Whose Apostolic Succession?

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?

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