Reformed Reflections

Notes on Apostolic Succession and Laying on of Hands
Cyprian (©.205-258). Bishop of Carthage

On Ministry  

1. As Reformed Christians, we part ways with Cyprian since the unity of the church existed for him through the office of bishops, the successors of the apostles. Cyprian taught a new view of the bishop. He set the bishop on a pedestal higher than had ever been thought of before. He liked to say that "the bishops are the glue that binds the church together....Therefore you know that the bishop is in the church and the church in the bishop and if somebody is not with the bishop, he is not in the church." Cyprian did not stress apostolic succession as a test of validity of the office of bishop, but he emphasized the idea that he was the successor of the Apostles and the legitimate interpreter of the apostolic tradition. He explained that Christ built the church upon Peter, because the primacy had been given to him. Yet all the apostles were important and united. "If a man does not maintain the unity of Peter, how does he maintain the faith?" asked Cyprian. Thus, the authority in the church resided in the whole body of bishops. Should the bishop prove unworthy, then the neighbouring bishops had the right to depose him. The bishop's power was from above and his main function was to represent God to the people. The bishop did not owe his election to any popular verdict; the people merely acquiesced in what was given. God's grace was dispensed by the bishop who was equated with the priest of the Old Testament. Both Jews and Gentiles were familiar with the idea of priests and sacrifices but Cyprian was the first to relate it to Christianity. In Cyprian is found the germ what would become the Roman Catholic view of the Lord's Supper ─ the mass. Eventually, the bishop became the sacrificing priest and the bloodless but real sacrifice that he offered was the passion of our Lord. The New Testament doctrine of the priesthood of all believers began to fade into the background, almost into oblivion, with Cyprian's view of church unity through bishops.  

Anglicanism and Apostolic Succession 

Cyril Garbett. Archbishop of York

The Claims of the Church of England,  Hodder and Stoughton ltd. London, 1955.

"The Church of England is an Episcopal Church and does not regard episcopacy merely as a convenient form of government, but also a guarantee of continuity in apostolic teaching and ministration. Only those who have been duly consecrated by other bishops have the right to ordain to the priesthood and the diaconate, and only who have been so ordained have the right to preach authoritatively the Word of God and to administer the Sacraments in the Church of England...with exception of the Church of Sweden, it is the only reformed Church which has preserved the historic episcopate."

"The Church of England for its doctrine appeals to Scriptures, to tradition and to reason. But this is a disappointing position for those who are looking for authoritative statements by an infallible church. They wish to escape from the responsibility of making their own decisions."

Edward Norman, Chancellor of York Minster and a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.  Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors. Morehouse Publishing, London. 2004.

"The normal condition of modern Anglicanism: a body without definition, since it sidelined its teaching authority, the Book of Common Prayer, in the second half of the twentieth century; a body uneasily held together by equivocation and paper compromise; a body, furthermore, with little idea where it is going, in the increasingly alien cultural circumstances of modern society."

"When the various constituent Churches of the Anglican Communion abandoned the Book of Common Prayer, in the 1970s, they lost in practice their only real bond of union."

"Sermons preached in order to promote Christian unity, for example, almost never include the Doctrine of the Church itself as among the reasons for disunity - yet it is the greatest stumbling in ecumenism: the question of authority- of the means of which truth is known to be true - is the very basis of all religious association."

"The World Council of Churches, for its part, appears to operate a policy of practical cooperation between the various affiliated bodies without enquiring into their doctrinal orthodoxy. How is it possible to recognize heretical Churches from those who adhere to apostolic teaching?"

John R.W. Stott. One People: laymen and clergy in God's Church. Inter - Varsity Press, 1968.

In response to Cyprian, Stott writes,

"The Christian presbyter is no more a New Testament apostle than he is an Old Testament priest, and the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline belongs to the whole congregation, not to the leaders only. See for example, Our Lord's injunction, 'tell it to the church', and the apostle's instructions to the Corinthian Church to take action as a body to excommunicate the incestuous offender: 'When you are are to deliver this man to Satan...'And again, 'Drive out the wicked person from among you."

However the suppression of the laity arose historically, there can be no doubt that clericalism still permeates our thinking today. Kraemer quotes the Roman Catholic author Yves Congar: "lay people will always from a subordinate order in the church." And though the Church of England has never articulated the matter in such terms, it has often behaved as if it thought this way."

"There must be many of us in the Church, both clergy and laity, who need to perform a complete mental somersault. It is not the clergyman who is the really important person and the layman a rather inferior brand of churchman, but the other way around. It is the laity who are important, the whole Church serving both God and man, the vanguard of Christ's army as it advances to the conquest of the world, and the clergy are the serving organization.'

Reformed View

John Calvin. Vera Christianae Pacificationis et Ecclesiae Reformandae Ratio. (The Unity and Peace of the Church). I used  "Om de Eenheid en Vrede der Kerk, the Dutch translation from the Latin by Dr. D.J. De Groot.

Calvin refutes the notion of apostolic succession. He cannot find evidence in Scripture for the office of bishop. He refers to 2 Pet. 2: 1 and 2 Thess. 2: 4 to show that false prophets cannot be accepted as successors of the apostles.

The Church stands under the Word of God. The traditions do not have the same authority as Scripture.

"Whoever subjects the content of Scripture to the judgment of the bishops will have nothing left but a dead body."

The apostle Peter was not the first Pope. He functioned as chairman whenever the apostles met for a discussion.

Calvin refutes the belief that the offering of the mass (Christ sacrificed anew), which is at the heart of the RC concept of the priesthood, is derived from the apostles.


IV.1,9. Wherever the Word of God is purely preached and heard and the Sacraments faithfully administered according to the institution of Christ, there is a Church of God. (Matt. 18: 20).

IV. 3,4. Paul names those who preside over the government of the Church, according to the institution of Christ, in the following order. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. Of these the first three were temporary-raised for specific occasions - and at the commencement of the Kingdom

IV.3.8.The use of the terms "bishops," "elders," "pastors," and "ministers" indifferently to signify one who presides over a Church has Scriptural warrant.

Harry G. Goodykoontz. The Minister in the Reformed Tradition. John Knox Press.
Eph. 4:7, 11-12.This passage suggests that "Pastors and teachers' are surely the early ancestors of our ordained ministers.

The office of apostle no longer exists. The church itself is apostolic in nature, sent by God to witness to the world.

Acts 15. "From the beginning major decisions had to be made, the church in congregational meeting, or more likely the church through its chosen representatives, made the decisions. No one apostle, not even all the apostles together, but the apostles along with the elders made the decision at the Jerusalem assembly."

The words bishop and elder were used interchangeably.

"The sharp division of Christian people into two classes, clergy and laity, was a colossal error in the history of the church."

Laying on of hands

It is not a sacrament. The laying of hand does not confer grace.

Institutes IV. 3,16. It appears that when the Apostles ordained a minister, they did so by the imposition of hands. Such a ceremony has a twofold value: It recommends to the people the dignity of the ministry, and admonishes the person ordained that he is no longer his own but has become the bond-slave of Christ and His Church.

Goodykoontz Laying on of hands is not commanded by Scripture. But "it is the bene esse of the church that ordination be with prayer and the laying on of hands. And the prayer is even more important than the imposition of hands."

E. P. Y. Simpson  Ordination and Christian Unity. The Judson Press. 1966.
"Regarding the matter of the laying-on of hands, [1 Tim. 4: 14; 2 Tim. 1:6], as mentioned in both of the Timothy passages, there is no ground for arguing that this in itself conferred any actual charisma upon Timothy. More likely, the noteworthy quality of Timothy's Christian life had led to his being selected for leadership, and the laying- on- of hands was his commissioning."

February, 2009