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Apostolic Succession

The theory of a continuing line of descent from the apostles to the present-day church transmitted through episcopal consecration. The death of the apostles left a problem of continuity for future generations because they had been the representatives of the ascended Christ as witnesses and interpreters of the saving events. At first there were claims to a succession of doctrine. Where the Gnostics* claimed a secret tradition traceable to the apostles, catholic Christians asserted that the succession of bishop to bishop in a see would mean that the teaching originally given by the apostles was faithfully preserved. The idea which gained greater currency seems to be first found in the West in the third century among Christians with legal minds, such as Tertullian and Cyprian. This was that the apostles had by consecration appointed bishops as their sucessors and that they in turn had consecrated other bishops. In this way the apostolate was kept alive in the episcopate, and this became a guarantee of truth and grace. In modern times this view has had particular attraction for “Catholic” Christians who did not acknowledge the see of Rome, because it seemed to ensure their “catholicity.” It was held particularly strongly among a number of Anglicans from the time of Newman and has strongly influenced the practice of the Anglican Communion in relations with other churches. Its last major defense was in The Apostolic Ministry (ed. K.E. Kirk, 1946). Since then it has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of most scholars that the argument derived from the concept of shaliah is invalid because the shaliah could not pass on his commission, and that the NT evidence is strongly against there being monepiscopal succession throughout the Church.

K.M. Carey (ed.), The Historic Episcopate (1954); E.M.B. Green, Called to Serve (1964); A.T. Hanson, The Pioneer Ministry (1961); T.W. Manson, The Church's Ministry (1948).