A few years ago, I wrote a five-part response—and recorded an accompanying podcast—to an article at The Calvinist International on the patristic critique of icons (or lack thereof, as it were).
In the original article, a Presbyterian pastor named Steven Wedgeworth shared five excerpts from the early Church supposedly demonstrating their disdain for iconography. The proofs were brief, and he offered little commentary in support. However, the claims he did make were sweeping, and so I dedicated not a few words in response.
A friend recently made me aware of a new post on “Reformed irenicism” at their site, and some of its own, sweeping claims.
While speaking of their perspective on the Church, Wedgeworth drops this rhetorical bombshell:
The Apostle Paul is the great falsifier of apostolic succession. He was not initially commissioned by Jesus Christ, and he did not “succeed” the original 12 apostles. He did not derive his authority from them, and he is emphatic about this point. Galatians 1:12 and 2:6 state exactly this, and when Paul has to defend his apostolicity throughout the 2nd Epistle to the Corinthians, starting in chapter 6, he makes no appeal to his credentials or office-bearing as such but instead points to the charismatic proof of his suffering and ministerial fruit.
This is not in any way cited out of context, nor is there any additional material on this specific point either in support or for further explanation.
So again, considering the grand claims made—and that it touches on a central doctrine for the Orthodox Church—I thought I’d put together some thoughts in response.
Calling the Apostle Paul
Starting out, this piece claims that the apostle Paul is the “great falsifier” of apostolic succession. There are only a few statements offered to substantiate this claim.
First, he claims that Paul “was not initially commissioned by Jesus Christ.” But when we take a look at the Acts of the Apostles (9:3–6), this falls flat on its face:
Now as [Paul] journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
To recap, we read here that Paul was directly commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ. There is little room for ambiguity, as Paul asks for clarity: “Who are you?” And from this uncreated Light, Paul hears “I am Jesus.” Our Lord then commissions Paul to enter Damascus and meet with the other apostles already there.
Paul’s experience of the Light of God led to a temporary blindness, followed by three days of strict fasting (Acts 9:8–9). The apostle Ananias (one of the Seventy) was already at Damascus, an early bishop there. The Lord appears to him in a vision, telling him to find this man from Tarsus named Saul (9:10–12), and to lay hands upon him so that he might be healed. He was also to baptize Paul (9:17–19), so that he could “suffer for the sake of [Christ’s] name” and bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel (9:15–16):
So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized, and took food and was strengthened. (Acts 9:17–19)
After his baptism, the apostle Paul stayed with the other disciples at Damascus, presumably studying with them and gaining strength for his journey (9:19). He was later ordained at Antioch, along with Barnabas, and sent on his primary mission as an apostle (Acts 13:1–3).
Paul was not only commissioned by Christ himself (that fact that it occurred after his ascension is of no concern), but was then sent to the other apostles for proper conversion, ordination, and sending—since to be an “apostle” is to be one that is sent by Christ and his Church.
When it is claimed that Paul’s “authority” was not granted in succession from the apostles, this is both false and nonsensical. Since Paul was directly made an apostle by the Lord—just as with the initial twelve—it makes no sense to use his example as either a proof or discredit of apostolic succession. Paul was made an apostle by Christ and the apostolic Church, and so of course he was not a result of apostolic succession (something pertinent to those after the initial apostles), but rather the immediate calling of God. To be clear on this point, if Paul is the great “falsifier” of apostolic succession, then Matthias is the great “verifier” (Acts 1:24–26).
On the point of Paul’s authority and the rest of the apostles, this is part of a larger discussion related to his dispute with the Judaizers in his letter to Galatia.
Paul’s Dispute with the Judaizers
Wedgeworth claims that Paul’s denial of apostolic succession is seen most explicitly in Galatians 1:12 and 2:6. Let’s take a closer look at these texts and see if he has a point.
Paul writes at length to explain how his defense of the Gospel is not for the sake of his own popularity, but is rather for the sake of upholding the truth:
Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.
For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.1
Here Paul describes the basic, underlying foundation of what it means to be an apostle: An apostle preaches the revelation that he has received directly from Christ.
In the case of the twelve (minus Judas, plus Matthias), this revelation was given face-to-face; in the case of Paul, it was given by divine revelation as Paul experienced the uncreated Light of God, hearing the voice of Christ himself (Acts 9:3–6). Beyond the twelve, the apostolic revelation was first given to some seventy apostles (Luke 10), and then down through the decades and centuries as the Gospel spread throughout the world. The seventy were sent out by Christ himself to lay the foundations of the Church—a fact seemingly denied in the article.2
Later in the second chapter of Galatians, Paul continues this train of thought, directing it more specifically towards the claims of the Judaizers and other false apostles of his day. Wedgeworth focuses on verse six, and it is here the apostle makes reference to those “reputed to be something.” But is the apostle denying apostolic succession in this letter, as Wedgeworth claims?
Who are these men “of repute?” Since the apostle repeats this phrase throughout the letter, it may be the case that he is quoting his detractors, the false apostles and Judaizers. As Fr. Lawrence Farley notes, he then turns their assertion—that they had the support of the apostles—on its face:
[The Judaizers] seem to have constantly referred with great deference to the Twelve as those of repute, thus inadvertently betraying their over-concern with worldly popularity. Paul here takes up their words and says those of repute, your self-styled champions and gurus, agreed with me!3
Bernard Orchard agrees that the other apostles:
… saw nothing defective or incorrect in [Paul’s] teaching, but on the contrary heartily recognized his mission as being directly from God.4
Additionally, Orchard remarks:
St Paul is depreciating not the Twelve themselves, but the extravagant and exclusive claims set up for them by the Judaizers, viz. the fact that the Twelve knew Jesus in the flesh before his Resurrection did not give them any special advantage over him, for God does not judge according to this. Both he and they are Apostles in the fullest sense and God does not regard the difference between him and them in the circumstances of their call. While admitting fully their Apostolic Authority his own is not dependent on their approbation.5
With a reference to the Greek of Deuteronomy 10:17, Paul reaffirms to his readers that God “does not marvel at a face” (ὅστις οὐ θαυμάζει πρόσωπον)—i.e. God shows no favoritism; is “no respecter of persons.” In other words, “what matters ultimately is not external prestige but truth.”6
St. John Chrysostom adds to this perspective, speaking on behalf of the apostle:
I accuse not, nor traduce those holy men [the apostles]; they know what it is they have done; to God must they render their account. What I am desirous to prove is, that they neither reversed nor corrected my procedure, nor added to it as in their opinion defective, but gave it their approbation and assent; and to this Titus and Barnabas bear witness.7
Martin Luther sides with Jerome (in lieu of Augustine), seeing the men “of repute” as false apostles who had fallen away from the Gospel—and yet themselves had once walked with Christ:
[Jerome] refers the words to the worthiness of the apostles and thinks that they were spoken against the false apostles, who boasted of the honor the apostles had because they had kept company with Christ and had seen, heard, and learned everything in Christ’s own presence.8
Regardless, Luther notes a critical point:
He says that all this with which they are puffed up has nothing whatever to do with the matter. For a thing is not true or good because it is performed by someone who is great, saintly, or a person of some importance; it is true and good because it comes from God alone. For what did it profit the traitor Judas that he kept company with Christ and had all things in common with the apostles? … If God disregarded the apostolic person in the case of Judas, certainly He did not regard it in the case of the others either.9
From another angle, MacEvilly sees this as Paul’s attempt to justify all of the apostles in their proclamation of divine revelation, despite their various backgrounds and former ways of life (whether as fisherman or persecutors of the Church).10
Cornelius à Lapide agrees.11
And with Haimo of Auxerre:
God shows no favoritism. After all, Paul had been a persecutor of Christians and Peter denied that he was Christ’s disciple, while John and James, having left Christ at the time of the Passion, fled with the other apostles.12
Finally, looking at the broader context of the earliest centuries of the Church, the Didache exhorts:
Thou shalt judge righteously, thou shalt not respect persons in reproving for transgressions.13
And St. Athanasius the Great, in a personal letter to Jovian, laments the Arian schism with reference to Galatians 2:
For a certain Arius and those with him attempted to corrupt [true and pious faith], and to introduce impiety in its place, affirming that the Son of God was from nought, and a creature, and a thing made and changeable. But with these words they deceived many, so that even ‘they that seemed to be something were carried away,’ with their blasphemy.14
To summarize, Paul seems to be doing two different things in this section of his letter (which may appear—at face value—to be self-defeating):
- Demonstrating the approval his Gospel had with the twelve apostles, and specifically with those at Jerusalem (a first-century center of the early Church).
- Refuting the idea that the Gospel itself is dependent on the reputation of those sharing it with others (as the Judaizers were claiming they had approval from the apostles—they did not).
Appeals to the Spirit?
Finally, Wedgeworth claims that Paul’s apostolic authority was a result of “the charismatic proof of his suffering and ministerial fruit.” He “makes no appeal to his credentials or office-bearing.” Does this then mean that all claims to “apostolicity” can be either verified or thwarted by certain measurements of success?
In extreme, wealth-driven, charismatic circles, that is certainly the case. The appeal of a particular “bishop” or “apostle” in these so-called “churches” is their accumulation of wealth, stature, success, membership growth, private jets, and even claims to “suffering” or “persecution.” But this experiential approach is neither admirable nor safe. It does little in the way of weeding out the wolves in sheep’s clothing, nor can it reliably determine whether or not a person’s Gospel is true.
As already noted, Paul’s concern with both his background—and that of the other apostles—has more to do with exalting the power of God in the lives of those he calls, and little or nothing to do with apostolic succession. No, Paul is rather emphasizing the important point that something is true because it is true, not because of who claims it. So even if an apparent apostle, “or an angel from heaven,” should preach a Gospel contrary to that which is true, “let him be accursed.”15
Further, far from advocating a free-for-all approach to apostolic authority, Paul is careful to ensure future generations of Christian leadership—ordained in succession from the apostles—are selected with great discretion. For example, in his letter to Titus:
This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you, if any man is blameless, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of being profligate or insubordinate. For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled; he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it.16
And to Timothy, he warns:
Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you … In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without favor, doing nothing from partiality. Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins; keep yourself pure.17
… rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.18
From these letters, and other examples in the book of Acts where Paul carefully appoints, commissions, and sends other presbyters in succession from him as an apostle,19 we see a sincere and actual concern for apostolic succession.
It is not merely left to the best guesses or individual consciences of believers, but is rather something demonstrable, measurable, and explicable in the life of the apostolic Church—based not on fame or fortune, suffering or fruit. (In fact, the latter was often the justification given by false prophets and apostles, not true ones.)
There are, of course, many other examples in the Scriptures—especially in the holy Gospels—where apostolic succession and the true power or authority granted by Christ to both the apostles and those who succeed them (deacons, presbyters, and bishops) is shown.20 But suffice it to say, the claims made by The Calvinist International on this point are both overblown and false.
One can’t help but also note that in the Reformation and even Presbyterian history, there are several, notable examples of efforts being made (at length) to justify both the “divine right” and apostolic succession of the churches of Scotland and elsewhere after their break from either Rome or the Church of England (e.g. 1640’s Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici).
Apostolic succession is a true grace and charism of the Spirit by which the holy Church is both protected and perpetuated through history. The apostles were “continuations of Christ,” granted the power to both forgive and bind sins—and this is a responsibility and authority granted to their faithful successors.21 While not strictly an institution, the Church is still a mystery that can be seen, felt, and heard in the here-and-now. It is not reducible to aphorisms or ideas, but is rather an incarnate reality.
Everything in the New Testament witness points to this, and Christ himself appointed seventy such apostles to go out and lay the groundwork for this mystery we call the Church—a Church built by Christ himself on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.22
- Gal. 1:10–12 ↩
- “We also deny that the church is an institution which sits atop various congregations. It is not a ministerial corporation or hierarchical structure. ‘The Church’ simply is the meeting of the people with God through the vehicle of His Word. It is a place rather than a thing.” ↩
- Lawrence R. Farley, Words of Fire: The Early Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians and the Galatians, p. 107 ↩
- A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Gal. 2:6 ↩
- Ibid., Gal. 2:6 ↩
- Ibid., p. 107 ↩
- St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians 2 ↩
- Luther’s Works, vol. 27, p. 205 ↩
- Ibid., vol. 27, p. 205–6 ↩
- John MacEvilly, An Exposition of the Epistles of St. Paul and of the Catholic Epistles, vol. 1, p. 371 ↩
- e.g. “This is why he adds, God accepteth no man’s person, as appears from this choice of fishermen to be Apostles.” —Cornelius à Lapide, The Great Commentary of Cornelius à Lapide, vol. 8: 2 Corinthians and Galatians, p. 241 ↩
- Cited in Ian Christopher Levy, The Letter to the Galatians, p. 90 ↩
- Didache 4.3 ↩
- NPNF 2.4 ↩
- Gal. 1:8 ↩
- Titus 1:5–9 ↩
- 1 Tim. 4:14, 5:21–22 ↩
- 2 Tim. 1:6 ↩
- e.g. Acts 14:23, 20:17,28 ↩
- e.g. Matt. 10:40, 18:18, 28:19–20; Mark 16:15ff; Luke 10:16; John 20:21–23; Acts 2:42, 6:6, 14:23; James 5:14 ↩
- Emphasis here on the “faithful,” as apostolic succession is not “automatic,” based solely on tracing one’s ordination back through history to an apostle, as with the Anglicans or Rome ↩
- Matt. 16:8; Eph. 2:20 ↩