Apostolic Succession, Theories of Ecclesial Authority, and Biblical Exegesis: Miscellanies

As I noted on my FaceBook wall I am planning on writing a mini-exegetical paper on the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, as held to by both Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox in their own respective and distinct ways (i.e. please don’t think I’m assuming that RC and EO are just different sides of the same coin, I’m not. But they do share a similar view of Apostolic Succession in regard to their theory of the church and theory of authority). My exegetical paper will be an analysis of the locus classicus texts found in both Matthew 16 and 18. I will argue how and why 16 should be read in tandem with 18, and if read in this way, paying attention to the Greek grammar, the idea of Apostolic Succession is severely undercut; at least in the Dominical teaching of Jesus Christ. But my ultimate conclusion will remain chastened to the reality that Apostolic Succession and its attendant theory of the church is more complex than simply defeating it through an exegetical analysis of some Matthean texts.

The above noted, in this post I simply want to share something from Matthew Levering’s book Engaging the Doctrine of Redemption. In his introductory remarks he offers a quote from a Catholic scholar named O’Collins (of course that’s his name!); O’Collins is delineating how he sees tradition, church, and scripture working together as an organic whole. I thought something like this would be good to share particularly in light of my forthcoming paper on Apostolic Succession. Levering writes:

Regarding Tradition, O’Collins first shows that its practical necessity has been ecumenically accepted, and so the question now is how to distinguish authoritative Tradition. With respect to the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, he points out that “if the community’s tradition, along with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, led to the formation of the Scriptures, one would expect tradition to remain active in interpreting and applying the Scriptures.”⁵⁵ The Bible in this sense cannot be separated from the Church, even though, as Dei Verbum affirms, the Church’s magisterium serves the scriptural word of God rather than the other way around. The Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church includes working through the bishops (including uniquely—the bishop of Rome), rather than simply working through “individual believers reading the Scriptures, preachers expounding the Scriptures, and ministers using the Scriptures in administering the sacraments.”⁵⁶ It is the Holy Spirit that enables the Church to hand on Tradition—that is, to hand on the entirety of what has been revealed in Jesus Christ. O’Collins discusses eight elements that guide the Church and individual believers in discerning the true content of this Tradition: the magisterium, the Vincentian canon, the “sensus fidei,” continuity with the apostolic Church, the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, apostolicity, Scripture, and the risen Lord. He remarks that the Church of each generation inevitably hands on Tradition in a somewhat different form from that in which it had been received, although “an essential continuity is maintained.”[1]

This thickens things a bit, at least in regard to how I might be writing my mini-exegetical paper on Matthew 16 and 18. At the least it illustrates how my exegesis of Matthew 16 and 18 will not be the silver bullet in undercutting a doctrine of Apostolic Succession; my goal is not that triumphant. Really what I’m hoping to accomplish with my paper is to simply have something I can refer to, online, when I encounter people who appeal to that as proof positive for Apostolic Succession.

In regard to what I just shared from Levering and O’collins, it might be somewhat difficult to overcome the theologic being articulated if someone like Karl Barth hadn’t come along. Yes, the whole Post Reformed orthodox period of development has many direct responses to all of these claims and theologic provided for by Levering/O’Collins, with particular reference to the Scripture principle (which Barth himself appeals to in his book The Theology of the Reformed Confessions and in his CD etc.) and Sola Scriptura, but honestly I really don’t think Post Reformed orthodox theology (think of the work of Richard Muller and his Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics) has the actual ecclesiological chops to move away from the pressure provided by the theologic of Levering/O’Collins. In other words, I think any theology that appeals to natural theology will have a hard time escaping the ecclesiocentric approach to things that Rome is funded by; the Westminster Reformed types have the same ecclesiocentrism present in their theology. It is Barth, and really, modernity itself that supplies the type of theological escape route that one needs to be able to critically move away from the type of ecclesiocentrism that we find in both Rome and Post Reformed orthodoxy (with its heavy reliance upon its Confessional magisterium etc.).

 

[1] Matthew Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of Redemption: Mediating the Gospel through Church and Scripture, 26 Scribd.

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