Apostolic Succession, and the Preservation of Integrity
“One way the early Christians protected the integrity and unity of the Church is through Apostolic Succession.”
-Rev. Fr. Michael Shanbour, Know the Faith pg. 35-36
Sometimes Roman Catholic apologists have used the phrase, “Sola Scriptura is a recipe for anarchy.” And in recent years, Orthodox Apologists have often expressed the same sentiment, in fact, I have probably even said this. And the sentiment isn’t completely wrong, but it isn’t the full story. Sola Scriptura is a problematic teaching for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it fails its own test. However, Sola Scriptura is a symptom of a larger issue. Today, I want to discuss that very issue, and hopefully explain further the underlying truth contained in the statement that Sola Scriptura is a recipe for anarchy.
To begin with, we should ask where this argument even comes from? The answer is that since the protestant reformation, thousands upon thousands of whole denominations have been founded, each one claiming this idea of “Sola Scriptura” as the authority upon which they begin a whole new denomination with a whole new set of doctrines never before known to the Church. Even Martin Luther himself expressed concerns about this towards the end of his life, even going so far as to say that if he had known that groups like anabaptists would have resulted he never would have started the reformation in the first place. However, I don’t think that Sola Scriptura by itself is the whole problem. After all, Luther and Calvin were far more conservative than the baptists were, and they espoused that teaching. Luther and Henry VIII actually wanted to preserve most of the liturgy, especially Henry and they did not see Sola Scriptura as an issue to the preservation of Tradition, since most of the Tradition ultimately could either be found in or shown through a careful reading of Scripture. Sadly, other so called reformers were not willing to read Scripture so carefully and often many important things were missed.
So, let’s go a step further by examining what one of the earliest Christians had to say concerning a heretical sect called the Gnostics, and then ask ourselves how it applies to the present culture and its kaleidoscope of traditions and denominations that seem to be springing up anew every day.
“One way St. Irenaeus [of Lyons] confronted the heretics of his time was by challenging them to show that their bishops had a lineage of ordination from the apostles, as did the Christian Church. He did this to demonstrate that they could not have a special secret knowledge unknown to the Church, as they claimed. And to expose that their innovative doctrines did not originate from the Apostles.”
-Ibid pg. 36
So, to back up a little bit and explain what we just read, the Gnostics claimed that they had access to a “secret knowledge” that the Apostolic Church did not have. They even asserted that they had texts of Scripture that contained these hidden teachings, and even attributed these books to Apostles and other respected figures from early Christianity such as St. Thomas and St. Mary Magdalene. Yet St. Irenaeus wisely demonstrates that it was impossible for them to have this hidden knowledge. After all, the Gnostics couldn’t trace their succession of authority to any of the Apostles, so, claiming to have some book didn’t help them, if what they believed had really come from the Apostles, then the Church would have had that knowledge since the Church could and did trace her authority back to the Apostles themselves.
Now, to understand how that applies to our current situation, all we need to do is ask ourselves, “What is the Church Jesus Christ founded?” The answer to that question cannot be any protestant denomination, since prior to Martin Luther none of these denominations existed. It also cannot be any of the cults since they only go back to the 1800s, if that. Now, some groups will try to get around this issue by claiming Sola Scriptura, or by trying to say that there was a succession of doctrines or something like that. The problem is that St. Irenaeus rebukes us when we try to make such arguments. He says, “No, no, let us follow the actual succession from the Apostles to our own day. If the teachings of a particular denomination are in fact apostolic, then they would have been handed down by the Apostles, and we should be able to see these teachings being preserved by the successors of the Apostles, on the other hand, if these teachings are not held by the Church, and have not been handed down by the Apostles, then we should not believe them at all.”
To be clear, I am not trying to say that all baptists and Presbyterians are closet gnostics. I have been richly blessed and learned many things from baptists and Presbyterians, and especially from Lutherans, who are actually very close to the Church on many things. However, the problem with these groups and the problem with the Gnostics is the same problem, though on different levels. A baptist may not be nearly as far from the Church as a Gnostic, and indeed may even be much closer to the Church than some who have a superficial membership in her body, yet when that baptist is asked to show where their church comes from, they cannot connect it to the Apostolic line any more than the gnostics could. For that matter, when a muslim is asked to show his apostolic succession, he cannot, his denomination (so to speak) goes back only to Muhammad, not to Christ.
There is a lot more that could be said, obviously. But I think that this is a good place to stop for now. If you want the full argument, and the full understanding, get the book Know the Faith for yourself with the link below! In the meantime, the most valuable point here is to say that we are called to be part of the Church Christ has given to us. And that Church is the one that traces its lineage back to the Apostles themselves. It is not a denomination, for it predates denominations, it is not a set of doctrines, nor is it simply a building, but it is a community, one which is the pillar and ground of truth, one which the Apostles themselves established, most often with their own blood. And it is a living institution to this very day. So, if you would like to learn more about the Church, visit your local Orthodox parish and ask the priest to meet. I’m sure he will be happy to meet with you.
Essentially, Apostolic succession preserves both integrity and unity because through Apostolic Succession we can always discern the visible bounds of the Church. We can see exactly what the Church is, and where she has come from. We can also discern clearly what the Church does and does not hold to. This preserves her integrity, for we know where she is and where she is not. It also preserves her unity because we know what she has and has not established, and therefore what Christ has and has not established.
St. Tsar Nicholas pray for us
To get the book: