Twelve, after twelve years, beyond Palestine “into the world,” to give it a chance to hear (Preaching of Peter, in Clem. Alex. Strom. vi. 5.43; 6.48). Later on, however, his own claim told on the Church’s mind, when his epistles were read in church as a collection styled simply “the Apostle.”
As the primary medium of the Gentile Gospel (Gal. i. 16, cf. i. 8, ii. 2) Paul had no peers as an “apostle of the Gentiles” (Rom. xi. 13, cf. XV. 15-20, and see 1 Cor. xv. 8, “last of all to me”), unless it were Barnabas who shares with him the title “apostle” in Acts xiv. 4, 14—possibly with reference to the special “work” on which they had recently been “sent forth by the Spirit” (xiii. 2, 4). Yet such as shared the spiritual gift (charisma) of missionary power in sufficient degree, were in fact apostles of Christ in the Spirit (1 Cor. xii. 28, II). Such a secondary type of apostolate—answering to “apostolic missionaries” of later times (cf. the use of ἱεραπόστολος in this sense by the Orthodox Eastern Church to-day)—would help to account for the apostolic claims of the missionaries censured in Rev. ii. 2, as also for the “apostles” of the second generation implied in the Didachē.
In the sub-apostolic age, however, the class of “missionaries” enjoying a charisma such as was conceived to convey apostolic commission through the Spirit, soon became distinguished from “apostles” (cf. Hennas, Sim. ix. 15.4, “the apostles and teachers of the message of the Son of God,” so 25.2; in 17.1 the apostles are reckoned as twelve), as the title became more and more confined by usage to the original apostles, particularly the Twelve as a body (e.g. Ascension of Isaiah and the Preaching of Peter), or to them and Paul (e.g. in Clement and Ignatius), and as reverence for these latter grew in connexion with their story in the Gospels and in Acts. Thus Eusebius describes as “evangelists” (cf. Philip the Evangelist in Acts xxi. 8, also Eph. iv. 11, 2 Tim. iv. 5) those who “occupied the first rank in the succession to the Apostles” in missionary work (Hist. Eccl. iii. 37, cf. v. 10). Yet the wider sense of “apostle” did not at once die out even in the third and fourth generations. It lingered on as applied to the Seventy—by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement and Origen—and even to Clement of Rome, by Clem. Alex. (? as a “fellow-worker” of Paul, Phil. iv. 3); while the adjective “apostolic” was applied to men like Polycarp (in his contemporary Acts of Martyrdom) and the Phrygian, Alexander, martyred at Lyons in A.D. 177 (Eus. v. 1), who was “not without share of apostolic charisma.”
The authority attaching to apostles was essentially spiritual in character and in the conditions of its exercise. Anything like autocracy among his followers was alien to Jesus’s own teaching (Matt, xxiii. 6-11). All Christians were “brethren,” and the basis of pre-eminence among them was relative ability for service. But the personal relation of the original Palestinian apostles to Jesus himself as Master gave them a unique fitness as authorized witnesses, from which flowed naturally, by sheer spiritual influence, such special forms of authority as they came gradually to exercise in the early Church. “There is no trace in Scripture of a formal commission of authority for government from Christ Himself” (Hort, Chr. Eccl. p. 84) given to apostles, save as representing the brethren in their collective action. Even the “resolutions” (δόγματα) of the Jerusalem conference were not set forth by the apostles present simply in their own name, nor as ipso facto binding on the conscience of the Antiochene Church. They expressed “a claim to deference rather than a right to be obeyed” (Hort, op. cit. 81-85). Such was the kind of authority attaching to apostles, whether collectively or individually. It was not a fixed notion, but varied in quantity and quality with the growing maturity of converts. This is how Paul, from whom we gather most on the point, conceives the matter. The exercise of his spiritual authority is not absolute, lest he “lord it over their faith”; consent of conscience or of “faith” is ever requisite (2 Cor. i. 24; cf. Rom. xiv. 23). But the principle was elastic in application, and would take more patriarchal forms in Palestine than in the Greek world. The case was essentially the same as on the various mission-fields to-day, where the position of the “missionary” is at first one of great spiritual initiative and authority, limited only by his own sense of the fitness of things, in the light of local usages. So the notion of formal or constitutional authority attaching to the apostolate, in its various senses, is an anachronism for the apostolic age. The tendency, however, was for their authority to be conceived more and more on formal lines, and, particularly after their deaths, as absolute.
The authority attaching to apostles as writers, which led gradually to the formation of a New Testament Canon—“the Apostles” side by side with “the Books” of the Old Testament (so 2 Clement xiv., c. A.D. 120–140)—is a subject by itself (see Bible).
This change of conception helped to further the notion of a certain devolution of apostolic powers to successors constituted by act of ordination. The earliest idea of an apostolical succession meant simply the re-emergence in others of the apostolic spirit of missionary enthusiasm. “The first rank in the succession of the apostles” consisted of men eminent as disciples of theirs, and so fitted to continue their labours (Euseb. iii. 37); and even under Commodus (A.D. 180–193) there were “evangelists of the word” possessed of “inspired zeal to emulate apostles” (v. 10). Such were perhaps the “apostles” of the Didachē. Of the notion of apostolic succession in ministerial grace conferred by ordination, there is little or no trace before Irenaeus. The famous passage in Clement of Rome (xliv. 2) refers simply to the succession of one set of men to another in an office of apostolic institution. The grace that makes Polycarp “an apostolic and prophetic teacher” (Mart. Polyc. 16) is peculiar to him personally. But Irenaeus holds, apparently on a priori grounds, that “elders” who stand in orderly succession to the apostolic founders of the true tradition in the churches, have, “along with the succession of oversight,” also an “assured gift of (insight into) truth” by the Father’s good pleasure (“cum episcopatus successione charisma veritatis certum secundum placitum Patris acceperunt”), in contrast to heretics who wilfully stand outside this approved line of transmission (adv. Haer. iv. 26. 2). So far, indeed, the succession is not limited to the monarchical episcopate as distinct from the presbyteral order to which it belonged (cf. “presbyterii ordo, principalis consessio” in the same context, and see iii. 14. 2), though the bishops of apostolic churches, as capable of being traced individually (iii. 3. 1), are specially appealed to as witnesses (cf. iv. 33. 8, v. 19. 2)—as earlier by Hegesippus (Euseb. iv. 22). Nor is there mention of sacerdotal grace attaching to the succession in apostolic truth. But once the idea of supernatural grace going along with office as such (of which we have already a trace in the Ignatian bishop, though without the notion of actual apostolic succession) arose in connexion with successio ab apostolis, the full development of the doctrine was but a matter of time.
- The tendency is already visible in the Lucan writings. An anologous process is seen in the use of “disciple,” applicable in the apostolic age to Christians at large, but in the course of the sub-apostolic age restricted to personal “disciples of the Lord” or to martyrs (Papias in Eus. iii. 39, cf. Ignatius, Ad Eph. i. 2).
- In the Edessene legend of Abgar, in Eus. i. 12, we read that “Judas, who is also Thomas, sent Thaddaeus as apostle—one of the Seventy,” where simply an authoritative envoy of Jesus seems intended. For traces of the wider sense of “apostle” in Gnostic, Marcionite and Montanist circles, see Monnier (as below).
- The above is substantially the view taken by J. B. Lightfoot in his essay on “The Christian Ministry” (Comm. on Philippians, 6th ed., pp. 239, 252 f.), and by T. M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry (1902), pp. 224-228, 278 ff. Even C. Gore, The Church and the Ministry (1889), pp. 119 ff., while inferring a sacerdotal element in Irenaeus’s conception of the episcopate, says: “But it is mainly as preserving the catholic traditions that Irenaeus regards the apostolic succession” (p. 120).
- See Lightfoot’s essay for Cyprian’s contribution, as also for that of the Clementines, which fix on the twofold position of James at Jerusalem, as apostle and bishop, as bearing on apostolic succession in the episcopate.