A term referring to the unbroken chain of spiritual authority passed to the bishops from the apostles of Jesus Christ, to whom He said “As the Father has sent me, even so send I you” (Jn. 20:21). The apostles appointed bishops who in turn chose others to follow them, a practice that has continued until the present age. Accordingly, ever since the dawn of Christianity, these bishops have been considered the successors of the apostles, as they were entrusted with the privilege of ministry as given to the apostles, such as the consecration of bishops, presbyters, and deacons.
Apostolic succession is also a continuation of Old Testament teachings. Aaron was chosen by God to minister to Him and, on his death, was followed by his sons (Ex. 28, Nm. 18). The infringement of this sole right resulted in grave consequences, and so when Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and their accomplices rose against God and His chosen they met with utter perdition (Nm. 16:16-21); likewise, when Uzziah, king of Judah, transgressed against the Lord and entered the sanctuary to burn incense he was struck with leprosy (2 Chr. 26).
In the New Testament the twelve disciples were chosen by Christ (Mt. 10; Jn. 6, 15), and Matthias was later chosen to replace Judas (Acts 1:23-26). Paul and Barnabas were also chosen through the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2-3). They consecrated bishops to succeed them, as well as various priests and deacons. Paul also consecrated Timothy and Titus and granted them authority to consecrate and ordain others, and according to the epistle to the Hebrews (5:4), “And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was.”
Each APOSTOLIC SEE, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome, maintained the apostolic succession in an uninterrupted chain, imparting the title of apostolic successor upon the patriarch of each church. Thus in Jerusalem he is the successor to Saint James, in Alexandria to Saint Mark, and in Antioch to Saint Peter. Ancient church historians recorded the names of apostolic successors from the apostolic age down to their own times (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7). The lists of names of these heads of churches were evidence of the origin and ancestry of their churches, and were used in refuting the arguments of heretics and non-Orthodox dissidents.
Apostolic succession is adhered to by all Eastern and Western churches, with the exception of those Protestant churches that do not recognize the principle of priesthood.
- Aléos, A. La Théologie de S. Cyprien. Paris, 1922.
- Clarke, W. K. L. First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. London, 1937.
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- Jerasimus Masarrah. Al-Anwar fi al-Asrar. Beirut, 1888. Kirk, K. E. The Apostolic Ministry. London, 1946.
- Sullivan, F. A. “Apostolic Succession.” In New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol 1, pp. 695, 696. New York, 1967.