Apostolic Succession


In the creed we recite the words “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”, now it’s important to understand that these four positive marks of the Church are what distinguish her from the false counter part or claimant “churches”. If the claimant sect or church lacks any one of these marks, it can not claim to the be the one true Church as founded by Christ. 


A mark that distinguishes the True Church of Christ from all other claimants is that it be apostolic. Hence we read in the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians : 'So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord' (Ephesians 2 : 19-21).

It is by the note of Apostolic Succession that the four Marks of the Church are made most evident. Since it ought to be contained, Oneness – unity with the Head of the Church- The Holiness – which stems from conforming our selves to that doctrine, Catholicism – the same universal faith – universal in space and time – And the Apostolicity  of that faith as should be evident in those who hold the legitimate succession of the Apostles.

Notion - What is meant by the term Apostolic Succession?


Church of Christ, must be able to trace her doctrine, her orders, all her mission, to the Apostles of Christ and so ultimately, by Apostolic Succession we mean that Lawful Succession of the hierarchy from the Apostles by means of the Orders validly received while simultaneously having transmitted the same faith of the Apostles .


And so in its concrete form, apostolic succession is the unbroken line of bishops stretching back to the apostles, who held communion with Rome. 

Necessity for Apostolicity:

Does the Church have to be Apostolic?

The reason is that during all the time that the Church shall exist, there must have true pastors - "For the work of the ministry, for the edification of the body of Christ,"—Ephes. chap. iv.

And yet it's not enough for there simply to be priests, but these these watchmen/priests must be lawfully sent.   St. Paul who in speaking of the missionaries for the faith and the God’s great blessing of God upon such men, nevertheless does not fail to affirm (Romans 10) "How shall they preach unless they be sent?" But even prior to this we read in the Old Testament that of such self appointed missionaries God Himself complains by the mouth of Jeremiah saying,—Jer, xxiii, 21:—"I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied ."

St. Paul doesn't limit the importance of having a lawful mission from the Church merely to preaching but also to the very reception of Holy Order itself, that is why in his letter to the Hebrews he expressly states that "no man takes the honor of the priesthood upon himself, but he that is called by God as Aaron was,"—Heb. v, 4.

And so it seems clear from scripture at least that the succession of pastors must be one that is lawfully authorized. For this reason the Church has always continued along this path, by the power that Christ had originally given to His apostles in the words: "As my Father has send me, I also send you" (Matt 28).

It was by means of this Apostolic Succession that Christ intended His Church to endure until the end of world with the 4 marks with which he founded it. In other words it is by this Apostolic Succession that we are to know the true Church from all the counterfeit claimant churches of today because the true Church must derive, by a perpetual and uninterrupted succession from the Apostles, her doctrines, her mission, and her orders.

The apostolicity of succession guarantees the unfalsified transmission of doctrine and makes manifest the organic connection between the Church today and the Church of the Apostles. If a church cannot trace its history back in an unbroken line, step by step, from the present to the Apostles, it is not the true Church.


 A Short Diagram Explanation of Apostolic Succession:


Christ - The Word of God made Flesh


Christ => Founds the Church on the 12 Apostles


From which comes the continuation of the same :


Doctrine = i.e. the Faith


Sacraments = i.e. Holy Order in regards to apostolic succession


Mission = the Legitimate succession which today more explicitly implies union with the patron office of the Pope (Matt 16:18). 



Scripture and Apostolic Succession:


The notion of Apostolic Succession is not doctrinal invention but one that is latent throughout the whole New Testament, while also see in the Old Testament that there did exist a privileged status of teaching which was in some way handed down as we see in the notion of the seat of Mosses.


12 Apostles

In fact we see that in the New Testament Our Lord chose 12 Apostles. It was no mistake or accident that He  chose 12 Apostles and not 11 or 13 etc. It was because these 12 Apostles were to symbolically replace the 12 tribes of Israel as they were to be the 12 Pillars of the New Israel, the New Testament Church. We see this idea in the 12th Chapter of the Apocalypse (Apoc. xii., 1) where the women who is said to signify the Church is depicted with the 12 Stars upon her head as though these twelve stars were here Glory. The significance of the number 12 is not accidental as the the 12 Apostles as foundation stones of the New Testament Church will supercede the Old Testament Church. St. Peter understood this well and that is why we read in the Acts of the Apostles that he affirms that at the death of Judas they had to choose someone else to take his place before Pentecost and that the person to take his place had to have been a witness of the resurrection and have been with the apostles from the beginning. This was because St. Peter knew well that divine providence had ordained it that the Church was to have 12 Apostles who were to be its foundation stones as a clear sign that it was to be a re-founding, a new Church, which while in it had come forth from the bosom of the Old Testament Church, since Christ was the fulfillment of the law and yet it was a totally new Church distinct from the Old Testament Church because it was founded by Christ the New Adam (Rom 5) who is the chief corner stone of  of the Church (Eph 2:21).

More from Scripture

The idea of Apostolic succession is undeniably evident not only from the fact that Our Lord established a Church (Matt 16:16) but its also clear from the fact that he intended that Church to endure until the end of time as expressly stated "I shall be with you all days even to the consummation of the world" (Matt 28:18 ).  In other words, Christ promised to remain not only with the Apostles but also with all their lawful successors until the end of time. If Christ imparted his divine authority to His apostles to continue His mission of salvation and promised to remain with His apostles until the end of the world, it is only obvious that they would require successors since they were inevitably going to die like the rest of men.

St. Paul who while he was not called to be an apostle during the life time of Our Lord nevertheless is just as adamant about the point of Apostolic Succession as he affirms to Titus saying: For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and shouldest ordain priests in every city, as I also appointed thee: ...(Titus 1:5 cf. also  I Tim. 4:14). – In other words, Titus, you have a duty to look after the Church and ensure it’s preservation and edification by Ordaining priests who can legitimately govern and teach in the Church, those doctrine which you have received from me, and I from Christ. I say this because the ordination to the priesthood is essential to maintain the sacerdotal and hierarchical structure of the Church which is implied in the notion of Apostolic Succession.


The Bishops thus have a duty not only of ruling the Church and guiding the priests and faithful under them but to insure that the Church remains in her divine constitution in exactly the same way it was founded. 

The Church Fathers and Apostolic Succession

What exactly did they say?

As early as we go back into antiquity, we see the same truth being affirmed. If any point of doctrine has unanimity of opinion amongst the Fathers, it is truly this doctrine of Apostolic Succession.

Indeed, a perpetual succession of Catholic pastors has always existed and will always exist until the end of time.

The first Christians then had no doubts about how to determine which claimant, among the many competing new sects, which was the true Church. The test was simple: Just trace the apostolic succession of the claimants. Did the teaching And the teachers come down from the apostles and their legitimate successors? The simple procedure worked every time, even if in times of crisis, it might not have been always so clear yet this criterion has nevertheless remained infallibly true. 


What is interesting in this regard is that when Protestants look back today and speak of the "early Church" or simply, "the Church," they fail to recognize that this "Church" which they tacitly assume was one and unified, is none other than the organically connected ancestor of the present-day Catholic Church, which operates on the same principle of apostolic succession.

It’s true that people will often bring up the point that present day Catholicism doesn’t have the semblance or external appearance of what they had understood the early Church to be. The problem with this line of argument is that it’s an objection that lacks both any real historical insight or any real understanding to the notion of the “Church”. The Church which Christ founded was in no way to remain static. While the guiding principles which would be it’s pillar,  would remain static, that is the unshakable and immutable faith upon which it is based, will and must remain ever unchangeable, yet the Church itself like a human body, organically developed from the beginning in a gradual, consistent fashion.

Cardinal Newman makes the analogy between an acorn seed and the great oak from which it springs. In comparison they look noting alike, yet one has homogeneously grown out from the other. We might say that all the DNA of that Oak Tree was contained in the seed. It is one and the same as the seed, since without the seed their would be no Oak tree, and yet who will turn around and deny that the Oak tree has nothing to do with the acorn? The same is true of the Catholic Church, which while it has maintained it’s doctrinal truths, nevertheless continue to grow both numerically in it’s membership and also in its expounding and clarification of that same faith which Christ had taught to the apostles, while by the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Ghost continues to lead men to heaven by means of the sacraments and legitimately developed rites and ceremonies . In fact, Christ Himself declared this to the apostles that this would be the purpose of the Holy Ghost, to guide them in all Truth. Yet there were many things that our lord had wished to expounded to the apostles, but as He said “ (John 16:12) “but you cannot bear them now. But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth. For he shall not speak of himself: but what things so ever he shall hear, he shall speak. And the things that are to come, he shall show you them”. Hence, these truths were to be later expounded by the apostles by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost and faithfully transmitted through their successors.


Explanation/Illustration of the Above


Acorn= 1. The Apostles as Foundation Stones of the Church . This was the primary role of the Apostles that is why its a common opinion of theologians that after Pentecost all the Twelve apostles were infallible, impeccable and all had universal jurisdiction/mission. That is why the Church holds that Public revelation ended with death of the last Apostle, St. John the Evangelist.


Oak Tree = 2. Apostles as Depositories of the Faith. This was the secondary role of the Apostles, but it is the primary role of their successors (i.e. the bishops) to transmit that faith (that is the TRUE NOTION OF TRADITION). While the secondary role of the successors of the apostles is the communication of that faith to the generation in which they live (that is the true notion of "living Tradition").



The Catholic notion of Apostolic Succession however does not mean that all the successors of the Apostles have the same authority as that of the Apostles themselves. The Legitimate successors of the Apostles succeed  the Apostles in their office but not in their personal gifts or prerogatives. For example while all the Apostles, as foundations or “Pillars” of the Church, had universal jurisdiction/mission while still having St. Peter as their head. However all the Legitimate successors of the Apostles today do not succeed the apostles in this particular gift of universal Jurisdiction. This is reserved to the Roman Pontiff alone because it is part of his office as the Vicar of Christ.  Nevertheless, Bishops do govern their own diocese not only as delegates of the Pope, but as true successors of the Apostles.  For this reason St. Paul reminds the bishops “Take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28). 


Some of the Church Fathers on Apostolic Succession


St. Clement I' (Pope, 88-97 A. D.)

'Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier' 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.' (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4-5, 44:1-3 [80 A.D.]).

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (Martyr, Bishop of Lyons, died 202 A. D.)

'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' (Against Heresies 3:3:1 [189 A.D.]).

'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., 3:3:2).

'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).

'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).

'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 [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)' '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).

St. Cyprian of Carthage, d. 258 A. D.


'The 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 [253 A. D.]).''


It seems clear then that the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Faith alone can claim to be that Church as founded by Christ because She alone, has, beyond all doubt, existed in every age, from the present till the Apostolic age. Her pastors are the only pastors on earth, who can trace their mission from priest to bishop, and from bishop to Pope, back through every century, until they trace that mission to the Apostles, who were commissioned by Christ himself.


Hence, it is this Church and This Church alone, which can claim a right to our obedience and our assent in what it propose to us for belief since the faith She holds up for our Belief is non other than that inviolable and immutable truth of God Himself.