Monday, August 17, 2015

Authority, Part II: Defining the Claims

This post is part of a five-post series on the Church's authority. Click the links below to visit the other parts of the series.

Authority, Part I:  Introduction  
Authority, Part II:  Defining the Claims  
Authority, Part III:  Testing the Claims with the Early Church Fathers  
Authority, Part IV:  Testing the Claims with History  
Authority, Part V:  Conclusions  

The Origin of Church Authority

We must begin our discussion of authority by defining the terminology we will use, as well as the claims of the various churches. 

I have been using the term authority because of its self-explanatory nature; however, the proper theological term is apostolicity, meaning "derived from the apostles."

Why is it important that the church derives from the apostles?

It all began, of course, with Jesus. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said to Peter, "on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it."  In Ephesians 2:20, Paul says that the church is built upon the foundation of the apostles. In Acts 2:42, we see that the first church continued to study the teachings of the apostles. 

So it is critical then that our churches carry with them apostolic authority, or apostolicity. But what, precisely, does this mean? Michael Ramsey, the former Archibishop of Canterbury, rightly states that there are three very different things that people usually mean when they say a church is apostolic:
  1. A continuity of teaching, that is, that the church leadership is teaching the same doctrine as the apostles
  2. A continuity of function, that is, that the church leadership is fulfilling the same functions and roles as the apostles
  3. A continuity of traditional lineage, that is, that the church leadership were personally taught and inaugurated by leaders who were taught and inaugurated by other leaders and so on, in an unbroken lineage back to the original apostles.

Now on the first two of the three, there is little controversy worth discussing. Every Christian tradition agrees that a church is not apostolic unless its leaders teach the same truth as the apostles, and that its leaders must fulfill the functions fulfilled by the apostles. This is precisely whey Christians reject the Mormons as heretics--because they fail the apostolicity test on both of these grounds; their teachings do not jive with the teachings of the apostles, and neither do their methods of ministry.

Regarding what those teachings are--we speak primarily of the New Testament. There has been very little disagreement (despite what Dan Brown and other non-scholars would have you believe) in the canon of the New Testament. You can find a few early Christian traditions which threw out Revelation and Hebrews, and a few others that wanted to add in Shepherd of Hermas or Clement; but these are so far in the minority that it is hardly worth mentioning.

No, in these first two areas there is really virtually no controversy.

The controversy comes in with the third point, that of traditional lineage. The idea here is that although we all agree that the Scriptures contain the apostles' teachings, they do not include all of the apostles' teachings. Instead, the apostles also taught and "passed down" the faith to the second generation of church leaders such as Timothy, Clement, and the like; they then chose the third generation and passed along the faith; they then chose the fourth generation, and on and on until today.

The idea here is that there is a legal lineage of approved ministers whose teachings are also apostolic, having been handed down from the apostles through the ages. So there would therefore be two sources of authoritative apostolic teachings:  the Scriptures (the written teachings) and the Traditions (the handed-down teachings).

So it is this third sense that we are discussing here:  did the apostles also hand down authoritative, word-of-mouth teachings which were passed on by a lineage of discipleship to today? And if so, which church tradition is the proper keeper of this lineage?

Overview of Denominational History

To put it another way, have a look at the file below (feel free to click and zoom in if needed).

This chart shows the Christian family tree (greatly simplified, of course).

In gray, you have the apostolic church. During the first four and a half centuries of Christianity, the church was fairly unified theologically. There were some heretical Gnostics and the like which arose, but for the most part, there were no other large breaks in Christianity.

In 431, the Nestorian conflict resulted in the Church of the East splitting off from what I am calling the remaining Catholic tradition.

Then in 451, the Oriental Orthodox Churches split off after the Council of Ephesus; this includes the Coptics, Ethiopians, Armenians, Syrians, and similar churches.

The church Catholic continued with increasing separation between the theologies as time goes on. However, don't miss the size of the timeframe--for comparison, the entire history of the U.S.A. from Washington until today, which is shown in black at the bottom right.

In 1054, at the Great Schism, the cracks which had been developing in the past 600 years formally split the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Branches. Eastern Christianity (the Orthodox churches) are shown in blue, while the Western church tradition showed in orange.

The Eastern Orthodox church continued to divide over the years, now with 15 significant branches who remain in communion together.

Roman Catholicism has remained to modern day, as shown in dark orange. However, in the 16th century the Reformation occurred, and Western Christianity generally took on two other large traditions.

In the light orange you see the Anglican tradition. This tradition would over the years give birth to Episcopalians, Baptists, Charismatics, and Methodists. Some--like the Episcopalians--have remained pretty similar to the Anglicans; others like Baptists and Charismatics are significantly different.

The final version are the green, Reformed churches. These are the churches descended from Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli--such as the Presbyterians, Mennonites, Anabaptists, and Lutherans.

Additionally to all of the above are non-denominational churches, which originated from none of these sources but generally speaking divide into two broad categories:  evangelical churches (which are somewhat similar to the Anglican tradition, generally resembling Baptist or Anglican churches) and Reformed evangelical churches (which are more similar to Lutheranism or Presbyterianism).

This overview diagram gives you an idea of what denominational history has been.

The Claim of the Roman Catholics

The Roman Catholic claim is that there is one, and only one, valid line of apostolic succession. They claim that you could connect dots to form a timeline of all bishops of Rome beginning with Peter and still active today.

The Romans claim that all the other colors on the graph are "false succession" lines. For example, Martin Luther (though properly ordained by their succession) broke from apostolic succession and therefore, everyone who follows him in the Reformed tradition is an invalid teacher.

Because they claim to have the only valid lineage, any Roman Catholic tradition which seems to differ from Scripture is seen as correct; that is, although the Immaculate Conception of Mary is not a Biblical principle, the doctrine is considered equally authoritative as the Bible because it came through appropriate apostolic succession.

The Claim of the Orthodox

The Orthodox churches, like the Roman Catholics, each claim their own appropriate apostolic succession. The Nestorians say they alone are properly apostolic, the Orientals say they alone are properly apostolic, and the Eastern Orthodox claim the same.

Because they claim to have the only valid lineage, any Eastern Orthodox tradition which seems to differ from Scripture is seen as correct; Orthodox-only doctrine is considered equally authoritative as the Bible because it came through appropriate apostolic succession.

The Claim of the Anglicans and Methodists

The Anglicans and Methodists can provide a similar line of succession back through Catholicism as the Roman Catholics can. However, they do not rely on it in the same way.

The Anglicans and Methodists are--to use my terminology--supporters of prima Scriptura. That is, although they too claim to be able to trace their lineage to the apostles, they generally argue that Scripture always trumps traditions. In that way, they often claim to be both Catholic and Protestant.

As a result, the Anglicans and Methodists would not place their traditions on as firm a footing as the Orthodox or Catholics, despite claiming apostolic succession.

The Claim of the Protestants

The claim of most Protestants (the green section above) is that apostolic succession does not exist in in the manner described by the other groups. The Protestants follow sola Scriptura--that is, only Scripture carries apostolic weight. Therefore, your church is "apostolic" if it is in line with Scripture.

Therefore, the Protestants can accept traditions and handed-down doctrines if and only if they do not contradict with Scripture.

This is an overview of the four major claims. We will look through each of these in the coming posts.

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