Sunday, August 23, 2015

Authority, Part V: Conclusions

This post is part of a five-post series on the Church's authority. Click the links below to visit the other parts of the series.

Authority, Part I:  Introduction  
Authority, Part II:  Defining the Claims  
Authority, Part III:  Testing the Claims with the Early Church Fathers  
Authority, Part IV:  Testing the Claims with History  
Authority, Part V:  Conclusions  

Today we conclude our study on the study of apostolicity or apostolic authority of churches.

We learned the following:

  1. All Christians agree that a church is apostolic if and only if it adheres to the doctrine of the apostles. 
  2. All Christians agree that a church is apostolic if and only if it fulfills the roles of leadership ordained by the apostles. 
  3. Some Christians have argued further that a church is apostolic if and only if it has an unbroken chain of bishopric teachings back to the apostles. However, in testing this claim we found that:
    1. The Scripture has no evidence for such a transmission doctrine;
    2. The early church fathers from 60-180 AD report nothing similar to this doctrine;
    3. The early church fathers from 60-180 AD rely entirely upon Scripture to determine apostolicity of a teaching;
    4. A weaker version of this doctrine begins to arise about 190 AD in Irenaeus, continuing in Tertullian;
    5. This doctrine becomes fully developed in the fourth century and not before;
    6. Every lineage claimed by every church relating to this doctrine has serious historical doubts as to the evidence presented;
    7. Each of these lineages is fractured in multiple locations and simply the one that connects to modern is chosen as 'real' with no clear reasoning to justify the decision;
    8. This doctrine is based upon terminology which was not present at the time of the apostles and arose over a century later; and
    9. The idea that any doctrine could be handed properly through so many generations is impossible (unless done miraculously, which again begs questions 3.1-3.8 here).

When I began this study I did not know what I would find about #3. Actually I rather suspected that I would find merit in the Anglican and Protestant claims and be on the fence between them.

In the end, what I found was that the Protestant claim is the only one which holds water. The post-Biblical idea of an apostolic succession which results in the authority of the Magisterium of any of these churches (Anglican, Methodist, Orthodox, or Roman Catholic) to interpret the Scriptures in a 'special' way is frankly absurd. It just doesn't line up.

And so I must conclude, as the Reformers did before me, that the earliest Christians had it proper and correct.

Thus it is that my final conclusion regarding authority and apostolic succession is the same as that quoted by Origin in pt II:
"No man ought, for the confirmation of doctrines, to use books which are not canonized Scriptures." 

A church is apostolic in nature if it is in adherence with the teachings of the apostles, as handed down to us in the Scriptures. That alone shall be our guide.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Authority, Part IV: Testing the Claims with History

This post is part of a five-post series on the Church's authority. Click the links below to visit the other parts of the series.

Authority, Part I:  Introduction  
Authority, Part II:  Defining the Claims  
Authority, Part III:  Testing the Claims with the Early Church Fathers  
Authority, Part IV:  Testing the Claims with History  
Authority, Part V:  Conclusions  

As we continue our study of succession, what becomes very relevant is determining who has the proper succession lineage? The three who claim succession lineages--Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and Roman Catholicism--have fundamentally differing doctrines on many counts. To put it very simply, they cannot all be teaching apostolic doctrine as their doctrines are disconnecting from one another. So the question is--can we, from history, choose a lineage which is correct?

Short answer: No, not really.

The longer answer will come as we answer three sub-questions.

1. Is any lineage truly unbroken?

Now, the number of lineages possible here are massive. The Roman Catholic church has one, the Eastern Orthodox has fifteen who are in communion, the Ancient Church of the East has theirs, Anglicanism has theirs, and so on. Below you see one such example, that of the Methodist faith (yellow) descending from a succession of Anglicans (red):

Going through all of those on a blog I don't get paid for seems like a poor use of my time this nice, sunny weekend in Amsterdam. :-)

So instead, let me make two points:

  1. Every lineage has some very highly questionable certainty in some of the histories; it is far from sure that these have 100% accuracy through the Dark Age lineages. This is not a disproof, but an honest concern.
  2. Every lineage ultimately breaks off at some point and then simply chooses one line as legitimate.

This second point is a very serious one, in my view.

Take the Anglican view above. John Wesley was, without any doubt historically, properly initiated as an Anglican minister. Then in the United States, he continued to admit new bishops and presbyters and on and on they go until today.

So...which of these lineages is correct? Methodism and Anglicanism are teaching different doctrines. So one (or both) of them has departed from true doctrinal apostolicity. Which is it? Both have equally valid claims. The Methodists simply claim that they are the 'true' line, and the Anglicans claim that they are the 'true' line.

Now Methodists and Anglicans get along swimmingly so perhaps this seems a non-issue. But let us look at a more serious example, one which permeates all of these lineages.

Above is part of the apostolic succession timeline claimed by the Antiochian Orthodox church, one of the fifteen major 'branches' of Eastern Orthodoxy. In the late fourth century, this chain had a doctrinal controversy. Four properly-succeeded bishops (Meletius, Paulinus, Vitalis, and Euzoius) all split over each other. Three of those continued long enough that they inaugurated more bishops as their followers. Eventually the lines of Paulinus and Meletius rejoined, but the other two lines ended.

Now, the Antiochian Orthodox church today will tell you, this is an example of the Church correcting itself and avoiding heresy. But here is the problem...if apostolic succession is what determines apostolicity, then the other two had equally-valid claims. That is, the very same logic used by Irenaeus against the Gnostics, and against the Orthodox against Catholics/Protestants/Anglicans, is the same logic which could have been used by any of these against any other.

The fact that the "majority" followed one line seems of little consequence--often, the majority do not follow the truth (the Bible is quite clear on that!). Truth is not up for democratic vote.

Someone who already accepted the modern Antiochian Orthodox way of thinking would say that this is fine; but to an observer outside, we can only wonder--why should we not have trusted Vitalis?

This is true of every single apostolic lineage. The idea is presented as a linear branch of a tree, but it would be more right to say that each line is a river with a thousands tributaries breaking off all the time, and the one that survived to modern day is the one which wrote the history and therefore discounted all the others. Victors write the history books--and it need not always align to truth.

This is not only an Orthodox problem. Roman Catholicism has had over forty anti-popes, people who claimed proper apostolic authority over the Church but who failed to retain that authority. How do we know one of them wasn't the true pope?

What we end up with, it seems, is hopelessly circular logic:  my church is true because it has an apostolic lineage because the people who broke off of it weren't apostolic, which I know because my church is true.

In other words, you must begin with a prior faith in the succession-claim of one denomination in order to prove its claims. Why? Because the historical evidence does not favor any of these over the other. And if (like the earliest church fathers) you make it all about Scripture, then you have embraced the Protestant view.

2.  The terminology of a succession of bishops shows a post-apostolic origin

Whenever you read this, you will see discussion focus around the succession of bishops. The only succession lists which exist in these communities use the term "bishop" to refer to the head of a diocese of several local churches, and generally use the term presbytery to refer to the priests in those individual churches. Thereby can they provide a succession of bishop-to-bishop (notwithstanding the issues shown in #1 above), and the bishops then anoint the presbytery.

However, this is what poker players call a serious "tell." You see, these terms took on that meaning only in the late second and third century. The most ancient churches used these terms very differently.

As you can see here, the apostolic churches used the term 'bishop' and 'presbyter' interchangeably (also seen in Acts 20; Acts 28; 1 Tim 3; 1 Tim 5; and Tit 1, in all of which they are used interchangeably).

The idea that there was a hierarchy in which a bishop ruled over a region and presbyters over the churches is simply not a part of the apostolic church. The churches were built on a synagogue model, in which a group of elders or shepherds (called presbyters) led the local congregation. Synagogue presbyters of each were not really in contact with each other unless they chose to be, though rabbis were generally taught at the feet of Levite priests. But there is nothing resembling a hierarchy in ancient Judaism, nor in these first churches (which were indeed nothing but synagogues who recognized Jesus as Messiah). The bishop was not their 'boss' or spiritual leader; bishop is simply a Greek term which was used commonly to indicate the financial leader of a club in the Greco-Roman world. As a result, Gentile churches began to use the term bishop as the leader of the presbyters within the local church, a position similar to which the Jews would have called rabbi and we might call pastor. The deacons were analogous to the synagogue assistant, who took care of the administrative day-to-day duties to free up the presbytery to pray and serve.

So we know immediately when we discuss the idea of a succession of bishops who then oversee and enact local priesthoods, that we are talking of something completely post-apostolic in nature. It is simply false to call Clement I of Rome either the first "pope" or the first "partriarch" or even a bishop in the modern terminology. It implies an administrative structure which simply did not exist.

3.  The timeframe is both too short and too long in order to have confidence of doctrinal transmission

The question remains--what precisely was transmitted? If it is the proper way to interpret Scripture, every line has problems, for in many cases the person only spoke together for a few months or years, not nearly enough to justify a coherence of teaching. If what was transferred was the grace to properly interpret doctrine, then one is hamstrung with problem #1 again, as to how it didn't "take" with some people apparently.

In either case, what we have is a massive, two-thousand year game of telephone: the apostle talked to this bishop talked to that bishop who talked to a third bishop, all the way down the line. And you are supposed to believe that what you receive today is a fair representation of the original writer's meaning.

But let us consider, as an example, the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts received his law degree from Harvard in 1979, granted him by Dean Albert Sacks. Albert M. Sacks received his law degree from Harvard in 1948, granted by Dean Erwin Griswold. Erwin Griswold received his law degree from Harvard in 1929, granted by Dean Roscoe Pound. Roscoe Pound studied law at Harvard in 1889 under Dean Christopher Langdell, the first dean. We could go back further by looking into the professors of law, but I frankly have better things to do.

So, from 1889 when Roscoe Pound studied law at Harvard until today with John Roberts in 2015, we have a 126 year time passage.

How much would you be willing to bet that John Roberts' interpretation of the Constitution is the same as Roscoe Pound's interpretation?

Do you find it likely that it varies in some specific aspects? I think that is certain--after all we have added 12 amendments to the Constitution since that time, including such large variations from the law of Pounds' period as permitting Congress to levy taxes, the right for women to vote, limits to the number of times you can be President, and establishing 18 as the voting age.

So if we believe that even in this modern era, legal interpretations of the Constitution might be different between a lawyer and his teachers' teachers' teachers' teacher over a period of 126 years, wouldn't you also accept that the beliefs of (say) Irenaeus in 189 might differ significantly from Peter in 63 AD? Isn't it even more likely that a modern Roman Catholic priest of today, whose separation from Peter is 1549% greater than the separation of Roberts and Poscoe, might be off base from what Peter taught?

It seems to be patently absurd to believe that such succession accurately transmitted a proper set of doctrines over all these centuries.

Indeed, it is absurd. It is not logical or evidential, it is faith.

The only way to justify that any line of apostolic succession has any validity is to believe (purely by faith) that this line and this line alone is supernaturally imbued with God's grace.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Authority, Part III: Testing the Claims with the Early Church Fathers

This post is part of a five-post series on the Church's authority. Click the links below to visit the other parts of the series.

Authority, Part I:  Introduction  
Authority, Part II:  Defining the Claims  
Authority, Part III:  Testing the Claims with the Early Church Fathers  
Authority, Part IV:  Testing the Claims with History  
Authority, Part V:  Conclusions  

As we continue our study of Authority, we want to test the claims with the Early Church Fathers. What I mean is to think about it much like a scientific theory: we have claims of succession and we should be able to test those claims to determine if we should accept them or not.

Specifically, we should be looking through the earliest writers of Christianity to look for conflicts. When conflicts occur, how do they respond? Do they refer to succession for their authority, or to Scripture for their authority, or both?

Why Not Use Scripture?

The natural question for the Protestants is--why would we do the testing with the Early Church Fathers instead of by using Scripture?

Scripture is often used in this debate but to little value, on either side:

  • Protestants like to use Scripture to point out that no firm reference to apostolic authority is made. This is true. However...the authors of Scripture were themselves the apostles, so obviously they would not need to discuss transmission of authority explicitly.  The lack of a clear theology of succession while the apostles were still walking around is not necessarily a proof that it did not exist.
  • Catholic/Orthodox sources love to quote a few Scriptures, out of context, in an attempt to validate succession. However this is very spurious when one studies the passages in context. Some will point to Jude 3 which refers to the "faith that was entrusted to God's people"--but it is a major stretch to conclude that this means that this is referencing succession; if anything it would seem to imply that all God's people have the faith rather than just approved bishops. Others point out that 1 Timothy 4:14 refers to the laying on of hands of the elders, but it is also far from clear that this somehow references a succession of apostles (indeed, the elders are presbyters here, a Jewish word indicating local synagogue leaders and not the word for apostles). Finally is Matthew 16:18, a verse so often taken out of context that I will write a full post about that later.

The main point is that while the apostles were walking around, the idea of apostolic succession did not really exist, nor should it have. Succession implies the end of the apostolic work; it is by definition a discussion for post-Scriptural times.

Therefore, when we read the Early Church Fathers we should see more clearly what the results are. I honestly don't know where this post will go as I begin to write it (on 12 Aug) and I'm excited about that. What I do know is that it will be very long if I fully discuss all of the early church father works.

Instead, I plan to go through bit by bit and summarize below, including links so you can read the original sources yourself. I have purposefully avoided reading apologetics of either Protestant or Catholic-Orthodox variety in this case.

Clement I (80 AD) - evidence for Protestant position

Clement is considered one of the first popes, but read his letters and you will see a very weak evidence for apostolic succession.
  • First of all, when the Corinthians write to Clement he states that it is merely to seek advice--not leadership, but advice among equals. 
  • Secondly, Clement does not respond for a while and must apologize for it not being a high priority for him (again, indicating they are not in direct hierarchy). 
  • Clement in making arguments never refers to something taught by an apostle to him via tradition, or at least not that I can find. Instead he refers to Scripture routinely.
  • The closest one gets is the passage below, in which Clement says that the apostles chose the bishops and deacons in the new churches. No one disagrees with that. And then the apostles appear to have set up a system in which the pastors would choose their own successors or, lacking that, pastors from other churches would choose for them. But it is a recklessly far claim to say that this somehow implies anything remotely relating to the doctrine of apostolic succession.
"Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry" (1Clement, Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]). 

As such, I place the evidence for Clement I in the Protestant position.

Clement of Alexandria (150-213) - evidence for Protestant position

In Stromata 7:16:3, a different Clement says this: "[disciples] will not give over seeking for truth until they have found the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves." It is the Scriptures which are used to interpret traditions, not the other way around.

Hegesippus (180 AD) - evidence neutral but leans Protestant
"When I had come to Rome, I [visited] Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And after Anicetus [died], Soter succeeded, and after him Eleutherus. In each succession and in each city there is a continuance of that which is proclaimed by the law, the prophets, and the Lord" (Memoirs, cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4:22 [A.D. 180]). 

The work of Hegesippus names the pastors of the last few generations in Rome. That there was a succession is, of course, no surprise--any continually operating church has a succession. What I find most interesting is that Hegesippus says, "in each succession...there is a continuance of that which is proclaimed by the Law, the prophets, and the Lord." In other words, Hegesippus admits that there is a succession, but in no way indicates it is a continuance of church traditions...rather, he says that what they are handing down is the Bible (the law and prophet--Old Testament, and the Gospels--the teachings of the Lord).

This is a stronger argument for the Protestant position than the apostolic position; however, I will call it neutral because it could be taken that way even though it by no means is explicit.

Origin (185-252) - evidence for Protestant position

Origin said, "No man ought, for the confirmation of doctrines, to use books which are not canonized Scriptures." (Tract. 26 in Matt.) This clearly aligns with the idea of sola scriptura.

Irenaeus (189 AD) - evidence somewhat debatable but leans strongly Protestant based on AH3:1

Without doubt, if a Catholic or Orthodox is going to use an early church father to point toward apostolic succession in the manner in which they mean the doctrine, Irenaeus is the best candidate. He was pretty close to the apostles, writing in 189 (although, do not forget that this is still as far removed from the apostles as your current church is from its pastor in 1915, fresh off of WW I--so don't overestimate how close they are). 

Irenaeus is arguing against the Gnostics, a group who has arisen by saying that they are holding the "true" teachings of the church--a group of secretive teachings passed down only to them.  Irenaeus argues against them a lot using Scripture, as a traditional Protestant would. However, he also refers to the apostolic lineage of churches to their modern day. This he uses as a litmus test to separate the Gnostic churches from the catholic ones. He writes in long blocks of paragraphs so to save time I will summarize:
  • Heresy can be protected against when one can show a lineage of pastors back to the original apostle, name by name (Against Heresies 3:3:1)
  • Proclaims that Rome, because it has the firmest apostolic succession back to both Peter and Paul, is the litmus test for all church teachings--if it disagrees with Rome then it is not a true church. The Orthodox need to be careful using Irenaeus as he is firmly a Romanist in his cataloging of tradition (ibid., 3:3:2)
  • Defends the claim that Polycarp carries apostolic traditional authority (ibid., 3:3:4)
  • Argues that if a Scriptural misunderstanding arises we should turn to the most ancient church (by which he refers to Rome) in order to decide among it; thus he again places Rome at the forefront (ibid., 3:4:1)
  • He speaks about all of those Gnostic churches who have departed from the main church as vain, self-seeking, and heretical, teaching none of the truth. He also claims that those from succession are holders of infallible truth--though it is not completely clear from the context if he is saying that the Roman Church's interpretation is infallible (if so, this is the earliest reference to the doctrine of papal infallibility), or if he is referring to the infallibility of the Gospel itself, of which they are the proper holders of in his view. So this could be read on one extreme as a very Roman Catholic claim, or on the other hand as a rather mild reminder that the Gnostics at his time were not part of the apostolic church (ibid., 4:26:2)

So in Irenaeus' apostolic succession passages, we note that we have some difficulty. He is using the argument of succession as an apologetic against the Gnostics. Now to the Protestant reader, that is all he is using it for--he is implying nothing beyond the response to his current foes. To the Orthodox reader, he is using it as a denunciation of all non-apostolic-succession churches. To the Roman Catholic reader, he is using it even further as an endorsement of the papal authority and infallibility of the Roman bishop.

Now what is very interesting is that Catholics and Orthodox, however, tend to ignore this passage from Irenaeus:
We have known the method of our salvation by no other means than those by which the Gospel came to us; which Gospel [the apostles] truly preached; but which afterward, by the will of God, they delivered to us in the Scriptures, to be for the future the foundation and pillar of faith. (ibid., 3:1)

I will be honest: I had always thought the strongest argument from Irenaeus' work was for the Roman Catholic position, and I assumed that's where I would land on this...but having read this passage--which is the opening line and context under which all of the above are placed--I am back to the Protestant view. 

It seems quite clear that there is no traditional handing-down of other doctrines, but rather of the Scriptures. The apostolic succession and lineage to which Irenaeus refers is evidence as to why our Scriptures are trusted rather than the Gnostics. It seems very clear in this passage that the "output" of the succession machine is not doctrine but rather the Scriptures, which itself is the doctrine.

Now when you re-read the above bullet points, what you find is that Irenaeus in battling the heretics seems not to be endorsing a papal infallibility, but rather demonstrating that the infallible Scriptures held by the church proper are the foundation of faith rather than the Gnostic gospels--and furthermore, that the ancientness of the church of Rome guarantee that they have the proper Scriptures.

So I think this (combined with the fact that the rest of Against Heresies is seeped in Scripture and lacking any tradition-based argument) sides rather strongly for the Protestant, sola Scriptura position--although it does give the caveat that the Roman Catholics should be commended as the protectors of that Scripture, it does not imply that their magisterium have infallible interpretation of the Scriptures.

Tertullian (200 AD) - evidence for succession

By the time of Tertullian--who was as far removed from Jesus as modern America is from pre-Civil War America--we see the first strong arguments for succession.

I will not quote them here, but you can find them in Demurrer Against the Heretics, 20-32. Here he argues something like modern doctrine, without giving evidence for or against any one church over the other (though it must be said he was a follower of the Roman way of things). 

He argues that it is the doctrine which is handed down through the apostolic succession, and that only a church of apostolic origin is properly a church. There is little argument here, to me.

As Tertullian brings us to the close of the second century, it is there that we shall stop. By the time we get further away from Jesus than America is from the Civil War, we are no longer properly discussing early Church Fathers at all. 

Suffice it to say that the next 100 years or so, this doctrine is argued against among the churches. Cyprian of Carthage (200-250) argues that tradition is fine as long as it does not contradict Scripture; likewise Ambrose and Jerome seem to be strongly Scripture-only in the fourth century. However, by the time of the end of the fourth century, I would concede that the general opinion of the church was that apostolic tradition was indeed real, in the manner it is meant today. I will note again, however, that by the time everyone is in agreement, it is as far away from Jesus as modern America is from the writing of the Constitution--and obviously we have amended it considerably in that time. So it is misleading to state that these were "ancient" traditions of the church, when it is really not an agreed-upon tradition for many years.

Conclusion of the Evidence from Early Church Fathers

When we look objectively into the writings of the early church fathers from 80-200 AD, the first few generations removed from the apostles, we see a few consistent themes with which all church fathers agree:
  • Scripture carries infallible truth
  • Scripture is a valid source of doctrine
  • The ancient churches like Rome carefully handled and handed down Scripture
In addition, we see that from 33-180, every commentator argues the sola Scriptura  route--that only the Scriptures are sound bases of truth.

Then beginning around 189, we see Irenaeus take a mostly Protestant view but make some statements which indicate a strengthening belief in apostolic succession's power to control doctrine.

By 200, Tertullian is arguing for apostolic succession as the primary method. And this argument will continue until everyone mostly aligns with Tertullian by the end of the fourth century.

In conclusion, I must find that the earliest Christian authors universally taught something like either sola Scriptura or prima Scriptura. If we are to follow their lead, then we should interpret traditions via Scripture, not interpret Scripture via traditions.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Authority, Part II: Defining the Claims

This post is part of a five-post series on the Church's authority. Click the links below to visit the other parts of the series.

Authority, Part I:  Introduction  
Authority, Part II:  Defining the Claims  
Authority, Part III:  Testing the Claims with the Early Church Fathers  
Authority, Part IV:  Testing the Claims with History  
Authority, Part V:  Conclusions  

The Origin of Church Authority

We must begin our discussion of authority by defining the terminology we will use, as well as the claims of the various churches. 

I have been using the term authority because of its self-explanatory nature; however, the proper theological term is apostolicity, meaning "derived from the apostles."

Why is it important that the church derives from the apostles?

It all began, of course, with Jesus. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said to Peter, "on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it."  In Ephesians 2:20, Paul says that the church is built upon the foundation of the apostles. In Acts 2:42, we see that the first church continued to study the teachings of the apostles. 

So it is critical then that our churches carry with them apostolic authority, or apostolicity. But what, precisely, does this mean? Michael Ramsey, the former Archibishop of Canterbury, rightly states that there are three very different things that people usually mean when they say a church is apostolic:
  1. A continuity of teaching, that is, that the church leadership is teaching the same doctrine as the apostles
  2. A continuity of function, that is, that the church leadership is fulfilling the same functions and roles as the apostles
  3. A continuity of traditional lineage, that is, that the church leadership were personally taught and inaugurated by leaders who were taught and inaugurated by other leaders and so on, in an unbroken lineage back to the original apostles.

Now on the first two of the three, there is little controversy worth discussing. Every Christian tradition agrees that a church is not apostolic unless its leaders teach the same truth as the apostles, and that its leaders must fulfill the functions fulfilled by the apostles. This is precisely whey Christians reject the Mormons as heretics--because they fail the apostolicity test on both of these grounds; their teachings do not jive with the teachings of the apostles, and neither do their methods of ministry.

Regarding what those teachings are--we speak primarily of the New Testament. There has been very little disagreement (despite what Dan Brown and other non-scholars would have you believe) in the canon of the New Testament. You can find a few early Christian traditions which threw out Revelation and Hebrews, and a few others that wanted to add in Shepherd of Hermas or Clement; but these are so far in the minority that it is hardly worth mentioning.

No, in these first two areas there is really virtually no controversy.

The controversy comes in with the third point, that of traditional lineage. The idea here is that although we all agree that the Scriptures contain the apostles' teachings, they do not include all of the apostles' teachings. Instead, the apostles also taught and "passed down" the faith to the second generation of church leaders such as Timothy, Clement, and the like; they then chose the third generation and passed along the faith; they then chose the fourth generation, and on and on until today.

The idea here is that there is a legal lineage of approved ministers whose teachings are also apostolic, having been handed down from the apostles through the ages. So there would therefore be two sources of authoritative apostolic teachings:  the Scriptures (the written teachings) and the Traditions (the handed-down teachings).

So it is this third sense that we are discussing here:  did the apostles also hand down authoritative, word-of-mouth teachings which were passed on by a lineage of discipleship to today? And if so, which church tradition is the proper keeper of this lineage?

Overview of Denominational History

To put it another way, have a look at the file below (feel free to click and zoom in if needed).

This chart shows the Christian family tree (greatly simplified, of course).

In gray, you have the apostolic church. During the first four and a half centuries of Christianity, the church was fairly unified theologically. There were some heretical Gnostics and the like which arose, but for the most part, there were no other large breaks in Christianity.

In 431, the Nestorian conflict resulted in the Church of the East splitting off from what I am calling the remaining Catholic tradition.

Then in 451, the Oriental Orthodox Churches split off after the Council of Ephesus; this includes the Coptics, Ethiopians, Armenians, Syrians, and similar churches.

The church Catholic continued with increasing separation between the theologies as time goes on. However, don't miss the size of the timeframe--for comparison, the entire history of the U.S.A. from Washington until today, which is shown in black at the bottom right.

In 1054, at the Great Schism, the cracks which had been developing in the past 600 years formally split the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Branches. Eastern Christianity (the Orthodox churches) are shown in blue, while the Western church tradition showed in orange.

The Eastern Orthodox church continued to divide over the years, now with 15 significant branches who remain in communion together.

Roman Catholicism has remained to modern day, as shown in dark orange. However, in the 16th century the Reformation occurred, and Western Christianity generally took on two other large traditions.

In the light orange you see the Anglican tradition. This tradition would over the years give birth to Episcopalians, Baptists, Charismatics, and Methodists. Some--like the Episcopalians--have remained pretty similar to the Anglicans; others like Baptists and Charismatics are significantly different.

The final version are the green, Reformed churches. These are the churches descended from Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli--such as the Presbyterians, Mennonites, Anabaptists, and Lutherans.

Additionally to all of the above are non-denominational churches, which originated from none of these sources but generally speaking divide into two broad categories:  evangelical churches (which are somewhat similar to the Anglican tradition, generally resembling Baptist or Anglican churches) and Reformed evangelical churches (which are more similar to Lutheranism or Presbyterianism).

This overview diagram gives you an idea of what denominational history has been.

The Claim of the Roman Catholics

The Roman Catholic claim is that there is one, and only one, valid line of apostolic succession. They claim that you could connect dots to form a timeline of all bishops of Rome beginning with Peter and still active today.

The Romans claim that all the other colors on the graph are "false succession" lines. For example, Martin Luther (though properly ordained by their succession) broke from apostolic succession and therefore, everyone who follows him in the Reformed tradition is an invalid teacher.

Because they claim to have the only valid lineage, any Roman Catholic tradition which seems to differ from Scripture is seen as correct; that is, although the Immaculate Conception of Mary is not a Biblical principle, the doctrine is considered equally authoritative as the Bible because it came through appropriate apostolic succession.

The Claim of the Orthodox

The Orthodox churches, like the Roman Catholics, each claim their own appropriate apostolic succession. The Nestorians say they alone are properly apostolic, the Orientals say they alone are properly apostolic, and the Eastern Orthodox claim the same.

Because they claim to have the only valid lineage, any Eastern Orthodox tradition which seems to differ from Scripture is seen as correct; Orthodox-only doctrine is considered equally authoritative as the Bible because it came through appropriate apostolic succession.

The Claim of the Anglicans and Methodists

The Anglicans and Methodists can provide a similar line of succession back through Catholicism as the Roman Catholics can. However, they do not rely on it in the same way.

The Anglicans and Methodists are--to use my terminology--supporters of prima Scriptura. That is, although they too claim to be able to trace their lineage to the apostles, they generally argue that Scripture always trumps traditions. In that way, they often claim to be both Catholic and Protestant.

As a result, the Anglicans and Methodists would not place their traditions on as firm a footing as the Orthodox or Catholics, despite claiming apostolic succession.

The Claim of the Protestants

The claim of most Protestants (the green section above) is that apostolic succession does not exist in in the manner described by the other groups. The Protestants follow sola Scriptura--that is, only Scripture carries apostolic weight. Therefore, your church is "apostolic" if it is in line with Scripture.

Therefore, the Protestants can accept traditions and handed-down doctrines if and only if they do not contradict with Scripture.

This is an overview of the four major claims. We will look through each of these in the coming posts.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A brilliant insight into culture from Keller

I've been studying Tim Keller's book, Preaching, lately. It is a great resource which any preacher should read. In his fifth chapter, however, Keller covers a topic which I think is worth every Christian reading.

Keller describes five basic narratives which all cultures have about the world. He compares the ancient worldview before Jesus (B.C.), the Christianity worldview, and the current postmodern worldview.

These five narratives about the world really point out what our culture believes, and this is valuable not just for those of us writing sermons, but for every Christian living in this culture.


  • B.C.: The natural world and human bodies are basically bad (or at least, inferior) and that the world of ideas and spirituality were superior or "more real."
  • Christianity:  God created the natural world and our bodies "good" and that studying them is an honorable thing--this belief caused the Scientific Revolution and the founding of all modern science. Anything bad in nature is the result of sin.
  • Postmodernism:  The natural world is the only reality and is neither good nor bad, but neutral. It simply is.
Today's society takes the Christian idea that the natural world is good and worth studying, and goes to the extreme of saying that it is the only reality and only what we learn by studying it can be trusted as true.


  • B.C.: History is basically cyclical and endless. What has happened before will happen again; "there is nothing new under the sun."
  • Christianity:  God has a specific plan in history and God will bring it to its conclusion. We are progressing toward His end. Part of our job is to help create "The City of God" (to use Augustine's term) here on Earth; we pray for this and seek to live this way in our lives.
  • Postmodernism:  History is always progressing, so every era is "better" than the prior era. Today is better and wiser than the Renaissance, which is better and wiser than the Middle Ages, which is better and wiser than Classical Culture, etc. Whatever is new, is better.
Today's society takes the Christian idea of progressing toward God's kingdom, but removes God's kingdom from the idea. Thus the progression is somehow an end to itself. This is what Lewis called "chronological snobbery" and now the idea is that those who came before us were foolish and superstitious but now we have everything pretty much figured out.


  • B.C.: The individual doesn't really matter, at least when compared to the tribe/clan/society at large. To think of the individual instead of the collective good is always bad.
  • Christianity:  God created us all in His image. Each individual has incalculable value and dignity--and yet, we are also supposed to place a high value on giving up our own rights and wealth for the betterment of the collective community.
  • Postmodernism:  The individual's choices and desires are all that matters, and society should never encroach on that freedom. This is why abortionists, anti-vaccine parents, pro-gun lobbyists, and gay marriage advocates all make the same basic argument:  it's my choice, society can't tell me what to do. 
Our society took the Christian dignity of the individual and the Christian call for individual civil rights and took it to libertarian extremes. Now, the only true virtue in our society's view is freedom of choice; and the only sin is to discriminate against someone for their choices.


  • B.C.: Our lives are controlled by the Fates. Individual choices don't matter, things will turn out as they would have anyway. No matter what you choose, Fate will make everything work out so you still make the same choice. (See Oedipus, the Odyssey, the Iliad, etc.)
  • Christianity:  God gives us the free will to truly choose our actions, and this has a significant impact on the world around us. He will return and culminate history as He plans, but we have a significant impact on the justice of the world in the meantime.
  • Postmodernism:  Our choices matter and can change the world, and we as a society get to define what that progressive future should look like. As Woody Allen said, "Every artist chooses their own moral space." 
Our society took the Christian idea of free will and our ability to shape culture and separated it from its root of God. As a result, we as a democratic society simply choose what is 'moral' or 'immoral', without any actual absolute truth. We are supposed to achieve justice but can redefine justice whenever we want.


  • B.C.: The individual's worth  is determined by society. If your actions bring honor on your family and tribe then you have honor as an individual. If your actions bring shame, then you have no value.
  • Christianity:  God imputes your value to you, as you are His image-bearer. So no matter who you are, you have immense human value. Your emotions and feelings are very important, as a proper theology will ground you with self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • Postmodernism:  Self-esteem and self-confidence are granted not by God or by society but by your own mind. You simply need to "do you" and "be real" and "chase your dreams." As long as you don't allow others to define yourself, then you will have high self-worth. 
Our society took the Christian idea of self-worth and emotional intelligence having value, and made them the only part of the equation of importance. They not only removed the influence of society in determining your worth, but also took God Himself out of the equation, so that if you are feeling down it is only because you have failed to free yourself from the 'judgment' of others.

In each instant--similar to the ideas of Turek's Stealing from God--what we see is that our postmodern society has actually taken Christianity's ideas and perverted them, by choosing one (good) aspect and taking it so far that it becomes a negative thing.

What is fascinating about Keller's observations is that they affect all people regardless of political stripe--liberals and conservatives and libertarians all make the same basic (and wrong) arguments. And often we don't even realize that these narratives are worldviews; they have become so ingrained in our thinking that we have to purposefully think about the Christian worldview.

Preachers, you inherit the task of the Hebrew prophets--to point out to the culture its errors and bring them back to the Christian mindset. All Christians--read this as many times as it takes to internalize it, and it will help protect you from the deceptively-attractive memes, worldviews, and narratives of our increasingly-broken world.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Politics before all

I said that I would only pop my head up politically on occasion, and that first occasion is now.

The drum you will hear me beat, over and over and over again, is that American politicians--of BOTH sides--are Caesar. They will not make us a godly nation, because they seek their power, not God's. I will continue to argue--as I have for years--that American politics cares about Christian theology only as far as it gets them votes, and that neither party represents godliness. Please read here if you want to protect yourself from turning American into a false idol.

America is not, and has never been, a godly nation. Anyone who wants to point to the 40s and 50s as times that America was godly, is conveniently forgetting that we dropped a few nukes on a bunch of innocent people and put innocent Japanese-American citizens into internment camps.

For the past 40 years, we have systematically murdered babies, under not only Federal legal protection but also federal funding. (I haven't written about this latest horror from Planned Parenthood because I have covered this ground many times before, see my articles here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

But today I have a less emotional complaint. Though it does not involve morality, it does show that politics is about POWER.

You may have seen that the EPA caused a major spill (shown right) in Colorado. It is of significant danger to the population, and it's not easy to hide being, all, yellowy.

Of course it is embarrassing, to be sure. This is a department which only exists to PROTECT us from being polluted, and now it did the polluting. And was, to hear their spokesmen, completely shocked by the results. No one could have known, they said, what would happen.

Well...about that.

It turns out that any random geologist who didn't even know the area could know. See this letter to the editor from the week before the incident, in the Silverton newspaper. He says it is simple science what would occur, and proposes that the only possible reason to do it is because the EPA knew that at least some seepage would occur (maybe not on this scale) and justify their installation of a water treatment facility which they already wanted to put in place.

Now maybe this guy is just paranoid. (Though, as Kurt Cobain once said, "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me.")

But the fact is that it is science which even a retired geologist with only limited access to the data predicted, with impressive accuracy.

And yet the EPA ignored it. Why?

I've been a manager and director at large companies. A lot of free-market theorists like to say that we make rational decisions based on market forces.

We don't.

The truth is that leaders of companies--and government agencies--are people. And people have selfish agendas. And people's brains are amazing at justifying their own ideas to support their own agenda. Companies make investments which all their directors and engineers say are horrible, and then are shocked when they don't work out. Organizations like the EPA ignore science because they make a calculation in their heads--maybe it will work fine, and if it doesn't then hey, we needed a treatment plant here anyway. (And they conveniently ignore that this will impact the water of an entire local population.) The human brain is great at that--at assuming all your works are great, and ignoring a group of people you will never meet as simply, "them."

Okay, so what is my point?

My point is--politicians are people. People who are actively seeking power.  People who require a mob mentality to get that power and to stay in power. Obviously much of House of Cards is ridiculous, but it brilliantly shows the hunger for power and the ease of self-deception required to gain it and keep it, justifying all those compromises and hurt people along the way.

Jesus said that true power comes in giving away our own power, our own rights, our own reputations, our own desires. True power comes through subjugating ourselves, where as politics by its very nature must seek to grasp power aggressively.

And that is why Christianity will never be properly represented by politics. And you are fooling yourself if you think that voting for any politician is going to make a fundamental difference in that fact.

Our hope is not in campaign slogans and debates. It is in the Lord, who will return to save us in His time. Focus your energies there, praying for Him this political season. because while politicians will gladly ignore morals and ethics and science to further their agendas, the Lord will never fail to do what is good and just and pure and merciful.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Authority, Part I: Introduction

A few months back I had a lunch with a friend, who is a part of the Orthodox Church. We talked about many things, but as we always do we ended up settling on the topic of Authority. Since Jesus' ascension, where does our authority come from? We have the Scriptures, which all Christians agree are God's own Words and carry His authority...but who is authorized to interpret them?

I was reminded of this talk recently, when I came across a story about the United Church of Canada--which is a far cry from a conservative viewpoint to begin with--which is trying to decide what to do with an outspokenly atheist minister. They have cut themselves from both the Scripture AND any kind of tradition, so to what authority do they turn in making decisions?

The question of authority is a key one, for any Christian.

In the end, it comes down to this question:  Does authority as a minister of the Gospel originate due to a continuous line of succession back to the Apostles, or does it originate due to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the believer?

The Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches all accept apostolic succession, and each argues that they are the 'true' church derived from the Apostles' teachings. Protestant Churches, in contrast, argue that it originates from the Scriptures and Holy Spirit and not from apostolic succession, a stance generally referred to as sola scriptura. Between the two stand the Methodists and Anglicans, who hold a position which I will refer to as prima scriptura.

This is an important topic which we need to address. It goes without saying that we should be following proper leadership in our churches; indeed, Jesus was insistent that we be on the lookout and ensure our shepherds are proper shepherds of God (Matt 7:15). So we will tackle this topic in a series of posts in the coming days and weeks:

Authority, Part I:  Introduction  - this post, defining the problem

Authority, Part II:  Defining the Claims  - what is meant by apostolic succession, sola scriptura, and prima scriptura?

Authority, Part III:  Testing the Claims with the Early Church Fathers  - if we read the early church fathers, how do they refer to authority...succession, sola scriptura, or prima scriptura?

Authority, Part IV:  Testing the Claims with History  - let us examine the succession lists of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism to ensure that there is an unbroken line

Authority, Part V:  Conclusions  - what can we draw from this?