By Dr. Paul M. Elliott of Teaching the Word Ministries
Theologians in reputedly conservative Protestant seminaries are reviving a
form of the Roman Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession, to the peril of
souls. Scripture condemns them in the strongest terms.
The True Doctrine of Apostolic Authority
The Lord Jesus Christ placed special authority in the hands of His disciples as His
witnesses, to establish and instruct the church (e.g., Matthew 16:19, 18:18, 28:18-
19; Luke 24:46-48; John 14:26, 16:13-15, 20:21-23; Acts 9:15, 20:24, 26:16-18).
The apostle themselves stated, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that they
carried out the apostolic office with Christ’s special authority (e.g., Galatians 1:11-12;
2 Corinthians 10:8, 13:10).
Through the apostles and those directly associated with them, the Holy Spirit gave the
New Testament Scriptures to the church (e.g., 2 Timothy 3:16-4:2; 1 Thessalonians
5:27; 2 Thessalonians 3:14; Colossian 4:16). Because they operated by the authority
of Christ and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles, though sinful men,
provided infallible instruction to the church.
Rome’s False Doctrine
However, Roman Catholicism subsequently invented the extra-Biblical doctrine of
apostolic succession. Rome teaches that the apostolic office, which Scripture tells us
ceased with the death of the twelve appointed by Christ, and the closing of the canon
of Scripture by the Holy Spirit’s own declaration (e.g., Revelation 22:18-19),
continues to be exercised by the Pope and the College of Cardinals. 2
In the Second Vatican Council during the 1960s, the Roman church-state declared
that “loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the
authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex
cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged
with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him.”1
The burden of proof for continuing apostolic authority is upon Rome, but it provides none from Scripture. Scripture instead speaks of the offices of prophet, evangelist, and pastorteacher as ongoing gifts of Christ to the church (Ephesians 4:11), and makes it clear that these men have no authority other than Scripture itself (e.g., 2 Timothy 3:16-4:2).
“Protestants” Reviving Rome’s Doctrine
From the first century onward, hundreds of thousands of genuine ministers of the
Gospel have stood in this line of prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. They do
not have, and have been careful not to claim, apostolic authority. They have been,
and are today, expositors of Scripture, not conduits of new revelation.
But in our time, theologians in reputedly conservative Protestant seminaries are openly
denying these truths. They are saying that today’s preacher or theologian is not merely
the expositor of Scripture, but is, as one of them puts it, engaged in a “common
interpretive enterprise” with Paul and the other writers of Scripture. They are, in fact,
reviving a form of the Roman Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession, muddying the
distinction between the apostles and subsequent church leaders, with deadly results.
This is a significant error of the postmodern Biblical theology/redemptive-historical
theology movement. We find many examples of this today, but due to limitations of
space I will cite only a few of the more prominent proponents of this view.
As I wrote in my book, Christianity and Neo-Liberalism, Richard Gaffin, ordained
minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and long-time professor of theology at
Westminster Theological Seminary, a major center of this movement, asserts that 3
…the exegete, despite every cultural and temporal dissimilarity, stands
in principle…in the same situation as the writers of the New Testament
and, therefore, is involved with Paul (and the other letter writers) in a
common interpretive enterprise [Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and
Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (Phillipsburg, New Jersey:
Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1987), page 24].
Expanding on this statement, Gaffin uses an illustration from differential calculus:
Redemptive events constitute a function (f), the authentication and
interpretation of the New Testament its first derivative (f′) and the
interpretation of the later church its second derivative (f″). F′, to be
sure, is of a different order than f″, since the former, the infallible verbal
revelation (Scripture) which has God as its primary author, is the basis
(principium) of the latter. But both, as derivatives, have a common
interpretive reference to f. Indeed, it may be said that…f″ “goes
beyond” f′ by seeking to make more explicit the structure implicit in the
latter (Resurrection and Redemption, p. 25).
Unpacking these statements, we find Gaffin saying that “the data of
Christianity” consist of the “redemptive events.” The writings of Paul, Peter,
James, et al in the New Testament are the “first derivative” interpretations of
those events ─ not the revelational events themselves, but “interpretations” of
them. The commentaries, councils, creeds, and confessions of the church from
the post-apostolic period to the present day are “second derivatives” ─
interpretations that are also based on the “redemptive events” themselves as
well as on the “interpretations” of the New Testament writers.
Gaffin thus replaces an authoritative word from God with a series of
“interpretations.” All of them have a common reference to the redemptivehistorical events themselves, which he alleges constitute the actual “revelation.”
These begin with the “interpretation” of those events by Paul and the other New Testament writers, and continue through the “interpretations” of the presentday church. Men of the church today, according to Gaffin, are engaged in a
“common interpretive enterprise” with Paul and the other writers of Scripture.
What is sorely lacking in this line of thinking is any credible commitment to the doctrine of the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. Richard Gaffin pays lip service to it, but he denies it in practice. In his view, Scripture is “interpretation.”
It is not in itself revelation, but one step removed from revelation.
But the Apostle Paul and the other writers of Scripture were not “interpreters” of
events; they were penmen for the Holy Spirit. What Paul wrote was not an
“interpretation” of a “revelation” consisting of “redemptive events.” What Paul
and the other penmen of Scripture wrote down is the revelation (2 Peter 1:20-
21, 2 Timothy 3:14-17).
Richard L. Pratt echoes Gaffin’s theme in his book, He Gave Us Stories. [Pratt is
a Westminster graduate who studied under Gaffin. Pratt was formerly chairman
of the Old Testament Department at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando,
Florida and still teaches there, but is now president of Third Millennium
Ministries.] Pratt views the Old Testament as largely a collection of stories, and
promotes what he calls an “authority-dialogue model” of Biblical interpretation
that is less “like a lecture in which we simply listen to the text” and “more like a
classroom discussion where both we and Scripture make contributions to the
final outcome” (p. 23, emphasis added). Vern S. Poythress of Westminster
Seminary in Philadelphia, John M. Frame of Reformed Theological Seminary in
Orlando, among others, also echo this approach in their “perspectivalist” model
of Biblical interpretation.2
The True Doctrine of Christ: Scripture Alone
The 16th century Reformation marked the restoration of the genuine doctrine of Scripture
and its interpretation that had been gradually corrupted by the Roman church hierarchy.
One of the rallying cries of that Reformation was sola Scriptura ─ the authority of
Scripture alone, the sufficiency of Scripture alone, and Scripture as its own infallible
interpreter, without the corruptions of papal pronouncements and church traditions.
Postmodern theologians in the 21st century are in fact returning the church to the corrupt
period prior to the Reformation, when the words of fallen men supplanted the Word of the
infallible God, and the resulting false teachings led countless souls to destruction.
It is by such Scripture-twisting that men like Richard Gaffin and their followers have in
our time promulgated the most deadly of false doctrines among unsuspecting
Protestants ─ justification by faith-plus-works, and salvation that commences with
water baptism. These are, not coincidentally, the doctrines of Roman Catholicism.
They have their roots in the abandonment of sola scriptura.
The Apostle Paul instructed the early church to mark and avoid such men:
Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses,
contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are
such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth
words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. For your
obedience has become known to all. Therefore I am glad on your behalf; but I
want you to be wise in what is good, and simple concerning evil. And the God of
peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus
Christ be with you. Amen. (Romans 16:17-20)
The Apostle John warned:
For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus
Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to 6
yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may
receive a full reward. Whoever transgresses [Greek parabainon, oversteps or
violates] and does not abide in [Greek meno, remain within the bounds of] the
doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ
has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring
this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who
greets him shares in his evil deeds. (2 John 7-11)
1. “Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council: Dogmatic Constitution on the
Church Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI on November 21,
1964,” Section 25, as reproduced at the Vatican website,
2. Paul M. Elliott, Christianity and Neo-Liberalism: The Spiritual Crisis in the
Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Beyond (Unicoi, Tennessee: The Trinity
Foundation, 2005), pages 166-168.