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Apostolic Succession

Apostolic Succession

The Apostles had a position of authority in the Church. Because they would not live forever, and because they could not be everywhere at once, they appointed bishops to rule the Church, and entrusted to them the corpus of Christian truth (1 Cor. 11:23, 15:3-4). In turn, those bishops were to ordain other bishops, with the task of preserving Christian truth as it was handed on to them, and therefore, establish a succession of bishops, going back to the Apostles, with the charism of infallibility, so that the truth would be faithfully passed on. Teaching was a gift given by God to the Church (1 Cor 12:28). This gift was passed on to bishops through the laying on of hands; "Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of hands of the eldership" (1 Tim 4:14). This gift was intended to stay with the church forever, through a succession of bishops: "The things which you have heard from me through many witnesses you must hand on to trustworthy men who will be able to teach others" (2 Tim 2:2). These "trustworthy men" were the bishops and priests: "In his [the bishop's] teaching, he must hold fast to the authentic message, so that he will be able both to encourage men to follow sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it" [ie. false teachers: 1 Tim 1:1-7; 2 Tim 2:14-19, 3:1-9] (Tit 1:9).

In order to prove theirs was the true Church, the early Christians pointed to the fact that only the Catholic Church had a college of bishops who traced their lineage in unbroken succession back to the Apostles. Today, only the Catholic and Orthodox bishops can trace their lineage back to the Apostles, and only the Catholic bishops are in union with Peter's successor-the Pope. The early Christians had to point to the Apostolic succession of their church to prove what She taught was true, because the early heretics twisted Scripture so skillfully that the early Christians could not successfully argue with them on a Biblical basis.

Pope Clement I (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4-5, 44:1-3 [A.D. 80]) "Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry."

Irenaeus of Lyons (Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]) "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 to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about"; (ibid., 3:3:2) "But since it would be too long to enumerate in such as 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 with which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this Church, because if 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., 4:26:2) "It 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 [also] 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".

Tertullian (Demurrer Against the Heretics 32 [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."

Cyprian of Carthage (Letters 69[75]:3 [A.D. 253]) "The Church is one, and as she is one, cannot be both within and without. For if she is with Novatian, she was not with [Pope] Cornelius. But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded [Pope] 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".

Jerome (Letters 14:8 [A.D. 396]) "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."

Augustine (Against the Letter of Mani Called 'The Foundation' 4:5 [A.D. 397]) "There 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, 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."

Catholic Tracts


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