When news of the abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church was popular news I became really interested in how the laity responded to what was unfolding. A reoccurring theme was that many laity were sick of the practices of many of the clergy but had nowhere to go because of their beliefs around apostolic succession being a prerequisite to proper reception of the eucharist. This was best typified in the responses of one, now former, Catholic’s public statement that he was leaving the church over the scandal.

A lot of the responses were a mixture of anger at people speaking like this but also questions asking “Quo Vadis?” where will you go? This is especially true given the beliefs regarding apostolic succession.

The other church believed to have valid apostolic succession, or at least claims to, is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church which has become a home to some former Roman Catholics, notably the journalist Rod Dreher. Yet as someone who came to faith with no conception of the Church as understood by these institutions this wrestling fascinated me. I admired the calls of the laity it compelled to fight for their Church but I couldn’t help but feel that the claims to authority seemed hollowed out in this light. It was a cold, judicial and legal form of authority that I came to question the virtue of when I saw how quickly adherents turned on those that left the church over the scandal. It came across that those who left were as much at fault for the present situation, the attack on the Church, as the abusers themselves in the minds of the faithful.

Yet it is this authority that legitimates their church to many, no matter how bad it gets can one get the Eucharist anywhere else? Where is grace to be found? One convert to Roman Catholicism writes…

As a Baptist, I knew the center couldn’t hold. Either Catholicism/Orthodoxy was true or the Church went into heresy right from the beginning. No way around it, much to my dismay (at the time). I would have liked nothing better than to remain a Baptist with strong Christian friends, vibrant churches, great music, strong preaching of [their understanding of] the Bible, and so on. Instead, I became Catholic and endured tepid preaching, lukewarm Christians, banal music, lackluster liturgy, widespread ignorance of the Faith, and horrendous architecture. “Welcome home!” I might have thought, but truly it was home, for Christ was there in the fullness of the truth and with the fullness of the means of salvation. The Eucharist alone is enough to become Catholic, even if everything else is in shambles.

Devin Rose, St. Joseph’s Vanguard, The Church Fathers Were All Protestants!

Months after Damon Linker’s original piece he subsequently published a follow up in which he processed some of the response to his announcement. In response to such claims he wrote…

The Catholic Church does make extraordinarily high claims for itself — not that its priests and bishops and cardinals and popes are angels but that the church as an institution is, of all the churches that follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, the one most fully and rightly ordered through time.

Readers conversant with the Christian intellectual tradition will recognize that I’m talking about ecclesiology — the branch of theological speculation devoted to reflecting on the workings of divine revelation in and through the church (ecclesia). In the broadest sense, ecclesiology concerns the invisible church of all those who have followed Christ from the time of his ministry on down to the present. But it can also focus on a particular visible church within that wider communion of Christians. For Catholics, ecclesiology is often invoked in this latter sense — as a way of explaining how and why the Catholic Church should be considered the One True Church among the many Christian churches in the world.

If I may be permitted some speculation of my own — this time of a psychological variety — I’d like to suggest that those objecting to the departure of fellow Catholics from the church may be moved to express those objections because they recognize how weak and frankly unpersuasive such ecclesiological claims really are. They are really arguing with themselves, in other words, trying to muster reasons to continue affirming something that, at a certain level, they fully recognize to be just a few millimetres away from outright absurdity.

What’s absurd? The claim that, of all the Christian churches, the Roman church is the very best, the truest of all, the one most fully and rightly ordered through time. 

Damon Linker, Why I left the Catholic Church: The Week

So, is it absurd? Recently, someone I know wrote about the historical question of apostolic succession as doctrine. What follows is not so much my own work but that of a peer examining this question that has massive theological and pastoral implications for our own day.

Apostolic succession in the Early Church

Before I go any further I want to tease out the distinction between episcopacy more generally and claims to apostolic succession and what that entails for ecclesiology. In 1 Clement and the Didache we see descriptions of both Deacons and Bishops as offices in the Church. Jerome, admittedly writing later, said the role of Bishop (or Overseer) and Minister were originally collapsed but teased apart for the sake of efficiency as the Church scaled. He wrote…

The presbyter is the same as the bishop, and before parties had been raised up in religion by the provocations of Satan, the churches were governed by the Senate of the presbyters. But as each one sought to appropriate to himself those whom he had baptized, instead of leading them to Christ, it was appointed that one of the presbyters, elected by his colleagues, should be set over all the others, and have chief supervision over the general well-being of the community. . . Without doubt it is the duty of the presbyters to bear in mind that by the discipline of the Church they are subordinated to him who has been given them as their head, but it is fitting that the bishops, on their side, do not forget that if they are set over the presbyters, it is the result of tradition, and not by the fact of a particular institution by the Lord.

Jerome, Commentary on Titus 1:7

My personal view is that leadership in the Church, initially took on a plurality of forms and over time coalesced into the practice of the monoepiskopate outlined by Jerome here. Ignatius of Antioch, however, is frequently mentioned as an advocate not just for the episcopacy but the decisive role bishops play in the life of the church. We see this when he writes…

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God.

The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 8

Yet Ignatius, in another letter, wrote to the Roman Church…

Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me. Jesus Christ alone will oversee it, and your love [will also regard it].

The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans, Chapter 9

Which was written in the context of him leaving the Church in Syria where he was the Bishop in order to be sent to Rome, the road to which he was to be martyred on. Here he makes clear that he has left the Church in Syria without a bishop, or rather ‘Christ alone’ remains as its overseer. Ignatius could have done manual succession via the laying on of hands or at least recommended a successor here in his letter or another sent, yet none is mentioned indicating that the idea of the bishop was something not universally required, at least temporarily, given he appointed no successor. This would seem to cut against the idea of apostolic succession and its associated charisma being a requisite for a church to be valid.

A further argument for this is found in the tests pertaining to the orthodoxy of a church according to Tertullian. Tertullian provided two means, the first of which was being able to trace a lineage back to the apostles, and the second was a church without apostolicity preaching orthodoxy. He writes in Against Heresies…

If there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs ] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men, — a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. For after their blasphemy, what is there that is unlawful for them (to attempt)? But should they even effect the contrivance, they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner. To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine. Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. But in truth they neither are so, nor are they able to prove themselves to be what they are not. Nor are they admitted to peaceful relations and communion by such churches as are in any way connected with apostles, inasmuch as they are in no sense themselves apostolic because of their diversity as to the mysteries of the faith.

Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics, Chapter 32

Tertullian is arguing that even the heretics of the period could claim something resembling apostolic succession so an addition standard must be applied. That of the rule of faith, not an apostolic chrismation. The rule of faith itself cannot include apostolic succession as a doctrine since this would render the distinction between the two tests pointless, it is circular reasoning. Thankfully, Tertullian in the same document outlines what is known as the rule of faith. He writes…

Now, with regard to this rule of faith— that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend — it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen in diverse manners by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises among ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.

Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics, Chapter 13

This rule can be convincingly argued to constitute an early form of what would be known as the Apostle’s Creed. So whilst succession is a useful guide it cannot stand without fulfilling the rule of faith and the rule of faith itself does not include apostolic succession. Indeed, Tertullian says the adherence to the rule of faith gives churches planted by those other than the apostles a claim to be ‘as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine’. Doctrine outlined by Tertullian earlier in his own letter.

The Priest and the Eucharist in the Early Fathers

A big part of claims surrounding apostolic succession focuses on valid administration of the Eucharist. We saw this in the quote from Devin Rose at the start of this entry (“The Eucharist alone is enough to become Catholic”). The Early Fathers all spoke of participation in communion as the reception of the true body and blood of Christ. Irenaeus stated on this topic…

Our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.”

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4.18.5

This presents communion as a gift from God himself but in the chapter before Irenaeus also states…

From all these it is evident that God did not seek sacrifices and holocausts from them, but faith, and obedience, and righteousness, because of their salvation. 

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4.17.4

Which would seem to speak against the Roman Catholic doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass. Irenaeus links this to Psalm 50 specifically the passage…

If I were hungry, I would not tell you;
For the world is Mine, and all its fullness.
Will I eat the flesh of bulls,
Or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God thanksgiving,
And pay your vows to the Most High.
 Call upon Me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me

Psalm 50, NKJV

Which is echoed in Justin Martyr’s description of communion in his dialogue with Trypho. In Chapter 28 he writes…

The offering of fine flour, sirs, which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 28: True righteousness is obtained by Christ

Which identifies communion not with a sacrifice for sin but with a thanksgiving offering in the levitical codes for those who had been healed, cleansed, and purified. This unpacks the themes we see in the book of Hebrews, Christ himself as Melchizedek has offered the only sacrifice we need and we in turn respond with an offering of thanksgiving. Communion is therefore real food and real drink but it is closer to Manna in the desert from God himself that we receive rather than the Levitical offering atoning for sin. A practice we see abolished in Mark 15 with the tearing of the temple veil. In addition to this we are left with communion as a continuation of the Passover meal the apostles gathered to experience in Luke 22 and explicitly linked to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:17. Justin writes…

The mystery, then, of the lamb which God enjoined to be sacrificed as the passover, was a type of Christ; with whose blood, in proportion to their faith in Him, they anoint their houses, i.e., themselves, who believe in Him.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 40: He returns to the Mosaic laws, and proves that they were figures of the things which pertain to Christ

With Justin in this same chapter affirming the sacrifice was a one-time event that had to occur in Jerusalem. Moreso, the Passover meal was conducted by the patriarch of a household, not a priest, as an act of remembrance (anamnesis), and thanksgiving. As was evidenced in the last supper itself.


As mentioned earlier, the responses I saw from pieces like those written by Damon Linker prompted me to ask this question and it turns out I wasn’t the only one. I haven’t done a more extensive treatment of this like on the previous topics but I think it is enough to put weight behind Linker’s statement that claims to apostolic succession and our need for it are weaker than they at first appear. Instead, we should look to the Rule of Faith as a liberatory measure ensuring that we need not be bound by predatory Bishops when they arise. Cyprian on this topic said…

In the ordinations of priests, we should choose no one but unstained and upright ministers. In that way, the ministers who offer sacrifices to God with holy and worthy hands may be heard in the prayers that they make for the safety of the Lord’s people … On this account, a people obedient to the Lord’s commandments, and fearing God, should separate themselves from a sinful prelate. They should not associate themselves with the sacrifices of a sacrilegious priest. This is especially so since they themselves have the power of either choosing worthy priests or of rejecting unworthy ones.

Cyprian of Carthage, To the Clergy and People Abiding in Spain, Concerning Basilides and Martial. ANF05

Cyprian it can be debated was too extreme here but to say “Quo vadis?” or “Where can I go?” at such times betrays, I think, a definition of the Church that seems hard to reconcile with both Scripture and the witness of the Early Church itself. The authority of the minister is not de jure bestowed by charismata upon a human mediator. The authority of the minister is in their faith and obedience to Our Lord Jesus Christ


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