Apostolic succession

In the fourth quarter of the second century, we have the case for the apostolic succession stated forcefully and clearly by Irensus. A native of either Syria or Asia Minor, Irensus had in his youth seen Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp, he informs us, had been instructed by the apostles and had talked with many who had seen Christ. Coming to Gaul, Irensus in time became Bishop of Lyons. Distressed by what he regarded as the errors and corruptions of the Gospel which he knew in Gaul and by the headway which he found on a visit to Rome was being made by them, he wrote an extensive treatise "against heresies," describing them and refuting them by setting forth what he believed to be the true faith. He insisted that the apostles had transmitted faithfully and accurately what had been taught them by Christ and had not, as the heretics asserted, intermingled with them extraneous ideas. He was emphatic that the apostles had appointed as successors bishops to whom they had committed the churches and in doing so had undoubtedly passed on to them what had been entrusted to the apostolic company by Christ. These bishops had been followed by others in unbroken line who were also guardians and guarantors of the apostolic teaching. He hints that he could, if there were space, give the lists of the bishops of all the churches, but he singles out that of the Church of Rome, which he holds to have been founded and organized by Peter and Paul. Peter and Paul, so he says, appointed Linus. Linus in turn, so Irensus declared, was followed by others in unbroken line to the twelfth in the succession who was bishop when the book was being composed.

Writing in the first quarter of the fourth century, Eusebius, the most famous of the early historians of the Church, gave the lists of the bishops of several of the churches. We need not stop to enquire whether these were accurate. That they existed is evidence of the conviction which lay back of their compilation and preservation, that a succession of bishops from the apostles was assurance that the Gospel had been conserved and handed down and that it was one of the marks of the Catholic Church.

Bishops began coming together for consultation and common action. The first of these gatherings, or synods, of which we have record, although we are not entirely clear that it was made up of bishops or only of bishops, was held in Asia Minor to deal with

Montanism. That movement was condemned as heretical and its adherents were expelled from the Church and debarred from the communion.

In its response to all three of these movements which it deemed heretical — Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism — the Catholic Church quickened a process which was already in progress, the development of an administrative system which centred about its bishops. Certainly in the primitive church there could have been communities without a bishop present at all times. But with time bishops were becoming a characteristic feature of the Catholic Church, with a single bishop in a given city or area. If a city had more than one bishop, others beyond the one would be assistants. The bishop was more than administrator. He also was in charge of the worship and supervised the entire life of the church within his territorial jurisdiction. As Christians increased the number of bishops grew. In some areas, notably in North Africa and Italy, every town had its bishop, and the bishops in one of these areas might number several hundred. However, another system was emerging, with territorial subdivisions, parishes, in charge of a resident presbyter or priest supervised by the bishop in the neighbouring city.

Whatever the organization, succession in direct line from the apostles was deemed of the essence of the episcopate. Even Tertullian, who became a Montanist, stoutly maintained that only those churches were valid which agreed in their teaching with those which had been founded by the apostles and where the faith had been kept pure by a succession of bishops going back to the apostles. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage and a martyr in the third century, held that there was only one Church, that the episcopate founded upon the rock by Christ was in the Church and the Church in the bishop, and that if any were not with the bishop he was not in the Church. Moreover, Cyprian insisted that he who was not in the Church was not a Christian and that outside the Church, authenticated by the presence of the episcopate, there was no salvation. The bishops were more and more becoming prominent as essential features of the Catholic Church.

As the third century wore on, and after the Gnostics, the Marcionites, and the Montanists had ceased to become a major menace, the Catholic Church continued to develop its structure. As early as the beginning of the second century a distinct cleavage had begun to appear between clergy and laity, and this in spite of the fact that in the first century every Christian was held to be a priest unto God. By the end of the second century the clergy had clearly become a separate "order," that designation having probably been derived from the designation given to Roman magistrates in a tightly stratified society. The election of a bishop was usually by the presbyters and other clergy of the city, was ratified by the congregation, and was approved by other bishops of the neighbourhood. When so chosen, the bishop was consecrated by other bishops. The bishop selected and ordained the subordinate clergy. Among the latter the chief ranks were presbyters and deacons. Below them were the minor orders, such as sub-deacons, acolytes, exorcists, readers, and janitors. Deaconesses were to be found in the eastern part of the Empire, with the responsibility of caring for members of their sex. In both East and West there were "widows," who were charged with the duty of prayer and nursing the sick. Cyprian, the famous Bishop of Carthage whom we have already met, while looking up to Rome as the chief church in dignity, regarded every bishop as having all the powers of the group and at most esteemed the Bishop of Rome as only the first among equals. But the Bishop of Rome claimed greater authority, and it was natural that the bishops of the larger cities, especially Rome, should be more prominent than those of the smaller cities and towns.

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