"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Seduction of Presumed Authority

I have written frequently here on sacramental magisterial authority. Now I wish to look at the privation of sacramental magisterial authority.

In a post titled "
The Priesthood of All Believers – Part 2" Jeff Myers first offers a quotation from Lesslie Newbigin which I have discussed here. In the comments of that post Jeff writes:
The pastor's words come with more authority because Christ through his church has given the pastor the authority to read and preach the Word in the congregation. Not everyone in the assembly has been given this authority. The very fact that some men have "hands laid" on them means that they have delegated authority (1 Tim 4.14; 5.22; 2 Tim 1.6; Heb 1.10). That's not all it means. But it does entail that. ... God has given men authority. It's delegated authority. It's only to be used ministerially, that is "in Christ's stead." Even so, it's real authority. Paul tells pastor Titus to "declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority" (Titus 2:15). ... Christ has all authority and he shares his authority, he delegates his authority to men.
I agree with that. But the question I wish to consider here is this: Does it matter who lays hands on the ordinand?

The Catholic Church, for almost 2,000 years, has said yes. Valid ordination requires at least two things: (1) that at least one of the persons laying hands on the ordinand is a bishop (if not an apostle), and (2) that the bishop himself was ordained either by an apostle or by a bishop in a sacramental succession of bishops that extends back to an apostle.

Protestants, however, denied both criteria. (Anglicans, some Methodists, and a few Lutheran communities in Europe retained the episcopacy.) First, on the basis of sola scriptura, Protestants rejected the distinction between bishops and elders, primarily because they did not find the distinction explicit in Scripture. Second, they rejected the sacramentality of ordination, redefining 'apostolic succession' from its Catholic conception as "the handing on of apostolic preaching and authority from the Apostles to their successors the bishops through the laying on of hands, as a permanent office in the Church" (CCC 77) to "agreement with the doctrine of the Apostles". (I have discussed the Protestant conception of 'apostolic succession' in "Protestantism and Sacramental Authority", and the Catholic conception in these other posts.)

What does it matter who is right about ordination? It matters because any person can claim that Christ has given him authority. Any group of people can claim to speak for Christ or speak for the Church. Any group of people can claim to act on behalf of Christ in giving Christ's authority to an ordinand. Anyone can claim to have the Apostles' teaching. The sacramentality of ordination helps guards the unity and doctrinal purity of the Church. In order to preach in the name of Christ, one must be sent by the legitimate authorities of the Church, i.e. those in sacramental succession from the apostles, just as the apostles could not send themselves but could only be sent by Christ. (cf. Acts 15:24; Romans 10:15; 2 Cor 5:20) The growth and expansion of the Church was always organically derived from and organically connected to the Apostles. Because the Church is a Body, it must grow as a Body, with magisterial authority derived from magisterial authority, not by gnostic montanism. The Life of Christ flows sacramentally from Christ to the Apostles, and flows sacramentally from the Apostles to the bishops and from the bishops to the whole Church, through each successive generation. In the same way, the authority of Christ develops and extends itself in the same organic manner over time, as the Body grows. The sacramentality of ordination grounds Tertullian's response to the heretics. Protestants had to change the definition of 'apostolic succession' from something essentially sacramental (inherently material, organic and temporal), to something entirely formal (in the Platonic sense) in order to justify being separate from the Catholic Church.

Does it matter who lays hands on the ordinand? Yes. Because if ecclesial authority is not derived from the one laying on hands, then anyone can 'ordain' anyone, and ordination is just "presumed authority", in actuality nothing more than permission from a group of persons to speak to them. No one then has actual authority. But if ecclesial authority is derived from the one laying on hands, and the one laying on hands has no authority to give, then again the ordinand has only presumed authority, not actual authority. So actual ecclesial authority can be acquired in ordination only if the one laying on hands has the authority to give. But the same truth applies to the one laying on hands; he can have acquired actual ecclesial authority at his ordination only if
the one who laid hands on him had the authority to give. And this shows that either no one has actual ecclesial authority, or only those ordained in sacramental succession from the apostles have actual ecclesial authority.

Did St. Ignatius bishop of Antioch have presumed authority? St. Irenaeus bishop of Lyon? St. Cyprian bishop of Carthage? St. Augustine bishop of Hippo? St. Gregory the Great? If they had actual ecclesial authority and not presumed authority, then why think that their sacramental successors have only presumed authority?

And the question for the Protestant pastor is: Who sent you, and what authority did they have to send you? Where did they derive their authority? If their authority did not derive by sacramental succession from the apostles, then why think that they had any authority to give when they laid hands on you? Regarding the early Protestants, they could not have derived ecclesial authority from the Catholic Church, for they said of her that she was apostate, otherwise they would not have been justified in leaving her. But if they conceded that an apostate Church had the authority to ordain, then they should have submitted to that authority, because the one who ordains has greater authority than the one ordained. So either they had only presumed authority and/or they rejected their rightful authorities.


Tom B. said...

I've heard my ordained protestand dad say that preachers don't need apostolic succession, but just in case they do, they've got it anyway (fall-back argument). Luther was ordained properly, and he would have ordained even those who split into Calvinism. Likewise those who split because of their anabaptist convictions. I'm not suggesting this is a good argument, just sharing it.

Bryan Cross said...


In the 1520s Luther very strongly emphasized the "priesthood of all believers", so much so that ordination (for him at this time) was nothing more than a congregation authorizing a person to preach and teach. The early Protestants generally rejected the sacramental conception of ordination. According to Luther at this time, the ontological equipping for ministerial priesthood came from baptism; ordination was essentially permission from the congregation. Given this conception of ordination, there seems to be no good reason to think that sacramental succession from the apostles was preserved within Protestantism in general. The very notion of sacramental succession of holy orders from the apostles was contrary to the basic plank of the Reformation, i.e. "the priesthood of all believers". For an ordinand to ask that someone with valid orders be present at the ordination would have been to contradict that fundamental plank. The ordinand should be content with any baptized believer from the congregation being the one to lay hands on him.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Tom B. said...

I'm chuckling, really. Excellent response, and I'll put that one in my cap until the next time pop breaks out his bologna fall-back argument!

So the preaching was preserved from error so long as it met with the satisfaction of the masses? In other words, it would only fail to properly be a preaching of the word if it was so raunchy as to cause the congregation to revoke their permission? (...it's O-S-C-A-R...)...

Peace in Christ,

Anonymous said...

Here are two sites that might be of interest to you:


Both are by Tim Enloe. I didn't know if you were aware of them, but I thought you would be interested.


Unknown said...

St. Hippolytus has interesting passage (not that I approve of it) stating that confessors in the early church did not require ordination to the presbyterate by the laying on of hands on account of their suffering.