The Doctrine of Apostolic Succession

Apostolic Authority and Character  

It has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, . . .

Acts 15:25 ESV

Apostolic Succession is historic continuity with the apostles imparted through the laying on of hands in ordination; thereby, receiving the apostles’ authority while simultaneously experiencing the Holy Spirit’s anointing to embody apostolic character and teach apostolic doctrine. This ancient succession grants to the bishops the same authority, commission, and responsibility as the apostles. Also, this ancient continuity extends special grace and authority to the clergy from the Holy Spirit to advance the gospel throughout the world. An Anglican theologian defines the doctrine of apostolic succession:

As our blessed Lord ordained the twelve to be his representatives when He left the earth, so the apostles chose others to take their place when they in turn were withdrawn by death. … During this long period, successors of the apostles, first receiving, and then in turn handing on the divine power and authority which Christ gave to the twelve, have never been wanting. The apostolic succession is the link or bond that connects the Church of the 20th century with that of the 1st century.

Vernon Staley, The Catholic Religion (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Press, 1983), 15.

The doctrine of apostolic succession has both Petrine and Pauline qualities. Petrine in that the bishop’s consecration and ministry must be in historic continuity with the church catholic and Pauline in that the bishop should be governed by the Holy Spirit and has an individual (not individualistic) walk with the Lord exemplified by the “faith that works through love” (Gal. 5:6).

If a bishop is not Pauline then he is not apostolic. In other words, no matter the fact of his ordination, he is not a representative of the church if he is not living a holy life and does not believe the historic doctrines of the apostles. However, when a bishop is Pauline and not Petrine, he lacks authority in his ministry. That deficiency keeps him from speaking from and to the church. As one presbyter stated:

When I received Christ, I discovered the grace of God. When I received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, I discovered the power of God. When I received the laying on of hands in apostolic succession of the government of God, I discovered the authority of God.”

Ed Wills, “Sensitive to the Holy Spirit,” Sursum Corda (November 1994), 2.


Reformed Catholicity

Catholic Not Roman Catholic

If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.

1 Tim. 3:16

Catholicity was and is a mark of both the true church and the embodiment of truthful doctrine, both catholicity and the church catholic are considered one and the same. The church catholic is not confined to a particular location, but every local church is a full expression of the entire church. The church catholic is not limited by time: it indestructibly moving through the centuries by the power of the Spirit defeating all its foes. The church catholics’ membership is comprised of those who have trusted in Christ: both those who have died in Christ and those who are currently serving Christ in this life.

Distinctive doctrines of the church catholic include apostolic succession, episcopacy, Eucharistic life, liturgical worship, Trinitarian faith, sacramental worldview, and creedal commitment. Catholicity is Spirit empowered, Christ exalting, and liturgically centered: thereby, charismatic, evangelical and sacramental.

Patristics scholar, D.H. Williams defines further, “Genuine catholicity is that which pertains to everything necessary for the justification and sanctification of the believer. It is a wholeness of faith that offers the complete counsel of God to all people in all times and places.” [D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 225.]

What would it look like to restore the Trinitarian core to Reformed Christianity? Such a Christianity would understand that the gospel itself has a Trinitarian logic: as sinners, it is not until we encounter Jesus Christ that we know that God is a gracious Father who pardons our sin; by faith, we are united to Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, who forms us deeper and deeper into the image of Christ. When we come together for worship, we are not simply giving God his “due,” or acting in obedience to the divine command (though we are also doing that), we are encountering life as it really is: we are sinners who find ourselves gratuitously adopted, freely taken by God, filled with the Spirit, participating in Christ. We confess our sins, receive the nourishment of the Word and Sacrament, and go out to love God and neighbor in gratitude. In all of these, we are empowered by the Spirit to partake of Christ, to encounter a gracious, pardoning Father and simultaneously go and serve the neighbor and the stranger.

J. Todd Billings, “The Promise of Catholic Calvinism”