Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Faith Works 4-12-08
Jeff Gill

Successor to the Apostles

We have plenty of churches in Licking County where the words “apostolic succession” have never been heard. They represent neither a doctrine nor a theological stance for a majority of church bodies in the United States.

The history and traditions behind this idea, though, shape some ideas that many of us brush up against on a regular basis.

It goes back to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, where in the book of II Kings Elijah passes on his mantle, or his cloak, to Elisha who follows him. The touch of that cloak, and the legitimacy it gives him, is a sign and reality of power and healing for those in the tradition both honored. “Inheriting the mantle” is a phrase that many use with no sense of where it comes from, but read 2 Kings 2 for the source.

Luke’s Gospel tells us in chapter 1 that many thought John the Baptist picked up the mantle of Elijah, and the account of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor continues the image with Jesus himself.

Jesus responds to Simon, nicknamed “Petros,” the Rock, when Peter names Jesus as the Anointed, or “Christos” of God. “Upon this rock I will build my church,” Jesus says, and from this basis, and the Acts 1 account of replenishing the Eleven to become again the Twelve, the idea develops in the early church that the “Apostolos,” or “those who are sent (by God)” continue the vocation given by Jesus.

This is one of the sources of the great excitement around the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger. In the Roman Catholic Christian tradition, the apostolic succession is a very precise and tangible thing, where the original apostles affirmed the “deposit of the faith” by careful selection and ordination of new apostles and overseers, or “episcopos,” or more usually in English, bishops.

Bishops are the source of new ordinations, authorization to preside at communion, and all confirmations into Christian faith in traditions honoring the theological concept of apostolic succession. Each bishop of the Catholic Christian traditions can, in principle if not in historic detail, trace the hands laid upon them at ordination to hands to hands to hands back in direct line to the Twelve Apostles themselves, and so to Christ Jesus.

Martin Luther in beginning the Protestant Reformation did not directly challenge apostolic succession. What he did do was argue against its sufficiency to guarantee the Christian faith with integrity. Because of that, most Lutheran bodies affirm their own practice as being in line with apostolic succession, but few spend much time worrying about the details.

On the other hand of the early Reformation, the Church of England has traditionally maintained their entire fidelity to the line of apostolic succession, though the Roman Catholic hierarchy has not accepted their practices as such. Bishops in The Episcopal Church to this day in the United States still will maintain their “apostolic lineage” upon their ordination to the bishop’s seat, or “cathedra.”

When the Reformation got to Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin tested the principle against his understanding of Scripture alone, or “sola scriptura,” and found it lacking – so he tossed it. Presbyterian and Congregational and Baptist inheritors of Calvinism for the most part have no idea what you’re talking about on this subject!

Methodists, with streams of heritage from both the Episcopal and Calvinist camps, have bishops, but don’t limit confirmation to a bishop’s administration, while ordination of new clergy is always expected to include a “laying on of hands” from the bishop. The United Methodist Church of this country has a clear break in the chain from the Twelve through the bishops of medieval Europe to the shores of England, since Francis Asbury announced a sort of “connectional” succession, a spiritual inheritance that dismissed the physical contact element as unnecessary.

What modern Methodists and some other Protestant bodies do affirm in a sort of “apostolic succession” is the question of stability and discernment from the larger tradition of a faith community. You need the conference or the region or the association to affirm a call to ministry, rather than any one person being able to set up as a successor to Christ’s apostles.

Of course, quite a few modern groups raise up bishops today exactly that way, essentially by “self-ordination.”

What Christians and others of good will respect when a papal visit comes to this country is the visceral, tangible ideal maintained by the Church of Rome, that an unbroken chain of contact, shown by the “laying on of hands,” literally exists between this cardinal from Bavaria, lifted up by his fellow cardinals as the Vicar of Christ, whose hands touched Peter, and whose blessing can still be felt, and seen, down to the present day.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; his ordination included laying on of hands, in a tent, next to a condemned building, but it may not have been strictly with official succession. Tell him what you think of Benedict’s visit at knapsack77@gmail.com.

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