but you never spending time with her and don’t intend to marry her. Actions speak louder than words, and they speak a lot louder than thoughts and ideas.
When we say we believe in ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ We mean that belonging and believing are part of the same thing. Belonging puts flesh on believing. The Church is the way we live out the apostolic faith. That’s why a Catholic bishop once said to me in all modesty, ‘I am not a successor to the apostles. I am an apostle.’ In other words, in the fullness of the Catholic Church the church of the apostles is alive in the world today. Do you want to ‘get back’ to the New Testament Church? Why not join the church to whom St Paul wrote the letter of Romans?
To live in this church is not simply a matter of choosing a Church we happen to like best. In fact, I tell Doug I’m a bit jealous of his being an Episcopalian. The Episcopalians sure have a nice liturgy. They also have nice people and nice buildings. I didn’t join the Catholic Church because it was the church I liked best. If truth be told, I actually liked the Anglican church best. I also didn’t join the Catholic Church because I thought it was a humanly perfect Church. Anybody who takes a glance at church history can lay that one to rest. I didn’t join the Catholic Church because I thought it was the perfect Church, but because I discovered that it was the true Church.