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Dr. Eddie Hyatt



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What Is Apostolic Doctrine?

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine . . . (Acts 2:42)

Apostolic doctrine, therefore, is not the new and novel teachings of someone who calls himself/herself an apostle. Apostolic doctrine is the message of Jesus, His redemptive work, and His call to selfless discipleship that is found in the 27 books of the New Testament.

The “apostles’ doctrine” of Acts 2:42 is a reference to the original eyewitness accounts of Jesus by the 12 apostles. This “doctrine” consisted of their first-hand reports of His life, teachings, death, and resurrection. This was, at first, an oral message spread by the Twelve and those that heard them. It was later written down in what we know as the four gospels. Paul’s writings were later added to this original testimony and, with the addition of James, Jude, Hebrews, 1 & 2 Peter , 1, 2, & 3 John , and Revelation there came into existence what we know as the New Testament canon.

Canon, of course, refers to a measure or rule. As such, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament became the standard or rule against which all other teachings and revelations must be measured. Why? Because the New Testament canon contains the original, apostolic testimony and teaching. Hans Kung, the well-known Roman Catholic theologian and reformer, says,

    The preaching of the apostles, as it has come down to us in the writings of the New Testament, is the original, fundamental testimony of Jesus Christ, valid for all time; being unique, it cannot be replaced or made void by any later testimony. Later generations of the Church are dependent on the words, witness and ministry of the first “apostolic” generation. The apostles are and remain the original witnesses, their testimony is the original testimony and their mission the original mission.

The Significance of the Twelve & Paul

Although there are other apostles in the New Testament, it is obvious that the Twelve chosen by Jesus are a select company and occupy a unique place in God’s purposes for the Church. This is borne out by the fact that throughout Scripture they are referred to as “the Twelve,” a set number neither to be added to nor subtracted from (See, for example, Matt. 10:2; 26:14; Mk. 9:35; Luke 18:31; Acts 6:2; 1Cor. 15:5). Their uniqueness is clarified by the fact that Jesus tells them that, in the age to come, they will sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28).

After the apostasy of Judas, the disciples in the upper room felt it necessary to choose a replacement so that the number would not be diminished by his demise (Acts 1:15-26). The disciples chose Matthias to replace Judas and, according to Acts 1:26, He was numbered with the eleven apostles, thus bringing the number back to twelve. The uniqueness of the Twelve is also borne out by John’s vision of the New Jerusalem that comes down from God out of heaven--a picture of God’s redeemed and triumphant people (Rev. 21). John describes this city in glorious detail and says that the wall of the city has twelve foundations, And on them were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Rev. 21:14).

Distinguishing Characteristics of the Twelve

What seems to distinguish the Twelve from other apostles in the New Testament is that they were a part of that first group of Jesus’ disciples and, therefore, eyewitnesses of His life, death and resurrection. When Peter presented the proposal to fill the vacancy left by Judas’ apostasy, he said that the replacement must be one who had accompanied Jesus from the time of His baptism by John the Baptist and had been, A witness with us of His resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). Succeeding apostles cannot measure up to this criterion.

This indicates that the Twelve were particularly chosen by Jesus to be eyewitnesses of His life, ministry, death and resurrection. They would proclaim, not myths, legends or hearsay, but events they had witnessed first-hand. In this sense, their testimony of Jesus would be foundational for succeeding generations. According to Christian tradition, all of the Twelve, with the possible exception of John, were martyred for their testimony of Jesus. Although he may have escaped martyrdom, John was banished and possibly burned in oil for his testimony. The eyewitness accounts of the Twelve were later written down in the four gospels and in certain epistles. Their apostolic calling, therefore, cannot be repeated except, perhaps, in the case of Paul.

Paul’s Message Given Equal Status with the Twelve

Even though it is clear from Paul’s epistles that he was convinced of his equal status with the Twelve (see 2 Cor. 11:5), he eventually traveled to Jerusalem and presented to them the gospel he preached for their corroboration (Gal. 2:1-2). He apparently deemed it necessary to confirm that the gospel he was preaching to the Gentiles was in accord with the original eyewitness accounts of the Twelve and the teaching they had personally received from the Lord (Gal. 2:1-2). The Twelve accepted him and affirmed the Gospel that he was preaching. Paul says that they gave to him and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9). Paul thus recognized the necessity of making sure that his own revelation was in harmony with the original eyewitness accounts.

The New Testament is the Standard by Which All Teachings & Revelations Are to Be Measured

The eyewitness accounts of the Twelve and the revelation received by Paul eventually became canonized in our New Testament. Paul wrote 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. Luke, a close associate of Paul, wrote the gospel of Luke and Acts. Matthew and John, both members of the Twelve, wrote the gospels that bear their names. Mark, a close associate of Peter, wrote the gospel of Mark.[i] Peter himself wrote 1st and 2nd Peter. John, in addition to the gospel he composed, wrote 1st 2nd and 3rd John and Revelation. James was written by the half-brother of Jesus who was also the recipient of a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. Jude was written by the brother of James, probably another half-brother of Jesus. The author of the book of Hebrews is unknown but many believe it was Paul. The entire New Testament was, therefore, written by one of the Twelve, or Paul or one of their immediate associates. This means that the New Testament contains the original apostolic testimony and teaching. As such it is the standard by which all succeeding teachings and revelations must be measured.

Conclusion

When Acts 2:42 says that the early Church continued steadfastly in the apostles teaching, it is referring to the oral teaching of the Twelve which was later canonized as part of the New Testament. Like the early church, the church today must also continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine or teaching. How? By hearing and adhering to the original apostolic message that has been preserved for us in the New Testament.

Apostolic doctrine, therefore, is not the new and novel teachings of someone who calls himself an apostle. Apostolic doctrine is the message of Jesus, His redemptive work, and His call to selfless discipleship that is found in the 27 books of the New Testament. It is time that we asked ourselves, “Are we continuing in the apostles’ doctrine?”


[i] Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” vol. 1 of The Ante-Nicene Christian Library, 414.



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Copyright 2016 Eddie Hyatt. Last Modified: 02/08/2008