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
As we continue our study of succession, what becomes very relevant is determining who has the proper succession lineage? The three who claim succession lineages--Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and Roman Catholicism--have fundamentally differing doctrines on many counts. To put it very simply, they cannot all be teaching apostolic doctrine as their doctrines are disconnecting from one another. So the question is--can we, from history, choose a lineage which is correct?
Short answer: No, not really.
The longer answer will come as we answer three sub-questions.
1. Is any lineage truly unbroken?
Now, the number of lineages possible here are massive. The Roman Catholic church has one, the Eastern Orthodox has fifteen who are in communion, the Ancient Church of the East has theirs, Anglicanism has theirs, and so on. Below you see one such example, that of the Methodist faith (yellow) descending from a succession of Anglicans (red):
Going through all of those on a blog I don't get paid for seems like a poor use of my time this nice, sunny weekend in Amsterdam. :-)
So instead, let me make two points:
- Every lineage has some very highly questionable certainty in some of the histories; it is far from sure that these have 100% accuracy through the Dark Age lineages. This is not a disproof, but an honest concern.
- Every lineage ultimately breaks off at some point and then simply chooses one line as legitimate.
This second point is a very serious one, in my view.
Take the Anglican view above. John Wesley was, without any doubt historically, properly initiated as an Anglican minister. Then in the United States, he continued to admit new bishops and presbyters and on and on they go until today.
So...which of these lineages is correct? Methodism and Anglicanism are teaching different doctrines. So one (or both) of them has departed from true doctrinal apostolicity. Which is it? Both have equally valid claims. The Methodists simply claim that they are the 'true' line, and the Anglicans claim that they are the 'true' line.
Now Methodists and Anglicans get along swimmingly so perhaps this seems a non-issue. But let us look at a more serious example, one which permeates all of these lineages.
Above is part of the apostolic succession timeline claimed by the Antiochian Orthodox church, one of the fifteen major 'branches' of Eastern Orthodoxy. In the late fourth century, this chain had a doctrinal controversy. Four properly-succeeded bishops (Meletius, Paulinus, Vitalis, and Euzoius) all split over each other. Three of those continued long enough that they inaugurated more bishops as their followers. Eventually the lines of Paulinus and Meletius rejoined, but the other two lines ended.
Now, the Antiochian Orthodox church today will tell you, this is an example of the Church correcting itself and avoiding heresy. But here is the problem...if apostolic succession is what determines apostolicity, then the other two had equally-valid claims. That is, the very same logic used by Irenaeus against the Gnostics, and against the Orthodox against Catholics/Protestants/Anglicans, is the same logic which could have been used by any of these against any other.
The fact that the "majority" followed one line seems of little consequence--often, the majority do not follow the truth (the Bible is quite clear on that!). Truth is not up for democratic vote.
Someone who already accepted the modern Antiochian Orthodox way of thinking would say that this is fine; but to an observer outside, we can only wonder--why should we not have trusted Vitalis?
This is true of every single apostolic lineage. The idea is presented as a linear branch of a tree, but it would be more right to say that each line is a river with a thousands tributaries breaking off all the time, and the one that survived to modern day is the one which wrote the history and therefore discounted all the others. Victors write the history books--and it need not always align to truth.
This is not only an Orthodox problem. Roman Catholicism has had over forty anti-popes, people who claimed proper apostolic authority over the Church but who failed to retain that authority. How do we know one of them wasn't the true pope?
What we end up with, it seems, is hopelessly circular logic: my church is true because it has an apostolic lineage because the people who broke off of it weren't apostolic, which I know because my church is true.
In other words, you must begin with a prior faith in the succession-claim of one denomination in order to prove its claims. Why? Because the historical evidence does not favor any of these over the other. And if (like the earliest church fathers) you make it all about Scripture, then you have embraced the Protestant view.
2. The terminology of a succession of bishops shows a post-apostolic origin
Whenever you read this, you will see discussion focus around the succession of bishops. The only succession lists which exist in these communities use the term "bishop" to refer to the head of a diocese of several local churches, and generally use the term presbytery to refer to the priests in those individual churches. Thereby can they provide a succession of bishop-to-bishop (notwithstanding the issues shown in #1 above), and the bishops then anoint the presbytery.
However, this is what poker players call a serious "tell." You see, these terms took on that meaning only in the late second and third century. The most ancient churches used these terms very differently.
As you can see here, the apostolic churches used the term 'bishop' and 'presbyter' interchangeably (also seen in Acts 20; Acts 28; 1 Tim 3; 1 Tim 5; and Tit 1, in all of which they are used interchangeably).
The idea that there was a hierarchy in which a bishop ruled over a region and presbyters over the churches is simply not a part of the apostolic church. The churches were built on a synagogue model, in which a group of elders or shepherds (called presbyters) led the local congregation. Synagogue presbyters of each were not really in contact with each other unless they chose to be, though rabbis were generally taught at the feet of Levite priests. But there is nothing resembling a hierarchy in ancient Judaism, nor in these first churches (which were indeed nothing but synagogues who recognized Jesus as Messiah). The bishop was not their 'boss' or spiritual leader; bishop is simply a Greek term which was used commonly to indicate the financial leader of a club in the Greco-Roman world. As a result, Gentile churches began to use the term bishop as the leader of the presbyters within the local church, a position similar to which the Jews would have called rabbi and we might call pastor. The deacons were analogous to the synagogue assistant, who took care of the administrative day-to-day duties to free up the presbytery to pray and serve.
So we know immediately when we discuss the idea of a succession of bishops who then oversee and enact local priesthoods, that we are talking of something completely post-apostolic in nature. It is simply false to call Clement I of Rome either the first "pope" or the first "partriarch" or even a bishop in the modern terminology. It implies an administrative structure which simply did not exist.
3. The timeframe is both too short and too long in order to have confidence of doctrinal transmission
The question remains--what precisely was transmitted? If it is the proper way to interpret Scripture, every line has problems, for in many cases the person only spoke together for a few months or years, not nearly enough to justify a coherence of teaching. If what was transferred was the grace to properly interpret doctrine, then one is hamstrung with problem #1 again, as to how it didn't "take" with some people apparently.
In either case, what we have is a massive, two-thousand year game of telephone: the apostle talked to this bishop talked to that bishop who talked to a third bishop, all the way down the line. And you are supposed to believe that what you receive today is a fair representation of the original writer's meaning.
But let us consider, as an example, the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts received his law degree from Harvard in 1979, granted him by Dean Albert Sacks. Albert M. Sacks received his law degree from Harvard in 1948, granted by Dean Erwin Griswold. Erwin Griswold received his law degree from Harvard in 1929, granted by Dean Roscoe Pound. Roscoe Pound studied law at Harvard in 1889 under Dean Christopher Langdell, the first dean. We could go back further by looking into the professors of law, but I frankly have better things to do.
So, from 1889 when Roscoe Pound studied law at Harvard until today with John Roberts in 2015, we have a 126 year time passage.
How much would you be willing to bet that John Roberts' interpretation of the Constitution is the same as Roscoe Pound's interpretation?
Do you find it likely that it varies in some specific aspects? I think that is certain--after all we have added 12 amendments to the Constitution since that time, including such large variations from the law of Pounds' period as permitting Congress to levy taxes, the right for women to vote, limits to the number of times you can be President, and establishing 18 as the voting age.
So if we believe that even in this modern era, legal interpretations of the Constitution might be different between a lawyer and his teachers' teachers' teachers' teacher over a period of 126 years, wouldn't you also accept that the beliefs of (say) Irenaeus in 189 might differ significantly from Peter in 63 AD? Isn't it even more likely that a modern Roman Catholic priest of today, whose separation from Peter is 1549% greater than the separation of Roberts and Poscoe, might be off base from what Peter taught?
It seems to be patently absurd to believe that such succession accurately transmitted a proper set of doctrines over all these centuries.
Indeed, it is absurd. It is not logical or evidential, it is faith.
The only way to justify that any line of apostolic succession has any validity is to believe (purely by faith) that this line and this line alone is supernaturally imbued with God's grace.