[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.