Did the Early Church Fathers Teach Apostolic Succession?

One of the most common arguments offered for apostolic succession is that the Early Church Fathers taught it. However, after examining all the quotations that are offered in support of this claim, I’ve concluded that it’s just not true. Instead, of apostolic succession of ordination, the early Christians taught apostolic succession of doctrine.

How do I come to this conclusion? It’s important to note that everybody agrees that the apostles gave bishops the authority to teach and to lead their churches. It’s just that proponents of apostolic succession also believe that these bishops have special authority like the apostles by virtue of being ordained by other bishops with this authority.

So if a quotation from Scripture or other early writings doesn’t provide support for one or the other of these claims, then that quote doesn’t provide any evidence for the ancient churches’ view of apostolic succession. A quotation only provides evidence for apostolic succession as long as it supports some aspect that is unique to it.

So, what criteria can we use to tell whether a particular teaching from the early Christian writings supports apostolic succession of ordination, rather than of doctrine?

1. It must teach (or provide an example of) one of the following elements that are specific to apostolic succession of ordination:

1a. That bishops hold an office with special authority like the apostles.

1b. Or that bishops have been ordained by bishops in a direct line of ordination that goes back to the apostles.

2. However, both 1a and 1b are consistent with apostolic succession of doctrine as well as of ordination. Therefore, if the quotation is to provide support for succession of ordination, it must also indicate one of the following corresponding conditions:

2a. In the case of 1a, it must also indicate that 1a is true because the bishop was properly ordained.

2b. In the case of 1b, it must also indicate that 1b is a necessary condition for a proper bishop ordination to occur.

Condition 2 is important, because if the quotation includes 1a or 1b but does not indicate that 1a or 1b is important due to the importance of proper ordination, then it is completely compatible with succession of doctrine. Thus, it would only give minor support to succession of ordination over succession of doctrine. In fact, if the quote teaches that some aspect of apostolic succession is important because of the importance of proper doctrine, then it actually gives support to apostolic succession of doctrine rather than of ordination.

Examining the Evidence

With that settled, let’s examine every relevant quotation from the early Christians that I am aware of. I mostly got these from Catholic sources, so that will explain some of the extra material in some of them. If you find any further quotations that aren’t addressed here, please let me know in the comments.

Ignatius

Ignatius says, “It is fitting in every way . . . that you be knit together in a unified submission, subject to the bishop and presbytery that you may be completely sanctified” (Letter to Ephesians  2:2). Again he says of the Church, “Jesus Christ . . . is the will of the Father, just as the bishops, who are appointed in every land, are the will of Jesus Christ. So it is proper for you to be in harmony with the will of the bishop” (ibid., 3:2–4:1). He also wrote, “It is clear that one should see the bishop as the Lord himself” (ibid., 6:1). These quotes show first that Ignatius considered the bishops of the Church to be the “will of God” (i.e., their office was appointed by God) and second that obedience to the bishop was considered obedience to God himself. In some sense, the bishop represented God in the same way that the apostles did.

From a YouTube comment on this video.

1a. This quotation says that early bishops had authority, which everyone can agree on. However, it does not say that they had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. However, it also isn’t clear that the goal is to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So while this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, it also doesn’t add support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

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)

From a YouTube comment on this video. Emphasis is the commenter’s.

(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.)

1a. This quotation says that early bishops had authority, which everyone can agree on. However, it does not say that they had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a. In fact, this argues against apostolic succession (as taught today) in several key ways: Ignatius compares presbyters, not bishops, to the apostles. Furthermore, he doesn’t even say that the presbyters have special authority like the apostles. Instead, he uses the apostles as an analogy. This can be seen by looking at the reasoning he gives for following the bishop, which is that Jesus followed the Father. So unless you also want to use this to argue that lay people have Jesus-succession and bishops have Father-succession, you can’t use this quote to argue that presbyters have apostolic succession. It also states that eucharist can be done by anyone to whom the bishop gives authority, and doesn’t stipulate that it must be only by bishops or presbyters.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. However, it also isn’t clear that the goal is to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So while this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, it also doesn’t add support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. This quote says that the earliest bishops were ordained by apostles. However, it doesn’t really support condition 1b, for several reasons. First, it mentions a two-office church structure, unlike the structure upheld by proponents of apostolic succession. Also, though it could be read to indicate that all the earliest bishops were ordained by apostles, it doesn’t actually say that. And though it mentions succession, it doesn’t specify that succession must take place by laying on of hands of bishops who had been ordained in a direct line from the apostles.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. However, it also isn’t clear that the goal is to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So while this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, it also doesn’t add support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

Hegesippus

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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. However, it also isn’t clear that the goal is to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So while this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, it also doesn’t add support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

Irenaeus

“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.

1a. This quotation says that early presbyters had authority, which everyone can agree on. However, it does not say that they had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a. In fact, Irenaeus compares presbyters, not bishops, to the apostles.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops (or even these presbyters) or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. This quotation says that individual bishops “were instituted by the apostles and their successors.” This could be read as meaning that they were ordained by bishops who were ordained in a direct line from the apostles; however, the text doesn’t necessitate that reading, since it leaves open the possibility of cases where bishops might have given lay people the authority to ordain their own bishop. It also would be a stretch to use this as proof that churches never ordained their own bishop in extreme need, such as when their bishop was martyred.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine. Therefore, even if this quotation supports condition 1b, since it doesn’t also support condition 2, it does not support succession of ordination.

“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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

“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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

“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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. This quotation is about the faithfulness of churches, not succession of bishops. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine. In fact, it says that the truth is easy to obtain from churches like that of Rome, which is no longer the case, thus suggesting that the ancient churches no longer have apostolic succession in any meaningful sense.

“[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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops (or even these presbyters) or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b. In fact, it calls apostolic succession into question, since it says that the presbyters are the ones who succeed the apostles, while the ancient churches believe that it is the bishops.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

“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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

Tertullian

“[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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. This quotation is about succession of churches, not of bishops. No mention is made of bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

“[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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. This quotation is about succession of churches, not of bishops. No mention is made of bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. This quotation is evidence against apostolic succession, since it suggests that not all the earliest bishops were ordained by apostles; some of them were ordained by “apostolic men.” Furthermore, it doesn’t say that all succeeding bishops needed to be ordained by laying on of hands of bishops who had been ordained in a direct line from the apostles.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine. In fact, it insists that the first bishop must have remained steadfast for the later succession to be valid, and that the list of succession is of no importance where doctrine is wrong, and that no church that differs from the apostolic faith can be apostolic, each of which directly contradicts succession of ordination and supports succession of doctrine.

Cyprian

“[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 Roman Catholic Pope for centuries following this quote.)

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b. In fact, my understanding is that Novatian was actually ordained a bishop by multiple bishops, thus giving him apostolic succession of ordination (if such had been practiced). However, Tertullian says that this is insufficient for him to be a successor, which would argue more for succession of office to the exclusion of succession of ordination.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. However, it also isn’t clear that the goal is to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So while this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, it also doesn’t add support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b. It is unclear what “vicarious ordination” indicates.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. However, it also isn’t clear that the goal is to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So while this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, it also doesn’t add support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. This quote says that John ordained some bishops. It doesn’t say that all the earliest bishops were ordained by apostles or how successive bishops were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. However, it also isn’t clear that the goal is to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So while this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, it also doesn’t add support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

Origen

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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b. However, the quotation specifically mentions the handing down of doctrines.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

Firmilion 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.

1a. This quotation does in fact say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, saying that bishops were “ordained in their place” and that remission of sins belonged to churches under their authority. So at last we have a quotation that meets condition 1a.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b. While it doesn’t need to meet both conditions 1a and 1b in order to support apostolic succession, the fact that it does not meet both should make us suspicious of whether Firmilion believed in apostolic succession as it is taught today.

2. Finally, this quote misses the second of the two necessary conditions, since the quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine (it is written against the heretics). So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. This quotation actually weighs against apostolic succession, since Peter is said to have been ordained “by all the clergy and the whole Christian community.” Thus, presbyters, deacons, and lay people were involved in his ordination. Though it is certainly possible to read this in a way that does not contradict apostolic succession, it certainly doesn’t support it. This doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. However, it also isn’t clear that the goal is to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So while this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, it also doesn’t add support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

Eusebius

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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a. It does call the bishop’s office “the apostolic chair,” but it’s unclear what that means. It could simply mean that Jerusalem was where the apostles first founded and led the church, or that James, an “apostolic man,” was one of the first bishops of Jerusalem. However, it could be used to give some support for succession of ordination.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. However, it also isn’t clear that the goal is to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So while this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, it also doesn’t add support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

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.

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a. It does speak of “succession from the apostles,” but it doesn’t say that the bishops are the ones who have that succession; rather, Gregory’s point seems to be that it is the church that has apostolic succession of doctrine.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

Jerome

“Far be it from me to speak adversely of any of these clergy who, in succession from the apostles, confect by their sacred word the Body of Christ and through whose efforts also it is that we are Christians” (Letters 14:8 [A.D. 396]).

From this site.

1a. This quotation says that the “clergy” are “in succession from the apostles” in the way they give “their sacred word.” It does not speak specifically of bishops, and it’s not very clear on the authority of the apostles. So this doesn’t meet condition 1a, though I would say that it gives some support for this condition.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of “their sacred word” and their “efforts.” So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering some support to apostolic succession of doctrine (“word”).

Augustine

“[T]here are many other things which most properly can keep me in [the Catholic Church’s] bosom. The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep [John 21:15–17], up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. And last, the very name Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, so much so that, although all heretics want to be called ‘Catholic,’ when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house” (Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation” 4:5 [A.D. 397]).

From this site.

(Note: Notice that Augustine calls the church “the Catholic Church.” But back in those days there was only one church, and “catholic” simply indicated that. Augustine was not referring to the Roman Catholic Church of today. Furthermore, Augustine was at the center of a number of doctrinal changes in the church, so even if he supported apostolic succession, his support would be dubious.)

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. It speaks of a succession of priests, not of bishops. No mention is made of who ordained bishops (or even these priests) or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. However, it also isn’t clear that the goal is to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So while this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, it also doesn’t add support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

Apostolic Constitutions

[Invocation in the Ordination of Bishops] Grant to him, almighty master, through your Christ, possession of the Holy Spirit, so that he may have, according to your mandate, the power to remit sins, to confer orders according to your precept, and to dissolve every bond, according to the power which you gave to your apostles (8:5:7 [A.D. 400]).

From this site.

1a. This quotation does in fact say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this meets condition 1a. However, note the late date. This was written after the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, and around 300 years after the last apostle had died.

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b. While it doesn’t need to meet both conditions 1a and 1b in order to support apostolic succession, the fact that it does not meet both should make us suspicious of whether Firmilion believed in apostolic succession as it is taught today.

2. Finally, this quote misses the second of the two necessary conditions, since the quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. However, it also isn’t clear that the goal is to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So while this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, it also doesn’t add support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

Conclusion

None of these sources met both of the conditions required, so none of them support apostolic succession of ordination. In fact, none support condition 2, only a few of them support conditions 1a or 1b, and some of those can be read otherwise.

Also, note that it is the later fathers who give clearer support for conditions 1a and 1b, which suggests that this doctrine was developed, rather than being practiced from the beginning. Of course, under the current doctrines of apostolic succession, if any link in the chain is broken, all the rest of the chain has no value whatsoever, no matter how correctly the ordinations are done since then.

Finally, more than a dozen of these quotes actually support apostolic succession of doctrine. That’s significantly more than the number of quotes that give any support to succession of ordination. Thus, the witness of the Early Church Fathers leans more toward the Protestant and Anabaptist view than to the view of the ancient churches.

I assume that proponents of apostolic succession are using the best evidence possible in order to support their views. So, since these quotes fall so far short, we may conclude that the idea of apostolic succession of ordination was foreign to the Early Church Fathers.

Church Fathers Against Apostolic Succession

A few church fathers, especially later ones, argued specifically for apostolic succession of doctrine, saying that other forms of succession were less important.

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)

Summing Up

Fourteen of these quotes support apostolic succession of doctrine. Four of these quotes link apostolicity to the office of presbyter (also translated “priest”) rather than to the office of bishop (one of these four is included in the fourteen I cited above). Against these seventeen quotes, we have only four quotes that give some support to condition 1, and one of those four is actually a quote that supports succession of doctrine rather than of ordination.

Thus, it is clear that the evidence is overwhelmingly against apostolic succession of ordination. During the pre-Nicene era, and even during the early conciliar era, apostolic succession of ordination was not accepted.

2 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.

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