Blog Archives

Will the Real Apostolic Succession Please Stand Up? Recognition of Lineages

We’ve discussed Apostolic Succession in general, and we’ve seen how it came to exit even outside established churches, while still remaining valid.  As with most things in life, however, it’s more complicated than it seems at first.  That’s what I want to discuss in this post.

For the churches that claim Apostolic Succession, there are two interrelated but distinct issues regarding valid clerical lineage, the internal and external.  The internal issue is whether the men (and for some churches, women) whom the church in question chooses to serve as bishops (and secondarily, priests and deacons) are in fact validly ordained in that church’s lineage.  In the vast majority of cases, this is a non-issue.  All churches claiming Apostolic succession have some form or other of training and “quality control”* system for would-be clerics.  There are lengthy periods of training (usually in a seminary), advanced degree requirements, various types of screening and vetting, and so on.  Thus, an existing bishop doesn’t ordain just anyone as bishop, priest, or deacon.  Furthermore, a minimum of three bishops is required to ordain another bishop (usually, many more than three are involved) as an extra level of caution in making sure the lineage is valid.  That is, even if one or two of the bishops are somehow not in a legitimate line of succession, there are enough others involved that there is almost complete certainty of Apostolic Succession being passed on to the new bishop.

The external issue with Apostolic Succession is which purported Apostolic lineages in other churches a given church recognizes.  This is where it gets interesting, and sometimes complex.

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Wandering Bishops

Rene Vilatte, wandering bishop par excellance

We discussed the validity and liceity of the Sacraments, particularly Holy Orders, last time, noting that a church may recognize lineages of Apostolic Succession of bishops as having valid Holy Orders despite that lineage being outside that particular church.  In short, the Church may recognize a man as a “real” bishop even if he was ordained irregularly.  One way this can occur is though schism, pure and simple.  That is, a bishop goes rogue and breaks away from the Church, then ordains as many men as he sees fit.  Since the bishop was validly ordained in the Church, these ordinations he performs, though illicit and carrying the penalty of automatic excommunication for both the bishop himself and those he ordains, are valid.  The men he ordains, in short, are real bishops, full stop.

We saw back here, though, that while some lineages indeed arose through schism (or in some cases, it would be better to say they were maintained despite schism), there are many small independent groups that were formed by individuals with their own ideas about how a sacramental church should be.  Often there was no formal schism, and the founders of these groups sought out ordination to gain legitimate Apostolic Succession.  How did they manage this?  Through the phenomenon, mentioned but not described previously in this series, of wandering bishops.

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When is a Sacrament not a Sacrament? Validity and Liceity

In the process of looking at Apostolic Succession, we’ve looked at some of the (occasionally complex) terminology involved, and we’ve looked a bit at the major churches that claim Apostolic Succession.  I want to look next at how the various churches recognize–or refuse to recognize–these claims.  In order to do that, though, I’m going to have to talk a little bit about sacramental theology.

A sacrament, in the words of the Baltimore Catechism, is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace“.  The churches claiming to have Apostolic Succession have (with a few nuances in one or two cases) retained the sacraments as part of their worship and practice.  The number is traditionally set at seven:  Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (or Communion), Confession (or Reconciliation), Matrimony, Holy Orders (ordination of a man as deacon, priest, or bishop), and Anointing of the Sick (or Extreme Unction).

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Church, Churches, and Church History: Index

Recently I’ve been posting on Apostolic Succession and church history in general.  I thought about putting those posts under “Religious Miscellany“; but those posts are more general in nature, and cover religions other than Christianity.  I decided it would be worthwhile to add a new index for such posts, which are more specifically about Christianity, the Church, and church history.  Therefore, though I’ve written quite a lot about religion here over the years, this will be my most focused and specific index on religious matters.  Enjoy!

Apostolic Succession

Interlude: Complicated Ecclesiastical Terminology

More Terminology:  Churches

Names, Revisited

When is a Sacrament not a Sacrament? Validity and Liceity

Wandering Bishops

Will the Real Apostolic Succession Please Stand Up? Recognition of Lineages


More Terminology: Churches

In the previous post, I discussed and defined the relevant terminology in discussing Apostolic Succession for those churches that claim it.  In passing, I reeled off a list of the  major churches that do claim to maintain Apostolic Succession.  I am aware that many of them may be obscure, perhaps even unheard of, to the average American.  Thus, I want to take a very brief look at these churches.  Remember, the criterion is that they all claim valid Apostolic Succession.  Additionally, all of them maintain the Seven Sacraments in one way or another (though there are subtle differences which I won’t go into here).

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Interlude: Complicated Ecclesiastical Terminology

My last post was on the topic of Apostolic Succession.  Over the years I’ve written a lot about theology and such; but I haven’t really written that much about specific churches or church structure.  It occurred to me while writing the earlier post on Apostolic Succession that it’s more “inside baseball” than average.  That is, it assumes a knowledge of a lot of terminology–or at least, it will over the course of coming posts–that might be familiar to Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, or others, but not so much to the public at large.  Even many members of the aforementioned groups may have only a fuzzy idea of the meaning of some of them.  Therefore, I decided to take a short interlude with a post serving mainly to define terms that I have used or will use in writing on this topic.

The terms I’m going to discuss are broadly applicable to the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, the churches of the Anglican Communion (the American branch of which is known as the Protestant Episcopal Church), the Old Catholic communion of churches, the Polish National Catholic Church, and some smaller splinter groups.  In some cases, the terms vary slightly in actual use depending on many factors, or from church to church, and there are any number of exceptions, subtleties, and special cases.  My main goal here is to familiarize my readers with terminology necessary for understanding this series of posts without getting too bogged down in minutia.  Thus, if there are any seeming errors or omissions in what I write here, it’s probably either an omission to save space, or a deliberate decision to omit excruciating details about special cases.  If I have made in true errors, though, I do welcome correction.

Finally, I’m not putting this “glossary”, as it were, into alphabetical or any specific order, aside perhaps from the more specific or lower-level to the more general or  higher-level concepts.  If I had a larger number of terms, I’d worry more about organization; but with the relatively small number I want to deal with here, it shouldn’t be an issue.

All right then!  On with the informal glossary!

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Apostolic Succession

I shared my post about the Gospel of Thomas to a Facebook group, and one of the members suggested I do a post about Apostolic Succession.  I’d never thought to do that, frankly; but it does tie in with some of the things I’ve written about here.  Moreover, Apostolic Succession is something of which many non-Catholics and non-Orthodox may have never heard.  Even  many Catholics and Orthodox may have only fuzzy ideas of the concept, despite its extreme importance to their respective churches.  Thus, since it’s a legitimate topic, I think I will indeed discuss it here.

In any church or religious organization–or any organization at all, for that matter–two of the most fundamental questions are “Who’s in charge” and “Why are they in charge?”  No human organization can lack some type of leadership.  Even among hunter-gatherer tribes that have little structure, there will almost always be one or two older men or women who are the informal leaders of any group endeavor.  They may not “call the shots”, but they get things done, leading by example and by the respect in which they’re held.  Heck, get a group of friends together for poker night or Superbowl Sunday or a road trip, and it’s easy to see that a few of them are actually organizing and getting things done with the others following their lead.  True anarchy is impossible–someone is always in charge, however informally.

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A Chant for Saints Cyril and Methodius, Patron Saints of Europe

Not only is this St. Valentine’s Day, but it is their feast day, too.

For the Feast of the Presentation

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also known as Candlemas.

A Letter from Evagrius Ponticus

Evagrius Ponticus

Long-time readers may recall that in the course of my “Legends of the Fall” series I discussed Evagrius Ponticus and his worldview.  Recently I’ve been perusing this fascinating website dedicated to him.  In fairness I have to point out that while the website refers to him as “Saint”, with which I’m willing to agree, I don’t know if any church ever formally canonized him, especially in light of the posthumous accusations of heresy.

In any case, the best thing about the website is that it gives online translations of Evagrius’s major works.  These translations, by Fr. Luke Dysinger, O. S. B. of St. Andrew’s Abbey of Valyermo, California, are public domain.  This is a really good thing.  Good translations of Evagrius are fiendishly difficult to get hold of.  There are several that translate part of his corpus–many such books are rather expensive, to boot.  There are some cheaper editions–you can get Jeremy Driscoll’s translation of the Ad Monachos in relatively cheap paperback editions–but they usually cover only one or two of Evagrius’s writings.  By contrast, Fr. Dysinger is gradually putting up and revising translations of all of Evagrius’s works, and they are freely available.

This is important because Evagrius is important.  His works have been enormously influential in both the East and the West of the Christian world.  He was one of the first to organize the sayings of the Desert Fathers and his ascetic, moral, and theological works were widely studied for centuries.  He also shares with his predecessor Origen (whose works influenced him, and whom I’ve also referenced) a somewhat ambiguous status in later Christianity.  Like Origen, he is enormously influential, even to the present; but also like Origen, he was accused of holding heretical beliefs after his death, and at least some of this teachings were condemned.  As with Origen, it’s rather difficult to sort out his exact beliefs and to determine whether the beliefs he was accused of holding were things he actually believed.  It is evident, though, I think, that in at least some respects his thought does push the boundaries, and it seems to have some affinities to Gnostic thought.  This is especially interesting to me, as I try to tease out the commonalities between orthodoxy and Gnosticism.

I’m interested in reading as much of Evagrius as I can, since as I’ve said before I don’t have an in-depth firsthand knowledge of his work.  There’s a book or two of translations I’m eventually going to get; but this website is a good start for now.  Unfortunately, reading HTML on a computer screen gets old fast, even on a laptop.  Therefore, I’ve done a conversion of Fr. Dysinger’s translation of “The Great Letter to Melania” to PDF format.  In such format it can be read on an iPad or Kindle Fire very easily and conveniently.  It’s not hard to do conversions of PDF’s to MOBI files (the ones Kindles use) or to EPUB formats; but that often results in other issues, so I’m sticking with the PDF format for now.  The motivation for the selection is that the “Letter to Melania” and the Kephalaia Gnostica give clearer and more systematic discussion of Evagrius’s theology than most of his other works, and in them the similarities to both orthodox and Gnostic thought are more clearly visible.

I have uploaded the “Letter to Melania” to my media library–you can find it there or go directly to it here, to read or download.  I do this to make it more widely available in a more user-friendly format; please, if you pass it on, give appropriate credit to Father Dysinger.  I hope those who are interested will find this interesting and useful.  From time to time I will be posting more of Evagrius’s works from Fr. Dysinger’s website.  I want to do the Kephalaia Gnostica next, but it may be awhile before I have time.  I will note when I do so with it and with further documents.  Meanwhile, enjoy!