Apostolic Succession: Tradition, Apologetics, and Contending for the Truth

Due to working on Christian History for Everyman, I’ve been slow in posting here. I’m working on a page on apostolic succession, however, and it is perfect for a blog entry.

The line (uh, here I am quoting myself again) that caught my eye was:

Apostolic succession is an argument against the Roman Catholic Church, not for it.

My line was prompted by this wonderful passage from Tertullian’s Demurrer Against Heretics. Tertullian was a lawyer, and a “demurrer” is a legal brief. (Apparently, lawyers could be Christians in A.D.  200. I’ve heard rumors that might be possible even in A.D. 2100, but I haven’t verified those yet.)

Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed … Nor does the Son seem to have revealed [the Father] to any other than the apostles, whom he sent forth to preach …

What that was which they preached … can … properly be proven in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the Gospel directly to them themselves, both viva voce, as the phrase is, and afterwards by their letters.

If, then, these things are so, it is equally apparent that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches, those molds and original sources of the faith, must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God. In the same way, all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savors of disagreement with the truth of the church and apostles of Christ and God. …

We have fellowship with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is not in any way different from theirs. This is our witness of truth.

Demurrer Against Heretics 21

Sorry for all those ellipses. Tertullian is more wordy even than me, and he can’t resist any opportunity–in fact, he creates as many opportunities as possible–to inject some explanatory comment. His rabbit trails have rabbit trails.

However, he’s one of the most logical thinkers among the early Christian writers.

Perfect lawyer.

What Is Apostolic Succession?

 Tertullian makes it clear that truth comes from God. God gave it to Christ, Christ gave it to the apostles, and the apostles committed it to the churches. Thus, the churches became the standard of truth.

This is the reason that Paul says that the Church, the household of God, is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).

The Roman Catholic Church, somewhere down through the centuries, went completely crazy and decided that since they were the standard of truth, they had the right to change the truth at will.

The Roman Catholic Church, however, is not the standard of truth. The apostolic churches were the standard of truth.

Apostolic succession, to Tertullian and his contemporaries, was a way of arguing that their churches, a mere hundred years removed the apostles, had received truth from the apostles and maintained it unchanged.

Apostolic Succession as Proof of Pristine (Unchanged) Truth

Tertullian’s argument from apostolic succession was limited. Such an argument could prove that the church to which he belonged and the ones with which they were in fellowship had received truth from the apostles 100 years earlier. It could not prove they had kept it pure.

For that he had to resort to a stronger argument:

Is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone astray into one and the same faith? … Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but tradition. (ibid. 28)

Little different view of tradition than what the Roman Catholics tell you about, isn’t it? Tradition is authoritative, just as they say, but only if that tradition came from the apostles.

Think about this argument. Tertullian’s argument assumes that there is no central authority in the church. Notice that he mentions  “that which is deposited among many.”

Tertullian’s argument falls apart if there is a central authority–a pope, or a supreme church in Rome–that can dictate doctrine. In that case, it would be extremely likely that so many churches, no matter how great, would go astray into one and the same faith because one man, the pope, could have dictated it.

Tertullian doesn’t mention this, however, because he’d never heard of a pope. He had no idea that anyone would argue that the church in Rome was supreme over all other churches.

Apostolic Succession as an Argument Against the Roman Catholic Church

Tertullian speaks of churches which …

… although they do not derive their founder from apostles or apostolic men (since they are of much later date, for new churches are being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine. (ibid. 32)

Churches such as these, he says, will submit other churches to a “test.” What is that test?

For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and disagreement, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man. This is true because just as the apostles would never have taught anything self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would never have taught doctrine different from the apostles. (ibid.)

So when we who are seeking to follow apostolic teaching ask the Roman Catholics to prove that they, too, are following what came from the mouth or pen of the apostles, we are simply following in the footsteps of the church fathers; something the Roman Catholic Church is quite unwilling to do.

Apostolic succession was meant to establish that a church held to apostolic teaching without changing it. The Roman Catholic Church uses apostolic succession to justify exactly the opposite. They want to have authority even when they are disobeying Christ and changing his teachings.

The churches which actually had apostolic succession, something no church has had for over 1700 years, would have condemned them as heretics.

Apostolic Succession, Tradition, and the Authority of the Church

Apostolic succession, tradition, and the authority of the Church all refute Catholicism. They do not defend it.

  • Apostolic succession is simply one argument used by early churches to establish that they had received and apostolic doctrine and maintained it unchanged.
  • Apostolic tradition is apostolic doctrine. Paul refers to his teachings as tradition several times (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15).
  • The Authority of the Church comes from being the pillar and support of the Truth. The Truth is that which is delivered to the churches by the apostles, who received it–and the authority to pass it on–from Christ, the Truth himself.

Protestants and the Fight for Truth

If this is so, then why has the Roman Catholic Church used these things–apostolic succession, tradition, and the authority of the Church–to argue for themselves and against Protestants.

It is because the Protestants are an easy target. Just as the Roman Catholics would never honestly look at the teachings of the fathers because those teachings condemn them for deviating from the tradition of the apostolic churches, so the Protestant churches refuse to submit to the apostolic churches–and thus to apostolic teaching.

There is now and always will be a fight for Truth. Truth sets men  free. Thus, Jude tells us that we must contend earnestly for the Truth in the form of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

With whom, however must we fight?

Is it not the devil? Is it not principalities, powers, and spiritual wickedness in heavenly places?

It is. And they would like nothing more that we fight against each other and for our traditions rather than against them and for the apostles’ traditions, which came from Christ.

Scripture vs. Apostolic Tradition

Where do we find the apostolic tradition? Isn’t it just in Scripture?

Are we really so blind? Millions of people study the Scriptures every day, and they disagree and divide with each other every day. Almost every heretical group gets their doctrines from the Scripture. I’ve almost never heard of a Jehovah’s Witness or WOW missionary (from “The Way International”) leaving their heresy because of being convinced from the Scriptures.

We know what the apostolic churches were like. We know the basic traditions the apostles delivered to those churches.

Loud voices cry out that we don’t. People say the early churches disagreed with one another. People say that they fell away and became legalistic.

They didn’t.

We may not like it, but they didn’t.

They were one, they were holy, they stood in persecution, they overcame the world, and they were so powerful that they brought the Roman empire to its knees even as it killed their bodies on a daily basis.

Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves. (A Plea for the Christians 11)

Ignore them at your peril.

The Scriptures, no matter how badly we want to make them “the sole rule of faith and practice,” continue to teach that the Church is the pillar and support of the truth and that God will guide the saints into truth only while they are completely united (1 Tim. 3:15; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Jn. 2:27),  not while they simply read the Bible.


I was looking for a nice, tidy ending to this rambling post that started on apostolic succession and the Roman church, but then turned on us who have clung to Sola Scriptura.

I have no such ending. I hope something in this blog has helped you.

Even more, I hope you will quit caring about yourself, your life, your savings, your college, your career, your car, your denomination, your loyalties, your alma mater, your family, your money, and anything else you’re prone to caring about, and you’ll begin caring about his kingdom.

When you do, you’ll look around and be horrified at how hard it is to find something that can rightly be said to be “the pillar and support of the truth.”

Then perhaps you’ll weep, cry out, repent, find those who are truly your brothers and sisters–not accepting their mere claims but examining their lives–and together ask God to reveal to you what he has only promised to reveal to those who are united and who fear him alone.

He is worth it all.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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4 Responses to Apostolic Succession: Tradition, Apologetics, and Contending for the Truth

  1. Dear Lord God, Could You please let me be born and begotten of You? I apologize for sinning against You and others. I apologize for transgressions and unmercifulness towards other people and myself. Thank You for cleansing me and saving me today! Sincerely, Love and Like Afeni!

  2. Shammah says:

    Sorry for taking so long to approve this comment. I just saw it.

    I’m not in the process of trying to discern the truth. The truth is obvious. It’s not just in Tertullian, but Irenaeus says all the same things that Tertullian does in Adv. Haer. III:2:1-4.

    It’s very clear that apostolic succession is an argument about preserving truth that came from the apostles, nothing more.

    So it’s the RCC that has turned apostolic succession on its head, not me.

    By “changing the truth at will” I am referring to the pope’s right to speak “ex cathedra.” Whenever he does so, he does damage to the truth.

    Actually, the RCC left the truth so long ago, that he’s not really doing damage to the truth. He’s irrelevent to the truth.

    A long time ago, however, when the Roman bishop first fooled himself into believing he had some right to proclaim decisions on doctrine on some other basis than knowing what the apostles taught, he started down a road that has made the whole RCC irrelevent to the truth.

  3. Tap says:

    Wow!.you managed to turn Tertullians argument on apostoloic succession on its own head. I really don’t want to be rude, because it seems you are in the process of trying to discern the truth. I would just advice that you keep an open mind over this things instead of trying to twist the words of Church Fathers in a way does violence to the text comma, in a effort to re-enforce your notion that the Catholic Church is wrong.

    You said: “somewhere down through the centuries, went completely crazy and decided that since they were the standard of truth, they had the right to change the truth at will.”
    I’m trying to be fair with you here, so please least those doctrines were they “changed the truth at will”

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