Question: The Catholic Church teaches the truth because the doctrines of Christ and the apostles have been preserved through an unbroken line of Catholic bishops. All over the world, all Catholic bishops can have their lineage of predecessors traced back to the time of the apostles, something that is impossible in Protestant denominations. What are your comments?
Answer: In Catholic theology, apostolic succession is the line of bishops stretching back to the apostles. Apostolic succession is supposedly the guarantee that the modern Catholic Church teaches the pure doctrines of Christ.
Now, if this rule of succession guarantees doctrinal purity, why can’t others also apply it also, say the Eastern Orthodox Church? They too rightly claim apostolic succession, and yet they contradict the Roman Church on the fundamental question of the infallibility and universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome. Clearly something more than ‘apostolic succession’ is needed to know whether a given doctrine is true or not.
Church leaders should teach faithful men, who in turn would teach others, and hence the Gospel is transmitted from one generation to another. “The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
However, the mere lineal succession of bishops/elders/pastors does not in itself guarantee the preservation and purity of the original message.
First of all, the bishops are not apostles, nor do they have the same authority of the apostles. The apostles were a unique group of men who were commissioned by Christ to lay down the foundation of the church. The elders/bishops of the church are inferior to the apostles.
Moreover, the apostle Paul warned the bishops of the church of Ephesus “that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:29,30). Some of the “savage wolves” originated from among the legitimate bishops of the church at Ephesus. They too would speak “perverse things.” Clearly then, even though those bishops could rightly claim “apostolic succession” (according to the Roman Catholic concept), still their doctrines were false.
Historically, the priests, Levites and the religious leaders of Israel were the "successors" of Moses and the prophets, yet by the time of Christ, they were teaching all sorts of false doctrines and had filled the house of Israel with leaven. It became necessary for the early Christians to depart from them because they were not faithfully teaching the doctrines of the Scriptures.
I hope that many Catholics will see the emptiness of the Catholic bishops’ claim to infallible authority merely because of historical lineage. They remind me of the Jewish leaders who were often bragging that they had Abraham as their father. Do you remember how John the baptist rebuked them, “And do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3:9). Concerning these same successors of the Patriarchs, Jesus warned His disciples to “take heed and beware of the leaven - the doctrines - of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6).
This principle applies today as much as it ever did before.
Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A