Apostolic Succession: Is it True?

Below is a presentation I recently gave on the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. It is a sketch of the doctrine and I do not discuss or handle everything. The structure of the presentation generally follows Cirlot’s work Apostolic Succession: Is it True? I have posted a copy of that book in a PDF here–> Cirlot_OnTheApostolicSucession. I believe the book is now outside of copyright. A friend of mine also made a video of the presentation which I have linked here. Comments are also open.

Two other posts that were written here by a past contributor are linked below. They follow Cirlot’s line of argumentation as well. In my view, Cirlot’s work remains the most comprehensive and best argued work on the subject.

Does Presbyter = Bishop? (1)

Does Presbyter = Bishop? (2)

I. Introduction“How will they preach unless they are sent?” Romans 10:15

Apostolic Succession is a thesis about ecclesiastical polity and so might strike some as dry or boring and perhaps irrelevant. But Apostolic Succession is not a thesis just about polity. Like many Christian doctrines it entails a number of interconnecting theses, some as subsidiaries and others in relation to other Christian doctrines. What is presented here is merely a sketch of the doctrine, its supporting evidence and some of the more popular objections.

II. What Apostolic Succession Is Not
To clear the floor I note popular glosses on apostolic succession or its constitutive theses that constitute a straw man or are not part of the doctrine or essential to it.

A. Apostolic succession is part of the papal theory or it is the thesis that all bishops are to be successors of the Pope going back to St. Peter.
B. Apostolic Succession is the idea that a tactual succession alone makes one a valid minister.
C. Apostolic Succession is an appeal to antiquity, pedigree, lineage or ancestry.
D. The existence of one bishop in a given locale over multiple congregations (sometimes called the Monarchial Episcopate)
E. Apostolic Succession is a claim that there are present day apostles.

III. The Doctrine of Apostolic Succession
Apostolic Succession is roughly the thesis that Christ, being sent by God the Father, directly commissions the Apostles equipping them with divine power/authority to perpetuate the ministry of Christ. And in turn that the Apostles ordained by the laying on of hands ministers to be their successors which were codified into three orders: bishops, presbyters and deacons with only bishops having the power to ordain.

The doctrine of Apostolic succession is constituted by four distinct theses.

A. Theocratic Principle-possession of supernatural/divine power/authority is ultimately derived from God alone.
B. Hierarchical Principle-Transmission of divine power/authority can be conveyed in greater or lesser degrees.
C. Appointment Principle- Appointment to office was ordinarily accomplished by (1) ordination and ordination was sacramental, i.e. ordination conveyed a real supernatural power/authority.
D. Monarchial Principle- Not all powers of the highest office were transmitted to all orders of the hierarchy, i.e. the power to ordain.

III. Principles of Apostolic Succession Exemplified

A. Old Testament Data
Theocratic Principle
Numbers 16:1ff Korah’s Rebellion exemplifies the Theocratic principle that divine power/authority is ultimately from God alone. vv. 3, 10, 13, 21, 28, 40
Heb 5:4 “And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was.”
Hierarchical Principle-
Numbers 16
Heb 9:6 “Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle performing the divine worship, but into the second, only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance.”
Appointment Principle-
Num 27:15 “Then Moses spoke to the LORD, saying, “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out and come in before them, and who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD will not be like sheep which have no shepherd.” So the LORD said to Moses, “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him; and have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation, and commission him in their sight.“ You shall put some of your authority [majesty/glory] on him, in order that all the congregation of the sons of Israel may obey him.”
Deut 34:9 “Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses.”
Monarchial Principle-
Numbers 16, Heb 9:6, etc.

B. New Testament Data
Theocratic Principle-
Matt 21 Parable of the Landowner
Mat 16:19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
John 15:16 “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.
Mat 10:40 “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.”
Heb 7:7 “But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater.”
Rom 13:1 “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.”
See also, Gal 2:7-8, Acts 1, Acts 6, Acts 20:28
Hierarchical Principle
Acts 6-The Seven are of a lower rank than the apostles and could not perform all the tasks of the Apostles
Eph 4:11 “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ”
3 John 1:9 “I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church.”
Appointment Principle
Acts 6, Acts 20:28
1Ti 4:14 “Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery.”
2 Tim 1:6 “For this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.”
1 Tim 5:22 “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.”
Tit 1:5 “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.”
Monarchial Principle
Acts 6, 3 John 1:9,
Acts 8:12ff “But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. Even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip, and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed…. Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

C. Early Church Data
Theocratic Principle
“For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the [manifested] will of the Father; as also bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds [of the earth], are so by the will of Jesus Christ.”
Ignatius of Antioch, Ephesians 3, 107 A.D.
“In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church.”
Ignatius of Antioch, Trallians 3, 107 A.D.

Hierarchical Principle
When one ordains a deacon, he is chosen according to what has been said above, with only the bishop laying on his hand in the same manner. In the ordination of a deacon, only the bishop lays on his hand, because the deacon is not ordained to the priesthood, but to the service of the bishop, to do that which he commands. For he is not part of the council of the clergy, but acts as a manager, and reports to the bishop what is necessary. He does not receive the spirit common to the elders, which the elders share, but that which is entrusted to him under the bishop’s authority. This is why only the bishop makes a deacon. Upon the elders, the other elders place their hands because of a common spirit and similar duty. Indeed, the elder has only the authority to receive this, but he has no authority to give it. Therefore he does not ordain to the clergy. Upon the ordination of the elder he seals; the bishop ordains.”
Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, sec. 8, 200 A.D.
Appointment Principle
Hippolytus

“…yet the Church does not depart from Christ; and they are the Church who are a people united to the priest, and the flock which adheres to its pastor. Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if any one be not with the bishop, that he is not in the Church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who creep in, not having peace with God’s priests, and think that they communicate secretly with some; while the Church, which is Catholic and one, is not cut nor divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by the cement of priests who cohere with one another. Wherefore, brother, if you consider God’s majesty who ordains priests, if you will for once have respect to Christ, who by His decree and word, and by His presence, both rules prelates themselves, and rules the Church by prelates”
Cyprian, Letter 68, sec. 8-9 250 A.D.

Monarchial Principle-
Hippolytus

“It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great Synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters, whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them. Furthermore, let not the deacons sit among the presbyters, for that is contrary to canon and order. And if, after this decree, any one shall refuse to obey, let him be deposed from the diaconate.” Council of Nicea Canon 18, 325 A.D.

IV. Objections Considered

The first most significant objection to the doctrine of Apostolic Succession is that bishops in the traditional sense of the term are a later development and that the episcopate as later came to be known grew out of the lower order of the presbyterate. This claim first rests on the argument that the term episcopus and presbyterous are identical in meaning since they are used interchangeably in numerous instances in the NT. (e.g. Titus 1:5-7)

Working backwards, the interchangeability of the two terms is not contested but the inference to an identical meaning and office is. First if the two terms have identical meaning, then other terms which are used interchangeably in the same way (denoting the same group) must also imply identity of meaning and office. So for example Apostles are also called presbyters in the NT (1 Pet 5:1) and so by the same reasoning we would have to conclude that presbyters were apostles and vice versa, but this is not consistent with the NT data nor the principles exemplified above.

Second, that the episcopate as we know it in the second and third centuries came later is not lethal to the theory since it is a question of how much later. I will return to this in a moment. The idea that the episcopate grew out of the presbyterate runs contrary to the principles exemplified above, namely men taking an office to themselves and the lesser blessing the greater and so on. What is more, we have no clear case of presbyters qua office ever having the power to ordain. The earliest cases are in the fifth century and were incidental and roundly condemned.

Returning to the thesis that the episcopate as we know it developed later, this depends. By the time of Ignatius (107 A.D.) and probably Clement of Rome (95 A.D.) we have a clear-cut episcopate which is right on the heals of the Apostles. (Many other bishops from different cities come to offer aid to Ignatius on his road to martyrdom to Rome.) What is more, Paul seems to distinguish between Apostles made by God and Apostles made by men (Gal 1:1). The latter would not be of the Twelve or of direct commissioning by God but would be second order apostles (deutero-Apostles) such as James, Barnabas, Timothy and Silvanus (1 Thess 1:1. 2 Thess 1:1 cf w. 2 Thess 2:6) As the Twelve & Paul died, the burden of leadership and ordination would have fallen on these second order apostles to ordain and oversee the churches. What is more we know that they had the power to ordain per Timothy and they were sent to specific regions as heads of churches in an area, such as James in Jerusalem. The primitive use of bishop denoting a function of overseeing at the local level would have been eclipsed by these second order apostles and so by the time of Ignatius the title of bishop is transferred to them. This is why in the NT the only two orders mentioned by name are bishops and deacons, but not presbyters, with Apostle being the third. Once the function of oversight of congregations had shifted to second order apostles, those who previously had it would simply be called presbyters. This is why the title of presbyter as a distinct office doesn’t appear until this transition has already begun to take place in the 90’s of the first century. Consequently, it is not that the episcopate grew out of the presbyterate but rather that the presbyterate qua office grew out of a shift in oversight (and terminology) that could only take place once the Apostles made by God had died. It is also why the language of a three order ministry from the OT was employed as early the Didache and Clement so that by the time of Irenaeus, Tertullian and Cyprian (180-250 A.D), presbyters are commonly called priests, with bishops called high priests, although both in a Melchizekian sense.

3 comments

  1. “Given Cirlot’s arguments on the Jewish roots of presbyter, which goes much further in terms of an argument from Gentile/Jewish usage…”

    Can you elaborate more here about Cirlot’s argument? Or give me page number citations?

  2. Yes I have read that work. As far as the presbyterian argument for semantic identity and identity of office we agree. But his thesis is the inverted version of Cirlot’s. He takes, if I recall bishops to be local ministers in each congregation with presbyters being a general term for bishops in a given region.

    Given Cirlot’s arguments on the Jewish roots of presbyter, which goes much further in terms of an argument from Gentile/Jewish usage, I was not convinced by Stewart’s arguments that presbyters were patrons.

  3. Alastair Stewart’s groundbreaking book (The Original Bishops) makes a point to note that, exegetically, “the elders” has a plurality of meanings, and thus one way that a group of episkopoi in a given city were referred to as “the elders”. And it was from within a metropolitan context that the gathering of all the house churches of a city eventually led to an inter-city federation that produced a bishop-of-bishops, and while this later became simply the bishop, the integrity of episcopacy more often than not referred to a given congregation. In other senses, elders referred to patron figures in a house-church that offered council, support, and benefits (material or otherwise). These elders were within a congregation, surrounding the bishop, but did not require an ordination.

    This point doesn’t refute the above basic sketch of apostolic succession, and it also does not support the Reformed/Presbyterian argument about how bishops originated. But it’s food for thought. The book is worth checking out; it’s focus is from Jesus/Apostles to about 200 AD.

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