Apostolic Succession in the Early Church

In my last two posts (here and here) I reviewed the letters St. Paul wrote to Timothy.  From the Catholic perspective these letters show the concept of apostolic succession.  Timothy had worked at Paul’s side for many years, and Paul clearly gave him 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 were 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. 

In general when I teach Scriptural apologetics I rarely delve into the writings of the Early Church Fathers.  Often when conversing with someone who has a basis of sola-Scriptura they have little value, because they are automatically rejected since they are not Scripture.  That is unfortunate because they have much to offer in our understanding of how the early Church functioned.  And when we look at those early writings, we can clearly see they understood and practiced the Catholic view of apostolic succession. 

Many Protestants have been taught and believe in 313 when Constantine made it legal for Christianity to exist in the Roman empire, he established what is known today as the Catholic Church and incorporated many pagan practices.  They believe this church is very different from the New Testament church and the early church prior to the time of Constantine.  And many accept that view without any research to validate it.  But when people do take the time to try to validate whether or not that is true, they are often shocked to find out these practices they now consider to be “pagan” were in practice from the early days of the Church, and how “Catholic” the early Church really was.

We have the writings of several early Church Fathers well before the time of Constantine.  The first is St. Clement of Rome who held the office of the bishop of Rome (the Pope) between the years 88 and 99 AD and was ordained by St. Peter.  St. Clement is viewed to likely be the Clement mentioned by St. Paul as a fellow worker in Philippians 4:3.  His letter to the Corinthian Church while Pope was often read during the early liturgies and considered by some as Scripture.  It was ultimately not included in the canon of Scripture, but still holds great value in our understanding of the early Church.  And from his letter to the Corinthians Chapters 42 and 44, Pope Clement had this to say about his understanding of apostolic succession:

“The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God.  Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ.  Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God.  Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand.  And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe.  Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons.  For thus says the Scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.”

“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.”


Another early Church Father is St. Irenaeus, who was ordained by St. Polycarp, who was ordained by the apostle John.  St. Irenaeus was a bishop in what is now Lyon France, and lived approximately between 130 AD and 202 AD.  Just as St. John points us to the apostles in order to identify those who are false teachers (1 John 4:6), St. Irenaeus viewed apostolic succession as being the key to know and identify false teachers in his time.  In his work lengthy “Against Heresies,” Book 3 Chapter 3 he writes:

“It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about.  For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to the perfect apart and privily from the rest, 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; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.”

He then notes it would be “tedious” to list within his work the succession of all the bishops of his day from the apostles, so he chooses to only list the succession of the Church in Rome founded by Sts. Peter and Paul, constituting an early list of popes. 


In Book 4 Chapter 26 he writes:

“Wherefore it 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 certain gift 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, [looking upon them] 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.”


And from Book 4 Chapter 33:

“True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and [above all, it consists in] the pre-eminent gift of love, 2 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 13 which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts [of God].”


The Christian author Tertullian (c.  155 AD – c.  220 AD) writing in Chapter 32 of his work “The Prescription against Heretics” says:

“But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves 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 [that first bishop of theirs ] 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.  In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed.”


Cyprian of Carthage (c.  210 – September 14, 258 AD) writes in his Epistle 75:

“Wherefore, since the Church alone has the living water, and the power of baptizing and cleansing man, he who says that any one can be baptized and sanctified by Novatian must first show and teach that Novatian is in the Church or presides over the Church.  For the Church is one, and as she is one, cannot be both within and without.  For if she is with Novatian, she was not with Cornelius.  But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded the bishop Fabian by lawful ordination, and whom, beside the honour 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.”


All of these men are writing before Constantine ever enters the picture.  They clearly show the same understanding Catholics have today regarding St. Paul’s letters to Timothy – that St. Paul had ordained Timothy and entrusted him with the ministry of an apostle, and intended for that line of succession to continue in perpetuity through time through the bishops of the Church. 

And after Constantine we find the Bishop St. Augustine.  In his work “Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus,” he gives his reasons for remaining in the Catholic Church:

“– not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom.  The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age.  The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate.  And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house.”


Amen St. Augustine, Amen. 

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