Monday, July 13, 2009

No more apostles, thanks

The Bish has been writing about apostles, and why he (with newfrontiers as a whole) thinks they are around, and needed, today. I feel the need to offer a contrary opinion, although hopefully not just for the sake of being contrary. I have a lot of respect for newfrontiers as a movement, but this is one of those things that I think they just have completely wrong, for a couple of reasons. Go read Dave's post first - otherwise this won't make much sense.

The reasons I object to this talk of modern-day apostles would include:

1. It's an ahistorical argument. It can be demonstrated that the word 'apostle' is used in the NT to describe several different sorts of people - but two millennia have passed since then. We can't just ignore the fact that the word 'apostle' has had, since the 2nd century at least, a technical meaning in the church. It refers to the twelve, plus Paul. newfrontiers seem to want to skip over all this history as if it never happened, as if we could ignore the history of the church and live in the book of Acts. We can't, and we're not meant to.

2. It's an anti-ecumenical argument. It has a tendency to place evangelicals who do not recognise any 'apostolic influence' outside the church. The church is, after all, apostolic! And if we define apostolic the way newfrontiers would like us to, all independents and presbyterians are outside the church.

3. It's an argument that undermines the uniqueness of the eye-witness generation. This is not Dave's argument about the sufficiency of Scripture, although it is similar. The church is apostolic because it listens to the apostolic witness - whether actually written by the apostles or not. This witness - the witness of those who saw his glory - stands as the foundation of the church. The foundation is in one sense part of the house, but in another sense is a separate thing, the necessary precondition of the house. So the apostles were in one sense the beginning of the church, and therefore a part of it, but in another sense they stood apart from it. That is important - it means the church is always faced by a standard that is in some sense external to it, namely the record of the apostolic witness in Scripture. A continuing apostolate is theologically disastrous, because it must tend to undermine the distinction between the apostles, who always speak to the church in Scripture, and the church, which always hears the apostles in Scripture.

4. It's an argument that dethrones Christ in his church. This is a more controversial point, because it cuts against bishops, presbyteries and the like as well as contemporary apostles. Christ rules his church by his word; God's people are entrusted to that word, not to successor-apostles. I am of the opinion that this means congregationalism - I have quoted Barth to this effect elsewhere.

5. I can't help thinking it must be a personally unhelpful label for people to bear. But I can't say much about that, with my limited experience of those involved.

6. It is hardly reformed thinking! That's not very important, except that when you stretch definitions this far I wonder whether they mean anything at all anymore...

Here endeth the controversy. Perhaps.


  1. Good to talk!

    "It's an anti-ecumenical argument. It has a tendency to place evangelicals who do not recognise any 'apostolic influence' outside the church. The church is, after all, apostolic! And if we define apostolic the way newfrontiers would like us to, all independents and presbyterians are outside the church."

    That's to make too much of apostleship - a sphere of influence is going to be where the relationships are - in some ways it's just an attempt to speak Biblically about relationships and oversight. We all form our own spheres - evangelicals certainly seem too, whether a newfrontiers, a gospel-partnership etc.

    A way of saying, churches should be interdependent not independent, relating together, running themselves but receiving foundational support from those gifted to do so. Really not very different to the way that UCCF has Team Leaders or Anglican's have Bishops..

    Looking to say let's emphasise relationships and gifting over geography and appointments. Let's have things grow and develop rather than being too fixed. Saying let's not hold tightly to structures or denominated structures for their own sake, but instead hold them very loosely.

  2. I think one thing that highlights is that we're using the word 'apostolic' to mean very different things. I'm using it in line with the creeds, I think - so point 1 would apply...

    I'm pretty convinced that independency works, with the interdependency expressed through the mutual relations of pastors as equals - e.g. in fraternals. Actually, I think that's pretty important. But if people want an office that transcends the local congregation (I really, really don't!), I wish it could be called almost anything other than 'apostle'...

    However, I take your main point, that structures are not that important. Again, I might suggest that independency expresses that best..?

  3. Once more, good thoughts, Mr Blanche!

  4. I think there is a massive difference between "Apostle" the noun and "apostolic" the adjective. One is positional, one is functional.

    So does Mr Virgo

    Point 1 becomes redundant: the apostolic gift is still very much alive in almost every ecclesiology, whatever you call the gift or the person.

    Point 2 gets sketchy, because there are hardly any churches who never invite any visiting speakers, or have mature leaders the pastor seek wise counsel from, or have some level of relationship with other Churches. All those could be seen as "apostolic" in some way. Apostle is not a person to make you a Church, apostolic is a gift a church may choose to benefit from, whatever it chooses to call itself.

    Points 3 and 4 seem to assume continuation of the apostolic line or something like that. The apostolic gift is a function not a title. We are talking different things.

    Point 5 is spot on. No-one is labelled an Apostle.

    Point 6: Calvin trained pastors in Geneva who went to plant Churches all over France. He wrote hundreds of letters to support the new ever growing network of reformed Churches who described themselves as a family and in many ways saw him as the father figure.

    The whole discussion comes down to definitions, but I would agree that even the use of the word is very complicated.

  5. So what is the apostolic gift? I confess I don't know. I can't think of any Scriptural basis for talk of such a gift of the top of my head - but maybe there is one?

    The article on 'apostle' in the IVP Dictionary of Paul etc. is very useful on this. It notes an interesting progression in the way Paul uses the word - in earlier letters, he includes his co-workers as apostles, but in later letters (after his own apostolic authority has been challenged) he seems to use a tighter definition involving seeing the risen Christ...

  6. Although scripture is the foundational apostolic witness what was at work when the cannon was decided? Or when the creeds were written, when the Trinity was expressed. Perhaps when the church faced new cultural challenges in different cultures and mission structures had to be formed, when the western church needed reforming, and so forth.

    The apostolic holds together continuity and change through growth. The Tradition, that is the work of the Spirit through the life story of the Church.

    Now maybe this is not very Reformed. Perhaps the Reformation over reached itself by rejecting the Apostolic? It might explain why so much is 'missing' from 'Reformed' Christianity of a certain sort that had previously been believed by all Christians?

  7. Thanks for the comment, Edward. The way I read all those events - canon definition, creed writing etc - is as the church looking back to the apostolic witness and offering an interpretation of it. That's why I accept all of those things (yes, even the canon - controversial, huh?) as merely secondary, churchly decisions. Do I detect Roman Catholic leanings from your comment? Whether that is the case or not, I think what I've written highlights what I see as the central distinction between Reformed and Roman theology - I think it's important, I'd come down on the Reformed side, and I do think that there is the possibility that some contemporary charismatic churches lean in a Roman direction here (unwittingly).

  8. A gracious reply, thank you.

    More reformed catholic - that is Anglican. So apostolicity is expressed through episcopacy.

    The difference between the 'New Apostles' and Bishops is that Bishops wear a silly hat and therefore people tend to remember that it it is the office that is respected rather the individual.

    Anyone care to send Terry a Mitre?