The early church fathers viewed the doctrine of apostolic succession as a very important factor for the church. The apostolic traditions are the unwritten oral traditions of Christ’s teachings passed down through the apostles. The word “apostle” comes from the Greek verb apostellein, meaning to send. Thus, an apostle is someone who is sent. In the New Testament the apostles were Jesus’ disciples sent by him to spread the Christian message. For the early church fathers, apostolic succession was the way in which the true and only doctrine of Christianity could be preserved. It would later serve as a political tool for establishing the papacy. When the “New Rome,” was established in Constantinople, apostolic succession was promoted by the Western church as the foundation of authority for the church regardless of where the capital was located. St. Leo the Great, was the primary figure who rejected the notion of changing the center of catholicity. He believed that since the Gospels had been rejected by the Jews, it was preached to the pagans. Thereby St. Peter transplanted Jerusalem to Rome, “where he sealed his testimony with his blood, as did St. Paul.” Today, the Catholic Church still believes that tracing bishops back to Peter (Christ’s disciple) is what provides them with supreme authority over the whole church. This analysis will argue why apostolic succession was important for the early church since the time of Irenaeus, and how it became misused by leaders of the Catholic Church, helping to usher in the Reformation.
Known among modern scholars as the “first theologian,” Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John. Thus, through the Johannine principles is how Irenaeus learned the Christian faith. This process also shaped his views on how the Christian message should be preserved; as a traditio, that is, a thing “handed down,” person to person, form the incarnate Christ to every generation of the faithful.” This tradition, apostolic succession, was important to establish during the apostolic age because it refuted Gnostic teachings, which made claims of secret traditions pertaining to Christ. To prevent the Gnostics from distorting Scripture, the church insisted on the rule of faith for biblical interpretation. Irenaeus’ articulation of the faith, framed in this manner, became a popular method in the African battles against Gnostic movements.
The strongest rebuke of Gnosticism is clearly seen in Irenaeus’s writings, which also assisted in establishing the acceptance of orthodoxy regarding the four Gospels. Irenaeus was familiar with a wide range of early Christian literature. He appealed to symbolism found in creation, evident in his writings. Irenaeus insisted that there are only four Gospels just as there are four winds, and four corners of the universe, no more, no fewer. This is an important concept pertaining to Scripture that will be used by the Protestant Reformers to refute Roman Catholic Primacy, as apostolic succession begins to eclipse Scripture. However, orthodoxy regarding apostolicity, which is credited to Clement of Rome and agreed upon by the early church fathers, was that the apostles were made evangelists by Jesus Christ who had been sent by God. Essentially, Christ is from God and the apostles are from Christ, and they are the foundation of the Church.
The origin of apostolic succession has been established (originating with Clement of Rome and Irenaeus), the influences that led to apostolic succession are also established (Gnosticism), and criteria for the philosophy has been made known (Christ is from God and the apostles are from Christ, and they are the foundation of the Church). The historiography of events related to apostolic succession within the church will disclose not only disagreements among the bishops of Western and Eastern churches, but will also disclose the divisions between Protestant and Catholic religious views, all of which continue today.
During the second century it was inconceivable how the concept of apostolic succession would have been misused. However, with the Christianization of the Roman Empire came new problems within the church, many driven by political ambitions. After defeating Licinius, Constantine decided to move the empire’s capital closer to Rome’s most serious rival, Persia. He chose Byzantium because the location had natural defensive barriers. Once he had transformed Byzantium into the new capital, he changed the name to Constantinople. Political power shifted to the East, and the importance of Old Rome declined. Many churches began looking to the bishops of Constantinople for spiritual leadership. In a political move to boost the episcopal power in the East, a council was called by the new emperor to renew the Nicene Creed, it was primarily an Eastern affair; none of the Western bishops attended.
The Eastern church was first met with serious opposition when Leo the Great established himself as head of all Christendom. He accomplished this through his sermons. Leo’s sermons offered a coherent systematic Christology, that none of his predecessors had offered. Moreover, his sermons centered on St. Peter for conceptualizing the bishop’s role in Christian theology. It’s clear that Leo’s convictions led him to believe he was the heir of the apostle Peter. Thus, he laid the foundation for papal primacy by appealing to the destiny of Peter set by Jesus, who promised to build his church upon the rock—Peter for all ages. In Leo’s view, the bishop of Rome was Peter’s successor who was charged with preserving Christian orthodoxy. This is an early case where apostolic succession was being used politically to gain dominance among the churches, not the way Irenaeus intended for it to be used. The Western church had a difficult time accepting a diminished role when Rome’s new capital shifted the empire’s power to the East. Apostolic succession was used as a tool for legitimizing the status of the Western church.
Roman-Byzantine Relations Deteriorate
The Greek and Latin churches continued their disagreements through letters of insults. They attacked each other’s customs and closed churches that opposed theology not mainstream in the area, that is, Constantinople closed Latin churches. In one of the Greek letters it appears the Greek church had received some of the Emperor’s support. These events resulted in a Papal reply and action, most notably, in 1054, things came to a head. July 16 1054, mass was in progress at the church in Constantinople. Unexpectedly, three Papal legates entered the church and placed a document on the altar. As they were on their way out, they addressed the congregation in Latin, “Videat Deus et judicet,” meaning “Let God look and judge.” The document was carried to the patriarchal palace where it was discovered to be a bull of deposition and anathema against the Patriarch himself. Thus, the schism of 1054.
Over time military losses and heresy weakened the Eastern Empire, and in 1453 Constantinople fell to the Islamic Turks. There were and still are many theological disagreements among the Eastern and Western churches. However, the misuse of apostolic succession is at the center of the Roman Catholic arrogance articulated by Leo the Great in his sermons during the fifth-century; arguing only Peter’s church (located in Rome) and the apostles’ successors have the authority to led the Church and preserve orthodox Christianity.
More Division in Christianity
“Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture and plain reason, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” These were the words of Martin Luther as he stood before the Diet of Worms, in 1521, to defend his stance against the Catholic Church for the practice of issuing indulgences. By Luther’s time, Western Christianity had become a powerful political, intellectual, and financial institution. Along with the institution’s rise in prestige regarding political and economic affairs, the Catholic church experienced a sharp decline in morality. A failure in oversight by the bishops led monks and priests to engage in secular activity. The majority of people did not question the churches’ authority. However, a minority viewed many religious practices as misguided. They become known as reformers, those who encouraged people to spend their money on the needy and time in prayer, as opposed to spending their money and time on pilgrimages, relics, or indulgences.
By reading the letters of Paul, Luther worked out a doctrine different from the Catholic one he had been taught. Sola fide, sola gratia, and sola Scriptura, are Latin phrases translated: “faith alone, grace alone, and Scripture alone.” This meant that justification came through faith, not good works; faith was a gift from God, not merit based; and most applicable to apostolic succession, God’s word is disclosed in Scripture alone, not tradition passed down by the Church. This newly developed doctrine later known as the Protestant religion, was the sharpest theological divergence from both the Greek and Latin churches. The Reformation may have originated with Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the church for selling indulgences, which was to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Nonetheless, Scripture alone became one of the most important concepts to emerge from the Reformation. Without the understanding of Scripture alone the Catholic church could simply appeal to Leo’s understanding of apostolic succession by citing that authority must come from the source, a successor of Peter, who was chosen by Christ to build his church. Does Irenaeus’ doctrine of apostolic succession align with the Roman Catholic’s concept of it?
The most significant threat to Christianity during Irenaeus’ time was the Gnostics. Bruce Metzger, former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written extensively on the influences and development of the New Testament canon. Metzger’s work is still considered among the most influential in New Testament scholarship. Metzger used the texts from the Nag Hammadi, discovered in 1945, in Egypt, along with the knowledge of Gnosticism derived from patristic writers to extract the Gnostic religious belief system. In his book, The Canon of the New Testament, Metzger argued:
…in defending itself against Gnosticism, a most important problem for the church was to determine what really constituted a true gospel and a genuine apostolic writing. In order to prevent the exploitation of secret traditions, which were practically uncontrollable, the Church had to be careful not to accept nothing that did not bear the stamp of apostolic guarantee…in order to prevent Gnostics from twisting the Scriptures, the Church would insist on the ‘rule of faith’ as the norm of Biblical interpretation.
Irenaeus’ purpose, evident in his writings, was to refute heresy and instruct those who wished to learn about Christianity. According to Everett Ferguson, professor emeritus of Bible and distinguished scholar-in-residence at Abilene Christian University, proof is found in Irenaeus’ anti-heretical work, Against Heresies. Irenaeus’ warnings against false teachings in Against Heresies were clearly a response to the Gnostics, Docetism, and Marcionites. Specifically, evident in the three errors he postulated which were: Putting a Father above the Creator, denying the incarnation, and rejecting prophecy—the Old Testament. Moreover, as previously mentioned, his strongest rebuke of Gnosticism was the acceptance of orthodoxy regarding the four Gospels. Irenaeus was promoting apostolic succession as it related to Scripture, it was tradition, made problematic by the Gnostics, that had become less relied on by the Church during this time. Metzger disclosed how the Church dealt with the Gnostic teaching in the quote above. He also disclosed that an indirect consequence of the Church’s decision not to accept anything that did not bear apostolic succession, “was a devaluation of oral tradition.” Thus, it does not appear that Irenaeus would hold the same concept of apostolic succession as the Catholic Church has since at least Leo the Great. Irenaeus’ motives were not as politically fueled as the later Catholic Church’s would become.
James White, theologian and contributor to the book, Sola Scriptura, explains Irenaeus’ statements regarding tradition. White focused on a particular passage in Against Heresies, which Roman Catholics use to support their claims regarding tradition, White extracts the following from Irenaeus’ writings:
On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of things belonging to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the traditions of the truth…For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?
White argues that the traditions Irenaeus speaks of is extrabiblical. Furthermore, Irenaeus defines what he means when he references tradition, he cites the rule of faith, which is:
These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets: and one Christ, the Son of God. If any one does not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics.
This is consistent with Metzger’s evaluation of the early church fathers’ defense against Gnostic teachings, which was developed to distinguish what really constituted a true gospel and a genuine apostolic writing. Thus, Roman Catholics, starting with Leo the Great, (and his interpretation of why the bishop of Rome is considered Peter’s successor who bears the responsibility of preserving Christian orthodoxy who is also the true authority on Christian doctrine) has misrepresented the patristic materials. Specifically, pertaining to apostolic succession. They engaged in anachronistic interpretations, that is, the deconstruction of ancient literature for the purpose inserting concepts and ideas into the original sources that where not intended by the ancient authors.
Still, many Catholics today, of course, do not share the Protestant interpretation of apostolic succession. They still hold the “unwritten tradition”, which they claim was handed down by Christ to the apostles or delivered by the Holy Spirit to the apostles, as equally important as Scripture. Their response to the Reformation was developed formally at the Council of Trent, 1545-1563. The following is an excerpt provided by Benoit-Dominique de al Soujeole, supporting the Catholic’s position on “unwritten tradition,” from the Council of Trent: “the unwritten traditions, which have been received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the apostles themselves, at the direction of the Holy Spirit, have come down even to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.” Perhaps there is too much at risk, both politically and financially, for the Roman Catholic Church to relinquish this authority they have created exclusively for themselves.
The ancient Church was truly apostolic; it was a necessity. The original concept of apostolic succession defined by Irenaeus for the purpose of refuting heresies of his day, was an effective tool. Moreover, it was based on Scripture and, as Metzger demonstrated, not founded solely on oral tradition. The misrepresented interpretation of Scripture developed by Leo the Great for political purposes, continued to plague the Church. His doctrine articulated through the sermons he preached during the fifth-century regarding apostolic succession through Peter and Peter’s church, carried through the centuries and led to the Great Schism of 1054. However, the greatest division occurred in the sixteenth-century when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses. His doctrine focusing on four areas, salvation by grace alone, in Christ alone, by faith alone, through Scripture alone, transformed all of Europe. For many, the Reformation revealed the misguided concept of apostolic success that the Roman Catholic Church relied upon for their supreme authority. Sola Scriptura became one of the most important concepts to emerge from the Reformation. Without the understanding of Scripture alone the Roman Catholic Church could simply appeal to Leo’s understanding of apostolic succession by citing authority must come from the source, a successor of Peter, who was chosen by Christ to be the foundation of his Church. Clearly, apostolic succession is the process for knowing how salvation is secured. However, authority with respect to doctrine is not strictly reserved for successors of Peter and his Church—the Roman Catholic Church. The teachings of the apostles are preserved in the New Testament. The New Testament itself demonstrates tradition and the process of securing salvation. It is this tradition that continues in the church in the context of apostolic succession, according to the Protestants.
It is fascinating to think about how much tension comes with religion, which supposedly brings comfort to humanity. The Gnostics, Catholics, and Protestants all became engaged in a power-struggle each claiming to have the truth regarding Christianity. The Gnostics made the mistake of distorting and separating the Old Testament from the New and attempting to add additional gospels—so called secret teachings of Jesus. The Protestants realized that the only way for change to occur in a successionist atmosphere was to use the Scriptures against the Catholic church. They preserved both the Old and New Testaments, but interpreted them in a way (Sola Scriptura) that would greatly reduce the authority of the Catholic church, making it appealing and more accessible to the laity. The Catholics and Protestants became firmly established in Western civilization. Both dominated the Christian religion primarily though exploitation of the weak, ignorant, and poor. Once Christianity became toughly integrated into politics (the Catholics had the advantage given their earlier start) each sect acquired a massive amount of wealth.
Barnes, Timothy D. “Emperors and Bishops of Constantinople (324–431).” In Christianity,
Democracy, and the Shadow of Constantine, edited by Demacopoulos George E. and Papanikolaou Aristotle, 175-201. New York: Fordham University, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1gn6b41.12.
Beeke, Joel R. et al., Sole Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible. Stanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009.
De La Soujeole, Benoit-Dominique, and Michael J. Miller. “The Church Is Apostolic.” In
Introduction to the Mystery of the Church, 590-624. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qdqm2.25.
Ferguson, Everett. “Irenaeus’ Proof of the Apostolic Preaching and Early Catechetical
Instruction.” In The Early Church at Work and Worship: Volume 2: Catechesis, Baptism, Eschatology, and Martyrdom, 1-17. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1cgf67k.5.
Subjectivity After the Fall of Constantinople (1453).” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, no. 44 (1998): 110-136. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44696768.
Herrin, Judith. “The City of Constantine.” In Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval
Empire, 3-11. PRINCETON; OXFORD: Princeton University Press, 2007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv6zdbvf.6.
Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers in English. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,
Mayne, Richard. “East and West in 1054.” Cambridge Historical Journal 11, no. 2 (1954): 133-
Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance.
1987. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Meyer, Marvin W. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised
and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts Complete in One Volume. Intern. ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
Moriarty, W. “1 Clement’s View of Ministerial Appointments in the Early Church.” Vigiliae
Christianae 66, no. 2 (2012): 115-38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41480524.
Salzman, Michele Renee. “Leo’s Liturgical Topography: Contestations for Space in Fifth-
Century Rome.” The Journal of Roman Studies 103 (2013): 208-32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43286785.
Steenberg Irenaeus, M.C. “Tracing the Irenaean Legacy.” In Irenaeus, 99-211. Augsburg
Fortress, Publishers, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt22nm648
Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Early Modern Europe 1450-1789, 2nd ed. Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press, 2013.
 Benoit-Dominique, De La Soujeole and Michael J. Miller, “The Church Is Apostolic.” In Introduction to the Mystery of the Church (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2014), 591-593, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qdqm2.25.
 Ibid., 603.
 Ibid., 594-596.
 Ibid., 201.
 Ibid., 204.
 Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,
 Marvin W. Meyer, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of
Sacred Gnostic Texts, Intern. ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 7.
 Judith Herrin, “The City of Constantine,” in Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, 5 (Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007) http://www,jstor.org/stable/j.ctv6zdbvf.6.
 Timothy D. Barnes, “Emperors and Bishops of Constantinople (324-431),” in Christianity, Democracy, and the Shadow of Constantine, edited by Demacopoulos George E. and Papanikolaou Aristotle (New York: Fordham University, 2017), 182, http://www.org.jstor/stable/j.ctt1gn6b41.12.
 Michele-Renee Salzman, “Leo’s Liturgical Topography: Contestations for Space in Fifth-Century Rome,” The Journal of Roman Studies 103 (2013): 208-211,
 Yasmin Haskell, “The ‘Tristia’ of a Greek Refugee: Michael Marullus and the Politics of Latin Subjectivity After the Fall of Constantinople (1453),” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, no. 44 (1998): 110-111, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44696768.
 Ibid., 164, 166-168
 Everett Ferguson, “Irenaeus’ Proof of the Apostolic Preaching and Early Catechetical Instruction,” in The Early Church at Work and Worship: Volume 2: Catechesis, Baptism, Eschatology, and Martyrdom (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2014), 8, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1cgf67k.5.
 Ibid., 12.
 Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 78.
 Beeke, Joel R. et al., Sole Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, (Stanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009), 20.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 32.
 Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 187.
 Benoit-Dominique, De La Soujeole and Michael J. Miller, “The Church Is Apostolic,” 591.
 Ibid., 103.