Apostolic Succession and Apostasy
Aug 06, 2009 by Craig Blomberg | 2 Comments
What Happens When You Combine Protestant and Catholic Takes on the Second Century
A friend of mine has been having extensive conversations with Mormon missionaries. For a laywoman with no formal training in biblical studies, she is quite astute. She was able to respond well, she felt, to their various views and questions—at least until they raised the question of authority.
“You believe Christ gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, as in Matthew 16:16-19?” they had asked. “Yes,” she had replied. “You also believe that the Catholic Church in the second century began to drift away from the pure teaching of the gospel, so that eventually there was need for a Reformation, right?” “Yes, of course.” “But the Reformation didn’t restore the authority that had been given to Peter, because there is no one Protestant church, but hundreds. So no one received that authority until it was given to Joseph Smith.” At this point my friend was somewhat puzzled as to how to respond.
The simplest way I can explain in theological terms what Joseph Smith did, consciously or unconsciously is to try to meld together Roman Catholic views of church authority with Protestant views of Roman Catholicism! But it doesn’t work; you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
The LDS regularly speak of a great apostasy that began after the Twelve apostles had all died off, at about the turn from the first to the second century. Protestants typically don’t see the falling away occurring nearly as quickly or as extensively, but we do agree that already in the second century certain non-biblical teachings began to creep into the church, which began to grow, with others added in later centuries, so that by Luther’s day a Reformation was very much in order.
But we look in vain in the New Testament for any authority given to Peter or the first generation of apostles that was intended to be passed on, or that in fact was ever described as being passed on to subsequent generations or centuries. The authority conferred on Peter is left largely undefined in Matthew, save for the elaboration that what he bound on earth would be bound in heaven and what he loosed on earth would be loosed on heaven. A very similar promise is given to all the Twelve in Matthew 18:18-20.
When we turn to Acts and the epistles, we see Peter as the leader of the Twelve, at times, and all the Twelve as leaders in the church. Given their role in confirming or disconfirming that people really were Christians in the book of Acts, it is this evangelistic role that probably was in mind with Jesus’ metaphor about the keys opening and closing doors, as it were, to the kingdom.
It is true, moreover, that Peter insisted in Acts 1 that Judas be replaced, preserving the number of fledgling apostles as twelve, doubtless to correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel (cf. Matt. 19:28). But when the apostle James is martyred in Acts 12, not a word appears about any replacement, nor is there any extra-biblical tradition about such occurring. Nor is there any hint inside or outside the New Testament about any other disciple dying and being replaced by anyone, except for Peter himself, once he became the overseer (or bishop) of the church of Rome. Even here, however, the oldest Christian traditions just speak of his successors as subsequent bishops of Rome. It is not until the fourth century that one begins to see the emergence of anything like the subsequent papacy.
The proper response to the LDS claims on this topic is, therefore, that you can’t combine mutually exclusive Protestant and Catholic claims at this juncture. There are only two options. The first is that God was working through the church’s leadership in the early centuries after the apostolic age to create a more elaborate hierarchy with a greater authority than anything supportable from the New Testament alone or that such a hierarchy was part of the falling away, the apostasy, the deviation of the church from the simpler first-century gospel. If you want the kind of authority Joseph Smith was looking for and claimed to receive, you won’t find it in the New Testament, only in subsequent Catholicism. But then you can’t say the Catholic church was apostate at that juncture, since then you wouldn’t want to adopt their take on the keys to the kingdom that they developed.
The second, Protestant option, is that there is no God-given support for apostolic succession or a papacy (whether of the Catholic or Mormon kind), not in the New Testament, nor in any subsequent Christian tradition faithful to the New Testament. In this case, there is nothing to be restored that the Reformation didn’t restore. I opt for this approach.