The Problem of Apostolic Succession

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”.

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14 comments

  1. Apostolic Succession is one example of Catholic Tradition. You cannot find it in New Testament other than the appointment of Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot. For Catholics there is no issue why such thing is not recorded – New Testament never claims it contains the whole things revealed to all apostles.

    Years ago some Mormon missionaries came to my house and I asked them some questions about their faith. I was shocked to hear, if I can recall my memory correctly, that they believe there is no hell – those who died are either be with God in one planet, i.e. the best ones where they enjoy fellowship with God. The rest will be allocated in other planets.

    1. Thank you vivator for your comment!

      I agree that Apostolic Succession is one example of Catholic (and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and Anglican) Tradition. Matthias replacing Judas is certainly an example of Apostolic Succession, however it is not what is being referred to in the common usage of the phrase. Matthias was an apostle (not a bishop). “Apostolic Succession” in Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican belief is the belief that bishops were appointed by the apostles as their successors. Matthias succeeding Judas is not an example of this.

      My premise is not just that Apostolic Succession finds no support in the New Testament, but that there is no evidence of it from the 1st Century AD. There are no extra-biblical writings by the Apostles themselves stating that they appointed bishops as their successors . It is especially curious that Vatican II claims that this was done by “divine institution”, and yet there is no record of this important revelation on Church structure (especially since the apostles were still alive to receive this public revelation). As Father Sullivan states in his book “From Apostles to Bishops”, one accepts “apostolic succession” partially on faith, since there simply is no historical record (in the New Testament or otherwise) of the initiation of apostolic succession, i.e. when the apostles themselves appointed bishops as their successors.

      Mormons do believe in Hell. They call it “Outer Darkness”. Their definition of who goes to Outer Darkness is more restrictive than the traditional understanding of Hell, however.

      Thank you again for your comment.

  2. When they call it Tradition then you will never find it in New Testament. It is neither necessarily must be found in 1st century writings of early Christians, which after all very few survive today. For example we have only fragments of Papias’ writings (quoted in later writings) who claimed to know some of the apostles and wrote five books of Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord.

    Apostle could be elder (1 Peter 5:1) and elder could be bishop (Acts 20:17,28). There is possibility, though not stated explicitly in New Testament, that Matthias was also bishop.

    As for the Mormon missionary I still remember myself asking the question: “There is no hell in LDS?” Their answer is No – perhaps they are wrong, though it seems to me they underwent some sort of training prior to their missionarty works. They also told me that you are given second chance after you die to follow the truth of LDS. They realized that their teaching about life after death becomes the stumbling block – and stopped coming .

    1. Thank you again for commenting.

      Very true, there are only a few 1st century AD writings available. Father Sullivan covers the Didache and 1 Clement in the book I mentioned earlier (which essentially covers the scriptural and ECF evidences for what exactly was happening in the early Church as far as leadership post-Apostolic age).

      The problem I find with many contemporary Catholic and Orthodox in attempting to support apostolic succession is that they attempt to redefine “bishop”/episkopos and posit that the Apostles were not only apostles but bishops as well. There is simply no scriptural or 1st century AD support for such a belief. It certainly isn’t the case that the apostles functioned as bishops do today (i.e. having permanent residence and authority in/over a geographical area). In the conclusion of “From Apostles to Bishops”, Father Sullivan makes some important conclusions, based on the scriptural and historical evidences of what was going on in the early Church (besides the Didache and 1 Clement, he also covers Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Hermas, Justin, Hegesippus, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian):

      There is a broad consensus among scholars that the historical episcopate developed in the post-New Testament period, from the local leadership of a college of presbyters, who were sometimes also called episkopoi, to the leadership of a single bishop. Scholars also agree that this development took place sooner in the churches of Antioch and of western Asia Minor than in those of Philippi, Corinth, and Rome. Scholars differ on details, such as how soon the church of Rome was led by a “monarchical” bishop, but hardly any doubt that the church of Rome was led by a group of presbyters for at least part of the second century>”

      “I am in substantial agreement with the consensus of modern scholars that the historical episcopate was not already present in the New Testament church, but a development that took place in the course of the second century, from the earlier collegial to the later monoepiscopal leadership of the local churches.”

      Father Sullivan therefore concludes that the evidence of both scripture and history points to the development of a “monoepiscopate” (the situation we see in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, with one bishop “ruling” over a geographic area) in the second century, and not as an immediate setup at the hand of the Apostles. Early writings point to a college of presbyters ruling together, and not one bishop ruling as we see today. Now, just so I don’t confuse you, Father Sullivan certainly believes in apostolic succession and that the Catholic Church is the early Church. What Father Sullivan disagrees with is the lack of precise terminology in what “apostolic succession” means, and that far too often, Catholics will simply say that the Apostles gave authority to the bishops to be their successors, when there is no evidence for this. Father Sullivan instead believes that the development of the “mono-episcopate” was a Holy Spirit-inspired process. I think that this is the only tenable solution in light of the evidence. Since there is no evidence in the New Testament or the earliest writings that the Apostles chose bishops as their successors (or that the Apostles functioned as or were bishops themselves), and that evidence points to groups of presbyters governing the Church (including the Church of Rome) in the 2nd Century, if one is to conclude that the current setup of one bishop ruling over one geographical area (and one bishop ruling over a particular Church, i.e. the Churches of Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, etc), they have to believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the development of such a setup in the 2nd Century.

      So, while I do believe that it is up to each individual to accept on faith that apostolic succession was a divinely instituted process, my view is that there is a clear issue in proving that the apostles chose bishops as their successors, or that bishops were the successors of the apostles by “divine institution” (i.e. the gap is in the initiation of the succession), and that there simply is no evidence of this actually occurring, as Father Sullivan also concludes. There is evidence of an evolution in the governance of the local church, from a group of elders (presbyters, who were sometimes referred to as episkopos/bishops), to one bishop in the second century, which is the model seen today.

      Perhaps the Mormon missionaries were saying “no” to the traditional conception of Hell, which they do not believe in. However they do believe in the aforementioned “Outer Darkness”. I wouldn’t say that Mormons believe in “second chances” after death. It’s more like a real “first chance”. For those that didn’t hear the Gospel in this life, they will have an opportunity to accept or reject it in the next. I find that this belief makes sense, especially in the context of the Biblical belief that all the saved must come through Christ. The Catholic doctrine of baptism of desire is similar, but it doesn’t explicitly state that the Muslim that ends up being saved, for example, accepts Jesus Christ in the afterlife. The Mormon view of this seems to fill in the gap of how non-Christians can be saved (which the Catholic Church affirms), yet these non-Christians certainly did not profess faith in Jesus Christ in this life.

      Oh and Mormon missionaries do go through missionary training (at “Missionary Training Centers”).

      Thanks again!

      1. You claim that the bible does not mention bishops. They very fact that the bible was not created by the apostles, but there descendants aka catholic church, means that if the ecumenical councils are not infallible, then there is no reason to believe the bible is infallible. The bible does not say the bible alone is the truth. By preaching bible alone you are adding words to sacred scripture.

      2. Thank you for commenting.

        Nowhere in my post do I claim that “the bible does not mention bishops”. In fact, the Bible quite clearly does. Also, as a Latter-day Saint, I do not believe that the Bible alone is the truth, and I have nowhere preached “bible alone” in this nor any of my other posts. I also do not believe that the Bible is infallible, nor have I stated such a belief in any of my posts. Indeed, this post specifically refers to not only the New Testament, but other ancient, extra-Biblical, Christian documents. I’m sorry, but your comment does not address the actual content of my post.

  3. Hey cath2lds. I suppose you can call me lds2cath :)

    Your argument seems to be that apostolic succession should consist of men called apostles ordaining other men called apostles. This idea that Catholics don’t have valid orders because they don’t wear a badge that says “apostle” and instead call themselves priests, deacons, and bishops seems silly. It seems akin to saying detectives aren’t police officers because they are called “Detective Smith” and not “Officer Smith.” Just because the title of a person’s office changes does not mean they aren’t still primarily what they once were. They key to this debate, and part of what led me to the Catholic faith, is figuring out what it is to be an apostle; the name doesn’t matter if you aren’t walking the walk. Like the original 12 disciples of Christ, those ordained in the Catholic Church are apostles called and sent to act in the name of Christ, preaching the gospel, forgiving sins, and casting out demons.

    Similarly, the argument that apostolic succession was broken because there is a 50 year gap in discussion about it seems rather weak. Why should we assume that a practice spoken of in the bible around the years 60-80 AD and spoken of again within the century was significantly altered? If we look at the big picture a 100 year period of relative silence on the matter, during which Christians were being heavily persecuted I might add, in a 2000 year history doesn’t seem that significant. Imagine you found a history book about a country that has existed for 2000 years. The country has been a monarchy since its founding. Now lets pretend that from 80 AD to 170 AD there is no record of who the monarch was. Is it more reasonable to assume that during that 90 year period things were drastically changed and the monarchy was corrupted, or to assume that the records were just lost along the way for any number of reasons? In the end I acknowledge that either of these answers is a possibility. Neither is more probable than the other so we must appeal to other factors like history, morality, philosophy, and theology. When this is done I believe there is abundant evidence for the Catholic faith, and I am glad to be home in Christ’s true church.

    In Christ,
    Seraphim

    1. Hey Seraphim! Thanks for your comments.

      Your first point brings up something that I have been thinking about lately on this very topic. When we look at the New Testament, we see that there are apostles. When there was a vacancy within the Twelve, it was filled with another apostle. So we see that there were supposed to be apostles. We of course also have the example of Paul as another apostle. Latter-day Saints believe that the Bible itself points to the apostolic succession of apostles, and not apostolic succession involving bishops, who are seen separately from bishops in the New Testament. I agree that the name doesn’t matter if you aren’t walking the walk, and that applies to anything. But the key to this whole argument is whether an apostle=bishop, if that is what you are saying. So the title of the office changed (apostle to bishop?), but they are still the same? What evidence do you have of this? I think that the Catholic/Orthodox argument comes down to demonstrating that bishops have the same authority as the New Testament apostles, and that they were given this authority by the apostles, and that bishops were designated to be the overarching leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ.

      Also, as for the “50 year gap” argument, I’m not sure what you’re referring to. I don’t believe I made such an argument (though I’m tired right now, so maybe I missed it).

      Thanks, I look forward to your thoughts, as well as more on your blog!

      1. I suppose my reply to this question…

        ” So the title of the office changed (apostle to bishop?), but they are still the same? What evidence do you have of this?”

        Would all come down to what it means to be an apostle. What sort of things did Peter, James, John, Matthias, Paul, etc. do as apostles that Catholic priests and bishops do not now have the authority to do? Along with this question I would ask what authority do LDS apostles visibly exercise that Catholic priests and bishops do not visibly exercise? You will likely point to revelation, dedication of temples, and other things unique to Mormonism, and I would end up asking a similar question to yours: What evidence is there that such unique Mormon practices are supposed to be part of true Christianity? I honestly believe that, from the bible and early Church fathers there is much more evidence for the Catholic view of apostolic succession than there is for a continuing need for the temple, eternal marriage, baptisms for the dead, etc. Perhaps I will write a post on this in your honor :)

        P.S. It is important to note that the twelve were called “apostles” BEFORE they had any authority whatsoever. This being the case, it indicates the role of apostle itself originally didn’t include any sort of priesthood authority; rather, priesthood authority is referred to as apostolic authority NOT BECAUSE an apostle is a special priesthood office, but because the first people who had this authority happened to have been called Christ’s apostles before they even had the priesthood!

      2. I think that I am a little confused by your inclusion of “Catholic priests” in comparison to Peter, James, John, Matthias, Paul, etc. From my understanding, Catholics believe that bishops, not priests, are successors to the apostles (with the bishop of Rome regarded as specifically the successor to Peter, and the bishops of various other cities, such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, etc are viewed as successors to specific apostles as well), and hold apostolic authority. Therefore, at least for me, it wouldn’t make sense to include priests in the argument, since they aren’t regarded as being successors to the apostles, and that’s the specific issue at hand.

        From the LDS POV, it isn’t necessarily important to have all uniquely LDS beliefs present in the Bible or early Christian writings, since, while certainly accepting a belief in the restoration of the priesthood and doctrines, there is also an acceptance of continuing revelation, meaning that God can and does reveal new things that may not have been revealed anciently (one of the Articles of Faith touches on this). So, on the one hand, there are certainly LDS apologists that have written books and articles demonstrating the presence of various uniquely LDS beliefs in early Judaism and Christianity (including things like exaltation, baptism for the dead, pre-mortal existence, “mysteries” (in relation to temple ordinances presumably), etc). On the other hand, LDS also know that certain things simply aren’t going to be found anciently, since God, it is believed, revealed certain things in the latter days. And yes, I’d definitely be interested in a post on that issue in my honor (;) ).

        Nibley, in “Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity” presents the argument that apostles were given specific charisms for their calling, charisms that weren’t given to bishops. Chief among those is revelation. The apostles were regarded as receiving revelation from God to guide His Church. One thing that I like about the LDS Church is its emphasis on revelation to guide the Church, and that God is constantly directing the affairs of His Church (I think you can read into that the implications I’m thinking of, as related to what we’ve discussed elsewhere…;) ). The apostles were also given the power of binding and loosing. They are “general authorities” (i.e. they have jurisdiction over the whole Church), in contrast to bishops that are “local authorities” (don’t Catholics believe that bishops are local authorities as well?).

        As to your P.S., that is interesting! Thanks for that, we’ll talk more about that as I look into it.

  4. Apostolic sussesion is clearly In the bible

    Acts 1:26
    New King James Version (NKJV)
    26 And they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

    And

    2 Timothy 2:2
    New International Version (NIV)
    2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.

    1. Adam,

      Yes, apostolic succession is clearly in the Bible. If you read the post that you are responding to, you would see that that is not my argument at all. Instead, the issue is whether there is evidence of bishops succeeding apostles, or more precisely, what is the ancient evidence that the apostles appointed bishops as their successors, with apostolic authority. The example you cite from the Bible actually supports the LDS position: that for there to be apostolic succession, there has to be a succession of apostles with other apostles. Matthias was an apostle, who succeeded Judas, also an apostle. Apostles succeeding apostles. This is not an example of a bishop succeeding an apostle, as Catholicism and Orthodoxy teach.

      In contrast, Mormons believe that apostolic succession necessitates, by definition, a succession of apostles by other apostles, as we see in the Bible in the example you cited, for one. Therefore, Latter-day Saints believe that their Church mirrors that of the New Testament, with apostles at the head, serving under Jesus Christ, just as He designed anciently. That is the “problem” of apostolic succession of bishops succeeding apostles, not that “apostolic succession” as a general concept is not found in the Bible, since that is false.

  5. I do not think the Church says that the bishops had the FULL authority of the Apostles. The public revelation on the deposit of faith was given to the Apostles and public revelation dies with the death of the last Apostle, which Tradition tells us was John. This concept of passing on a portion of authority is seen in Numbers 27:18-20 And the LORD said to Moses, “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him; cause him to stand before Elea’zar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight. You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey.” Scripture identifies Joshua as having received SOME of Moses’ authority and one aspect of authority which is withheld is the authority to add to the Mosaic Law. This is the same concept of no new Revelation after the death of the last Apostle.

    Paul is identified in Scripture as an Apostle who appointed Timothy, who Tradition tells us was the first bishop of Ephesus. So, Timothy is a bishop appointed by Paul, who is an Apostle according to Scripture. Paul exhorts him to find others who can pass on the faith as well. This is not explicit that Timothy was to pass on his authority as bishop, but it does point to the practice of passing on the faith authoritatively as inferred in 2 Timothy 2:2. Paul would not have done something on his own Authority, but did check in with the Apostles in Acts to see if he was erring in any way. I know this falls short of one of the twelve passing on a portion of their authority to a bishop successor, but it at least Scriptural evidence of something similar going, which we see in Acts as well when the Apostles appoint deacons to assist in distributing the goods of the Church. They did this by choosing the seven and then laying on hand to confer their authority.

    I think it is entirely reasonable to conclude that if they thought choosing men to distribute the goods of the Church was important, would it not be all the more important that they would choose individuals to preside over the different local Churches that they founded?

    1. Hi!

      I agree that it they certainly would have found it important to choose individuals to preside over the local churches they founded. The question is, did these local leaders (I’m assuming you’re referring to bishops) replace the apostles as the general authorities, or leaders over the Universal Church? From the LDS perspective, the apostles ordained bishops, but the bishops were not apostles, and had a purely local authority, as they do today in the LDS Church. The apostles in contrast presided over the entire Church.

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