Some Modest Considerations Concerning the Background Assumptions of the Catholic “Apostolic Succession” Argument

[Note: The following post began as a response to the comments of Bill Beacomb regarding Apostolic Succession and its apparently ancient Roman assumptions, found in the comment box to my post "Woe to Babylon." Because my remarks grew far too long for the comments box, I have turned it into its own separate post.]


Regarding the Apostolic Succession argument, of course I have more than just “I don’t believe it.” That was merely the conclusion, written in haste without the accompanying argument because I was short on time. There are certainly reasons why I don’t believe it, and, since you picked on my “empire” remark, those reasons are not as shallow as you might suspect. When I speak of “empire” in this connection, I’m using the term to summarize the whole scope and tenor of the Roman cultural baggage which the Fathers and Medievals carried around and through the “window” of which they viewed the divine revelation handed down to them from the Apostles.

A brief digression is necessary to contextualize what I’m about to say about the baggage. As Christians, we trust in God’s providence and so we know that there was a reason in God’s perfect plan why He sent Christ into the world in the time of the Romans. It wasn’t a historical accident and there were no forces operating anywhere at any time over which God did not have complete control. God knew in advance everything there was to know about all the cultural baggage, and He certainly took that into account in His plan for developing the Church out of the Old Testament era into the New. God is the Lord of history, and works out His plans through it without losing a thing to it. This I firmly believe and confess: I am no relativist, as the term is commonly understood by theologians and apologists (of whatever communion) who find it difficult to imagine that the world could be quite different from the Perfect Ideals they themselves take to be self-evident.

Nevertheless, keeping in mind God’s superintendence of history, as with any time period, one has to consider the influences operating on men’s minds if one is to get a realistic grasp of why they believed what they believed and did what they did-and thus, to understand their relevance to our own lives. God works through means (this is a fully Catholic principle, as you know), and this means that the means are not unimportant. And in the case of the Early Church, on whose full reliability in “matters of faith and morals” Catholicism utterly relies, the influences operating on men’s minds, the means which God made use of, were Roman. And since Rome conquered Greece, that means there were Greek influences operating on men’s minds in the Early Church. And through Greece (particularly Alexander’s Hellenism) came many other influences.

This may be seen trivially in considering the educational system of the day, when all men who received an education were thoroughly trained in ancient Greek rhetoric and had thorough grasps of ancient mythology, history, politics, economics, etc. I think it may also be seen on larger levels as well, as with the adaptation of the organization of the Church to Diocletian’s political division of the Empire (e.g., dioceses), and with the re-shaping of the Christian priesthood during Cyprian’s time along the pattern of the Roman patronage system. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians were deeply concerned with Roman law and jurisprudence, Roman politics, Roman rhetoric, Roman culture, Roman Empire, and, just generically, Roman ethos. An excellent mini-view into how this worked may be found in my entry Roman Rhetoric and Right-Angle Apologetics.

I think the reason many Catholics regularly miss this is because it’s so obvious that it fades into the background. It’s like looking out a window. Even if you notice the window frame when you first look, in almost no time at all you forget all about the frame and focus only on what you see through the frame. The frame contextualizes what otherwise might be a glut of raw data all jumbled together with no apparent purpose or pattern. This is a universal feature of human knowledge, of course, but it’s interesting because it’s simultaneously not only the only way we can see some things but also the reason why we don’t see all kinds of other things. Roman Christians are no different than any other Christians at this point. It’s just that other Christians look through frames that are either not Roman at all or else have a different ratio of “Roman stuff” in them than the frames of fully Roman Christians. We all look through frames. At some level of discourse it is important to understand that we are looking through frames and to have some kind of grasp of the texture and color and shape of the frame, and to understand how it orders the world for us—both in terms of what it reveals and what it conceals.

Now one has to be careful with this sort of argument, because unbelievers like Harnack used it to demythologize Christianity, to make it just one more Late Antique religion among many. Some argue similarly that saint cults are reducible to a Christian adaptation of pagan hero worship—Saints’ Lives do read pretty much like Plutarch’s Lives and follow ancient rhetorical conventions—and so of course, there could be nothing God-ordained or superintended in them. Some pagan myths feature dying and rising gods, so Christianity must be a Jewish-Roman adaptation of the basic Adonis myth, and nothing more. The rite of Christian baptism seems similar to the Mithraic rite in which acolytes were inundated with the blood of bulls to prove their fidelity to the god. And on the reductionism and demythologization goes, until there’s nothing left but a vague moralistic “kerygma” stripped of all supernaturalism because, as Bultmann famously said, of course Modern people who control electricity via switches on the wall can’t possibly believe in angels and demons (like the dumb ancients did)!

Let me be perfectly clear. That’s not how I’m using the “influence” argument. I completely abominate that form of it. However, I do acknowledge talking about “influences” can easily appear to be a species of skeptical demythologization, and not least because many Protestants do demythologize the Early and Medieval Church in exactly this manner so as to hold up the Reformation (or at any rate, their own late-breaking interpretation of it) as an objective recovery of a “pure” Gospel based “only” on the Bible and which was lost shortly after the Apostles. I’m not arguing this way, but I recognize that I have an uphill rhetorical battle to wage precisely because that is a common Protestant way of arguing. Very few of our apologists are sensitive to the way the argument can (absent some serious sophistication and commitment to larger principles of authority than “What I myself can derive from Greek exegesis”) be abstracted into the world of Skepticism and Infidelity and used as a bludgeon to destroy Christianity itself.

Furthermore, to anticipate a common Catholic assertion, looking at the means God used in a way that “relativizes” them does not equate to a formal philosophy of relativism. A stained glass window does not destroy light, but colors it. Looking at the colors does not detract from the light, but in fact serves to appreciate our perception of the light. A major question between Protestants and Catholics on this point concerns whether God intended the ancient Roman stained-glass window to be the only window through which men pondering His revelation could look and arrive at truth. Catholics routinely assume yes. Many other Christians are not so sure, and summary Catholic dismissals typically fail to convince precisely because they are summary dismissals.

Now that I’ve explained the argument’s trajectory, let me try to spell out the implications of it which I see for Apostolic Succession. A basic succession argument can certainly be derived from the New Testament writings. The Apostles often appointed successors to their ministry. We see this in Acts 1:25 where men are elected specifically to take over from and take part in the ministry and apostleship of Judas. Paul appointed Timothy in Titus 1:5 and instructed him to appoint others who would continue the apostolic ministry in 2 Tim. 2:1-2. I do not gainsay this basic Scriptural succession teaching, obviously, and certainly these sorts of passages would be the biblical basis for the patristic understanding of succession. But there were more than biblical concerns driving the Fathers—or perhaps more accurately, staying with my metaphor of the window frame—the window frame through which they interpreted the Scriptural doctrine of succession was the aforementioned Roman window.

Some of the Fathers saw this, each in their own way. Lactantius, as I’m sure you know, rails against the notion of an unbroken succession of leaders precisely because, he says, this is how the pagans reckon authority, never daring to depart from the hallowed examples of their heroic ancestors. Tertullian urges his readers to determine the legitimacy of the persons with reference to the Faith, not the legitimacy of the Faith with reference to the persons. Irenaeus, in the very passage where he holds up the succession argument as a big part of his proof against the Gnostics acknowledges (surely following Paul in Acts 20:29) that if the men elected to the episcopate are not faithful men it would have the direst of consequences for the Church.

But my favorite example of all, saved to the end of my recitation and beginning a new paragraph all its own, is the giant example of St. Augustine, who brilliantly argues in the City of God that the Kingdom of God is never reducible to any one social-political order—and certainly not the Roman one. Now it is intriguing to me that the City of God was written precisely because the antiquity-revering Roman pagans believed that the abandonment of the old ways and the old gods and the mass turn of the Empire’s people to Christianity was responsible for the calamities befalling Rome. As you can see in this short summary entry, Augustine on Development and Change, Augustine tackled this argument in its best form, that offered by the pagan Porphyry. As Augustine argued, the conservative assumption that change is always more shocking than innovation is quite questionable, and indeed, must be questioned precisely because of the radical claims of Christianity entering the Roman world. It is not necessarily the case that permanence equals truth, not even on a view of development, for it is quite conceivable that God Himself could introduce novelties according to a plan accessible only to His own mind.

This type of reasoning from Augustine the Christian cuts against the grain of the ancient Roman assumptions about stability, permanence, change, and the inevitable conformity of the rational human mind to the Reason thought to inhere in the very creation. Those assumptions are exactly why the “Church as perpetual monarchy” notion is so powerful to many minds, not to mention the subsidiary “Church as perpetual monarchy centered on the Roman Bishop.” I understand why all of this seems reasonable. I am not claiming it is fundamentally unreasonable. What I am claiming is that it is fundamentally Roman, but that Christianity is not fundamentally Roman. Christianity, not just in its nature but also in its polity, transcends “the elementary principles of the world” to borrow from Paul’s phraseology in Colossians. It represents a New Creation, an entrance of new principles into the world, principles which gradually redeem and transform the world. It is the old principles of the old world which decree a necessary conformity of man’s rational mind to a Rational order inherent in the creation, and it is these old principles of the old world that create and uphold such Roman notions as the necessary identification of the person and decrees of the king with what is right, the archetypal-eternal perfection of monarchical government, the subsistence of the True Community in only one socio-politico-ecclesio-logical order, an ontological distinction between “higher” and “lower” people (patrons / priests VS. clients / laity), and the ipso facto wrongness of contradicting the ancestors.

These ideas deserve serious discussion. Some of them, like giving preference to a monarchical leader under all ordinary conditions, might be things that others could reasonably live with. But some of them, in fact, especially the rigid ontological clergy-laity distinction, are flatly contradictory to the Gospel because they are simply instantiations of the principles of the old world but have not been recognized as such by the otherwise godly, faithful Christians who hold them. I realize that’s probably shocking to someone who believes Holy Spirit guidance necessarily takes the form of making sure the Properly Validated Leaders never Formally teach anything that is wrong, but you have to consider why you believe them and what the frame is out of which you are looking. These things are not simple innocent givens, and to me it looks like simple question begging to exempt them from criticism on the basis of Holy-Spirit guidance. It’s not some telling point that both Rome and Byzantium think this way—both have the same Roman heritage, and merely developed it along very similar trajectories. Remove, or at least significantly downplay, the influences which made these Christian communities what they are and you just might get an entirely different kind of Christian community—like for instance the ones currently developing in South America and Africa, which have no notions whatever, as Catholicism does, of the Enduring Significance of the Without-End Roman Empire.

What would you think of the argument that because Christianity somehow got planted on an isolated Polynesian island, several hundred years later when the Christians encountered others who were not Polynesians they tried to make out that the Perfect Divine Order of the Church could only be found in the developed Polynesian system? How about Puritan-ized America refracted through 19th century revivalism? Maybe Democracy is the Perfect Divine Governmental Scheme, and Apostolic Succession really subsists in each individual alone with his own copy of the Bible and his own notions of the Spirit working in his own heart. I certainly do not believe such notions, but it’s precisely because I see the flaws in more recent examples like that that I can also see them in more ancient examples like Rome and Byzantium.

The Fathers, as a general group, could not have helped thinking this way because they were Romans. The whole shape and tenor of their minds was Roman, so for the most part Roman assumptions functioned as their mental and spiritual window frame. That occasionally they saw the frame and recognized that elements of it contradicted Christian principles, the principles of the new world, is no big surprise. Along with the examples I listed above we may also consider the Christological champions who frequently took pagan terms (ousia, hypostasis, etc.), emptied them of their pagan content, and re-filled them with Christian content so as to better express the principles of the new world to ears accustomed to hearing the language of the old. No one is entirely trapped in their own perspective. We can talk across perspectives and to no small extent properly understand each other. We can come to recognize that we are looking through a window, start paying attention to the window frame, and even move to a different window to obtain a different view. Plus, as Christians the Fathers certainly had the promise of Holy Spirit-guidance. But then, so do we. The workings of the Spirit guiding into truth aren’t limited to the ancestors, and though it may seem counter-intuitive to you, sometimes the ancestors are just flat wrong, and not just wrong about trivial physical concerns such as the center of the universe and the shape of the earth.

So where does this leave us? It certainly leaves us with much less certainty than Roman Christians (and for that matter, Greek Christians) want. I can imagine the horror that would arise in a Roman mind upon contemplating the proposition “Monarchy is not Divine Perfection, and may sometimes go against Divine Perfection,” or “What if the ancestors were wrong?” But if I can take a step back from my post-Reformation window frame and contemplate such things as “What would happen to the theology of sin if a Christian society never had to deal with a Pelagius?” (one big key to sympathizing with the Eastern rejection of “Latin” theology in all its forms, both Rome and the Reformation), perhaps you can take a step back from your ancient-Roman window frame and contemplate such things as “What if the succession got broken and all jumbled up, but God is still in control of it and is doing things that ancient Rome could never have possibly imagined?”

Where all this leaves us is with a serious need to think seriously about the ways that the world has changed, and how God might be acting in the changed circumstances. Recent Catholic scholarship (over the last 100 years or so) seems to have become more open to examining historical contingencies and relating them to the “faith once for all delivered” in a far less offensively dogmatic manner. Thus, for instance, Catholics today can have a John Paul II asking other Christian communities to dialogue with the papacy about how the papacy could better fulfill its own traditional role of safeguarding unity and governing the Church. Catholics today aren’t stuck with Boniface VIII’s blunt thundering, and don’t have to pretend that, say, “papal primacy” must take the form it took in the feudalized world of the later Middle Ages. All kinds of possibilities for constructive discourse are opened by this openness, and I hope the trend continues.

Additionally, it leaves us having to deal with the typical Catholic apologetics slur that all counter-examples to Roman practice are merely the idiosyncracies of individuals, and cannot stand against the united witness of “the Church.” The big problem with that argument is precisely the fact that it begs the whole question by pretending there really is no question to begin with. For regardless of whether there ought to be different windows that Christians look through, there are different windows and it is no response at all to look at someone else through your own window and tell him he’s just a rebellious clod for daring to be looking through his own window. It is not obvious to everyone that Roman assumptions about “the Church” are just the Divine Way, so it is no argument at all to say that other precedents are merely individuals and not “the Church.” What is at issue is precisely the collapsing of “the Church” into the Formalized Ontological Roman-Episcopal Hierarchy which determines all things by trying to conform the world to ancient standards of truth, justice, politics, and culture. If “the Church” is bigger than this, and does not necessarily “subsist” in this, entire new realms of possibility open up. Catholics may not be able to ultimately accept those new realms, but they ought to make a more than decent effort to understand those new realms and to relate less offensively to those who think of the new realms with as much confidence as Catholics think of theirs. Besides, saying that, say, Lactantius was just an individual so his view of succession doesn’t count looks like the genetic fallacy. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well yeah, at least one thing that we all believe in did. So there you have it.

Obviously this post can’t stand alone. There is much left unsaid, and much that was said requires further discussion. I do not know what kind of time I will have to discuss it. Life is pretty busy around here right now. But I offer the above as at least a more detailed explanation of the background assumptions of my earlier remarks, which I believe you did not properly understand because I did not properly explain and qualify them. Thanks for your patience with this old material heretic. :)

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21 Responses to Some Modest Considerations Concerning the Background Assumptions of the Catholic “Apostolic Succession” Argument

  1. Bill aka SeekN4Him says:

    Hey Tim,

    Thanks for taking the time to publish this, it helps. I certainly don’t intend for our conversation on this subject to detract from your family, your school and work. Sure wish I was there and we could take our families out somewhere and just have somce nice, long conversations :) I have thoughts on some of what you wrote but not exactly sure when I’ll have time to get them down or if you want me to put in comments here. Have a scout thing with one son and a brother-in-law’s 40th surprise bday party (and on her side, the 40th is also always a roast) tonight but wanted to let you know I appreciate your taking time for my questions. BTW, you’ve never been a heretic to me, always a brother who I’ve been trying to invite to come see the view from MY window :) because my words paint such a mediocre picture.

    In Him,

    BTW, love the pictures of Baby Berry…she’s growing up fast. My oldest son graduates from HS this summer and we’re tring to get him into college before he thinks of something else :)

  2. Tim Enloe says:

    Bill, I suppose the above can be summarized by saying when you tell me AS is the esse of the Church, because of the way you define AS I cannot help but hear that Ancient Rome is the esse of the Church. And that’s a really tough pill to swallow. I can see that Rome is an integral part of the Church, and I can even see that in some ways primacy should be given to her. But saying that she’s the esse of the Church seems to me to be going too far, and I can’t help but see in that claim the old Roman claim that Vergil put into the mouth of Jupiter when the god claimed that the Empire started by Romulus and Remus would be “sine fine” (without end). Only the Kingdom of Christ is sine fine, and the Kingdom of Christ isn’t reducible to any spatio-temporal-ecclesio order.

    An additional big consideration for me is the simple fact that in Romans, the epistle Paul wrote to the Roman Church (!), it is explicitly stated in chapter 11 that Rome is not the root of the branch but has been grafted in like all the other Gentiles. Therefore, Paul says to the Roman Church, do not be presumptuous lest God trim you off like unbelievers in the Old Testament. This supposes an organic understanding of the people of God, and a continuity between them in the OT and NT. “The Church” properly speaking may have been started at Pentecost, but there is no hard and fast line between the people of God in the OT and the people of God in the New. Rome is a Gentile people, and God in Christ has broken down the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles. And if He’s broken down that wall, what is this business, then, of building a new one between Rome and Not-Rome? What is this business, then, of talking as if one particular Gentile people, one particular Gentile organization, is the people of God and everyone else is only so by virtue of some “imperfect union” with it? This seems flatly contradictory to Scripture (but I am looking through a window just like you are, so I’m willing to listen to explanations of how your window incorporates these Scriptural truths). It also seems also to make the weight of the Catholic AS argument fall less on Scripture and more on a presumptuous understanding of ministerial authority grounded on a reified historical-apologetical device (the Apologists’ time-and-place bound argument against the Gnostics). That device makes perfect sense in the context of a Roman Empire, but if the Kingdom of God, or if the Church herself, ever spilled outside the confines of the Roman Empire (as for example, in the new Christendom developing in South America and South Africa) the device would cease to have the supposedly timeless and universal relevance which Catholics attribute to it.

    I would be willing to say that “apostolic succession” in the basic sense outlined in the Pastoral Epistles is the esse of the Church, but I see no way, outside of purely Roman assumptions which are quite provincial in light of the “cosmopolitan” and universal scope of the Gospel and the New Creation, to argue that the succession has to be of the precise form it took in the Late Antique Roman Empire. That cannot be the esse of the Church, for then the Church is Roman and thus bound up with a particular spatio-temporal-ecclesio order. Augustine refutes this assumption with reference to the kingdom of God quite thoroughly in the City of God, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to apply the same reasoning to the Church.

  3. Modest… HAH! This is the best thing I’ve read on the internet in a looooooooong time! Thanks for your thoughts on this incredibly important issue, Tim.

  4. Bill aka SeekN4Him says:

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the further comments…those helped immensely, because I certainly do NOT see (and have not been successful in conveying, obviously) AS as having any necessary connection with Rome or with “Ancient Rome” and can certainly understand how such a connection would be a “tough pill”.

    I guess perhaps I was presuming you understood what I meant by AS rather than defining it. My apologies for such presumption.

    For me (at least), AS is primarily derived from the NT practice of ordaining leaders (as you mentioned above wrt 2 Tim), combined with what the ancient church has always undertood that practice to convey, and coupled with the history of God in constituting his people throughout the ages (e.g. when the people demanded a king, they got one; when that king disobeyed, that did not abolish the office of king, a new king took his place. Even when the earthly linage of the king appeared to have vanished, Jesus finally arrived as the King, etc). It is interesting to me that Jesus took explicit action that would certainly have been recognized by the Jews of his day to be “reconstituting” Israel by appointing 72 like Moses did. If God can establish something in a particular people in the OT era (e.g. with Moses), surely he can do likewise for the NT?

    Similarly, in the Apologists’ use I see nothing that references Rome as it saw itself in that day (ie as empire), but rather based squarely on men God had called to martyrdom there: Peter and Paul.

    Completely apart from claims that the succession from “Rome” is somehow safeguarded in a particular way, the whole historic notion of succession is rooted in how God dealt with His people in the OT, reconstituted in the NT. Perhaps my view continues to be myopic, but I cannot see how that succession exists today outside of the Roman and Orthodox communions.

    My point has nothing to do with any explicit claims made by Rome with respect to its succession relative to others vis-a-vis authority, but to succession in itself. If succession as described in the NT is the means of constitution of the Body of Christ intended by God (regardless of whether it originates in Rome), and I contend that it is because it is through the ordained ministers that the Word and Sacrament are preserved and transmitted in the world, what does it mean to stand outside of that? Again, perhaps my view is too narrowly confined by my ‘window’, but I do not see any preservation of the historic succession outside of “Roman” and “Orthodox”.

    I hope you can forgive my myopia and I do appreciate what you have shared, and look forward to whatever thoughts time permits you to share, here or privately.

    In Him,

  5. Austin Storm says:

    This is really good! I found a link from Steven VW’s page and really enjoyed the content and the tone – good stuff.

  6. Tim Enloe says:

    Bill, Christianity adapts to new circumstances. The world of the universal Empire of the Romans no longer exists, save perhaps in the spiritual self-imagination of the Roman Church. What I mean by different modes of transmission for the succession is something like succession of baptisms or succession of presbyters rather than bishops. I understand and agree with the basic AS doctrine as we see it in the NT. But I don’t see why it has to occur in the form that Rome and Orthodoxy say is of the esse of the Church: that is, a specifically episcopal hierarchy.

    The churches of the Reformation era were initially conceived by the Reformers as emergency measures, temporary necessities for the sake of worshipping God after the Roman Church kicked them out. Lutherans at least had bishops for a long time, and Calvin told Cranmer that he wasn’t opposed to an episcopacy in England. If succession can pass through other mechanisms than just bishops, it is possible that although the episcopal mode of succession was broken, the succession itself was not. At any rate, unfortunately, the emergency of the Reformation solidified into the perception of normality, and so for 500 years there have been no explicit bishops in most of Protestantism.

    Many Protestants argue that their pastors are bishops, just by a different name. Presbyterians could easily argue that since presbyters and bishops were once the same office, there’s no reason the succession can’t find alternate expression in presbyters. At the end of the day this is why the “empire” point is so important for Rome’s claims. You are not simply presenting the Scriptural doctrine of AS. You are presenting AS as it is viewed through the Late Antique Roman window, and for many Christians today that window has very little relevance to their daily lives following Christ. The Holy Spirit is not attached to the leash of ancient Roman canonical practices. That is Rome’s fallacy, as I especially labored to point out with the example of Romans 11 clearly stating that Rome is not the root of the tree, but just another branch grafted in.

  7. Bill aka SeekN4Him says:

    Hi Tim,

    I find the comments in the link (the one above didn’t work for me…I “tweaked” it by going to one that did and changing the #) to Augstine you cite very conducive to the understanding of AS as I am attempting to describe. For instance (and forgive the large quote): “God had implanted in each organism a constant, organizing principle, a ratio seminalis, that would ensure that change happened, not arbitrarily, but in accordance with a latent pattern laid down, once and for all, at the Creation. In the same way, changes in religious institutions, such as had occurred throughout the history of Israel, need not be regarded as unnecessary and shocking reversals of ancestral custom; they could be presented as significant landmarks that hint at a process of growth. In this process, the human race could be conceived of as a vast organism, like a single man, that changed according to a pattern of growth that was inaccessible to the human mind, yet clear to God.”

    What this says to me is exactly what I see in history wrt succession. The OT people had a patriarchal structure: first, in Adam, a husband (who failed miserably); then, in Noah, a family’s father; then, in Abraham, a tribe; then in Moses, a nation; and finally, under David, a kingdom. Organic growth. Then at some point, the “development” included the Levitical priesthood, which was a succession according to human nature within a subset of tribes of the Jews. In the NT era, the Moasic calling of the 72 was reconstituted by Jesus (not abandoned). Likewise, the Levitcal succession of priests was reconstituted in the apostles and their appointed successors: no longer a hierarchy by human generation but by the Spirit, passed on by imposition of hands and to whom was entrusted the safeguarding and passing on of Word and Sacrament. It retains, since it is in the world, a physical element, but has as its true source, a supernatural element. Hopefully, from the little I’ve written here, you can see that there is nothing explicitly “Roman” in any of it.

    Please understand that I am open to some other understanding of AS, but as of now I cannot see one that encompasses all that I see already present in what has seemed to function and be in place from the beginning. I am at a loss to see something that is “organic” within what has come before that still fulfills what it would entail to form a Body, which is the Bride of Christ.

    In Him,
    Bill Beacom

  8. St. Worm says:

    Tim, have you had the chance to read John Zizioulas’s “Eucharist, Bishop, Church”? I’ve started it, and seems to be rather penetrating in the historic understanding of the episcopacy, especially in the first three centuries of Christianity.

  9. Tim Enloe says:

    St. Worm, no I have not. There are so many things I need to read on this subject, I know. I want to read Sullivan’s work on apostles becoming bishops really badly, but you know how it goes: so many books, so little time. With all of the above I’m just sketching my current understanding, not trying to offer something definitive. And certainly I’m not just trying to be ornery or obstinate against Rome. For me, the crux of the problem with Roman ecclesiology is increasingly seeming to be Romans 11. Rome is not the root of the Church. Therefore, the esse of the Church cannot be some purely Roman conception of authority. And that’s why it’s important to me to highlight the “Roman window” through which Rome looks upon such matters.

    Bill: Well, we seem to get different things out of the Augustine quote. To me the critical point wrt to succession and non-Roman ecclesiology is the phrase “changes in religious institutions, such as had occurred throughout the history of Israel, need not be regarded as unnecessary and shocking reversals of ancestral custom; they could be presented as significant landmarks that hint at a process of growth.” In other words, assuming the ratio seminalis principle, how do you, or rather, how does the Roman Magisterium, *know* that the ratio seminalis consists of Late Antique principles of authority and its transmission? Why couldn’t the ratio seminalis be bigger than that, and encompass more diversity? Forgive me, but since so many Catholics like to ask with rhetorical triumphalism “Can acorns turn into oaks?”, it just seems obvious to say “Yeah, and the oak doesn’t look like the acorn.” Why then must AS look like it did in the Late Antique world? Maybe what seems so obvious to Rome as the necessary expression of truth is just the acorn form of the Church.

    I am at a loss to explain this further in a way that might help you understand my point. Maybe a similar issue, already mentioned, might help: the priesthood. Scripture declares that Christians–all Christians!–are a kingdom of priests. I certainly acknowledge that there is a distinction between ordained ministry and laity, but I can’t see a separation between them as Rome does. Rome sees the separation because in Late Antique Roman culture there was a pretty stark distinction between patrons and clients, between principates and plebs. Additionally, in Late Antique Roman thought there was a stark distinction between the discens (the learning ones) and the docens (the teaching ones). In this scheme, pupils weren’t supposed to question their teachers as if they could know better than their teachers, for that was to upend the very definition of “teacher.” This is quite plainly the Roman idea of the Magisterium: the Teaching Office. The discens don’t have any right to question the docens, because the docens are basically the patrons and the discens are the clients. But this seems to invert the NT teaching on the “kingdom of priests” by creating a special class of priests that is (ontologically) above everyone else. I cannot see how this is a NT principle. I do see how it is a principle of ancient (pagan) Rome, but I do not see how it is a NT principle. The link I provided to Dr. Leithart’s summary of an article exploring this exact change in the priesthood doctrine is a must read. The same thinking came to underlie papal primacy in the later Middle Ages, where the pope came to be considered both king and priest (rex et sacerdos) just like the heathen kings of old. Better Christian theories existed, such as that of Bishop Gelasius, who, despite being a pope, taught that after Christ the offices of king and priest were separated so that no man could be both king and priest.

    But, it seems that the deeper Rome adhered to the legacy of her ancient exemplar the more she moved away from things which were more in keeping with Scriptural categories. With the papacy, she increasingly adopted the collapsing of spiritual and temporal into one ruler; with doctrine she increasingly adopted the discens / docens separation; with the priesthood she increasingly adopted a scheme of radical ontological difference between ordained and laity; with AS she increasingly adopted the view exemplified by Roman pagans like Symmachus regarding the instituta maiorum (institutes of the ancestors). She gradually lost comprehension of the radical difference Christianity had made in the world, and came increasingly to see Christianity as simply a function of being Roman. As the Middle Ages progressed, to be Christian just was to be Roman. Augustine provided some hints at how to get past this, but even he didn’t see all its implications. And I think it’s plain that modern Rome is still stuck in the pre-Augustinian problem. But the world has changed; the universal Empire of the Romans is no more, and in fact, the trajectory of the whole world seems dead set against any universal Empire scheme. This is again why it’s hugely important to look at the new Christendom(s) emerging in South America and South Africa. I don’t suppose that if Christians reconquer Africa from the Muslims Rome is going to go “Hate to rain on your parade, but everything you just did was really quite canonically irregular, and you should have run it past us first.”

    I don’t know how I can be any clearer. And I know you can’t just accept these things, since they seem so contrary to everything you believe about Christian progress in the world. All we can do is try to understand better, and hope that someday God will provide a way of escape for all of us from these tight little dilemmas in which we constantly seem to be stuck.

  10. St. Worm says:

    I concur that Rome’s direction seems to diverge from the rest of Christendom, but I’m still trying to get my head around the issues. It’s a BIIIG topic. :) God bless you, Tim. Your little one is so cute!

    Hope to see you at the RefCath Conference of ’08!

  11. welshman says:


    I think I remember reading Luther saying somewhere that if 10 Christian men were shipwrecked on a desert island, they could select one of their number to grant absolution and offer the Mass, i.e., laymen could ordain a legitimate priest to minister to them. Short and sweet, is that the Lutheran understanding of the Christian priesthood, i.e., no formal, tactile succession is absolutely necessary?


  12. Bill aka SeekN4Him says:

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for all your efforts. I do appreciate what you’ve set before me in your consideration of the issue of AS, and for the resources you’ve linked, the books you and others have mentioned. I hope you will bear with me as I offer a few more thoughts. While they may appear like I’m not “getting it” or that we’re talking past each other, please know that I have come to more fully appreciate your concerns.

    Regarding the issue of AS being a result of a “Roman” viewpoint, I can only ask: did it only affect the post-apostolic church? Why didn’t it affect the OT church in their institution of authority? (Maybe you think it has?) Rome’s “frame” was around long before first century Christianity, right? If the form of AS as shown historically is really due to a “Roman” frame, why the persecution for the 1st 3 centuries of the church, with succession by laying on of hands even then? Similarly, if the historic understanding of succession was due to a Roman “frame” which colored the early understanding of the fathers (forgive me if it’s not your intent, but that idea seems to imply that it is “human” in origin, i.e. physical succession of bishops by laying on of hands is not intended as the divine plan for preservation of Word and Sacrament in the church), surely we would see that change as influenced by other governing structures, socio-political circumstances, etc as the church grew throughout the world in time. Forgive me if this seems like myopia to you, but that is exactly what seems most evident in places where such succession is broken. I am aware of simonical practices surrounding the office, but that didn’t change HOW the church continued the office: by laying on of hands. I hate to even say it, but the simplest proof that AS as a physical succession of bishops is merely human would be demonstrated if all the bishops in the world were simultaneously executed. No bishops would force a rethinking of apostlic succession as such.

    Do you think the NT church was appointing elders before Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome? Do you think Peter & Paul’s understanding of what laying on of hands meant for the individual and the church was drawn from Roman principles (if so, it would seem that Acts 1 [interesting that verse 6 implies a kingdom...interesting that we are encouraged to "Seek first the Kingdom of God", but I am here mostly referring to vv 15-26] would be a different record)? What about the church established in India (outside of Roman influence), supposedly by the apostle Thomas, where the concept of AS is present?

    WRT the ministerial priesthood vis-a-vis the universal priesthood, I grant that there have been periods in history when there were such views. Heck, I even run into that attitude occasionally among some older priests today. However, ministerial priests have always been called out of those who are already a part of the priesthood of all believers and are called primarily to serve that same priesthood. It is interesting, isn’t it, that the NT epistles refer to false shepherds as wolves in sheeps clothing? What, then, is a true shepherd, if obviously not a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Yet, even so, it does not say that, in becoming a wolf, they thereby cease to be shepherds….but look at the carnage such leaves!

    While I could possibly grant that the claims of Roman authority (petrine succession) may be tainted by a “Roman” frame, for me it still rests on an underlying principle (AS) that you seem to see as influenced somehow by “Rome”. I remain unconvinced for many reasons, but at least now I understand better. I know and trust that you are not deliberately being “ornery or obstinate” about Rome. Perhaps it is so influenced. I wish to see a united Christian witness. Perhaps we (all) are still the seed in the shell, and have yet to die in order to sprout into that bush which is the largest of bushes.

    In Him,

  13. Dozie says:


    You do not have to quote Luther; you could have said it yourself. By the principle you are advocating, Luther had no more authority or authenticity than you have.

    Some people have also argued for the existence of multiple bishops in one location at a particular time; what no one has done is name multiple bishops in one city at the same time. For example, Polycarp is the bishop of Smyrna and his co-bishop is? Cyprian is bishop of Carthage and his co-bishop is? And on and on.

  14. Tim Enloe says:

    Btw, Bill, I thought of a counter-argument to my argument. Perhaps this is what you mean: if the bishops are successors to the Apostles in the sense that they have the exact same authority as the Apostles, then of course they ought to be obeyed as if they were Apostles. I for one, were I to encounter a modern day Apostle Paul, would not be so foolish as to contradict him! If that’s the Catholic AS doctrine, then it makes a great deal of sense and the Roman criticisms aren’t quite as telling as they might otherwise be. I say not quite because I still think it’s not clear that AS has to be in the type of episcopacy that Rome and Orthodoxy hold.

    Again, some Protestants think of their pastors as bishops. It may indeed be possible to construct some kind of succession list for these pastors, leading back to the Reformation and before. In that case, it would seem that the objection would be strictly based on lack of subservience to Rome, and so we’d be back to my “Roman” criticisms again. But at least your argument would seem more plausible if all it means is that the current bishops of the Catholic Church have the exact same authority as the Apostles–i.e., they are functioning Apostles themselves. Is that what you mean?

  15. Tim Enloe says:

    Welshman, I think that’s an excellent point and it goes well with my earlier remarks that God can work outside of the normal means if need be. The alternative channels are not illegitimate merely because they are alternative, which seems to be a big contention of Catholics.

  16. Bill aka SeekN4Him says:

    Hi Tim,

    I don’t think the Catholic concept of AS grants bishops the exact same authority as apostles. Apostles, as living witnesses to Jesus, had a gift that their successors do not: inspiration. The apostles produced inspired texts and preaching. While the Catholic understanding is that the authority to teach and sanctify (Word and Sacrament) was passed by appointment through the laying on of hands, the gift of giving inspired revelation was not: it ceased with the death of the last apostle.

    Within the revelation given, however, we see the command to preach the gospel everywhere. We see that we are exhorted to “remain in what was taught from the beginning” (1 Jn 2:24). We see the immediate post-apostolic witness as recognizing that those appointed by the apostles as having their teaching authority.

    Is it possible, that God in Jesus would give revelation and not a guaranteed means of preserving the intent of that revelation? That Jesus would “build a house (the Church)” without first “measuring the cost”, which is a rhetorical question asking whether the apostles knew how the church was to be built, why they appointed others and the means by which they were appointed (laying on of hands). Why would there be false claims to succession except to attempt to usurp a true one?

    The CCC mentions AS in many sections, but in the primary section it recognizes that the deposit of faith was given to the WHOLE CHURCH (not just to the bishops). What was given to the bishops, by virtue of their call and appointment, was authority to protect, pronounce and safeguard the gospel and sanctify the world through celebration of Eucharist (once again, Word and Sacrament). Historically, for example, even at later councils, what was said was not that “You have spoken by God” but “The voice of Peter rang out through Leo”, etc.

    I have no issue with concerns regarding the specific succession of the episcopacy of Rome wrt succession in the Church, but that succession is based on the broader understanding of succession in general. Why was it practiced? What did it accomplish? Why is the Spirt given into the world? How is it manifest, esp as regarding proclamation of the gospel and sanctification of the world?

    In Him,
    Bill Beacom

  17. Bill aka SeekN4Him says:

    Actually, the first sentence of the last paragraph should read:

    “I have no issue with concerns regarding the specific succession of the episcopacy of Rome wrt authority in the Church, but that authority claim is based on the underlying understanding of AS in general.”


  18. Tim,

    This has nothing to do with this post, so forgive me for asking it here, but I don’t have any other way of contacting you. A quick question: If you could recommend any one book (between 250-450 pages) on Medieval theology (other than Pelikan’s) what would it be?

    The reason I ask is because I’ve been assigned Pelikan’s volume on Medieval dogma for one of my classes, but I’ve already read it and would like to substitute it with something else.

    Feel free to delete this comment and respond to me through e-mail if you’d like (, or just respond here.

    Thanks brother,


  19. welshman says:


    I wasn’t really advocating; it was a real question.

    As to co-bishops, there are a couple of such references in the New Testament. Acts “20:17 And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.” Granted, the underlying Greek word is “prebyters” (I think), but one asks why they need more than one, or where the bishop is.

    Then there’s Phillipians, “1:1 Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: 1:2 Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” I think the word there is “episcopoi”, bishops proper. Bishops (plural) and deacons, but no presbyters.

    I think there are more such references. Come to think, the apostles at Jerusalem apparently functioned as a sort of college; not strictly speaking bishops, I guess, but since Acts 15:4 says there were apostles and elders, but no episcopoi, maybe the argument could be made that the apostles were serving as proper bishops, at least in Jerusalem.


  20. Randy Carson says:

    In a fascinating thread on Catholic Presuppositionalism in another forum, several folks are discussing Van Til and the issue of Apostolic Succession.

    One participant recently posted:

    “On my journey into Catholicism, I actually read some Van Til along with several other reputable Reformed scholars. Most of these guys are *very* philosophical are thus capable of a seemingly endless stream of rhetoric. However, the more I pondered the following question, the more it occurred to me that the collective intellect of 100, 1,000 or even 10,000 great “Reformed Scholars” is insufficient to establish the body of truth that represents Christianity:

    “Without valid Apostolic Succession, without the entire Deposit of Faith , and certainly without an on-going Magisterium, how in the world can anyone lay claim to the authentic faith taught by Christ and propagated by His Apostles – a faith confession that represents the essence of the Church that Jesus Christ established?

    “Without this, and this is EXACTLY what the Roman Catholic Church lays claim to, then we are left with all of the division, confusion, and Theological oneupmanship that is Protestantism.

    “Bahsen was famous for telling his students to ask the following epistemological question whenever their faith was challenged: “As them (the challenger) how it is that they know anything?”

    You might want to check out the discussion among these NEW participants at:

  21. Randy Carson says:

    “A major question between Protestants and Catholics on this point concerns whether God intended the ancient Roman stained-glass window to be the only window through which men pondering His revelation could look and arrive at truth. Catholics routinely assume yes. Many other Christians are not so sure, and summary Catholic dismissals typically fail to convince precisely because they are summary dismissals.”

    Wouldn’t Catholics assume that precisely because Jesus only established one church? One visible Church in which doctrinal unity matters?

    Perhaps Catholics might be inclined to consider the possibility of the legitimacy of other “churches” if the Scriptures themselves (to which I make reference for the sake of the sola Scripturists) did not argue so convincingly for “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”.

    Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

    One flock, one shepherd. Not 25,000+ flocks and shepherds.

    John reveals to us in the last chapter of his gospel to whom Jesus has entrusted that flock. And Peter himself provides an intriguing statement about his own preparations for the care of the flock after his death when he writes:

    “And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.” (2 Peter 1:15)

    Unless you’re willing to concede that there may be something to the Catholic understanding of the communion of saints after all, I think it might be reasonably argued that Peter is speaking here of that which we call “Apostolic Succession”.

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