One of the most common procedural grounds on which Protestant churches can be critiqued is their lack of Apostolic Succession. It is very common for anti-Protestant apologists to argue that Protestants lack authentic ministerial orders because they cannot lay claim to this succession, and hence their churches can be dismissed without needing to engage with what they teach. Anxiety about whether Protestant churches are “real” churches for this and related reasons motivates many to explore Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, or even to convert to one of those churches who allegedly enjoy a stronger claim to Apostolic Succession. Even some Anglicans, who are Protestants for all intents and purposes, look down on other Protestants or regard them with suspicion on grounds of their supposedly superior orders.
This essay intends to critique one form of the doctrine of Apostolic Succession often used against Protestants. The surprising truth is that the way this doctrine is commonly formulated has very little support in the historical record of how the early church was founded and continued. This critique is by no means a reflexive biblicism, finding no proof text for the doctrine, declaring victory, and going home. Rather, by engaging with the church fathers on this question we do not merely find an unexpected silence in terms of the fathers’ support for the doctrine of Apostolic Succession — we actually find evidence that undermines the claim.
This essay is not a comprehensive treatment of the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. It is concerned only with the formulation most commonly turned against Protestants. It leaves out an account of how and when the doctrine finally did develop and became the official teaching of many churches. It is merely content to give an overview of evidence from the early church fathers that demonstrate that the usual account of how Apostolic Succession occurred is historically untenable. To support this claim, we will consider in some detail St. Jerome’s arguments about the shape of early church polity, and then review a few other sources from the 1st-4th century that support Jerome’s account and give a few more important pieces of evidence.
Of course, the concept of Apostolic Succession has been defined in various ways, but the formulation of Apostolic Succession critiqued in this essay was well stated by John Henry Cardinal Newman in Tracts for the Times:
I know the grace of ordination is contained in the laying on of hands, not in any form of words;—yet in our own case, (as has ever been usual in the Church,) words of blessing have accompanied the act. Thus we have confessed before GOD our belief, that through the Bishop who ordained us, we received the HOLY GHOST, the power to bind and to loose, to administer the Sacraments, and to preach. Now how is he able to give these great gifts? Whence is his right? Are these words idle, (which would be taking GOD’S name in vain,) or do they express merely a wish, (which surely is very far below their meaning,) or do they not rather indicate that the Speaker is conveying a gift? Surely they can mean nothing short of this. But whence, I ask, his right to do so? Has he any right, except as having received the power from those who consecrated him to be a Bishop? He could not give what he had never received. It is plain then that he but transmits; and that the Christian Ministry is a succession. And if we trace back the power of ordination from hand to hand, of course we shall come to the Apostles at last. We know we do, as a plain historical fact: and therefore all we, who have been ordained Clergy, in the very form of our ordination acknowledged the doctrine of the APOSTOLICAL SUCCESSION. 1
Such a formulation is often used to discount the legitimacy of Protestant churches, among whom virtually only Anglicans (such as Newman was when he wrote those words) have attempted to lay claim to possessing religious orders in the Apostolic Succession, a claim that was decisively rejected by the Roman Catholic Church in the bull Apostolicae Curae issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1896. The concept of Apostolic Succession is key for the claims of the papacy, since each pope claims to be a successor to St. Peter as Bishop of Rome, and thus enjoys the unique prerogatives said to have belonged to that Apostle. It is also often argued that the Eastern Orthodox possess a valid ministry because they are in the Apostolic Succession, and are thus legitimate in a way that Protestant churches are not. Despite Apostolicae Curae and an equally lukewarm response from the Orthodox, many Anglicans still cherish the idea that their orders are somehow more valid than other Protestants, and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, (1886) often regarded as a fundamental statement of the nature of modern Anglican identity, refers to the “historic episcopate,” a somewhat diluted form of the claim to Apostolic Succession.
Luckily for Protestants, not only does the doctrine of Apostolic Succession have precious little scriptural support, it is also, pace Newman, entirely without historical foundation. As so often for Newman, despite his immense erudition, the word “history” is a word to conjure with but devoid of any serious inquiry or argument. Not only is there no evidence that the ministry of the episcopate was transmitted in the way the theory of Apostolic Succession would necessitate, but there is considerable evidence that it was not transmitted that way at all.
For one thing, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession rests on a jure divino distinction between the offices of presbyter and bishop, or presbyteros and episkopos in the Greek. The usual theory holds that bishop must transmit the succession to bishop, and that only these bishops legitimately ordained may create presbyters. Protestant churches without a bishop in apostolic succession thus have no presbyters either, lacking the means to create them. But if there is no jure divino distinction in office between bishops and presbyters, then no major Protestant church can be excluded from the Apostolic Succession, because they all practiced ordination through men who had been ordained at least as presbyters. But there is good evidence that the terms “presbyter” and “bishop” were synonymous in the early church. This is no novel argument: St. Jerome is absolutely insistent on this point. In his Letter to Evangelus, Jerome was apparently addressing a situation where some were saying the diaconate was of greater importance than the presbyterate. Jerome refutes this by pointing out that the episcopate (whose preeminence was apparently not in question) was in its apostolic origins identical to the presbyterate:
For when the apostle clearly teaches that presbyters are the same as bishops, must not a mere server of tables and of widows be insane to set himself up arrogantly over men through whose prayers the body and blood of Christ are produced? Do you ask for proof of what I say? Listen to this passage: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi with the bishops and deacons.” (Philippians 1:1) Do you wish for another instance? In the Acts of the Apostles Paul thus speaks to the priests of a single church: “Take heed unto yourselves and to all the flock, in the which the Holy Ghost has made you bishops, to feed the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:28)
Jerome’s approach here is exegetical: let’s see how Paul uses the terms presbyter and bishop, and see whether he makes any distinction between them. He notes that in the Philippians passage Paul addresses the clergy, but only mentions bishops and deacons, not presbyters. Why would he omit one order of the clergy? Because, St. Jerome argues, he wouldn’t have made any distinction between bishops and presbyters. In the second passage, Paul is explicitly addressing the presbyters of the church (Acts 20:17) but refers to the assembly as being bishops. Again, Paul makes no distinction between the terms. But Jerome is not done yet:
And lest any should in a spirit of contention argue that there must then have been more bishops than one in a single church, there is the following passage which clearly proves a bishop and a presbyter to be the same. Writing to Titus the apostle says: “For this cause left I you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain presbyters in every city, as I had appointed you: if any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless as the steward of God.” (Titus 1:5-7)
Jerome points us to this passage to show that Paul will begin a thought referring to presbyters and finish it referring to bishops. We cannot discount this as some wandering in the Apostle’s mind, because he links the two sentences with a logical conjunction: the qualifications for the “presbyter” exist since a “bishop” must be blameless. We cannot really make sense of this idea unless the terms are synonymous. But Jerome has yet more to add:
And to Timothy he says: “Neglect not the gift that is in you, which was given you by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.” (1 Timothy 4:14) Peter also says in his first epistle: “The presbyters which are among you I exhort, who am your fellow presbyter and a witness of the sufferings of Christ and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: feed the flock of Christ. …taking the oversight thereof not by constraint but willingly, according unto God.” (1 Peter 5:1-2) In the Greek the meaning is still plainer, for the word used is episkopountes, that is to say, overseeing, and this is the origin of the name overseer or bishop. But perhaps the testimony of these great men seems to you insufficient. If so, then listen to the blast of the gospel trumpet, that son of thunder, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and who reclining on the Saviour’s breast drank in the waters of sound doctrine. One of his letters begins thus: “The presbyter unto the elect lady and her children whom I love in the truth;” (2 John 1:1) and another thus: “The presbyter unto the well-beloved Gaius whom I love in the truth.” (3 John 1:1)
Some of Jerome’s examples here are concerned with people who, if there were any firm distinction between a presbyter and bishop, we should expect should be called “bishops,” but who refer to themselves as mere presbyters. Thus Timothy, who was thought to have been the first bishop of Ephesus, and even more convincingly (perhaps the epistle was written prior to some promotion?), we have even apostles such as Peter and John referring to themselves as presbyters, not bishops. Hence, Jerome reasons, there must not have been any real distinction between the two offices at that time. The passage from Peter’s epistle also closely associates the term “presbyter” with a verb that has strong etymological associations with the word for bishop. How then did this distinction between presbyter and bishop arise? Jerome emphasizes the distinction was made for purely practical reasons and not jure divino:
When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself. For even at Alexandria from the time of Mark the Evangelist until the episcopates of Heraclas and Dionysius the presbyters always named as bishop one of their own number chosen by themselves and set in a more exalted position, just as an army elects a general, or as deacons appoint one of themselves whom they know to be diligent and call him archdeacon. For what function, excepting ordination, belongs to a bishop that does not also belong to a presbyter? It is not the case that there is one church at Rome and another in all the world beside. Gaul and Britain, Africa and Persia, India and the East worship one Christ and observe one rule of truth. If you ask for authority, the world outweighs its capital. Wherever there is a bishop, whether it be at Rome or at Engubium, whether it be at Constantinople or at Rhegium, whether it be at Alexandria or at Zoan, his dignity is one and his priesthood is one. Neither the command of wealth nor the lowliness of poverty makes him more a bishop or less a bishop. All alike are successors of the apostles.
I have quoted this letter so extensively both because it contains much helpful argument and exegesis, and also to preempt claims that I have quoted selectively or out of context. It could not be clearer that no notion of Apostolic Succession as it is generally formulated would have been intelligible for Jerome, since for him the distinction of ministry was purely a pragmatic matter, an efficient arrangement for preventing heresy and schism, not a jure divino arrangement handed down by apostolic ordination. Jerome is perfectly clear on the fact that there is no essential difference between the two forms of ministry, and that all ministers are equally to be regarded as successors of the apostles.
Jerome argues in a similar fashion in his commentary on the Epistle to Titus:
Let us pay close attention to the words of the Apostle as he says: “Ordain elders throughout the towns, as I have entrusted to you.” Concerning what sort of person ought to be ordained as an elder, which he discourses on afterwards, he affirms this: “If anyone is without reproach, the husband of one wife,” etc., adding afterwards: “For a bishop must be without reproach, as God’s steward.” Therefore a presbyter is the same thing as a bishop, and before the inspiration of the devil, by which religious contentions became aggravated, and it was said among the people: ‘I am of Paul, I of Apollo, I of Peter” (1. Cor 1:12), the churches were governed by the common guidance of the elders. 2
Here, contrary to Newman’s confidence that it is a matter of plain historic fact that the episcopate ordained in succession to the Apostles has always been a feature of the church, we find an eminent doctor affirming primitive presbyterianism! But St. Jerome is not the only source who seriously calls into question this doctrine of Apostolic Succession. There is evidence that the terms “presbyter” and “bishop” were used interchangeably in the Didache: “Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers.” (15.1) Notice that there is no mention of appointing presbyters, which indicates that the terms bishop and presbyter were still synonymous at this time. Notice also that the congregations are exhorted to “appoint for themselves,” suggesting that the ordination was congregational, not received from a bishop in the Apostolic Succession. Parallel is 1 Clement, thought to have been composed at the very end of the 1st century: “So, preaching both in the country and in the towns, [the apostles] appointed their first fruits, when they had tested them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons for the future believers.” (42.4) This certainly acknowledges apostolic origins to the ministry (which nobody disputes!), but again only two forms of ordained ministry are mentioned, strongly suggesting that the omitted order of presbyter was synonymous with bishop. There is here no mention of ministers ordaining other ministers in a succession, either.
Ironically, Clement is often invoked as a witness to apostolic succession, but in the same letter he switches between the term bishop and presbyter in a way that is very similar to Paul:
Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those presbyters already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters… (1 Clement 44)
Clement begins by referring to the episcopate, but then seems to refer to the same ministers as “presbyters.” He alternates between the terms throughout, never clearly intending any kind of transition to discussing a separate ministry. And though Clement clearly envisions a kind of succession here, it is certainly not Apostolic Succession as ordinarily conceived; for one thing, it appears to happen only after the death of the incumbent, whereas as defined by Newman the appointment has to be made during the life of the incumbent, because only he is licensed to transmit it! Notice also how Clement emphasizes the consent of the church, and not some valid line of succession.
The earliest document that seems to envision the episcopate as a distinct role are the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, who was born around 35 AD. He frequently mentions the episcopate and the presbyterate in contrast to one another. Interestingly, though, it is the presbyterate which he describes as functioning like the Apostles — the authority of the bishop he compares to God himself: “I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles.” (Epistle to the Magnesians, 6) Clearly Ignatius had a very high view of the authority of the bishop, but it is worth pointing out that the form of the episcopate here is clearly congregational: 3 Ignatius is constantly invoking the authority of the bishop in conjunction with his elders, so that what is envisioned is a local congregation with a bishop in a pastoral role along with his presbyterate, essentially a board of elders. This is probably the early form of the episcopate described by Jerome, where the elders elected one of their own number to preside. In any case, Apostolic Succession is not in view here: the only allusion to it is in reference to the presbyterate, not the episcopate. Possibly the ordination of the bishop would have been the act of the entire congregation, not primarily of another bishop in the Apostolic Succession.
This practice is well attested in the Canons of Hippolytus and the Apostolic Constitutions (both 4th century documents). The second canon of Hippolytus: “A bishop should be elected by all the people.” The rite for the consecration of a bishop in the Apostolic Constitutions mentions the presence of other presbyters and bishops only incidentally, but says the consent of the congregation is essential. (8.2.4) There is no mention here of the notion of the Apostolic Succession, and the will of the congregation is regarded as paramount — which, incidentally, also attests to the congregational nature of the episcopate at this point in time.
Incidentally, none of this evidence is an argument against having an episcopate in its present historical form, whether as it exists in Anglican churches or among the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. It is only to point out that the present ordering of ministry is not jure divino, but a prudential decision on the basis of the configuration most likely to preserve orthodox teaching and promote the health of the church. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox may certainly argue that their church polities are superior on these prudential grounds. But that is how they must make their case: not invoking a fictitious jure divino theory of succession that rules the Protestant churches out of bounds, but trying to point to some practical way in which their church hierarchies have preserved something Protestants have lost. Of course we Protestants, who cherish our doctrines of grace, will no doubt reply that to that extent our orders have preserved something uniquely apostolic — and to that extent we may indeed lay claim to be the apostles’ successors.