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In Christianity, apostolic succession refers to the succession of bishops in uninterrupted lines, said to be historically traceable back to the original twelve apostles. Within Catholic Christianity apostolic succession is necessary for a bishop to perform legitimate or "valid" ordinations of priests, deacons, and other bishops. Apostolic succession is said to be transmitted during episcopal consecrations (the ordination of bishops) by the laying on of hands of bishops previously consecrated within the apostolic succession. Generally, all pre- Protestant Reformation churches including the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox claim apostolic succession, as does the Anglican Church. Due to the sacramental theology of these churches, only bishops and presbyters (priests) ordained by bishops in the apostolic succession can legitimately celebrate or "confect" several of the other sacraments, including the Eucharist, reconciliation of penitents, confirmation and anointing of the sick.
Apostolic succession is claimed by all of the pre-Protestant Reformation churches, including the Assyrian Church of the East, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the original Thomas Christians in India, and other Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. Apostolic succession is claimed by the Old Catholic Church and the Polish National Catholic Church, which separated from Roman Catholicism after the reformation. The churches of the Anglican Communion also claim apostolic succession. While their claim is recognized by some Eastern Christian churches, it is not officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, based on Pope Leo XIII's papal bull Apostolicae Curae. However, since the promulgation of Apostolicae Curae, Anglican bishops have acquired Old Catholic lines of apostolic succession recognized by Rome.
The Roman Catholic Church further asserts that Jesus Christ gave Saint Peter a unique primacy among the apostles, which has been passed on in the office of the Papacy. Eastern Orthodox theology and ecclesiology teaches that each bishop is equal to the other bishops, even the Ecumenical Patriarch, who is first amongst equals, continuing the ancient practice of the church, who considered the Roman Pontiff to be first but not superior to the rest of the bishops.
Apostolicity as doctrinal continuity
|“||Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men||”|
While many churches within the historical episcopate argue that Holy Orders are valid only through apostolic succession, most Protestant Churches would deny that the apostolicity of the Church rests on an unbroken episcopacy. They generally hold that one important qualification of the apostles was that they were chosen directly by Jesus and that they witnessed the resurrected Christ. According to this understanding, the work of these twelve (and the Apostle Paul), together with the prophets of the twelve tribes of Israel, provide the doctrinal foundation for the whole church of subsequent history through the Scriptures of the Bible. To share with the apostles the same faith, to believe their word as found in the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is the only sense in which apostolic succession is meaningful, because it is in this sense only that men have fellowship with God in the truth (an extension of the Reformation doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura). The most meaningful apostolic succession for most Protestants, then, is the faithful succession of apostolic teaching. There is, of course, much disagreement among various Protestant churches about the exact content of apostolic teaching. In addition, Protestants state that the teaching of apostolic succession did not arise until 170–200 A.D.
It is worth noting, however, that the First of the Epistles of Clement which is commonly dated to the first century and claims to be written by the Church of God in Rome which was established by the apostles presents a belief in apostolic succession as do also the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch. Also worth noting is the fact that others beside the twelve apostles and Saint Paul are called "apostles" in the New Testament. Also noteworthy is the fact that the Apostle Paul, though given spiritual authority directly by Christ, did not embark on his apostleship without conferring with those who were apostles before him as he notes in his Epistle to the Galatians. By contrast, some Protestant charismatic and restorationist churches include "apostles" among the offices that should be evident into modern times in a true church, though they never trace an historical line of succession or attempt to confer, like Paul, with those who were "apostles" before them. It is frequently the case that the founders or senior leaders of a restorationist church grouping will be referred to as the apostles. Church planting is seen as a key role of these present-day apostles, but the concept of apostolic succession which protected the faith and inter-communion of the Christian churches through the first three centuries of persecution and cross-cultural, translinguistic evangelism has been lost in these new movements.
Those who hold to the importance of episcopal apostolic succession would counter the above by appealing to the New Testament, which, they say, implies a personal apostolic succession (from Paul to Timothy and Titus, for example) and which states that Jesus gave the Apostles a "blank check" to lead the Church as they saw fit under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They appeal as well to other documents of the very early Church, especially the Epistle of St. Clement to the Church at Corinth, written around 96 AD In it, Clement defends the authority and prerogatives of a group of " elders" or " bishops" in the Corinthian Church which had, apparently, been deposed and replaced by the congregation on its own initiative. In this context, Clement explicitly states that the apostles both appointed bishops as successors and had directed that these bishops should in turn appoint their own successors; given this, such leaders of the Church were not to be removed without cause and not in this way. Further, proponents of the necessity of the personal apostolic succession of bishops within the Church point to the universal practice of the undivided early Church (up to 431 AD), from which, as organizations, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox (at that point in time one Church until 1054, see Great Schism), as well Oriental Orthodox and the Assyrian Churches have all directly descended.
At the same time, no defender of the personal apostolic succession of bishops would deny the importance of doctrinal continuity in the Church.
These churches hold that Christ entrusted the leadership of the community of believers, and the obligation to transmit and preserve the "deposit of faith" (the experience of Christ and his teachings contained in the doctrinal "tradition" handed down from the time of the apostles, the written portion of which is Scripture) to the apostles, and the apostles passed on this role by ordaining bishops after them.
Roman Catholic, Orthodox theology additionally hold that the power and authority to confect the sacraments, or at least all of the sacraments aside from baptism and matrimony (the first of which may be administered by anyone, the second of which is administered by the couple to each other) is passed on only through the sacrament of Holy Orders, and an unbroken line of ordination of bishops to the apostles is necessary for the valid celebration of the sacraments today. Roman Catholics recognize the validity of the apostolic successions of the bishops, and therefore the rest of the clergy, of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Old Catholic, and some Independent Catholic Churches. Since 1896, Rome has not fully recognized all Anglican orders as valid. The Eastern Orthodox do not universally recognize Roman Catholics, Anglicans or any other group as having apostolic succession. Until the time comes when the practices of the Orthodox Church are unified, the validity of any priest's ordination will be decided by each autocephalous Orthodox Church. Neither the Roman Catholic nor the Orthodox Church recognize the validity of the apostolic succession of the clergy of the Protestant churches, in large measure because of their theology of the Eucharist.
The traditional doctrine
|“||Wherefore we must obey the priests of the Church who have succession from the Apostles, as we have shown, who, together with succession in the episcopate, have received the certain mark of truth according to the will of the Father; all others, however, are to be suspected, who separated themselves from the principal succession.||”|
As a traditional ecclesiastical doctrine, apostolic succession provides an historical basis for the spiritual authority of the bishops of the Church (the episcopate). Apostolic succession is usually described as the official authority that has been passed down through unbroken lines of successive bishops beginning with the original Apostles selected by Jesus, or on a similar basis. Put another way, bishops (in churches subscribing to the doctrine) are only created bishops by other bishops; thus, every bishop today is the end of an unbroken line of bishops, extending all the way back to one (or more) of the Apostles, through which authority descends.
This doctrine is claimed by the ancient Christian Churches (the Roman Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox), and other ancient Churches, and as well as by the traditional Episcopal and other Anglican Churches, and by several of the Lutheran Churches; it is referenced favorably by other churches. Some Protestant churches do not accept this doctrine as it has been commonly described, but rather will redefine it in a different way.
Papal primacy is an issue different though related to apostolic succession as described here. The Catholic Church has traditionally claimed a unique leadership role for the apostle Peter, believed to have been named by Jesus as leader of the apostles and as a focus of their unity, became the first Bishop of Rome, whose successors accordingly became the leaders of the worldwide Church as well. Churches not in communion with Rome do not agree completely or at all with this Catholic interpretation.
The literature on this traditional doctrine is substantial. Many inferences from it may be drawn. Some Eastern Christians hold that the Roman church and, by extension, her Protestant offspring lost claim to apostolic succession by an illegitimate addition to the Nicene Creed (the Filioque clause) required by the Bishop of Rome just prior to the Great Schism in AD 1054. The rift resulted in the loss of apostolic succession in the western churches and the consequent doctrinal changes and excesses (e.g., Anselmian penal substitution, indulgences, etc.), resulting in the Protestant Reformation and the further splintering of Western Christendom.
The early Creed of the Church, adopted by the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325, affirms that the Church is "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic." But Catholic in Greek "Catholicos" just means universal not referring to the Roman Catholic church but Christianity as a whole. Virtually all Christian denominations consider Apostolic Succession important in some fashion, although their definitions of the concept may vary, in some cases vary greatly (see below).
Churches claiming apostolic succession
Churches that claim the historic episcopate include the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Independent Catholic, the Anglican Communion, and several Lutheran Churches (see below). The former churches teach that apostolic succession is maintained through the consecration of their bishops in unbroken personal succession back to the apostles or at least to leaders from the apostolic era. The Anglican and some Lutheran Churches do not specifically teach this but exclusively practice episcopal ordination.
These churches generally hold that Jesus Christ founded a community of believers and selected the apostles to serve, as a group, as the leadership of that community.
The Roman Catholic Church
|“||Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.||”|
In Roman Catholic theology, the doctrine of apostolic succession states that Christ gave the full sacramental authority of the church to the Twelve Apostles in the sacrament of Holy Orders, making them the first bishops. By conferring the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders on the apostles, they were given the authority to confer the sacrament of Holy Orders on others, thus consecrating more bishops in a direct lineage that can trace its origin back to the Twelve Apostles and Christ himself. This direct succession of bishops from the apostles to the present day bishops is referred to as apostolic succession. The Roman Catholic Church also holds that within the College of Apostles, Peter was picked out for the unique role of leadership and to serve as the source of unity among the apostles, a role among the bishops and within the church inherited by the pope as Peter's successor today.
These churches hold that Christ entrusted the apostles with the leadership of the community of believers, and the obligation to transmit and preserve the "deposit of faith" (the experience of Christ and his teachings contained in the doctrinal "tradition" handed down from the time of the apostles and the written portion, which is Scripture). The apostles then passed on this office and authority by ordaining bishops to follow after them.
Roman Catholic theology holds that the apostolic succession effects the power and authority to administer the sacraments except for baptism and matrimony. (Baptism may be administered by anyone and matrimony the couple to each other). Authority to so administer such sacraments is passed on only through the sacrament of Holy Orders, a rite by which a priest is ordained (ordination can be conferred only by a bishop). The bishop, of course, must be from an unbroken line of bishops stemming from the original apostles selected by Jesus Christ. Thus, apostolic succession is necessary for the valid celebration of the sacraments today.
The unbrokenness of apostolic succession is also significant because of Jesus Christ's promise that the "gates of hell" would not prevail against the Church, and his promise that he himself would be with the apostles to "the end of the age". According to this interpretation, a complete disruption or end of apostolic succession would mean that these promises were not kept as would happen also with an apostolic succession that, while formally intact, completely abandoned the teachings of the Apostles and their immediate successors, as, for example, if all the bishops of the world agreed to abrogate the Nicene Creed or to repudiate the Bible.
Roman Catholics recognize the validity of the apostolic successions of the bishops, and therefore the rest of the clergy, of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Old Catholic, and some Independent Catholic Churches. Rome does not fully recognize all Anglican orders as valid. This conflict stems over the Anglican Church's revision of its rite of ordination for its bishops during the 16th century. Most of today's Anglican bishops would trace their succession back through a bishop who was ordained with the revised form and thusly would be viewed as invalid. However, a few Anglican bishops in Europe today can claim a line of succession through bishops who had only been ordained through the old rite. These bishops are viewed as valid by Rome. This validity was achieved through a number of different means, including ordinations by the schismatic Catholic bishops of the Old Catholic and Independent Catholic Churches who converted to Anglicanism.
The Eastern Orthodox Church
While Eastern Orthodox sources often refer to the bishops as "successors of the apostles" under the influence of Scholastic theology, strict Orthodox ecclesiology and theology holds that all legitimate bishops are properly successors of Peter. Eastern Orthodoxy thus makes a distinction between a geographical or historical succession and proper ontological or ecclesiological succession. Hence, the bishops of Rome and Antioch can be considered successors of Peter in an historical sense on account of Peter's presence in the early community. This does not imply that these bishops are more successors of Peter than all others in an ontological sense.
Eastern Orthodoxy is less concerned with the question of 'validity' than Roman Catholicism, which means that Orthodox bishops can consider the merits of individual cases. It should be noted, however, that the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church has specifically stated that Roman Catholic orders are recognized, to the effect that Roman Catholic clergy seeking admission in the Moscow Patriarchate are received without ordination at their existing rank (see reference in section below). The historic and normative practice of Eastern Orthodoxy has been to reordain clergymen coming from the Anglican / Episcopal communion, thus indicating the non-recognition of Anglican orders.
Traditional Western Churches as seen by Eastern Churches
The Eastern Orthodox have often permitted non-Orthodox clergy to be rapidly ordained within Orthodoxy as a matter of pastoral necessity and economia. In some cases, priests entering Eastern Orthodoxy from Oriental Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have been received by "vesting" and have been allowed to function immediately within Orthodoxy as priests. Recognition of Roman Catholic orders is stipulated in 1997 by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, but this position is not universal within the Eastern Orthodox communion.
In addition to a line of historic transmission, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches additionally require that a hierarch maintain Orthodox Church doctrine, which they hold to be that of the Apostles, as well as communion with other Orthodox bishops.
The Armenian Apostolic Church, which is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches, recognizes Roman Catholic episcopal consecrations without qualification (and that recognition is reciprocated).
The Anglican Communion
The churches of the Anglican Communion claim to possess valid apostolic succession. When the Church of England broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, it retained the episcopal polity and apostolic succession of the Roman Church. At first the Church of England continued to adhere to the doctrinal and liturgical norms of the Roman Church. However, in the years following the split, the Church of England was increasingly influenced by the protestant theology popular on the continent. During the reign of King Edward VI, changes were made to the rite of episcopal consecration. These changes became the grounds on which Pope Leo XIII, in his 1896 bull Apostolicae Curae, ruled that the Church of England had lost its valid apostolic succession due to the changes in the Edwardian ordinal. However, since the 1930s Old Catholic bishops (whom Rome recognises as valid) have acted as co-consecrators in the ordination of Anglican bishops. By 1969, all Anglican bishops had acquired Old Catholic lines of apostolic succession fully recognized by Rome.
Eastern Orthodox judgements
In the twentieth century there have been a variety of positions taken by the various Eastern Orthodox Churches on the validity of Anglican orders. In 1922 the Patriarch of Constantinople recognized them as valid. He wrote: "That the orthodox theologians who have scientifically examined the question have almost unanimously come to the same conclusions and have declared themselves as accepting the validity of Anglican Orders."
Succeeding judgments, however, have been more conflicting. The Orthodox Churches require a totality of common teaching in order to recognize orders and in this broader view finds ambiguities in Anglican teaching and practice problematic. Accordingly, in practice Anglican clergy who convert to Orthodoxy are treated as if they had not been ordained and must be ordained in the Orthodox Church as would any lay person.
Roman Catholic judgements
In the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Leo XIII stated in his 1896 bull Apostolicae Curae that the Catholic Church believes specifically that the Anglican Church's consecrations are "absolutely invalid and utterly void" because of changes made to the rite of consecration under Edward VI, thus denying that Anglicans participate in the apostolic succession.
A reply from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York (1896) was issued to counter Pope Leo's arguments: Saepius Officio: Answer of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to the Bull Apostolicae Curae of H. H. Leo XIII. It was even suggested in their reply that if the Anglican orders were invalid, then the Roman orders were as well:
For if the Pope shall by a new decree declare our Fathers of two hundred and fifty years ago wrongly ordained, there is nothing to hinder the inevitable sentence that by the same law all who have been similarly ordained have received no orders. And if our Fathers, who used in 1550 and 1552 forms which as he (the Pope) says are null, were altogether unable to reform them in 1662, (Roman) Fathers come under the self-same law. And if Hippolytus and Victor and Leo and Gelasius and Gregory have some of them said too little in their rites about the priesthood and the high priesthood, and nothing about the power of offering the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, the church of Rome herself has an invalid priesthood...
It is Roman Catholic doctrine that the teaching of Apostolicae Curae is a truth to be "held definitively":
With regard to those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively, but are not able to be declared as divinely revealed, the following examples can be given: the legitimacy of the election of the Supreme Pontiff or of the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations...
"While firmly restating the judgment of Apostolicae Curae that Anglican ordination is invalid, the Catholic Church takes account of the involvement, in some Anglican episcopal ordinations, of bishops of the Old Catholic Church of the Union of Utrecht who are validly ordained. In particular and probably rare cases the authorities in Rome may judge that there is a 'prudent doubt' concerning the invalidity of priestly ordination received by an individual Anglican minister ordained in this line of succession." This statement, issued by Cardinal Basil Hume to explain the conditional character of his ordination of Dr Graham Leonard, former Anglican bishop of the Diocese of London, to the priesthood is probably the most authoritative indication of the present Roman Catholic view of Anglican orders. Since the issuance of Apostolicae Curae many Anglican jurisdictions have revised their ordinals, bringing them more in line with ordinals of the early Church. The Nag's Head Fable discrediting Matthew Parker's ordination was dismissed as an invention long before the issuance of Apostolicae Curae.
The Porvoo Communion of Churches
Negotiated at Järvenpää, Finland, and inaugurated with a celebration of the eucharist at Porvoo's Cathedral in 1992, this agreement of unity includes the mutual recognition of the traditional Apostolic Succession among the following Churches:
- Lutheran Churches: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, Church of Norway, Church of Sweden, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lithuania; observers: Church of Denmark, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia.
- Anglican Communion: Church of Ireland, Scottish Episcopal Church, Church of England, the Church in Wales, as well as the Lusitanian Catholic Apostolic Evangelical Church, and the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church.
The Lutheran Churches
The six major Lutheran Churches of the Porvoo Communion (those of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania) believe that they ordain their bishops in the apostolic succession in lines from the original Apostles. Two other Lutheran Churches (those of Denmark and of Latvia) were observers at Porvoo. Several Churches within the historic episcopate believe the Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland have maintained apostolic succession, despite their Lutheranism. This view is not held by the Roman Catholic Church nor by all of Orthodoxy.
Not all Lutheran Churches are favorable to the traditional doctrine of apostolic succession (see below). One context for the wide differences among the Lutheran Churches is that by the Prussian Union of 1817 the government ordered the Lutheran Churches in Prussia to merge with non-Lutheran reform Churches in Prussia. Perhaps also many of the Lutheran Churches are relatively indifferent as a matter of doctrine to this particular issue of ecclesiastical governance, e.g., the conservative Missouri Synod generally places its church authority in the congregation rather than in the bishop, yet this church is in fellowship with other Lutheran Churches favoring episcopacy. The larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is led by the Presiding Bishop who is elected by the Churchwide Assembly for a six year term. The Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church recovered the apostolic succession from Old Catholic and Independent Catholic Churches, adopted a strict episcopal polity, and all of its clergy have been ordained (or re-ordained) into the historic apostolic succession. Similarly in German High Church Movement some religious brotherhoods like Hochkirchliche St. Johannes-Bruderschaft and Hochkirchlicher Apostolat St. Ansgar have got their own bishop in apostolic succession. The Lutheran Evangelical Protestant Church has autonomous and congregationally oriented ministries and believes it consecrates deacons, priests and bishops in valid and historic apostolic succession. This must be done through the laying on of hands with word and sacrament during the celebration of Holy Communion. Only bishops may consecrate deacons, priests and other bishops into apostolic succession. The newly consecrated bishop's name is added to the apostolic lineage.
The Methodist Church
The Methodist Church of Great Britain is non-episcopal. Bishops in the United Methodist Church of the USA do not claim to be within the historic episcopate in the same way as Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox bishops. They do, however, claim a corporate ("connexional") and theological form of Apostolic succession, and are not adverse to ecumenical acts which would further establish their ministry within the historic episcopate, though such would have to be accomplished without repudiating or otherwise questioning the validity of their current orders and ministries. Methodist episcopal succession derives from John Wesley, who was an ordained presbyter of the Church of England but not himself a bishop and thus not officially authorized to consecrate others. Wesley justified his practice of ordaining bishops (which he called " General Superintendents") and Elders (i.e., presbyters) for Methodists in the newly independent United States in 1784 by appealing to a perceived need and by citing a minority opinion among the early Church Fathers and an ancient precedent from the Church of Alexandria, which held that presbyters ("priests" or "elders") could, at least collectively, indeed ordain other such presbyters and even consecrate, or "set apart" bishops in certain emergency situations. Based upon this argument, the United Methodist Church understands all of its Elders, not just its Bishops, as being part of an Apostolic succession of the entire body (or "conference") of ministers:
|“||In ordination, the church affirms and continues the apostolic ministry through persons empowered by the Holy Spirit. ( Book of Discipline paragraph 303)||”|
In other words, Methodists understand apostolic succession as being rooted within the Presbyterate. This does not mean, however, that all elders may ordain; quite the contrary: only those elders who have been elected and consecrated as bishops can further the apostolic succession through the ordination of bishops, elders, and deacons within the United Methodist Church. In this way, the United Methodist episcopacy functions as if it were within the historic episcopate.
Accepting, but moving beyond this position, a few Methodists do affirm that their bishops stand in a form of the historic, as well as theological, Apostolic Succession (i.e., in the Anglican fashion); their argument is that Wesley's ordinations, and therefore the subsequent line of Methodist bishops, are legitimate due to the critical nature of the circumstances extant at that time. Some Methodists even make an appeal to the "Erasmian consecration," which asserts that, while on a visit to London in 1763, the Greek Orthodox bishop of the Diocese of Arcadia, Crete, secretly consecrated Wesley to the episcopacy. That Wesley actually met with Bishop Erasmus during the bishop's visit to London is not questioned; what is questioned is that Erasmus did more than simply "confirm Wesley in his ministry among the Methodists in England and America." When Wesley was asked by a clergyman if Erasmus of Arcadia had consecrated him a bishop, he said: "I cannot answer you." Another source states that when Wesley was asked if Erasmus had made him a bishop, he offered no personal response but, rather, took the unusual course of authorizing a representative to reply that he had not requested episcopal consecration within the Greek Orthodox line. Many take this as a sufficient denial, but those who believe that Wesley was actually consecrated make the following arguments to the contrary:
- Wesley personally remained silent on the subject,
- Wesley took the unusual step of having someone to speak on his behalf, and
- Wesley never actually denied being consecrated a bishop, what he denied was requesting consecration from Erasmus.
Contrary to the "Erasmian consecration" stands the undeniable fact that, beginning with the American Revolution in the 1770s, Wesley did request episcopal consecration for several of his preachers and, indeed, for himself, so as to provide sacramental ministry for the Methodists in the break-away colonies. Opponents of the possibility that John Wesley had been consecrated a bishop by Erasmus of Arcadia argue that if Wesley had already been consecrated a bishop by Erasmus, he would have not requested such consecrations for others or for himself. The Greek Orthodox Bishop, Erasmus of Arcadia, is said to have ordained several Methodist lay preachers during Reverend John Wesley's absence from London in 1764,notably, Reverend John Jones.
Nevertheless, the "Erasmian consecration" remained a very popular argument throughout much of the 1800s and, while still garnering a following among some proponents today, it is not accepted by a majority of Methodists nor even by most of those who affirm a form of Apostolicity for their bishops. Interestingly enough, Wesley's consecration as a bishop by Erasmus of Arcadia is affirmed by Unity Catholic Church, an Independent Catholic Church.
Protestant Churches against traditional Apostolic Succession
Contra: Doctrinal continuity important, the Ecclesia not
Many Protestant Churches, especially those following the Magisterial reformers, e.g., John Calvin (1509-1564), deny that the apostolicity of the Church rests on an unbroken episcopacy. In general, while Protestant Churches seldom refer to traditional post-Apostolic (ante-Nicene) doctrine, they will accept such claims advanced by the ancient Churches, as supportive evidence for their (Protestant) understanding of Scripture. Among the non-Calvinistic (Reformed) Protestant Churches, e.g., most of those following Martin Luther (1483-1546), many are, to a degree, similar; nonetheless, some Lutheran Churches claim for their bishops the ecclesiastic authority of traditional Apostolic Succession (see "Lutheran Churches"). Of course, the more moderate "Protestant" Churches claim such traditional authority as well, but with some redefinition of the terms used.
A Protestant Reformation definition of Apostolic Succession
Protestants may hold that one important qualification of the apostles was that they were chosen directly by Jesus and that they witnessed the resurrected Christ. According to this understanding, the work of these twelve (and the Apostle Paul), together with the prophets of the twelve tribes of Israel, provide the doctrinal foundation for the whole church of subsequent history through the Scriptures of the Bible. These Protestants say that to share with the historic apostles the same faith, to believe their word as found in the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is the only sense in which "apostolic succession" is meaningful, because it is in this sense only that men have fellowship with God in the truth (an extension of the Reformation doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura). The most meaningful apostolic succession for many Protestants, then, is construed as the faithful succession of apostolic teaching.
Many Protestants point to the fact that when leadership in the Bible became disobedient or strayed from his command, God would then bestow that position upon an individual who was more obedient to his will regardless of any claim that any other person would have through tradition. An example of this would be when King Saul of Israel was removed by God due to his disobedience so that King David could assume the throne. Protestants see apostolic succession in much the same way. In the view of many Protestants apostolic succession is not a matter of tradition, rather it is a matter of God safe-guarding his church by means of bestowing authority to those whom best exemplify sound doctrine.
In addition, many Protestant contras state that the teaching of Apostolic Succession did not arise until 170-200 A.D.
In the centuries following the Protestant Reformation, most debates about apostolic succession in the West concerned the Roman Catholic Church's claim that apostolic succession, as traditionally defined, was essential for valid Christian ministry. Protestants denied this and asserted that the traditional definition of apostolic succession was not revealed in the Bible, but was formulated later by the post-apostolic church.
In the 20th century, there has been more contact between Protestants and Christians from Eastern traditions which also claim apostolic succession. While other denominations, such as various branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church, use the doctrine of apostolic succession in their apologetics against Protestantism, many Protestants now feel that the claims made by advocates of apostolic succession have been proven false by the fact that multiple churches claim to have apostolic succession, and the traditions and doctrines of these churches are at odds with each other. According to some Protestant apologists, apostolic succession is a failed theological hypothesis and continued debates about it are no more meaningful than debates about whether the Earth is flat. Among the reasons cited by some Protestant apologists for the doctrine's failure:
- Different churches that claim apostolic succession insist that they alone are the true Church, and other apostolic churches are false.
- The doctrines of the various churches are often as different from each other as Protestant doctrines are from Catholic or Orthodox doctrines. For example, Oriental Orthodox churches define the union of divine and human natures in Christ differently from the dual-nature doctrine held by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and reject church councils that the other churches regard as foundational to their religion. The Eastern Orthodox define the relationship of the Holy Spirit to other members of the Trinity differently than Roman Catholics (see Filoque). Roman Catholicism has innovated doctrines of Purgatory, Original Sin, Papal Infallibility, and the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which are rejected with varying degrees of vehemence by other apostolic churches. The Syriac Orthodox Church rejects the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the dogma that the bread and wine used in the Eucharist is transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ during Mass, and believes that the bread and wine are only symbolic.
- Many of the practices of the various churches are mutually contradictory. Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches perform confirmation, which they call chrismation, on infants immediately after baptism, while the Roman Catholic Church delays the rite until adolescence or adulthood. The Roman Catholic Church insists that priests be unmarried, while the Eastern Orthodox churches permit married men to become priests. Some Oriental Orthodox churches, like the Egyptian Copts, insist that priests must be married.
- Apostolic churches cannot agree on issues as basic as the contents of the Biblical canon. The Eastern Orthodox churches believe that the Septuagint is divinely-inspired and authoritative, while the Roman Catholic Church uses Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament, and to some extent, the Latin Vulgate, as its canon. The Ethiopian Copts include books in the Biblical canon that no other church recognizes, such as the Book of Enoch.
According to Protestants, it is self-evident from these facts that claims regarding the necessity of apostolic succession to preserve Christian orthodoxy are false. Continued debates regarding the doctrine would therefore be meaningless, because of the doctrine's failure as historical fact.
Protestants also criticize these churches for being linked to particular nations or ethnic groups. Most apostolic churches are explicitly ethnic or nationalistic in character, and their institutions' names reflect this. The Roman Catholic Church is headquartered in Italy, dominant in southwestern European nations or their former colonies, and most Popes have historically been Italians. Other churches also note their nationalistic scope in their names - some examples include the Russian Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Polish National Catholic Church. While some of these churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, have made substantial missionary efforts beyond their original countries, their entrenched traditions and terminology make it difficult for these churches to be truly universal in scope, which suggests that none of the apostolic churches are truly "catholic" or "universal" like they claim.
A traditionalist response to the redefinition
Commentary on semantics and on concord
The above contra position clearly rejects Apostolic Succession as traditionally understood (see above "The Traditional Doctrine"). Yet the contra position goes on to articulate an entirely new and completely different definition of Apostolic Succession, one that references loyalty to the teaching of the apostles. Thus "succession" would not in any way refer to which person will next occupy a leadership position in the church and its theological character, but instead refer to the theological understanding of the church based on its teachings. Of course, each church freely defines or redefines for itself its own understanding of any theological term it uses; in which case, confusion may result if it is not remembered that the same word or phrase may mean something entirely different.
Disagreement is common among the various Protestant reform churches as to the interpreted content of the Christian teaching that commands loyalty. Disagreement also can result among traditionalists as to the identity of bishops under Apostolic Succession, but this rarely happens. However, traditionalist Apostolic Succession does result in an ecclesiastical structure that provides the medium for settling many difficult matters regarding the interpreted content of Christian doctrine or teaching.
Scripture and the understanding of the early Church
Those traditionalists who hold to the importance of episcopal apostolic succession may counter the contra paragraphs above by appealing to the New Testament. These Scriptures imply a personal apostolic succession (e.g., from Paul to Timothy and Titus). Traditionalists say that in the New Testament Jesus gave the Apostles authority to lead the Church as they deemed proper under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Traditionalists may appeal as well to other documents of the very early Church, especially the Epistle of St. Clement to the Church at Corinth, written circa 96 AD. In it, Clement defends the authority and prerogatives of a group of " elders" or " bishops" in the Corinthian Church which had, apparently, been deposed and replaced by the congregation on its own initiative. In this context, Clement explicitly states that the apostles both appointed bishops as successors and had directed that these bishops should in turn appoint their own successors; given this, such leaders of the Church were not to be removed without cause and not in this way.
Further, proponents of the necessity of the personal apostolic succession of bishops point to the universal practice of the undivided early Church, from which, as ecclesiastical organizations, the Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, as well Oriental Orthodox, and the Assyrian, Churches have all directly descended.
One reason often given for traditional Apostolic Succession is the need for institutional continuity so that Christian doctrine, not only the written texts (pre-Gutenberg (1397-1468) an important consideration) but also their proper orthodox interpretation, could be better maintained. Many Protestants contra to traditionalist Apostolic Succession would not deny the importance of continuity and consistency in the true interpretation of Christian doctrine. At the same time, traditionalist defending Apostolic Succession would agree that ecclesiastics should remain orthodox in their teaching.
Charismatic and Restorationist new apostles
It is worth noting that some Protestant charismatic and restorationist churches include "apostles" among the offices that should be evident into modern times in a true church, though they never trace an historical line of succession. It is frequently the case that the founders or senior leaders of a restorationist church grouping will be referred to as the apostles. Church planting is seen as a key role of these present-day apostles.
Interpretation of "Gates of Hades" scripture
Some churches believe the promise of Christ "to build His Church" against which "the gates of Hades shall not prevail" has remained in force throughout the centuries. The Roman Catholic Church holds that part of this protection of the Church is guaranteed to all churches who submit to the supreme headship of the Bishop of Rome. The Orthodox Churches of the East, however, see this protection as guaranteed through continuance of the bishops and the faithful in the communion of the Faith as they continue in the unity of the Faith according to the traditions of the Church as they have been passed down in the Church through consistent belief and practice. All the Churches in the Unity of the Faith, under the oversight of legitimate bishops who are in communion with one another, preserve the authentic apostolic tradition and do not subtract or add to it by creating new dogmas or denying the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in illuminating the one Deposit of Faith delivered once and for all to the saints.