Apostolic Succession

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In Christianity, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession (or the belief that the Church is 'apostolic') maintains that the Christian Church today is the spiritual successor of the Church of the Apostles. Different Christian denominations interpret this doctrine in different ways .

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Mainstream Christianity

Apostolicity as episcopal continuity

The Catholic Church (including its Oriental and Eastern rites), Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Anglican, Old Catholic, Independent Catholic, and some Lutheran Churches hold that apostolic succession is maintained through the consecration of their bishops in unbroken personal succession back to the apostles but these Churches do not necessarily interpret this "succession" identically. In Catholic and Orthodox theology, the unbrokenness of apostolic succession is significant because of Jesus Christ's promise that the "gates of hell" (Matthew 16:18) would not prevail against the Church, and his promise that he himself would be with the apostles to "the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). According to this interpretation, a complete disruption or end of such apostolic succession would mean that these promises were not kept as would an apostolic succession which, while formally intact, completely abandoned the teachings of the Apostles and their immediate successors; as, for example, if all the bishops of the world agreed to abrogate the Nicene Creed or to repudiate the Bible.

Both Orthodox and Catholics believe that each of their teachings today is the same as or is in essential harmony with the teaching of the first apostles, although each might deny this about the other, at least where the teachings of each are in conflict. This form of the doctrine was formulated by Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century, in response to certain Gnostics. These Gnostics claimed that Christ or the Apostles passed on some teachings secretly, or that there were some secret apostles, and that they (the Gnostics) were passing on these otherwise secret teachings. Irenaeus responded that the identity of the original Apostles was well known, as was the main content of their teaching and the identity of the apostles' successors. Therefore, anyone teaching something contrary to what was known to be apostolic teaching was not, in any sense, a successor to the Apostles or to Christ.

Catholics recognize the validity of the apostolic successions of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Old Catholic, and some Independent Catholic Churches (such recognition is not reciprocated by the Eastern Orthodox, who do not separate "valid" from "licit"). Pope Leo XIII clarified, in his 1896 bull that the Catholic church believes that the Anglican Church's consecrations are invalid because of changes made to the rite of consecration under Edward VI, thus denying that Anglicans participate in the apostolic succession; the Church of Sweden's apostolic succession is seen as having been maintained, and following the establishment of the Porvoo Communion an increasing number of Anglicans will also be able to trace their succession through Swedish bishops as well as Old Catholic bishops, whose holy orders are recognized as valid by Rome and who, at least those of the Union of Utrecht, are in full communion with Canterbury since the Bonn Agreement of 1931. It should also be noted that since the issuance of Apostolicae Curae, many Anglican jurisdictions have revised their ordinals, bringing them more in line with ordinals emanating from the early Church.

In addition to a line of historic transmission, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches additionally require that a hierarch maintain Orthodox Church doctrine, which they hold to be that of the Apostles, as well as communion with other Orthodox bishops. The Eastern Orthodox have permitted clergy ordained by Catholic and Anglican bishops to be rapidly ordained within Orthodoxy. However, this is a matter of ekonomia and not recognition of Apostolic Succession, although in some cases, Catholic priests entering Eastern Orthodoxy have been received by "vesting" and have been allowed to function immediately within Orthodoxy as priests.

The Armenian Apostolic Church, which is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches, recognizes Catholic episcopal consecrations without qualification (and that recognition is reciprocated).

Some Protestant churches, such as Anglicans (including those known in the U.S. as Episcopalians), the Church of Sweden, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvija, do have Apostolic Succession (also known as the "historic episcopate"). Bishops in the United Methodist Church do not claim to be within the historic episcopate. Their succession derives from John Wesley who was an ordained priest of the Church of England, but not himself a bishop and therefore had no power to consecrate others. He justified his practice of ordaining "elders" ("presbyters") for Methodism by appealing to a perceived need and by citing a minority opinion among the early Church Fathers (and possible ancient precedent from the Church of Alexandria) which held that presbyters ("priests" or "elders") could, at least collectively, indeed ordain other such presbyters and even consecrate, or "set apart" bishops.

Apostolicity as doctrinal continuity

Most Protestant churches would deny that the apostolicity of the Church rests on an unbroken episcopacy. They generally hold that one important qualification of the apostles was that they were chosen directly by Jesus and that they witnessed the resurrected Christ. According to this understanding, the work of these twelve (and the Apostle Paul), together with the prophets of the twelve tribes of Israel, provide the doctrinal foundation for the whole church of subsequent history through the Scriptures of the Bible. To share with the apostles the same faith, to believe their word as found the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is the only sense in which apostolic succession meaningful, because it is in this sense only that men have fellowship with God in the truth (an extension of the Reformation doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura). The most meaningful apostolic succession for most Protestants, then, is the faithful succession of apostolic teaching.

It is worth noting, however, that some Protestant charismatic churches include "apostles" among the offices that should be evident into modern times in a true church, though they never trace an historical line of succession.

Those who hold to the importance of episcopal apostolic succession would counter the above by appealing to the New Testament, which, they say, implies a personal apostolic succession (from Paul to Timothy and Titus, for example) and which states that Jesus gave the Apostles a "blank check" to lead the Church as they saw fit under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 18:18 and Acts Chapter 15, for example). They appeal as well to other documents of the very early Church, especially the Epistle of St. Clement to the Church at Corinth, written around 96 CE. In it, Clement defends the authority and prerogatives of a group of "elders" or "bishops" in the Corinthian Church which had, apparently, been deposed and replaced by the congregation on its own initiative. In this context, Clement explicitly states that the apostles both appointed bishops as successors and had directed that these bishops should in turn appoint their own successors; given this, such leaders of the Church were not to be removed without cause and not in this way. Further, proponents of the necessity of the personal apostolic succession of bishops within the Church point to the universal practice of the undivided early Church (up to c. 431 CE), from which, as organizations, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Assyrian Churches are all indisputably directly descended.

At the same time, no defender of the personal apostolic succession of bishops would deny the importance of doctrinal continuity in the Church. As stated above, Ireneus explicitly ties the two together.

Latter-day Saints (Mormons)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has a similar, but unique position. The LDS claims that apostolic succession was broken during the Great Apostasy, or falling away from the teachings of Jesus Christ, and later restored in America. The LDS Church maintains that God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith, Jr. near Palmyra, New York in 1820 and called Joseph as a prophet to restore Christ's church to the earth with correct doctrines and practices. Near the time that Joseph formally organized the church in 1830, John the Baptist and later the apostles Peter, James and John appeared as resurrected beings to Joseph. In both of these visitations, these divine messengers were directed by Jesus to lay their hands on Joseph's head to ordain him to the Priesthood giving him authority to conduct some of the affairs of God's Kingdom on earth. Many other divine messengers such as Moses and Elijah also appeared to Joseph during his life and ordained Joseph in a similar manner with the particular authority that had been given to them. Joseph then ordained others who were baptized into the church with various levels of priesthood authority. All the various levels or "keys" of this authority have been and are passed on to worthy, male members of the LDS Church. In the LDS Church, apostles hold more priesthood authority than bishops: while a bishop governs a local congregation, the quorum of the apostles govern the entire church. In this way, Latter-day Saints hold that apostolic succession was restored to the earth through the original twelve apostles and continues today through the ordination of new apostles as the older apostles pass away.

Latter-day Saints interpret the Scriptural promise of the Church's constancy differently: in the first, Jesus promises that the gates of hell would not prevail against the "rock" of continuous revelation; in the second, Jesus' promise was to the apostles individually, not to the Church at large, and only so far as his followers continued to obey his commandments. This interpretation allows a break in apostolic succession if the leaders and followers failed to be faithful or obedient. In support of this, Latter-day Saints point to various Old Testament covenants that were made between God and His people and the manner in which some of these blessings were never realized due to the disobedience of the covenant people (Bible, Jeremiah 18:9-10). Turning to the teaching "by their fruits ye shall know them", Latter-day Saints would also hold that it is inconsistent to claim that Jesus' promise to be with the apostles is support for an unbroken line of succession in light of the un-Christian-like behavior of some ecclesiastical leaders through the history of mainstream Christianity.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses teach that apostolic succession is an erroneous doctrine. They base this teaching on the accounts of the replacement of Judas Iscariot and the death of the apostle James. In Acts Chapter 1, Peter says:

"Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus, because he had been numbered among us and he obtained a share in this ministry... For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his lodging place become desolate, and let there be no dweller in it,’ and, ‘His office of oversight let someone else take.’" NWT

They contrast this with the fact that Acts does not mention any successor being named for the faithful apostle James. (Acts 12:2; Insight on the Scriptures pg. 129 Vol. I)

See also

External links

de:Apostolische Sukzession et:Apostlik suktsessioon es:Sucesión apostólica fr:Succession apostolique ia:Succession apostolic it:Successione apostolica nl:Apostolische successie no:Apostolisk suksesjon pl:Sukcesja apostolska sv:Apostolisk succession

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