Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: Apostolic succession

When discussing apostolic succession with an Evangelical/fundamentalist who’s using the New International Version of the Bible, you’ll have to explain first where the word “bishop” comes from.

“Bishop”, as I’ve explained over on the other blog, comes from the vulgar Latin word biscopus (LL. episcopus), which in turn comes from the Greek word episkopos. In NIV, episkopos is directly translated as “overseer”; while that is what the word means, it can lead a person who doesn’t know New Testament Greek to miss the connection. If you have a standard English dictionary that shows word origins, or if you have Strong’s Greek Lexicon, you can show it to them from there.

(As an added bonus — if you wish to be an insufferable know-it-all — you can also point out that “priest” comes from presbyteros, which is translated in most English bibles as either “leader” or “elder”.)

Now, remember that discussions about bishops and apostolic succession are truly fights over authority: authority to interpret the Gospel, authority to discern authentic doctrine, authority to bind the conscience of the faithful to the teachings of the Church. That’s why even a person willing to concede that sola scriptura is flawed doctrine will hold that apostolic authority ended with the passing of St. John the Evangelist (ca. 90).

However, let’s look at some Scripture that tells against this position. First, we have St. Matthias, whom the Eleven appoint to succeed to Judas Iscariot’s ministry (Ac 1:15-26). Saint Peter justifies this with a couple of citations from the Psalms (Pss 69:25, 109:8); however, we don’t see any direct instructions from Jesus to do so.

Joseph Barnabas turns up in Acts 4:36-37 as a Levite from Cyprus who was an early post-Pentecost convert; for ten chapters, his story is so closely associated with St. Paul’s that it’s hard to think of one without the other. Acts 14:14 specifically calls St. Barnabas an apostle. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says in defense of himself and St. Barnabas, “Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?” Clearly, by this time Barnabas is considered an apostle.

Then we have St. Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew who pops up in Ephesus with an adequate but not thorough indoctrination in Christianity (Ac 18:24-28). From there, he goes to Achaia pretty much on his own hook though with the encouragement of the Ephesians.

The next we hear from him is in 1 Corinthians. In particular, we see these words: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Cor 4:5-7). While he does not directly call St. Apollos an apostle, in context St. Paul treats him as an apostle like himself and St. Peter; that he’s now an apostle is a fair inference.

Then we have Ss. Timothy and Titus. The first letter to Timothy skips around a bit, but we know: 1) He’s had authority to preach and teach given to him by laying on of hands (1 Tim 4:13-14); 2) He has authority over overseers (episkopoi) and deacons (v. 3:1-15); 3) He has the authority to appoint elders (presbyteroi, v. 5:17-19); and 4) He can impose hands himself (v. 5:22). It’s clear that he’s acting as St. Paul’s vicarius (from which we get “vicar”), and has been given apostolic authority. When we cross-reference with Titus 1:5-9, we see similar instructions to appoint elders and the ideal qualities of overseers, so we can make a similar inference about him as well.

So now we have five people beyond the initial eleven who’ve been given apostolic authority: Matthias, Barnabas, Apollos, Timothy and Titus. From this it’s clear that the apostles didn’t consider their authority something given to them as personal gifts, like a lifetime peerage, but rather entrusted to them for the perpetuation of Christ’s Church. For Jesus’ mandate was to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19); even given the incomplete knowledge of the world they had at the time, they must have been aware the task would take longer than they had to live!

We have clearer testimony to the authoritative role of the bishop when we come to the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch:

  • “I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed” (Letter to the Magnesians, 6).
  • “For, since you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, you may escape from death” (Letter to the Trallians, 2).
  • “Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8).

But the episkopos wasn’t simply the focus of Church authority and the center of gravity of each community; he was also the guarantor of the apostolic tradition, and thus of the Gospel message. As Tertullian put it:

But if there be any [heresies] which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: 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,— a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit [their several worthies], whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed (The Prescription Against Heretics, 32.

While we read about periods in history where bishops abused their spiritual authority, where they took on temporal rulerships that presented conflicts of interest, still: abusus non tollit usum (misuse does not remove use).

Authority doesn’t simply refer to powers or right, but also to expertise. Men elevated to the episcopate are presumed to be better educated and trained in the teachings of the Church. Many if not most do in fact have at least one earned doctorate; not a few have earned habilitations, a higher level of academic achievement than a doctorate, to teach on the university level in Europe.

But apostolic succession exists not only to pass on the teachings of the Church but also to pass on the Sacraments of the Church, especially those of the Eucharist and Confession. Which brings me to my final thought: When Jesus appeared to the Eleven for the first time after his resurrection, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (Jn 20:23). This is a power given to no one else, given to them by One who had power on earth to forgive sins (Mt 9:2-8) and who had delegated his authority to them (Mt 20:18-20).

This should make us ask two questions: 1) Why did the Lord give the Eleven such a power if by faith alone our sins are forgiven? And 2) If the authority of the apostles wasn’t passed on … what happened to their power to forgive sins?

Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§ 857-865 on apostolic nature of Church; also 1086-1087 on succession as passing forward the sacraments, 77 on the bishops as successors of the apostles.
Catholic Answers “Fathers Know Best” tracts on apostolic succession, apostolic tradition and bishops.