Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Refresher on “Apostolic Succession”

Thomas Hobbes said “The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof”.

History has borne out this statement. The question of “authority” is at the heart of every discussion between Protestants and Roman Catholics since the time of the Reformation, and yet the Church of Rome (“Roman Catholicism”) bases all of its claims to authority upon “apostolic succession” … the notion that there was an unbroken succession of “successors” from the time of the Apostles till now.

Bryan Cross has said “The Church always had the concept of apostolic succession.”, but that is an equivocation of terms, and it is based upon another, older, different equivocation of terms.

For a long time, Roman Catholicism claimed a direct succession from Peter, through a line of popes. However, the study of history has turned that “direct succession” story into a puff of smoke. More recently, the doctrine suggests that “the Apostles were a ‘college’, and this ‘college’ had unnamed successors – but the real authority of the Apostles”. That, too, is bankrupt.

We actually have a speech from Paul, in his address to the elders in Acts 20, that describes what the earliest church understood “succession”. Does he say, as the CCC says, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time”?

There is not a hint of “continuous line of succession until the end of time” in Acts 20. Instead, what we have are admonitions to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock ...” This is an admonition that is set aside any time a Roman Catholic makes an appeal to suggest that Protestants are “Donatists”...

Paul continues “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from your own selves [‘those of you “within”, who have positions of teaching’]” will arise men speaking twisted things.”

The “twisted things” are clearly shown over and over again among Roman Catholic doctrine and practice.

“The word of his grace” is able to “build you up” -- but this is not a guarantee of “a continuous line of succession until the end of time”. It is a warning to be diligent, for ministers to “work with their hands” ...

This shift of both concept and language from “pay careful attention to yourselves” to “continuous line of succession for all time” has its foundations in the Gnostic concept of “διαδοχἡ” (“succession”). That is not a biblical word, and Ratzinger equivocates by first equating the non-biblical “διαδοχἡ” with the biblical “παράδοσιν” (“paradosis” or “tradition”).

In truth, the concept of “διαδοχἡ” (“succession”) becomes swapped for “παράδοσεις” (“tradition”) in the Roman Catholic view – it is an unexplained and unexplainable (from extant sources) swap that merely duplicates the method that the Gnostics of the day were already using.

As Hans Von Campenhausen pointed out, “it is the Gnostic Ptolemaeus (who died prior to the time Irenaeus wrote) who provides the earliest evidence known to us of this new, theologically oriented usage. In the Letter to Flora he speaks explicitly of the secret and apostolic tradition (παράδοσεις) which supplements the canonical collection of Jesus’s words, and which by being handed on through a succession (διαδοχἡ) of teachers and instructors has now come to “us”, that is, to him or to his community. Here the concept of “tradition” is plainly used in a technical sense, as is shown particularly by the collocation with the corresponding concept of “succession”.

That is an illegitimate way to twist the language. The apostles gave no concept of “succession of persons” to the early church – especially not “a continuous line of succession until the end of time”.

But that illegitimate illusion is the focal point of the only explanation that Rome has for its own claims to authority today.


  1. John was not the Gnostic view of Tradition and Succession later endorsed by Iraneus and other fathers later on?

    1. Hi Vincent, yes, this refers to the language that Irenaeus picked up regarding "tradition" and "succession".

  2. So Irenaeus inherited an idea from the Gnostics? I dont think modern day Rome understands tradition to be secretive or cultic. I remember Ratzinger spoke out against that idea of tradition.

    1. Vincent, I wouldn't say he inherited it. He borrowed it, and used it against them. The point isn't that this was a bad idea. The point was that this was a NEW idea for the church. It worked at the time. But the larger point is, we're not just 150 years out -- we're 2000 years out. So what had held for a small church across a century, in no way is an "ontological reality" -- it wasn't back then, and nor is it now.