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The Early Church Was Apostolic

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What is apostolic succession? Did the early Church believe in and practice apostolic succession? Find out here, with Tim Staples.


Cy Kellett:
Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host. There’s four marks to the church. It’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Pretty much every Christian would agree to that. So we focus on the apostolic nature of the early church this time with our guest, Tim Staples. Tim is director of apologetics and evangelization here at Catholic Answers, the author of Beyond Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines. Hello, Tim.

Tim Staples:
Cy Kellett, it is always good to be with you, man.

CK:
So Jesus founded an apostolic church. Was that his intention right from the get?

TS:
Amen. Jesus was too smart to name his Church. You ever notice He didn’t say-

CK:
Oh, yeah.

TS:
… “Hey, go out and tell everybody. The name of the Church is blank.” He was too smart for that. Why? Because anybody can usurp a name, but what Jesus did is He gave us four marks. These four marks cannot be usurped by any other community. Attempts are made.

CK:
Yes, right. Right.

TS:
But my friends, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic applies to one body in this word and that is what we call … I say Jesus didn’t name the church and yet, the great St. [Pacian 00:01:20] who is the bishop of Barcelona, 4th century, and also a father of the church, he’s famous for saying, “My name is Christian. My surname is Catholic.”

CK:
Oh, yeah. Right.

TS:
Famous line there. We say, “Well the name of your church is Catholic. Why are you saying Jesus didn’t give it a name?” Well He didn’t. It is true that we’ve taken one of those four marks and very early on, we see St. Ignatius of Antioch using it in 107. That single mark seems to encapsulate in and of itself the essence of the church probably the best of all. Hence, Catholic very early on becomes the name, but again, Jesus didn’t name the church Catholic.

CK:
Right.

TS:
Jesus gave the church four marks, and this is why the church is described in the creed, in the catechism as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. But having said that, apostolic, that fourth mark of the church takes on a crucial role in the early church and this is what we’re focusing on because in the early … I argue about 250 years, that early, you have … We’ve talked about before on this broadcast, Cy, how early some of our doctrines are-

CK:
Right.

TS:
… as Catholic. It blows people … I know it blew my mind when I was studying Catholicism how early before you even hear the word trinity, you already have Mary as the new Eve, you have hierarchy which we’re going to talk about in another focus you and I will get together on. It’s astonishing, but apostolic succession in another one of those. From the [veriest 00:03:11], yes, the veriest early, from the very earliest Christian works we have, we see this theme of apostolic succession. In other words, if you cannot trace your succession back to the apostles in a line of ordained succession, you’re not even worth getting a hearing, man.

CK:
So in the year 150 or 200 when there’s competing … And modern scholars have been very good at pointing this out. They sometimes miss what it means, but-

TS:
Yes.

CK:
… there was never just one unchallenged Christianity. There were always people who were bringing in sometimes crazy ideas-

TS:
Yes.

CK:
… sometimes marginal “We’re close, but we’re not quite there” ideas.

TS:
Yes.

CK:
So even from those earliest days, say 150 or 200, 250-

TS:
Yes.

CK:
… the way you would have settled those things is you would have said the person closest to the apostles.

TS:
Yeah.

CK:
Is that right?

TS:
It’s number one. In fact, I was going to get to this a little later, but I got to toss out Tertullian’s famous demur against the heretics which is one of his greatest works. He was still Catholic at the time. Written in about 200 AD, he’s writing against all the major heresies of the day, but in two sections of that work, he makes the point, he says, “First of all,” to the heretics, “if you even want a hearing, unroll the scroll and let’s see the succession of your bishops because if you don’t have succession all the way back to the apostles, well you’re not even worthy of a discussion, number one.”

CK:
Right.

TS:
Then secondly, he says, “Even if you do have succession, well then let’s talk about your doctrine because does it align with all the apostolic churches and as they trace their succession back to the apostles?” Cy, we’ll see in a moment. I mean we’ve got Pope Clement in 80 AD roughly. Scholars debate whether at the very latest 90, probably about 80 AD, he talks about apostolic succession. Hegesippus who’s writing in the mid-2nd century, he too uses this as an argument. St. Irenaeus definitely-

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
… apostolic succession was a cornerstone and of course he accentuates the bishop of Rome, the church of Rome as having a unique authority among all of the apostolic churches, but that’s a centerpiece of his argument. Right in the center of his great work Against Heresies, he says it is possible to list all of the successions of all the churches-

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
… but to narrow it down here, and if you’ve read Against Heresies, it is quite verbose so thank goodness he narrowed it down, but St. Irenaeus is awesome. He lists the first and greatest church-

CK:
Oh, that’s right. That’s where we get-

TS:
… the church of Rome.

CK:
… that early list of the popes.

TS:
Yeah, it’s in book three, chapter three, paragraphs one through three. He then lists all the bishops of Rome, as Hegesippus did as well list. He talks about how this bishop of Rome was once the deacon for that bishop of Rome and he became bishop of Rome, and he lists the succession list like that. Again, it’s a given this is the cornerstone. Let me just quote this one here from Pope St. Clement in paragraph 44 of his … It’s really paragraphs 42 through 44, but I’ll focus on paragraph 44. “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.” Now, when he was writing this, John the apostle was still alive.

CK:
Oh, right. Right. Right.

TS:
Imagine here that the letter to the Corinthians of course was written by St. Irenaeus in … Not Saint, but Pope St. Clement in response to a request from the Corinthian church to help. “We need your help, Your Holiness. We got a mess over here.” As we know, St. Paul wrote his letter about 40 years earlier, a generation earlier, and it was crazy. Maybe not that long, maybe 30 years, but at any rate, earlier and there was a mess in Corinth. Evidently, the mess didn’t get completely cleaned up because they were still having fights, but they appealed to the bishop of Rome. When the bishop of Rome writes this letter, it’s authoritative from bishop of Rome and again, John the apostle was alive which says a lot. The fact that they could have just called them right down the street there to Ephesus and gotten John-

CK:
Right.

TS:
… but they appeal all the way to Rome. I know we’re not talking about the papacy, but the key is in his response, apostolic succession is like a given.

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
You see that in Hegesippus and Irenaeus-

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
… Tertullian and later you’ll see it in Cyprian and then by the time the 4th century gets here, St. Augustine. I love that, “I didn’t bring it with me, but …” What is that? I think it’s letter 110 in his monster list of letters, right around there, where St. Augustine in writing against the [Donatus 00:08:43], he says, “Search over the list of bishops back to the very see of Peter, the bishops of Rome and see if there be one Donatus among them.”

CK:
Right. Yeah, so that’s a very strong appeal to apostolic succession. Everybody who was in the order, this order is very, very important that you followed one after the other.

TS:
Absolutely.

CK:
Did we see it established in the New Testament? I mean is Timothy one of these-

TS:
Absolutely.

CK:
So St. Paul appoints St. Timothy as a bishop essentially.

TS:
Absolutely.

CK:
Then so-

TS:
Ordains him as we see in 2 Timothy 1:6. St. Paul says to Timothy, “Stir up the gift that is within thee through the laying on of my hands.” Right? Then he exhorts him in 2 Timothy 2:1-2 to ordain others as well. This gets back to another crucial point. The reason why you see this so clearly … This was one of the big issues for me. This is why I get a little passionate. I get passionate about everything, but I get really passionate about this one because this was one that was I wouldn’t say the linchpin. I had more than one linchpin, but it was extremely important in my own odyssey to the Catholic faith because as I started reading the apostolic fathers, that’s where I began. That is the fathers who had communication with, were in touch with the actual apostles.

CK:
Polycarp, Ignatius-

TS:
Clement.

CK:
… Clement. Yeah.

TS:
Exactly. You see this as I just read from St. Clement. Oh, my goodness. It’s so plainly there and then it explodes there in the 2nd century and then into the 3rd and 4th centuries. Wow, but one of the reasons is it’s actually quite plain in the text of the New Testament as well. You say, “Where?” Well let me just toss out there’s actually many places. I will add another. I was going to do two. Let me toss in one more. What’s interesting is in Hebrews 6:4-6, the inspired author of Hebrews says, “Let us not ago back and have to lay again the foundation of repentance from sins and faith toward God,” and he goes down a list of basic tenets of the faith. He’s saying, “Let’s move on from these that are the basics,” right?

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
Because he had some serious issues to deal with with these Hebrew Christians, but one of them that he mentions as basic, we don’t even need to go over this because we all agree on this-

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
… the laying on of hands.

CK:
Oh, yeah. Right.

TS:
Right?

CK:
Right. Yeah.

TS:
Which represents ordination, the laying on of hands, apostolic succession. This is foundational. Let’s move on now and deal with your problem issues. Wow. Yet, the Christian world today, yes, the Catholic Church, all the apostolic churches, the orthodox churches, we all agree on this, but we have hundreds of millions of Evangelicals and Pentecostals who have no idea. They disagree with each other over what in the world laying on of hands means.

CK:
Right. Right.

TS:
They certainly disagree with us. That’s a sad thing. That’s one of the many awful results of the Protestant rebellion, confusion over matters so foundational. Well where do we see this idea of apostolic succession in the New Testament? Not just there in Hebrews 6, but I’m going to toss out a couple of examples. One is famous text, Romans 10:9-10 which I used as an Evangelical myself. I was raised on it. If you believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and confess with your mouth that He is Lord, you will be saved for with the heart … Verse 10 says, “With the heart man believes unto righteousness or justification and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Every Evangelical knows that one, right? But not as many know the next few verses because he goes on to say, “How shall they believe in whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher and how shall they preach unless they be sent?”

CK:
Oh.

TS:
That word there-

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
… sent, Greek-

CK:
It’s not just up to anybody to say, “Hey, I’m a preacher now.”

TS:
That’s right.

CK:
You have to be sent.

TS:
That’s right. Apostello is the Greek word for … Actually there’s [pempo 00:13:30] also, but apostello here is a very important word. In fact, the word [apostelos 00:13:37]-

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
… same root of that apostello, to be sent, it means literally to be sent with the authority of the one who sent you. That’s what the word means, to be sent. In fact in our modern Christian era, we’ve lost a sense of the importance of this because of the Protestant rebellion, but the idea of being sent, Jesus would say in John 5:43, “I am come in my Father’s name and you will not hear me. If another comes in his own name, you’ll hear him.” Right? “I’m come in my father’s name,” that means with the authority of so, “that if you disagree with me, you’re disagreeing with the Father.” He also says, “As the Father has sent me.”

CK:
Yes.

TS:
Again, apostello here. “So I send you.” Similar to in the name of here is sent with the authority of the one who sent you. So when we see this here in Romans 10, our Protestant friends can pass right over it. “Oh, yeah. I was sent by my guys at Boulevard Baptist Church. They said, ‘Hey, go over there and preach.'” Right?

CK:
Right.

TS:
Well it means a little more than that. Why is that? Well we see another example of this, being sent with the authority of the one who sent you, in Acts 15:24-28. This is the famous text that deals with the [Judaizer 00:15:07] problem that started in Antioch in Acts 15:1-2 and it blew up. Paul and Barnabas couldn’t deal with it so they determined to send up to Jerusalem as Verse 3 says. “Send up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders to consider this questions. Whence cometh the first church council?” Well the council gathers, they deal with the situation, they write an epistle, and it’s going to be sent out to all the troubled churches. Then in Acts 16:4, you see it. They send out the dogmata, the Greek word by the way. The decrees of the council are sent out to the troubled churches in the hand of Paul. He goes and does it, but here’s the thing.

If you read the actual excerpt from the letter, you find it in Acts 15:24-28. The apostles say this. They say, “We know there were certain brethren who went out from us, but who had no mandate from us or no authority from us to speak who said …” And they went into their error and here is the answer.

CK:
Right.

TS:
Here’s the key though. What you see both there in Romans 10, especially Verse 15, and Acts 15:24-28 is you could not preach unless you are sent with apostolic authority. That’s the context of Romans. Paul is an apostle and he’s saying that you can’t preach unless you are sent.

CK:
It’s a descent. The Father sends the Son, the Son sends the apostles, the apostles send the preacher.

TS:
Absolutely.

CK:
If you’re not in that line-

TS:
Absolutely.

CK:
… then you weren’t sent by the Father.

TS:
Absolutely.

CK:
Okay. I gotcha.

TS:
This becomes the foundation here and I should emphasize that that sending is not just a one-time you’re sent, then you can go out and start your Baptist church or your Lutheran church or whatever.

CK:
Right.

TS:
But you had to continue in the mandate or the sending of the apostles-

CK:
Right.

TS:
… so that some who went out from the apostles, guess what? They got away from their mandate. They got recalled big time by the council of Jerusalem and the apostles say, “Don’t listen to these knuckleheads.” By the way, historically, that would be [Nicholas 00:17:30] for those of you who really want to dive into this. St. Irenaeus gives us some really cool insight on this, that Nicolas was one of the founders of the Heresy of the Judaizers. Nicholas was … If you put on your detective’s cap here, go back to Acts Chapter 6 and you see when the apostles ordained the first seven deacons-

CK:
Oh.

TS:
… in the list of the deacons, the first is Stephen who would become the martyr. First, remember in Oriental culture, normally has to do with hierarchy or prominence or honor and that sort of thing. Stephen’s first. Who’s last?

CK:
Nicholas.

TS:
Nicholas. Nicholas who … The scripture says there, “Nicholas, a proselyte from Antioch,” and that’s where the problem started, in Antioch. Well Nicholas was ordained, he was sent by the apostles, but he got away from his mandate and started doing some crazy stuff. Unfortunately, we know Nicholas was rebuked by the apostles, but he did not come back.

CK:
Oh, he didn’t-

TS:
He actually left and started what would become the [Nicolaitan 00:18:39] Heresy or the Heresy of the Judaizers. By the way, that’s not to be confused with the [00:18:46] Heresy. That’s a different-

CK:
Of course, there’s got to be something that sounds almost exactly the same or it wouldn’t be Catholic history.

TS:
That’s right.

CK:
Nickelodeon.

TS:
No. By the way, Jesus himself intervenes about 50 years later in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 2-

CK:
Oh, yeah.

TS:
… He says, “I hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans.” Why? Because they rejected the teachings of the council. Jesus actually mentions a couple of the decrees of the council, but anyway, I digress a bit there, got into a little Catholic trivia. The point of the matter is that you had to be sent with apostolic authority and remain in that apostolic authority. Let me … As long as we’re on a roll here, I want to talk to my Mormon friends for a moment because in our discussions with Mormons, there’s a sense in which we agree and Mormons will agree that you have to be sent by an authority that comes from God. They have a real keen sense of that. However, one of the many errors in Mormonism is they fail to see that Jesus sent the apostles and the apostles sent the bishops. It’s impossible for there to be a great apostasy. That would destroy that line of succession because Jesus guaranteed in Matthew 28:18-20-

CK:
Right.

TS:
… specific to the apostolic authority because that’s the context of Matthew 28, “All authority is given me. Go ye therefore, teach all nations, baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teach them to observe and do according to all that I have commanded you. Lo, I will be with you all days.” That means everyday.

CK:
Yeah. Right.

TS:
Jesus is not … Far from leaving us for basically 1800 years-

CK:
Right.

TS:
… in this-

CK:
Not even for one day.

TS:
Not even for one day.

CK:
Right. Right.

TS:
“I’m going to be here with you. Even in between popes, you still have the bishops.”

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
Right. That can’t fail either because we have perpetual successors as Vatican council one declared in the papacy. That’s for my [rad trad 00:21:00] friends. We don’t like to use that kind of pejorative … It’s hard to describe. The Catholics that are more Catholic than the pope, that sort of thing.

CK:
Maybe you should have just stayed with rad trad.

TS:
Well here’s the thing though.

CK:
Okay.

TS:
Real important. What you see in scripture, see that … The Mormons have this distorted view that the prophet is the highest office in the church. So the prophet. You have the quorum of the 12 apostles, but you have the prophet-

CK:
Who’s higher.

TS:
… who is higher. Well that’s not the teaching of Jesus Christ of the New Testament. Why? Because what we have in the New Testament is apostolic authority. In fact, here’s a cool little verse for my Mormon friends. Check it out. 1 Corinthians 14:37-38. St. Paul when he’s dealing with the problem children in Corinth, he clearly says, “If any man speak up think himself to be spiritual or a prophet, let him know the things that I have written to you are from God. He that does not recognize this is not to be recognized.” So you can claim yourself to be a prophet all day long, but it’s the apostle that determines whether you are or not.

CK:
Right.

TS:
So we have a primacy here of the apostle and this, by the way, I know you and I are going to talk about hierarchy in a future broadcast, but this becomes important because we see in, for example, Ephesians 4:11 that the scripture says, “The Holy Spirit has placed in the church these offices: apostle, prophet, pastor, evangelist, and teacher.” Those five offices, some put the evangelist teacher as one; I don’t, but yeah, we can debate that. The point is though the Holy Spirit places first the apostle.

CK:
Right.

TS:
“Are all apostles,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:29, “No. Not everyone is an apostle. We must submit to the authority of the apostle.” That’s what you see from Jesus Christ, St. Paul, and then you launch into the writings of the church fathers and you see this beautiful continuity of the idea the apostle is sent by Jesus Christ, as you said. The successor of the apostle is called the bishop and we get that, by the way, in Acts 1:20 when St. Peter determines how Judas was going to be replaced. When they replace him, St. Peter quotes from the Psalms, “Let another man take his office.” The Greek word there is [episcopay 00:23:45], his bishopric.

TS:
So the apostle in succession is called a bishopric and we see that continue in the church and for 2000 years. One of the just beautiful things, and again, this is why it was such, I say, one … I know the image isn’t very good to say. I have many linchpins. A linchpin is supposed to be one, but this was so important to me because I saw that continuity and it became part of the tapestry that I found to be Catholic theology, how this continuity from Jesus establishing the apostles to the apostles themselves, those whom they ordain, the bishops, and then down. It’s like when you read the church fathers, you’re reading Acts Chapter 29, right? Acts has 28 chapters.

CK:
Oh, yeah. I see what you’re-

TS:
You’re just picking up in Acts Chapter 29 and it goes 2000 years to this day. We have an incredible blessing. I think often our Catholic listeners, especially cradle Catholics, but all of us can take for granted this incredible gift.

CK:
Right.

TS:
It’s something that is unique.

CK:
It’s still visible in the world, still visible everywhere.

TS:
And it’s miraculous.

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
There’s no human explanation. There’s nothing in the world that even comes close, 2000 years of succession and one Lord, one faith, one baptism. It’s impossible to exist apart from the divine origin of this great gift of apostolic succession.

CK:
Is there a Protestant scholar you might like to share a quote with on this in this regard? Any Protestant scholars that you want to-

TS:
I sure do.

CK:
I know.

TS:
How did you know that?

CK:
I see it next to you.

TS:
Yeah. This too I have to say was significant for me and that is when we talk about apostolic succession, of course my Evangelical friends will be saying, “Well it’s just Catholic stuff.” Well it’s not. It’s biblical. it’s historical. But actually, you have one of the great church historians of the 20th century acknowledged by Protestants and Catholics alike, JND Kelly who was an Anglican. I call him Protestant.

CK:
Oh.

TS:
I know Anglicans don’t like being called-

CK:
Oh, yeah. Okay. Right.

TS:
They are. Anyway, I mean once … By the way, Henry VIII would agree with me that the hijacking of the Anglican Church made it Protestant. Henry VIII would not be happy that they’ve rejected his work that actually wasn’t written by him on the seven sacraments and such.

CK:
A defender of the faith, Henry VIII.

TS:
Yes, that’s right. He would not be happy with the Anglican Church today at any rate. Kelly makes this point in his great, and it is a great work, Early Christian Doctrines. On page 37, he says, “Where in practice was the apostolic testimony or tradition to be found? The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the church where it had been handed down from generation to generation unlike the alleged secret tradition of the gnostics and this is crucial. It was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors and by these, in turn, to those who followed them and was visibile in the church for all who cared to look for it.” That line, by the way, would be in Tertullian and Irenaeus. Anyone who wants to look for it, we have the succession.

CK:
Right.

TS:
You can check it out. It’s all verified. Let me skip down a little bit here and read this as well. “For the early fathers, the identity of the oral tradition with the original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back lineally to the apostles. An additional safeguard is supplied by the Holy Spirit for the message committed was to the church and the church is the home of the spirit. Indeed, the church’s bishops are spirit-endowed men who have been vouchsafed an infallible [inaudible 00:28:09] of truth.” I got to say this as well. Those are great lines from the Protestant JND Kelly because he acknowledges apostolic succession is so core to what you see in the early centuries and indeed for 2000 years, but St. Irenaeus, in talking about this very topic of apostolic succession, he just happens to throw out a particular argument that our Protestant friends might be interested in. Remember, St. Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp who was taught by John-

CK:
John the apostle.

TS:
… the apostle. I mean it’s phenomenal. Irenaeus writes about how he remembers Polycarp talking and that the words of the apostle John himself still ringing in his ears.

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
Right? It’s phenomenal, but Irenaeus tosses out this idea. He says, “Now, let’s just imagine that there were no sacred scriptures at all. Imagine if you didn’t have …” Now, why would he do this? Because some of the early heretics of course were quoting John or quoting Mark and misusing it, right? So Irenaeus tosses this out as a hypothetical. What if there were no scriptures and we didn’t have … Where would you go for the truth? Obviously, to the succession of the bishops from the apostles-

CK:
Right.

TS:
… in all the apostolic churches. So I mean this is St. Irenaeus, probably the greatest defender of the faith of the entire 2nd century, making the argument that if you didn’t have scripture at all, where would you go, pal? There’s only one place to go and that’s to the churches that have apostolic succession. Why is that? Because as JND Kelly mentioned, Irenaeus knew that that succession of bishops was guarded by the power of the Holy Spirit. You have direct line to the apostles and to Jesus Christ. So it’s impossible that it can be broken. So even if you didn’t have the scriptures, that’s where you would go. Folks, for those listening, maybe you’re not Catholic or maybe you’re Protestant and this is all new to you. I would lay out to everyone listening exactly what JND Kelly said and what you find in Tertullian and Irenaeus and all the fathers. This isn’t a secret.

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
We have-

CK:
It’s public.

TS:
It’s public. We have our succession list. In fact, every priest in the Catholic world can trace his ordination-

CK:
They even have a website-

TS:
… back from the apostles.

CK:
… where you can look it up.

TS:
That’s right.

CK:
As long as you know the bishop that ordained them, you can look. Any priest, you can find his-

TS:
That’s right.

CK:
… succession. Tim Staples, thank you very much.

TS:
Awesome, brother.

CK:
Thank you for joining us here on Catholic Answers Focus. If you enjoy what you hear, would you please give us your five-star rating wherever you get your podcast and let your friends know they can find us at catholicanswersfocus.com. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and we’ll see you right here next time, God willing, on Catholic Answers Focus.

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