Successors of the apostles

From the second century onwards there is clear evidence as to a rule exercised by the Church’s bishops. In principle we see it in Timothy, Titus and Paul. Everywhere the bishop holds an authority by divine appointment, like the Apostles who received theirs directly from Christ. The bishop held his episcopate by means of his spiritual descent from the Apostles, and through them from our Lord himself. The most ancient title given to a bishop is that of apostle, which, in a large and secondary sense, is thought by many to have been the original name for bishops (Joseph Bingham, Antiquities of the Christian Church, Vol I, 2), Theodoret says, ‘The same persons were anciently called promiscuously both bishops and presbyters, whilst those who are now called bishops were called apostles. But, shortly after, the name of apostles was appropriated to such only as were apostles indeed; and then the name bishop was given to those who before were called apostles. Thus, he says, Epaphroditus was the apostle of the Philippians, and Titus the apostle of the Cretians, and Timothy the apostle of the Asiatics’ (Theodoret, Com. in 1 Tim. iii.1; Com. in Phil. i. 1.; Phil. ii, 25). Ambrose asserts that all bishops were called apostles at first (Com. Eph. iv; Gal. i. 1).

Afterwards bishops thought it more appropriate to be styled the apostles’ successors, as Cyprian (Ep. 69 al. 66 Ad Floreat; Ep. 42. al. 45 Ad Cornelius ), and Firmilian (Ep. 55. ap. Cypr.), and the bishops in the Council of Carthage call themselves. Jerome speaks of them in the same way. ‘Wheresoever a bishop is, whether at Rome, or Eugubium at Constantinople, or at Rhegium; at Alexandria, or at Tanis; they are all of equal merit, their priesthood is the same; they are all successors to the apostles. St Augustine and St Jerome describe the bishops as sons of the apostles, princes and fathers in the church. ‘… every bishop’s see was dignified with the title of sedes apostolica, an apostolical see, which in those days was no peculiar of the bishop of Rome, but given to all bishops in general, as deriving their original authority and counting their succession from the apostles. The Catholic Church, says St. Augustine is propagated and diffused over all the world by the apostolical sees, and the succession of bishops in them’ (Bingham).

The Apostolic Tradition of Hyppolytus

The earliest evidence is the treatise on The Apostolic Tradition of St Hippolytus of Rome, c AD 215. His quarrel is with the Church’s current official innovations in discipline and practice. To correct this he appeals to older custom. This work greatly influenced Syria and Egypt, and was known as The Egyptian Church Order. It contains two closely connected works, Concerning Ordinations and On Charismata. In the latter, Hippolytus’ concern is not to depreciate those with special spiritual gifts. He cautions them against boasting a superiority over those who have the ordinary spiritual gifts of the Christian and against those who have the special gifts of the ministry. So his purpose is polemical and his context is the Church’s struggle with Montanism. (W. Frere, ‘Early Forms of Ordination’ in The Early History of the Church and Ministry, Macmillan and Co, London 1918).

New revelations

Montanism gave to the prophet the power to absolve and allowed women to celebrate the Eucharist (Firmilian apud Cypr. Ep. LXXV 10). Epiphanius (Haer. XLIX 2) speaks of female priests and bishops among the Quintilianists. This created a new hierarchy with new claims, a prophetic succession over against the episcopal succession, and derived from what was seen as a new revelation to bring new gifts lacking in the Church’s ministry that depreciated the apostolic hierarchy and its apostolic tradition. Are there contemporary parallels? Today’s new revelation from the sociological, political and psychological gnosis of the present, wants to re-evaluate that same apostolic tradition with ‘gifts’ that only gender can provide. Feminism will make good the deficiency of gifts it sees necessary to the fullness of apostolic order, creating as it has in Anglicanism a new revelation, a new hierarchy, a new succession, and rejecting the Catholic hierarchy and its apostolic tradition.

In principle this was the problem dealt with in Concerning Spiritual Gifts. The claim to a new revelation, to a superior kind of ministry emanating from prophets and wonder-workers, is treated as novelty by this Catholic author and apologist for apostolic order. He argues that the whole apostolic tradition negates such novel claims.

He argues that the whole apostolical tradition is against these novel claims. Those who know the tradition need reassurance in face of novel errors; others unaware of what the tradition involves he instructs. Those with right belief will also, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, have the right tradition, and know how it is to be carried on by the bishops. This Ministry is an ordinance, which is handed on, as well as a ministry of divine grace with no false antithesis between a charismatic and a traditional Ministry: spiritual gift and apostolic transmission are united in it. (Ibid, Frere, pp273–74)

Arthur Middleton is a Tutor at St Chad’s College, a writer and a retreat conductor.