Game. Set. Match. Why bishops were the trump card in early church disputes.



Snark MeterrealMID.003

(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, episode 4)

Christians have a fondness for communicating in threes. Paul told the Corinthians, “but now abide faith, hope, and love,[1] Anglicans approach theology as a three-legged stool: Scripture, tradition and reason. Baptists love a sermon with a three-point outline. And the early church answered the rise of heresies with a 3-part argument of canon, creeds, and apostolic succession. You might be surprised at which of these three sources of authority was the second century church’s trump card. This has taken three posts worth of setup, but now look with me at the method the early church used to answer heresy…

The first argument: Scripture.

The first argument that the early Christians would appeal to in any argument of belief is, and always has been, the writings of the apostles (2 Pet. 3:14-16). In the first three hundred years of the church, however, which books would make up the canon of the New Testament was still being decided. The earliest known list of New Testament scriptures, the Muratorian canon, is thought to date from around c.200. Although the canon would not officially be “set” until c.381, by the second century churches appear to have been reading the four-fold gospel and rejecting the Gnostic gospels.[1] Still, in the second century, an argument from canon could still be met with “whose canon”?

The second argument: Creeds.

The second argument was the development of creeds (referred to as the “rule of faith” by Irenaeus and Tertullian). Early doctrinal creedal statements were apparently in use by c.150 (forerunners of Apostle’s Creed).[2] They formed a summary of the traditional teachings of the church. A creed is effectively a memorable, simplified statement of “here’s what we understand the Scriptures to teach.”

The trump argument: Bishops.

In response, the Gnostic cults argued that the reading of Scripture and traditional interpretation that led to the orthodox creeds were “flawed.” In a rebuttal to that argument, Irenaeus titles Against Heresies, 3:2: “The heretics follow neither Scripture nor tradition.” That led to the church’s final argument, the trump card that the heretics had no answer for: The succession of bishops from the first apostles. Bishops, as the successors given the teaching of the apostles, had determined the canon and developed the creeds. They alone were first, and they were always present throughout the history of the church. The argument for the succession of the teaching of the bishops was historical and inescapable. In effect, the argument against the Gnostics was, “If Jesus had taught some ‘secrets’ why did none of the apostles pass along this information? If they had heard something else, surely they would have passed it down. We know each and every bishop of the major cities by name and we know what they taught. Why have none of them taught these new things?” This formed the compelling and inescapable argument for orthodox theology and against these “new” ideas.


The early fathers, Ireneaus and Tertullian in particular, make the case against the Gnostics like a tennis player going deep on a combination of long, easy shots – and then, when the opponent shifts their position: Wham-o! An un-returnable drop shot just over the net. The early fathers built a compelling case for orthodoxy: In effect they said, “We start with the Scriptures…and you say you do too.” “We have creeds of our teachings…and you have yours.” And then the haymaker: “It is just that our teachings come from the ones that got them from the ones that got them from Jesus. We can name names. Names we all know.”

In the argument against the Gnostics, the three-point argument of canon, creeds and apostolic succession (bishops), it was the continuity of bishops that was the knockout shot. Game. Set. Match.

So when a church gives up Apostolic Succession to stand on the Bible Alone, rather than protecting itself, it actually opens itself to further theological problems.[3]


[1] Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2008), 62.

[2] Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2008), 63.

[3]which the first three articles in this series clearly show how unhistoric and poorly thought through this popular sentiment is


3 thoughts on “Game. Set. Match. Why bishops were the trump card in early church disputes.

  1. Ok…I’ll be honest! I choose to worship in a Baptist church…holding the historic Baptist (and we would say Biblical) fundamentals of The Faith, one of which is “The Bible is my sole authority for faith and practice.” However…the very statement invokes a historic succession of teaching, tradition and authority…(ok…you are allowed a smug little smile to yourself!).

    While we would shy away from the word “Bishop” since Catholicism makes us nervous on a number of levels, and we treasure our independence, we do, in fact, recognize a hierarchy from of old.

    Evidence to this truth…try thinking or teaching something from a different perspective…

    Interesting series…I’ve kept them all and will give them a thourough thinking through sometime this winter when life slows down a bit. As a historian you have cleared up a number of terms that have gotten cloudy through the ages.

    • Hi Darrell,

      Thank you for your ongoing contribution to enjoyable dialogue here!

      There is much in the history of the church that should make us nervous. “Catholic for Catholic sake”? Protestants should move past that just as much as Catholics should move past distrusting all things Protestant.The Bible as “sole authority of faith and practice” isn’t really the issue. The issue is how to interpret that authority. Article VI in the Anglican 39 Articles is helpful for me: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” So Scripture isn’t expected to teach all things, but we should not require anything which cannot be proved through scripture. I didn’t say it in this article, but the tradition (teaching of the bishops) is not a replacement authority for scripture but a lens through which we interpret the scriptures. And it is not a set of lenses being forever reground to shifting opinion (as the Episcopal church wants to say right now), but a set of lens that will in all likelihood never be reground due to the undivided nature of the early church’s unity lost after Chalcedon in 451…which is why we pass along “the faith once delivered.” (Jude 1:3)

  2. You wrote, “And it is not a set of lenses being forever reground to shifting opinion (as the Episcopal church wants to say right now).” I heartily concur, but I challenge you to expand on this thought in some near-future blog post.

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