Apostolic Succession Part 3: Pentecost

In this last article of my series on Apostolic Succession (1,2), I will run through the story of the beginning of the Church in Acts with my Catholic lens. I will go through the Ascension, Peter’s speech, and explain what I understand as the transition of mission from Christ to his Apostles with the Holy Spirit. After examining scripture, I will continue into tradition, looking at Church fathers contemporary to the Apostles and their successors.

Acts begins describing how Christ, post resurrection, both acted and taught the Apostles, preparing them for their mission ahead (Acts 1:1-5). Many Apostles, if not all of them, still thought the end times would happen in their lifetime. They were waiting for Christ to completely upend this world we know and bring down his Kingdom. The Apostles were confused by this idea of a future mission, asking when Christ would return: “when will you [Christ] restore the Kingdom of Israel?” (1:6) Jesus replies, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (vv. 7-8).

One can envision the shock the Apostles felt. Until now they were striving to be followers of Christ; he walked with them and corrected them on the road. Christ ate, slept, and rose with them during his time walking on this earth. All of a sudden he was giving them power from the Holy Spirit to continue his mission as he went up to heaven (1:9-10). Imagine Christ’s Apostles, standing there in awe, gazing up to heaven as Christ departed. Paper and pen do not do justice to the immensity of this scene. Suddenly, in a moment, Christ was gone and they left to continue Christ’s mission to spread the gospel throughout the world. They were so frozen with awe that two men in white robes appeared saying “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (1:11) The Apostles then went forth to begin the work of the Church, fueled by promises by Christ that this Church he made shall never falter and that the Holy Spirit shall give them power to persevere in trials (Matt 16:18 and Acts 1:8).

Imagine the questions these Apostles had: what is meant by “power”? What is the Holy Spirit? When is Christ coming back? So they “devoted themselves to prayer” for the time being (Acts 1:14). Peter, taking a place of authority gives, what Catholics believe, the first papal speech (1:15-25). He goes through the scripture, affirms how Christ is his fulfillment, and as the first action of the Apostles, they choose a successor for Judas (1:21-26). After this action comes Pentecost, and the Acts of the Apostles goes to describe the first actions of the early Church.

Initially the idea of Apostolic Succession would not have come up at all, as many of the members of the early Church believed Christ would come back in mere months or years. Yet, as time went on and the Apostles came to mostly bloody ends, it became more clear that leaders of the Church were needed for succeeding generations. There was not a process or procedure for this yet, and the earliest Christians transferred this authority by the laying of hands. As Paul writes to Timothy (a Bishop), “Do not neglect the gift that is given to you through the prophecy with the laying on of hands by the presbytery” (1 Timothy 4:14). This gift of authority can be further passed on as Paul also warns Timothy not to “ordain anyone hastily” (1 Timothy 5:22). Teaching authority is not something taken lightly, as the power to bind things on earth and in Heaven should not be (Matt 18:18). It would appear evident that the first Apostles, upon realizing that they would still die, saw fit to transfer the authority given to them onward.

Not only was the authority of the Apostles noted in the ordination of new presbyters (bishops), but in the travels of Paul as well. After the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem, Paul and Timothy “went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). In fact Paul’s entire ministry is oriented in rooting Christians around the Apostolic teaching, making sure the various small churches popping up across the Mediterranean don’t fall prey to sinful false teachings.

While not in scripture, the next generation of Christians will continue our story as the Church’s understanding of the authority given to the Apostles grew. One of the earliest successors to Peter (Clement the First) wrote a letter to the Corinthians that discussed the importance of the bishop’s office. He explains the principles behind Apostolic Succession better than I could:

“And our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife over the name of the bishop’s office. For this cause therefore, having received complete foreknowledge, they appointed the aforesaid persons, and afterwards they provided a continuance, that if these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministration. Those therefore who were appointed by them, or afterward by other men of repute with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered unblamable to the flock of Christ in lowliness of mind, peacefully and with all modesty, and for long time have borne a good report with all these men we consider to be unjustly thrust out from their ministration. For it will be no light sin for us, if we thrust out those who have offered the gifts of the bishop’s office unblamably and holily. Blessed are those presbyters who have gone before, seeing that their departure was fruitful and ripe: for they have no fear lest anyone should remove them from their appointed place.” (1 Clement to the Corinthians 44:1-4; 96 AD)

In this letter we see Clement affirming the importance of choosing the right people to succeed the Apostles. Further he also warns of the strife over the office of Bishop that Christ predicts. Bad bishops, patriarchs, and popes (*coughFrancisControversy*), do not undermine the authority of the Church because the authority of the Church is rooted in Christ’s words at Pentecost. That he sent out this band of Galilean men, and they sent out the next generation, to continue this mission. There is nothing surprising or shocking about sinners in the Church, the real shock comes from Christ giving these sinners the role to spread forth the gospel as he ascended. Reformation of the Church is important, even essential, to ensure a healthy and robust Christianity. However, open dissent from the teaching of the church becomes deeply problematic. Bishops are the stewards of God, and this great gift given to the Church is not something that can be dismissed or ignored. [1] As St. Irenaeus writes:

“The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric… In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles… From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the apostolic tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus… [St Irenaeus lists out the line of Bishops of Rome]… In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.(St. Irenaeus Against Heresies Book 3 Chapter 3; 180 AD) [2]

Did Christ establish Archbishops? Dioceses? CCD (Parish School) programs? No, but he did establish the Apostles, their authority, and that their authority could be passed down. I hope this article was helpful in putting forward the Apostolic case for the Church. There were so many quotes from Church fathers I had that it was painful to cut them out! For further notes on early Church documents please check out this link which has an amazing index of early Church authors and dates!

[1] St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter from Ignatius to Polycarp, Chapter 5-6 (105-115 AD).

[2] A little over 200 years after Irenaeus affirms Apostolic Succession, St. Augustine reaffirms this teaching in a strongly worded letter against Manichæus’s heresy (397 AD) discussing how our faith is preserved and passed down to us through the Apostolic line, and that scripture is only given authority from the authority of the Church.


2 responses to “Apostolic Succession Part 3: Pentecost”

  1. I think the Biblical foundation for the unmarred inheritance of apostolic authority rides on a highly specific interpretation of Matt. 16:18 🤔

    1. Daniel Sutkowski Avatar
      Daniel Sutkowski

      “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matt 16:18

      For reference since I did not quote it in my article! I disagree that the interpretation is highly specific given that it has been the interpretation of the majority of Christian theologians for millennia. That said, as I write in my article, the foundation of Apostolic Succession is not on any one proof passage but in an honest assessment of the Church’s development from Pentecost to later councils. This includes both scripture and tradition (both of which flow from each other)

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