|Imagine the depths of 2,000 years of Papal decrees!|
I must open with one more critique of the Roman view of apostolic succession, one I feel is subtle, yet persuasive: it seems characteristic of the Old Covenant, not the New. Under the Law, there was a distinct divide between those who ministered to God and those who watched from the outside; the priests and the congregation. The common folk were dependent on the priests to offer their sacrifices, declare something clean or unclean, diagnose their leprosies, and all the other really fun stuff. This is more than slightly reminiscent of the Roman system: only the priests (they even call them “priests”!) can turn the bread and the cup into the body and blood of Christ (the partaking of which is a key part of working one's way to heaven), accept confession, assign penance, and for many centuries, hold the average person's hand to help them read and "properly interpret" the Bible. Roman priests do this because of the authority delegated to them by the current Pope, who in turn received his title from the 263 men before him. This is exactly how the Hebrew priests acquired their position, through a chain of heredity under Aaron's direct descendant. So the covenantal pattern of Rome is Mosaic; but there are a whole slew of verses and passages that teach that believers under the New Covenant are individually and independently related to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit (Jer 31:33-34, 1Pet 2:9, Acts 2:17, 1 Cor 3:16, 6:19, Rom 6:12-13, 12:1-2, Rev 5:10, 7:15... whew! what a slew!). These texts either explicitly label generic Christians “priests“, or implicitly invite/command us to perform priestly activities. The Law was full of temporary, stopgap measures (like the sacrifices, Heb 10:4, or the ceremonies, Col 2:21-23), and physical descent is one of them (Rom 4:12, Heb 7:3, 12).
So we have been introduced to apostolic succession via the errors of the Roman perspective; I pray that no one has concluded in despair the doctrine is best discarded entirely. I now hope to make clear why it is necessary to see and operate from a connection with the apostles. As with the O.T. Prophets, the apostles were official spokesmen from God, saying (in effect) “Thus saith the Lord!” They were attested to both by wonders and signs, and the life-changing transmission of the Spirit with the reception of the gospel. Even more compellingly, the message of our salvation in Christ has come to those who live after the first century only through the apostles: they recorded God's authoritative revelation to them in the N.T., and that revelation has ceased (Heb 1:2). And while each of us could (to the limits of recorded history) trace how the gospel came to us personally, we are not chained to the interpretations or idiosyncrasies of the many men and women who were faithful to transmit the gospel down through the centuries. Instead, I propose this concept of apostolic succession:
Seems a lot simpler, huh? This graphic represents the heart of the Reformation principle of private interpretation: that God's truth (revealed authoritatively in Scripture) is intended for every believer, and is not to be mediated by any present human figure or institution. The joy of this direct transmission is that every person sits at the feet of Paul, Peter, and above all, Jesus to learn (with the help of the Spirit) exactly what God has said to man. We are "all taught of God" (John 6:45) and "guided into all truth" (John 16:13) personally! This is one of the key blessings (and responsibilities!) of the New Covenant... a free, open, intimate experience with God via His Word for all of His children. We'll cover one more variation of this for the local church next time.