Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Pelikan on Apostolic Succession

[A]n acknowledgment of Roman orthodoxy, fundamental though it was, was not an adequate exegesis of the promise of Christ, according to the Latin church. That promise laid down certain conditions that would guarantee the church against the gates of hell: the church, the entire church, had to be built on the rock.

That rock was Peter. To be built on the rock, the church must show that it stood in the succession of Peter and that it was an heir of the promises given to him. It was agreed on all sides, moreover, that this succession pertained to the church as an institution. Right believing and correct teaching could be achieved and maintained only within a proper structure: for the church to be apostolic in doctrine, it had to be apostolic in polity. From very early times an episcopal polity, presumed to stand in unbroken succession from the apostles, had been taken to be one of the criteria of apostolic continuity, in conjunction with the authoritative canon of Scripture and the creedal rule of faith. There was, of course, a pragmatic and even a political aspect to the administrative structure of the church, but questions of jurisdiction became (or were) questions of theology because Christ had built his church on Peter the rock and had vouchsafed his protection against the gates of hell only to that church which could legitimately claim this foundation of apostolic polity. [Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 2; p. 157f.]
Just a few observations here:
  • Pelikan suggests that the understanding of Peter as the rock on which the Church is built is quite ancient
  • The episcopacy dates to "very early times"
  • Episcopal continuity was reckoned a fundamental of the Church's claims
  • It was recognized that institutional connection with Peter was viewed as essential, it was to Peter as the rock that Christ had promised his protection against the gates of hell.
If some group or other claims to be "a" or "the" church of Christ, how do we measure the claim? Surely we do not take them merely at their word, else we'd have to welcome the LDS to Christendom. It seems essential to be tied to the Church throughout the ages. Apart from this, the claim to be a church of Christ stands on an assertion that might be defended from the Bible, but I do not see how it could be sustained. Even in the Bible the particular churches were connected, even if not to the formal and institutional degree that we enjoy today; how then shall we say that an entirely disconnected group merits description as a "church of Christ"?

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