Apostles Today Part 4
May 9, 2018 By ELLIOTT NESCH
Are there Apostles today? In this final installment of a 4-part series on Apostles today, we will take a look at what the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) said about whether or not Apostles continued to govern the Church.
The New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) claims that foundational and governing Apostles have been restored to the Church. We have already examined these claims in the light of Scripture in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Now we will consider the historical evidence in addition to the biblical case. The Foundation of Apostles
Scripture teaches that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-20). Did the early Christians understand this passage to teach that Apostles were to govern the Church through the ages? Or that Apostles held a “foundational office” which was ongoing throughout the Church age?
In the quote below, Polycarp mentioned both Apostles and prophets, such as those mentioned in Ephesians 2:19-20. Rather than having an ongoing role, the Apostles possessed the unique role of having originally preached the Gospel to the first generation of Christians.
Let us then serve Him in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord [have alike taught us]. (ANF, 1.34)
Ignatius also noted the foundational role of the Apostles Below he mentioned by name the Apostles Peter and Paul.
“The people shall be called by a new name, which the Lord shall name them, and shall be a holy people.” This was first fulfilled in Syria; for “the disciples were called Christians at Antioch,” when Paul and Peter were laying the foundations of the Church. (ANF, 1.63)
Unlike the Apostles today within the NAR, the early Christians were very cautious about using that title. For example, Ignatius wrote:
But shall I, when permitted to write on this point, reach such a height of self-esteem, that though being a condemned man, I should issue commands to you as if I were an apostle? (ANF, 1.67)
I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles. (ANF 1.75)
Entreat of our Lord in my behalf, that through these instruments I may be found a sacrifice to God. I do not, like Peter and Paul, issue orders unto you. They are apostles. (ANF, 1.103)
I do not issue commands on these points as if I were an apostle; but, as your fellow-servant, I put you in mind of them. (ANF, 1.112)
According to Ignatius, the Apostles are unique because they had authority to “issue commands” or write Scripture.
Justin Martyr also mentioned how the writings of the Apostles and prophets were read in church gatherings. He noted how the Apostles and prophets spoke for God.
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read. (ANF, 1.186)
For as he believed the voice of God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness, in like manner we having believed God’s voice spoken by the apostles of Christ, and promulgated to us by the prophets, have renounced even to death all the things of the world. (ANF, 1.259)
Justin’s mention of Apostles and prophets together appears to be an obvious reference to Ephesians 2:19-20.
Irenaeus also observed how Peter and Paul laid the foundation of the Church.
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. Irenaeus, (ANF, 1.414).
In the same work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus referred to “the twelve-pillared foundation of the Church” (ANF 1.493), obviously referring to the Twelve Apostles (cf. Revelation 21:14). It is evident from the following quotation that Irenaeus believed the Apostles mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:28 were not ongoing, but rather limited to the first generation of the Church:
Paul then, teaching us where one may find such, says, “God has placed in the Church, first, apostles; secondly, prophets; thirdly, teachers.” Where, therefore, the gifts of the Lord have been placed, there it behoves us to learn the truth, [namely,] from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles, and among whom exists that which is sound and blameless in conduct, as well as that which is unadulterated and incorrupt in speech. (ANF, 1.498)
Clement of Alexandria also spoke of the foundation of the apostles and prophets. According to Clement, the teaching of the Lord was preserved within the prophets, the Gospel, and the Apostles, i.e., the holy Scriptures. Clement said:
For we have, as the source of teaching, the Lord, both by the prophets, the Gospel, and the blessed apostles. (ANF, 2.551)
Finally, Tertullian also referred to the “apostolic foundation” when he said:
[N]o other teaching will have the right of being received as apostolic than that which is at the present day proclaimed in the churches of apostolic foundation. (ANF, 3.286)
In all of these quotations, it is evident that the Church has an “apostolic foundation” because it is figuratively a building which has as its foundation the Apostles, i.e, the New Testament Scriptures.
Apostles are Succeeded by Bishops and Deacons
The Apostles instituted a plurality of bishops/elders/pastors and deacons that should govern the churches after them. The qualifications for those bishops/elders/pastors and deacons is found in the pastoral epistles (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). It is exclusively these offices of bishops/elders/pastors and deacons for which qualifications are given for church leadership. But there are no such qualifications for an ongoing Apostolate within the churches. The early Christians affirm this ecclesiology.
In the quote below, Clement of Rome not only notes how the Apostles were sent directly by Christ, but that they also appointed bishops and deacons as their successors.
The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labors], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. (ANF, 1.16)
Not only did Clement acknowledge that the Apostles appointed bishops and deacons, but he also pointed out how those ministers would be succeeded by other approved men. But there is no hint or suggestion of ongoing Apostles. He says:
Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them [i.e., the apostles], or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. (ANF 1.17)
Rather than the Apostolate being an ongoing office, the presbyters and deacons preside in the place of Apostles, according to Ignatius. In his own words,
Since therefore I have, in the persons before mentioned, beheld the whole multitude of you in faith and love, I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed. (ANF, 1.61)
Ignatius also wrote:
Be on your guard, therefore, against such persons. And this will be the case with you if you are not puffed up, and continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our God, and the bishop, and the enactments of the apostles. (ANF 1.68-69)
From the last quotation, we can see that a bishop was present during the time of writing. Rather than submit to living Apostles, the church was to continue in the enactments of the Apostles which were handed down. The Apostles themselves were no longer around but their “enactments” continued to govern the churches. Ignatius also said:
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. (ANF 1.89)
Again, the presbytery now existed in the place of the Apostles. Speaking of the Church government, Ignatius wrote:
You have been the disciples of Paul and Peter; do not lose what was committed to your trust. Keep in remembrance Euodias, your deservedly-blessed pastor, into whose hands the government over you was first entrusted by the apostles. (ANF, 1.111)
Above it is assumed that Apostles were no longer present within Church government. Instead the government of the Church consisted of a pastor who was entrusted by the Apostles.
Similarly, Papias made reference to “the presbyters, the disciples of the apostles” (ANF, 1.154), but he does not mention any more living Apostles as the disciples of the Apostles.
When refuting the Gnostics, Irenaeus wrote:
But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. Irenaeus, (ANF, 1.415).
Irenaeus made the following two important points about the Christian tradition: (1) it originated from the Apostles; and (2) it is preserved by means of succession of presbyters. This presupposes that the Apostolate ceased.
Some passages from Irenaeus are used by Catholic and Orthodox apologists to argue in favor of Apostolic Succession, the belief of uninterrupted transmission of spiritual authority from the Apostles through successive bishops. One of those passages is found ANF 1.415-417. Irenaeus begins:
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. (ANF, 1.415)
It is debated by scholars whether or not Irenaeus was teaching Apostolic Succession as understood by Catholics and Orthodox believers. It is the opinion of this author that Irenaeus was simply providing the evidence of succession of bishops from the Apostles in order to refute the Gnostic heretics who had no succession. For instance, Irenaeus said,
Now all these [heretics] are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the Churches; which fact I have in the third book taken all pains to demonstrate. (ANF, 1.547)
Either way, Apostolic Succession does not teach that the Apostles were succeeded by later Apostles. Even the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine of Apostolic Succession teaches that the Apostles were succeeded by bishops, not Apostles!
Clement of Alexandria also mentioned bishops, presbyters and deacons as those who follow in the footsteps of the Apostles. But Clement did not consider Apostles among the present grades in the church.
Since, according to my opinion, the grades here in the Church, of bishops, presbyters, deacons, are imitations of the angelic glory, and of that economy which, the Scriptures say, awaits those who, following the footsteps of the apostles, have lived in perfection of righteousness according to the Gospel. (ANF, 2.505)
The Apostolic Age
Clement of Alexandria is clear that apostolic era had an end. He wrote,
For the teaching of our Lord at His advent, beginning with Augustus and Tiberius, was completed in the middle of the times of Tiberius. And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, ends with Nero. (ANF, 2.554-555)
The fourth century Church historian Eusebius spoke of an “age … succeeding the apostles.” He said:
[I]t is impossible for us to enumerate the names of all that became shepherds or evangelists in the churches throughout the world in the age immediately succeeding the apostles. (The History of the Church, 3.37.4)
What about the Apostles in the churches throughout the world in the age immediately succeeding the Apostles? Apparently there were none. After the Apostles, shepherds/pastors and evangelists were leaders in the churches. These historical observations of Eusebius affirm that Apostles were limited to their own era.
In the same work, Eusebius also spoke of “the apostolic age” (The History of the Church, 3.31.6). Were the Apostles failures? Were the Apostles supposed to pass on a Church structure which was to be governed by Apostles and prophets? I don’t think so.
C. Peter. Wagner also spoke about “the apostolic age.” Wagner claimed that ever since the First Apostolic Age the Church has been without foundational apostles and prophets throughout history until now that the Second Apostolic Age has begun. He claimed:
The traditional Protestant Church has understood apostles and prophets to be offices relegated to the First Apostolic Age but not continuing in churches throughout history. . . . It is fascinating that even though we have had church government backward over the past two centuries according to 1 Corinthians 12:28, we have evangelized so much of the world! Think of what will happen now that church government is getting in proper order. Administrators and teachers are essential for good church health and will function much better once the apostles and prophets are in place. (Apostles Today [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group: 2012], 12)
The claims of C. Peter Wagner not only contradict the traditional understanding of the Protestant Church, but also the historic beliefs and practices of the early Church Fathers, many of whom were personally discipled by the Apostles themselves. Not only did these early Church Fathers say nothing about the restoration of Apostles in the end times, but they also believed the Apostles were confined to the first generation of the Church.
Apostles Today Part 1
Apostles Today Part 2
Apostles Today Part 3
Filed Under: Apostolic Succession, C. Peter Wagner, Early Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, New Apostolic Reformation, Roman Catholicism
Daily Bible Verse