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Apostolic Succession. A theory of ministry in the church that arose after A.D. 170–200. The Gnostics claimed to possess a secret tradition handed down to them from the apostles. As a counterclaim the Catholic church pointed to each bishop as a true successor to the apostle who had founded the see and therefore to the truth the apostles taught. The bishop, as an authoritative teacher, preserved the apostolic tradition. He was also a guardian of the apostolic Scriptures and the creed. In a generation when the last links with the apostles were fast dying out, this emphasis on apostolic teaching and practice was natural. In the third century the emphasis changed from the open succession of teachers to the bishops as the personal successors of the apostles. This development owed much to the advocacy of Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (248–58). Harnack regards this as a perversion rather than a development.
The terminology is not found in the NT, diadochē (succession) being absent from both the NT and the LXX. There is little evidence for the idea in the NT (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). All early succession lists were compiled late in the second century.
There is also a difference between the Roman and Anglo-Catholic viewpoints. The former is a centralized autocracy with a papal succession traced back to Peter. The Tractarian teaches that all bishops alike, however insignificant the see, have equal power in a corporation. Thus an apostle transmitted to a bishop, through “the laying on of hands” and prayer, the authority that Christ had conferred on him. This theory of sacramental grace is a barrier to reunion in the Reformed churches, since nonepiscopal bodies are regarded as defective in their ministry.
The weakness of the argument of K. E. Kirk’s Apostolic Ministry is its failure to explain the absence of the idea in the first two centuries of the Christian era. Ehrhardt does not supply the defect by postulating a priestly succession derived from the Judaizing church of Jerusalem as it laid stress on the new Israel and the continuity of its priesthood. The idea was in the air in the second century.
Bishop Drury affirms that the apostles left behind three things: their writings; the churches that they founded, instructed, and regulated; and the various orders of ministers for the ordering of these churches. There could be no more apostles in the original sense of that word. The real successor to the apostolate is the NT itself, since it continues their ministry within the church of God. Their office was incommunicable. Three kinds of succession are possible: ecclesiastical (a church that has continued from the beginning), doctrinal (the same teaching that has continued throughout), and episcopal (a line of bishops traced unbroken from early times). This does not necessarily mean that the episcopal office is the same as the apostolic.
JB – (Catholic Bible) The Jerusalem Bible (1966), Alexander Jones, general editor.
Was Peter the “rock” on which the church was built?
Matt. 16:18, JB: “I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.”
If we look at the context of verses 13 and 20, we will see that the focus is concerned with who Jesus was.
Whom did the apostle Peter himself and the apostle Paul recognize as the “rock”?
Acts 4:8-11, JB: “Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, addressed them, ‘Rulers of the people, and elders! . . . it was by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the one you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by this name and by no other that this man is able to stand up perfectly healthy, here in your presence, today. This is the stone rejected by you the builders, but which has proved to be the keystone [“cornerstone,” NAB].’”
1 Pet. 2:4-8, JB: “Set yourselves close to him [Jesus Christ] so that you too . . . may be living stones making a spiritual house. As scripture says: See how I lay in Zion a precious cornerstone that I have chosen and the man who rests his trust on it will not be disappointed. That means that for you who are believers, it is precious; but for unbelievers, the stone rejected by the builders has proved to be the keystone, a stone to stumble over, a rock to bring men down.”
Eph. 2:20, JB: “You are part of a building that has the apostles and prophets for its foundations, and Christ Jesus himself for its main cornerstone.”
Augustine of Hippo said?
“In this same period of my priesthood, I also wrote a book against a letter of Donatus . . . In a passage in this book, I said about the Apostle Peter: ‘On him as on a rock the Church was built.’ . . . But I know that very frequently at a later time, I so explained what the Lord said: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,’ that it be understood as built upon Him whom Peter confessed saying: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ and so Peter, called after this rock, represented the person of the Church which is built upon this rock, and has received ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’ For, ‘Thou art Peter’ and not ‘Thou art the rock’ was said to him. But ‘the rock was Christ,’ in confessing whom as also the whole Church confesses, Simon was called Peter.”—The Fathers of the Church—Saint Augustine, the Retractations (Washington, D.C.; 1968), translated by Mary I. Bogan, Book I, p. 90.
Did the Apostles see Peter as greater than they?
Luke 22:24-26, JB: “A dispute arose also between them about which should be reckoned the greatest, but he said to them, ‘Among pagans it is the kings who lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are given the title Benefactor. This must not happen with you.’”
Clearly, the other apostles did not view Peter as being greater than they were.
Jesus Christ was resurrected and ascended to heaven as head of the church, why would he need successors?
Heb. 7:23-25, JB: “Then there used to be a great number of those other priests [in Israel], because death put an end to each one of them; but this one [Jesus Christ], because he remains for ever, can never lose his priesthood. It follows, then, that his power to save is utterly certain, since he is living for ever to intercede for all who come to God through him.”
Rom. 6:9, JB: “Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again.”
Eph. 5:23, JB: “Christ is head of the Church.”
What were “the keys” given to Peter?
Matt. 16:19, JB: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.”
Rev. 3:7-8, JB: “Here is the message of the holy and faithful one who has the key of David, so that when he opens, nobody can close, and when he closes, nobody can open: . . . I have opened in front of you a door that nobody will be able to close.”
3:7 (characteristic). For the first time in these letters Christ identifies himself by using a symbol not found in the opening vision of chapter 1: who holds the key of David. This is similar to Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Eliakim, who became the royal guardian of ancient Jerusalem: I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open (Isa. 22:22). Christ alone has the authority to admit persons to his heavenly city. Because he is holy and true, no one can ever argue that his admission of some and refusal of others is unrighteous.
Acts 2:14-39, JB: “Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed them in a loud voice: ‘Men of Judaea, and all you who live in Jerusalem [keys opened the opportunity to the Jews if they accepted Christ] . . . God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.’ Hearing this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the apostles, ‘What must we do, brothers?’ ‘You must repent,’ Peter answered ‘and every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise that was made is for you and your children, and for all those who are far away, for all those whom the Lord our God will call to himself.’”
Acts 8:14-17, JB: “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, and they went down there, and prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit, for as yet he had not come down on any of them: they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” [keys opened the opportunity to the Samaritans if they accepted Christ]
Acts 10:24-48, JB: “They reached Caesarea the following day, and Cornelius [Gentile] was waiting for them. . . . Peter addressed them . . . While Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit came down on all the listeners.” [keys opened the opportunity to the Gentiles if they accepted Christ]
Was Jesus in heaven waiting on Peter to make decisions?
Acts 2:4, 14, JB: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech. . . . Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed them.”
Acts 10:19-20, JB: “The Spirit had to tell him [Peter], ‘Some men have come to see you. Hurry down, and do not hesitate about going back with them [the Gentile Cornelius]; it was I who told them to come.’”
Does Peter determine who receives eternal life?
2 Tim. 4:1, JB: “Christ Jesus . . . is to be judge of the living and the dead.”
2 Tim. 4:8, JB: “All there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord [Jesus Christ], the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but to all those who have longed for his Appearing.”
Was Peter in Rome?
The Catholic Encyclopedia maintains that Peter was in Rome, saying, “St. Peter’s residence and death in Rome are established beyond contention as historical facts by a series of distinct testimonies extending from the end of the first to the end of the second centuries.”
Popes, cardinals, and bishops were guilty of what?
Matt. 7:21-23, JB: “It is not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven. When the day comes many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast out demons in your name, work many miracles in your name?’ Then I shall tell them to their faces: I have never known you; away from me, you evil men!”
Many popes, cardinals, and bishops have been guilty of murder, child molestation, having illegitimate children with prostitutes, multiple wives, and man other horrific immoral actions.
By R. E. Higginson and Edward D. Andrews
Bibliography. H. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church; A. Erhardt, Apostolic Succession in the First Two Centuries of the Church; C. Gore, Ministry of the Christian Church; H. Küng, Church; R. Rahner and J. Ratzinger, Episcopate and the Primacy Revelation and Tradition; C. H. Turner, “Apostolic Succession,” in Essays on the Early History of the Church, H. B. Swete, ed. Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001)
 Kendell H. Easley, Revelation, vol. 12, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 56.