The Deposit of the Faith (Part 7) (The History of Christianity #42)

Our Scripture verse today is Matthew 16:18 which reads: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Our quote today is from J.C. Ryle. He said: “The one true Church is composed of all believers in the Lord Jesus. It is made up of all God’s elect – of all converted men and women – of all true Christians. In whomever we can discern the election of God the Father, the sprinkling of the blood of God the Son, the sanctifying work of God the Spirit, in that person we see a member of Christ’s true church.”

Today, we are looking at “The Deposit of the Faith” (Part 7) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The Response: Apostolic Succession
Although the canon of the New Testament and the various creeds were valuable instruments in the struggle against heresy, the debate finally came to the issue of the authority of the church. This was important, not simply because someone had to decide who was right and who was wrong, but because of the very nature of the issues at stake. All agreed that the true message was the one taught by Jesus. The Gnostics (nos-tiks) claimed that they had some secret access to that original message, through a succession of secret teachers. Marcion claimed that he had access to that message through the writings of Paul and Luke – which, however, had to be purged of what did not agree with Marcion’s views regarding the Old Testament. Over against Marcion and the Gnostics (nos-tiks) , the church at large claimed to be in possession of the original gospel and the true teachings of Jesus. Thus, what was debated was in a way the authority of the church against the claims of the heretics.

At this point, the notion of apostolic succession became very important. What was argued was simply that, if Jesus had some secret knowledge to communicate to his disciples – which in fact he did not – he would have entrusted that teaching to the same apostles to whom he entrusted the churches. If those apostles had received any such teaching, they in turn would have passed it on to those who were to follow them in the leadership of the various churches. Therefore, had there been any such secret teaching, it should be found among the direct disciples of the apostles, and the successors of those disciples, the bishops. But the truth was that those who could now – that is, in the second century – claim direct apostolic succession unanimously denied the existence of any such secret teaching. In conclusion, the Gnostic (nos-tik) claim that there is a secret tradition with which that they have been entrusted, is false.

In order to strengthen this argument, it was necessary to show that the bishops of the time were indeed successors of the apostles. This was not difficult, since several of the most ancient churches had lists of bishops linking them with the apostolic past. Rome, Antioch, Ephesus, and others had such lists. Present-day historians do not find such lists absolutely trustworthy, for there are indications that in some churches – Rome among them – there were not as first “bishops” in the sense of a single head of the local church, but rather a collegiate group of officers who sometimes were called “bishops” and sometimes “elders” – presbyters. In any case, be it through actual bishops or through other leaders, the fact remains that the orthodox church of the second century could show its connection with the apostles in a way Marcion and the Gnostics (nos-tiks) could not.

Does this mean that only churches that could show such apostolic connections were truly apostolic? Not so, since the issue was not that every church could prove its apostolic origins, but rather that they all agreed on the one faith, and could jointly prove that this faith was indeed apostolic. At a later date, the idea of apostolic succession was carried further, with the notion that an ordination was valid only if performed by a bishop who could claim direct apostolic succession. When first developed, late in the second century, the principle of apostolic succession was inclusive rather than exclusive: over against the closed and secret tradition of the Gnostic (nos-tik) teachers, it offered an open and shared tradition that based its claim, not on a single favorite disciples of Jesus, but on the witness of all the apostles and of the churches founded by them.

This common witness was further strengthened by the network connecting bishops and resulting in a high degree of collegiality. While bishops were elected by the faithful in each city, the custom soon developed that after such election the prospective bishop would send a statement of faith to neighboring bishops, who would then vouch for his orthodoxy. As a sign of this, several of those neighboring bishops would participate in the consecration of their new colleague.

Next time, we will look at The Ancient Catholic Church in The Deposit of the Faith.

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