The Church is Apostolic, pt 1

This is the first part in a series dealing with the word ‘apostolic’. This is a rough draft, as many of my personal writings on this blog are, but I intend to put them out there in order strengthen my arguments as well as to correct them. Invite criticism and opinion, negative and positive, as always. Warning: This is not complete in information, but complete in thought.

Justin, in his ‘Dialogue with Trypho the Jew’ (63.5) speaks of the Church,

Moreover, that the word of God speaks to those who believe in Him as being one soul, and one synagogue, and one church, as to a daughter; that it thus addresses the church which has sprung from His name and partakes of His name (for we are all called Christians)

This will do doubt shock some of my readers, however, in doing some recent studying, it has become apparent that indeed the Church of Jesus Christ is meant to be apostolic. But, just what does ‘apostolic’ mean? It is a name or is it an adjective, and if so, what does it mean and when did it acquire that meaning?

The first known use of the word ‘apostolic’ is found in Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians, around 110a.d.

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the holy Church which is at Tralles, in Asia, beloved of God, the Father of Jesus Christ, elect, and worthy of God, possessing peace through the flesh, and blood, and passion of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, through our rising again to Him, which also I salute in its fulness, and in the apostolical (ποστολικ – apostolikos) character, and wish abundance of happiness.

Ignatius uses it not in identifying some mystical age or as some base of authority (as were the later uses of the word), but in identifying himself as using the style and form of the Apostles, who he immediately followed as opposed to the Gnostics who continuously claimed new revelations and later Bishops who claimed the same authority as the Apostles. To clear this up, Ignatius is thought to have used it to say that he stood after the Apostles and used their form – not their authority which is something that Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, would later claim. We must also note that Ignatius truly carried out the form and character of the Apostles who wrote letters to several different congregations, as opposed to even Polycarp who wrote to only one congregation. Ignatius was also known as a traveler to those congregations.

Irenaeus, in a ‘recently discovered’ work (1904) entitled ‘On Apostolic Preaching’, no where uses the adjective. What Irenaeus meant by the Apostolic Preaching can be seen from his larger work. Although the exact expression does not seem to occur there, we have its equivalent, “the Preaching of the Apostles” (III, iii. 2), and also the parallel phrases, “the Tradition of the Apostles” (III, iii. 4) and “the Preaching of the Truth” (I, iii. I; III, iii. 4). Moreover, in I, i. 20 we read that “he who holds the canon (or rule) of the truth without deviation, which he received through his baptism,” will be able to escape all the snares of heresy: and in the Demonstration (c. 3.) we have closely parallel words which also refer to the baptismal faith. Although it was not until much later that the baptismal confession came to be called the Apostles’ Creed, it was already regarded as a summary of the essential elements of the message from the Apostles, as opposed to their authority. Its form varied in some details in different Churches, but its structure was everywhere the same, for it had grown up on the basis of the baptismal formula.

Since the work is existent only in the Armenian it is difficult at best to determine the original title, but taking the title as historically true, it does not lend credence to any idea that the early Church Fathers used ‘apostolic’ in any way as relating to an official name. Here it is used solely as relating to more how than what the Apostles preached – the Gospel, and in the manner of which they preached – as evangelists. One has to remember that Irenaeus’ doctrine was written squarely against the Gnostics who often times ignored the manner and mission of the Apostles. During the time of Irenaeus, greater attention was applied to the Church as holder of the Doctrine and Tradition as well as Salvation. This would like be countermanded by Cyprian who focused on the Bishops.

Irenaeus, in his writings (Against Heresies 3.3.2), says,

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those who exist everywhere.

The subject of this particular translation is an interesting one. One commentator suggests that the importance of Rome made by the translator misses the point. Irenaeus was simply aligning the congregations one with another, based on the one that founded by the Apostles who continued in the Faith of the Church. Later we will discuss that as some ‘Apostolic Church’ left the ‘orthodox faith’ (meaning that they refused to become Trinitarian) the idea of lining up with the ‘apostolic church’ lost its flavor. It should be noted that for many years Alexandria was the key church of the Trinitarians, with many believing that Rome and the West was too ‘Modalistic’ or ‘oneness’ (Often the claim of Sabellianism was tossed around).

It should be noted that while the Apostles were universally recognized as the foundation of the Church by the Apostolic (an adjective later applied) and Church Fathers (Ignatius, Irenaeus respectively) they were never seen as the sole arbiters of either Tradition or Doctrine and most certainly not salvation. Although Irenaeus used their ‘sees’ to measure others by – in truth this was a somewhat fair practice – he did this based on the fact that the pastors of these congregations could be traced back to the Apostles. (An example would be Rome for a while, where Peter taught Linus and Clement and Clement taught his successor and his successor taught his successor, etc…)


ἀπόστολος, or apostolos, is a secular term first and foremost applied to messengers, or missionaries, indicating that the person who is an apostolos, is one who is ‘sent forth with orders.’ (Thayers’) It is first found in Matthew 10.2 as the official name of the Twelve. Later it would be applied to the collegiate body that set above the Presbytery. Cremer in his Biblico-Theological Lexicon suggests that it was the rare occurrence of the word in koine Greek that made it all the more appropriate as the distinctive appellation of the twelve. Compare Luke 6:13; Acts 1:2. Also, John 17:18, I have sent. The word is once used of Christ (Hebrews 3:1), one sent (2nd Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:25). The Greek translation of the Hebrew word shelichim advances this argument, as does the early church’s emphasis on the Apostles extensive missionary activity.

Chrysostom says here, “He makes them confident not only by calling their ministry a sending forth to the harvest, but by giving them strength for the ministry; whence it follows, “He gave them power over all unclean spirits to cast them out, and to heal every sickness and every disease.”” So we see that even to a certain point in history, the idea of ‘apostolos’ as one who was sent forth was recognized as a facet of the meaning.

Further, in Acts 1.8, we read

But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

It was to the Apostles that our Lord said, “Go!” There mission then became apostolic, because they were sent forth, but they did not do under their own authority nor in their own name, even the collegiate name.

Another word is ἀποστολή, or apostole, which is essentially apostleship. It is used on Judas’ vacated office in Acts 1.25 and then of Paul’s office in Romans 1.5 and 1st Corinthians 9.2 as well as Peter’s in Galatians 2.8. Paul used it to describe his relationship with the Gentiles while it was the Jews for Peter, yet not as Lords over them, but as messengers of the word, to whom the apostles were assigned. This two explains why others, except for the Twelve and Paul, were called apostles, because they too were sent to carry the gospel message.

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