aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Musings on Apostolicity, part I

I've been doing a lot of thinking about some major doctrines in the last couple of years. For example, I was outlining a book-length essay on Resurrection at one point, but haven't pursued the actual writing. Just doing the research and collecting my thoughts allowed me to work my own way through the topic, and I'm happy with the results.

I've also been doing a lot of thinking about Apostolicity over the same time period. We say we believe in "one holy catholic and apostolic Church," but each of those terms is an argument lying in wait. And of those terms, apostolicity has been a real bugbear for me.

I started out years ago with the accepted Protestant definition of apostolicity: we share the faith of the Apostles. But there's more to it than that. Apostolicity is really about the authority of the Apostles, about what makes us authentically part of the same movement which they headed. And it seems to me that there are two poles to this argument, and problems with each.

Allow me to lay an anecdote on you. A friend of mine back in seminary days was hanging out in the Lexington mall and observed this encounter. An Episcopal priest wearing a collar was doing some shopping when he was accosted by a sincere young man who politely inquired, "Sir, do you belong to a New Testament Church?" Without batting an eye, the priest replied, "Son, I belong to the Church that wrote the New Testament."

These two points of view I think define the two poles of the argument over apostolicity. On one end, there is the Restorationist Christian, who believes that the New Testament is pre-eminently the source of Apostolic authority. The Apostles themselves are long gone, but they left us their doctrine and advice about practice in this authoritative book. The Bible as a whole is not only the record of God's redemptive work on earth, but also a book of instructions on how to do what God wants. Anybody (literally) can pick up the book and go out and do what God wants done, including start one's own Church. It's all in the book. And doing what the book prescribes places one under the authority of the Apostles, who got their faith directly from their experience with the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.

The problem with this is obvious. Two people (say, a Baptist and a Presbyterian), each affirming that the authority of the New Testament is incontestable, each trained in New Testament Greek, read the same passages and disagree over what they mean. Heatedly. Without possibility of agreement. And what is to be done? Where is the referee who will say that one has the better interpretation than the other? If the book is your only authority, then you pays your money and you takes your choice, because there is no referee. There's just what you think and what I think, and the Churches we each belong to.

The RC, EO, and Anglican Churches (among others) assert the place of Tradition to resolve this difficulty. The book is authoritative, but not everything you need to know is in it. There are things which have been said and done from the beginning which are not part of the NT text. You may not think them as important as what is actually in the text; you may not agree that the Church has the power to declare new doctrine from the treasury of faith that has not yet been expressed; but that's not all Tradition will do for you. Tradition provides a referee. You see, in order to understand the book, in order to agree upon what it means, we have to belong to a community who agrees to read it the same way. The argument from Tradition says that a Church which is descended in direct line from the Apostles is the same Church that they founded, and will be guided by God in reading it the same way the Apostles themselves would.

This sounds great, but there's a problem here, too. The various Churches which espouse Apostolic Succession do not formulate it exactly the same way, nor agree among themselves as to which Churches are in that succession. The RCC says the Pope is a super-Apostle and without him, there is no real Church. The Orthodox say that the Church consists of autonomous national Churches, but then can't agree to establish an autonomous national Church for America. And so on. All this is not to hurl accusations at the various Churches who espouse AS, just to point out that the theory has some problems in demonstration. But the great thing these Churches offer is the demonstration of unbroken succession from the apostles AND in reading the sacred text the same way.

So, at one pole you've got people who say, "You know you're getting the Real Gospel™ from us because the Apostles themselves wrote it all down right here." Over at the other pole, they're saying, "You know you're getting the Real Gospel™ from us because we are led by those who have been authorized by the Apostles themselves."

Both sides claim the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. One side says, "the Holy Spirit inspired the NT, so whoever follows it can't go wrong." The other side says, "the Holy Spirit inspires us so that we (as a body, not as individuals) can't go wrong."

Well, that's the conundrum. Both sides argue vociferously for their point of view, and both sides have problems (imho). I can't bring myself to adopt either view. It seems obvious to me that the Apostles are long gone, and that the New Testament is our only direct contact with their thought. At the same time, I think that the "we" of the Church precedes the "I" of the believer. We don't invent the faith by our cleverness, we receive it from others. A community to read the NT together seems an obvious necessity.

Meanwhile, starting your own Church to read the NT together seems an act of presumption. On what authority do you pick up a blank sheet of paper and re-found Christianity? Even if you're as sincere and holy as can be, what gives you the right to do it? But does that mean that all that has been accomplished by the various forms of Christianity that are not obedient to some Pope or Patriarch is somehow flawed -- not quite really Christian? That's a bit much to swallow, I think.

Well, more on this later.

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