Catholics and Orthodox teach that the Apostles named Bishops, and these Bishops named subsequent Bishops, and only men from this continuous line can administer sacraments necessary for salvation. Oftentimes, this “transmission of grace” gives these church the ability to reevaluate tradition and refine doctrine, arguably devising new ones that were absent in the first few centuries of the Church. Protestants contend that Apostolic Succession “may also be understood as a continuity in doctrinal teaching from the time of the apostles to the present.”

Who’s right?

One of the big defenders of the Catholic/Orthodox view of Apostolic Succession is supposedly Irenaeus. However, what does Irenaeus actually write?

It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about (Against Heresies Book 3, Chapter 3, Paragraph 1).

From the context, we can see that Irenaeus is clearly not talking about profound apostolic powers inherited by those bishops in the Apostolic churches. Rather, he is saying that the churches which were apostolic all had the same doctrines and traditions, while all the zany heresies he is writing against have not coincidentally originated outside the established churches.

Hence, his contention makes perfect sense. If all the churches which literally received letters from Paul and such (Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, etc) all taught X and had Y doctrines from A and B Scriptures, but the heretics from totally different places taught R and S doctrines from C and D Scriptures, wouldn’t it make sense that X and Y, A and B were legit from the Apostles and not R and S, C and D?

Elsewhere in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies this interpretation is apparent. For example, in Book 3, Chapter 4, Paragraph 3, he makes clear that Apostolic Succession is a safeguard against heresy because it historically proves that the heresies come from times that could not have been Apostolic. For example, Irenaeus asserts, “For, prior to Valentinus, those who follow Valentinus had no existence; nor did those from Marcion exist before Marcion; nor, in short, had any of those malignant-minded people, whom I have above enumerated, any being previous to the initiators and inventors of their perversity…[A]ll these (the Marcosians) broke out into their apostasy much later, even during the intermediate period of the Church.” Yet, in Book 3, Chapter 3 Irenaeus at length can show how the Church of Rome, Ephesus, and even he himself have received teaching from men who have known the Apostles directly.

Interestingly enough, the heretics he wrote against when “confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority” (Book 3, Chapter 2, Paragraph 1). And so, they claimed that “the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce” (Book 3, Chapter 2, Paragraph 1). Hmmm, what “churches” argue that the Scripture is insufficient and argue that doctrines surrounding prayers to the dead and the assumption of Mary, though absent in the historical record for hundreds of years, were taught viva voce?

Further, the dichotomous view of Scripture and tradition that Catholics and Orthodox hold to would be completely alien to Irenaeus. He writes, “Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, John 14:6 and that no lie is in Him” (Book 3, Chapter 5, Paragraph 1).

From the above reading of Irenaeus, I believe we are right in saying this: Any assertion, or implication, that any man can claim to be an inheritor of the title “Apostle” and yet contradict the Scripture stands in clear contradiction of tradition. Apostolic Succession is only legitimate if the doctrines taught by the institution that lays claim to such inheritance is consistent with the Scripture, which Irenaeus defines as “the tradition from the apostles.” Further, they cannot contradict (or add) to the beliefs of the Early Church Fathers, who themselves laid claim to succession, and expect anyone to take them seriously.