A number of years ago I had a number of friends who maintained that the way to argue with me was to answer yes to the first question, and then to stoutly say no thereafter. I mention this because I am about to attempt something that I think our Roman Catholic friends might want to respond to in this way.
First, some debris clearing. There are just a few random items that should be set out publicly at the front end of this discussion. And after doing so, I want to present an argument for a form of apostolic succession that is consistent with the tenets of classical Protestantism, and not consistent with apostolic succession as held by Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy (and some Anglicans).
First, to argue for the necessity of apostolic succession (as I want to do) is not to treat apostolic succession as operating like some kind of simple electrical current, where if the circuit is broken at any one place you have no power on the other end. It is more like a vast continent-wide grid (if you want to use electricity as an example), or to use St. Peter's illustration (and that of many other biblical writers) it is like water flooding the world, as it did in the days of Noah. This is a figure, Peter says, of baptism, about which we will visit later.
Second, while we happily acknowledge that apostolic succession is an important question, and it is related to the question of authority, which is really the fundamental question, we have to acknowledge (and I would press my friends in Rome to acknowledge it) that there is a way of asking the authority question that puts you in dubious company. If the kingdom of God were like a pure line of labrador retrievers, where we always had to have our pedigree papers stamped by the authorities in Jerusalem, then certain notables of our faith would be in trouble. I speak, of course, about John the Baptist. Tell me, was he authorized or not? Was he from heaven, or not? And the question was posed to Jesus as well. "And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? (Matt. 21:23). Asked in a certain way, this is the devil's question. Now I cheerfully acknowledge that there is a good and God-honoring way to ask the question. It just needs to be noted that it is not automatically a good question. Throughout the long history of the covenant people, God has always loved to send disreputable messengers out of the wilderness into the royal and priestly courts and, once there, to have them behave in uncertified ways.
Third, when it comes to issues of "where are we to find the visible church," there are two basic ways to address the question. The first is to argue for some form of succession and the second is to argue for some form of restoration. The former option is taken by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and classical Protestants. Surprisingly to some, this is also the historic Baptist position. The differences are found in how succession is to be recognized, measured and noted, and not whether it is occurring. The restorationist position is found with groups like the Church of Christ, or out on the cultic edge, the LDS movement. The idea here is that the true church of Jesus Christ fell off the planet at some point after the apostles died, and then had to be restored, in effect from scratch.
This helps explain how classical Protestants can identify with the Church as she existed prior to the Reformation. In answer to the question, "Where was your Church before the Reformation?" the answer is, "Where was your face before you washed it?" The Reformation was a reformation of a portion of an existing Church, not the formation of a new church or denomination. I want to argue that such an identification with the ancient and medieval church is necessary if we are to avoid a cultic or sectarian mentality. But in order to be able to do this, we need a doctrine of apostolic succession, one that is biblically-grounded in the first place and deals with the historical data (so far as it exists) in the second place.
This brings us to another detail that needs to be addressed before we get into the argument. All of us bring certain faith assumptions to our examination of church history. These faith assumptions do two things -- they are the grid through which we interpret existing data, and they are the grid by which we fill in the gaps. I confess that I do not have notarized minutes from elder meetings going all the way back. Nobody does. Even when a claim is made that a particular communion has a line of bishops all the way back, certain gaps still have to be filled in. For example, was Clement of Rome a pope? As one Jesuit writer (Francis Sullivan) demonstrates in his book From Apostles to Bishops, we do not have historical grounds for saying that Clement was a bishop at all, still less a universal bishop. Sullivan, of course, believes that he was, but he also knows that it cannot be shown from the records of the early fathers. Every position involved in this discussion has to deal with notable gaps, which in my mind is not an argument against any of them. We all fill in these gaps by faith, established on other grounds. My point is simply that these gaps cannot be used against the Protestants only. In fact, the demonstrable existence of such gaps favors a position that allows for them (like classical Protestantism) and argues against any position that depends on an absence of gaps. In this sense, the history of the early church is a very great friend of the classical Protestant position.
All this said, I want to note that the foundation for my faith assumptions about church history are found in Scripture. This means that I believe certain things about the authority of the Church on the basis of what Jesus and the apostles taught, not because I can produce an exhaustive set of minutes that prove, say, that Second Nicea was an unlawful council. I know what to think of Second Nicea on the basis of the Second Commandment, which I consider to be a senior Second.
One last thing before we begin. Questions of scriptural authority cannot be separated from questions of ecclesiastical authority. The Bible, all 66 books of it, is the Word of God, and is the final and ultimate authority over all our disputes. But we have to acknowledge the role that Church played in the formation of that canon. The Table of Contents in front of my Bible is not the Word of God directly, but is rather the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Church. The Bible is not the Book that Fell from the Sky. This ecclesiastical authority is not over Scripture, any more than John's testimony that Jesus was the "Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world" places John the Baptist in authority over Christ. That would be obviously absurd, but some Protestants need to learn how to receive John's testimony rightly. The Church is not over Scripture, but the Church points faithfully to Scripture. And in the spirit of John the Baptist, the faithful Church says that Scripture must increase, and I must decrease.
Okay, so now we are ready to start. For those who want to do some background spadework on this question, I am depending on Peter Leithart's wonderful article, "The Womb of the World" [JSNT 78 (2000 49-65)]. Peter is not responsible for the conclusion I am arguing for here, but he is certainly responsible for first pointing me to the premises.
So here is the argument. Hebrews 10: 19-22 says this: "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water."
The question to which most of us can answer yes is this one: may we agree that this is a baptismal text? When we are encouraged by the fact that our bodies are "washed with pure water," are we not being encouraged by the fact that we are baptized into the triune name? Most exegetes do hold this to be a baptismal text, and this appears to make good sense of the passage and context. But then here is the kicker. Just as the Lord's Supper is a rite that fulfills, not only Passover, but all the feasts and sacrifices of Old Israel, so baptism fulfills, not only circumcision, but also a number of other typological features of life under the law, including the rite of ordination.
We see this in our text. Our hearts have been sprinkled from an evil conscience. What allusion is being made here, especially given the combination of blood and water? Leithart points out that to "draw near, one must come under blood and water -- a comparatively rare combination in Levitical law but found in the ordination rite (Exod. 29:4, 21; Lev. 8:6, 30). Hebrews 10:22 describes baptism with imagery borrowed from ordination" (p. 54) And later, Leithart says, "All those baptized and sprinkled with the blood of Christ have privileges of access beyond those of Israel's High Priests" (p. 55).
We Christians in the New Israel are a nation of priests, and as priests, we have access to the heavenly sanctuary. This privilege is conferred, stated, promised, signed and sealed in our baptisms. Apostolic succession is therefore a priestly succession, and the New Testament teaches that even Gentiles (in Christ) can walk into the Holy of Holies as priests. Not just one Jew from the line of Aaron, once a year, but multitides of Gentles, all the time, not to mention all the Jews who came to faith as well. This means that ordination in the Old Covenant is not primarily a type of ordinations in the New (although there are ordinations in the New). These ancient ordinations are a type of what is declared of all Christians in baptism.
Put another way, although I am an ordained minister, I do not believe that I am at the tail end of a long chain of governmental ordinations going back to Christ. But this does not mean that I do not believe in apostolic succession. I am also baptized, and I do believe there is a web of baptisms that go all the way back. Christian baptism is the inundation of the world, and like the water flowing out over the threshold of Ezekiel's Temple, it only gets deeper and deeper as it goes. The farther we get away from the apostolic era, the wetter the world gets. If we see apostolic succession in terms of mere governmental actions, carefully noted in the minutes, the farther we get away from the apostles, the more obscurity will surround the entire question, and the disputes will multiply. I mean, look at them. Look at us.
If in order to offer the bread of life and the wine of the new covenant to our people I have to be sure of the exact relationship between Clement and Linus, and other early pastors in Rome, the people of God will starve to death. If, before I open the Scriptures to declare what God has given to all of us, I have to make sure that the electrical current can make it all the way to me through one solitary line, then we are all in trouble.
But it is not this way at all. Jesus never gives us any image of the growth of His kingdom throughout the world that would ever make us think of the phrase "nice and tidy." The kingdom of God is like a dragnet that brings in all kinds of fish, beer bottles, and a bicycle tire. The kingdom of God is like yeast that works through the loaf, and yeast does not grow in straight, little lines. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed growing to a large plant, and the birds of their air nest in the branches. The messiness of the Christian world is part of the decretal will of God. The tares in the wheatfield are not behaving, but of course, they never do. The divine will does not color inside the lines that mere men set out for Him. Jesus did pray that His people would be one, as He and the Father are one. This has not happened yet, not anywhere. Not in Rome, not in Geneva, not in Constantinople. But Jesus prayed for it, and it will happen. He prayed that the earth would be as full of the Lord as the waters covered the sea. He prayed that He would inherit the ends of the earth for His possession, and He will. The day is coming when the waters of baptism will soak the world. The day is coming when certain Christian communions, bobbing around in their own little boat, will stop claiming that the water exists for their boat only.
The New Testament does teach us that government of the congregation is important, and we see in multiple ways how and why it is important. But John Murray argues rightly that any congregation of baptized Christians, that is to say, any congregation of priests, has the authority to establish such government among themselves. It is necessary that they do so, and the authority conferred by baptism enables them to do so with a clean conscience.
This next thing may seem like a odd claim for a Protestant to make in a discussion with Roman Catholics, but I do not believe that this view is a disparagement of orderly government and ordination on my part as their view is a disparagement of the actual privileges conferred in baptism. Baptism is not just a matter concerning individual salvation, of placing a sign and a seal of Abraham's faith on individual persons. Individuals can be baptized only because the world has been baptized. Baptism is the birthright of the new humanity, the citzenship papers of the inhabitants of the new heaven and new earth. Christ is a new Adam. The Church is a new Eve. All things have been made new.
As we congregate in churches, of course all things should be done decently and in order. But our lifeline to Christ is not a line of ordinations, except in the sense that the ordinations of the old order were rolled up into baptism and graciously given to us. God has made us kings and priests to rule on the earth. This was conferred upon us when we were baptized into the triune Name, ushered (in that formal rite) into the visible Church. And in a special note to my TR friends, I am not denying the reality of heart conversions to God before that point, or the absolute covenantal demand for such heart conversion after that point.
A position like this makes Christian catholicity, catholicity of spirit, possible. It recognizes the baptisms of all Trinitarian communions, and does not try to solve the lamentable divisions in Christendom by holding up the hands and saying, "Brethren! These divisions are disgraceful! Our proposal for eliminating them is for everyone to stop being obstinate and join us!" At the same time, we all have our own views, and nothing whatever can be done about that. But catholicity of spirit requires that we subordinate our views to the profound declaration made in our baptism -- one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We subordinate our views, which is not the same thing as abandoning our views. And as this process continues apace, I believe the regrettable errors made by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and people just like me do temporarily get in the way of declaring the true unity of that baptism to an unbelieving world.
But we are Christians who believe that God loves the world, and we believe that He fully intends to save it. We can therefore afford to be patient. A day is coming when the water will cover the mountain tops.