Nicea and Constantinople, two cities in Asia Minor, hosted church councils in AD 325 and 381, respectively, in order to deal with several christological heresies. As part of their work, they also identified four important marks of the church: unity, holiness, catholicity, and Apostolicity. Today, we will examine what it means that the church is Apostolic.
Over time in the early church, the concept of Apostolic succession became very important. Often, we think of Apostolic succession as referring primarily to the idea that a bishop was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, all the way back to the Apostles, who were the first to ordain any bishop. According to this view, one identifies the church primarily by finding the validly ordained bishop. That concept of Apostolic succession has been important in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and even some Protestant traditions such as Anglicanism. We lack the space to analyze the concept biblically; we will just say that most of the Reformed tradition has rejected this concept of Apostolic succession because it is not found clearly in Scripture. That does not mean that the Reformed lack an understanding of Apostolic succession. For the Reformed tradition, it is succession of true doctrine that has primacy of place. Being able to trace a lineage of validly ordained persons, while not entirely insignificant, is secondary. In other words, you identify the church by its fidelity to Apostolic doctrine.
Though the visible bishop was important, the early church likewise saw doctrinal succession as primary. Otherwise, the church would not have ejected validly ordained bishops who taught heresy, such as Nestorious. But what is most important about making doctrine primary is that Scripture commends this view of Apostolic succession. One of Paul’s concerns in the final epistle he wrote before he died was that people would entrust his doctrine—the Apostolic gospel—to men after him (1 Tim. 2:1–2). In today’s passage, he tells us that the church is built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:19–20). If Apostolic doctrine is not the foundation of a given church, that church has ceased to be a church.
How do we find the Apostolic church? We look for the church that is true to what the Apostles taught, the church that proclaims such doctrines as the Trinity, penal substitutionary atonement, and justification by faith alone. A church that maintains such doctrines can truly be called the Apostolic church. It is faithful to the Apostles’ teachings and purposes.