Church Fathers on the Church and Apostolic Succession

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The apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ was sent from God. Christ, therefore, is from God, and the apostles are from Christ. Both of these orderly arrangements, then, are by God’s will. Receiving their instructions and being full of confidence on account of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and confirmed in faith by the Word of God, they went forth in the complete assurance of the Holy Spirit, preaching the good news that the Kingdom of God is coming. Through countryside and city they preached; and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the spirit, to be bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty: for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. Indeed, Scripture somewhere says: “I will set up their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith” [cf. 2 Sam. 7:13]. — Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians, c. A.D. 95.

Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest. . . . Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ was subject to the Father, and the apostles were subject to Christ and to the Father, so that there may be unity in both body and in spirit. — Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians, c. A.D. 107.

As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same . . . nor will any of the rulers in the Churches, whatever his power of eloquence, teach otherwise, for no one is above the teacher. . . . It is necessary to obey those who are presbyters in the Church, those who, as we have shown, have succession from the apostles; those who have received, with the succession of the episcopate, the sure charism of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father. But the rest, who have no part in the primitive succession and assemble wheresoever they will, must be held in suspicion. . . . But since it would be too long to enumerate in a volume such as this the successions of all the Churches, we shall confound all those who . . . assemble other than where is proper, by pointing out here the succession of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition. — Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, c. A.D. 180.

[The apostles] founded Churches in cities one after another, from which other Churches borrow the sprout of faith and the seeds of doctrine, and are daily borrowing them, so that they may become Churches. And it is in this way that they may regard themselves as apostolic; for they are the offspring of apostolic churches. Any group of things must be classified according to its origin. Therefore, although the Churches are so many and great, there is but one primitive Church of the apostles, from which all the others are derived. Thus, all are primitive, all are apostolic, because all are one. . . . From this, then, we draw up our demurrer: if the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, no others ought to be received except those appointed by Christ. For no one knows the Father except the Son, and him to whom the Son gives a revelation [cf. Matt. 11:27]. Nor does it seem that the Son has given revelation to any others than the apostles, whom he sent forth to preach what he had revealed to them. But what they preached, that is, what Christ revealed to them—and here again, I must enter a demurrer—can be proved in no other way except through the same Churches which the apostles founded, preaching in them themselves viva voce as they say, and afterwards by their epistles. If these things are so, then it follows that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic Churches, those nurseries and original depositories of the faith, must be regarded as truth, and as undoubtedly constituting what the Churches received from the apostles. And, indeed, every doctrine must be prejudged as false, if it smells of anything contrary to the truth of the Churches and of the apostles of Christ and God. — Tertullian of Carthage, Demurrer against the Heretics, c. A.D. 200.

Even here in the Church the gradations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons happen to be imitations, in my opinion, of the angelic glory and of that arrangement which, the Scriptures say, awaits those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles, and who have lived in perfect righteousness according to the Gospel. — Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, c. A.D. 202.

From that time the ordination of bishops and the plan of the Church flows on through the changes of time and successions; for the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers. Since this has indeed been established by divine law, I marvel at the rash boldness of certain persons who have desired to write to me as if they were writing letters in the name of the Church, “since the Church is established upon the bishop and upon the clergy and upon all who stand firm in the faith.” — Cyprian of Carthage, Letter to the Lapsed, A.D. 250.

Christ breathed upon the apostles alone, saying to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit: if you forgive any man his sins, they shall be forgiven; and if you retain any man’s sins, they shall be retained” [John 20:22–23]. Therefore, the power of forgiving sins was given to the apostles and to the Churches which these men, sent by Christ, established; and to the bishops who succeeded them by being ordained in their place. — Firmilian of Caesarea, Letter to Cyprian, c. A.D. 255.

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