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Question and Answer

Apostolic Succession and Protestantism


I was wondering how we as Protestants reject the doctrine of Apostolic Succession? Obviously, through church history, this doctrine seems to be strongly affirmed, but when the Reformation took place, this doctrine was not continued along with other doctrines. Why not? I guess I am wondering what are the biblical mandates supporting Apostolic Succession and what are the biblical mandates and logic that reject Apostolic Succession? Thanks for taking the time to answer my question.


When you say "through church history, this doctrine [apostolic succession] seems to be strongly affirmed" you are correct because it certainly has been accepted and defended for a long time by the Roman Catholic Church. You are also correct in saying that "when the Reformation took place, this doctrine was not continued along with other doctrines." And your question is basically "Why is this so?"

The answer is that the Reformation recovered the pure teaching of the original apostles themselves. And they never taught any such doctrine. If you read your New Testament carefully, you will see that the apostles were marked by several distinctive features. Let me list a few of them.

(1) They were chosen by Christ himself in an immediate way, not through the instrumentality of others.

(2) They were able to truthfully say that they had seen Jesus after he rose from the dead. Paul said: "Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time" (1 Cor. 15:8). The fact that Paul was the last one who could say such a thing in the history of the world shows clearly that there can be no genuine apostolic succession.

(3) They were endowed with supernatural powers that other men did not (and do not) have. They even raised physically dead people to life. Paul said: "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works" (2 Cor. 12:12).

(4) They were qualified to speak with absolute and infallible authority. Paul could say in truth: "If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord." No other individuals, other than the inspired prophets and apostles, could make statements like that. That is why the things they said were by the plan and will of God preserved for us in the New Testament.

The theory behind apostolic succession is that God's authority, to be meaningful and effective, must be embodied in men today who have the same kind of authority. But if you will read carefully the following passage, you will see that this is not true at all.

In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul—who was not physically present in Corinth—wrote to them to tell them what to do with respect to a discipline case. He said (in 5:4-5): "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." So you see, Paul did not pass on his authority to another man so that he could be there in Corinth. No, Paul said, in effect, if you will do what I as an apostle now instruct you to do then I will be with you in spirit, and you will also have the power of our Lord Jesus with you, to deliver that man to Satan, etc.

So, to put it simply, the Reformers realized that there was no need for apostolic successors. No, the need was simply to have the apostles themselves with us through their inspired and inerrant teaching. And that is what we have in the New Testament.

The apostles never wrote anything that ever has needed or ever will need correction because they were inspired by God. Surely a person of average intelligence should be able to see that this has never been true of other men in history, no matter how strongly they may have believed themselves to be apostolic successors!

I hope this gets you to study this further. The more church history you get to know the more obvious the conclusion of the Reformers will appear.

About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.

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