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In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Six – Apostolic Succession?

The third argument for the Dual-Source Theory and against sola Scriptura has to do with a concept called “apostolic succession.” Most non-Anglican Protestants are not very familiar with this concept, but it has deep roots in the theological history of the church. How one defines “apostolic succession” will differ. This differing is not one with regards to purpose, but process. Before I say more, let me restate the argument that an advocate of the Dual-Source theory of authority might take:

3. Christ gave infallible authority over the Church to the Apostles and their successors (apostolic succession). Roman Catholic Only: Peter and his successors were given the ultimate and infallible authority in the Church (”papacy” or the “Seat of Rome”).

Jn. 20:23
[Christ, speaking to the apostles] “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”

Matt. 18:18
“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.”

This represents the ultimate authority of the Church which has the authority to “bind” and “release.”

Matt. 16:17–19
“And Jesus answered him, ‘You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.”

For the Roman Catholic, this teaches that Peter was given a special and ultimate authority among the Apostles. Therefore, his successors (the Bishop of Rome, the Pope), would naturally carries this same authority.

Response:

It is agreed that Peter and the apostles were given authority and the guidance to teach the truth. Their authority and teaching continues today. But, from a Protestant perspective, this authority and teaching is not through an unbroken lineage of succession, but through their teaching contained in the Scripture. In other words, Protestant believe in apostolic succession, but believe that this succession is a succession in teaching, not necessarily person.

However, Protestants should recognize that a succession in person is a necessary part of the succession in teaching (this is why we still practice ordination).  It is not a guarantee of the proper succession and must be continually tested by a foundational source (Scripture). In fact, I think we as Protestants should deeply consider our attitude toward the doctrine of apostolic succession. The common free Protestant mentality is fueled by those who find no connection, no accountability, indeed, no knowledge of the faith that has gone before them. This is not to our credit. We need to find a way to reassess our position here. I would be a strong advocate of any movement to re-institute the norm of apostolic succession within the Evangelical church at large. Again, this would not involve some infallible guarantee, but it does connect us to the historic Christian faith rather than our own johnny-come-lately denominational bent. (More on this someday).

Nevertheless, concerning some infallible conference being passed on through the Apostles to some successors, while this might be nice and I have nothing against it, I simply have no reason, outside of a pragmatic desire for unity, to believe such occurred. The Scriptures presented concerning the authority of the apostles concerns them alone. There is nothing, from what I can see, said either explicitly or implicitly concerning the passing on of some infallible authority through apostolic succession.

Concerning the Roman Catholic idea of ultimate infallible authority being conferred on the successors of Peter, this idea cannot be found in the Church until the late Middle Ages (unless forced into the thoughts of the Church fathers). As well, it was not declared dogma by the Catholic Church until Vatican I (1870). See here in Vatican I:

“The Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff [Pope] hold primacy over the whole world, and that the Pontiff of Rome himself is the successor of the blessed Peter, the chief of the apostles, and is the true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church and faith, and teacher of all Christians; and that to him was handed down in blessed Peter, by our Lord Jesus Christ, full power to feed, rule, and guide the universal Church, just as is also contained in the records of the ecumenical Councils and in the sacred canons.”

From my perspective (and I think I speak with some common sense here), if God wanted believers to see the Church as an institutional authority that houses infallibility, either through the unity of the bishops or the ex cathedra statements of the Pope, then it goes without saying that this would be a primary doctrine that the Bible should address.

While the Scriptures contain many opportunities to teach this type of apostolic succession, either through example in the book of Acts or through explicit instruction in the Pastoral epistles, there is no such teaching. The Scriptures just don’t teach that the Apostles conferred their authority—infallible authority—on anyone else.

To rely solely upon unwritten Tradition begs the question and makes one wonder why such an important doctrine is unmentioned in Scripture. All attempts to find the doctrine of infallible apostolic succession in Scripture, in my opinion, must be labeled as eisegetical theology (reading your theology into the text, rather than deriving one’s theology from the text).

In the end, suffice it to say that advocates of sola Scriptura believe in apostolic succession (succession in teaching—small “a”), not Apostolic succession (succession in person—big “A”)

3 Responses to “In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Six – Apostolic Succession?”

  1. “From my perspective (and I think I speak with some common sense here), if God wanted believers to see the Church as an institutional authority that houses infallibility, either through the unity of the bishops or the ex cathedra statements of the Pope, then it goes without saying that this would be a primary doctrine that the Bible should address.”

    The Bible does not address straightforward the doctrine of Trinity either. Is that common sense? :-)

  2. Hello,
    You say:
    “…if God wanted believers to see the Church as an institutional authority that houses infallibility,… then it goes without saying that this would be a primary doctrine that the Bible should address.”

    But does the Bible not address this issue? You say that Matt. 18 was merely addressed to the Apostles, but if that follows, then I suppose you also think that the verses on church discipline (vs. 15-17) in that chapter only refer to the apostles as well, and therefore no church has the right to discipline anyone. Whatever you think, it’s a historical fact that the early church – I think the entire early church – believed those verses mean what at least the EO believe. And every council was convened on that premise. There were many debates over heresies, but the debate over apostolic succession never happened. A good church father to read on this issue is one of the earliest: St. Ignatius.

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  1. » Sola Scriptura, Watchmen & Deification, TEDS ClobberBlog - April 30, 2009

    […] if tradition is fallible, how do you know the biblical canon is infallible? Here is an excerpt from Part 6 — Apostolic Succession?: It is agreed that Peter and the apostles were given authority and the guidance to teach the truth. […]

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