Is there such a thing as Apostolic Succession? Did the apostles intend to hand on their Christ-given authority to the next generation? Does it matter?
The first indication that the apostles intended to hand on their authority occurs within a few days of the resurrection. In Acts 1.20-26 Peter leads the eleven apostles who are left to elect a replacement for Judas. Notice that the decision was made by Peter and that he leads the decision making process.
Eventually Paul is also recognized as an apostle, showing that not only should the twelve be replaced, but their number can also be added to. Today’s feast of Timothy and Titus shows us the natural next step for apostolic succession. In 2 Timothy 1.1-6 Paul declares himself an apostle and advises Timothy not to neglect the gift he has received from Paul through the laying on of hands. This might refer to confirmation, but it is more likely to refer to ordination because Paul goes on to give Timothy many instructions on Christian leadership.
In Titus 1.1-5, in majestic and almost liturgical language, Paul declares his apostolic calling and gives power to Titus to function as Bishop and appoint a new generation of priests for the people of Crete.
That the apostolic authority was intended to be successive is finally confirmed by the particular gift to Peter. In the famous passage in Matthew 16.16-20 Jesus gives authority to Peter as the Prime Minister of his kingdom. This is what ‘the keys’ symbolize. The majority of Biblical scholars–including Protestants–all agree that Jesus’ words are a direct reference back to Isaiah 22.22 where the king’s steward is granted the keys of authority in the kingdom. The very fact that the steward was given keys is an indication that the role was a successive one. When one steward came to the end of his life or the end of his office the keys were handed on to the next steward.
Where does the Apostolic Authority reside in the Church? Some Christians wish to claim that they follow ‘the Apostolic faith’ because they follow the primitive teachings of the apostles. In other words, they follow the ‘old time religion’ or the simple Christian faith first taught by the apostles unadorned with centuries of Catholic clutter. The simple Bible religion is the simple faith of the apostles, and if we follow that simple faith we are holding to the apostolic religion.
This is admirable, and in many ways it is possible to follow the teaching of the apostles by reading just the Bible. The only problem of course is that part of the ‘simple apostolic faith’ (as I have just shown) is apostolic succession. Jesus had all authority on heaven and earth given to him. He delegated that authority to his apostles, and they perceived it as a successive gift, and are seen to pass the authority on to the next generation.
Then, when you check the writings of that next generation, they claimed exactly this authority. Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Ignatius and the rest of the apostolic fathers claim that historic succession from the apostles is the sign of the true church. Just over 100 years after the resurrection, in his famous passage against the heretics, Irenaeus writes, “Therefore we will refute those who hold unauthorized assemblies–by pointing to the traditions of the greatest and oldest church, a church known to all men, (cf. Romans 1.8 where Paul also says the faith of the Romans is ‘known throughout the world’) which was founded and established at Rome by the most renowned apostles, Peter and Paul. This tradition the church has from the Apostles, and this faith has been proclaimed to all men, and has come down to our own day through the succession of bishops. For this church has a position of leadership and authority; and therefore very church, that is, the faithful everywhere, must needs agree with the church at Rome, for in her the apostolic tradition has ever been preserved by the faithful from all parts of the world.”