Publications: Articles - Church History
How the integrity and the identity of the Church is maintained throughout history
In His earthly ministry Jesus formed a special group of twelve disciples with the purpose of sharing in His ministry. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostles assumed the responsibility for the community. Now, if the Church was to continue the work of Christ until His return in glory, then this mission, that Christ had given to His apostles would have to continue since such ministry was essential for the very integrity and identity of the life of the Church. The early Church constantly emphasised the importance of the Church.s continuity with its apostolic origins. And so elders or leaders were appointed for the task of continuing and teaching the apostolic faith. In this paper we will analyse briefly this means employed by the early Church to assure the correct promulgation of the apostolic faith and its protection from any error.
Apostles and Bishops
It was the apostles who received the faith from Christ and handed it over to the bishops. And it was in this way that the integrity and identity of the Church could be maintained throughout history. Now, since it was claimed that the faith is handed down integrally through the bishop, scholars have sought to compare and contrast the apostolate to the episcopate. In their quest to analyse and codify the relationship between Apostles and bishops, theologians (both Western and Eastern expressed certain critical distinctions between the latter and the former. Firstly, it was pointed out that the apostles had no geographical limits (ie their ministry extended to all the known world), whereas the bishops are appointed for a local church with binding canons. Secondly, it was posited that the apostles experienced Christ in an immediate way while the bishops are only indirectly related to Him. Lastly, these theologians believed that whereas the apostles were personally infallible, they bishops are not. However, careful study reveals that, with the exception of the second, these distinctions are erroneous.
Even though the bishop are 'restricted' in a local Church one must not forget the collegial character of the world-wide episcopate, the concors numerositas ('harmonious multiplicity') of bishops meeting in council and reaching together a 'common mind' under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For St Cyprian the primary role of the individual bishop is to act as a link between the local Church and the Church Universal. Collectively the bishops speak with an authority which they did not possess individually.
Together the members of the episcopate become something more than they are as scattered individuals, and this .something more. is the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit is in their midst. "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them".
St Cyprian epigrammatically writes:
"The episcopate is a single whole, in which [each bishop] enjoys full possession".
This above quote implies that each individual bishop shares the plenitude of the episcopal grace and not a part of it, however not in solitude but in communion with all other bishops. In other words, each bishop shares in the one episcopate, not as having only a small fraction of the whole but as having an expression of the whole. This solidarity of the episcopate is manifested through the holding of a council and reaching a 'common mind' whereby the integrity of the identity of the Church is preserved.
Apostolic Faith and Apostolic Succession
As it was noted earlier, the early Church believed that the apostolic doctrine was faithfully preserved in the churches through the succession of bishops. St Irenaeus claimed that the bishop traces his descent in unbroken succession through his predecessors in the same see, back to the apostles and so to Jesus Christ. Secondly, by virtue of this unbroken succession he is endowed with a special charisma whereby he acts as the authoritative teacher of the apostolic faith in his local church - as the guarantor and witness to the faith held by all. For St Irenaeus, there is a relationship between the external historical laying on of hands and the inner succession in the content of faith. Outward continuity in apostolic succession serves as the sign of inward continuity in apostolic faith. The relationship between the continuity of apostolic faith and external continuity by the laying in of hands is summed up by Androutsos:
Both of these are internally related and presuppose one another, and as the apostolic teaching is the basis of apostolic succession, so also the apostolic succession constitutes the external sign that a certain Church is genuine and in agreement with the ancient Church both in teaching and in administration.
At this point the following questions arise as to whether the concept of apostolic succession is exhausted in the correct apostolic teaching alone. Secondly, whether a deviation from the apostolic teaching deprives a canonically ordained person of the gift of the Spirit entirely? In answer to the former question Archbishop Stylianos correctly points out that apostolic teaching constitutes the basis of apostolic succession. However, the notion of apostolic succession embraces both the correct confession of faith and the mystical gift of the Holy Spirit, by the laying on of hands which acts as a seal for that Grace. This is crucial since it clearly distinguishes between the sacramental and royal Priesthood. The second problematic posed points to the indelible character (character indelibilis) of the Sacrament of Ordination.
To quote Archbishop Stylianos once again;
through the falling away from the apostolic teaching the gift of the Priesthood is obscured in the ordained person and becomes inactive; it is not lost for ever however, because it is indispensable for the historical continuity of the Church on earth.
Consequently, there are two inter-related elements which are implied in the concept of apostolic succession; the apostolic teaching and phronema, and the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed by the laying on of the hands. Indeed the notion of apostolic succession extends to the remaining clerical orders (the presbyters and deacons) and all the baptised faithful. On the day of Pentecost the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on all the believers present and not just the twelve apostles.
All the faithful share to a certain degree to the three-fold ministry of Christ as King, Prophet and Priest. To use a mathematical analogy: apostolic succession is a vertical line in that the ordained Priesthood, especially the bishop is the link between the apostles and the local church. Apostolic succession is also a horizontal line in that all the faithful participate in the three fold ministry of Christ according to the variety of gifts of the Holy Spirit. When not seen in this light, apostolic succession is reduced to a personal gift that any two or three bishops can bestow on another person and not as a ministry in the Church. It is important to remember that the consecration of a bishop is followed by the Divine Liturgy which is offered by the newly ordained bishop. This seemingly 'minor liturgical' detail testifies to the fact that the consecration finds its fulfilment, when for the first time that bishop - the one who presides in the Eucharistic assembly - offers to God the eucharist of the whole church. From the above we can see that it is through the notion of apostolic succession that the apostolic faith is transmitted from generation to generation so that the faithful can feel assured that the faith received is whole and identical with the faith once handed down by Christ Himself.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. cf. P. Trembelas, Dogmatics, vol. 2, p.390
2.This problem was raised in the pioneering study of Archbishop Stylianos, The Infallibility of the Church, pp. 61ff.
3. A term coined by St Cyprian of Carthage, (Letter LV. 24).
4. A precedent for such synods can indeed be found in the New Testament, in the Council at Jerusalem described in Acts 15. Gathered together the apostles declare "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us". (Acts 15.28).
5. Matthew 18:20.
6. On the Unity of the Catholic Church, 5. Taken from bishop Kallistos Ware, "Patterns of Episcopy in the Early Church and Today; an Orthodox view in Bishops but what Kind?", p.17
7. Cf. Androutsos, Dogmatics, p.281.
8. Cf. Archbishop Stylianos Charkianakis, opt. cit., p. 64
13. cf. Acts 2
14. Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition, 1,4.