By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
I caught a good movie on television the other day. It’s called “The Apostle” and it stars Robert Duvall as a charismatic preacher who takes an Odyssean journey upon the seas of life and ultimately winds up in jail.
Duvall’s character insists people call him Apostle E.F., partly because he’s running from the law but also because he believes it accurately describes his role in life.
The movie started me wondering what the word apostle means. In my work with the Daily Journal I’ve once or twice come across a minister who referred to himself as such.
Most Christians who reference a creed as a basic expression of their faith are used to saying that the church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” with catholic in this sense meaning universal.
It appears, however, that the earliest creed that uses apostolic as an adjective was from Salamis, in 374. The Catholic Council of Constantinople in 381 followed suit.
Some scholarship points to a fluid use of the term apostolic in the post-biblical or patristic period, due in part, perhaps, to the ambiguous way it’s used in the Bible. Some believe the term apostle in the Bible refers not only the 12 but also to missionary church-founding figures like Paul and Apollos, to co-workers in missionary activity, like Timothy and Titus and to delegates of local churches, like Epaphroditus, in Philemon 2:25.
In the early centuries, Christians seem also to have held in special regard communities established by an apostle, like Antioch, Alexandria and Ephesus.
Every church considers itself apostolic in the sense of following the example passed on from Jesus’ first disciples, but churches often disagree on what that means.
I’m speaking in generalities here, but some churches essentially base their understanding of what theologians have called “apostolicity” on how closely a church adheres to the example of Jesus’ followers recorded in the New Testament – and that’s it. No other sources besides scripture are considered.
Other churches consider the Bible the primary source for defining apostolicity but also take into consideration things like tradition, or what they believe to be sources of wisdom directly attributable to the apostles but not recorded in the New Testament.
This forms the basic tension between much of the Protestant world and those that follow a more Catholic model, including churches like the Anglican and Orthodox Churches.
It’s easy to get caught up in the technicalities of theology, and doing so usually leads one to start debating amorphous concepts like apostolic succession. Perhaps the most promising ground on which churches can reach a shared understanding of apostolicity is in mission.
At its best theology should be an action, not a concept, and, in essence, being apostolic means doing what the apostles did. They were commissioned by the Lord and empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring the gospel to the world.
The theologian G. Thils defined apostolic as being “in perfect reference to the Apostles.” That’s a pretty good definition.
In the movie, Robert Duvall’s character called himself an apostle because he believed he was doing God’s good work. Perhaps it really is that simple.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org