The whole idea that Jesus must give up His claim to infallibility in order to have a ‘fair’ discussion with men presupposes that there can be no fair or just discussions between an infallible God and a fallible man. In other words, it presupposes atheism. But that’s not something a theist should concede in the first place, because it is a question-begging presupposition against the theist. So likewise, and for the same reason, the notion that one cannot have a ‘fair’ or ‘just’ discussion with a Church that claims to be infallible under certain conditions, is also a question-begging presupposition against the Catholic.
Bryan has back-handedly equated “a Church that claims to be infallible under certain conditions” with Jesus himself. This is a huge stretch, and it assumes very many things that ought not to be assumed.
Roman Catholics believe that the word of Christ to the Apostles, “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16 and similar verses), applies to the Roman Catholic hierarchy today. And the Roman Catholic doctrine of succession speaks of “the unbroken succession going back to the beginning, are regarded as transmitters of the apostolic line”.
Unfortunately for them, they have misunderstood and misapplied what was going on with these types of verses, and they have assumed things they ought not to have assumed.
One key thing they miss is that the notion of being a “bishop” is conditional.
The book of Acts gives us a very good picture of what “Apostolic Succession” looked like during Apostolic times (Acts 20:17-36). And what Acts shows us is at variance with what Roman Catholics believe about “Apostolic Succession”.
How did the Apostles and Biblical writers themselves understand this commission? One comment won’t be enough to cover all the ins-and-outs of this topic. Jason Engwer has made an extensive study of this topic, for anyone who is interested in following up with it more deeply.
But we have a biblical example of how this “handing on” occurred. We have Paul saying farewell to the elders at Ephesus. Luke has summarized what was truly important, in the “handing on” of leadership from an Apostle to elders:
Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost.
From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
First of all, Paul himself provides the example. He served with “great humility”. This certainly was not a characteristic of, say, medieval Roman Catholic “bishops”.
As well, Paul has not hesitated to preach anything. The Roman Catholic notion that there are doctrines “implicit” within “the deposit” (a rationale that’s given for some of the Marian doctrines) is simply not supported by this notion. (As Turretinfan frequently points out, John 20:31 explicitly states that, while there were many other things that Jesus did and said, these specifically “are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”)
“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
The task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace was more precious to Paul than his own life. Elsewhere Paul emphasizes this as well. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he reminded them “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel ( 1 Cor 1:17). This is very much not in line with those who suggest that something like “the eucharist” is “the heart of life”. Paul clearly places his focus on the preaching of the gospel.
“Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
There are several things to note here. First, notice that “presbyters” or “elders” in this passage have “oversight” – the “πρεσβυτέρους τῆς ἐκκλησίας” – there are multiple presbyters in a single church) are made “ἐπισκόπους” (“overseers”, vs 28). With the phrase “house to house”, Paul confirms that even a single “church”, the church at Ephesus, was made up of multiple “house church” congregations. This is the very structure that Peter Lampe finds in the second century church at Rome.
Paul also emphasizes that the “elders” are “bishops” and vice versa: “The people described here as ‘bishops’ [“overseers”] are identical with those described as ‘elders’ in verse 17, an in 14:23 we read how they were appointed by Paul in some of his churches with prayer and fasting, i.e., in dependence on the guidance of the Spirit”.
“Keep watch over yourselves”. Marshall says, “In the manner of a farewell discourse, [Paul] deals with how they are to act when he is no longer with them. They are to pay attention to their own spiritual condition (cf. 1 Tim 4:16) as well as to that of the church; it is only as the leaders themselves remain faithful to God that they can expect the church to do so likewise. This is echoed by Irenaeus, by the way, who along with his teaching on “succession”, said this:
“For they (apostles) wanted those to whom they left as successors, and to whom they transmitted their own position of teaching, to be perfect and blameless (1 Tim 3:2) in every respect. If these men acted rightly it would be a great benefit, while if they failed it would be the greatest calamity.” (Against Heresies, 3.3.1)
Leadership is conditional.
Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth …
One might think of First Clement here, introducing a distorted concept of grace, as noted by T.F. Torrance: “Clement definitely thinks of charis as referring to a gift of God without which the Christian would not be able to attain to love or salvation. But there is little doubt that this is held along with the idea of merit before God; for grace is given to those who perform the commandments of God, and who are worthy”.
Distorting. The original is in view, but it’s different from the original. Just as Paul said. Note that we’re not saying here that the church “falls”. Nor that Clement is evil. The church was not on its guard, and a key truth became distorted. To suggest that the church would fall upon such an occurrence is to mistakenly assume that doctrines quoad se [doctrines in themselves] and doctrines quoad nos [as they have to do with us] are identical with one another and perfectly correspond at every single point.
Here is where there is a confluence of failures of Augustine’s goof on justification and Augustine’s ecclesiology. There will be “bad bishops”, “bad elders”. “Even from your own number, men will arise and distort the truth”. In retrospect, Rome even made Clement a “pope” and adopted his distorted view of grace.
So “be on your guard” – discipline for these men certainly would and should be in line with church discipline found in Matt 18:15-17, and extending as far as that goes: “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”. They are to be shunned. Such discipline was avoided for long periods of time, especially during times of simony, giving lie to the notion of “an unbroken succession going back to the beginning”. But it happened at the Reformation.
Christ spared his church through this wilderness, even through a massive failure of leadership. But as Calvin said, even if the church itself will not exercise its discipline, God would do it:
But as the Jews flattered themselves on account of their descent, [so the Roman hierarchy], and ever boasted of their fathers, and as that preeminence with which God had favored them proved to them an occasion of haughtiness and pride, the Prophet here ridicules this foolish confidence, I will scatter dung, he says, on your faces: “Ye are a holy nation, ye are the chosen seed of Abraham, ye are a royal priesthood; these are your boastings; but the Lord will render your faces filthy with dung; this will be your nobility and preeminence! there is then no reason for you to think yourselves exempt from punishments because God has adopted you; for as ye have abused his benefits and profaned his name, so ye shall also find in your turn, that he will cover you with everything disgraceful and ignominious, so as to make you wholly filthy: ye shall then be covered all over with dung, and shall not be the holy seed of Abraham.”
And this, to be sure, was the church of Rome at the time of the Reformation. Calvin was an accurate reporter of his times.
“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.
There is no question Christ commissioned his Apostles to be his eyewitnesses. Note here in verse 33 that it is “God” and “the word of his grace” which “builds” and “gives”.
It is just simply wrong, as Bryan has done, to equate the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which (“claims to be infallible under certain conditions”) with Christ. Jason Stellman said “I don’t identify the essence of the church by ‘what it looks like.’” But the beliefs and practices articulated here in Acts certainly convey the “essence” of what of “succession” should have been all about.