By Timothy G. Enloe
Part and parcel of Roman Catholicism's claim to authority is its conception of Apostolic Succession. As defined above, the doctrine asserts that the Gospel is preserved in the Church by means of a lineal succession of bishops who have handed down the truth from the beginning and who possess the teaching authority of the Apostles themselves. Noting the fact that even heretics claim the support of Scripture for their novelties, it further maintains that without this succession of bishops, one cannot tell where the true apostolic doctrines are being taught. The Catholic Church asserts that this doctrine is taught not only in Scripture, but in the early church as well. The following quote from the Catholic Answers tract, "Apostolic Succession" is illustrative of this idea:
Another example is this, from Catholic apologist Gary Hoge:
Are these claims true? While I do not fancy that I can even begin to give the subject a comprehensive treatment, I do believe that I can show the falsity of Rome's claims. My critique will proceed along three lines: 1) a discussion of the concept of apostolic authority in general, 2) analysis of specific examples drawn from Scripture, and 3) quotations from the early Church Fathers.
The General Concept of Apostolic Authority and Its Transmission
No one denies that the Apostles of Christ possessed authority over other believers. But what was that authority? Was it something that was tied to direct revelations given them by Christ (the receipt of which set them apart from everyone else in the Church), or was it simply an "office" instituted by the Lord and designed to be passed on dynastically, as was the Old Testament priesthood? A brief survey of what the authority of the apostles of Christ actually entailed will serve to highlight the extraordinary nature of the Roman Magisterium's claims about itself.
Ephesians 2:20 tells us that the church (the "building" composed of the saints of God) is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone". It is of no small consequence to the current topic that a foundation is a non-successive structure, the base upon which the rest of the building is constructed. A foundation does not have "successors", nor does it "develop" over time; it is a given from the start of the project. On the contrary, what does "develop" is the structure that rests on the foundation. Thus, there can be no "apostolic succession" in the sense described in the quotes I provided above.
Furthermore, apostolic authority was directly given by Christ to only a select few, not to anyone who would come after them. We note that while Catholic apologists attempt to make Christ's words in Luke 10:16 ("The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.") and John 15:20 ("...if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.") into a general principle that encompasses not only the original hearers of the words, but their supposed "dynastic successors" also, such a principle is quite plainly absent from the texts themselves. There is no indication in these passages that the authority Christ gave His apostles was some sort of "charism" that they would pass on to others.
Indeed, what we do find being "passed on" to others in the pastoral epistles of Paul is most definitely not an office replete with successors, but a body of teaching that is said to originate from Christ Himself. For example:
In sum, although Timothy and Titus were certainly ministers appointed by an inspired Apostle, and though we might loosely refer to them as "successors" to Paul, it is more than abundantly demonstrated by the above passages that their authority over their respective churches was derived from their faithfulness to Paul's teachings. In no way did their authority stand alone, as something inherent in their "office". Finally, Paul's express command was that the teachings--not the office--that had been entrusted to them by he himself were to be passed on to other faithful men.
Analysis of Specific Examples from Scripture
Catholic apologists often make exaggerated claims about apostolic succession as presented in the New Testament. For example, Dave Armstrong writes,
We first note that the example of Matthias replacing Judas is really irrelevant to apostolic succession as the Catholic Church understands it, because Matthias became an apostle, not a bishop. Even Armstrong himself admits in this piece that the office of Apostle passed away. Indeed, his own comparison of bishops with apostles in this very passage affirms that even were we to grant his basic claim that "apostles became bishops", the kind of bishops that existed after the apostolic age were not the same as the apostles themselves--"the Apostles can be considered bishops (albeit of an extraordinary sort)". This undermines his claim in the next paragraph that since apostles are bishops, the succession of Matthias to the place of Judas shows us something explicit about "an authoritative equivalency between Apostles and bishops".
Next, it is simply fallacious to argue that Paul was passing on an office to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-6. Note the words of the passage itself:
The passage is quite clearly speaking of the transmission of sound doctrine--not an authoritative office!--in the face of those who do not want to endure it. Although Timothy certainly possessed a legitimate office as overseer of the church at Ephesus, there is no mention of apostolic authority (in the sense of an office) being passed on to Timothy by Paul.
A second example of exaggerated biblical claims is this, from the aforementioned Catholic Answers tract, "Apostolic Succession":
We can easily grant that this passage is teaching the concept of a transmission of authority through the generations. But the key question is, "What authority is being transmitted?" Does this passage give us any reason to believe that the succession of teachers it is speaking of would themselves in their persons possess the same kind of authority as did the Apostles? No, it does not.
First, we must note that Paul instructs Timothy to entrust the doctrines he has learned to faithful men, which immediately implies that such men are to be held to some kind of external standard by which their faithfulness can be measured. No matter what the Catholic Church may wish to claim about its hierarchy, it is simply a truism that the only thing Paul can be referring to as that which the men to follow are to be faithful to is apostolic doctrine itself. It cannot be that Paul is teaching the idea that mere lineal succession will guarantee the truthfulness of the doctrines being taught by the successors, for he himself had earlier instructed the elders at Ephesus that after he was gone, "savage wolves" would arise from within their own ranks and draw disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30).
I repeat again for emphasis, mere lineal succession is not what Paul has in mind in his teachings. That there will be a succession of teachers is undeniable, but the key principle to remember is that these teachers must be faithful to what was originally taught by the Apostles. 1 The fact that many groups make this claim for their own hierarchies should serve to make us wary of accepting de fide Rome's claim. This point will be elaborated in the following section, which will examine some of the writings of the Church Fathers.
The Teachings of the Church Fathers
"...it is one thing to allow that a bishop has succeeded an apostle at the place of his last labors, and quite another to assume that therefore such a bishop is virtually the apostle himself. Yet this assumption is the ground of all Roman doctrine on this point." 2
A number of passages from the early Fathers are brought forth by Roman apologists in defense of their Church's understanding of apostolic succession. A primary passage is this one from Clement of Rome (often alleged to be "Pope Clement"):
Now, it is beyond question that the Fathers believed that there was a succession of teachers from the apostles--that the apostles commissioned men to lead the churches in their stead. Not only have we seen that this concept is found throughout the New Testament pastoral epistles (and even in chapter 20 of the book of Acts), but it is found in the writings of Fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. Indeed, it is from Irenaeus' monumental work Against Heresies that Catholic apologists draw a list of successive bishops in the very see of Rome.
Nevertheless, it is one thing to say that the Apostles made provision for leadership in the churches once they were gone and quite another to say that those so commissioned were to function as if they themselves were Apostles, e.g., that the successors of the Apostles would possess the same infallible doctrinal authority as did the Apostles themselves. What must be noted is that the above quote says absolutely nothing about the most crucial aspect of the Catholic doctrine it supposedly "proves", namely, that (in the words of one Catholic apologist) "in every age the Church continues to wield the same authority as the apostles did." 3 From the quote we are given, the best that can be concluded is that the apostles appointed men to the office of bishop, and made further provision for other approved men to succeed them should they die. Nothing more, nothing less. So why is this portion of Clement's letter quoted as if it "proves" the Roman Catholic contention about the Fathers' view of apostolic succession?
Another passage often raised is from Ignatius of Antioch:
This quote does equate the authority of the bishop to that of Jesus Christ, and of the presbytery to the apostles of Jesus Christ, which would seem to confirm the Catholic thesis. However, a few words about that ever-important thing called "context" must be said. First, there are two versions of each of Ignatius' seven undisputed letters, a shorter and a longer version. Some Catholic apologists quote the shorter version, which is not problematic, since many scholars believe that the shorter versions are the authentic ones. Nevertheless, other scholars believe there is reason for accepting the longer versions. Second, it seems beyond reasonable doubt that Ignatius would have been assuming that the bishops he spoke of submitting to were, in fact, faithful proponents of the doctrines taught by the Apostles, and not "wolves in sheep's clothing". These points come together to disconfirm the Catholic assertions in the following manner.
The longer version of chapter two of "Letter to the Trallians" begins thusly: "Be ye subject to the bishop as to the Lord, for he watches for your souls, as one that shall give account to God..." Here we see that Ignatius ceratinly had Scripture in the background of his thoughts--specifically Hebrews 13:17. This is important because Scripture does exhort believers to submit to those in authority over them. However, it also lists a number of very strict qualifications for the office of bishop (see 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:7-9). Significantly, especially in the Titus passage, conformity to apostolic teaching is listed as a qualification. The implication of the pastoral epistles on the issue of apostolic succession is precisely what Protestants maintain, e.g., that succession is succession of apostolic doctrine, not of inherent personal authority. In other words, supposing that Ignatius had been confronted with one of the "ravenous wolves" that the Apostle Paul predicted would arise from within the very eldership of the churches (Acts 20:29-30), should we assume that Ignatius would have exhorted believers to obey such a bishop? Would he even have considered such a person to be truly a bishop? I ask these questions rhetorically because I believe the answer should be obvious even to dedicated Roman apologists.
But if we were to read into the next chapter of Ignatius' Letter to the Trallians, we would find that he explicitly disavows that he has the inherent authority of an apostle: "But shall I, when permitted to write on this point, reach such a height of self-esteem, that though being a condemned man, I should issue commands to you as if I were an apostle?" The longer version reads, "I am indeed bound for the sake of Christ, but I am not yet worthy of Christ. But when I am perfected, perhaps I shall then become so. I do not issue orders like an apostle." (emphasis mine).
It seems then that Bishop Ignatius of Antioch did not believe that he personally wielded the same type of authority as did the Apostles. 4 If this is so, then Ignatius cannot be advanced as a proponent of the Catholic conception of apostolic succession.
A third example of the teaching of the Fathers on apostolic succession is this passage from Irenaeus' Against Heresies:
A moment's reflection on the passage will show that it says absolutely nothing about the idea that the successors of the apostles possessed in their persons the same authority as did the apostles. Rather, it simply tells us that there has been a succession of teachers who have received the infallible truth. Furthermore, there are other statements in Against Heresies which compel us to recognize that Irenaeus simply did not hold the Roman idea of apostolic succession. Consider these words from 3:3:1--
Note that Irenaeus plainly asserts the possibility even in the minds of the apostles themselves, that their successors could possibly "fall away". This is totally in keeping with the teaching of the Apostle Paul (Acts 20:29-30), but inconsistent with the Roman doctrine.
Interestingly, a bit further on in his work, Irenaeus seems to support the view I mentioned above (that apostolic succession is a succession of sound teaching). After listing the thirteen Roman bishops between the apostles and the current one, he writes: "In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth." (Against Heresies, 3:3:3).
He continues, "Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time" (ibid., 3:3:4). It would seem that Irenaeus linked apostolic succession to the preaching of the truth, not merely to a lineal descent of men in a teaching office.
It is very important that we follow Irenaeus' progression of thought, for it impacts not ony the idea of apostolic succession, but of the authority of the Scriptures as well. In this section of Against Heresies (Book 3) Irenaeus tells us his reasons for speaking of an unbroken line of successors to the apostles. In Chapter 1, he writes, "We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith." (emphasis mine). In Chapter 2, he shows us how the Gnostics devalue those Scriptures: "When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce...". (emphasis mine). Finally, in Chapters 2 and 3, he begins his argument from a succession of bishops. I note with some irony that the Scriptures appear first in Irenaeus' line of reasoning and the institution of successive bishops second. In Roman Catholic apologetics, the order is generally reversed. 5
But lest the point be still unclear, we have another witness to the fact that, for the early church, apostolic succession was a matter of the truthfulness of the doctrine preached by the supposed lineal descendants of the apostles. Tertullian writes,
He further writes: "The Lord teaches us that many 'ravening wolves shall come in sheeps clothing.' Now, what are these sheeps clothings, but the external surface of the Christian profession? Who are the ravening wolves but those deceitful senses and spirits which are lurking within to waste the flock of Christ? " (Ibid, Chapter 4, emphasis mine). Note well that Tertullian is in agreement with the Apostle Paul, and that the last sentence above presupposes a substantive faith external to the persons being discussed by which those persons are being judged. It is simply not the case that the faith is proved by the persons who are teaching it--a fact which totally repudiates the standard Catholic claim about the authority of the institutional Church.
Given the fact that heretical teachers can and do arise from within the Church, from within the very hierarchical eldership established by the Apostles, how can Rome honestly maintain that her hierarchical succession is somehow proof that her doctrines are apostolic in origin? We saw that Tertullian and Irenaeus--who supposedly were some of those "good Catholics" spoken of by Roman apologists--expressly deny this idea.
By locating infallible doctrinal authority within its organizational structure, rather than in an external standard (as in the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura), the Catholic Church effectively removes itself from the possibility of being corrected when it falls into error. Of course, its official teachings expressly deny the possibility that it can fall into error in the first place, but this is simply one more confirmation that the church of Rome cannot be simplistically and numerically identified with The One, Holy, Catholic Church which was established upon the cornerstone of Christ and the foundation stones of the apostles.
(Notes at Bottom)
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1. I do, of course, recognize that the Catholic Church claims exactly that. However, so does the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Mormon Church, and the Watchtower Society. The point is that there must be another criteria by which we can judge the truth of doctrines--merely producing a list of successive bishops is not enough.
2. (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume V, pp. 557-558). Re: Cyprian's treatise "On the Unity of the Catholic Church"
4. I am aware that the longer version of chapter 8 of "Letter to the Trallians" contains the following paragraph: "For what is the bishop but one who beyond all others possesses all power and authority, so far as it is possible for a man to possess it, who according to his ability has been made an imitator of the Christ of God? And what is the presbytery but a sacred assembly, the counselors and assessors of the bishop? And what are the deacons but imitators of the angelic powers, fulfilling a pure and blameless ministry unto him, as the holy Stephen did to the blessed James, Timothy and Linus to Paul, Anencletus and Clement to Peter? He, therefore, that will not yield obedience to such, must needs be one utterly without God, an impious man who despises Christ, and depreciates His appointments." These are even stronger words about the authority of the bishop than the ones which are usually quoted by Roman apologists. Nevertheless, I still believe that it is justifiable to assume that Ignatius had the Scriptural teachings regarding the qualifications of bishops clearly in mind, and that he would not have considered a person who did not meet these criteria to be a true bishop, even if such claimed the title. In a moment, we will see that Tertullian supports this assertion.
5. Indeed, the Catholic argument for the interpretive authority of the Church almost exactly mirrors that which Irenaeus said the Gnostics used: "When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce..." (emphasis mine). Church historian Ellen Flessman-van Leer expands on this idea:
6. Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 3 (emphasis mine).