‘Apostolic Succession’ in the Church – How Did it Develop and What Can it Teach Us?
For 1500 years, until the 16th century Reformation, ‘apostolic succession’ in varying degrees was the unquestioned norm for ecclesiastical hierarchy, both in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Protestants tend to throw it out as yet more papist baggage. So, what are the points at issue here? There seem to be three notional stages of development in the concept of Apostolic Succession.
Continuity of teaching. The Church as a whole was the vessel into which God’s truth is poured, and bishops were seen as the conduit for this purpose. One bishop succeeding another in the same bishopric meant that there was continuity to this truth. This position was formulated in the early 2nd century as a response to Gnostic claims of having received secret teaching from Christ or the apostles. It emphasised the public manner in which the apostles had passed on authentic teaching to those whom they entrusted with the care of the churches they founded, and that these in turn had passed it on to their successors: What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2). Ignatius of Antioch, in his “Epistle to the Smyrnaeans” writes: See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.
Continuity of function. Bishops were also seen as successors to the apostles in that the functions they performed (preaching, governing and ordaining) were the same as the Apostles had performed. Tertullian, Irenaeus and others (late 2nd century) introduce explicitly the idea of the bishop’s succession in office as a guarantee of authenticity, since it could be traced back to the apostles. Irenaeus writes at length on this in his “Against Heretics”; for example: 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.
‘Let them produce the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that a bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men.’ Tertullian, ‘Prescription Against Heretics’, late 2nd century.
Continuity of grace. Apostolic anointing and grace were held to be automatically transmitted from the Apostles by each generation of bishops through the laying on of hands. This was believed to guarantee the continuity and faithfulness of the Church. Thus, only bishops and priests ordained by bishops in the apostolic succession could validly celebrate the sacraments.
This late 4th century development suited a time when schisms (e.g. Arianism) troubled the Church, and where there were rival bishops – even rival Popes. The ‘true’ apostolic succession had to be protected. The idea comes from 2 Timothy 1:6, where the Apostle Paul laid his hands on Timothy, by which act a gift of God was planted in him. This is the most contentious aspect of apostolic succession, and there are serious problems with it. Passages like Acts 20:17 and Acts 20:28 show authority bestowed only over a local congregation – no apostolic authority is given over the church universal. And what are we to make of men who were apostolically commissioned but then backslid and deserted, like Demas? (2 Tim.4:10)
Even so, many a church today can produce impressive credentials, traced right back to the first Apostles, in support of their minister’s divine right to perform the sacraments (one example here). I conclude with a few of my own thoughts and reflections on the subject.
Issues of succession logically come to the fore with the second generation and those following. The New Testament is the work of the first generation of Christians. They easily deferred to the Apostles appointed by Jesus Himself, or to others of trusted and proven calling, like Paul and those whom he appointed. Most scholars have no problem accepting that the Apostle Peter commissioned James, the Lord’s brother, to be in charge of the church at Jerusalem, while his own focus shifted to Rome, and John’s to Asia Minor. This was not without its tensions, however, even in the first generation: “I follow Paul”, “I follow Peter”, “I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:4).
But greater tensions were to come when Constantinople and Rome operated independently as the East and West of the Empire. Roman Catholic scholars tend to regard this as a lamentable departure from what Jesus intended. Another way to view it is as a logical and eminently practical extension, pointing towards geographically autonomous apostolic circuits with their own senior and junior apostles, appointing their own ministers.
While many Protestant scholars see succession as only in the ministry of the word, the principle of apostolic succession marries the word to the witness. It carries the extra stamp of anointed humanity in the person of a duly commissioned man. There are two extremes to avoid here, as later church history has shown: at one end the placing of God’s word on so high a pedestal that human vessels count for nothing, and at the other the “anointed vessel” whose life might not match the claim.
Historically, the crunch came when Gnosticism in its various forms championed a free and speculative interpretation of God’s word. For a time, referral to a recognised apostolic man was sufficient for “the sure word as taught” to be established (Titus 1:9), but with the passing years, this no longer sufficed. It became necessary to have fixed points for the testimony of truth, and these were found in the so-called apostolic sees, that is, in those places where the apostles had been active. The focus moved from the truly apostolic (anointed, commissioned men known to the churches and trusted by them) to places and systems. These became the schools of training. Local churches no longer had a relationship with a trusted apostle. The apostolic place now commissioned its senior bishops, increasingly with a trouble-shooting role.
The fact that, in Roman Catholic and Orthodox denominations, apostolic succession based on the supposed sanctity of particular places has continued to this day, has something to say to us. The church hasn’t died! This shows either a disturbing ignorance or an amazing trust on the part of rank-and-file church members, who are content to receive whoever is sent to them as being God’s choice for them, just because “that’s how it’s done”. And indeed, it works – at least for maintenance, if not for mission or movement.
Responding to my first posting of this piece, Paul F Pavao (via Facebook) offered some further considerations, which I gratefully reproduce here.
‘Tertullian argued that the fact that all these separate churches have preserved the same truth is part of the power of the argument because “Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues.” Prescription Against Heretics ch. 28
Today, the churches, even the Catholic and various Orthodox churches do have various issues. They have officially split over these issues. The Church of the East and the Coptic Church have been excommunicated since the fifth century. By Tertullian’s argument error has crept in.
So, when you say “this was believed to guarantee the continuity and faithfulness of the Church,” I agree that at the end of the second century, when Irenaeus and Tertullian wrote, and even into the late third century, apostolic succession had successfully guaranteed the faithfulness of the Church. Afterward, though …’