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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 (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 risking persecution and death. We must be doers and not just hearers of the good news (Matt. 7:24; Rom. 2:13James 1:22-25). 

 

Paleo-Orthodoxy

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 at a price" [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" (John 3:3, 7Titus 3:5). S/he 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 and/or put it off for the wealthy, that 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.

 

A Paleo-Orthodox View of Apostolic 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                                                   

Jerusalem Church                                                            

The Way/Nazarenes                                                      

Kerala Christians                                                              

Ante-Nicene Church                                                       
Desert ascetics/hermits                                                
Benedictines                                                                  

Cistercians                                                                      
Modern Devotion ascetics                                               
Petrobrusians                                                                  
Henricians                                                                       
Arnoldists                                                                   
Waldensians                                                                   
Franciscans                                                                    
Lollards                                                                            
Hussites                                                                     

United Brethren ("Moravians")                                   

Radical Reformation                                                       
Anabaptists                                                                     
Pietists                                                                           

Methodists                                                                      
Restoration Movement                                                     

Hebrew Christians                                                     
Confessing Church                                                        

Taizé Community                                                          
Messianic Jews                                                              

Prayer

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.

Bibliography

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995.

 

The Book of Common Prayer. Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019. p. 646.  http://bcp2019.anglicanchurch.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/BCP2019.pdf.

Britannica, eds. "Apostolic Succession." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020.  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Apostolic-Succession.

González, Justo L. A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 1: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. Nashville: Abingdon, 1987.

 

⸻. Essential Theological Terms. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005.

⸻. The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. Second ed. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2010.

Juster, Daniel C. That They May Be One: A Brief Review of Church Restoration Movements and Their Connection to the Jewish People. Clarksville, MD: Messianic Jewish Pubs., 2009.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin, 2011.

Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009.

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Fifth ed. Ed. Marshall Shelley. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020.

Sherman, Franklin. "Dietrich Bonhoeffer." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020.  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dietrich-Bonhoeffer.

Strong, James. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Updated and Expanded Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.

Tanner, Kenneth, and Christopher A. Hall, eds. Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century—Essays In Honor of Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002.

 

"Thomas C. Oden." IVPress.com. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021. https://www.ivpress.com/thomas-c-oden.

Wingren, Gustaf. "Saint Irenaeus." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020.  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Irenaeus.

Wright, N. T. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2012. 

⸻. Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015.

Wright, N. T., and Michael F. Bird. The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.

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