What Does It Mean to Say the Church is “Apostolic?”

“What Christ entrusted to the Apostles, they in turn handed on by their preaching and writing, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to all generations, until Christ returns in glory.” (CCC 96)

12th-century Cappadocian fresco of Christ and the Apostles
12th-century Cappadocian fresco of Christ and the Apostles (photo: Public Domain)

One of the lines I love most in the first Eucharistic Prayer is the prayer for the Catholic Church and all bishops who “preach the Catholic faith that comes to us from the Apostles.”

In the Creed we profess our belief in “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic” Church, and in my discussions with non-Catholic Christians from Reformation communities, I have asked what interpretation they put on the Creed, as they are not Catholics, but also profess to believe in “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” 

How can they say they believe in the Apostolic Church while rejecting apostolic succession?

The reply is that they hold to the apostolic faith which is taught in the New Testament. They believe and preach the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Their faith is the faith of the Apostles, and therefore their church can be called an “apostolic church.”

Well, yes and no.

The curious Catholic wants to ask, “How do you know your faith is, in fact, the faith taught by the Apostles and not some sincere, but much later, distortion of that faith?”

The curious Catholic wants to ask, “If your religion is the faith taught by the Apostles, how do you know it is the correct version in the face of tens of thousands of other Protestant denominations — all of which would also claim to be following the apostolic faith?”

Catholics want to probe a little bit and ask, “How can the faith you practice be that of the Apostles when it leaves out so much of what we know the very early Christians (who were but one generation removed from the Apostles) believed and practiced?”

Further: “Where did you get this faith you call the apostolic faith? We hear you say it comes from the Scriptures, but doesn’t it really come from the Catholic Church, which held that faith for 1,500 years before the Reformers developed their own reduced, low-calorie version of it? For that matter, would you even have the Scriptures if the Catholic Church hadn’t first decided just what those Scriptures contain?”

All this is true enough, but I think we can allow for other Christians to also claim the apostolic faith if we understand that there is a continuum of levels of belief in the apostolic faith.

It works like this: a simple, Bible-believing Christian could be believe in the apostolic faith if, as they say, they are being faithful to the core gospel and faithful as much as they can be to what is written in the New Testament. The New Testament does in deed hold the essential record of the apostolic faith.

The next level of apostolicity would be those Christians who not only hold to the New Testament, but are also informed by the writings of the apostolic fathers — the first few generations of theologians and bishops of the Church who live and pray and teach within the earliest traditions of the Church. Such Christians — learned in the teachings of these ancient successors to the Apostles would share in an extra level of apostolicity.

The next level would be those Christians (like Anglicans and Lutherans) who believe and live the New Testament and live within an understanding and acceptance of the teachings of the apostolic fathers, but also believe their bishops enjoy apostolic succession. Whether they do or not may be debatable, and whether they truly hold to the teachings of the Apostles may be debatable, but we can say they might believe and live within a third level of apostolic fullness.

The next level would be Catholics who believe the New Testament and the teachings of the apostolic fathers and whose bishops not only have valid apostolic succession, but are also in a living communion with the successor of Peter — the pope.

With these four levels of apostolicity we can grant that all Christians may share in the apostolic faith even if they do not share in the fullness of the apostolic faith.

Finally, we have to consider the situation of some Catholics which is very seriously deficient. These are the theologians, deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals who should be living and breathing examples of the fullness of the apostolic faith — enjoying the fullness of all four levels of that faith, but who have denied the faith at the most fundamental levels.

If a theologian or member of the clergy, through modernism or some other heterodox ideology, denies (or more likely “re-interprets”) the core gospel and the basic teachings of Our Lord in the New Testament, then their situation is worse than the Bible-believing Protestant who, at least, believes the New Testament and the basic teachings of Christ and the Apostles.

Such men are wolves in shepherd’s clothing and despite having apostolic succession as bishops they have denied the essential truths of the apostolic faith putting them in the category of “having the form of religion but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5).

St. Paul says, “Have nothing to do with such people.”