The Joint Declaration on the doctrine of Justification, signed by the Pontifical Council and the Lutheran World Federation, gives the author hope that full communion between the churches might be restored. But at least one important issue remains to be settled before that can happen. On the one hand, the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and other eastern Christians believe that their bishops are the successors of the apostles and thus those who celebrate the Eucharist have been ordained by “bishops who stand in the historic apostolic succession” (p. 3). The churches based on the Reformation, however, do “not depend on episcopal ordination in the historical apostolic succession” (p. 4). The recognition of Protestant Eucharist would be, therefore, impossible on the part of the former group. Further, the former group will see apostolic succession as validating authoritative teachers, as a characteristic of apostolicity, but Protestants will identify apostolicity with adherence to apostolic doctrine as present in the New Testament (p. 7).
Thus, the author sees this issue as critically important and he hopes to convince his readers that the Catholic/Orthodox view is the correct one. Sullivan interacts throughout the work with two types of critics. On the one hand, he agrees with the consensus of scholars that states that the monarchical episcopacy did not occur in the New Testament period, that the apostles did not ordain one bishop for each church to serve as their successors. The author takes great pains to establish this point against those in his own communion that argue otherwise. On the other hand, however, he will try to show--not based on historical evidence but on theological argument--that the development of the monarchical episcopcacy in the second century was a product of the leading of the Holy Spirit.
After a statement of the problem, the author settles into a presentation of the historical evidence. His quotation of the sources is preceded by a brief but helpful discussion of the historical background to the document and is followed by incisive comments. These comments are done evidently with the average reader in mind and are clear as well as insightful. The work offers chapters on the apostolic and sub-apostolic portions of the New Testament, on the Didache and 1 Clement, on Ignatius, Polycarp, the Shepherd of Hermas, Justin, and Hegisippus, on Irenaeus and Tertullian, on Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, and finally on Cyprian.
The book repeatedly makes the following points: The monarchical episcopate developed first in the second century, and in Antioch and western Asia Minor before other localities. There was no single bishop in the church of Rome in the first century. The apostles did not appoint one man in each church as a bishop to succeed them. The apostles did pass on their ministry to successors, however (pp. 101, 217 and passim).
Having reached these conclusions from the historical survey, the author then concludes his work with his theological argument. As he concedes, “history alone cannot give the answers” (p. 218). We must rely on theological insight to settle the question as to the nature of the development of the monarchical episcopacy and its accompanying significance for the unity of the church. This is a question for faith, not for purely historical investigation.
The author then offers three arguments to support the thesis that the bishops are the successors to the apostles. 1. The post-New Testament development is “consistent with” what took place in the period of the New Testament writings. That is, the apostles shared their ministry with others. 2. The monarchical episcopate was a necessary and useful tool to counter heresy (especially Gnosticism) in the second and third centuries. 3. Accepting the bishops’ doctrine as authoritative is “analogous to the reception” of the New Testament canon. The Holy Spirit guided the church in accepting both the New Testament and bishops as norms.
This is a work that should prove very helpful in current ecumenical overtures. It is irenic in tone, scholarly in method, and argued from a perspective of faith. The survey of the literature alone makes this a valuable resource for anyone interested in studying ministry roles in the ancient church. His clear presentation of the issues dividing the modern church makes the work also useful for those involved in interdenominational dialogue.
Yet, one might ask a few questions about the author’s three theological arguments. First, the author argues that the necessity of the episcopate in the second and third centuries indicate its divine inspiration. That reasoning can become an untamed animal, however. One might use this argument to justify many things in the historical development of the church, both good and bad. Second, the author maintains that the Holy Spirit continued to guide the church after the days of the apostles (p. 230). After we have granted that, how does it help to settle the issue for the modern church? Did the Spirit then guide the reformers also who rejected the doctrine of apostolic succession? The author also correctly points out that apostolic succession while not explicit in the apostolic period was seminally there (p. 230). But so was charismatic ministry and leadership by a college of presbyters (as he grants repeatedly in his work). Finally, I would ask, can we not grant that the monarchical episcopate of the second and third centuries was a divinely ordained institution, needed for that period, without also maintaining that it must be normative for the modern church in all cases?
Having said the above, I hasten to conclude that this is a welcome contribution to both the historical study of the ministry and the current ecumenical movement.