A remarkable article appeared recently in the impressive evangelical periodical "Books & Culture" 18/4 (July/August 2012). Gregory Metzger's "A New Apostolic Movement?" reviews a just-published book by Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim, "The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church," which I've yet to see.
Hirsch has apparently long advocated "the restoration of apostles acting decisively" to serve as "the primary custodians of the DNA of the church."
This idea of new apostles, says reviewer Metzger, is "growing in popularity" and "increasingly popular within the global Pentecostal/Renewal movement," though he predicts that it will seem "outlandish" or "kooky" to many. He himself "strongly disagrees with the agenda that drives the book" and tries to refute its arguments.
Metzger finds the fact "amazing" that many evangelical leaders are unaware of what he terms a "growing trend toward apostolic restoration." The trend, he believes, emerges out of "a growing sense of crisis that one can perceive among church leaders in a variety of denominations," a perception of inadequate leadership unable to meet contemporary challenges.
Hirsch declares, as Latter-day Saints, too, have long maintained, that the five offices mentioned by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4 — apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers — "are all meant for the church in all places and times."
But, if those offices were intended to exist everywhere in the Christian church forever, what happened to them? Where did "the notion of five-fold ministry in general and apostolic leadership in particular" go?
Hirsch argues that the doctrine of apostolic succession, according to which local bishops are the successors and heirs of the apostles, emerges from an intentional, deliberate supplanting of what he calls the "translocal … leadership of the apostolic ministry."
Hirsch seems to imply that such very early Christian leaders as Clement of Rome (d. ca. AD 100) and Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. AD 108) "were already undermining a key element of the apostles' teachings" when they "effectively rejected their apostolic heritage," setting up, instead, structures of church government that abandoned apostolic leadership.
Metzger describes this, with explicit disdain, as "Hirsch's determination to cast traditional Catholic and Orthodox conceptions of apostolic succession in the worst possible light." (It seems rather reminiscent of the Latter-day Saint concept of an apostasy.) Metzger objects, claiming that such early bishops must, surely, have been "acting on the basis of teachings and practices of at least some of the original group of apostles referred to in the New Testament."
It's unnecessary, however, to assume either secret apostolic instructions to abolish apostleship or a deliberate revolt by early bishops against apostolic authority. The apostles were simply gone. Neither Clement, Ignatius, nor any other bishop caused that. Nor did they possess authority to ordain new apostles. They thus had no choice, under the circumstances, but to make the best of a bad situation.
And this is Hirsch's basic continuing problem: Like others in the movement for "Neo Apostolic Reformation," as it's coming to be known, he recognizes a need for modern apostles, but he provides no legitimate modern way to get them.
Nevertheless, everybody in mainstream Christendom since those earliest years has agreed, as Metzger summarizes it, upon "a sharp distinction between the apostles of the New Testament and any leaders thereafter. Even Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican communions that hold to a doctrine of apostolic succession claiming a certain continuity between present-day bishops and New Testament Apostles acknowledge a significant difference between bishops (even the Bishop of Rome) and the original apostles."
And, surely, there really is a fundamental difference: Hirsch himself recognizes it in part when he calls apostolic leadership "translocal," in contrast to bishops. This is simply another way of saying that apostles were "general authorities," as opposed to local ones. (Hugh Nibley's posthumous book "Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity" lays that historic distinction out very clearly.)
However much he may hope for modern apostles, though, even Hirsch plainly still wants to limit them in a way quite foreign to the biblical apostles: "The only distinction Hirsch has made," Metzger reports, "in the book and in other settings, is to say that present-day apostles cannot write new Scripture."
Latter-day Saints understand that apostles "must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority." We gratefully testify that, in modern times, they have been and are — and in the full New Testament sense.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at Patheos.