Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Passing Things Down

Apostolic succession is a very old Christian idea. It is also a very dangerous one. For it justifies people and things just because they can claim historical continuity. In the later Middle Ages it allowed those in charge to perpetrate all matter of corruption, based on a position of authority passed down from earlier times. And they were immune to correction, for they were above even being required to keep their oaths.

But Protestants have renounced this principle. Or have we? While we do not generally profess it, there is often an unspoken assumption that our beliefs and practices have some sort of authority just because they have been passed down to us. Now I am not saying no one can ever make use of older practices. But they should be maintained because they are valuable, not simply because they are traditional. There is a large amount of wisdom that has come down to us from Christians of previous ages. But there are also serious mistakes. Which are which may be debated. But this is impossible to discern when mere succession is seen as a justification for them. Then there are those who reject the traditional forms and produce their own nontraditional traditions, often held as firmly as the traditional ones. While cutting themselves off from whatever is valuable in the traditional ones. We must recognize that mere historical continuity means nothing, and things should be weighed by the teachings of Scripture and their own merits. Then we could avoid throwing out valuable practices, without getting caught up in fights over the date of Easter or whether people should cross themselves with two or three fingers.

We need to realize that this idea is not found in Scripture. It does not teach an authority based on who you are ordained by. In fact, the word "ordination" in this context in the New Testament is a dubious translation. Nor is there any special inherited authority required to administer the ordinances  or do the work of the church. The declaration in Matthew 16:13-20 was based on Peter's profession of faith, not who he was ordained by. Those who have the faith of Peter have the authority of Peter. In Hebrews 5:1-10 it speaks of the legitimacy of Christ's high priesthood, and nowhere is it traced back to who He was ordained by, as we are never even told that He was ordained. The Pharisees and Sadducees had the claim of historical continuity, and Christ rejected them (Matthew 23:1-12). The idea that someone has unquestioned authority on the basis of historical continuity is foreign to Scripture. And trusting we have the only right tradition can lead to taking God for granted. We need to look for something more basic than  that to assure ourselves we are God's people.     

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