Canon and Apostolic Succession

I’ve been thinking for some time about the authority of the Bible, which was assumed in my previous post about Mennonite theological trumps. In particular, I’ve been thinking of the Roman Catholic critique of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, on the grounds that the Christian scriptures are a product of the church. The church was responsible for producing the constituent documents of the New Testament, and was also responsible for determining the canon. Moreover, the canon was formed hundreds of years after the church’s beginnings, which demonstrates that the church is not dependent on the canon for its existence. How, then, can scripture be held up as the church’s single most authoritative teaching when it was not available for the earliest formative years of the church’s existence?

Protestants use the Bible, along with creeds and confessions, to determine who and what is inside or outside Christian orthodoxy. In the early church, this function was played to a significant degree by the phenomenon of apostolic succession. For instance, the First Epistle of Clement, from the late first or early second century, charged that the removal of church elders in Corinth who had committed no moral crime was improper, because those elders had been appointed by apostles. The understanding was that the true Christian faith was received. Therefore, if you can trace the passage of your received faith back to Jesus’ original apostles, you were assured that you had received the true faith. If you could not trace your faith to Jesus, it was clearly received from elsewhere, and was therefore not authentically Christian. The Catholic and Orthodox churches still hold to this sort of doctrine.

This essentially made orthodox Christianity dependent on an oral tradition, rather than a written one. Sure, there were Christian texts circulating, but they did not define the Christian community  in the way that, say, the Qu’ran defined Islam in the years immediately following the death of Mohammed. The problem with being dependent on an oral tradition is that these traditions do not remain reliable over time. For example, even by the second century, Christian leaders firmly situated within the apostolic tradition were making errors regarding the life of Jesus. For instance, Irenaeus believed Jesus lived to be around 50 years old. He may well have been sincere, but he was also mistaken. This particular error does not imperil the core message of the Christian Gospel. But it does demonstrate that factual error had crept into the apostolic tradition by roughly the halfway point between the foundation of the church and the establishment of the canon at Nicaea.

The brilliance of the canon, then, is to establish an acceptable record of the earliest form of the apostolic tradition. Rather than leaving the church reliant on the traditions of a clergy growing ever more chronologically distant from the roots of the faith, the canon offers a view of early Christian tradition against which later traditions can be brought to measure. Even if the canon is not an exhastive record of the original Christian tradition, it arguably contains the most essential elements. More usefully, it became possible to use the canon to discern whether a particular tradition was in keeping with the earliest tradition, or whether it was an accretion. If it turned out to be an accretion, it could then be thrown out.

As a doctrine of Scripture, I prefer this view to one that gives the Bible authority because it is “God-breathed” or contains “the very words of God” or other such things. Such a view turns the Bible into a talisman, a holy object descended from heaven, perfectly and fully formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. (Incidentally, such a view strongly resembles the Islamic understanding of the inspiration of the Qu’ran.) Rather, for the New Testament at least, its authority is derived from its historicity. If Jesus is really the Son of God who came to live, die, and be resurrected among us, thereby saving us from sin and death, then any record we have of him is vitally important and authoritative. And since we have none of his own writings, it is imperative that we take seriously the records of those who knew him, followed him, and learned from him.

And so, along with the Roman Catholics, I accept that the New Testament is a deeply human document, one that postdates the church and is not constitutive of it. However, because I accept its substantial veracity, I hold along with the Protestants that it stands above the church as a fixed guide and authority and prophetic witness. It is a standard against which we do well to judge ourselves against, and one to which we should not append even questionably contrary traditions lightly.


9 comments on “Canon and Apostolic Succession

  1. Jon Coutts says:

    well said.

    question: is belief in the providence of these documents by God a part of this account, even if not in the “talismanic” sense? In other words, can it be that this description you just gave IS HOW God “breathes” the Scriptures?

  2. Nick says:

    You might be interested in this recent Sola Scriptura debate:

    • Theophilus says:

      Nick, thanks for commenting. Your Protestant opponent appears to me to hold a talismanic view of Christian scripture, which I specifically disagree with in the original post. I’d be interested to hear what you think of the position outlined in this post.

      • Nick says:


        My post was meant to address the “flaw” I saw in your original post, which was assuming Sola Scriptura was true at the outset rather than something derived from Scripture itself.

        Your other post said one of the central pillars of your Mennoite approach to Scripture is “giving precedence to plain readings of the Bible”…but the question is: do any “plain readings” of Scripture instruct the Christian to engage in Sola Scriptura? (Side note, I believe most every Protestant believes they are “giving precedence to plain readings” of Scripture – but the problem is folks can’t agree on what is “plain” or “essential”, and as you noted, things get especially tricky when using this logic to defend the Trinity and Christology. And for kicks, Catholics would jump in and ask what’s not “plain” about “Baptism now saves you” in 1 Pt 3:21 and “This is my body” and good old John 6:53-55, etc.)

        I wrote a post especially concerning the root of this problem a week ago. The short of it is that in order to reject and/or attack Oral Tradition, you have to demonstrate Scripture is “Formally Sufficient”.

        You said: “The problem with being dependent on an oral tradition is that these traditions do not remain reliable over time.”

        A Catholic would respond by distinguishing between “Big-T Traditions” and “Little-t traditions” – the former of which is the depostit of faith and thus never lost or corrupted anymore than the Scriptures were lost or corrupted (despite not having the original manuscripts) – since all is Providentially Guided by the Holy Spirit.

        The “example” of Jesus being “around 50” is not really a good example since it’s unclear what St Irenaeus was getting at. His point seems to be that Jesus had the equivalent authority of a 50 year old Pharisee, despite being only 33, and notes how there were age classes of authority at the time with 30 years being in the category of a child/young-adult.

        As for the canon itself, ultimately your left looking outside the Bible (there certainly isn’t any “plain” evidence for the complete canon in the Bible). So if Tradition is untrustworthy, you have no solid grounds to accept the Canon.

        I don’t see must distinction from the talisman view and your own – both are essentially saying the writings are historical and inspired, thus authoritative in a real sense (as your concluding remarks show).

      • Theophilus says:

        I don’t think you really grasp the argument here. I’m not arguing a strict Sola Scriptura doctrine. It’s more of a strong Prima Scriptura argument, not dismissing tradition in the manner of the talismanic Protestant view but thoroughly subjugating it to the Scriptures on the grounds that the Scriptures are the earliest and most authoritative tradition. There is no “Scripture versus tradition” dichotomy in this argument. Rather, it establishes a hierarchy among traditions in which Scripture occupies the highest place.

        Both the talismanic-Protestant and your Catholic position ultimately do not respect the historical nature of Scripture. The talismanic Protestants deny the historicity of the Bible, while the Catholic position does not recognize the extent of the authoritative power of the historical accounts of those who knew Jesus of Nazareth most closely.

        You’re absolutely right that the Mennonite principles are not ideally suited for forming doctrines of the Trinity, or Christology, or other such things. I’d be happy to discuss those things with you on the Two Mennonite Theological Trumps page.

  3. Nick says:


    I might be misunderstanding you. I guess I don’t see how you can have a “strong Prima Scriptura” without conceding at least some Traditions some equal authority – and the only alternative is Sola Scriptura (which subordinates all Traditions, yet you don’t call this by “sola Scriptura”).

    You obviously see the historical difficulties with affirming a full fledged Sola Scriptura…but at the end of the day I’m not sure how to understand your position. This is especially difficult if you claim Tradition has any role whatsover yet take the Mennonite view which is as radically Sola Scriptura as can possibly be (following in the footstepts of the anabaptists who gave little thought to history or tradition). If anything is talismanic-Protestant, it’s the Mennonite/Baptist branches, with the Lutheran-Reformed holding to tradition-subordinated-by-Scripture.

    You said: “the Catholic position does not recognize the extent of the authoritative power of the historical accounts of those who knew Jesus of Nazareth most closely.”

    I’m not even sure what this means. If you read Providentissimus Deus by Pope Leo XIII, he plainly says for Catholics there is no greater source of information on Jesus both theologically and historically than the Bible. You can’t have a higher view of Scripture than that. And to speak of “those who knew Jesus most closely” needs qualification, for various NT (even Gospel) writers didn’t necessarily know Jesus personally, while folks like St Polycarp learned at the feet of St John (who was one of the closest people to Jesus) – and not to mention most of the Apostles never wrote anything down.

    I guess I’m trying to see how you’re position “works” at the end of the day – especially if you’re of the type that posits a radical apostasy such that the Gospel was lost until the Reformation.

    • Theophilus says:

      You’re reading the terms Prima Scriptura and Sola Scriptura rather unlike I do. As I see it, if other traditions are at least equal to Scripture, you don’t actually have Prima Scriptura – “scripture first.” So judging by your comments, you don’t actually believe Prima Scriptura, because you acknowledge other traditions as being of equal authority. I also see Sola Scriptura – “only scripture” – much more strictly than you do. I would use that term to describe groups that profess to give no authority to church traditions outside the Bible. (As I’m sure you will agree, this viewpoint doesn’t actually work, since Scripture is itself tradition.)

      As far as the Mennonites go, I agree that we have not partaken liberally of the many traditions of the church. We’ve adopted the Trinitarian and Christological beliefs of our pre-Reformation forbears, for instance, but have not made major contributions to developing these traditions. But Mennonites also believe that many church traditions are simply not as important as they have sometimes been made out to be, and that is why we have discarded many of them. And I also agree that the Free Church tradition (Mennonites, Baptists, etc.) has historically held most closely a talismanic view of Scripture. This post is then a critique of the beliefs of many of my fellow Mennonites.

      Rest assured that I am not questioning that Catholics give the Bible first place when it comes to knowing things about Jesus. Rather, I am critiquing that certain extrapolations and developments of the Biblical witness to Jesus seem to be held as being of at least equal authority to Jesus himself.

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