A mistake commonly made by modern Catholic apologists is that of assuming that the early Church looked much like the Catholic church of today. While this notion isn’t totally baseless—I would contend, contra a fair number of Protestants, that neither did the early Church look much like most of today’s Protestant churches in either doctrine or practice—it creates the impression, simply untrue, that the teachings of Christ were fully understood and delineated and articulated and the Church’s devotions fully laid out in 70 A.D.
Concerning apostolic succession: was this doctrine understood by the early Church—by the Apostles who cast lots to determine Judas’ successor and by later Christians who chose successors for the Apostles after they had died—in the same way it is today or was even a hundred years after Christ’s death? No, I am willing to admit that it probably wasn’t. But this isn’t to say that new doctrines were made up over the course of time; rather, it entails that, confronted with unprecedented doctrinal and practical difficulties, the Church throughout the ages has been creative in mining Scripture and Tradition for answers.
Klaus Schatz, a Jesuit professor of theology, has some interesting things to say about the development of apostolic succession as a doctrine and practice of the Church and its relationship, at least by analogy, to the New Testament canon. Two passages from his book Papal Primacy, one short and one slightly longer, are particularly worth noting. First, the short one:
We probably cannot say for certain that there was a bishop of Rome [in 95 AD]. It is likely that the Roman church was governed by a group of presbyters from whom there very quickly emerged a presider or ‘first among equals’ whose name was remembered and who was subsequently described as ‘bishop’ after the mid-second century. (Schatz 4).
And now the long one:
A further development began toward the end of the second century, against the background of the conflicts with gnosticism and the resulting emphasis on paradosis (tradition) as the objective rule of faith. Gnosticism, in itself a very complicated movement, was characterized by, among other things, its appeal to a deeper insight in faith, accessible only to an elite of the cognoscenti, handed on in ‘secret traditions,’ and thus to that extent immune to historical mediation or scrutiny. The faith of ordinary Christians was regarded as merely the primitive first stage for beginners; only the cognoscenti, those who ‘possess knowledge,’ can enter the inner sanctuary.
In their debates with these movements, orthodox authors emphasize a tradition that is open to all, historically accessible, and comprehensible even for ordinary Christians. This accessibility is twofold: in sacred Scripture and in the apostolic succession of the episcopal office. The authentic writings of the New Testament were now gradually assembled to form a canon and distinguished from the ‘nonauthentic’ traditions in the apocrypha. The composition of ‘lists of bishops’ extending back to the apostles was an effective way of saying that this uninterrupted succession guarantees that the public tradition [i.e. that which was being taught in the apostolic churches] is true. There are thus no ‘secret traditions.’ Everything is carried on in the full light of day (Schatz 7).
In the first few decades after Christ ascended, there was not, then, a firm concept of apostolic succession guiding the Church. But, then again, neither was there a firm concept of a Christian canon (apart, of course, from the Jewish Scriptures). St. Paul probably didn’t assume that his epistles would become canonized Scripture, nor did the writer of the Gospel of St. Matthew necessarily anticipate the same. Both were writing to spread the word and prevent error; both no doubt expected Christ’s immanent return. The New Testament and apostolic succession thus bear a resemblance to one another in their historical development as doctrinal and practical solutions that arose in reaction to and as a safeguard against the heresies which threatened Christianity in the 2nd century.
One cannot, of course, uncritically equate Sacred Scripture and the priesthood as defined by the early Church; the issues surrounding both are too varied and complex to simplify their relationship in that way. Yet the question still comes to mind: can one stand without the other?