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Apostolic Succession – Biblical or Not?

“The first Christians had no doubts about how to determine which was the true Church and which doctrines the true teachings of Christ. The test was simple: Just trace the apostolic succession of the claimants.”[1] So starts a pro-Catholic article on catholic.com.  The principle of Apostolic Succession says that the original apostles ordained bishops and authorized them and them only to ordain succeeding bishops. A primary benefit of this succession is the guarantee that this process ensures that the apostolic truth continues from generation to generation.

Apostolic succession is seen written about in the first writings of the church fathers. Here is Clement (C. 90AD):

“Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of oversight. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those already mentioned. Afterwards, they gave instructions, then when those men should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of the opinion, therefore, that those appointed by the apostles, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed a good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry.”[2]

Here Clement of Rome is testifying that apostolic succession is a practice ordained by the apostles themselves.

Irenaeus (C. 180 AD) had some interesting things to say about apostolic succession.

“Therefore, it is within the power of all in every church who may wish to see the truth to clearly examine the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the world. And we are in a position to reckon up those who were instituted bishops in the churches by the apostles, and the succession of these men to our own times…. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries,… They would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men.”[3]

Here we see the link between knowing that it is the truth in apostolic succession. “It is within the power of all in every church who may wish to see the truth to clearly examine the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the world” says just that.  The way you know that is the truth is if it is something that has been handed down from generation of bishops to generation of bishops all the way back to the Apostles.  This cannot be emphasized enough.  The Catholics and others that rely on this doctrine say that apostolic succession is a guarantee for truth.  When a Catholic bishop is ordained that ensures that they will be “very perfect and blameless in all things”.  The process of apostolic succession is the transference of the apostles’ authority and power from generation to generation. Considering the other side, a bishop without apostolic succession does not have the truth, or authority of the apostles.

One place where you can see this in action is in the General Councils. The bishops in the General councils believed that they received the power to rule on these matters because of apostolic succession.   That gave them the right to proclaim what was apostolic doctrine and who was speaking apostolic truth and who was a heretic.[4]  According to the doctrine of apostolic succession, all of the decrees of the General Councils have apostolic authority.  That means every one of them.

Now, something else that is very interesting is in Irenaeus’ quote in the sentence “For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries,… They would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves.” This sentence possibly allows for the possibility that some things were handed down orally. Possibly this phrase allows for things not found in the bible to be called truth.  That would be very similar to the claim of the Jewish elders who claimed that after Moses revealed the Law, there were other sayings not written down that were verbally communicated from generation to generation which became the Jewish Talmud.  However, it might also be a rejection of Gnostic teaching that there was secret knowledge.  In any case, apostolic succession says that the bishops ordained by apostolic succession would know because they would know what was handed down.

Irenaeus also said:

“In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same life-giving the faith, which has been preserved in the church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”[5]

There it is again, the true faith of the apostles is continued exclusively through apostolic succession.

Other church fathers including Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Cyprian as well as church councils and the apostolic constitutions document affirm this teaching that goes back to just after the time of the apostles and has continued until the present.

So, you can see that this has been a long-standing doctrine of the Catholic Church. Some Protestant denominations also make the claim of apostolic succession including Anglican and some Lutheran churches.

Calvinist International presents some of the counter-argument in an article by Ian Mosley.[6]  Basically, the argument starts with that there is little if any scriptural support for apostolic succession.  (Not one of the church fathers discussing apostolic succession is considered a writer of Scripture.) Furthermore, none of the church fathers’ statements about apostolic succession correspond to statements in scripture. Additionally, in these writings of the church fathers on apostolic succession, there appears to be mud in the water over the terms “bishop” and “presbyter”. They are not clearly and distinctly used. And as the terms bishop and presbyter are key terms in these church fathers’ statements that affirm this principle of apostolic succession then that also challenges the basis for claiming the validity of apostolic succession.

We opened with 1st Clement 44, but the version on the CalvinistInternational site has some subtle differences, namely the use of these words; bishop and presbytyr.

“Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those presbyters already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters…(1 Clement 44)

Clement begins by referring to the episcopate, but then seems to refer to the same ministers as “presbyters.” He alternates between the terms throughout, never clearly intending any kind of transition to discussing a separate ministry.”[7]

Clement apparently uses the words bishop and presbyters interchangeably while these terms are used more precisely in the other quotes of the church fathers.  Also notice the inclusion of “the consent of the whole church” as part of the process, another divergence from traditionally stated apostolic succession doctrine.

Mosley also points out the statements in Hippolytus writings and the Apostolic Constitution that both set the process of selecting a bishop as an election by the people.  Hippolytus (c. 215 AD) wrote:

Let the bishop be ordained after he has been chosen by all the people[8]

Williston Walker notes in his A History of the Christian Church is that the development of church government and hierarchy is obscure in the New Testament epistles whereas it suddenly is very clear in the epistles of Ignatius.  Walker says that in contrast to the New Testament Ignatius “exalts in every way the authority of the local monarchial bishop…”[9]  He further adds Clement of Rome “traces the existence of church officers to apostolic succession” which he believes Clement bases on an apparent misunderstanding of 1 Cor 15: 15-16.[10]

Now I urge you, brothers—you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints— be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer.  (1Co 16:15-16 ESV)

These verses show that converts in Achaia became servants to the ministry, but it does not say that Paul ordained them to be overseers giving them his same authority and power, and then charged them to transfer the same to prospective leaders in their care.  Thus this is not biblical support for apostolic succession.

The Protestant position is that since there are no real supporting scriptures this is not a valid doctrine.  Furthermore, there is no basis for saying that any decree of the General councils or practice of the Catholic Church is true based on apostolic succession.

So, we have the Catholics including some Orthodox churches, some Lutherans and the Anglicans promoting Apostolic Succession while the bulk of churches in the protestant tradition do not.

[1] What the Early Church Believed: Apostolic Succession,  https://www.catholic.com/tract/apostolic-succession, quote is from 1 Clement 44

[2] A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, David W Bercot, Hendrickson publishers, Peabody, Mass., 1998, P. 70

[3] ibid., P. 31

[4] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepursuitofholiness/2020/09/1198-apostolicsuccession/

[5] A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. P. 31

[6] The Historical Untenability of Apostolic Succession, https://calvinistinternational.com/2020/02/05/the-historical-untenability-of-apostolic-succession/

[7] ibid

[8] https://www.catholicfaithandreason.org/st-hippolytus-of-rome-170-236-ad.html, also The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume 1, William A Jurgens, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, 1970, p. 105

[9] A History of the Christian Church, Williston Walker, Scribner, New York, 1958, p. 41

[10] Ibid, p.42

June 5th, 2021 Posted by | Divisions | no comments

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