When I was (briefly) a catechumen in the Orthodox Church, one of the big sticking points for me was the concept of apostolic succession. When an Orthodox Christian, reciting the Nicene Creed, says that he or she believes “In one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,” it’s an assertion that really means something—from my understanding, any given Orthodox priest can trace himself back via laying-on of hands to the earliest figures in Christianity. Catholic priests can do the same.

We Protestants don’t have this advantage, something the Reformers were obviously aware of—and yet the confessions that subscribe to the Nicene Creed (including own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America) haven’t excised the “apostolic” any more than they’ve excised the “Catholic”—though they’ve made the capital C lowercase. So what gives?

We get the answer, as we get the answer to so many questions about Protestant practice, from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. He rails against the Catholic Church’s claims of succession, as he rails against many other things that the Catholic Church does, and then he drives the knife in: “the pretence of succession is vain, if posterity does not retain the truth of Christ, which was handed down to them by their fathers, safe and uncorrupted, and continue in it” (IV.ii.2).

The apostolic succession to which Calvin clings, then, is a sort of spiritual succession—hands have not been laid on priests from generation to generation, but it doesn’t matter. Protestants can, by this line of thinking, claim apostolic authority because we believe what the apostles believed. It is for this reason that Calvin (and nearly every conservative Protestant after him) denies the use of what we might call “creative theology”:

[T]he Spirit, promised to us, has not the task of inventing new and unheard revelations, or of forgiving a new kind of doctrine, to lead us away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but of sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel. (I.ix.1)

Elsewhere, he tells us that “daily oracles are not sent from heaven, for it pleased the Lord to hallow his truth to everlasting remembrance in the Scriptures alone” (I.vii.1). Thus the need for sola scriptura—if we are to be apostolic in the sense that Calvin claims apostolic succession, we can’t have our authority be anything that comes after the Apostles.

Cotton Mather agrees. In his Magnalia Christi Americana, he tells us that while he does not “say, that the Churches of New-England are the most regular that can be; yet I do say, and am sure, that they are very like unto those that were in the first ages of Christianity.” Perfection is not necessary for apostolic succession and authority; one’s doctrine must, however, be as close to that of the Apostles as possible.

Note, though, that this vision of apostolic succession is inherently conservative, inherently against progressivism in theology; Mather says outright that “the first Age was the golden Age; to return unto that, will make a man a Protestant, and, I may add, a Puritan.” I do not believe this is a quirk in Mather’s theology; I think this sort of conservatism is implied in Calvin himself.

It reminds me of a story I heard about Billy Graham, years ago. He was visiting the Soviet Union, I believe, and talking to a liberal Russian priest. The priest didn’t much care for him and accused him of setting Christianity back fifty years. “That’s too bad,” said Graham, “because I wanted to set it back two thousand years.” This is the Protestant attitude toward apostolic authority—we must not move forward from the doctrine of the Apostles.

We can argue a few points here: Number one, the Nicene creed comes along centuries after the Apostles themselves, so the degree to which it adequately represents their viewpoints is debatable. (I’m of the opinion that it sticks very closely to the theology of the New Testament; many of our readers may disagree.) Number two, many generally Protestant and specifically Calvinist doctrines—sola scriptura, double predestination, etc.—are at least arguably sixteenth-century inventions. (I don’t think they are, in the sense that I think they flow naturally from the text of the New Testament, but I also recognize that they are formulated most clearly many centuries after the deaths of the Apostles.)

But let’s leave that sticky debate alone for now and assume, with most of the early figures of Protestantism, that the basics of the Reformed Church (I use the term in its widest possible sense, to cover all the figures of the Reformation and the Anabaptists, too) are more in line with the early Church than the doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church of the era were. What does apostolic succession mean in this context?

When Catholics and Orthodox claim apostolic authority, it is a loose thing—Peter approved of his successor, and so on and so forth, so there’s no demand that the current generation look exactly like the first. Protestant claims at apostolic authority are the exact opposite: We have it because our theology if not our praxis looks just like Peter’s. This is much more constricting and requires a canonization not only of the Bible but of the ecclesiastical practices of the early Church. (My Orthodox friends must be falling out of their chairs laughing, since they too claim to look more or less like the early Church.)

What this means is that liberal Protestantism in almost all its forms—let’s say the major figures are Hegel, Schleiermacher, von Harnock, Ritschl, Bultmann, Tillich, and at least some members of the contemporary Emergent Church—is not Protestant because it jettisons the very basis of Protestant doctrine, this “spiritual” concept of apostolic succession. Creative or progressive theologians typically believe that we should move past not only the Apostles but also Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and yes, Hegel and the rest. It’s not quite right to call them Protestant then, and in fact, this is probably a term that has outlived its usefulness.

To their credit, the Emergent theologians seem largely aware of this problem, which is why most of them have jettisoned the use of the term Protestant in favor of that complicated Emerging/Emergent/Emerged system that I don’t even come close to understanding. Likewise, Brian McLaren’s “new kind of Christianity”—while I don’t believe it is in any sense new—suggests a certain post-Protestant aesthetic.

My question, then, is what progressive theologians (in the nineteenth, twentieth, or 21st centuries) do about that pesky word apostolic in the Nicene Creed. I know that many liberal Christians are not all that interested in creeds, so chucking the whole thing is certainly one option, albeit one that horrifies me. The more cogent option is to perform a Calvin-esque redefinition of apostolic—so what does that look like in a progressive context?

6 thoughts on “Whose Apostolic Succession?”
  1. I’ll give you a short answer to your question first. I believe that a Church is apostolic in the strictest sense of the word. The literal meaning of the word apostle means “someone sent to deliver a message.” The “Apostolic Church” is simply the Church that doing the mission of God. I think I remember the mass in Latin ends “ite missa est.”

    Now a longer answer. I come from a reforming movement that started during the nineteenth century and was against having Creeds as any type of “a test of fellowship.” Not many congregations the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, or Churches of Christ will use a creed during a worship service. A few congregations will have “an affirmation of faith” in the liturgy (which looks a lot like a creed) but it is understood not to be a “test of fellowship.” Personally, I am very comfortable using most creeds in worship. I do not think that we should completely chuck them, even if I have theological problems with them.

    The early founders of my Church started out as Presbyterian ministers. One our founders Barton Stone had trouble accepting the doctrines of the Presbyterian Church at the time. In order to pass for ordination he said that he accepted the Westminster Confession “as far as it is consistent with the Word of God.” Likewise, I would argue that the doctrine of the trinity as defined by the Nicene Creed has no Biblical foundation. In lines such as “being of one substance with the Father” one can see the influence of Greek thought. Am I starting to sound like Brian MClaren? I do not think that such innovations are necessarily inconsistent with the Biblical text. The traditional doctrine of the trinity is just not consistent with my exegesis of the New Testament.

  2. Please understand that the use of the term “catholic” in anything relating to Orthodoxy or creeds other than the Roman Catholic Church simply means “universal”, as it is literally interpreted into the English language. I was raised Protestant and understand for a Protestant that the use of this word is nearly always misunderstood and taken out of context. Just a simple suggestion that you put the term into context for your readers as it used by we Orthodox, and the other churches who use it in their litany or recited creeds. We do not in any way use it to identify ourselves as Roman Catholic, or affiliated with Rome’s creed or church.

    My Thanks In Christ,

    H. David Sauls

    1. Point taken, and I apologize for any confusion–I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the Orthodox are Catholic in the large-C sense.

  3. Thank you for acknowledging. It truly is a difficult time for us all; confusion seems to bear down upon innocent Christain believers nearly as badly, if not worse, as was seen in the early Church when apostasy burned like wildfires thoughout the Christian world. My simple belief is that apostolic succession ensures the episcopacy established by the Apostles, handed to them by Christ Himself. We must have leadership in our churches, and honor what Christ promised us in Matthew 16:18, that the gates of hell would not prevail upon His church. I resisted the Protestant (and very persistent) belief in congregationalism, finding my belief in Ephesians 2:20: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone….”

  4. >>>Protestant claims at apostolic authority
    >>>are the exact opposite: We have it because
    >>>our theology if not our praxis looks just like

    Hardly. Where is the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, written about by as early as 120AD by Ignatius of Antioch, who was a student of the disciple whome Jesus loved. He wrote, “they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ…”

    I could go on but I think you get my point.

    >>>The apostolic succession to which Calvin clings,
    >>>then, is a sort of spiritual succession—hands
    >>>have not been laid on priests from generation
    >>>to generation, but it doesn’t matter.

    Again, you deny that Christ’s presence is real in the world, that everything is “sort of spiritual”. It is as if some Protestants don’t even believe God is real.

    Have you no faith?


  5. It seems from scripture that the apostle Paul would start up a church in an area, establish leadership there, and then eventually leave to repeat the process elsewhere. In the few years that he was gone that local church would encounter false teachers, false prophets, and misunderstandings of his teachings and would start to stray from Paul’s original instructions and intents. The Lord’s letters to the 7 churches in Asia Minor indicate the same thing. So why would things get any better after the death of an apostle?

    In the second century (and after) the Christian Church had several competing brands of belief. In order for a church in an area to proclaim the purity of their theology they began to appeal to the apostolic heritage of their church, and they did this by making lists of their bishops from present time back to their founding apostle. In other words, ‘We were instructed by so and so who passed on his teaching to the next and so forth’. The same question applies here. Why would doctrine remain pure after the death of an apostle?

    In time politics gave the Roman church first place and in time they started to title all their past bishops “Pope” and in time they began to apply the Peter as Rock scripture out of context. I’m an ex-Catholic and have no historical reason to believe that there is an unbroken laying on of hands from any of the apostles to the present bishops. I would have to take by faith that God protected the true teachings of the apostles in the Roman Church down through time, and my reading of scripture does not permit this.

    So my vote is to understand “apostolic” as foundation stones that Christ laid, each unique, with Jesus as the chief cornerstone. A structure and body that all who have truly confessed Jesus as Savior and Lord are part of.



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