Definition of Terms:
Apostolic Succession is the method used within the early Church to pass on authority by appointing successors, (or overseers) and conferring on them Apostolic authority through a laying on of hands. It was believed that the apostles, who were chosen by Jesus Christ, passed on their authority to their successors in an uninterrupted lineage of spiritual authority and leadership ensuring the continuity of teaching and sacraments. The early Church considered Apostolic Succession vital for maintaining the purity of doctrine and ensuring the validity of sacraments, such as baptism and the Eucharist. This belief provided a framework for establishing authority, resolving disputes, and protecting the Deposit of Faith given by Christ from false or heretical teachings in order to preserve unity within the growing Church.
Key early Christian writers like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus of Lyons wrote extensively about the importance of Apostolic Succession in their letters and writings. They argued that the bishops, who were the successors of the apostles (bishop from the Greek word ἐπίσκοπος, epískopos, meaning “overseer”), held a special role in preserving and transmitting the teachings of Jesus Christ faithfully. As opposing heretical groups began to spring up, they would often twist the words from Paul’s letters (2 Peter 3:16) to fit their own belief system. Because there was not yet a New Testament -the formal canon of which would not be decided for another 3 centuries- many of these groups forged their own heretical gospels and letters in the Apostles’ names. As such, apostolic succession was the test used by early Christians to determine what was true apostolic teaching and what was not.
Although the express teaching of Apostolic Succession is rooted in Sacred Tradition, which is the full Deposit of Faith, it’s concept is woven all throughout Scripture as well. In the Gospels, we see Christ giving his authority to the Apostles (John 20:21, Matthew 10:1), which would be used to govern His Church (Acts 11:30 and Acts 15:22). This authority to govern the Church would need to be passed on in order to preserve Christ’s teaching and ensure unity. This is why the Apostles first act after the Ascension of Christ was to immediately set about finding a replacement for Judas; “His office let another take” (Acts 1:20). The Greek word translated as “office” is episkope, which is etymological root of the English word “bishop”. The Apostles prayed to God to guide them in choosing a candidate to take Judas’ place and, after choosing Mathias, they laid hands on him to confer Apostolic authority. Just as Moses laid hands on Joshua as a visible sign of the conferring of authority (Num. 27:22-23; cf. Deut. 349), so too, the apostles laid hands on men as a sign of conferring apostolic authority.
Apostolic succession can be readily seen through the actions of Paul. In Acts 14:23, the Apostle Paul ordains presbyters in churches in Anatolia. In his letters to Timothy, Paul reminds Timothy twice not to neglect the gift given to him through the laying on of hands;
“Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.” -1 Tim 4;14
“Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands” -2 Timothy
Timothy is given the authoritative task to “command and teach” (1 Tim. 4:11), along with rebuking those who come along and teach things contrary to sound teaching (2 Tim. 4:1-5). Paul makes it clear how Christians should receive this teaching and that they should consider “elders” as “worthy of double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17). Timothy and Titus were also given the authority to ordain other men as presbyters (priests) and bishops (Titus 1:5). Timothy is told to discern which men are worthy to be “bishops” (1 Tim. 3:1-7) and “deacons” (1 Tim. 8-13) and he should not be too hasty in handing this authority on to others (1 Tim 5:22). Paul tells Timothy to transmit the teaching he has given to him to future generations, but to be sure it is committed to faithful men;
“what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” 2 Tim 2:2
This teaching that Timothy is to pass on is the same teaching that Paul received from Christ Himself;
“what I received from the Lord, I also delivered to you” 1 Cor. 11:23
“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
This summarizes the entire essence of Apostolic Succession.
A Note on Apostolic Succession and Valid Holy Orders:
The Catholic Church recognizes the validity of Holy Orders within the Eastern Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, and Oriental Orthodox Churches due to their historical apostolic succession, which traces back through generations of bishops to the apostles. Since these churches have preserved this apostolic succession, the Catholic Church acknowledges the validity of their ordinations and sacraments, including the ordination of priests. Despite this recognition, full communion with the Catholic Church is not established due to existing schisms with the Pope.
In contrast, the Catholic Church declared Anglican orders “null and void” in 1896 through the papal bull “Apostolicae Curae” due to concerns about the validity of the Anglican ordination rite introduced during the English Reformation. The Anglican ordination rite deviated significantly from the traditional Catholic rite, raising questions about the essential form and intention required for valid sacraments.
During the English Reformation, King Henry VIII separated from Pope and established the Church of England. The bishops of the Church of England at this time, although they were in schism with the Pope, still maintained valid orders for ordaining new priests. King Edward VI, however, was heavily influenced by Calvinism and introduced changes to the ordination rite. Pope Leo XIII cited two principal arguments in “Apostolicae Curae” against the validity of the Edwardian Ordinal (the first new rite of ordination approved after the split with Rome).
Firstly, the intentional omission of language referring to the sacrificial priesthood as understood by the Catholic Church in the Anglican ordination rite was considered problematic. Secondly, defects in intention were revealed by the omissions in the rite, affecting the continuity of apostolic succession. Because of these significant deviations in form and intention from the traditional Catholic rite, the Catholic Church concluded that the Anglican ordinations lacked validity. Subsequent Anglican priests, therefore, were not true priests who could validly absolve sins or confect the Eucharist.
In 1966, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) was established to explore areas of agreement and theological dialogue between the two traditions. However, Anglicans changed their theology of orders once again by ordaining women in the 1970s. Clarifying the Church’s position on the matter, Pope St. John Paul II declared in 1994 that the Church has “no authority whatsoever” to ordain women to the priesthood (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4).
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.).