Did the Early Church Fathers Teach Apostolic Succession?

One of the reasons the Roman Catholic Church and some other churches give for believing their authority claims is apostolic succession. In its simplest form, apostolic succession describes church leadership offices or churches themselves that were founded by the apostles and continued through the succeeding generations.

However, these churches claim more than this for themselves. They believe that their bishops have special authority because they were ordained by other bishops who were ordained by other bishops, and so on, in a line of ordinations that begins with the apostles themselves. They say that if any church is headed by leaders who weren’t ordained in a direct line from the apostles, that church doesn’t have authority.

This argument is most often based on quotations from the early church. In this article, I’ll be analyzing those quotations to see if they really support that argument—or if the early Christians were trying to make a different point altogether. If you’re looking for analysis of the biblical and historical evidence, see my main apostolic succession post.

The Claims Surrounding Apostolic Succession

The “ancient churches” (as I’ll call them for lack of a better term) hold to their version of apostolic succession because they believe their view was held by the early church. They use a lot of quotations from early Christians to back them up.

However, if we want to have a truly historic faith, we need to be careful that we don’t project our modern beliefs back onto what people believed in earlier centuries. In this article, I’ll show that this is exactly what other ancient churches are doing. The prevailing beliefs surrounding apostolic succession have shifted since the beginning of Christianity, but the ancient churches have not noticed this. Instead, they read their view back into the early texts.

In this article, I’ll quote all the relevant early Christian quotes that I know of that are used to support their view of apostolic succession. I’ll show what Christians actually believed in the first few centuries of the church. We’ll see that the ancient churches have noticed the superficial resemblance between their belief and the original belief, and have jumped to the conclusion that their later beliefs are the same as the original belief.

Apostolic Succession—What Everyone Agrees With

Without knowing where the key points of contention are, we won’t be able to know which view each quotation supports. So in these next sections, I’ll give the key claims of each view.

Everyone can agree that apostolic succession refers to church leaders following in the church leadership positions that the apostles founded. The early Christians pointed out that their church leader held the same leadership offices (like bishop of Ephesus or bishop of Rome) that the church leaders appointed by the apostles had held.

It’s important to note that everybody agrees that the apostles gave bishops and presbyters (or elders) the authority to teach and to lead their churches. So that’s not a difference between the two views.

So if this is uncontroversial, what do we disagree on? We disagree on 1) what the benefits of apostolic succession were for the early church and why they valued those benefits, and 2) how we can have those benefits today.

Apostolic Succession According to the Ancient Churches

The ancient churches teach that apostolic succession plays the role of ensuring true ordination. Here are their relevant beliefs:

  1. Apostolic succession applies to bishops, not to other church leaders like presbyters/elders (now called “priests” by the ancient churches).
  2. Apostolic succession is important because it ensures that bishops are real bishops (validly ordained) and a church is a/the real church.
  3. When each apostle died, he left a single bishop in each church that he had founded, not a plurality of bishops.
  4. Bishops must necessarily be ordained by bishops (who must necessarily have been ordained in a direct line from the apostles).
  5. Because of a bishop’s proper ordination through apostolic succession, he remains validly ordained even if he teaches or practices error.
  6. Because of their proper ordination through apostolic succession, bishops join the “apostolic college” and have special authority (in certain circumstances) to participate in authoritatively defining Christian doctrine (such as the Pope’s ex cathedra statements or an ecumenical council).

We can summarize this view as “Apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination.” For shorthand, I’ll call these points O1–6, since the main goal is true ordination.

Apostolic Succession—A View Based on the Primary Sources

From studying the primary sources, I propose that the early Christians taught a different form of apostolic succession. They believed that apostolic succession played the role of preserving preserve true doctrine:

  1. Apostolic succession applied to both teaching offices (bishop and presbyter) and also applied to churches themselves (their beliefs).
  2. Apostolic succession didn’t have to do with a bishop’s ordination. Instead, the continuation of church leaders from a church’s apostolic origin helped indicate that a church was continuing to teach the original doctrines.
  3. After c. 150, there was a single bishop in each church, not a plurality of bishops. But in the beginning, it was typical for churches to be ruled by a plurality of leaders, this one office being called both “bishops” and “presbyters.” At the close of the apostolic years, churches as prominent as Rome were still ruled by a plurality of bishops/presbyters.
  4. Early in the church’s history, it was normal but not necessary for bishops to be ordained by other bishops. As time went on, this custom became more important to the early Christians.
  5. Apostolic succession loses its purpose when a bishop teaches or practices error.
  6. The apostles had a foundational ministry that bishops did not entirely inherit; for example, no one but the apostles could define Christian doctrine.

We can summarize this view as “Apostolic succession was an indicator of correct doctrine.” For shorthand, I’ll call these points D1–6, since the main goal is true doctrine.

Showcasing the Areas of Disagreement

I said that we disagree on 1) what the benefits of apostolic succession were for the early church and why they valued those benefits, and 2) how we can have those benefits today.

  1. The ancient churches believe that a primary benefit of apostolic succession for the early church was that it ensured that their bishops were validly ordained and comprised the true church. Instead, the early church valued apostolic succession as an indicator of who had correct doctrine.
  2. The ancient churches believe that we can have those benefits today by ensuring that bishops are ordained by bishops with apostolic succession. Instead, the end goal of the early church was correct doctrine, so the way to have the benefit of apostolic succession today is simply to teach correct doctrine.

So if we teach the doctrine of the early church, we have reached the end goal that they were trying to reach by using apostolic succession as an apologetic tool. Apostolic succession is meaningless if it doesn’t lead to that goal. As the quotations below will show, arguing for apostolic succession was a strategy to preserve apostolic doctrine.

What Are We Looking For?

In the next section, I’ll go through all the relevant quotes put forward by those who believe apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination. For each quote, we’ll see whether it supports O1–6 or D1–6. If it doesn’t suggest one above the other, then it doesn’t support one view over the other view.

Note that we need early sources in order to prove that apostolic succession is required for valid ordination. Why? Because if the ancient churches’ method wasn’t practiced by the earliest Christians, then their coveted link back to the apostles doesn’t exist. If, for example, bishops ordained bishops, all the way back to the third bishop of Rome, but before that, bishops were ordained by presbyters, then their view is refuted from the very beginning.

Also, we have good reason to believe that certain alterations of practice and changes of emphasis entered the church when the Roman Empire started to favor Christianity. Thus, if we want to know whether the ancient churches’ view goes back before that point, we need to look at sources from before that point.

Evaluating the Pre-Nicene Sources

I’ve listed these sources generally from earlier quotes to later ones.


Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ. (Polycarp to Philippians V)

This quote describes a two-office leadership, where multiple bishops/presbyters ruled the church, assisted by deacons. Thus, it supports D3 over O3 and D1 over O1.


“Thou shalt therefore say unto the elders of the Church, that they direct their paths in righteousness, that they may receive in full the promises with abundant glory.”

“And afterwards I saw a vision in my house. The aged woman came, and asked me, if I had already given the book to the elders. I said that I had not given it. ‘Thou hast done well,’ she said, ‘for I have words to add. When then I shall have finished all the words, it shall be made known by thy means to all the elect. Thou shalt therefore write two little books, and shalt send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans. But thou shalt read (the book) to this city along with the elders that preside over the Church.’”

Lightfoot translation.

Note that “elders” and “presbyters” are two ways of translating the same Greek word. This quote suggests a two-office leadership, where multiple presbyters ruled the church, assisted by deacons. No mention is found in Hermas of a singular bishop. Thus, it supports D3 over O3 and D1 over O1.

Clement of Rome

In his Letter to the Corinthians, 42-44 (c. 90AD) Clement wrote: “The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus the Christ was sent from God. So Christ is from God, and the apostles from Christ. Both came to pass regularly by the will of God. So having received their instructions, and having been reassured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, trusting in the word of God they set forth in the convic­tion of the holy Spirit, preaching that the kingdom of God was about to come. So as they preached from country to country and from town to town, they appointed their first converts, after testing them by the Spirit, as Pastors and Deacons of those who were to believe… And what wonder, if those who in Christ were entrusted with such a task appointed those just mentioned?… Our apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be contention for the title of overseer. On this account, as they had received full foreknowledge, they appointed those already mentioned in order that, if they should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their duties.”

From this site.

In this quote, Clement says that the apostles appointed the first bishops. However, there’s nothing in this quote to support O1–6. This quote suggests a two-office leadership, where multiple bishops/presbyters (here translated Pastors) ruled the church, assisted by deacons. Thus, it supports D3 over O3 and D1 over O1.

1 Clement is a letter that the church leadership in Rome wrote to the church in Corinth, because the congregation removed their leaders and presumably instated new ones. If apostolic succession were necessary for valid ordination, the congregation would have had no ability to validly do either. But the church leaders at Rome didn’t tell the Corinthians that their newly appointed leaders weren’t validly ordained. The letter simply takes issue with their reasons for removing the old leadership:

We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by [the apostles], or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that ye have removed some men of excellent behaviour from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honour. (1 Clement 44 ANF)

This quotation indicates that the congregation had the authority to remove its ordained leaders and, presumably, to ordain new ones. The church in Rome merely questioned their propriety in doing so. This provides some support for D4 over O4, but one could conjecture that they only deposed and never replaced their leaders. This is unlikely, given that the church in Rome admitted that their letter is “tardy”; thus, their situation must have existed for some length of time, possibly even a few years. It’s unlikely that they had no bishops/presbyters during that time. Still, I’ll err on the side of the ancient churches.

Also note that, in this quote, presbyters are said to have the office of the episcopate, thus showing that they were only one office.


“Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord” (Didache 15)

This quote describes a two-office leadership, where multiple bishops/presbyters ruled the church, assisted by deacons. Thus, it supports D3 over O3 and D1 over O1.

No indication is given that bishops with apostolic succession would need to come to ordain these bishops and deacons; the text suggests that the congregation will be doing the ordaining. Thus, this may support D4 over O4, although one could conjecture otherwise.


This next quote is from a YouTube comment (but the quote is authentic) on this video. Commentary and emphasis are the commenter’s.

As for the priesthood, Ignatius states this quite eloquently: “You must follow the lead of the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed that of the Father, follow the presbytery as you would the Apostles; reverence the deacons as you would God’s commandment. Let no one do anything touching the Church, apart from the bishop. Let that celebration of the Eucharist be considered valid which is held under the bishop or anyone who he has committed it. Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the CATHOLIC Church (emphasis mine). It is not permitted without authorization of the bishop either to baptize….He who honors the bishop is honored by God. He who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop worships the devil.” – Ignatius of Antioch, letter to the Smyrnaeans (107 AD, a disciple of the Apostle John)

(Note: “catholic” just means universal. Back in those days there was only one church, and that’s what Ignatius was referring to, not the Roman Catholic Church of today. Here’s a post that discusses whether there’s only one true church today and here’s a post that discusses how to be catholic.)

There is nothing in this quote to support either O1–6 or D1–6. This is something all of us can agree with.


Hegesippus—“When I had come to Rome, I [visited] Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And after Anicetus [died], Soter succeeded, and after him Eleutherus. In each succession and in each city there is a continuance of that which is proclaimed by the law, the prophets, and the Lord” (Memoirs, cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4:22 [A.D. 180]).

From this tract.

In this quote, Hegesippus says that there had been a succession of bishops in each city, including Rome. This is something all of us can agree with. Then Hegesippus praises the “continuance of that which is proclaimed by the law, the prophets, and the Lord.” Clearly, he means Christian doctrine. This seems to suggest that he sees the purpose of succession as the continuance of Christian doctrine. But this doesn’t specifically support D1–6 or O1–6. This quote could fit either view.


“When we refer to them that tradition which originated from the Apostles, which is preserved by means of the succession of the presbyters in the churches, they object to tradition, saying they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even the Apostles”. – Irenaeaus of Lyons (a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna), “Against the Heresies”, 3.2.2, 180 AD

From a YouTube comment on this video.

This quotation contradicts O1 and supports D1, since Irenaeus believed that presbyters had apostolic succession. It also gives direct support for D2 rather than O2, since Irenaeus believed that the function of apostolic succession was to preserve apostolic tradition (which is properly the exact teachings of the apostles, not new traditions added over time).

It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times: men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about. For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries which they taught to the elite secretly and apart from the rest, they would have handed them down especially to those very ones to whom they were committing the self-same Churches. For surely they wished all those and their successors to be perfect and without reproach, to whom they handed on their authority (Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 180-199]).

From this site.

This quotation also supports D2 rather than O2, for the same reason.

“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul—that church which has the tradition and the faith with which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. And it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (ibid., 3:3:2).

From this tract.

This quotation also supports D2 rather than O2, for the same reason.

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 ANF)

Here Irenaeus just baldly states the view I proposed—that apostolic succession was given as an indicator that those churches had the apostolic faith. In those days it was a powerful indicator. Now that more than one and a half millennia have passed, not so much.

“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).

From this tract.

This quotation also supports D2 rather than O2, for the same reason.

“Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth, so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. . . . For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant conversation, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question?” (ibid., 3:4:1).

From this site.

This quotation also supports D2 rather than O2. Note that Irenaeus says that we should check what the churches founded by the apostles believed, since it was so easy to obtain the truth from the church. If it were ever difficult to obtain the truth from the church (as is the case today), then we would need to seek it elsewhere.

“[I]t is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the infallible charism of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth” (ibid., 4:26:2).

From this tract.

This quotation contradicts O1 and supports D1, since Irenaeus believed that presbyters had apostolic succession. It also supports D2 rather than O2, for the same reasons as given above.

Note that Irenaeus says to be suspicious of those who leave the succession because they have perverse minds, are proud or self-pleasing, or want money or fame. Of course, the exact opposite was true of the Anabaptists, who were devout Christians willing to follow Christ’s commands even though they were persecuted horribly by individuals whose ordination credentials were impeccable. Might their persecutors have been actuated by perverse minds, pride, money, and fame?

“The true knowledge is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere” (ibid., 4:33:8).

From this tract.

This quotation is consistent with both views. It does mention doctrine, but it doesn’t specifically say that that is the purpose for apostolic succession. It could be read consistently with O2 or D2, since it suggests that all real churches with apostolic doctrine, at that time, had apostolic succession, but it doesn’t say whether that was a description of what was true at the time, or a description of what must necessarily be the case.


“[The apostles] founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification. Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive Church, [founded] by the apostles, from which they all [spring]. In this way, all are primitive, and all are apostolic, while they are all proved to be one in unity” (Demurrer Against the Heretics 20 [A.D. 200]).

From this tract.

This quotation supports D2 rather than O2, since Tertullian believed that churches were real churches only if they held the same faith as the churches founded by the apostles. Since those who follow the historic faith (Anabaptists and others) derive their beliefs from these same churches, this includes us. The function of apostolic succession was to preserve apostolic tradition (which is properly the exact teachings of the apostles, not new traditions added over time).

“[W]hat it was which Christ revealed to them [the apostles] can, as I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the gospel to them directly themselves . . . If then these things are so, it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches—those molds and original sources of the faith must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, [and] Christ from God. Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savors of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God. It remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours, of which we have now given the rule, has its origin in the tradition of the apostles, and whether all other doctrines do not ipso facto proceed from falsehood” (ibid., 21).

From this tract.

This quotation also supports D2 rather than O2, for the same reasons.

Moreover, if there be any [heresies] bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, so that they might seem to have been handed down by the Apostles because they were from the time of the Apostles, we can say to them: let them show the origin of their Churches, let them unroll the order of their bishops, running down in succession from the beginning, so that their first bishop shall have for author and predecessor some one of the Apostles or of the apostolic men who continued steadfast with the Apostles. For this is the way in which the apostolic Churches transmit their lists: like the Church of the Smyrnaeans, which records that Polycarp was placed there by John; like the Church of the Romans where Clement was ordained by Peter. In just this same way the other Churches display those whom they have as sprouts from the apostolic seed, having been established in the episcopate by the Apostles. Let the heretics invent something like it. After their blasphemies, what could be unlawful for them? But even if they should contrive it, they will accomplish nothing; for their doctrine itself, when compared with that of the Apostles, will show by its own diversity and contrariety that it has for its author neither an Apostle nor an apostolic man. The Apostles would not have differed among themselves in teaching, nor would an apostolic man have taught contrary to the Apostles, unless those who were taught by the Apostles then preached otherwise.

Therefore, they will be challenged to meet this test even by those Churches which are of much later date – for they are being established daily – and whose founder is not from among the Apostles nor from among the apostolic men; for those which agree in the same faith are reckoned as apostolic on account of the blood ties in their doctrine. Then let all heresies prove how they regard themselves as apostolic, when they are challenged by our Churches to meet either test. But in fact they are not apostolic, nor can they prove themselves to be what they are not. Neither are they received in peace and communion by the Churches which are in any way apostolic, since on account of their diverse belief they are in no way apostolic (The Demurrer Against the Heretics 32:1 [A.D. 200]).

From this site.

This is a long quotation, but it’s worth reading. Note that it strongly supports D2 rather than O2. The whole point of succession is the doctrine. However, this quotation also shows that apostolic succession is only an indicator, not a cause, of correct doctrine. Tertullian says that even if the heretics seemed to have apostolic succession, “their doctrine itself, when compared with that of the Apostles, will show by its own diversity and contrariety that it has for its author neither an Apostle nor an apostolic man.”

In fact, he uses doctrine as the fundamental way of telling whether a church was apostolic, and succession as secondary: “those which agree in the same faith are reckoned as apostolic on account of the blood ties in their doctrine” “on account of their diverse belief they are in no way apostolic.”


²But now, moved by His love to all His saints, we pass on to our most important theme, “The Tradition”, our teacher. ³And we address the churches, so that they who have been well trained, may, by our instruction, hold fast that tradition which has continued up to now and, knowing it well, may be strengthened. ⁴This is needful, because of that lapse or error which recently occurred through ignorance, and because of ignorant men. ⁵And [the] Holy Spirit will supply perfect grace to those who believe aright, that they may know how all things should be transmitted and kept by them who rule the church.

2. ¹Let the bishop be ordained after he has been chosen by all the people. ²When he has been named and shall please all, let him, with the presbytery and such bishops as may be present, assemble with the people on a Sunday. ³While all give their consent, the bishops shall lay their hands upon him, and the presbytery shall stand by in silence. ⁴All indeed shall keep silent, praying in their heart for the descent of the Spirit. ⁵Then one of the bishops who are present shall, at the request of all, lay his hand on him who is ordained bishop, and shall pray as follows, saying: . . . 4. ¹And when he is made bishop, all shall offer him the kiss of peace, for he has been made worthy. . . .

8. ¹But when a presbyter is ordained, the bishop shall lay his hand upon his head, while the presbyters touch him, and he shall say according to those things that were said above, as we have prescribed above concerning the bishop, praying and saying: . . .

9. ¹But the deacon, when he is ordained, is chosen according to those things that were said above, the bishop alone in like manner laying his hands upon him, as we have prescribed. ²When the deacon is ordained, this is the reason why the bishop alone shall lay his hands upon him: he is not ordained to the priesthood but to serve the bishop and to carry out the bishop’s commands. ³He does not take part in the council of the clergy; he is to attend to his own duties and to make known to the bishop such things as are needful. ⁴He does not receive that Spirit that is possessed by the presbytery, in which the presbyters share; he receives only what is confided in him under the bishop’s authority.

⁵For this cause the bishop alone shall make a deacon. ⁶But on a presbyter, however, the presbyters shall lay their hands because of the common and like Spirit of the clergy. ⁷Yet the presbyter has only the power to receive; but he has no power to give. ⁸For this reason a presbyter does not ordain the clergy; but at the ordination of a presbyter he seals while the bishop ordains. . . .

10. ¹On a confessor, if he has been in bonds for the name of the Lord, hands shall not be laid for the diaconate or the presbyterate, for he has the honour of the presbyterate by his confession. But if he is to be ordained bishop, hands shall be laid upon him. ²But if he is a confessor who was not brought before the authorities nor was punished with bonds nor was shut up in prison, but was insulted (?) casually or privately for the name of the Lord, even though he confessed, hands are to be laid upon him for every office of which he is worthy.

Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 1-10

In this document, Hippolytus is passing on what he says to be traditions that came from the apostles. Thus, we know that they were fairly widely practiced. This quote doesn’t mention apostolic succession, so it doesn’t speak to O1–2 or D1–2. However, it does say quite a number of interesting things about point 4.

It could be read in support of either O4 or D4, because it says that bishops are to be ordained by other bishops. However, does it suggest that this is necessary (O4) or normative (D4)? If we just look at the following statement, we might think that it’s necessary:

⁷Yet the presbyter has only the power to receive; but he has no power to give. ⁸For this reason a presbyter does not ordain the clergy; but at the ordination of a presbyter he seals while the bishop ordains.

Interestingly, however, Hippolytus gives all of these instructions after saying,

⁴This is needful, because of that lapse or error which recently occurred through ignorance, and because of ignorant men. ⁵And [the] Holy Spirit will supply perfect grace to those who believe aright, that they may know how all things should be transmitted and kept by them who rule the church.

It seems that some church leaders hadn’t been ordained in this way. Hippolytus doesn’t indicate that their ordination was invalid; instead, he says that those who “believe aright” would be given a special grace to know how things should be done. It’s not exactly clear what he means, but a likely interpretation is that he means that God would give special grace for those situations, where people were truly following the faith.

Also interestingly, Hippolytus says that “confessors,” those who were arraigned or punished for their faith and had stayed true, were awarded the office of presbyter (but not bishop) even without ordination. The Holy Spirit himself had ordained them, giving them words to speak (Luke 12:11-13). Thus, presbyters did not need to have apostolic succession, if they were instead imprisoned for Christ’s sake (which happened to many Anabaptists).

So though this quote seems close to supporting O4, it can still be read consistently with D4.

Clement of Alexandria

After the death of the tyrant, the [Apostle John] came back again to Ephesus from the Island of Patmos; and, upon being invited, he went even to the neighboring cities of the pagans, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, and there to ordain to the clerical estate such as were designated by the Spirit (Who is the Rich Man that is Saved? 42:2 [inter 190-210 A.D.]).

From this site.

This quote seems to support D3 over O3, since it seems to indicate that there were areas where John appointed multiple bishops. Thus, there wouldn’t have been single bishops in each church. However, it could be read otherwise, so this isn’t a strong indication.


through His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, what appears to us, who observe things by a right way of understanding, to be the standard and discipline delivered to the apostles by Jesus Christ, and which they handed down in succession to their posterity, the teachers of the holy Church (On First Principals 4:8 [A.D. 225]).

From this site.

This quote directly states D2, and indeed my main contention, that the purpose of apostolic succession was for doctrine.


“[T]he Church is one, and as she is one, cannot be both within and without. For if she is with [the heretic] Novatian, she was not with [Pope] Cornelius. But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded the bishop [of Rome], Fabian, by lawful ordination, and whom, beside the honor of the priesthood the Lord glorified also with martyrdom, Novatian is not in the Church; nor can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way” (Letters 69[75]:3 [A.D. 253]).

From this tract.

(Note: The word “Pope” is inserted; indeed the term wasn’t used exclusively for the bishop of Rome for centuries following this quote.)

This quote is intended by the ancient churches to support O4, that bishops must be ordained by bishops in a direct line from the apostles. However, it doesn’t say who has to ordain bishops, only that they must be ordained “in the Church.” It actually is more expressive of another belief of Cyprian not addressed in those points—Cyprian believed that Novatian, who hadn’t been ordained with the consent of the church as a whole, wasn’t in the church because of this.

This actually contradicts the ancient churches’ view of apostolic succession, because Novatian was actually ordained a bishop by multiple bishops, thus giving him apostolic succession under the definition of the ancient churches. To Cyprian, that wasn’t enough to consider him validly ordained; this contradicts O2. This speaks to Cyprian’s strong One True Church belief (which can no longer be held).

Christ, who says to the apostles, and thereby to all chief rulers, who by vicarious ordination succeed to the apostles: “He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that heareth me, heareth Him that sent me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me, and Him that sent me” (Luke 10:16, Letter 68:4 [circa A.D. 250]).

From this site.

This quote is consistent with both O1–6 and D1–6. Cyprian speaks of “chief rulers” rather than bishops. Might this include presbyters and thus contradict O1? I would say probably not, because bishop was, by Cyprian’s time, a higher office than presbyter.

Nor let the people flatter themselves that they can be free from the contagion of sin, while communicating with a priest who is a sinner, and yielding their consent to the unjust and unlawful episcopacy of their overseer . . . On which account a people obedient to the Lord’s precepts, and fearing God, ought to separate themselves from a sinful prelate, and not to associate themselves with the sacrifices of a sacrilegious priest, especially since they themselves have the power either of choosing worthy priests, or of rejecting unworthy ones. God commands a priest to be appointed in the presence of all the assembly; that is, He instructs and shows that the ordination of priests ought not to be solemnized except with the knowledge of the people standing near, that in the presence of the people either the crimes of the wicked may be disclosed, or the merits of the good may be declared, and the ordination, which shall have been examined by the suffrage and judgment of all, may be just and legitimate. . . . Neither do we observe that this was regarded by the apostles only in the ordinations of bishops and priests, but also in those of deacons, of which matter itself also it is written in their Acts . . . For that unworthy persons are sometimes ordained, not according to the will of God, but according to human presumption, and that those things which do not come of a legitimate and righteous ordination are displeasing to God, God Himself manifests by Hosea the prophet, saying, “They have set up for themselves a king, but not by me.”

For which reason you must diligently observe and keep the practice delivered from divine tradition and apostolic observance, which is also maintained among us, and almost throughout all the provinces; that for the proper celebration of ordinations all the neighbouring bishops of the same province should assemble with that people for which a prelate is ordained. And the bishop should be chosen in the presence of the people, who have most fully known the life of each one, and have looked into the doings of each one as respects his habitual conduct. And this also, we see, was done by you in the ordination of our colleague Sabinus; so that, by the suffrage of the whole brotherhood, and by the sentence of the bishops who had assembled in their presence, and who had written letters to you concerning him, the episcopate was conferred upon him, and hands were imposed on him in the place of Basilides. Neither can it rescind an ordination rightly perfected, that Basilides, after the detection of his crimes, and the baring of his conscience even by his own confession, went to Rome and deceived Stephen our colleague, placed at a distance, and ignorant of what had been done, and of the truth, to canvass that he might be replaced unjustly in the episcopate from which he had been righteously deposed. The result of this is, that the sins of Basilides are not so much abolished as enhanced, inasmuch as to his former sins he has also added the crime of deceit and circumvention. For he is not so much to be blamed who has been through heedlessness surprised by fraud, as he is to be execrated who has fraudulently taken him by surprise. But if Basilides could deceive men, he cannot deceive God, since it is written, “God is not mocked.” But neither can deceit advantage Martialis, in such a way as that he who also is involved in great crimes should hold his bishopric, since the apostle also warns, and says, “A bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God.” (Letter 67.3-5 ANF)

This quote supports D5 over O5, since it says that sinners have an “unjust and unlawful episcopacy.” In fact, the second paragraph indicates that even another bishop (in this case, the bishop of Rome) cannot override a congregation’s refusal of a bishop who is in sin. Furthermore, he supports D2 over O2 when he says that the ordination of a wicked bishop didn’t ensure that he was truly ordained by God (he doesn’t mention apostolic succession, but of course the ancient churches’ claim is that those bishops would have had apostolic succession):

For that unworthy persons are sometimes ordained, not according to the will of God, but according to human presumption, and that those things which do not come of a legitimate and righteous ordination are displeasing to God, God Himself manifests by Hosea the prophet . . .

Firmilian of Caesarea

But what is his error, and how great his blindness, who says that the remission of sins can be given in the synagogues of the heretics, and who does not remain on the foundation of the one Church which was founded upon the rock by Christ can be learned from this, which Christ said to Peter alone: “Whatever things you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth, they shall be loosed in heaven;” and by this, again in the gospel, when Christ breathed upon the Apostles alone, saying to them; “Receive the Holy Spirit: if you forgive any man his sins, they shall be forgiven; and if you retain any mans sins, they shall be retained.” Therefore, the power of forgiving sins was given to the Apostles and to the Churches which these men, sent by Christ, established; and to the bishops who succeeded them by being ordained in their place (Letter to Cyprian 75:16 [A.D. 255-256]).

From this site.

This quotation shows that Firmilian believed as Cyprian did—that there was One True Church. In this quote, he’s not talking about D1–6 or O1–6, but another belief—that anyone who wasn’t ordained in an office in the One True Church wasn’t a real bishop. That is addressed in this article.

Firmilian does seem to believe that O3 is true, and that each apostle left behind him a single bishop in each church, but he isn’t in a position to know whether that was true or not (he came generations later), so this is his (reasonable, given his situation) assumption, not historical evidence of what occurred.

Peter of Alexandria

A cycle of two hundred and eighty-five years from the incarnation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ had rolled round, when the venerable Theonas, the bishop of this city, by an ethereal flight, mounted upwards to the celestial kingdoms. To him Peter, succeeding at the helm of the Church, was by all the clergy and the whole Christian community appointed bishop, the sixteenth in order from Mark the Evangelist, who was also archbishop of the city (Genuine Acts of Peter[A.D. 300-311]).

From this site.

This quote says nothing that contradicts either O1–6 or D1–6.


Zambdas received the episcopate of the church of Jerusalem after the bishop Hymenaeus, whom we mentioned a little above. He died in a short time, and Hermon, the last before the persecution in our day, succeeded to the apostolic chair, which has been preserved there until the present time (Church History 7:32:29 [A.D. 325]).

From this site.

This quote says nothing that contradicts either O1–6 or D1–6. This quote may also be post-Nicene, but I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt.

Evaluating Some Later Sources

I’m including a few post-Nicene quotes to show that the pre-Nicene beliefs survived to a degree even after their era.

Gregory of Nyssa

The tradition has come down to us from our fathers, handled on, like some inheritance by succession from the apostles and the saints who came after them (Against Eunomius 4:5 [A.D. 382]).

From this site.

This quotation supports D2 over O2, since it says the focus of succession is correct teachings.

Gregory of Nazianzus

Gregory wrote in praise of Athanasius of Alexandria.

Thus, and for these reasons, by the vote of the whole people, not in the evil fashion which has since prevailed, nor by means of bloodshed and oppression, but in an apostolic and spiritual manner, he [Athanasius] is led up to the throne of Saint Mark, to succeed him in piety, no less than in office; in the latter indeed at a great distance from him, in the former, which is the genuine right of succession, following him closely. For unity in doctrine deserves unity in office; and a rival teacher sets up a rival throne; the one is a successor in reality, the other but in name. For it is not the intruder, but he whose rights are intruded upon, who is the successor, not the lawbreaker, but the lawfully appointed, not the man of contrary opinions, but the man of the same faith; if this is not what we mean by successor, he succeeds in the same sense as disease to health, darkness to light, storm to calm, and frenzy to sound sense. (Oration 21.8)

Gregory directly contradicts O2 and supports D2.

Summing Up the Evidence

So what does this analysis show? The ancient churches’ view that apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination is not the best way of describing the early Christian belief. The view I proposed better fits the sources—apostolic succession was an indicator of correct doctrine.

  1. Five pre-Nicene writers support D1 over O1.
  2. Four support D2 over O2.
  3. Four support D3 over O3, with another one possibly also supporting D3 as well.
  4. No writer strongly supports O4 over D4, so both views are possible, although two (very early) sources possibly support D4 better, and one (significantly later) source possibly supports O4 better.
  5. One writer supports D5 over O5.
  6. None support O6 over D6. Thus, we need to look elsewhere if we are to prove which view was correct—which my article on the source of Christian doctrine does.

There seems to be no question. The ancient church no longer holds to the pre-Nicene view of apostolic succession. I have been told that my view of apostolic succession is “ahistorical”; unfortunately, that word would be better applied to the view of those who make that claim.

The ancient churches seem to have been content with recognizing the words “apostolic succession” in the historic texts and assuming that they meant the same thing by that term that is meant by them today. The evidence shows that this is not the case.

I assume that proponents of the ancient churches’ view of apostolic succession are using the best evidence possible in order to support their views. So, since their quotes fall so far short, we may conclude that their view was not commonly held by the Early Church Fathers.

Conclusion & Issues Left Open

The idea that the ancient churches have maintained an unbroken line of succession from the apostles, and therefore have special authority, is a beautifully constructed fiction. It has no basis in the early church.

Thus, the way for us to remain true to the churches with apostolic succession is to believe the faith of the apostles. In another post, I analyze the idea that we must sometimes be true to the early church by recognizing that context-specific beliefs can change. As this website argues, the ancient churches are no longer teaching this faith in its entirety. If that’s true, then we should disregard their claims to apostolic succession and believe the doctrines found in Scripture and in the churches that still held to the apostolic traditions—the pre-Nicene churches.

If you are interested in other issues, such as the New Testament or Old Testament evidences offered for the idea that apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination, see my main apostolic succession post.

Note: “ANF” in the footnotes indicates the Ante-Nicene Fathers set, by Schaff, Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe. From a digital copy scanned from a printing in 2001 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Numbers in references are chapter numbers as found in the ANF set.

8 thoughts on “Did the Early Church Fathers Teach Apostolic Succession?”

  1. This article is stacking the deck in favor of the ahistorical Anabaptist view. It’s like a Pentecostal saying, “Baptism can be with water or with fire, so if a quotation from Scripture or other early writings doesn’t provide specific support for water, then that quote doesn’t provide any evidence for water view.”
    Basically: If the early Church didn’t foresee our Anabaptist view and speak to it when they wrote about their own view, then it’s not evidence for their view.
    This article is just one giant poisoned well.

    1. Hi Douglas, thanks for your comment. I’m a little unsure of what aspect of the argument you’re objecting to. Do you see a problem with one or more of the criteria that I proposed for telling whether a quote supports succession of ordination vs. succession of doctrine? If so, which ones? Or do you see a problem with how those criteria are applied to the relevant quotes? If you’d let me know which you object to and why, I’ll be sure to take that into account when I revise this post.
      Just to clarify, the succession of doctrine view is not specifically Anabaptist. It’s an attempt to describe what the early Christians believed.

    2. Hi Douglas, I’ve now done a rewrite of this article to make it more rigorous. I think it adequately addresses the appellation of “ahistorical,” and shows that the adjective could be better applied to the Roman Catholic view. You might want to give it a read.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the link, Austin. I’ll check it out, since I’d be glad to learn about similar Old Testament practices. However, I would note that even if ordination in a direct line from Moses was important for the Old Testament, the evidence from the early church suggests that such succession was valued solely as a means of keeping the apostolic doctrine. So the question is not which church has bishops who are ordained in a direct line from the apostles, but which church believes the faith of the early church. Or would you disagree that that was the function of apostolic succession, and if so, why?

  2. The first strawman here is that you chose this collection of quotes to fit your peculiar doctrine,
    the majority of these are not even those which i regularly see quoted of apostolic succession. The second strawman here is that you want all these very specific details explained in each and every quote, you want every single detail of apostolic succession in a single quote, though that exists, you’ve bolstered your claim by not choosing those quotes, only considering the ones you have devoid of context and ignoring the canons of the councils.

    Here us a lengthy exerpt which proves apiatoluc successesion, as taught by the early fathers, was not just sucession of doctrine but that these were indeed two different things. Apistolic succession is the line of bishops which goes back to the apostles, period, no educated prrson on church history disputes this, when you read the fathers in context, it is clear that it is not just conformity of doctrine which they call apostolic succession.

    Demurrer Against the Heretics 20 [A.D. 200]).

    But if there be any [heresies] which are bold enough to plant [their origin] in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [their first] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter”
    “But should they even effect the contrivance [of composing a succession list for themselves], they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles [as contained in other churches], will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory”

    Apostolic succession AND unity in doctrine are consistently cited by the early Fathers as how to know the true church from that of the heretics and schismatics. And if you read more than just quote mines that becomes very clear, you reallyhave to twist and squint to come up with what you have in this article, it is nothing but a way for you and others to justify your rejection of the authority Christ vested in his church.

    1 John 2:19
    They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.

      1. Thanks for your comment, Mary Rose. I definitely agree with some of your observations. I assure you that I did find all the quotes on this page in articles where people were arguing for apostolic succession. My goal was to include every quote used in support of the doctrine, even though I recognize that more educated supporters of the doctrine, like you, realize that a lot of these quotes don’t really support it.

        Also, if you look more closely, I do include the quote that you’ve included in your comment. It’s the last quote in the section on Tertullian. However, you’re right that I didn’t include the canons of councils. I wasn’t aware that they spoke to these issues. I’d be grateful if you’d point me to which councils and which canons I should look at.

        Different people have found this article lacking. That’s partly because it was originally intended to only be a companion to my full article on apostolic succession. However, since people have been taking more note of this article instead, I plan to rewrite the posts. Also, I don’t think I approached the subject in the best way, which is probably another reason you find it lacking.

        Here’s how I’d approach the subject now:

        • The early Christian view of apostolic succession was this: Bishops in churches that had been founded by apostles were in a position to be practicing and teaching the faith in continuity with the apostles, since they were only a few steps removed from the direct teaching of the apostles.
        • Apostolic succession, for them, was an effective means of showing the heretics that they were in a better position to know what the apostles taught than the heretics were.
        • Because the goal of apostolic succession was to denote who was teaching apostolic doctrines, if anyone stops teaching apostolic doctrines, it matters nothing whether they have apostolic succession.
        • For the first years of the church, bishops didn’t need to be ordained by apostles or bishops, but as time went on, that became the normative practice. However, that was not typically considered the defining factor of apostolic succession–the teachings were.
        • The early Christians did not believe that being ordained in a direct line from the apostles gave bishops special authority to 1) preside over the only valid sacraments or 2) participate in defining Christian doctrine.
        • Apostolic succession never guaranteed that any church would stay free from error. Now that the ancient churches are hundreds of steps removed from the apostles, rather than just five or ten, there’s good reason to wonder whether the traditions were really kept all along the way.

        I’d be glad to hear whether you know of evidence that would call anything I’ve said into question. If the points I laid out above are correct, the question is no longer who has preserved an unbroken line of succession from the apostles. The question is, “Who is practicing the doctrines that the early Christians were attempting to preserve through their use of apostolic succession?” So apostolic succession doesn’t lead us to what the ancient churches are teaching today; it leads us to what the ancient churches taught in the beginning. The aim of this website is to answer that question.

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