By Charles Johnston:
This is the last in a series of four posts about the Four Marks of The Church. The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and as this article will focus on, Apostolic. (Go to this Link for all four posts together)
The catechism talks about the Apostolic nature of the Church in paragraphs 857-866
- The Church is apostolic because she is founded on the apostles, in three ways:
- – she was and remains built on “the foundation of the Apostles,”the witnesses chosen and sent on mission by Christ himself;
- – with the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, the “good deposit,” the salutary words she has heard from the apostles;
- – she continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, “assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor”:
- “You are the eternal Shepherd, who never leaves his flock untended. Through the apostles, you watch over us and protect us always. You made them shepherds of the flock, to share in the work of your Son. . . .” (Except from the Roman missal, preface of the apostles)
What does Apostolic mean?
This might be the most misunderstood of the four previous marks. What does it mean to say that the Church is Apostolic? As we see from CCC 857, Apostolic is of the Apostles and is used in three senses by the Church.
- 1. The Church was founded on the Apostles
Jesus had many diciples (diciples coming from the Greek word for pupil or student), He had at least 70 at one point (Luke 10:1), but He only had 12 Apostles.
12 was a very important number here too, it wasn’t by accident that Jesus chose 12 men. There were 12 sons of Jacob (Genisis 49) who became the 12 tribes of Israel. There was also 12 judges of Israel (Book of judges), before the people begged God for a king. Then there is the 12 gates of the New Jerusalem, and then also the 12 foundation stones of he city on which are written the names of the 12 Apostles.
“It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:12-14)
St. Paul also describes the Apostles as the “foundation” of the Church;
“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22)
How pivotal was/are the Apostles to the kingdom of heaven that the heavenly Jerusalem is built upon them?!?
So what’s the difference between the two? A disciple is a student, but an Apostle means “one who is sent.” The Apostles were the ones that became Christ’s inner circle and the ones He sent out at the Great Commision.
There were only 12 of these Apostles, 11 at the Great Commision because of the suicide of Judas. Jesus tells the 11 that gathered there, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
This commissioning has three elements:
- They were to go to all nations, fulfilling the universal call to salvation, and fulfilling the promise made to Abraham (Gen 22:18) that all nations would be blessed through him. (All the Apostles were Jews, and so descendants of Abraham)
- They were to baptize those that they converted. Baptism being the sacrement that opens the door to the graces of God, and the divine life. (1 Peter 3:21)
- They were to teach “all that I have commanded you.” This is the magisterial authority of the bishops to teach the Church in matters of faith and morals. This teaching authority is infallible when meeting in an ecumenical council or when the Bishop of Rome (The Pope) teaches ex cathedra.
The power and authority invested in the Apostles
In Matthew 18:18 Jesus gave the Apostles the power and authority of binding and loosing of sins, this authority was reinforced by the Risen Jesus in the Gospel of John; “Jesus said to them again, ” Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”” (John 20:21-23)
The Apostles were invested with powers that were not given to the rest of Jesus’ disciples, another one of these powers was the ability to choose their successors. (That is the third sense used in CCC 857)
One of the most important elements of the Apostles’ authority was their teaching authority. This teaching authority is called the magisterium of the Church (coming from the Latin word for teacher “magister”), this teaching authority is passed on in the form of Apostolic Tradition. And that brings us to the second sense of the word Apostolic.
- 2. The teaching authority of the Apostles
The second sense of the word Apostolic, in CCC 856, is the teaching authority of the Church. This authority, also called the magisterium, was exercised through the Apostles, and is exercised today through the bishops of the Church.
This “deposit of faith,” as the catechism calls it, is also know as Apostolic Tradition. This Tradition is different from cultural or family traditions, in that it was handed down to the Church through Christ and given to the Apostles, who then passed it along to the churches that they established.
What came first, the Bible or the Church?
What you have to understand is that Christianity is not a “religion of the book,” the Church didn’t come from the Bible; the Bible came from the Church. The vast majority of the New Testament is made up of letters to the various churches, by their very existence this proves that the churches were already up and running before the New Testement was written.
Jesus didn’t write anything, except for what he scribbled in the sand (John 8:6), and we don’t even know what it said. He also didn’t instruct His followers to write anything, He said told them to “instruct” and “teach,” but never to write (except for the vision of the apocalypse given to Saint John on the isle of Patmos).
Whenever one of the writers of the New Testement appeals to “the Scriptures,” he is referencing the Hebrew Bible (or what we’d now call the Old Testement).
The Traditions of St. Paul
St. Paul told the Corinthians to maintain the traditions he had taught them; “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.” (1 Corinthians 11:2)
Later he told the Thessalonians about the importance of Tradition; “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) & “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6)
Why was adhering to Tradition so important to St. Paul? These letter were written 10-15 years before even the first Gospel was written (Gospel of Mark was written in the late AD60’s). So St. Paul was passing on the teachings of Christ in oral form, and then writing letters back to these churches to remind them of what he instructed.
Importance of Apostolic Tradition
Apostolic Tradition was extremely important to the early Church, and still is today. In the early centuries of Christianity there seemed to be a heresy popping up every year, and the safeguarding of the teaching of the apostles, through the successions of the bishops, is what kept the Church on the right path.
(Remember that the local churches may have had copies of an epistle, or maybe a Gospel or two, but most churches didn’t have a compiled canon of all 72 books that make up the Bible until at least the late 4th century.)
When confronting these heresies, St Irenaeus wrote a book called Against the Hesesies that leaned heavily upon apostolic tradition:
“In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the Apostles until now, and handed in truth.” -St Irenaeus
St Irenaeus, when trying to convince a friend that had fallen into Gnosticism, that had that secret knowledge, that was proclaimed by the Gnostics, was truly the teachings of Christ then surely He would’ve passed it on to his Apostles who would’ve passed it on to their successors. Since St Irenaeus, and this friend, both were taught by St Polycarp, he appealed to the teachings of St Polycarp (who had himself been made bishop of Smyrna by St. John), saying that these heresies weren’t taught by polycarp, who was taught by John, who was taught by Jesus. It becomes like a modern chain of evidence, in that you know each step of the chain and who taught whom. It is by preserving this chain of teachings that we can know the authenticity of the teachings.
This brings us to the last sense of the word Apostolic.
- 3. Apostolic Succession; from St Peter to Pope Francis
Apostolic Succesion is the way in which the Apostles handed on their authority to their chosen successors, and they did the same, and so on until the present day.
The first instance that we see, of Apostolic Succesion, is in the Book of Acts when the Apostles gather to select the successor of Judas;
“In those days Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty), and said, “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry. ( Now this man bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlonghe burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Akel’dama, that is, Field of Blood.) For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his habitation become desolate,and let there be no one to live in it’;and ‘His office let another take.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us-one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsab’bas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthi’as. And they prayed and said, “Lord, you know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.”And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthi’as; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles.” (Acts 1:15-26)
St. Peter makes clear that there was a difference between Apostles and disciples. There were 120 followers of Christ in that upper room, and there was at least two who had followed Him since the baptism at the Jordan ( John 1:29-34), but even these two were not considered Apostles. Then they prayed and selected Mathias as the successor of Judas.
Setting up churches
Wherever the Apostles went the set up churches and taught the people all that Christ had commanded them to observe. When they’d move on to the next town, they’d set up an overseer, or bishop, to be the shepherd of that local church.
St. Paul personally appointed Titus as the bishop of Crete and Timothy as bishop of Ephesus, the ordination of Timothy is even recalled by St. Paul in his letters to Timothy;
“Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you.” (1 Timothy 4:14) & “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6)
“Through countryside and city the apostles preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” – Pope Saint Clement I, in his letters to the Corinthians
This still happens today
Even to this day, Apostolic Succesion still with us. Every bishop, in the church today, can trace his episcopal lineage back at least 400-500 years, although the unbroken line of bishops goes back all the way to the Apostles themselves (they were bad at record keeping in the Middle Ages). Check out this Website to see the lineage of any bishop.
It’s through this unbroken line, stretching back almost 2000 years, that gives us extra assurance in the deposit of faith that was handed down from one bishop to another.
“We are not permitted to cherish any doctrine after our own will, nor to choose that which another person has introduced from their own private fancy. In the Lord’s apostles we possess our authority. Even they did not choose to introduce anything from themselves, but faithfully delivered to the nations the discipline which they had received from Christ. If, therefore, even an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel, he would be called accursed by us.” -Terrullian
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