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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Apostolic Succession

I received the following question a couple of weeks ago:
Your article nicely articulates the importance of Peter and even his primacy. However, it's the successor part that seems largely contrived. there seems to be no Biblical backing for Peter passing on the role he played in the infancy of Christ's Church.

And this seems a rather important aspect.

Before I decide a single man can accurate determine how millions of Christians should believe, I would need a bit more evidence that this is how God intended his Church to operate in the days beyond Peter.
I apologize for taking so long to come up with a response. The last few weeks have been pretty busy. I have attempted to answer this question from a bibical view only. I think it is important to note that the succession of Peter is part of the overall concept of apostolic succession applied to the office of bishop including the office of Bishop of Rome held by Peter's successors.

As always, if anything in this response is incorrect please let me know so that I can correct it. Also, if there is anything that you would like to add, please leave a comment or send me an email.

When considering the question of apostolic succession I think it is important to consider the example set forth in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament we are presented with a series of earthly patriarchs leading God’s people. We begin in Genesis 5, which traces the generations from Adam to Noah. Here we also see that Shem was the first-born son of Noah. Then moving to Genesis 11: 10 – 26 we see the line from Shem to Abram. We are presented with our first example of God changing the name of a patriarch while establishing a new covenant in Genesis 17. God says to Abram, “My covenant with you is this: you are to become the father of a host of nations. No longer shall you be called Abram; you name shall be Abraham, for I am making you the father of a host of nations.”

After Abraham’s death Scripture tells us that, “God blessed his son Isaac” (Gen. 25: 11). From here we move to Genesis 27, which tells us of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac. Jacob obtains his father’s blessing and succeeds him instead of his brother Esau. In Genesis 32: 29 Jacob’s name is changed, “You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob, but as Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed.” After Israel’s arrival in Egypt and as his death nears Scriptures recount for us his last message to his sons. We see that Israel blesses Joseph, calling him, “the prince among his brothers” (Gen. 49: 26).

Looking in Exodus 3 we find God calling Moses to lead his people. Upon Moses’ death, after leading Israel out of Egypt, he is succeeded by Joshua. “Now Joshua, son of Nun, was filled with the spirit of wisdom, since Moses had laid his hands upon him; and so the Israelites gave him their obedience, thus carrying out the Lord’s command to Moses” (Deuteronomy 34: 9). “After the death of Joshua the Israelites consulted the Lord, asking, “Who shall be first among us to attack the Canaanites and to do battle with them?” The Lord answered, “Judah shall attack: I have delivered the land into his power.” (Judges: 1: 1 – 2). Here we see the return of one of the son’s of Israel as patriarch of the Israelites. Looking in Matthew 1: 1 – 17 we see the genealogy of Abraham, through Judah, to Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary.

The Old Testament genealogies are important in that they record the continuity of the bloodline establishing the house of David to which the messiah was promised. They also describe for us the succession of the patriarchs. There are also several other interesting things to be found in this record.

Twice we are presented with examples of a patriarch’s name being changed. We come across this scenario again in Matthew 16: 18 when Christ says to Simon, “and I say to you, you are Peter.” Throughout history there had always been an earthly patriarch in place to lead God’s people and to communicate His Word to them. It was upon these patriarchs that God had built the nation of Israel. Immediately after giving Simon the name of Peter Christ says, “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16: 18 – 19). Here we are presented with the record of Christ establishing the first earthly patriarch of the New Testament Church.

The next interesting thing from the Old Testament is Joshua’s succession of Moses. Scripture says that Joshua was, “filled with the spirit of wisdom, since Moses had laid his hands upon him” (Deuteronomy 34: 9). In Numbers 27: 12 – 23 we read of the moment when God designated Joshua as Moses’ successor. Moses said, “may the Lord, the God of the spirits of all mankind, set over the community a man who shall act as their leader in all things, to guide them in all their actions; that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27: 16 – 17). In the verses that follow God instructs Moses to transmit his authority to Joshua by laying his hands upon him. There are two important connects to New Testament scripture here. First, let’s look at laying on of hands.

In 1 Timothy 4: 14, Paul tells Timothy, “do not neglect the give you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate.” Paul reminds Timothy of this again in 2 Timothy 1: 6 when he says, “I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.” If Christ had not intended for apostolic succession to take place there would be no reason for Paul or anyone else to formally transfer authority to others in this manner.

The second interesting thing is Moses request of the Lord, “to guide them in all their actions; that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep without a shepard” (Numbers 27: 17). Obviously Moses is concerned that after his death the people would go astray without a leader. This offers a striking connection to Jesus’ discourse to Peter shortly before his Ascension. This exchange is recorded in John 21: 15 – 19. In verses 15 – 17 Jesus says to Peter, “feed my lambs”, “tend my sheep”, and “feed my sheep.” Jesus has set Peter over the community to “act as their leader in all things, to guide them in all their actions” (Numbers 27: 16). Christ does this so that his people on earth will not become like sheep without a shepard.

As we have seen, Scripture suggest that apostolic succession was expected with Paul’s transference of authority to Timothy. Scripture provides further evidence of the intention for this succession to continue after Timothy. In 1 Timothy 3: 1 – 7 Paul give Timothy instructions concerning the qualifications for bishops. In 2 Timothy 2: 2 Paul instructs Timothy, “and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well.” Obviously, Timothy was expected to transfer his knowledge and authority to others in order to preserve and spread the Gospel.

Acts 1: 15 – 26 also serves as an example of apostolic succession. Judas, though he turned away from it, was allotted a share of the apostolic ministry. After his betrayal and subsequent death the apostles deemed it necessary to fill his office with another. If the apostles’ offices were limited to their own lifetimes, there would have been no reason to do so.

When we consider all of Scripture we find a wealth of information testifying to the validity of apostolic succession. The succession of Peter and all the bishops is necessary to ensure that the faithful do not become like sheep without a shepard. I decided to stay in within the bounds of the original question and not include any non-Biblical sources in this response. However, there are important writings in existence that speak of apostolic succession, especially the succession of Peter, from as early as the first century. These writings are vital to understanding the early church. Many of the writers from the first few centuries likely had first or second hand knowledge of the apostles and their acceptance of the idea of apostolic succession is an important part of understanding this topic. Hopefully, I’ll be able to continue to address this topic in light of those sources in the near future.

Related Article: Papal Infallibility


Anonymous said...

Clear explanation..thankyou

God bless

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am new to this site, just found out about it recently a few days ago. I am a convert from protestantism 3 years ago.

Just wanted to comment/add on this current post, if you look closely on Christ's promise to Peter, he mentioned the key to the kingdom (cf Mat 16:19), this was given to Peter and Peter alone (in Mat 18's promise to the disciples the keys was not mentioned at all).
If we look in the Old Testament, there's a reference to the key to David's Kingdom found in Isa 22:22 and this verse is actually a reflection of Mat 16:19 if you look at it carefuly:

"And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open." (Isa 22:22, DRB)

This verse was speaking in reference of Eliakim son of Hilkiah. Eliakim was trusted with the key to the House of David, so he was the Prime Minister (NOT replacement of David), it's an office. Scott Hahn the former presbyterian minister which turned Catholic has some good insightful writings about this, might want to check out his lectures.

So Eliakim to David is a type of Peter to Christ, Prime Minister to a King. Peter is entrusted with Christ's Kingdom during his absence, it's an office. If Peter made it important to chose a successor to Judas' office (cf Acts 1:15-26), how much important would it be to have successor to Peter's own office which holds the key?

Just my two cents, I hope it is useful =)


Moonshadow said...

You covered the ground convincingly.

I would only offer that the refrain "nothing in Scripture suggests that this is not to continue" sounds a little like an argument from silence.

'Though I agree with you; I'm no cessationist (nor a charismatic!).

Chris said...


Thanks for pointing this out. I forgot to mention that and besides I think you stated it better than I would have.


Thank you. I agree. I probably should have read through it a little more carefully before posting.

DAN BUCK said...

Thanks Chris,

And thanks for coming to find me once you posted your response.

I haven't yet given it the time it deserves, but I'll be back.



Anonymous said...

It seems to me that those New Testament references only demonstrate succession of apostles. I guess one could call that apostolic succession; but, is that what you meant by "apostolic succession"? I thought that term was used to refer to papal succession, one supreme apostle (the Pope). If you were trying to demonstrate papal succession, would you please explain further? If you were trying to demonstrate what I described as apostolic succession, what do you use to refer to papal succession and how do you show it?

Unknown said...

Apostolic succession refers to the line of succession leading from the original apostles to the bishops of today. This includes the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church who is the Bishop of Rome succeeded from Peter.

When I wrote this I had intended to have a follow up post. I will try to work on that but please be patient with me as my job keeps me pretty busy.