May 30, 2004 Q & A

Apostolic Succession and the Roman Catholic Church


I have a few questions for you about the "OPC." First, do you teach apostolic succession, and, if so, do you believe ministers outside of the OPC are not really ministers? Second, do you believe that the "gifts of the Holy Spirit" are for today, i.e., are healing, tongues, prophetic revelation, and miracles as led by the Holy Spirit actively manifest in our modern churches? Finally, how are you different from the Roman Catholic Church?


Thank you for your questions. Let me take them one at a time.

1. "Do you teach apostolic succession, and, if so, do you believe ministers outside of the OPC are not really ministers?"

It is helpful to distinguish between "apostolic succession" and "apostolicity." By the doctrine of apostolic succession the Roman Catholic Church asserts its claim of an uninterrupted and continuous line of succession extending from the twelve apostles through the bishops they ordained right up to the bishops of the present day. According to this doctrine, the apostles appointed the first bishops as their successors, granting to them their own teaching authority, which continues until the end of the age (see paragraph 77 of Catechism of the Catholic Church).

Let me direct you to other relevant passages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The significance of the Roman Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession is immediately apparent in its definition of a "particular church." A particular church "refers to a community of the Christian faithful in communion of faith and sacraments with their bishop ordained in apostolic succession" (paragraph 833). "[I]t is for bishops as the successors of the apostles to hand on the 'gift of the Spirit,' the 'apostolic line'" (paragraph 1576). Without apostolic succession there is no church.

In close connection with the idea of apostolic succession is the transmission from generation to generation of the "Tradition." By Tradition, Catholics refer to that part of the church's "doctrine, life, and worship" that is distinct from Scripture (paragraph 78). This Tradition, Catholics argue, does not contradict Scripture, and maintains faithfully the unwritten but authoritative teachings and traditions of the apostles and early church fathers. Tradition is to be believed by the members of the church. It is the apostolic succession of bishops that perpetuates and guarantees both the faithful teaching of Scripture and Tradition.

Protestants have reacted strongly against the doctrine of apostolic succession. They have done so in a number of ways, historical and theological. One of these ways is by affirming the apostolicity of the church. Apostolicity may be defined as receiving and obeying apostolic doctrine as it is set forth in the New Testament. In matters of doctrine and life, Protestants permit no ultimate appeal to traditions that are distinct from canonical Scripture. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10 says this:

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

Absolutely no provision is made for an authoritative, unwritten tradition. In fact, it is to the touchstone of Scripture that all traditions, including those of Roman Catholicism, must be brought.

Protestants have correctly observed that it is the appeal to Tradition that has made possible many doctrines and practices of Roman Catholicism that have no basis in Scripture. These include (to name only a handful) the papacy, papal infallibility, purgatory, the mass, the immaculate conception, and the assumption of Mary.

Even if it were historically provable that there was an unbroken succession of bishops from the first century to the present day Roman Catholic bishops (and it is not), Protestants would still demur to claims of Roman authority based upon apostolic succession. It is the apostolicity of the church that counts. And it is precisely by the standard of apostolicity that the Roman Catholic Church is measured and found wanting.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church recognizes as ministers those men ordained to that office by true churches, which are identified by the attribute of apostolicity.

2. "Do you believe that the 'gifts of the Holy Spirit' are for today, i.e., are healing, tongues, prophetic revelation, and miracles as led by the Holy Spirit actively manifest in our modern churches?"

Orthodox Presbyterian are cessationists with regard to the word gifts. For a very careful exposition of scriptural teaching regarding the word gifts and healing, I refer you to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church's "Report of the Committee on the Baptism and Gifts of the Holy Spirit," which may be retrieved at http://opc.org/GA/giftsHS.html.

3. "How is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church different from the Roman Catholic Church?"

Thousands of books and articles have been written that carefully distinguish between Roman Catholicism and churches, like the OPC, which belong to the historic Protestant tradition. Please permit me to point you to two articles that will assist you in your studies.

I recommend "Resolutions for Roman Catholic & Evangelical Dialogue," which may be retrieved at http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var1=ArtRead&var2=876&var3=authorbio&var4=AutRes&var5=1. This statement is quite short, but points to a number of crucial differences between historic Protestants and Catholics.

Michael Horton has written an excellent article pointing to the differences between historic Protestants and Catholics on the doctrine of justification. "Justification, Vital Now & Always" may be retrieved at


Let me also suggest a brief survey of the history and beliefs of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which may be retrieved at http://opc.org/what_is/the_opc.html.

While the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and historic Protestantism are many, let me focus on the one difference that must always be kept in mind, namely, the issue of authority. In every debate between Roman Catholics and historic Protestants, whether it be over the nature of the papacy, the place of tradition, justification, the role of Mary, the sacraments, or any other disputed matter, the question of authority will always surface. By what standard are matters of religious controversy judged? Historic Protestants will appeal to the Bible as the final authority in all matters of Christian faith and practice.

Roman Catholics, on the other hand, appeal to Scripture and Tradition as authoritatively interpreted by the papacy and its courts. The >i>Catechism of the Catholic Church claims this:

The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the "rock" of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. "The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head." This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church's very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope. The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, "is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful." "For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered' (paragraphs 881-882).

People often express surprise at the broad differences between Roman Catholics and historic Protestants. The differences are not only understandable, but also necessary, when examined from the standpoint of authority. As long as Protestants and Catholics appeal to two different authorities, an unbridgeable gulf separates them.

The Westminster Confession of Faith states clearly the historic Protestant position on the question of authority:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6).

The additions to which the authors of the Confession refer include not only the traditions of the papacy, but also the papal institution itself. The source of the irreconcilable differences between the Roman Catholic Church and historic Protestantism rests here. Reconciliation between historic Protestants and Roman Catholics would require either that Catholics abandon the papacy and its traditions, or that Protestants surrender their bedrock conviction that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. The issue of authority leaves no room for compromise.



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