Apostolic Succession Posts at Energetic Procession


Readers of this blog are invited to take a look at a series of posts that I have been making on Energetic Procession.  Theses posts are geared towards answering objections to, and eventually arguing for, Apostolic Succession.  As I write further posts, expect notifications on occasion:

Apostolic Succession (1): Presbyter = Bishop?

Apostolic Succession (2): Presbyterian Ordination?

Apostolic Succession (3): The Didache

Please feel free to comment, preferably on those posts (but here as well, if the comments on those posts are closed) in response to the arguments offered.


12 Responses to “Apostolic Succession Posts at Energetic Procession”

  1. David Says:

    Mike, in your first post you quote Calvin in favor of Presbyterianism. While I would agree, a while back Perry posted some quotes from Calvin and Luther and other 1st(2nd) Gen Reformers to show that they actually supported Episcopalianism. Would you disagree with Perry’s claim?

  2. MG Says:


    (1) I can’t locate the quote that Perry used from Calvin. So I can’t figure out the context to judge whether or not it is being applied legitimately.

    (2) The claim that Calvin’s comments in Titus 1:5 admit no parity of ministry may be true, but it seems ambiguous to me. He says:

    “Although we may conclude, from 1 Timothy 5:17, that there were two classes of presbyters, the context will immediately show, that here none other than teachers are meant, that is, those who were ordained to teach; for immediately afterwards, he will call the same persons “bishops.””

    This seems to imply the parity of ministry. But then he says:

    “From this passage we do indeed learn, that there was not at that time such equality among the ministers of Christ but that some one had authority and deliberative voice above others; but this has nothing to do with the tyrannical and profane custom which prevails in Popery as to Collations. The apostles had a widely different mode of procedure.”

    This seems to be saying, well, the opposite. So I’m confused. Maybe the second quote is just saying that the presidency was being held by a leader within the presbyterate, though. But saying “there was not at that time such equality among the ministers of Christ but that some one had authority and deliberative voice above others” doesn’t seem to fit neatly with that interpretation.

    (3) Its also possible that Calvin’s opinion changed as he realized that episcopal ordinations weren’t as accessible as he wanted. That was Perry’s suggestion (or, rather, the suggestion of Arthur Wilde Little). Its possible (though knowing the chronology of the books would help here…) that this explains the apparent inconsistency.

  3. Nathan Says:

    Perry’s post is called Episcopacy and the Reformation.

  4. David Says:


    Here is the full Calvin passage:


  5. Nathan Says:

    The answer is easy. He does not give permission to Titus, that he alone may do everything in this matter, and may place over the churches those whom he thinks fit to appoint to be bishops; but only bids him preside, as moderator, at the elections, which is quite necessary.

    Am I the only one to notice just how many question-begging assertions Calvin makes in this passage?

    From this passage we do indeed learn, that there was not at that time such equality among the ministers of Christ but that some one had authority and deliberative voice above others; …

    Not at that time, but we have equality of ministry now. Why? Because John Calvin says so? This is more or less the thought process that also props up sola scriptura: “it wasn’t that way then, but it must be now, because we say so.” Every time I read Calvin I come away thinking less of him. It seems the best thing Calvinists can do to dissuade me from joining them is to cite Calvin.

  6. David Says:


    I believe that everyone makes “question-begging assertions” when attempting to give alternate possibilities for “problem texts.” When you say “this text shows that there was episcopal government in the Apostolic Church” my response would be “not necessarily, for it could mean this instead.” If Calvin’s comments are the context of polemics, then his supposed “question-begging” is neither inappropriate nor out of the ordinary.

    You also offer an uncharitable reading of the Reformed position (your explanation of sola scriptura is an unrecognizable straw man). In this instance, at least, I hardly think the fault lies with Calvin.

  7. Nathan Says:


    No, they don’t. (There’s another assertion for you.) To clarify, when dealing with a problematic text, arguments are needed, not assertions. So, I will cobble together an argument, not because I necessarily think it’s a good one, but simply to reach some rudimentary semblance of plausibility. I’ll start with some basic questions.

    Why does Paul remind Titus of his task to appoint presbyters? Would Titus forget such a clear directive, an integral part of his mission? Why does Paul mention it at the beginning of the letter and not the end? Did Paul just send Titus off without any instructions? Odds were pretty good that Paul’s letter could have been lost in transit, so why would Paul depend on an unreliable means of communication when he could have told Titus ahead of time?

    All of these questions lead me to a hypothesis: the letter wasn’t intended to tell Titus anything new, except for the epilogue, and as such is only indirectly “to” Titus. Nothing in the letter would be unknown to someone tasked with major administrative oversight of a group of congregations, much less a close associate of Paul. If Paul isn’t writing to inform, he must have other reasons. A plausible explanation is that Paul wants to ensure that Titus has the respect and obedience of these congregations. Therefore, the letter is a power claim over the churches by Paul, and Titus by implication.

    Now, if Titus’ task is simply to preside over elections, to ensure orderliness, there is no warrant for this type of a letter: something on the order of 3 John would be more appropriate. The reason for the length and content is explained by the fact that Titus is likely to exercise authority in potentially unpopular ways. So, not only does the letter give Titus the authority he needs, it also helps to mitigate any potentially unpopular decisions, because he has some “objective” criteria to point to, on Paul’s authority. Jews don’t get priority over Gentiles. The popular, charismatic, or wealthy don’t get priority either.

    Both the beginning and the end of the letter warn about the divisive and quarrelsome people. Again, it makes sense that persons or factions in the churches would be opposed to someone who might stand in their way; such people probably want the power for themselves. Seeing the letter as a struggle for power and authority is a sensible perspective and helps to answer the questions I asked at the beginning. To conclude: the letter serves to reinforce Titus’ position and power. I say reinforce, because he would have already been working with the churches before the letter arrived. Perhaps Paul had gotten word that Titus was facing opposition, perhaps some other reason occasioned the letter. In any case, we can conclude that if Titus’ task were merely to ensure orderliness of an election process there would have been no need for the letter: it becomes wholly unnecessary.

    Strangely, Calvin gets it at first:

    This preface clearly proves, that Titus is not so much admonished on his own account as recommended to others, that no one may hinder him.

    Clearly, he recognizes the power claim here. But he then fails to really address any questions as to why the power claim is even there to begin with. He goes on to make all sorts of assertions, and even to read Titus’ task through the lens of “reform:”

    Hence we see the difficulty; and, indeed, we find, by experience, in the present day, that it is not the labor of one or two years to restore fallen churches to a tolerable condition.

    But again, asserting is not arguing, so where’s the argument that Titus is restoring something that is fallen? Indeed, he doesn’t continue that line of thought, so why even mention it to begin with?

    And so we get to the question-begging: Calvin assumes that ordination has nothing to do with apostolic authority, and then concludes it… has nothing to do with apostolic authority. But to actually argue his position, he would need to show that ordinations can happen without, you guessed it, apostolic authority. So, regardless of how appropriate polemics might be in a commentary on Scripture, or whether assertions by an authority figure are worthy of consideration, without an argument I’m really not going to be impressed.

    As to Sola Scriptura, perhaps my reading is uncharitable, but I see it as a reductio, not a straw man. The apostles and the early church did not and could not have practiced Sola Scriptura: no serious proponent of the doctrine can claim otherwise. “Because we say so” is more or less what’s left when the rubble clears, particularly given the rejection of any continuing apostolic authority. The apostolic church didn’t practice sola scriptura or presbyterian ordination, but the church today should, because… we say so. That’s pretty much how things boil down, as far as I can tell. I wish it were better, but at this point I can’t honestly say that it is.

    I haven’t even gotten into the fact that the churches Titus is overseeing would have most likely already had presbyters. Do we know of any Eucharistic celebrations without a presbyter in ancient Christianity? Given the importance of presbyters to the conducting of worship, is there any reason to think these congregations had no presbyters at all? If they indeed had presbyters, why is Titus needed at all? Again, if Titus is simply presiding over elections, the letter makes no sense: the letter is silent about elections so we have to assume that everyone knew that elections were called for and that someone would preside over them. As such, the letter is either unnecessary or unnecessarily long.

  8. David Says:

    Nathan, all I can say is that you must not have spent much time reading any Protestant (particularly Reformed) arguments for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. My assertion that your account of Sola Scriptura is simply a straw man reamins, because I have no idea where you get the idea that “because we say so” is the only argument a Protestant can give. It would be one thing if you said that you found the arguments for Sola Scriptura to be weak, that’s your opinion, but to suggest that there is nothing but question-begging assertions is astonishing. Just off the top of my head, I would suggest you read Keith Mathison’s “The Shape of Sola Scriptura.”

  9. Nathan Says:


    I’m not saying it’s the only argument you can give, I’m saying it’s the reductio of all the arguments I’ve read. Press the logic of every claim and they inexorably work back to the reductio. Why Esther and not Wisdom? Why Revelation and James but not Barnabas? On question after question, the answers simply falter. It’s funny to me that you assume I haven’t read Reformed arguments, when in fact I wouldn’t make such a sweeping statement if I hadn’t.

    Of the many places I could direct you, I’ll suggest two. The Canon Question and Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority. Between the two essays and the comments there are some 600 pages to read. I’ve read all of that, Mathison’s book, and a great deal more, including primary source canon lists and citations of non-canonical and deuterocanonical books by church fathers.

    Having read Mathison’s book, I can say that it often leaves me puzzled. He claims Tradition I is equivalent to Sola Scriptura, but how is it that those supposed proponents of Tradition I taught things like baptismal regeneration and apostolic succession? Or more correctly, why does he reject such obviously accurate scriptural exegesis according to the regula fidei? Consequently, I think his patristics effort is mind-bogglingly defective. He completely fails to do justice to the issue of canon formation and to explain why so many writings were accepted and later rejected (and vice versa) by supposedly Godly, Spirit-filled pastors of the Church. In short, his claim to continuity with the early church Tradition I is without foundation and borders on collapse.

    Mathison’s critique of the Orthodox can be challenged at almost every point, and his critiques of Rome are often misplaced: he simply sets up too many straw men. Where he is accurate in criticizing Rome, he actually supports Orthodox claims, though he doesn’t seem to realize it. As much as he claims that tradition is necessary, he still necessarily ignores tradition when it conflicts with uniquely Reformed doctrines. Further, he is inconsistent in that he moves between claims of complete continuity with Tradition I and claims of recovering Tradition I. Restorationism seems to be too embedded in the Reformation (particularly concerning “the gospel”), which is why it keeps popping up, claims of catholicity notwithstanding.

    Sola scriptura’s very nature works to deprive the church of real authority. Demanding an infallible text but rejecting an infallible rule of faith, which Mathison’s view necessarily entails, again puts us back into solo scriptura, we just get there indirectly. Here is why: he can’t honestly claim that the Nicene Creed is inerrant without changing the meaning (which would mean it really isn’t inerrant) because the meaning includes baptismal regeneration and apostolic succession, to name two doctrines he ostensibly rejects. But what good is even a merely inerrant statement if the meaning must be change to make it so? His inerrant rule of faith was not defined authoritatively by the church, but by the Reformers, collapsing the solo/sola distinction precisely where it is necessary. Indeed, to alter the meaning of the Creed is to subvert it entirely.

    His analysis of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 fails to prove that the entirety of the NT can be considered equivalent to tradition, particularly since the verse says quite clearly that at least Paul’s contribution to scripture is itself tradition. But even if I granted the claim that all of tradition is in scripture, I’m still finding a plausible reading of apostolic succession in the NT and undeniably more than 2 sacraments as well, contra the Reformed tradition.

    The claim to follow councils and creeds rings hollow. Who, beyond a regional synod, could hold a council today that he would listen to? For that matter, why follow a creed formulated by people who held all sorts of doctrines you reject and also had a different canon of scripture to boot? How can you seriously claim to follow Tradition I when nearly all the known adherents of Tradition I believed in apostolic succession and you do not? Why should I accept Calvin’s marks of the church and reject the historic marks of Tradition I (one, holy, catholic, apostolic)? Who gets to decide which doctrines are essential and which are non-essential?

    What is interesting to me is Mathison’s publisher is associated with the Federal Vision (and he himself quotes FV authors in his book). This theology is at odds with the larger Reformed tradition, so who is to adjudicate between these competing traditions? Mathison seems unable to even follow Tradition I in practical reality. Further, given such doctrinal differences, I expect that many FV opponents will have a different doctrine of scripture than Mathison does, so whose version of sola scriptura is right? Mathison’s sounds good, but that doesn’t make it correct.

    Even more interesting is the fact that much of his writing (I’m thinking particularly about his anti-Roman passages) could almost have been written by an Orthodox apologist. However, attacking Rome and the Papacy are entirely different from proving Sola Scriptura, and I wish Mathison would have spent more time on the latter instead of the former. Everybody knows how bad things were in the 15th and 16th centuries: that doesn’t mean that the Reformed are right (particularly when they depart from Lutheran doctrine in favor of their own novelties). Perhaps more unsatisfactorily, he seems to hold the delusional notion that the Fathers of the Orthodox church are more in agreement with him than the Orthodox today—indeed, that he understands them better than their direct spiritual descendants.

    So, while Mathison does a decent job of attacking Tradition 0, evangelicals, and fundamentalists, he doesn’t satisfactorily deal with the issues of tradition, canon, authority, and essential doctrines. And worse, I don’t think he can, particularly with the hermeneutical framework he operates under. He will necessarily set himself and the Reformers up as judges over every council and creed and father in church history, and that is principally the same as Tradition 0, even if he tries to make it seem otherwise.

    MG: sorry if I’ve taken things too far off-topic. My present understanding is that sola scriptura and apostolic succession are mutually exclusive doctrines, so I think it’s at least somewhat relevant to the issue.

  10. David Says:


    That’s great! As I said, you are entitled to your estimation of the Reformed arguments. I’m very glad to see you interacting with them in a thorough and substantive manner.

    However, none of the nine paragraphs you wrote following your first paragraph shows that the Reformed arguments boil down to “because we say so.” That claim remains absurd hyperbole. Imagine if I said that the Orthodox position on tradition and authority simply reduced to “x is true because we say so”? Obviously that is not the case. You believe that a strong case can be made from Scripture and history that the Orthodox church is an infallible interpreter of Scripture. Even if I were to disagree with each and every one of those arguments (which, obviously, I do), by no stretch of the imagination could I then claim that the entire Orthodox case simply reduces to nothing but question-begging assertions. That is uncharitable at best, and downright false at worst.

  11. greg Says:

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding, but it seems to me that Nathan’s point is that the arguments put forward by the Reformers, being novel, ultimately rest on the authority of the Reformers. That, in some sense, seems true – though is not in itself sufficient to say they are wrong.

  12. Nathan Says:

    Greg, that’s my basic point, yes. Ultimately, the problem is authority, and for all the Reformers’ attempts to ground authority in scripture, the question remains: who gave them the authority to ground authority in scripture? It is a circularity that seems inescapable. A great little book that discusses the issue is The Problem of Authority in the Continental Reformers.

    And yes, the fact that their teachings seem inextricably linked to their personal authority does not prove that they are wrong. That would require further proof that they in fact did not possess such authority. It also makes it rather likely that they must be prophets or apostles of some sort, given the type of authority at stake.

    For all parties involved, “because I (we) say so” is to some extent unavoidable. The real question is, who can back up that kind of statement?

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