Apostolic succession is the method instituted by the Apostles to pass on authority through a continuous lineage by appointing successors, (or overseers) and conferring on them Apostolic authority through a laying on of hands. Modern day Bishops are considered successors to the Apostles through direct lineage that should be traceable by means of ordination. All over the world, all Catholic bishops are part of a lineage that goes back to the time of the apostles. This direct lineage ensures that the Apostles teachings would be handed on completely and accurately, protecting it from false or heretical teachings. The English term bishop derives from the Greek word ἐπίσκοπος, epískopos, meaning “overseer”. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, Church of the East, and some Lutheran and Episcopalian denominations all hold that this concept is taught within the New Testament.
In the Gospels, we see Christ giving his authority to the Apostles (John 20:21, Matthew 10:1). This authority was to be used to govern His Church. In Acts 11:30 and Acts 15:22, we see a collegiate system of government in Jerusalem. If this authority to govern the Church was not passed on and instead died with the Apostles, it would leave future generations in chaos and unable to resolve any disputes that might arise. This is why the Apostles first act after the Ascension of Christ was to immediately set about finding a replacement for Judas. Acts 1:20 states “His office let another take”, where the Greek word translated as “office” is episkope. They prayed to God to guide them in choosing a candidate to take up Judas’ Apostolic ministry and, after choosing Mathias, they laid hands on him to confer Apostolic authority. Later, in Acts 14:23, the Apostle Paul ordains presbyters in churches in Anatolia. In Timothy and Titus a more clearly defined episcopate can be seen. It is clear from Titus 1:5 that Paul wanted Timothy and Titus to ordain other men as presbyters (priests) and bishops. We are told that Paul left Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete to oversee the local church. Paul in his first letter to Timothy, reminds him that the office of bishop had been conferred on him through the laying on of hands (1 Tim 4:14) and that he should not be too hasty in handing this authority on to others (1 Tim 5:22). Paul tells Timothy in 2 Tim 2:2; “what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Paul is telling Timothy to transmit the teaching he has given to him to future generations, but he also is saying that this teaching should be committed to faithful men. Both the teaching and the men are important as the apostolic ministry was to be the vehicle by which the teachings of Christ would be handed on, as Paul says, “what I received from the Lord, I also delivered to you” (1 Cor. 11:23) and “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2) and “Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk” (1 Tim 1:6).
The early Church was unanimous in expressing the tradition of Apostolic Succession as it was outlined in Scripture. In fact, apostolic succession was the test used by early Christians to determine what was true apostolic teaching and what was not. Apostolic Succession was seen as a greater authority than even Scripture in determining orthodox doctrine, as even the devil can cite Scripture. As we see below, the entire early Christian world expressed this view; from Rome to Antioch (modern day Turkey), to Lyons (modern day France), to Carthage (northern Africa).
The Historical Development of the Doctrine:
The Gospel of John 20:21
“As the Father has sent me, even so I send you”
The Gospel of Matthew 10:1
“He called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity.”
20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms. . . ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’ . . . Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
1 Corinthians 11:2
“I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.
1 Corinthians 12:27-29
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?
2 Thessalonians 2:15
“So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
1 Timothy 4:14
“Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.
1 Timothy 5:22
“Do not ordain anyone hastily, and do not participate in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.
“I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.”
2 Timothy 2:2
“What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
Church Father Quotes:
Pope St. Clement I of Rome
“Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]).
St. Hegesippus “the Chronicler”
“When I had come to Rome, I [visited] Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And after Anicetus [died], Soter succeeded, and after him Eleutherus. In each succession and in each city there is a continuance of that which is proclaimed by the law, the prophets, and the Lord” (Memoirs, cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4:22 [A.D. 180]).
St. Irenaeus of Lyons
“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about” (Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).
“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul—that church which has the tradition and the faith with which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. And it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (ibid., 3:3:2).
“Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time” (ibid., 3:3:4).
“[I]t is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the infallible charism of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth” (ibid., 4:26:2).
“The true knowledge is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere” (ibid., 4:33:8).
Tertullian of Carthage
“[The apostles] founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification. Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive Church, [founded] by the apostles, from which they all [spring]. In this way, all are primitive, and all are apostolic, while they are all proved to be one in unity” (Demurrer Against the Heretics 20 [A.D. 200]).
“[W]hat it was which Christ revealed to them [the apostles] can, as I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the gospel to them directly themselves . . . If then these things are so, it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches—those molds and original sources of the faith must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, [and] Christ from God. Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savors of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God. It remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours, of which we have now given the rule, has its origin in the tradition of the apostles, and whether all other doctrines do not ipso facto proceed from falsehood” (ibid., 21).
“But if there be any [heresies] which are bold enough to plant [their origin] in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [their first] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter” (ibid., 32).
“But should they even effect the contrivance [of composing a succession list for themselves], they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles [as contained in other churches], will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory” (ibid.).
“Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic Church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. But in truth they neither are so, nor are they able to prove themselves to be what they are not. Nor are they admitted to peaceful relations and communion by such churches as are in any way connected with apostles, inasmuch as they are in no sense themselves apostolic because of their diversity as to the mysteries of the faith” (ibid.).
St. Cyprian of Carthage
“[T]he Church is one, and as she is one, cannot be both within and without. For if she is with [the heretic] Novatian, she was not with [Pope] Cornelius. But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded the bishop [of Rome], Fabian, by lawful ordination, and whom, beside the honor of the priesthood the Lord glorified also with martyrdom, Novatian is not in the Church; nor can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way” (Letters 69:3 [A.D. 253]).
St. Augustine of Hippo
“[T]here are many other things which most properly can keep me in [the Catholic Church’s] bosom. The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep [John 21:15–17], up to the present episcopate, keeps me here” (Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation” 4:5 [A.D. 397]).
Artemon (a heretical 2nd century teacher in Rome, who held Adoptionist non-Trinitarian views.)
Eusebius of Caesarea states that Artemon and his followers claimed their views were held by the early Church in Rome and the Bishops who succeeded Peter:
“For they say that all the early teachers and the apostles received and taught what they now declare, and that the truth of the Gospel was preserved until the times of Victor, who was the thirteenth bishop of Rome from Peter, but that from his successor, Zephyrinus, the truth had been corrupted. And what they say might be plausible, if first of all the Divine Scriptures did not contradict them. And there are writings of certain brethren older than the times of Victor, which they wrote in behalf of the truth against the heathen, and against the heresies which existed in their day. I refer to Justin (Martyr), and Miltiades, and Tatian and Clement (of Alexandria) and many others, in all of whose works Christ is spoken of as God. For who does not know the works of Irenaeus and of Melito (of Sardis) and of others which teach that Christ is God and man? And how many psalms and hymns, written by the faithful brethren from the beginning, celebrate Christ the Word of God, speaking of Him as Divine. How then since the opinion held by the Church has been preached for so many years, can its preaching have deen delayed as they affirm, until the times of Victor?” -Eusebius in “Ecclesiastical History” Book V, Chapter XXVIII
J. N. D. Kelly (1909-1997, A Protestant and an early Church historian)
“[W]here in practice was [the] apostolic testimony or tradition to be found? . . . The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation. . . . Unlike the alleged secret tradition of the Gnostics, it was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors, and by these in turn to those who followed them, and was visible in the Church for all who cared to look for it” (Early Christian Doctrines, 37).
For the early Fathers, “the identity of the oral tradition with the original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back lineally to the apostles. . . . [A]n additional safeguard is supplied by the Holy Spirit, for the message committed was to the Church, and the Church is the home of the Spirit. Indeed, the Church’s bishops are . . . Spirit-endowed men who have been vouchsafed ‘an infallible charism of truth’” (ibid.).