What Is Apostolic Succession and Is it Biblical?
- Mike Leake Borrowed Light
- Updated Sep 05, 2023
Have you ever heard the name Sid Gillman? Even if you are a fan of NFL football, the name likely escapes you. Yet, Sid Gillman probably has the most successful coach tree of any coach in NFL history. A coaching tree is kind of like a family tree, except with coaches. For Sid Gillman, such prestigious names as Bill Walsh, Al Davis, John Madden, Joe Gibbs, and Tony Dungy are in his family tree. To use a religious term, these are his disciples, who then made other disciples.
If you were looking to hire a new NFL coach, would you rather hire someone who comes from a known-to-be successful coaching tree or a guy who has zero connections to previous successful coaches? You’d likely want to hire the guy with the connections. Apostolic succession is similar. Would you rather get your theology from a guy who was connected to one of the apostles or a dude who had never even been with Jesus? But is this concept biblical? Can it be helpful?
What Is Apostolic Succession?
What is meant by apostolic succession is a bit different depending on who you ask. To put simply it is the idea that there is an unbroken chain of bishops from the current bishop to the apostles. According to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Apostolic succession is the transmission by means of the sacrament of Holy Orders of the mission and power of the Apostles to their successors, the bishops. Thanks to this transmission the Church remains in communion of faith and life with her origin, while through the centuries she carries on her apostolate for the spread of the Kingdom of Christ on earth. (176)
Note in particular the phrase “mission and power of the Apostles.” This is what gives the bishops the right to confirm members, ordain other priests, consecrate other bishops, and lead their specific churches. For the Catholic Church, apostolic succession is tied to their view of the pope, the importance of Rome, and the papacy flowing through the line of Peter (not biological but through the laying on of hands).
Roman Catholics are not the only Christian denomination to accept the doctrine of apostolic succession, though. Eastern Orthodox, some Lutheran churches, and Anglican churches accept this doctrine. But there will be some disagreement in its relationship to the papacy and how they consider churches led by those without apostolic succession.
I would argue that many of the modern notions of apostolic succession is not what was meant by apostolic succession in the early church.
Where Did Apostolic Succession Come From?
In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul tells Timothy, “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.” The idea is that there is a body of truth that was given to Paul, who then imparts that truth to Timothy, who is now accountable to teach this to others. You can see this in practice in the early church. In his battle with the Gnostics Irenaeus makes use of an apostolic succession argument.
The Gnostics claimed to have special knowledge given to them. If you followed them, then you would be imparted this special truth as well. How do you argue with a theology like this? If you appeal to Scripture, they say that you aren’t using it correctly because you do not have their special knowledge. Their argument, in some ways, is not falsifiable. This presented a definite challenge for the early church. And one of the ways that Irenaeus combated this was by making use of the logic of 2 Timothy 2:2. Justo Gonzalez explains:
It is at this point that Irenaeus introduces the doctrine of apostolic succession…The norm by which error is to be distinguished from truth is the doctrine that has been received from the apostles. Supposing that the apostles had some secret knowledge, as the Gnostics claim, they would not have communicated that knowledge to other men than those whom they trusted enough to appoint them leaders of the churches which they founded, that is, the bishops. These in turn would have done likewise, entrusting the true doctrine to those who would succeed them. Therefore, the Gnostics lie when they claim to have a secret doctrine that their teachers received from one or another of the apostles (A History of Christian Thought Volume 1, p 173).
Apostolic succession, then, originated as an argument against those who claimed to have secret knowledge. It was not about giving authority, power, etc. through the laying on of hands. It wasn’t about who could/could not preach or teach. It was about who knew the truth which the apostles taught. And it would have been those with a close relationship with them.
This is where the doctrine came from and the error it sought to confront. But is it biblical?
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Is Apostolic Succession Biblical?
Whether this concept is biblical or not likely depends on what you mean by “apostolic succession.” Do you mean that there is a body of truth that is to be passed down through the generation? Then, yes. 1 Timothy 2:2 teaches as much. Do you mean that the apostles themselves were with Jesus, were given authority by Jesus, and passed this authority down to others? Then, also yes. I think Jesus’ words to Peter about being the rock on which the church is built, and his words about having the keys to the kingdom do have meaning for us today. The argument of Irenaeus, I believe, is connected with biblical thought.
But this doctrine developed into something which I would argue is not biblical. First, there is no biblical precedent that Rome is to be dominant. The doctrine of the papacy flowed from this belief in apostolic succession. I don’t believe that is a biblical development.
Consider Galatians 2. Peter was wrong. Paul rebuked him. Paul had not been one of the original twelve. Yet, here Paul was connected to truth, and Peter wasn’t. Peter was not being consistent with the gospel, and Paul called him on it. What does this tell us? This tells us that authority is found in the truth itself and not in the one doing the speaking. Truth is not truth because a bishop in the line of an apostle says it. Truth is truth because it is true. Our continuity comes from fidelity to the Scriptures.
What apostolic succession has become is not really biblical. But as it originally stood, the doctrine can be helpful for us even today.
How Can Apostolic Succession Help Us Today?
It could be argued that in the West, we are in an epistemological crisis. That is a fancy way of saying that we no longer agree on how we even know what is true. We aren’t arguing as much about what is true, but how do you even know if something is true? There is a proliferation of fake news as well as shouting “fake news” when confronted with uncomfortable truths. How can you determine if something is fake news or not?
It is here where I believe we are in a similar spot as Irenaeus in his confrontation with the Gnostics. The problem, though, is that we do not have a mere 100 years between us and the apostles. We have almost 2000 years between us and them. It’s harder to trace a line. However, doing the hard work of tracing these lines and engaging church history is a helpful task. At the end of the day, our authority comes from fidelity to Scripture. How can you determine truth? What is biblical? What is the historic doctrine of the church? What is the faith delivered to the saints? What we really need in our hour is to have true apostolic succession—not in the transferal of power but in fidelity to God’s Word. Samuel Shoemaker says it well:
In other words, to be a successor of the Apostles is not the prerogative of any ecclesiastical order but of every individual who (like the Apostles) has believed the word of the Gospel and been baptized, who faithfully preserves and transmits the doctrine of the Apostles, and who maintains the fellowship of the Apostles in the communion of the Lord’s Table and in public worship. It is this succession that we must work to establish once more in this present generation.
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