Apostolic Succession

May 14, 2018

This is an excellent commentary on apostolic succession by Dr. John Bergsma. I met this man at a priest’s conference in West Virginia. He comes from a protestant tradition that rejected the Catholic teaching on apostolic succession but came to believe through his study of Church history that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ established and empowered with his authority.

The Apostles were chosen by Christ and consecrated by him to continue the very work that his Father sent him to do, namely to preach the Gospel: “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). This is just one of many examples that we can find in the scriptures of the Catholic Churches teaching on apostolic succession. Dr. John Bergsma gives many more examples.

God bless you


Our First Reading is Acts 1:15-17, 20a, 20c-26


Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers —there was a group of about one hundred and twenty persons in the one place —. He said, “My brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand through the mouth of David, concerning Judas, who was the guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was numbered among us and was allotted a share in this ministry. “For it is written in the Book of Psalms: May another take his office [Greek: episkopēn]. “Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us, become with us a witness to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Judas called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.” Then they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles.


We read this passage for the Feast of St. Matthias in dioceses where Ascension Day is transferred. This is an important passage for understanding the connection between the Apostles and the bishops of the Church, and the concept that we call apostolic succession. The following is a little essay I use to teach on this concept in my New Testament courses:


“The principle of apostolic succession is that the leaders of the Church, by which we mean primarily (but not only) the bishops, were appointed by the previous generation of leaders, and they in turn by a previous generation, all the way back to the apostles, who appointed the Church’s first generation of leaders during their own lifetimes. Thus, the bishops are successors of the apostles in the sense that they fulfill the apostles’ role, which is one of leadership or oversight (episkopē in Greek).


We see this pattern in Acts.


Our Reading, Acts 1:12-26, the replacement of Judas by Matthias, is significant. It does not prove apostolic succession.  But it demonstrates two important points: (1) The apostles had a role or office, which did not necessarily cease with their death, (2) this role is described, among other things, as an episkopen, an “oversight” (“his office [espiskopēn] let another take”, Acts 1:20 rsv).  Calling the apostles’ role an episkopēn shows the connection between the apostles and the later leaders of the Church, who are frequently called episkopoi (in English, “bishops”: Acts 2:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:7). (The English word “bishop” is a corruption, through German, of the Greek word “episkopos.”  That’s why we still say the “bishops” belong to an “episcopal conference,” etc.)


In Acts 1, the church is growing already (120 people, Acts 1:15) and the apostles are short on leadership, because they are missing Judas. So he is replaced by Matthias.  The apostles are back up to full strength of numbers, the very important number 12, representing the twelve patriarchs and the “twelve officers over the kingdom” (1 Kings 4:7).


In the beginning of the Church, they are able to perform all the roles of leadership, but this quickly becomes too much. They appoint more leaders (Acts 6:3), by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6), to share the burden with them.


Later yet, the Church is going to spread all over the Mediterranean, to places the apostles cannot get to easily. Then, the apostles appoint other men to share in the “oversight” (episkopēn).  These men are called presbuteroi, “elders”, from which we get the English word “priest”: see Acts 14:23.


In the beginning there is no clear distinction between presbuteroi and episkopoi: compare Acts 20:17 and 20:28.  Later, these roles will be differentiated.  It is like tissue in an unborn baby: at first the organs are one lump of cells, but they differentiate into different organs in time.  In a similar way, the apostles had the role of bishop, priest, and deacon all wrapped in one, but these roles differentiate in time.  All clergy share in Holy Orders and, at least in a general way, in apostolic succession, since they fulfill roles of leadership originally held by the apostles.  But we usually restrict language of “apostolic succession” to the bishops, who alone have the full authority of the apostles.


The leadership of the early Church was always appointed by the apostles, not elected.  (How does this compare with the practice of many non-Catholic groups?)  This pattern holds in Acts and also the Pastoral Epistles (see Titus 1:5).  Even in exceptional cases—like Paul, who is made an apostle directly by Jesus—a leader would go to the apostles to receive affirmation of his authority (see Acts 9:27; Gal 1:18; 2:1-2, 9).


If we ponder this principle of appointing leaders, we will see that it is a top-down structure, and it implies apostolic succession: all the church’s leaders, if legitimate, ought to be able to trace their appointment to the apostles, handed on in succession.


Look at Titus 1:5. Titus is Paul’s representative, his “child in faith” (1:4). Paul tells Titus to appoint presbuteroi and episkopoi (elders/priests and bishops, 1:5, 7) for Crete in every town.  Appointing such people was something Paul used to do personally [Acts 14:23].  Now he’s passing the authority on to Titus.  This shows us apostolic succession.


Look at Acts 20:28-37. Paul knows he is being taken away from the Church of Ephesus.  He will no longer be able to lead them, due to imprisonment and ultimately death (20:29, 38).  He passes them the torch of episkopen to them (20:28).  Again, this shows us apostolic succession. The elders/overseers (in our usual terminology, priests/bishops) will guide the Church in Paul’s absence.


Our Reading shows the apostles exercising the royal role of their office, that of governing, as they restore their numbers to twelve in order to be the “twelve officers over the Kingdom of Israel” (1 Kings 4:7) typified in the Kingdom of David under the rule of Solomon of old.  Jesus had promised them “you will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28), and in Acts we see them “judging” (i.e. leading; think of the role of the “judges” in the Old Testament) the young Church, which is the new “twelve tribes of Israel” (compare Gal. 6:16; James 1:1).  In fact, in our Reading, the mention of number of early Christians as 120—ten times twelve—is probably intended by Luke to invoke the memory and concept of the twelve tribes.  There is a quorum of ten persons for each of the twelve tribes.  For what it is worth, ten men is the traditional minyan or quorum in Judaism for the establishment of a synagogue, that is, for formal prayer services.