Tuesday, June 03, 2008

on apostolic succession

Taught by the Apostles - Christian History:
"Succession of leadership was not a guarantee of truth, but a powerful witness to the truth that is the common inheritance of all who belong to the Great Church, all who carry on the teachings of the apostles—wherever they may be."


  1. Nick, Nice post. Fr. Behr's article is well-written. I like the quotation you chose: "all who carry on the teachings of the apostles." The phrase "carry on" seems to be another way of saying, hand on or hand over -- basically the meaning of the Latin word, traditio, or in Greek, paradidomi.

    Might it be better said that Irenaeus was pointing to the apolstolic succession as a witness to the truth, yes, but moreover a witness to that truth that was publically handed on or "traditioned" to the successors of the apostles?

    I think Irenaeus' point was that it was a public "handing on" and not some secret knowledge that was supposedly given by Christ or the apostles to these gnostic heretics.

    This is why St. Paul pointed to the traditions of the Lord which he handed on: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received" (1 Cor. 15:3). Such a handing-on is clearly not a handing on of dead facts, but of living faith grounded in the witness of the Apostles (?why Matthias had to be a witness to the resurrection?).

    As of late I've been more and more interested in the proposal that this public "traditioning" primarily happened / happens in the Mass / Divine Liturgy of the churches. Commentaries on the Gospels weren't given in the classroom, but in the liturgy.

    In an article entitled "Canon, Cult and Covenant: Towards a Liturgical Hermeneutic," in Canon Criticism and Theological Interpretation - Scripture and Hermeneutics Series VI;, ed., Craig Bartholomew (Zondervan, 2006), Dr. Hahn argues that the Liturgy is the sitz im laben for a great deal of the Scriptures: i.e. much of Scripture is either about liturgy (most of the Pentateuch) or written to be read in the liturgy (e.g. Book of Revelation). In Irenaeus' words, the liturgy is where "The Church...proclaims [these points of doctrine], and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed one mouth" because this is where the anamnesis / renewal of the Covenant takes place in a corporal / ecclesial way.

    Kind of long...sorry. Have a great weekend!

  2. Jeremy,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Fr Behr makes it clear in many of his other writings that this carrying on was traditio. And I think you're right that Irenaeus can point to this public traditio over the secretive line of teaching that Gnostics claimed as their own. However, I wanted to focus on the present meaning/purpose of apostolic succession. We do have a few trueblood Gnostics claiming a private knowledge of truth that was passed down through the ages in darkness. But I was more interested in how the rest of us should understand apostolic succession now. Though Fr Behr's interest is in the patristic age, I thought that the given quotation nicely broadens out the purpose for any age.

    However, I think Behr would focus the role of this handing down on providing the hypothesis and canon for Christian belief, as guiding rules for interpreting and identifying scripture.

    The idea that traditio of Christian faith is bound up with the traditions of worship absolutely fascinates me and seems entirely and powerfully appropriate. Hahn's discussion of worship is important here, though I tend to think that the Eastern Orthodox approach encompasses his line of thought better. Once one recognizes the fundamental nature of worship, both in bringing us into the presence as God as well as providing the communal context for passing down His truth, it's much harder to take it lightly. Some non-liturgical churches (I'd include my own tradition here) implicitly recognize this as well, I think. In my tradition, the communal memory of persecution and the only real theology we do is contained within the hymnography. Though this does de facto ignore much of the early church tradition (particularly the theological parts), it is a good reminder that theologians cannot afford to ignore worship.

    I'd be interested in taking some time to read the Bible focusing on ways that the text discusses individual elements of worship (eg I'm thinking of the intense sacramental nature of John), but that will probably be a project for later.