Apostolic Succession

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 & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).