Apostolic Succession and Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy

In my last post I reviewed St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy, and how we see in that letter Paul is giving Timothy a mission — to ensure correct doctrine is known, to teach, to instruct, to command certain behavior from his flock, to correct flawed doctrine and to make sure qualified leaders are appointed in the churches.  In others words, to step into St. Paul’s shoes as he is nearing the end of his ministry and life. 

Paul’s second letter to Timothy follows much along the same pattern.  And we see within it the most direct support of the Catholic understanding of apostolic succession.  In 2 Timothy 2:1-2 Paul writes “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”  Within that one statement we see four generations of apostolic succession at play.  We have St. Paul, who has been entrusted with the Gospel ((1 Corinthians 9:17, 2 Corinthians 5:19, Galatians 2:7, 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 1 Timothy 1:11, 2 Timothy 1:12, Titus 1:3).  We have Timothy, who is now being entrusted to continue Paul’s ministry (1 Timothy 6:20, 2 Timothy 1:14).  We have the expectation Timothy will in turn entrust this apostolic ministry to other faithful men.  And we have the expectation that those men in turn will teach others, and entrust the faith to them.  We also know Timothy has received Paul’s authority to ordain, so we can know the way he will pass on this authority is through the laying on of hands. (1 Timothy 5:20-22)  That is apostolic succession in a nutshell.

In his anti-Catholic work “Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics,” Ron Rhodes has this to say about that passage.  “Some Roman Catholics say that the idea of entrusting doctrine to faithful men to be passed onto others supports apostolic succession.  Roman Catholics are reading something into this verse that is not there.  There is virtually no mention of apostolic succession here.  Paul is simply talking about the same kind of discipleship discussed in Matthew 28:19-20.  As Timothy was discipled by Paul, so Timothy was to disciple others and pass onto them the truths of Scripture, so that these men too could pass on to others what they had learned.  The process continues on and on down through the ages, but this is not apostolic succession.” 

Rhodes offers no explanation of what this passage does speak to; he simply asserts it’s not apostolic succession.  But he admits the idea contained in the passage is that of ”entrusting doctrine to faithful men to be passed onto others,” and “that As Timothy was discipled by Paul, so Timothy was to disciple others and pass onto them the truths of Scripture, so that these men too could pass on to others what they had learned.”  He also admits this process “continues on and on down through the ages.”  Since those things in essence are the Catholic view of what apostolic succession means, I have no clue how his claim the passage does not support apostolic succession makes any sense.  In addition, he adds the word “Scripture” to his commentary.  St.  Paul tells Timothy to pass on what he has heard from St. Paul and he does not indicate this knowledge is limited to Scripture. 

Rhodes also says Paul is simply talking about the same kind of discipleship discussed in Matthew 28:19-20.  Well, yes he is.  That is the great commission Christ gives specifically to the apostles to teach all he has taught them, with his promise he will be with them to the end of time. 

The Reformed Protestant pastor and teacher John MacArthur in his writings often denies the Catholic teaching on apostolic succession.  But his study Bible says this about 2 Timothy 2:1-2“Timothy was to take the divine revelation he had learned from Paul and teach it to other faithful men – men with proven spiritual character and giftedness, who would in turn pass on those truths to another generation.  From Paul to Timothy to faithful men to others encompasses 4 generations of godly leaders.  That process of spiritual reproduction, which began in the early church, is to continue until the Lord returns.”  Again, what does MacArthur think this is, if not apostolic succession?

But perhaps there is a more relevant question for MacArthur, and others who have the role of pastors.  We know Timothy is to pass on this authority by ordination – the laying on of hands (1 Timothy 5:20-22), just as Paul had ordained him (2 Timothy 1:6-7).  So is MacArthur part of this “spiritual reproduction” that will continue until Christ returns?  Is there any evidence of that?  I’m certain not.  Yet Catholic bishops we know for a certainty are, as the Church can trace their ordination line back to the apostles.  What started in the early Church does indeed continue to this day. 

Paul writes many other things to Timothy in his second letter that are similar to the first.  In 2 Timothy 1:6-7 he reminds Timothy of the gift he received via his ordination – “Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control.”  In 2 Timothy 1:13-14 he tells him Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.”

In 2 Timothy 2:14-15 Paul writes Remind them of this, and charge them before the Lord to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.  Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” 

In 2 Timothy 3:10-17 Paul tells Timothy about the role Scripture will have in being profitable (useful) for him in his role of teaching the faith – “Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, my sufferings, what befell me at Antioch, at Ico′nium, and at Lystra, what persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.  Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived.  But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All scripture is inspired by God andprofitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”  Why this passage does not really support a view of sola-Scriptura as is often claimed was discussed here.

Paul leaves Timothy with this demand – I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching.  For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.  As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.”  (2 Timothy 4:1-5) There are indeed many times when people choose to walk away from this line of authentic, apostolic teachers to find ones that “suit their own likings.”  Paul’s prophecy in this regard has certainly been proven to be true. 

Often snippets from St. Paul’s letters to Timothy are removed from their context and cited to support certain views.  But when you read them as written, within the context they are written, it becomes very clear the authority Paul has been given as an apostle to teach, to preach, to discipline, to rebuke and to lead the Church is being passed on to Timothy, along with the expectation he will choose other men for the same ministry, to be passed on until the end of time.  My next post will take a look at the Church in the early centuries and how we see this expectation evolve in a continuous line of bishops. 

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