How did it happen? On Apostolic Succession

I devoted the final week of my New Testament class to two patristic texts: 1 Clement, which is the first clear articulation of apostolic succession, and selections from book 3 of Irenaeus’s Against All Heresies, which starts to incorporate the Gospels into the self-legitimation narrative of apostolic succession. I thought it was fitting that after going through the content of the New Testament, we would then take a look at the beginnings of the emergence of its form as a canon. (We were also still working through Schüssler Fiorenza’s Revelation: Vision of a Just World, but we mainly discussed her method of rhetorical criticism rather than her specific comments on Revelation — that proved to be a useful counterpoint to the patristic stuff, more than I would’ve anticipated.)

Knowing that I would address the notion of apostolic succession as the context in which the New Testament canon found its usefulness, on the day we discussed the Pastoral Epistles, I did a presentation over the entire New Testament, looking at every passage that seemed to refer to leadership within the Christian community. As a lapsed Catholic convert, I knew that the biblical case for apostolic succession was less than 100% clear, but assumed that I’d find a decent amount that pointed in that direction. What I found instead was virtually nothing — certainly nothing that lines up with 1 Clement’s claim that the apostles appointed the first convert in every city as the bishop.

Some random highlights: Acts seems to envision the 12 disciples as a kind of permanent college, with dying members being replaced, an idea that obviously went nowhere. Whatever special role you see for the 12 in the synoptics is complicated by the rarely-mentioned 70 who are also sent out. Paul sometimes mentions leaders within the community, but at the same time his clearest statement on the matter is in 1 Corinthians, where he says Christians shouldn’t follow any particular person — even him. The norm of Christians respecting authority in general is obviously present in the various “household codes,” but only in the Pastorals do we get anything approaching a picture of a specifically ecclesial structure of authority. Even there, the bishops and deacons are to be appointed by Timothy, whose status as an apostle is unclear (Do apostles appoint other apostles? If so, why couldn’t there perpetually be apostles?), and their actual roles in the community aren’t specified.

I don’t think there’s any single clear vision of how the Christian community should be structured in the New Testament, but I’m going to come out and give the opinion that apostolic succession has basically no scriptural warrant. On the sympathetic side, the lack of a single clear vision does leave room for the church to come up with its own solution, and it’s easy to see how apostolic succession proved to be a more durable model in the long run.

To me, though, the real issue is how this could’ve taken hold. Who first claimed to be in apostolic succession, and why did people go along with it? I think that 1 Clement is fascinating in this regard, because it provides evidence for the concept of apostolic succession, but also provides evidence that the Corinthians were rebelling against it. My students tended to view the fact that yet another letter was being written to them as evidence that there was just something in the water in Corinth, but I wonder if in this particular case they were actually more in the spirit of Paul by kicking out the bishop.

The relationship of apostolic succession to the New Testament is also fascinating to me. The analogy I used is the US Supreme Court’s right of judicial review: it’s not in the Constitution, but once the Supreme Court claimed it, it basically stuck. The difference is that in this case, we’re dealing with a Supreme Court that also gets to choose what the Constitution is — and, in a final twist, that chooses a Constitution that doesn’t actually support what it wants to do, at least not in any common sense reading.

It’s all so weirdly circular. How do we know that you’re the authentic church? Because we are in a direct line of succession running back to the apostles and therefore Jesus and God. How can we tell? Because we preserve the authentic apostolic tradition. How do we know that your tradition is the right one? Because we preserve the authentic apostolic writings. How do we know that those writings and not other writings claiming apostolic authorship are authentic? Because they match up to our message. How can you claim that this heterogeneous body of writings matches up to your message? Because the tradition gives us the proper hermeneutical lens. How do you know you have the right hermeneutical lens? Because we’re the authentic church.

My study of the patristic writings has made me disinclined toward what one might call the “hermeneutics of betrayal.” Apostolic succession can’t be a purely extrinsic betrayal — there must be something about Christianity that makes it plausible. I’m still thinking this through, but I suspect that the underlying point of contact here is the idea of a purely personal, self-authenticating authority, which finds its model in Christ.

Obviously you could claim that the real historical Jesus wasn’t like that, etc., but certainly Paul goes to great lengths to claim that he gets his mission directly from God (though years later he checked in with the other apostles, and of course it turned out to be the identical meessage), and the synoptic Gospels and especially John are very comfortable with portraying Jesus along those lines. If we think in terms of the battle against Gnosticism, we can see that the patristic writers (Irenaeus) viewed them as claiming a similar kind of personal authority, which led to contradiction and chaos — so we can see the attractiveness of a model that could tap into that personal authority but in a more orderly fashion. We have evidence that the proto-catholic model wasn’t the most popular in the early centuries of Christianity, but it obviously reached a sufficient critical mass that it became self-perpetuating and therefore could wait it out.

It’s still unclear to me how this system first got started. Who was the first person to claim to be an appointee of the apostles and to have the power to appoint his successor? How many tries did it take before people got tired of running him out of town? I suspect that this is unknowable, though, because it is in the nature of the system of apostolic succession that it covers its own tracks. Indeed, the only point where they couldn’t cover their own tracks was precisely their claim of New Testament authority. They could obscure matters by insisting that the whole thing had to be read as one document, but at the end of the day, their historical self-legitimation narrative depended on them leaving the individual writings “as is” (or close: there do seem to be interpolations in Paul’s authentic letters, although not many). Things would’ve been much simpler if they’d produced one single gospel out of the four or a compendium of Paul’s teachings out of his letters — but the four gospels and the individual letters were how the apostles chose to write them, and the entire paradigm of personal authority militated against changing that.

This inability to completely cover their tracks has led to one of the great motors of Christianity’s unique dynamism (or just instability, depending on how you look at it): there’s always the possibility of a “reboot” back to the New Testament. That might seem to provide some hope to those who want to move Christianity toward a model of community not so rooted in personal authority — but ironically, the very appeal to the New Testament still fits within that model. Every “reboot” is therefore the potential foundation for a new line of succession, which will preserve the New Testament so that a future generation can “reboot” yet again.

9 thoughts on “How did it happen? On Apostolic Succession

  1. “Reboot back to the New Testament!” Love your style :o)

    Do you think that the church will ever have the guts to create itself newly for today, with no need of a reboot?

  2. My best guess is that the roots of apostolic succession are to be found in the association of particular apostles with particular cities. I doubt that immediate “successors” in leadership within those communities claimed the authority of the apostles as the apostles passed on, but over time (a few generations of leadership) the narrative of apostolic succession was told retrospectively to bolster the authority of the current leadership. A line could then be traced within the city back through a succession of leaders dubbed as the apostolic line. Heterogeneous as “Christianity” was in its first centuries, if this claim was made in one geographic location with a memory of a local apostle, leaders in other locations would be hard-pressed not to make similar claims.

    It’s speculative reconstruction though.

  3. Though it isn’t an historical account of apostolic succession, I would recommend an old book by the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey entitled “The Gospel and the Catholic Church.”

    It is the most creative use of NT theology I’ve read to construct a case for Episcopacy and there is a brief section on Apostolic Succession and ministry.

    You could probably get what you needed out of the first part as the second part traces developments through the Middle Ages.

  4. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but I remember finding Yoder’s take on how to parse the NT picture pretty interesting. It’s in The Fullness of Christ. His argument is that the hierarchical picture you get in the pastorals is meant for fledgling churches, which are eventually supposed to follow the model Paul suggests to the Corinthians: no strict clergy/laity distinction, no single authority, everybody gets their turn to talk. So they were supposed to kick out the bishops after a while.

    I can’t remember at all how he actually argued that, though.

  5. While obvious, it bears repeating that there was no initial scriptural warrant for apostolic succession because of the expected imminent parousia – why would the first generation institute a formal system of self-perpetuation when they expected the eschaton of all? I think it was Maurice Wiles who made the interesting suggestion that the first generation’s proclamation of Christ’s ultimacy was only a chronological one – their claim was that Jesus was the fullest revelation so far, and he wouldn’t be eclipsed because the parousia would take place within the first generation’s lifetime, and there simply would not be enough time for any new revelation to arise. Thus, apostolic succession arises as an order that guards the purity of the eucharistic meal, precisely as the ritual that beckons the parousia. In this strange sense, the eucharist anticipates the dissolution of the church (as the church over against the world) which is why apostolic succession can’t have a founding moment *within* the text or early baptism/eucharistic rituals, but has to be extrinsic to it. For this reason, I tend to think that primitivism, the attempt to ‘reboot’ back to the NT isn’t a glitch, subverting apostolic succession, but a feature of it – apostolic succession maintains the pure kernel of the eucharist (via the passion narratives) as that alone which hopes for the dissolution of ap. succ. I know that is a very ‘protestant’ reading. Maybe it’s also the reason why the institution speech is the only thing of Jesus that Paul quotes in his letters. Meh.

  6. That’s an interesting idea. It’s clear that sacramental authority is intimately tied into the self-legitimation narrative — already in 1 Clement (though not in the Pastorals), the authority to administer the Eucharist properly is the only concrete duty of the bishop aside from, apparently, getting everyone to obey. And even today, in the Holy Thursday liturgy for the RCC (and on Body and Blood Sunday), it’s clear that the establishment of the priestly hierarchy is the real emotional center of gravity. Just kind of free-associating, too — in Zizioulas, one gets the impression that what’s so super-cool about the Eucharist is that it puts one in contact with the bishop, rather than the (more intuitive) reverse.

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