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Paleo-Orthodoxy & Succession

This article deals with the transmission of genuine "first-century faith" through church history until now in this twenty-first century. Therefore, we must evaluate what it means to be "paleo-orthodox" and to "succeed" Jesus' apostles. Most churchgoers assume progressive revelation, that God reveals new or more in-depth information gradually over time as the church increases in numbers and influence. In business terms, we call this "progress." Adherents of progressive revelation often cite Jesus' words at John 16:12: "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." However, this in no way means he will teach the apostles things which contradict the Old Testament or his previous lessons. When the gospel reaches various cultures, it tends to make advances in the arts, humanities, literature, politics, etc. While this may keep the church safe from persecution and allow it to exercise power, the good news itself becomes diluted and fewer people know the real Jesus. Both paleo-orthodoxy and apostolic succession are key doctrines that help shield the transmission of the Christian faith as it expands from Jerusalem throughout the world. Both scripture and the development of the church began with Jesus' twelve apostles, and so this is now where we first turn.


Apostolic Succession

Simply put, apostolic succession means "to succeed the apostles." Throughout church history, many theologians have debated whether this doctrine applies to leaders appointed the apostles, the teaching of justification by faith, or the continuation of spiritual gifts. In its original sense given first by Irenaeus of Lyon (c. AD 130–202) in his "Against Heresies" (Latin: Adversus haireses), the standard of apostolic succession referred to the apostles choosing leaders to continue their public ministry (cf. Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). He saw the need to teach this because the Gnostics, a schismatic group of itinerant preachers, claimed to have secret knowledge of Jesus from the apostles. Given this was the mid-second century and the church had been in existence for over 100 years at that point, Irenaeus was right to call out the Gnostics for their false teaching. The question of the gospel's transmission was not yet posed until then, but assumed and trusted by all Christians. Irenaeus knew that he had to first defend the church leaders who curated the New Testament from the apostles before dealing with any form of textual criticism. In other words, we have to trust the Bible we have now comes to us from trustworthy men who knew the apostles, or at least met eyewitnesses who did know them.

However, it is a vain thing to list successors to Jesus' apostles if we fail to teach and preach the gospel accurately. We must understand what the good news is in its first-century context and what makes it so "good." The resurrection was the gospel the apostles preached, that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead in his physical body, appeared to more than 500 people, ascended into heaven, and will return for a general resurrection of all humankind (cf. 1 Cor. 15). This was the reason each of the twelve and Paul of Tarsus was willing to risk persecution and death, because they saw the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes and were transformed by the experience. We Christians often defend these statements in our apologetic defenses with skeptics, but we would do better to take in the sheer grandeur of Jesus' resurrection for ourselves. The one true God himself did not come down to us in flesh and blood, preach and teach for three years, suffer on the cross, rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven just so we could sit in comfy pews, gaze at stained-glass windows, sip our morning coffee, have our ears tickled with the newest worship and ministry trends, but then leave unchanged by all of it. Simply put, Jesus came to launch a revolution, not to make us religious. To succeed the apostles means for our churches to be apostolic, to have a surefire mission to evangelize our neighbors both at home and abroad, even if that means persecution and death. We must be doers and not just hearers of the good news (cf. Matt. 7:24; Rom. 2:13James 1:22-25). 



The Methodist theologian Thomas C. Oden (19312016) first coined the term paleo-orthodoxy. He combined three Greek words: palaio (G3820, "old" or "ancient"), orthos (G3717, "straight" or "correct"), and doxa (G1391, "valuable opinion"). To put it all together, paleo-orthodoxy refers to correct teaching with ancient Christian origins. We may also expand the concept to include all "straight and valuable" doctrine throughout church history shared by all Christians across the world. Paul said the church is "the pillar and the bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15); not so much a union of conflicting traditions and beliefs, but a unity of disciples who worship God "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23). What is this consensus of all genuine Christianity? Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), a Lutheran pastor who was martyred by Nazi Germany, wrote,

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "you were bought with a price" [cf. 1 Cor. 6:207:23], and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God (pp. 44-45).

Yes, the true Christian must have a personal, existential transformation with the living God; to be "born from above" or "born again" (cf. John 3:3, 7Titus 3:5). We must believe that Jesus resurrection is both historical and physical, and that same resurrection will happen to all people on the last day. While most churches agree to these things, the one that most Christians fail to take seriously is the doctrine of apostolic poverty: living within one's means to meet basic needs, yet with the heartfelt responsibility to share their abundance with others as they have need (cf. Acts 2:42-47). When expanded as a political theory, theologians call it distributism or "Christian democracy." This was the reason Jesus told the rich ruler that he must "sell all that [he] owns and distribute the money to the poor" (Luke 18:22 [italics added]). Apostolic poverty also encompasses Jesus' most fiery words about the netherworld at Matt. 25:31-46 when he talks about giving to the poor, visiting prisoners, and feeding the hungry. In modern Christendom, we tend to teach this as being optional or put it off on the wealthy"God cannot possibly expect this of me." This does not rule out having personal property, but it is a call to be good stewards of what God puts in our charge.


Paleo-Orthodox View of Succession

The following apostolic succession of churches and traditions may not have the same teaching in all matters, but they generally agree on these essential Christian doctrines:



The Greek word that "church" translates is ekklēsia (G1577), which literally means "called out" (ek; G1537, "out" + kaleō; G2564, "to call"). God sets his church apart from the world to be his sacred instrument of realizing the kingdom of heaven, which culminates with Jesus' return.

Church/Tradition                                                                      Years Active

Jerusalem Church                                                                      30–135          

The Way/Nazarenes                                                                  30–100 

Kerala Christians                                                                       52–present     

Ante-Nicene Church                                                                  100–325
Desert ascetics/hermits                                                             270–435         
Benedictines                                                                              529–present

Cistercians                                                                                 1098–present 
Modern Devotion ascetics                                                         1374–1815
Petrobrusians                                                                            1117–1151      
Henricians                                                                                 1135–1145
Arnoldists                                                                                   1144–1155     
Waldensians                                                                              1173–present
Franciscans                                                                               1209–present 
Lollards                                                                                      1381–1559
Hussites                                                                                     1398–present 

United Brethren ("Moravians")                                                   1457–present

Radical Reformation                                                                  1525–1632     
Anabaptists                                                                                1529–present
Pietists                                                                                       1675–present 

Methodists                                                                                 1729–present
Restoration Movement                                                              1801–present 

Hebrew Christians                                                                     1813–1975
Confessing Church                                                                    1934–1945     

Messianic Jews                                                                         1970–present

CO/CF Ministry                                                                          2013–present

First Century Christian Church                                                  2022–present


Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, we pray for your holy Christian church. Fill it
with all truth, in all truth, with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior. Amen.


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