Pre-Apostolic Succession ???

The RCC traces its lineage back to Christ and the Apostles. Moreover, we believe in Apostolic Succession. The Church is built upon the foundation of the apostles (Eph. 2:20) and the Popes and Bishops after them. The theory behind Apostolic Succession is that God's authority, to be meaningful and effective, must be embodied in men today who have the same kind of authority. This is a powerful argument against Protestantism which shows no unbroken succession of leadership. How do you defend against our doctrine of Apostolic Succession?
There was an exchange of numerous e-mails regarding this topic. This one somewhat summarizes what has been discussed "so far." This is actually an edited (spelling, formatting, etc., not content) version by the Catholic priest asking the original question. The author authorized this edited version of his comments and desires to remain anonymous for the present time. Hopefully, updates will be forthcoming.

Thanks for the discussion regarding Apostolic Succession. I learned a lot regarding the Protestant view of Scripture.

In the years, that I have been discussing Apostolic Succession with Protestants none of them have ever asked me to trace the physical succession of leadership back to the time of Adam [a Pre-Apostolic Succession]. You asked, "Why should Protestants accept the doctrine and phraseology of "Apostolic Succession, as this RCC position excludes much of the Church - the OT Church." You asked, "If a Apostolic Succession is a doctrine of Scripture, should there not be a known succession of leaders in the OT as well - a known and qualified Pre-Apostolic Succession: (1) a succession of known and qualified patriarchs, and/or (2) a succession of known and qualified kings, and/or (3) at least a succession of known and qualified prophets, etc."? You showed where there was a succession of covenants (what you termed as one covenant, different administrators), a succession of doctrine, and a succession of God always having a people (His elect). You are even willing to agree that there has always been leadership (of some type) in God's church. However, you stated, "If this is a necessary doctrine for God's authority to be meaningful and effective, the RCC should be able to show where there was a succession of known and qualified Popes [in some form, by some name] in the OT."

After careful examination, your request seemed reasonable seeing that the RCC claims that the Church has: (1) NEVER been without a Pope and (2) that the Church existed from the OT forward. Paul said the Church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets [pointing to the NT], Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone," (Eph 2:20). In addition, Pope Benedict XVI, states that, "Christ 'established here on earth' only one church," and therefore this must include the OT Church. So, I concede that the Church existed in the OT as this is what the Bible teaches (Gal 6:16; 1 Pet 2:9; the use of ekklesia in the OT Gen 48:4; Exod 16:3; Num 14:5; Psa 22:22; 149:1, etc.). Second, I concede that if the doctrine of Apostolic Succession is correct then the RCC should be able to trace a succession back into the OT; what you termed as a known and qualified Pre-Apostolic Succession. Otherwise, Ephesians 2:20 and other texts make no sense from the RCC point of view.

After further study, I argued:

  • (1) that I could trace the first Pope back to Adam. He was after all the first man and the only possibility of being the Pope during that era. However, you argued the first Pope is then: (1) responsible for Original Sin (Gen 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-19), (2) married directly by God himself (Gen 2:18-25), and (3) bore children (both elect and reprobate children, Gen. 4).

  • (2) Still unresolved, I attempted to trace the physical succession back to Noah, a new beginning of the OT Church. However, as you pointed out Noah was: (1) married (Gen 7:7), (2) after his call, at least one time a drunkard (Gen 9:20-21), (3) his nakedness was revealed (possibly a homosexual relationship, Gen 9:22-24), and (4) cursed his own son Ham (Gen 9:25).

  • (3) Unresolved further, I pointed to Abraham, but you pointed out he was: (1) from Ur of the Chaledees and therefore previously an idol worshipper (Gen 11:27-28, 31), (2) married (Gen 11:29), (3) had a concubine (Gen 16:1-4), which (4) bore unrighteous seed (Gal 4:21f).

  • (4) I then pointed to Moses, but you pointed out that he was: (1) a murder (Exod 2:11-12), (2) struck the rock (Num 20:1-13), and (3) had his wife administer the sacrament of circumcision (Exod 4:24-26), therefore not the RCC's idea of a Pope. I pointed out that Christ was the Pope in Moses' time as He was "that spiritual Rock that followed them" (1 Cor 10:4), but you pointed out that if Christ was the Rock (which the text says) then this does away with Peter as the Rock and therefore, the Pope in the NT (32-67 AD).

  • (5) I decided not to try to point out that David was a Pope, as Scripture reveals that he was an adulterator and murderer (2 Sam 11:1-27), thus in my mind disqualifying him as a Pope.

Therefore, the OT covenant patriarchs could not be Popes or Bishops. They were Christians and covenant leaders, but I do not think they could rise to the level of a Pope. I admittedly, find myself uncomfortable with this thought, but the qualifications for Popes and Bishops dictate that I must.

King David's sin also does away with an unbroken succession of kings as being Popes. Also, you pointed out that there were apostate kings (Jeroboam, Ahab, etc.) in the line of Israel. All these apostate kings did "evil in the sight of the LORD" (2 Kings and 2 Chron). Of particular interest was Manasseh, who you pointed out is in the unbroken physical lineage of Christ himself (Matt 1:10). How could the Bible speak of a unbroken "physical" succession if Manasseh, an apostate (2 Kings 21), is in the lineage of Christ? I recognize, in the case of Christ, that a necessary understanding of the virgin birth is imperative here, but none of the Popes or Bishops are virgin born! I have no answer for this dilemma. From this one argument, it appears as if physical succession has no warrant scripturally.

In regards to the prophets, you pointed out that there was not a physical unbroken succession of them.

In my own study, I note that Josephus stated:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another (as the Greeks have), but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them, five belong to Moses, which contain his laws, and the traditions of the origin of mankind until his death. This interval of time is little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artexerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. From Artexerxes to our own time the complete history has been written but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets." (Flavius Josephus, Against Apion 1:8)

Though Josephus indicates that there was an unbroken succession of prophets from Moses to Malachi (which still leaves an unbroken known succession from Adam to Moses in question), he states that the histories written since Malachi were not inspired, because there had been no succession of prophets since the time of Malachi. More importantly, you reminded me of Malachi, concludes his narrative in the OT by urging Israel:

Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse (Mal 4:4-6).

This text pictures the coming of John the Baptist (cf. Matt 11:14; Luke 1:17). The implication of Malachi's prophecy is that no other prophet would arise from God until the coming of John. Therefore, there could not be a known unbroken physical succession of prophets in the OT. In the "one Church" [OT/NT] there is a broken "physical" succession.

Moreover, some of the prophets prophesied during the same periods and therefore there would have been more than one Pope in the same era (a similar thing arose after the death of Christ too during the Western Great Schism). Indeed, the prophets were divided; some to Israel and others to Judea. Since the Apostles, at times the RCC appeared at times to have multiple Popes, what we at times call "anti-popes." These "anti-popes" were looked at as false popes. But, these prophets could not be "anti-popes" as they truly spoke and wrote God's Holy Word. Therefore, a known succession of Popes and Bishops cannot be seen in the OT kings and prophets.

I attempted to claim the Tribe of Levi which Christ is a member of (Levi, son of Simeon and father of Matthat, an ancestor of Jesus in Luke's genealogy Luke 3:23-37), but Christ eliminated that imperfect line (Heb 10:8-9; Destruction of the Temple in 70 AD) and in actuality Christ was a High Priest after the order Melchisedec (Heb 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:17, 21, etc.), who was "without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life," (Heb 7:3). Clearly, God provided no known physical succession here. In addition, God did not see fit to give the whole known lineage of Levi in the OT and therefore it does not rise up to the measure of evidence for me to make a case otherwise (a complete ordered list of Popes and bishops). Besides, at best, the line of Levi would be an imperfect lineage, as if perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, "what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron?" (Heb 7:11; cf. 7:27-28). It appears that there was no earthly known succession BECAUSE in God's eyes it was not necessary that our faith rest upon man's wisdom of the known names of man, as Paul says, "And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (1 Cor 2:4-5).

While I do believe that there were leaders throughout God's Church, God did not see it necessary to keep a known successive ordered list of them. In light of the truth of there being no known Pre-Apostolic Succession, this causes me to re-examine Eph 2:19-22:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of "the apostles" and "prophets," with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

I must now affirm that the "prophets," cannot mean a known unbroken physical succession. Therefore, using the same rules of interpretation, the phrase, "the apostles," cannot refer to a known physical unbroken succession in this verse. "Apostles" and "prophets" must be referring to the foundation of true doctrine, for "In him the whole building is joined together [one Church] and rises to become a holy temple [one Church] in the Lord." Therefore, in your words, there is "one invisible Church of the elect," joined together by one Word (Eph 1:13; 4:3-16); that of "the apostles and prophets [which prophets you say are NT prophets, [which I still need to meditate upon], with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone" (Eph 2:20).

While, I do see where there was a succession of doctrine (1 Tim 3:16), the covenants (Rom. 9:4), and covenant people in the OT (Heb. 11), these did not come with a known unbroken succession of "known" qualified Popes in all eras. There were sporadic known leaders, but not an unbroken physical succession of known Popes; especially during the 400 years of silence. Yet, we know the Church continued throughout the years of silence, as on the far end of this silence we see, "Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth." Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly" (Luke 1:5-6), John the Baptist (Matt 3:1-12; Mark :1-8; Luke 3:1-20; cf. Mal 3:1; 4:4-6) and Christ himself, etc.

After this you moved further into the NT. Quoting someone else. You pointed out, "that there was nothing in the Bible that says the authority of the apostles can be passed to another by laying on hands, or that we have an authoritative tradition that is somehow passed on through laying on hands." In our discussions, I discovered that:

no one laid hands on the original elders of Israel when the office was instituted (Num. 11). Rather, they were confirmed in their office by a "placing" of the Holy Spirit, with no mention of laying on hands. Similarly, Jesus commissioned the apostles without laying hands on them. Jesus' preferred mode seems to have been breathing (John 20:21-22).

In addition, you explained:

Scripture nowhere teaches that it is invalid for a few Christians to start their own Church and ordain their own ministers. Jesus teaching in Mark 9:38-40 is instructive in this regard. There he taught that anyone who is faithful to him can minister in his name, and thereby with his authority, even if they don't have a connection to the apostles. Notice that in this case the authority of the man was proven not only by Christ's words, but also by the Holy Spirit who empowered the man to exorcise demons.

I have no answer for this. This appears to be an honest approach to the interpretation of Scripture. Moreover, as you kindly revealed, this text which is "clear" must be used to interpret other less clear texts. In this text, the Church the people (not just a Pope or Bishop) seem to have due authority in the Church (Matt 28:18-20); a priesthood of believers.

In another example, you explained that Paul not physically present at the Church of Corinth wrote and told the Church what to do in a discipline case. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5:

When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

As you stated, in this passage, Paul did not pass on his authority to another man. There was not a physical laying on of hands, but spiritual presence of both Christ and the Apostle. Therefore, there is no need for an physical Apostolic Succession. In addition to the Holy Spirit, the need is simply to have Christ and the apostles themselves with us through their inspired and inerrant teaching! The Church, of course does have leaders, but the unbroken succession is to that of the Holy Spirit and doctrine not individuals.

Then, to some extent, someone summed up a number of the events of redemptive history:

God regularly called prophets who had no connection to other prophets, or to the king, or to the priesthood. He replaced wicked kings with others who were not from their bloodline. He called foreign nations to judge his people. He replaced the leadership of Israel with Christ. He abandoned Israel as the covenant community that contained the faithful remnant, and reconstituted that covenant community around Christ. These facts demonstrate that just like our inheritance is traced spiritually and not physically, succession is spiritual matter and not a physical one (cf. Abraham's fatherhood over the faithful in Rom. 4).

Moreover, the Bible demonstrates time and again that the groups that have clear lines of physical succession can be apostate. The greatest example of this in Scripture is the division between Christ and Israel. Christ was not part of the tribe of Levi, he was excommunicated and sent to his death by the Jewish religious institution, but he nonetheless is our legitimate high priest and the heart of the faithful remnant of God's people. Moreover, even in the Bible, Churches started by apostles were subject to apostasy (cf. Paul's letter to the Galatians, and Christ's letters to the Churches in Revelation). And in the post-apostolic age, the entire Church abandoned Trinitarianism in the time of Athanasius, so that Trinitarians were considered heretics, and Athanasius was exiled repeatedly.

The idea of apostasy in the early Church leads to the idea of considering even lesser possible errors in the Church acts which were not considered apostasy. For instance, even, if Peter is "the rock," (Matt 16:18), immediately thereafter he reveals that he can make errors (Matt 18:23). Besides, denying Christ (Matt 26:71-75; Mark 14:66-68; John 18:15-18), years later he was even rebuked by Paul (Gal 2:11).

So this leads to our discussion on the much disputed passages of Matthew 16:13-20. Christ said:

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

To Christ's question, "Who do you say I am?," Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." This had been revealed to Peter. Christ THEN says, "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church." Upon what Rock? The Rock of the Spirit revealing who Christ is the Son of the living God. In other words, by the Spirit of Christ, Peter confessed Christ as Lord and upon THIS Christ will build His Church. Moreover, by the Spirit of God, many people confess Christ (Matt 10:32; John 3:1-8; 6:68-69, 11:27; Rom 10:9-10; 1 Cor 12:3; 1 Tim 6:12; 1 John 2:23; 4:2-3, 15; Rev 1:9, etc.).

Moreover, you showed that there is a play upon certain words in the text. Jesus said, "And I tell you that you are Peter [PETROS], and on this rock [PETRA] I will build my Church." There are two different, but related, Greek words used in this text. According to the Greek Lexicon, PETROS is "a rock or a stone," whereas PETRA is "a rock, cliff, or ledge." They are similar, but not the same. Jesus illustrates the meaning of PETRA elsewhere, as a massive foundational rock saying: "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock [PETRA]" (Matt 7:24). There is a difference between a pebble [PETROS] and a complete foundation [PETRA].

Why did Jesus use this play on words? You made it lucid that if the Holy Spirit desired to make it absolutely clear that He was building His church on the son of Jonah, why did He not simply say, "And I tell you that you are Peter [PETROS], and on this rock [PETROS] I will build my Church?" Since this is not the words the Holy Spirit choose, this must not be what the Holy Spirit means. At the very least, we can say that the rock [PETRA] upon which the Church is built refers to something other than Peter [PETROS], as an individual.

Why did Christ insist on this distinction? You appealed to St. Augustine. With integrity you showed that Augustine once maintained that Peter was "the Rock." However, then you revealed St. Augustine's humility and own confession:

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. But let the reader decide which of these two opinions is the more probable (The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C., Catholic University, 1968), Saint Augustine, The Retractations, Chapter 20.1).

You then quoted William Webster:

Clearly Augustine is repudiating a previously held position, adopting the view that the rock was Christ and not Peter. This became his consistent position. He does leave the interpretation open for individual readers to decide which was the more probable interpretation but it is clear what he has concluded the interpretation should be and that he believes the view that the rock is Christ is the correct one (The Church Fathers' Interpretation of the Rock of Matthew 16:18).

In the work entitled, The Works of Saint Augustine, this is clear:

And I tell you...'You are Peter, Rocky, and on this rock I shall build my Church, and the gates of the underworld will not conquer her. To you shall I give the keys of the kingdom. Whatever you bind on earth shall also be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall also be loosed in heaven' (Matt 16:15-19). In Peter, Rocky, we see our attention drawn to the rock. Now the apostle Paul says about the former people, 'They drank from the spiritual rock that was following them; but the rock was Christ' (1 Cor 10:4). So this disciple is called Rocky from the rock, like Christian from Christ...Why have I wanted to make this little introduction? In order to suggest to you that in Peter the Church is to be recognized. Christ, you see, built his Church not on a man but on Peter's confession. What is Peter's confession? 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' There's the rock for you, there's the foundation, there's where the Church has been built, which the gates of the underworld cannot conquer (John Rotelle, Ed., The Works of Saint Augustine (New Rochelle: New City Press, 1993), Sermons, Vol. 6, Sermon 229 P.1, p. 327).

Therefore, the pebble is Peter's confession and the Rock is the foundation Jesus Christ! To put it in your words, in the holiest of senses you said, "Peter was a chip off the old block." Peter was a PETROS off the old PETRA (the Ancient of Days Dan. 7:9, 13, 22). In other words, by the Spirit of God, Peter [PETROS] was confessing Christ [PETRA]. Peter was a part of the body of Christ by Spirit confession. Upon this the Lord is building His church. Moreover, in this, Peter is being addressed as a representative of the apostles (and all believers) not as an individual Pope. You pointed out that Peter can't be separated from the Eleven, because "you" is plural in Matthew 16:15. In bears repeating: By the Spirit of God many people confess Christ (Matt 10:32; John 3:1-8; 6:68-69, 11:27; Rom 10:9-10; 1 Cor 12:3; 1 Tim 6:12; 1 John 2:23; 4:2-3, 15; Rev 1:9, etc.).

Moreover, Peter is NOT the only one who has power to forgive. This is established in John 20:22-23 when Jesus breathed upon the disciples and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." Moreover, Luke records on Pentecost, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The rest of the apostles received the same authority as Peter. Related to this, the Church itself has this authority. In Matthew 18:18 Jesus says to the Church, "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." In reality, these keys are the delegated power of Christ to His Church (Rev 3:7) - not just the Pope and Bishops.

To this, in your last argument, you pointed out that Acts 20:17 and 28 appears to authorize the authority of elders over a local congregation, but no authority over the Church universal. In addition, in 2 Timothy 2:2, you explained that a succession of teachers was the goal and that nothing in this passage supported a known unbreakable succession of leaders whose authority was to be unquestioned (cf. Gal 2:11-21). Furthermore, in Acts 12:1-2, when the apostle James was beheaded, Scripture records no successor appointed to replace him. Moreover, an apostasy was foretold by the apostles (1 Tim 4:1-3; 2 Thess 2:1-3; 2 Pet 2:1-3). Even some from the number the apostles taught some would fall away (Acts 20:29-30) and those who taught differently from the apostles were to be rejected (Gal 1:6-9). Therefore, appointment by an Apostle did not necessarily a guarantee the true teaching of God's Word (Acts 15:24; 1 John 2:19).

So, now I ask myself that "if":

  • (1) there is no known Pre-Apostolic Succession in the OT,

  • (2) Manasseh, an apostate (2 Kings 21), is in the known physical line of Christ (Matt 1:10),

  • (3) anyone who is faithful to Christ has authority to minister in His name (Mark 9:38-40; 1 Pet 2:9 - Priesthood of Believers),

  • (4) the church (assembly) can have the spirit and power of Christ and the Apostles when they are not even being physically present (1 Cor 5:4-5; Matt 18:18),

  • (5) a proper exegesis of Matthew 16:18ff reveals Jesus is not making Peter the First Pope,

  • (6) all the apostles not just Peter had delegated authority (John 20:22-23; Acts 1:8), and

  • (7) an appointment by an Apostle did not necessarily guarantee the true teaching of God's Word (Acts 15:24; 1 John 2:19),

  • (8) Total Depravity appears to be the teaching of Scripture.

then why does the RCC impress upon its members a known physical unbroken succession (with the qualification(s) that they are 'perfect,' (speaking ex cathedra) but not sinless) AFTER Christ?" This appears unwarranted.

While I am still researching this answer, if you are correct then Apostolic Succession would appear to be a tradition of man, rather than a true doctrine of the Church. Therefore, while I do not think it is necessarily sinful to trace the leaders in the Church, I do not see Apostolic Seccession as necessary for God's authority to be meaningful and effective. Apostolic Succession would not seem to be a powerful argument against Protestantism, but possibly a weakness for the RCC - in that it can allow error into the Church (RCC teaches that the Pope when speaking ex cathedra, as well as the church when met in ecumenical council, can never err and therfore it leaves no room for examination of their words and laws - which is not consistent with the depravity of man which I now see traced in the OT and NT). Please let me know if I have these arguments correct. Please keep praying for me.

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Is Purgatory Biblical?
Is Catholic Penance Biblical?
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Apocrypha Accounts?
Transubstantiation vs. Consubstantiation vs. Memorialism vs Reformed?
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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).