An Apostolic Succession

Compared to Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Colossians, Ephesians, and so on, his letters to specific people, like Timothy, have a very different tone.  Broad-sweeping, often complicated, teachings about salvation instead give way to specific instructions and personal reminders.  In a manner reminiscent of the beginning of II Kings, we get little glimpses of a relationship akin to that of Elijah and Elisha – a wizened old man of God nearing the end of his life preparing his disciple to be his successor.

Despite the title of this post, I am not about to make an argument for the doctrine of Apostolic Succession as such.  Someday I’ll build up to that, but right now I just want to reflect on some of the things I read in 1 Timothy last week that highlight Timothy’s succession of Paul in general, and his installation as Bishop of Ephesus specifically.  Three keywords come to mind: son, entrusting, and deposit.

(By way of disclaimer, if you think some of my scriptural quotes are weird, it’s because I’m using my own translation of the Greek, which, as best I can, supplements and clarifies the mainstream translations like the NIV or the ESV.)

First of all, one of the linguistic giveaways is Paul’s opening words in the letter, where he refers to Timothy as his “genuine son.”  The language of father and son is a typical fashion of a master and a disciple.  Jesus warned against the abuse of this, but clearly Paul is demonstrating a godly use of this terminology, different from how the pharisees sought to honor themselves.  Moreover, Paul calls Timothy a “genuine son in the faith,” which sometimes could mean that Paul converted him, but we know this wasn’t the case with Timothy.  Rather, Timothy’s sonship to Paul was a matter of a master-disciple relationship, and in these letters, Paul is preparing Timothy to live without him.

Secondly, there’s the language of entrusting.  Early in the letter, Paul refers to himself as having been entrusted with the gospel.  Though this is an unusual phrase to hear from Paul, it’s essentially what he means every time he defends his apostolic authority in his letters to various churches.  Oftentimes it can be a struggle trying to draw the line between what is unique to the authority of the original Apostles, and what is passed on to the clergy today and/or what is passed on to all Christians today.  Thankfully on this particular subject we get some help.  Shortly after Paul describes his entrustment of the gospel, he speaks of entrusting it to Timothy.  Part of what’s entrusted to these two greater leaders in the Church is a common charge to fight the good fight, teaching love which leads to a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.  These are just initial thoughts; a careful reading of 1:3-20 will bring out more fully the parallels between Paul’s ministry and the ministry that Timothy has received.

Later in the letter, some of Paul’s specific instructions for Timothy bring in more detail surrounding the beginning of Timothy’s ministry.  The “council of elders”/eldership/presbytery/πρεσβυτεφλίου had laid hands on Timothy and spoken forth (“prophesied”) his ministry.  We don’t really know who comprised this council; though we do know Paul was among them.  A safe guess would be that this took place in Jerusalem with some of the original Apostles, but the text gives us no clues.  What this does do, though, is function as reassurance for Timothy that he meets the requirements to be a bishop, and should not worry about how young he is.

Thirdly, and somewhat related to the above, is the subject of a deposit that Timothy received.  This shows up in 1 Timothy 6:20 and again in 2 Timothy 1:14.  This is probably the scriptural origin of what the Early Church called “the deposit of faith.”  Many Evangelicals today think of this deposit as the Bible.  Certainly, the Bible is a deposit for the Church today, but nobody in their right mind can assert that this is what Paul was telling Timothy.  Yes, Timothy had the Hebrew scriptures, the two letters that Paul wrote him, and probably access to the letter written to the Ephesians and maybe even the gospel of Mark.  But at the same time it’s important to realize that what Paul is referring to here is a collection of oral teachings passed on from himself, the other Apostles, and whomever else they’d sent out.

In a word, it’s tradition.  Timothy was entrusted with the message of the gospel, backed up with the Old Testament and the witness and practice of the Apostles, especially Paul in his case.  Hymns, prayers, sacraments, sayings, teachings, fellowship… all these things are what liturgy is made of.  Especially in a mostly illiterate culture, Christian teaching had to be passed on in many different ways; having a liturgical coherence was important from the start!  And, as I’ve argued before, it’s still very important even today.

So those are some of my thoughts on the establishment of Timothy’s tenure as Bishop of Ephesus.  He was an authentic disciple, or “son,” of Paul, he was entrusted with the same thing that Paul had been entrusted with, and received it as a deposit of faith including, but not limited to, the Bible.  I’m not about to say that this is exactly what modern church leadership should look like – that would be too hasty.  It is, however, a prototype that should be considered as a sort of model when we look at how authority within the Church is passed on from generation to generation.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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2 Responses to An Apostolic Succession

  1. Ben says:

    2 Cor 1:22 and 5:5 speak of the Spirit as a “deposit” guaranteeing what is to come. But you’re right, it’s something else in the Timothy verse because it says “By the Spirit, guard your deposit” so it can’t be the same thing!

    I’m not sure passing on leadership is just passing on tradition or liturgy. Maybe it’s part of it, or maybe we have our definitions mixed up again.

    Leadership is passed on by the observation and then imitation of a person you want to be like. You assimilate the qualities of that person by spending time with them and doing what they do. When you have learned and imitated enough, you become like that person! If tradition and liturgy help with that process, great. But I see the word “deposit” in those verses referring to the vast amount of time invested in Timothy by Paul. It’s an investment that Paul is hoping will be time well spent.

    I often think of the Jedis when I think of this topic because the master and padawan roles are so clear cut, and the master is always “wise” and the padawan is always subservient. Heh. We’ve certainly lost that in most church circles today – and maybe it’s a good thing, because we DO learn from others in this way when we go out to eat with our “mentors” or “advisors” or whatever we call them, or listen to them and put their words into practice. It’s just not as clear cut or standardized. I guess that’s okay. The important thing is that we know how to mentor others in any way we can, and to imitate those we respect in any way we can.

    • I think the unity in what I said and what you said lies in something Paul wrote elsewhere: “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Part of imitating is indeed doing what they taught, but it’s also doing what they did. And that’s where the solid personal life, the shared life of worship (which is what is meant by liturgy), the leadership qualities, as well as the teachings are all gathered up in one bundle.

      EDIT: Just double-checked the Greek word behind “deposit” (paratheke) and it typically means property or a heritage that has been entrusted to someone. Going on that, I suspect looking at it in terms of the time Paul spent with Timothy is too generic an understanding. It should be a little more tangible – what Paul actually taught & showed Timothy to do, which as we both observed would comprise of teaching & action, word & deed… which is awesome because it’s a time when “scripture” and “tradition” were not separated, but were part & parcel of the same thing!

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