Sunday, August 17, 2008

Paul, Timothy, and the Nature of Post-Apostolic Authority

The first step in understanding the Catholic view of authority focuses on Peter and his unique leadership role among Jesus' disciples, as we saw in Friday's post. But what comes next?

In John 20:21-23 we read that Jesus said to his disciples, "Even as the Father sent me, so I send you." He then breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld." As in all four gospels, Jesus here sends the apostles forth with his commission and the authority to carry it out.

As time went on the possibility became ever more likely that the apostles would die before Christ returned in glory, meaning that permanent offices would need to be established in the churches. We see both in Acts and the epistles, therefore, the emergence of bishops and deacons who would serve the church after the apostles passed from the scene.

The principle of passing on the God-given deposit from inspired apostles to others is demonsrated is such passages as: "Now I praise you, brethren, that you... keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you" (I Cor. 11:2); "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle" (II Thess. 2:15); "Withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us" (II Thess. 3:6); "By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you" (II Tim. 1:14); "What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (II Tim. 2:2).

It was the bishops specifically who were ordained by the laying on of hands to the office of ministry of the Word: "Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands" (II Tim. 1:6); "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you" (I Tim. 4:14); "For a bishop, as God's steward, must be above reproach.... He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it" (Tit. 1:7, 9).

As I noted in Friday's post about the New Testament's evidence concerning the preeminence of Peter, so here, there is nothing particularly objectionable about any of this. The point at which the disagreement between the Catholic and Protestant does begin to take shape, however, is when we ask the question, "What was the nature of that authority that the first generation of post-apostolic bishops carried?"

We know that the apostles' authority was conveyed both in word and in writing, by preaching and epistle. We also know that non-apostolic elders were involved in the Jerusalem Council, the conclusions of which were binding upon all believers (Acts 15:2, 28). Must we then conclude that men like Timothy and his successors carried genuine apostolic authority? Or can we insist that with the death of the apostles and cessation of the revelatory gifts, all extra-biblical authority took on a different, derivative character?

And regardless of which view we take, can we prove it?