Apostolic succession quotes from throughout church history.
The quotes on this page show the early church emphasis on truth.
From the earliest days of the church, what mattered was adherence to Christ and to his teachings. You cannot disobey Christ and teach what is contrary to Christ, yet claim to have the authority of God. When you disobey Christ and depart from truth, you have lost all basis of authority, no matter what sort of "apostolic succession" you claim to have.
Apostolic succession, to the early Christian apologists, was a way to argue that you possessed truth handed down from the apostles, not a right to change that truth! Changing the tradition from the apostles was heresy to these early believers.
We are commanded in Scripture to earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I make no apologies for vigorously opposing those who change that faith, even if they call themselves Christians and claim succession from the apostles.
See my videos on apostolic succession for further information.
Leningrad Codex of the Hebrew Scriptures
The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. … Having therefore received their orders … and thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the firstfruits [of their labours], having first proven them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. …
Is it any surprise if those in Christ who were entrusted with such a duty by God appointed those [ministers] before mentioned, when the blessed Moses also … noted down in the sacred books all the injunctions which were given him, and when the other prophets also followed him, bearing witness with one consent to the ordinances which he had appointed? …
Our apostles also knew … there would be strife on account of the office of bishop. For this reason … they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them—or afterwards by other eminent men with the consent of the whole Church—and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from supervision those who have fulfilled its duties blamelessly and in holiness. (First Clement 42, 43, & 44)
As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. (Against Heresies I:10:2)
Nor will any one of the rulers in the churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these, for no one is greater than the Master; nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.
It does not follow because men are endowed with greater and less degrees of intelligence, that they should therefore change the subject-matter [of the faith] itself. (Against Heresies I:10:2-3)
But, again, when we refer [the gnostics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved by means of the succession of elders in the churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the elders, but even than the apostles. (Against Heresies III:2:2)
For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to "the perfect" apart from and privately from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves. For they wanted these men to be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon, but if they should fall away, the direst calamity. (Against Heresies III:3:1)
The best answer to give is the quote to the left of this sidebar. Irenaeus gives the succession in Rome as "most abundant proof that there is one … faith, which has been preserved in the church from the apostles until now."
Irenaeus was not arguing that the Roman church has authority to change the tradition that came from the apostles. In fact, he says, "Nor will any one of the rulers in the churches … teach doctrines different from these, for no one is greater than the Master."
Nor was he saying they had authority to rule other churches. He was simply arguing that they had accurately preserved the truth.
When he was done saying this, he added that Smyrna, which had Polycarp as a witness to the apostolic era until recently (in Irenaeus' time), was a true witness as well, and then he adds, "Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles."
Apostolic succession in the 2nd century was an argument that a church had accurately preserved truth since the time of the apostles. It was not an argument that one church could rule another.
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who … assemble in unauthorized meetings: one, by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, and two, by the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For to this church [Rome], on account of its more powerful preeminence, it is necessary that every church (that is, those who are on every side faithful) resort; in which church ever, by those who are on every side, has been preserved that tradition which is from the apostles. …
[Here Irenaeus gives the succession from Peter through Linus, Anacletus, Clement and nine others down to his time.]
… In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Against Heresies III:3:2-3)
Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna … [He] departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time … Then again, the church in Ephesus, founded by Paul and having John remaining with them permanently until the times of Trajan [began his reign in A.D. 98], is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles. (Against Heresies III:3:4)
It is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church, since the apostles, like a rich man in a bank, lodged in her hands most abundantly all things pertaining to the truth. Now every man, whoever wants to, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. (Against Heresies III:4:1)
[I have proved] that the preaching of the Church is everywhere consistent, continues in an even course, and receives testimony from the prophets, the apostles, and all the disciples through [those in] the beginning, the middle, the end, and through the entire dispensation of God. And that well-grounded system which tends to man's salvation, namely, our faith, which we have received from the Church, we do preserve, And [that faith] always, by the Spirit of God, renews its youth, as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, and causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also. For this gift of God has been entrusted to the Church, as breath was to the first created man, for this purpose, that all the members may receive it and live. (Against Heresies III:24:1)
Therefore it is necessary to obey the elders who are in the Church; those who—as I have shown—possess the succession from the apostles. [They], together with the succession of the episcopate [i.e., the bishops], have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. And [it is necessary] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever. [Consider them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting this way for the sake of money and pride. For all these have fallen from the truth.
… From all such persons it behooves us to stay aloof, but to adhere to those who … do hold the doctrine of the apostles, and who, together with the body [lit. order] of elders, display sound speech and blameless conduct for the confirmation and correction of others.
Where, therefore, the gifts of the Lord have been placed, there it behooves us to learn the truth—from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles, and among whom exists that which is sound and blameless in conduct, as well as that which is pure and incorrupt in speech. For these also preserve this faith of ours in one God who created all things. They increase love for the Son of God … They expound the Scriptures to us without danger, neither blaspheming God, dishonoring the patriarchs, nor despising the prophets. (Against Heresies, IV:26:2-5)
We … are not permitted to cherish any doctrine after our own will, nor to choose that which another person has introduced from their own private fancy. In the Lord's apostles we possess our authority. Even they did not choose to introduce anything from themselves, but faithfully delivered to the nations the discipline which they had received from Christ. If, therefore, even an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel, he would be called accursed by us. (Prescription Against Heretics 6)
From this, therefore, do we draw up our rule. 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. (Prescription Against Heretics 21)
Let [the heretics] produce the original records of their churches. Let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in succession from the beginning in such a way that their first bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor one of the apostles or apostolic men—a man, in addition, who continued stedfastly with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers, such as Smyrna ... also the church of Rome ... In exactly the same way, the other churches ...
Let the heretics attempt something of the same kind, 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 so because just as the apostles would never have taught anything that was self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated any teaching different from the apostles ... To this test, therefore, [the heretics] will be submitted for proof by those churches whose founder was not from the apostles or the apostolic men—since they are of a much later date, as churches are in fact being founded daily—but who, since they agree in the same faith, are considered no less apostolic because they are of the same family in doctrine. Therefore, let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests [i.e., founded by an apostle and similar in doctrine] by our apostolic church, offer their proof as to why they deem themselves to be apostolic. (Prescription Against Heretics 32)
Come now … run over to the apostolic churches, in which the very chairs of the apostles are still preeminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read. These utter the voice and represent the face of each of them individually.
Achaia is very near you; there you will find Corinth. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi and the Thessalonians. Since you are able to cross to Asia [modern Turkey], you get Ephesus. Since you are additionally close to Italy, you have Rome, from which the same authority comes into our hands.
How happy is its church! On it the apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood. There Peter endures a suffering like the Lord's. There Paul wins his crown in a death like John's [the Baptist], and there the apostle John was first plunged unhurt into boiling oil. …
See what she has learned, has taught, and what fellowship she has had with even our churches in Africa. (Prescription Against Heretics 36)
On the whole, then, if that is evidently more true which is earlier, if that is earlier which is fromthe very beginning, if that is from the beginning which has the apostles for its authors, then it will certainly be quite as evident, what comes down from the apostles is that which has been kept as a sacred deposit in the churches of the apostles.
Let us see what milk the Corinthians drank from Paul; to what rule of faith the Galatians were brought for correction; what the Philippians, the Thessalonians, the Ephesians read by it; what utterance also the Romans give, so very near, to whom Peter and Paul conjointly bequeathed the gospel even sealed with their own blood.
We have also St. JohnÕs foster churches. [Ed. note:The seven churches mentioned in Rev. 2-3.] For although Marcion rejects his Apocalypse, the order of the bishops, when traced back to their origin, will rest on John as their author. In the same way we recognize the excellent source of the other churches. I say, therefore, that in them (and not simply such of them as were founded by apostles, but in all those which are united with them in the fellowship of the mystery of the gospel of Christ), that Gospel of Luke which we are defending with all our might has stood its ground from its very first publication; whereas MarcionÕs Gospel is not known to most people, and to none whatever is it known without being at the same time condemned. (Against Marcion IV:5))
Since many ... of those who profess to believe in Christ differ from each other, not only in small and trifling matters, but also on subjects of the highest importance, such as regarding God, the Lord Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit; and not only regarding these, but also regarding others which are created existences, viz., the powers and the holy virtues; it seems on that account necessary first of all to fix a definite limit and to lay down an unmistakable rule regarding each one of these, and then to pass to the investigation of other points. For as we ceased to seek for truth (notwithstanding the professions of many among Greeks and Barbarians to make it known) among all who claimed it for erroneous opinions, after we had come to believe that Christ was the Son of God, and were persuaded that we must learn it from Himself; so, seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. (De Principiis, preface 2)
Nor let the people flatter themselves that they can be free from the contagion of sin, while communicating [i.e., breaking bread] with an elder who is a sinner, and yielding their consent to the unjust and unlawful episcopacy of their overseer …
On which account a people obedient to the Lord’s precepts, and fearing God, ought to separate themselves from a sinful prelate, and not to associate themselves with the sacrifices of a sacrilegious priest, especially since they themselves have the power either of choosing worthy elders, or of rejecting unworthy ones. ("To the Clergy and People Abiding in Spain," par. 3, from the Epistles of Cyprian 67, as numbered in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V)
Be careful to note the difference between the requirements for ordaining a bishop and the requirements for ordaining an elder in Cyprian's quotes. Otherwise, Cyprian will seem to be contradicting himself.
Only the appointment of a bishop required the attendance and approval of surrounding bishops. Elders could be approved by the congregation alone.
We observe to come from divine authority, that the elder should be chosen in the presence of the people under the eyes of all, and should be approved worthy and suitable by public judgment and testimony. ("To the Clergy and People Abiding in Spain," par. 4, from the Epistles of Cyprian 67, as numbered in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V)
God commands an elder to be appointed in the presence of all the assembly; that is, He instructs and shows that the ordination of elders ought not to be solemnized except with the knowledge of the people standing near, that in the presence of the people either the crimes of the wicked may be disclosed, or the merits of the good may be declared, and the ordination, which shall have been examined by the vote and judgment of all, may be just and legitimate. ("To the Clergy and People Abiding in Spain," par. 4, from the Epistles of Cyprian 67, as numbered in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V)
For which reason you must diligently observe and keep the practice delivered from divine tradition and apostolic observance, which is also maintained among us, and almost throughout all the provinces; that for the proper celebration of ordinations all the neighbouring bishops of the same province should assemble with that people for which a prelate is ordained. And the bishop should be chosen in the presence of the people, who have most fully known the life of each one, and have looked into the doings of each one as respects his habitual conduct. ("To the Clergy and People Abiding in Spain," par. 5, from the Epistles of Cyprian 67, as numbered in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V)
As there are many other and grave crimes in which Basilides and Martialis are held to be implicated; such persons attempt to claim for themselves the episcopate [office of bishop] in vain; since it is evident that men of that kind may neither rule over the Church of Christ, nor ought to offer sacrifices to God … men of this sort might indeed be admitted to repentance, but were prohibited from the ordination of the clergy, and from the priestly honour. ("To the Clergy and People Abiding in Spain," par. 5, from the Epistles of Cyprian 67, as numbered in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V)
Most of Cyprian's quotes are addressing the heresy [in this case, "heresy" is a reference to division, not false doctrine] of Novatian.
Novatian was an elder in Rome during the persecution under Decius (A.D. 250-251). After the persecution, some who had denied Christ or turned over copies of the Scriptures during the persecution wanted readmittance to the Church. The churches opted to receive them back after a time of penance.
This decision offended Novatian that he left the church, ordained himself as bishop, and started his own congregation in Rome.
The Novatianists persisted for a century or so. By the mid-4th century, there was so little risk of persecution that the Novatianists were simply absorbed back into the catholic [meaning "universal," not Roman Catholic, which did not yet exist] churches.
Since the Church alone has the living water and the power of baptizing and cleansing man, he who says that any one can be baptized and sanctified by Novatian must first show and teach that Novatian is in the Church or presides over the Church.
For the Church is one, and, as she is one, cannot be both within and without. If she is with Novatian, she was not with Cornelius. But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded the bishop Fabian by lawful ordination, and whom, beside the honor of the priesthood, the Lord glorified also with martyrdom, Novatian is not in the Church.
Nor can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way. ("To the Clergy and People Abiding in Spain," par. 5, from the Epistles of Cyprian 75:3, as numbered in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V)
The following quote, combined with the fact that Cyprian vehemently and adamantly withstood bishop Stephen of Rome on the subject of batpizing heretics, proves that the Roman Catholics misinterpret Cyprian's statement about Peter's authority. Cyprian believed all bishops to have inherited the keys of the kingdom from Peter (Matt. 16:18-19). Whenever Cyprian is quoted concerning Peter, look to see if he ever says anything about Rome because he never does. You can agree or disagree with Cyprian on the authority of bishops, but Cyprian never asserted the authority of any one bishop, including the bishop of Rome.
This unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate [office of bishop] itself to be one and undivided. Let … no one corrupt the truth of the faith by treacherous deception. The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole. (On the Unity of the Church 5)
Why do [Arian bishops] reject [the synod] at Nicaea, at which their fathers signed the confession that the Son is of the Father's substance and consubstantial with him? ... For now they are at war not only with the bishops who met at Nicaea, but with their own great bishops and their own friends. Whose heirs or successors then are they? How can they call men fathers, whose confession, well and apostolically drawn up, they will not accept? (Synodal Letter to the Bishops of Africa 7)
From an interview Mercatornet.com did concerning the legacy of Cardinal John Newman (1801-1890).
I include the quote from Juan R. Velez because it is from a Roman Catholic priest, but it gives the proper definition of apostolic succession. It is the very definition that most Roman Catholics object to and deny when I teach it on this site.
The second quote addresses the fact that the authority of the bishop of Rome was a development, not something apostolic. I'm sure that Fr. Velez doesn't realize that it's a very late development, but here he acknowledges that it is a development.
MercatorNet: What is the point of handing down fossilized dogmas as Tradition without questioning them?
Fr. Velez: Here we must distinguish between Tradition in religious beliefs and social and political traditions. The first originates directly from God whereas the second are man made traditions. Christian tradition is the oral and written transmission of what God revealed to the Church through the Apostles and their disciples under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Within this tradition there is Apostolic Tradition stemming from the time of the Apostles or their disciples. Ecclesiastical tradition is the tradition that grew in the subsequent centuries also under the guidance of the Holy Spirit promised by Christ to the Apostles and their successors.
Catholics believe that Christ transmitted to the Apostles and their immediate successors the doctrines that He wished them to hand down to the bishops who would succeed them. Tradition consists in the oral preaching, example and institutions such as the sacraments administered by the Apostles. The Holy Spirit inspired some men to write down some of this Tradition, which has become the New Testament. Both Tradition and the Scripture form the one deposit of faith, which contain the truths that God wishes men to believe and practice. For any development in doctrine to be faithful to what God has revealed it must be faithful to Tradition and Scripture. (Mercatornet.com)
MercatorNet: But according to Newman does Church teaching change?
Yes and no. To be more precise, Church teaching undergoes development. This is not the same as teaching which “evolves.” Evolution implies one thing changing into something else -- the Church’s teaching does not evolve into something else. To ascribe this to Newman is a mistake. Newman explained that development can be good or bad. A bad development in doctrine is called a corruption in Christian teaching. An example of a good development was the actual exercise of authority that the successor of St. Peter grew to have. The contrary was in fact the corruption, namely disregard for the office of Peter established by Christ himself. (Mercatornet.com)