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Apostolic Succession Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 04 March 2011

In 2007, when I was prayerfully thinking about returning to the Catholic Church, there were four theological issues that were deal breakers for me: justification, penance, transubstantiation, and apostolic succession. I have already discussed penance, transubstantiation, and justification. Here, I offer a brief account of how I became convinced that the Catholic Church is also right about apostolic succession.

Catholicism holds that if a Church claims to be Christian it must be able to show that its leaders – its bishops and its presbyters (or priests) – are successors of the Apostles. This is why the Catholic Church accepts Eastern Orthodox sacraments as legitimate even though the Orthodox are not in full communion with Rome.

What amazed me is how uncontroversial apostolic succession was in the Early Church, as Protestant historian J. N. D. Kelley points out in his book Early Christian Doctrines. I expected to find factions of Christians, including respected Church Fathers, who resisted episcopal ecclesiology. There aren’t any. In fact, a leading argument in the Early Church against heretics was their lack of episcopal lineage and continuity and thus their absence of communion with the visible and universal Church. In his famous apologetic treatise, Against Heresies (A.D. 182-188), St. Irenaeus (c. A.D. 140-202) makes that very point in several places. Tertullian (A.D. c. 160-220) offers the same sort of apologetic as well.

Of course, the very early Christians did not have the elaborate hierarchy and canon law of today’s Catholic Church. But they also lacked a secure and officially closed New Testament canon, conciliar approved creeds, a global Church with a global reach, and detailed and sophisticated articulations of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and justification. An infant Church is like a human infant. In its earliest stages it possesses in its essence properties that when fully mature are exemplified differently but are nevertheless rooted in the nature of the being itself.

So, the same human being who says, “Mama, me pooh-pooh,” may someday practice internal medicine. Thus, as the Church grows and develops, its intrinsic properties mature in order to accommodate its increasing membership as well as meet new theological, political, geographic, and pastoral challenges unanticipated by its younger incarnation.


      St. Peter: first among the Apostles (by Grão Vasco c. 1530)

For example, because of the challenge of Arianism, the First Council of Nicaea (A. D. 325) convened and produced a creed that all members of the Church were required to embrace. Such conciliar resolutions only make sense if such bodies have real authority. And, as I came to learn, the only authority recognized in the Early Church for settling doctrinal disputes was apostolic, whether original or received.  

By the time the earliest Church Fathers are writing their epistles, an ecclesial infrastructure is already and uncontroversially in place, albeit in primitive form. Although we can see early clues of this development in the New Testament, suggesting a particular pattern of leadership and authority, they remain only clues when isolated from how the early readers of Scripture, including the Apostles’ disciples and their successors, understood them.

First, it is clear that the New Testament Church was an apostolic church. Its leadership consisted of the apostles, who were given this authority by Our Lord that included the powers to bind and loose (Mt 16:9; Mt. 18:8), forgive sins (Jn 20:21-23), baptize (Mt 28:18-20), and make disciples (Mt 28:18-20). We see it exhibited in numerous ways throughout the New Testament, including teaching that the Church is built on Christ and his apostles (Eph 2:19-22), deliberating and pronouncing within an episcopal structure about a theological controversy (Acts 15:1-30), proclaiming what constitutes an appropriate reception of true doctrine (1 Cor 15:3-11), rebuking and excommunicating (Acts 5:1-11;Acts 8:14-24; 1 Cor 5; 1 Tim 5:20; 2 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:10-11), judging the adequacy of a believer’s penance or penitent state (2 Cor 2:5-11; 1 Cor 11:27), the ordaining and appointing of ministers (Acts 14:23; I Tim 4:14), choosing successors (Acts 1:20-26), and entrusting the apostolic tradition to the next generation (2 Thess 2:15; I Tim 2:2). The Catholic properties were all in place, albeit in embryonic form.

Second, the full meaning of these “clues” found in the practices of the nascent church are unambiguously answered by the second generation of Christians and their successors. In addition to the testimonies of St. Irenaeus and Tertullian, as noted above, there are others, including St. Clement of Rome, St. Cyprian of Carthage, and St. Augustine of Hippo.

The Catholic Church also embraces the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the doctrine of papal infallibility. I do not have room to address that aspect of apostolic succession. Suffice it to say, once I had found apostolic succession to be a legitimate Christian doctrine both historically and biblically, Petrine primacy seemed to fall into place. I discovered that the case for Petrine primacy was pretty strong (as Adrian Fortescue persuasively argues), and so much so that even the Orthodox who reject the modern papacy nevertheless maintain that Rome has some sort of ecclesial primacy (as Olivier Clément documents. Some say more modestly, “a primacy of honor.”)  And because, as an ex-Catholic, I was in schism with Rome and not Constantinople, Orthodoxy was not a real option for me.

It became clear to me that apostolic succession was for the entirety of Christian history uncontroversially embraced by the Churches of the East and the West until the sixteenth century Reformation. Thus, I concluded that it was at least a legitimate position within the confines of acceptable Christian belief. In that case, I could no longer legitimately remain in schism from the Church of my Baptism unless I had a good reason to do so. And I had no good reason.

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He tells the story of his journey from Catholicism to Protestantism and back again in his book, Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic. He blogs at Return to Rome.
 
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Comments (17)Add Comment
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written by Michael PS, March 04, 2011
Thank you, Professor Beckwith, for an excellent article.

You could also have cited two even earlier Apostolic Fathers, St Ignatius of Antioch and St Polycarp of Smyrna. Polycarp was present when Ignatius “conversed with John and with others, who had seen the Lord.” They both stress the bishop as the focus of unity and custodian of the Apostolic Tradition.

The Apostolic Succession gives us a real test for defining who the faithful are, without the inevitably question-begging exercise of examining their tenets; for who is to say what the “true faith” is? Instead, the Apostolic Succession provides us with the test of visible communion with a bishop in communion with the other bishops of the Catholic Church and, in particular, with the bishop of Rome. It is a test remarkably easy of application, for learned and simple alike. It is, perhaps, worth pointing out that when Protestant historians speak of the “orthodox” and “heretical” parties, in the early Church, they are (often unconsciously) assuming this test, and no other.
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written by debby, March 04, 2011
dear prof.,
just curious, did you have any theological reservations regarding Our Lady, Her role, Her place among Catholic Teaching and Tradition? She, or more accurately, misunderstanding and misrepresentations about Her, was a brick wall for my journey that i had to "find the door" or "gate" through, only to be astonished that She was the Very Gate of Heaven.
maybe you would consider a future post letting us into your heart and mind regarding your relationship with Mother Mary.
Did She carry Jesus to you as well? Does Baylor U allow you to speak and teach about these truths?
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written by Stephen, March 04, 2011
Professor Beckwith,

I'm a Protestant, but I've been exploring Catholic doctrine for a while now. I was intrigued by the following statement:

"And because, as an ex-Catholic, I was in schism with Rome and not Constantinople, Orthodoxy was not a real option for me."

I don't follow the inference. I would have assumed that a Protestant attempting to adjudicate between the claims of Rome and Constantinople would be obliged to consider each in turn. Why would your status as an ex-Catholic render it unnecessary for you to consider the claims of Orthodoxy?
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written by Tom, March 04, 2011
"I don't follow the inference." -Stephen

Stephen, I think you are right, and Dr. Beckwith's reasoning is weak on this point. The article may have been no worse for wear if he had left out this line altogether. Having said that, I think the first part of the paragraph gets to the heart of why he returned to the Catholic Church and not the Orthodox Church:

"The Catholic Church also embraces the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the doctrine of papal infallibility. I do not have room to address that aspect of apostolic succession. Suffice it to say, once I had found apostolic succession to be a legitimate Christian doctrine both historically and biblically, Petrine primacy seemed to fall into place."
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written by AJ, March 05, 2011
As a sign of being a true Church of Jesus Christ is being of ONE flock, ONE shepherd, ONE belief with a Visible Head of unity and also a true living Church must have a characteristic to being able to convene an Ecumenical Council (e.g. from the first Council of Jerusalem to the present day) and the Orthodox Churches couldn't be able to do that.
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written by Francis Beckwith, March 05, 2011
Perhaps I should have been clearer on my comments about Orthodoxy and why I didn't choose it. The essay is about why I returned to the Church. It is not about anyone else. Internal deliberations are complicated things, and in some cases one or two decisive moments or facts about one's life make the decision relatively easy. For me, Orthodoxy was never on the radar. To have considered Orthodoxy seriously would have been like asking me why I didn't marry a woman I never knew. Add to that that it seemed to me that the primacy question was better answered by the Catholics, and as a Western Protestant ex-Catholic I was in schism with Rome, Catholicism was the only path that made sense.
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written by Billy Bean, March 05, 2011
The predominant understanding among the Eastern Orthodox (it is futile to seek an "official" understanding of many things among the Orthodox) is that Rome is heretical, not merely schismatic. As a cradle Roman Catholic Christian who became Protestant and returned to the apostolic Church by becoming Eastern Orthodox, Dr. Beckwith's perspective is especially interesting to me, particularly because he seems never to have seriously considered the eastern alternative. Not wanting to taking the current discussion too far afield, I hope Dr. Beckwith will write more about papal primacy in the near future. I always appreciate whatever he has to say.
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written by AJ, March 05, 2011
As much as Eastern Orthodox Churches have legitimate Apostolic priesthood the sad part is they are no way UNITED as God had prayed for thus can't convene a Council after their schism in 1100 A.D. Besides the undeniable facts that there ARE WRITTEN ANCIENT DOCUMENTS that overwhelmingly testified the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome (Petrine Primacy) over the entire Universal Church including the Eastern Fathers and Saints they considered their own.


There is ONLY one Church founded by Jesus Christ and there is ONLY ONE CARETAKER/ROCK (Matt 16)for FEEDING THE SHEEPS (3x - John 21:15) and that one from the very beginning is the Catholic Church.
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written by Perry Robinson, March 05, 2011
Dr. Beckwith,

Here is a hard question and I do not mean it to be rude or insensitive. but anyone who has gone through a college course on the history of Christianity or been to any decent seminary would be aware of the Orthodox. How is it then that you didn't know about them?

I am not sure what being "western" has to do with it. Are Eastern Catholics "western" or no? By that reasoning should they go back to the Orthodox too? Are Japanese or Chinese Catholics "western" or eastern? It seems to me that what the expression "western Christian" refers to are how comfortable one is with what is familiar to them and hw much energy they are willing to expend to evaluate rival claims.
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written by Constantine, March 05, 2011
Dr. Beckwith,

Would it be wrong to note the irony of your reliance on Apostolic Succession in conjunction with your comment that Eastern Orthodoxy “was never on [your] radar”? The only biblical indication of Apostolic Succession is from Paul to Timothy, who later became a bishop in the eastern church. It seems that if one were truly to follow AS, one would have to become Orthodox.

I think you mischaracterize Kelly when you write, “a leading argument in the Early Church against heretics was their lack of episcopal lineage and continuity and thus their absence of communion with the visible and universal Church.” Kelly's point is not that the heretics had a “lack of episcopal lineage” but rather that theirs was in secret (see page 38 of the chapter to which you linked). Irenaeus' claim was more of the character that one could readily ascertain the truth of Scripture by tracing what was publicly available through the “Catholic” tradition as opposed to taking it on faith through the heretics. Kelly, describing the ECF's, doesn't hold AS out as intrinsically worthwhile per se; only that it helped establish the truth of Scripture which is the only defense of orthodoxy.

Writing specifically about Irenaeus, Kelly notes, “But a careful analysis of his Adverus haereses reveals that , while the Gnostics' appeal to their supposed secret tradition forced him to stress the superiority of the Church's public tradition, his real defence of orthodoxy was founded on Scripture.”( pp. 38-9) So the “very point” that Irenaeus makes, according to Kelly, is to defend orthodoxy with the Scripture and to defend the Scriptures by showing it's public history through Apostolic Succession; not to defend orthodoxy by resorting to Apostolic Succession, per se. If I recall correctly, Mani claimed also to be an Apostle according to his “scriptures” and Augustine's refutation of him was “far be it for me not to believe the Scriptures.”

Lastly, any attempt to rely on “Apostolic Succession” as a justification for making a choice for Rome is bound to run aground on the rocks of history. Cardinal Newman himself said that, “While Apostles were on earth, there was the display neither of Bishop nor Pope.” So how a succession can continue where it did not even begin is a very big question – and that from a “Magisterial” source.

I leave you with this:

“The study of the history of the Roman primacy has shown that Catholics must resign themselves to the fact that the New Testament does not support claims for Peter’s position of primacy, nor for succession to that position, nor for papal infallibility.” Ohlig, Karl-Heinz. Why We Need the Pope: The Necessity and Limitations of Papal Primacy. Trans. Dr. Robert C. Ware. St. Meinrad, Indiana, USA. Abbey Press, 1975. Trans. of Braucht die Kirche einen Papst?. Germany, 1973. P. 91

But, again, Rome and history have never been the greatest of friends.


Peace.
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written by Billy Bean, March 05, 2011
Constantine: I am quite sure that Dr. Beckwith is familiar with Cardinal Newman's thought on the development of doctrine, so I am not impressed with your citation of Newman without context. "An infant Church is like a human infant. In its earliest stages it possesses in its essence properties that when fully mature are exemplified differently but are nevertheless rooted in the nature of the being itself.
So, the same human being who says, 'Mama, me pooh-pooh,' may someday practice internal medicine. Thus, as the Church grows and develops, its intrinsic properties mature in order to accommodate its increasing membership as well as meet new theological, political, geographic, and pastoral challenges unanticipated by its younger incarnation." It was Newman himself who said that to be deep into history is to cease to be Protestant. I find your selective use of Newman somewhat disingenuous. As for Karl-Heinz, I would have to read his book to be convinced of his conclusions, so your quotation of him is similarly unimpressive to me. Thank you for making me aware of his work, however. I am Eastern Orthodox, but I am trying to be fair. Your final sentence is far too polemical. It sounds like you have an axe to grind.
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written by Perry Robinson, March 08, 2011
Billy,

However skewed the previous commenters use of Newman may be, the Orthodox do not adhere to the Newmanesque theory of doctrinal development. See Louth's essay, Is Doctrinal Development a Valid Category for Orthodox Theology?, in Orthodoxy and Western Culture: Essays in honor of Jaroslav Pelikan.
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written by Billy Bean, March 10, 2011
Perry: I am out of my depth in this discussion. I only made the point that Dr. Beckwith is not. It is clear to me that Newman believed in apostolic succession, in spite of Constantine's isolated quotation. Thank you for the reference to Louth's essay. I hope to read it, but as I pointed out in my first post, it is very difficult to establish "official" Orthodox teaching about anything beyond the Seventh Ecumentical Council, so who can say whether Newman's concept might be considered "Orthodox"? All we can say is that most Orthodox do not subscribe to it. I regard this scarcity of an authoritative living voice in Orthodoxy to be a regrettable result of the Great Schism, as I also regard the deficiency of Orthodox ascetical and mystical wisdom among Roman Catholics.
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written by VCR, July 13, 2011
One of your references is 2 Tim 2:2, not 1 Tim.
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written by Jesse Tinoco, August 18, 2011
Great article
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written by Foxindy, January 05, 2012
The lack of divisiveness of apostolic succession in the early church is noted, however, did they understand the issue as it is understood today? Correctly, the fact that the church did not have a closed canon is also noted, and I believe that this is precisely the reason having leaders directly instructed by apostles would have been so important. However, when we read passages like 2 Tim 2:2,are we reading about "succession," or about enabling and encouraging men to teach what the apostles taught as they, in turn, were taught by Christ?

Just what were the apostles taught and what did they teach? Why, this is what is contained in the pages of the New Testament. When we understand that these passages are not indicating the kind of "succession" that is often understood, yet rather require teachers to hold to the written word (which would have included oral teaching at this time, for it would not have yet been corrupted in its first generation), is there really a need for "apostolic succession," especially since an apostle had to receive instruction directly from Christ (not another apostle or any man--Acts 1:21-22; Gal 1:11-12)? We think not.
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written by Eric M., May 10, 2012
Thank you for the article Dr. Beckwith! I look back with a smile at the time when I was a Protestant Minister and a big fan of your work. At that time I began to truly investigate the claims of the Catholic Church and after five years of intense study I was wrestling with taking the plunge. I still vividly remember when I turned on Catholic Answers and heard Tim Staples, a former Assembly of God Youth Minister who would also be instrumental in leading me into the Catholic Church, talk about your conversion. I was like, what? Needless to say I picked up your book and it was the final key for my reception into Catholicism. Thank you for your courage to take this step, and for the very helpful articles! There is nothing like partaking of the sacraments in a church connected to the apostles! Blessings to you and your family! Eric

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