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Apostolic Succession in the Bible

All over the world, all Catholic bishops are part of a lineage that goes back to the time of the apostles. So where does the Bible talk about the beginning of this apostolic succession? Tim Staples gives the answer on Catholic Answers Live.


Caller: So I already know some ways to defend the primacy of Peter, but what are some ways in which I can defend apostolic succession, and especially through the use of typology in the Bible?

Tim Staples: Yes. Oh boy, there’s so much my friend, but I tell you where I focus: I focus on what is revealed about the Church in the New Testament. Now what do I mean by that? Well, Jesus reveals to us, for example in Matthew 18:15-18, right, he says: “If your brother offends against you, go tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you’ve gained your brother. If he doesn’t hear you, take one or two with you, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. If he will not even hear them, tell it to the—” What? “The church, and the one who fails to hear the church is to be as a heathen and a publican. For whatever you—” and by the way, my brother, that, in Greek, is plural; “whatever you,” plural, that is, the church—”whatever [the church] binds on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever [the church] looses on earth is loosed in heaven.” There we have Jesus giving us—and I would argue—perennial instructions. In other words, Jesus doesn’t say here: “Now you can only do this until the death of the last apostle. After that, nope, it’s going to be Bible alone. You have to go to the New Testament and argue about it, and if you can’t agree, start your own church!” Right? No, Jesus gives us perennial instructions here.

Now, once you get there, my brother, what do we know about the Church? Well, the Church is described for us as hierarchical, right? In Ephesians 4:11, the scripture says “The Holy Spirit has placed in the Church apostles, prophets, pastors, evangelists, and teachers.” So look, that church that Jesus says you’re supposed to go to—and that church will give you the definitive word, whether we’re talking about faith, morals, discipline, Jesus gives carte blanche authority here—he describes that church for us, does Saint Paul, as hierarchical with particular gifts, and one of them being the apostle.

And by the way, you point this out for your Mormon friends: the apostle is above the prophet. Sorry! Prophet is not the highest authority, the apostle is. 1 Corinthians 14:37-38, remember, Saint Paul says “If anyone thinks himself spiritual or a prophet, let him know that the things that I write—” or he says “we write”— “are of the Lord. And if anyone does not recognize this he is not recognized.” Right? So the apostle even has authority over the prophet.

Well, in Acts 1:20, we find an interesting text. Remember, Judas died. He committed suicide. And so when Peter is exercising the keys of the kingdom to establish the Church—of course the Holy Spirit working through him—it’s interesting that he quotes a couple of Bible verses here: from Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 here in Acts 1:18-20, but especially verse 20, he says concerning Judas that his seat—remember, he was numbered with the apostles, the scripture says, so yes, he was an apostle, folks, he was fully an apostle—but he says in verse 20 “Let another man take his office.”

Now this becomes really important, because the Greek word there for “office” is episkope. Episkope means bishopric. So now, when we’re specifically talking about the apostle in succession, you’ve got a replacement here for Judas that office, in succession, is called a bishopric. Well guess what? We have bishops in the Church, because 20, 25 years later, Paul writes about the office of bishop in 1 Timothy 3:1. And interestingly, in Ephesians 4:11, he doesn’t mention bishop, he only mentions apostle, prophet, pastor, evangelist, and teacher. Why didn’t he mention bishop? When he talks about bishop in 1 Timothy 3:1, why wouldn’t he say bishop here? Well, because the bishop takes the place of the apostle, or succeeds the apostle.

So the apostle has a unique role inasmuch as the apostle in the first century had to be an eyewitness of Jesus. That’s something that the apostle cannot communicate down through the centuries. So there’s a unique role and dignity given to the apostles. But the successors of the apostles—that’s the key—are called bishops. And this is why, down through the centuries, the Catholic Church has had bishops who are in fact successors of the apostles. And a little tidbit you can tell your friend is: every priest who is ordained a priest in the Catholic Church is ordained by a bishop, and that bishop can trace his apostolic succession all the way back to one of the apostles. The Church has kept meticulous records for two thousand years. Is that awesome or what? That is awesome. But my friend, this is all rooted in Sacred Scripture.

In fact, when you look—I’ll just leave you with this, my friend—when you read the early Church Fathers, you know, I’m thinking of Tertullian, for example, writing in about 190-200, he has a work called The Prescription against the Heretics. And in that work, he talks about how if you want to get a hearing as a Christian, you better unveil your roll, your list of succession for your bishops that go all the way back to an apostle, or else you’re not even worth giving a hearing to. And then he says even if you do have apostolic succession, then we also have to look at your doctrine to make sure you’re keeping with the teachings that go back to the apostles as well.

And so that’s what you see: you see Saint Irenaeus doing that even before Tertullian in about 177 A.D. in his great work Against Heresies, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, evangelists of the second century—certainly apologists. Saint Irenaeus, in book three, chapter three, paragraphs one through three of his great work called Against Heresies, he lists all the bishops of Rome all the way back to Peter, and he says: “This is the standard whereby the apostolic tradition and the teaching of the truth have come down unto us.” So apostolic succession, my friend, is airtight not only in scripture but in history as well.


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