One of the distinctive beliefs of Catholicism (as well as Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, among a few other Christian churches) is that of “apostolic succession”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states this:
“1087 Thus the risen Christ, by giving the Holy Spirit to the apostles, entrusted to them his power of sanctifying: they became sacramental signs of Christ. By the power of the same Holy Spirit they entrusted this power to their successors. This “apostolic succession” structures the whole liturgical life of the Church and is itself sacramental, handed on by the sacrament of Holy Orders.”
Apostolic succession is therefore the belief that Jesus Christ chose and ordained the Apostles, who then chose and ordained their own successors, the bishops, who in turn have authority passed down the ages through the episcopate, to today. Catholics believe that all validly ordained bishops are successors of the Apostles, and that the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is specifically the successor of the apostle Peter. Now, there are a number of issues surrounding how and why the Bishop of Rome is the successor of Peter, a belief that is based on a number of non-Biblical assumptions and premises (such as the belief that because Peter died in Rome, his office therefore rested there), as well as the issue of the See of Antioch being a Petrine See as well (the Church of Antioch being established by Peter, according to tradition). This post is not in reference to those beliefs.
One aspect of Apostolic Succession that is frequently ignored by those who trumpet it is the issue of how exactly did this succession begin? One book that discusses this issue is From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church, by Francis A. Sullivan, a Catholic priest and theologian. While I have not yet finished reading this book (which I will review at a later date), it is clear to me that Sullivan rightfully believes that Apostolic Succession is something that is not readily provable in conception, and therefore must be accepted as a matter of faith. Sullivan concludes in the first chapter:
“Neither the New Testament nor early Christian history offers support for a notion of apostolic succession as “an unbroken line of episcopal ordination from Christ through the apostles down through the centuries to the bishops of today…such scholars (me: Catholics convinced that there is evidence of apostolic succession) agree that along with the evidence from the New Testament and early Christian documents, one must invoke a theological argument based on Christian faith to arrive at the conclusion that bishops are the successors of the apostles “by divine institution”.“
Sullivan’s view that apostolic succession is not a simple matter to solve is important. Far too many times, Catholics will copy and paste a list of bishops from Peter (who we must remember was an Apostle, not a bishop) to Pope Benedict XVI (bishop of Rome today, 2010), and submit this as proof of apostolic succession.
The problem with such an approach is that one needs to demonstrate the beginning of apostolic succession. Where did Peter, let alone any of the other apostles, designate a bishop as his successor? The New Testament is silent on this matter. What is the dating of the earliest document professing an apostolic succession? For someone to accept the belief in apostolic succession, they must first demonstrate that the apostles designated bishops as their successors, which is not an easy task. What is the origin of the belief that bishops succeeded the apostles, and did it originate with the apostles themselves? Even more important: did this belief originate with God? If so, how do we know?
This issue is what I call “the problem of apostolic succession”. No one can doubt that the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (as well as the Oriental Orthodox Churches) have ancient origins. No one can doubt that the view that the bishops are the successors of the apostles is an ancient view. No one can doubt that their are lists of bishops purportedly extending back to Peter, for example. The question is, what is the origin of the belief in apostolic succession? Where is the proof that the apostles chose bishops as their successors, and did the apostles themselves write about this belief? Is Irenaeus, in 180 AD, really the first person to claim that Linus was the successor of Peter? Did Linus himself say anything of the sort? Why is there confusion as to whether Linus or Clement succeeded Peter? Who is Linus for that matter, and is he the Linus of the Bible (2 Tim 4:21)?
Why is there nothing known in the very beginnings of the Church about the apostles designating bishops as their successors, and why is there no recorded revelation from God on such an important issue of Church structure (especially since the apostles were not dead yet for the traditional view of “no more public revelation after the death of the last apostle” to apply)? On the subject of revelation on apostolic succession, an excerpt from the Dogmatic Constitutions on the Church and on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church states this:
“The sacred synod teaches that the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the church in such wise that whoever hears them hears Christ and whoever rejects them rejects Christ and him who sent Christ.”
The Second Vatican Council therefore affirms that apostolic succession was put in place by “divine institution”. The question is, where is this “divine institution” recorded? As Father Sullivan states in his book, “Admittedly the Catholic position, that bishops are the successors of the apostles by divine institution, remains far from easy to establish”.