Apostolic Succession

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The Roman Catholic Church teaches what it calls the Successio Apostolica. This doctrine of the Apostolic Succession holds that, by an unbroken line of ordinations by proper bishops from the days of the apostles to the present, the apostolicity of the church is maintained and guaranteed, thus giving the church the guarantee that it is the true church of Christ by tracing it back to the apostles and from there to Jesus Christ himself. It teaches that Jesus founded the church, and appointed the apostles and in particular Peter (Matthew 16:18-20; John 21:15-17) to lead it into all truth, and that the apostles ordained their successors, conferring by the laying on of hands the grace to perform this ecclesiastical office, that is, to perform it according to the meaning that Christ had given it. So even today each priest in the Roman Catholic Church, when he performs a church act, can act efficaciously by virtue of the Apostolic Succession. Inherent in the Apostolic Succession are both the transfer of grace and the authority for exercising power.

From the beginning this doctrine has not been without opposition. Many medieval sects such as Arnoldists and Waldenses created powerful opposition. They believed that the bearers of church offices could not act by virtue of a transferred power but only by virtue of direct grace. (Ludwig Keller, who asserted that the Waldenses attached great value to the Apostolic Succession in his Die Reformation und die älteren Reformparteien of 1866, was mistaken, as Th. Kolde in Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte VII, 1885, has clearly shown.) The Waldenses and others greatly emphasized the apostolic-prophetic element, and this spiritualism we find again in the Anabaptists, but this is not the apostolic succession by ordination.

The break with Rome in the Reformation also means the break with the teaching of the Apostolic Succession. Only the Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church of Sweden have retained it.

The leading reformers themselves rejected the doctrine specifically (although we find a number of inconsistencies among the Lutherans as well as among the Calvinists). Luther did it most radically: for him that which makes a pastor is the ordination by the congregation. "Wählt die Gemeinde einen Pfarrer, so soll man ihn durch Gebet und Handauflegung der Gesamtheit empfehlen und bestätigen, und fest glauben: a deo gestum et factum esse." The office is given to the pastor in no other way than for instance to any official or Amtmann. "Ordinäre non est consecrare, damus in virtute verbi quod habemus, auctoritatem praedicandi verbum et dandi sacramenta; hoc est ordinari." (To ordain does not mean to consecrate. We only give by virtue of the command we have, the authority of preaching the Word and administering the sacraments.)

For Calvin the case is somewhat different. The bearers of office, pastores vel ministri (pastors), doctores (teachers), presbyteri pel seniores (elders, bishops), and diaconi (deacons), who do not differ from each other in rank, but only in function, together form the presbyterium (consistory or vestry), which governs the church, and which is self-perpetuating of itself by cooperation. The congregation does not choose the bearers of church office but merely gives its consent (consensus et approbatio).

The fact that the Calvinist practice has developed with some variations in different countries, has no bearing on this. From the closed nature of the consistory one might conclude that Calvin did not fully give up the Apostolic Succession. However, that he did this in principle follows from the statement that at the founding of a congregation, "the people," i.e., the congregation, shall choose the presbyters, who then will regulate the organization of the congregation, first of all by appointing a consistory. Also the Reformation and the churches springing from it retained the laying on of hands in the ordination to church office after biblical example. This, however, did not mean a transfer of grace, but a petition for grace.

Do the Anabaptists and Mennonites have the doctrine of the Apostolic Succession? De Hoop-Scheffer thinks he finds it in the early Fathers. Kühler says that this is a legend. However, the case is not so simple as Kühler thinks. It seems that in addition to a spiritual conception of church office (which really is no office, for all members of the congregation are eo ipso priests), there continues to exist among Mennonites a view which is not entirely free of the idea of the apostolic succession. In the first congregation in Zürich, to be sure, we do not find it. Conrad Grebel, the layman, performed the first (re) baptism, and apparently did not hold the doctrine. It is rather remarkable that it was these Swiss Brethren in particular who later traced their spiritual descent back to the apostles, calling themselves "Altevangelische." Among the Dutch Mennonites we find, besides the apostolic-prophetical conception of the spiritualists (Melchior Hoffman, Hans Denck, Jan Matthysz, partly Hans de Ries, later especially Galenus Abrahamsz), also very clearly the opposite line (Obbe Philips until he came under the influence of Sebastian Franck, Ebbe Pieters, Jan Jacobsz, and in a later period Laurens Hendriks, Douwe Feddriks, Herman Schijn). In Obbe this is very clear. Later when he had left the brotherhood, he wrote about his ordination by Bartel Boeckbinder: "The laying on of hands we felt very well, and all the words we heard well; but we neither felt nor heard the Holy Spirit." This points to the fact that Obbe then believed and expected that with the laying on of hands the Holy Ghost would pass from the ordainer to the ordained; in other words, that he believed the teaching of the Apostolic Succession.

When Menno Simons and Dirk Philips, both of whom were ordained as elder by Obbe, came to the insight that Obbe's ordination traced back to Jan Matthysz, who was "self-appointed" (that is, he was not ordained officially, there was therefore no continuation) and that thus their apostolic succession was left hanging in thin air, they did not lay down their office. This shows that they accepted at the most the idea, but by no means the consequences of an apostolic succession. In speaking of the offices (see Ministry), both Menno and Dirk start from two possibilities; either the bearer of office (minister) is called directly by God, or he is chosen by the congregation; the latter can then be done either directly by the members or indirectly via the elders. However greatly the power of the elders developed about the middle of the sixteenth century, and however much these people also depreciated the prophetic conception of church office, which is also understandable in the light of the experiences of the fanatics (Münsterites), there is no thought of an apostolic succession in the real sense. They understood that the actual working of the Holy Spirit is not bound to the continuity of ordination from apostolic times. Nor is this the conception of the martyr Hans de Smet, who was executed in 1558 in Aachen, Germany, who when asked about his authority (sending) answered: he had not put himself into the office but God and His Spirit in His church. Menno then also quietly repudiates the accusation of Gellius Faber, that their church (kerke ofte secte) is not apostolic and still very young, "hardly sixteen or seventeen years old," and that their teachers are self-appointed (van zieh zelj lopen). Menno looks upon his congregation as being apostolic, although age, antiquity, and continuity of ordination are lacking, because it lives and acts in the spirit of the apostles. Neither Menno nor Dirk Philips, when speaking about the ordinances ("Ordonnancien") of the congregation, puts the emphasis upon the antiquity of the church, but upon the truth of its teaching and upon the holiness of its servants and members.

The Mennonite practice of earlier and later times, also in America, of laying on of hands in baptism, and of conducting communion services only by ordained elders, is rather a compliance with the biblical tradition (1 Timothy 4:14; Titus 1:5) than a matter of dogma. Compare the quotation in the Zondagsbode of 26 May 1926: "Ordination should take place with the laying on of hands, but without superstition." In the Netherlands a number of instances can be cited even in a rather early time, when baptism was not administered by an elder, but by a deacon, who had not been ordained by the laying on of hands. And when the first congregation in Germantown, Pennsylvania, before 1708 requested the congregation in Hamburg to send an elder to them to ordain an elder, the ministers of Hamburg advised the congregation of Germantown to ordain one of their own preachers as an elder or bishop without the service of a bishop, which they did.

When in the schism in the Dutch congregation, the extreme conservative groups such as Old Flemish, Jan Jacobsz group, Groninger Old Flemish and later also the Zonists clung to the idea that their church was the true church of God, they occasionally appealed to the continuity of ordination, although hesitatingly and uncertainly, and therefore did conceive it as an apostolic succession in the Roman Catholic sense, even though not going back beyond the Reformation period.

Jacob Pieters van der Meulen held a different view. Shortly after 1600 he became involved in a heated pen battle on the Apostolic Succession with Roman Catholic theologians. He wrote a book Successio Apostolica, dat is Naecominghe oft de Naetredinghe der Apostelen, waerin dat die bestaet, nae dat ghetuyghenisse der H. Schrijtueren (Alkmaar, 1600). He tried to show how wrongly the Roman Catholics interpret the apostolic succession. The true "successors" are not the Roman Catholics, but the Mennonites. "The true succession is that we are bound to no succession of place or person, but to the succession of the teaching of the truth; for the true churches were called apostolic, not on the grounds of succession, but on the grounds of continuation of the true doctrine." It is the same thing as Menno and Dirk Philips meant when they qualified themselves as being apostolic because they taught "the doctrine and usage of the holy apostles and of the first unadulterated church."

To the progressive Lamists the Apostolic Succession was no longer a question, for their conception of the church was altogether along the line of Sebastian Franck and Dirk Volkertsz Coornhert, and according to them the true church is nowhere to be found on the earth. These spiritualists put so much emphasis on the freedom of the Holy Spirit, that there was no place for any apostolic succession. Although they went a long way with Jacob P. van der Meulen, they went beyond him, in regarding any official ordination as being unnecessary or even undesirable.

Influenced by this spiritualism, ordination gradually disappeared among the Dutch Mennonites. Since about 1750 the laying on of hands has seldom been practiced. Only in very recent times have a few ministers been ordained by the laying on of hands. In those cases it was not the doctrine of the Apostolic Succession, but rather a return to biblical practice, that influenced the action.

The attitude of the Mennonites of Dutch background in West Prussia, Poland, Russia and America in the matter of apostolic succession has always been very much the same as that of the early Dutch Mennonites who did not attach any significance to the illusory attempt to trace the calling and the appointment of preachers and elders to the apostles. It was not the "office" and its "sacramental" character that guaranteed to them that they were members of a true apostolic church. They compared the whole congregation as such, its faith, spirit and life, with that of the apostolic church to find the assurance whether or not they were true spiritual successors of the early church as Christ intended it to be.

This attitude, however, did not prevent that, in the later history, at times, too much significance was attached to the outward form of selection and ordination to the office, especially of elders. When the first Mennonites settled at Chortitza, Russia, and were without an elder, upon suggestion from their home church in West Prussia, they selected candidates for the ministry and from among these candidates an elder was appointed and installed through correspondence by the elders in Prussia. This unusual procedure caused some difficulties, partly due to the strain of the pioneer conditions. Some objected to ordination by correspondence as not being in harmony with the tradition of laying on of hands. The laying on of hands has always been and still is practiced. The authority and power traditionally attached to the office of an elder and minister has, however, in modern times been somewhat modified. The practice that the elder is a supervisor of a larger district is gradually disappearing, and more and more, each congregation has become independent with its own pastor performing all the functions of the former elder. Accordingly a second ordination to the office of elder is not always performed.

In the North American Mennonite groups of Swiss-South German background, both the concept and practice of ordination only by the laying on of hands by a previously so ordained bishop or elder has been carefully and strictly maintained except in rare emergencies. One of these emergencies was the request of the new settlement near Vineland in Lincoln County, Ontario, in 1801 to have a bishop sent from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for ordination purposes. The Bucks County church declined to send a bishop, advising the new settlement to proceed without one.

John Herr, the founder of the Herrite or Reformed Mennonites, was never ordained by a bishop, although he himself functioned as one. John Holdeman, the founder of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, in 1856, also was never ordained by a bishop, although he himself practiced all the duties of a bishop. The same is true of the Kleine Gemeinde, the Mennonite Brethren, and others when they organized.


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Author(s) Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Zijpp, Nanne van der. "Apostolic Succession." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 14 Apr 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Apostolic_Succession&oldid=144732.

APA style

Zijpp, Nanne van der. (1953). Apostolic Succession. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 14 April 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Apostolic_Succession&oldid=144732.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 139-141. All rights reserved.

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