01 September 2012

Sola scriptura vs. apostolic succession, Church vs. Bible

Over on HuffPo (full disclosure: I don't normally read HuffPo, but for this article I made an exception) there is an interesting article by Marcus Borg, a leading Biblical scholar and well-known liberal serving as canon theologian of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. I'm not normally a fan of Canon Borg, but this article is indeed thought-provoking and highlights why a belief in the Bible being the "inerrant Word of God" is at best a mirage and at worst downright heretical.

Historically, it's clear that the Bible was very much a work in progress for centuries. The same is true whether we look at the Old Testament or the New, and the familiar order of the books of the NT is actually historically misleading. The Epistles came first, the Gospels later, and the Bible wasn't even canonized until the fourth century. Thus rather than the Church being a creation of the Bible, it's the other way around, with the Epistles clearly documenting the evolution of the early Church. By the time the Bible as we know it existed, the Church's foundation had been outlined for many generations.

So to insist on sola scriptura – Scripture alone – being the basis of the Church literally puts the cart before the horse. The Bible is a creation of the Holy Church, acting in the name of Christ Who founded it. The Bible is a document of the Holy Church, recording her early history, and therefore can't define it any more than an autobiography defines its subject's life and destiny.

Meanwhile, a friend is a Lutheran pastor who is also a fan of high church liturgy and especially of Anglicans. My friend was raised in and educated by the Lutheran church in northern Germany, which is low church to a fault. To my surprise, given her fascination with and enthusiasm for High Anglicanism, she boldly claimed that the Apostolic Succession and historic episcopate – something which is firmly anchored in Anglicanism and which separates it from nearly all Protestants – is a fiction.

The Apostolic Succession and historic episcopate simply says that bishops have been in an unbroken line of succession ever since the days of the Apostles. Jesus laid His hands on the Apostles, who laid their hands on their successors the early bishops, and so on down the line to today's Catholic, Old Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican bishops. Luther initially tried to get bishops in the Succession to join his reform movement, but failed – and thereupon the early Lutherans rejected the Succession as not being necessary for the good order and efficacy of the sacraments of the Church, referring instead to the Word of God (i.e. the Bible). In other words, the historic episcopate, for Lutherans, is at best "nice to have" and at worst a fiction used and abused by Rome to deny Lutheran Christianity any legitimacy.

But hold on. Once again we have to ask, which came first, the Church or the Bible? If the Church came first, and through her councils defined the priesthood and episcopate while also defining the Bible, then how can one throw away the Church's early doctrine while also insisting on the Bible the Church created?

To me the conclusion is clear: You either have to accept the historical Church and the Bible, or neither. If you accept the historical Church, you have to accept her decisions made in council as binding, and that includes the basic threefold order of bishops, priests and deacons. We clearly see that order documented and defined by the Church Fathers long before the Bible was canonized. In particular the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome is quite clear on the workings of this threefold order, and it was written in 215 AD, long before we find the first complete list of 27 books of the New Testament in a letter by St. Athanasius from 367 AD, and far longer than before that list was ever formally defined as being the canon of the New Testament.

So while it is impossible to historically document the Apostolic Succession and historic episcopate – who ordained whom as bishop and when – that does not mean it does not exist. There are many things in history which we can infer from the available documentation, and it is clear that quite early on, the Church placed great store in the concept of the personal succession of bishops from Peter and ultimately from Jesus Himself.

We see this all over the place in the writings of the Church Fathers in the first four centuries of the Church, not least Hippolytus' Tradition, so it makes no sense to doubt that that principle was carried forward even if no detailed lists of succession were maintained. In particular, the practice of always having at least three bishops participate in the consecration of a new bishop ensured that at least one of those bishops would pass on a valid line of succession.

Of course, I don't want to give the impression that the Succession is of paramount importance to what makes a church or denomination legitimate. In fact it isn't – the true belief in God is what matters, and the Succession is only a tool to try and ensure the correctness of that belief. Just because someone is "validly" ordained doesn't mean that they are truly doing the work of God, and just because a Lutheran or other pastor isn't "validly" ordained doesn't mean their sacraments or spiritual life is meaningless. (For the record, I do in fact receive Communion from Lutheran pastors on occasion.) But if we're talking about the proper order of the Church and how it should be defined, then I think we have to accept the entirety of its history when acting in consensus – and that clearly includes the historic episcopate as viewed by the early Church.