Is it true that all the disciples of Christ's apostles (including Paul) considered (in their writings of the 1st and 2nd centuries) the priesthood one of the sacraments?

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    Who is making this claim, and can you give us a reference or do they give any supporting evidence? – Caleb Jun 15 '12 at 13:30
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    @Caleb - One orthodox theologian said this in one of his lectures. The source is on the internet, but the problem is that it's not in English. – brilliant Jun 15 '12 at 13:49
  • @brilliant, For some of us, that won't be much problem. It might be a good idea to tell us the source anyway. – musicwithoutpaper Jun 19 '12 at 13:53
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    @musicwithoutpaper - "It might be a good idea to tell us the source anyway" - All right. It's here: files.tvspas.ru/popup.php?flv=/Video/… (it is at 1:02:27) – brilliant Jun 19 '12 at 14:42
  • As a side note (I mentioned below) 'priesthood of all believers' does not necessarily mean that all believers are individually priests. When we use the ending 'hood' or 'head' or 'ship' (Germanic) the use is not sufficient condition to conclude individual, independent possession of that property. Would we say the 'Godhead' implies that the members are individudally Gods? No. Where does this idea of the priesthood of all believers even come from? It is simple - it comes from being members of the body of the High Priest himself. Disappointing perhaps, but logically solid. – user304 Jun 20 '12 at 21:55

Short Answer: The answer to your question depends completely on how you understand the "sacrament of priesthood", and on how you interpret the early writings. To me it seems clear that the early church did not have a singular voice on the topic, and at least some of them did not seem to view "priesthood" the way many Churches today view it. I think the Orthodox Theologian you referred to was taking a little too much liberty in his teachings. However, many Churches interpret the writings differently than I do.

"Sacrament of Priesthood"

First, let's clarify what is meant by the "sacrament of priesthood." The idea comes from Scripture. (I disagree with the interpretation, but that's beside the point.)

  • Jesus selected specific men from amongst his disciples to serve as Apostles.

  • After He ascended, we also see the Spirit instructing the leaders in the early Church to "set apart" specific men for similar duties:

While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. -Acts 13:2-3

Notice that in response to the Spirit's instructions, they fasted, prayed, laid hands on them, and then sent them.

  • From 2 Timothy 2:2 we see that Paul taught Timothy and then instructed him to pass on those learnings to faithful men who would be able to teach others. This is usually taken to imply a "lineage", or "heritage" that continued past the original apostles.

Many Churches understand these passages to be indications of a sacrament called "priesthood" (a.k.a. "holy orders") which is passed on through a lineage of Priests tracing back to Christ. The following is a pretty good definition of the "sacrament of priesthood":

The Sacrament of Priesthood is a holy sacrament through which the bishop lays his hands on the head of the elected candidate, so that the Holy Spirit will descend on him and grant him one of the priestly ranks. He is then given the authority to officiate the Sacraments of the church, doctrines, and others. -source

Note: this is also referred to as "apostolic succession" since the idea is that the priesthood traces back through the Apostles to Christ.

Support from the Early Church

There are a number of early church fathers who are often cited as being in support of the "sacrament of priesthood". (NOTE: The word "sacrament" wasn't in use in the early church, but the ideas of priestly lineage and apostolic succession were.)

  • Clement of Rome (AD 96) taught apostolic succession (source), although there is some debate about the specifics of his views. Here is a decent summary of his position:

Clement of Rome states that the apostles appointed successors to continue their work where they had planted churches and for these in their turn to do the same because they foresaw the risk of discord. -Wikipedia

  • Irenaeus (AD 180) wrote explicitly in favor of apostolic succession in his book Against All Heresies. There are several pertinent quotes available for viewing online here.

  • Hegesippus (AD 180) is sometimes referenced as a supporter of apostolic succession, although this does not seem to be a faithful interpretation of the emphasis in his writings. (source)

  • Tertullian (AD 200) is often cited as a proponent of apostolic succession, because in his writings he challenged heretics to produce evidence that their priesthood originated with the Apostles:

    let them unfold the [record] of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [the first bishop of theirs] shall be able to show [that] his ordainer and predecessor [was] one of the apostles or of apostolic men... For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna ... as also the church of Rome... In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit [their bishops] as having been appointed ... by apostles... -source (esp. chapter 32)

However, a more careful reading of this chapter will reveal the context of these statements. He is specifically challenging heretics who claim to be teaching apostolic tradition. His challenge is for them to provide evidence of this alleged apostolic succession, which he knows they can not do. He goes on to explain that even if they are able to produce evidence, it will clearly be a fabrication, since their teachings do not align with the teachings of the apostles. Near the end of the chapter he explains that any church whose teachings are in alignment with the teachings of the apostles are just as valid as those actually having descended from the apostles! He is not teaching on the "sacrament of priesthood" or on "apostolic tradition", but rather on ensuring their teachings are in unity with the teachings of the apostles.


Some folks (like me) will read these passages and quotes from early church fathers and conclude that the answer to your question is clearly "No"; the early church fathers (disciples of apostles) did not believe in apostolic succession.

However, many Churches read these passages and quotes and conclude that the answer to your question is "Yes", and believe there is clear evidence of this in writings such as those I listed.

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  • +1 for putting effort into it with good quotes. I read the quotes from your links and saw the imposition of hands as a sacriment is not mentioned by any of them. Well done. – Mike Jun 21 '12 at 0:25

Simple answer, No. No there is no proof of the assertion by that priest. 

The idea of Apostolic succession from which the orthodox imposition of hands as a sacrament finds its purpose is not something that can be historically traced. The laying on of hands is in the bible but not for this serious purpose of defining legitimate authority to administer the sacraments through a chain of succession. 

As there are little writings after the Apostles before Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD. The best I can argue is by finding the best evidence for the 'imposition of hands' as a holy sacriment to trasmit succession and show it to be no proof at all.  

I will not turn to the scripture as there is no evidence there to support this sacrament. The place where you would most expect to find it is in 1 Timothy Chapter 3, as the qualifications for bishops are listed, but nothing is there. This at once proves the requirement not set out as a  scripturally required rite, but looks look at the argument from history alone.

 Here is a quote by Tertullian making the best case for a kind of succesion from a [wiki] write up:

Tertullian,  In his Prescription Against Heretics, he explicitly challenges heretics to produce evidence of the apostolic succession of their communities.

Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men, — a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed."

But notice four things. 

 - First, the emphasis is not about laying on of hands. That is a biblical principle, and every church sort of follows that, in prayer and ordination, but its not portrayed as a the-big-thing. The importance is in the fact that the previous Bishop vouchsafed the new one. Its about credibility.  - Second, every church had a different bishop, passing the torch. There was no super bishop holding all the cards. Even the Apostles did not 'take charge' over churches planted by another Apostle.  - Third, To trace such succession today would be impractical, for it would be 100,000 times more complex than Christ's genealogies, for any given city.   - Fourth, although this would have been a wise practice in the early church to prevent heresy from totally destroying it,  there is actually nothing in the Bible that says it needed to be that way.

Therefore even if one could prove the impossible to prove (due to lack of historical writings), there is nothing in scripture to enforce its continuance, which would be impractical to do anyway.

I do not think God would allow utter silence in his word and in post apostolic history for something as important as this, if there was any truth to it.

Personally I would find it harder to disprove that God prefers blue over purple, because I see more blue in nature. That does not infer that we can't reasonable conclude God does not prefer blue. 

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    I don't think this answer address the question. The question is about the sacramental nature of the priesthood and not apostolic succession. By the way, you said "no" in your answer, but all you provided was the absence of evidence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. – LoveTheFaith Jun 16 '12 at 5:29
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    @LoveTheFaith - I partly agree with you, but this is because it would be very diffuclt to find any ancient quotes using ordinations as a sacriment. However as Apostolic Succession is an essential and necessary concept for ordination, which the eastern othrodox church includes in their 'Holy Mysteries' and since Tertillian is one of the first persons with extant works that may indicate actual traditions of the Church, I think the subjects are intertwined. The meaning of ordination is dependant on apostolic succession. Because this sacriment is just asserted, they have burden of proof. – Mike Jun 17 '12 at 1:56
  • @Love: you can't prove a negative. The original assertion mentioned in the question, that could (theoretically) be proven, but in practice (since those writings are largely lost or at least missing) can't. – Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 19 '12 at 11:52
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    @JürgenA.Erhard What you're saying is right, but it doesn't negate LoveTheFaith's point. If the answer is "we can't know for sure", then one shouldn't claim the answer is "no" - the farthest we could (accurately) go is to say "probably not." – Jas 3.1 Jun 19 '12 at 16:40
  • (-1) It seems like you are arguing your position, but the question was asking about historical facts concerning the position of the early church. – Jas 3.1 Jun 19 '12 at 16:47

Since this statement was made by an Orthodox theologian (note the upper case "O" in "Orthodox". I think the OP incorrectly used a lower case "o" in the comment section), I think it would be better to first have some definitions in place from an Orthodox perspective.

As far as I know the Catholic Church holds the same position as Orthodoxy in regard to the sacraments, so I am borrowing some definitions from within Catholic teaching. Now while the OP seems to be asking specifically about the priesthood being one of the sacraments, I will approach this subject from a slightly different angle and then come back to the priesthood as one of the sacraments.

The word "sacrament" signifies a "visible sign of a hidden reality". The Catholic understanding of "sacrament" is very broad. For eg. the Catechism says in CCC 774 -

The Greek word mysterion was translated into Latin by two terms: mysterium and sacramentum. In later usage the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterium. In this sense, Christ himself is the mystery of salvation: "For there is no other mystery of God, except Christ." The saving work of his holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation, which is revealed and active in the Church's sacraments (which the Eastern Churches also call "the holy mysteries"). The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body. The Church, then, both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies. It is in this analogical sense, that the Church is called a "sacrament."

Given this understanding of a sacrament, for the priesthood to be considered a sacrament, the priesthood has to be a visible sign of a hidden reality, namely Christ. In the evolution of the English language, the word "presbyter" (for eg. James 5:14) was rendered as "priest". This is a source of great confusion today, because I believe the Orthodox theologian spoke of presbyters and not the common priesthood of all believers mentioned in 1 Peter 2:9.

From now on in this post, whenever I say "priest"/"priesthood" I mean "presbyter"/"presbyterhood".

So did all disciples of Christ's apostles consider the priesthood a sacrament? I answer thus - if it can be shown that any of the apostles themselves considered the priesthood to be a sacrament, then we can be sure that the disciples of Christ's apostles also did the same, because the disciples followed the teachings of the apostles.

Now, for a priest to be a sacrament, he has to be a physical sign of a hidden reality, i.e. Christ. He has to act "in the person of Christ". So whatever he does in the person of Christ is done by Christ through the visible reality of the priest. There is one explicit mention of this in the bible -

And to whom you have pardoned any thing, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned any thing, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ. (2 Cor 2:10) - Douay Rheims translation

This notion, of the priest acting in the person of Christ, is how Orthodoxy and Catholicism understand the sacrament of confession, for example; when the priest forgives, it is Christ who is forgiving, because the priest is only a sacrament, a visible sign of the hidden (invisible) Christ who is forgiving.

Now this statement was made by Paul, who held the office of "episkope", because "episkope" was the office of an apostle (Acts 1:20). Peter, being an apostle, held the office of "episkope", but he also describes himself as a "presbyter" in 1 Peter 5:1. This suggests that an "episkope" is implicity a "presbyter", although it is a higher office than that.

It could be argued solely on the basis of 2 Cor 2:10, that the disciples of the apostles considered the priesthood to be a sacrament. However, there is more evidence for that in some of the writings of one of the known immediate disciples of the apostles - Ignatius of Antioch (the others are Polycarp of Smyrna and Clement of Rome).

"In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles." Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians Chapter 3

"I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ..." Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians Chapter 6

So we see that Ignatius holds that the bishop is a sacrament of Christ. He does not explicitly mention that the priests are a sacrament of Christ, but that can be deduced if we hold that every bishop is implicitly a priest (which, as a matter of fact, is true in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

I do have to make the following additional comment though. The church as a whole is also a sacrament! You and me are visible signs of the hidden Christ, because we are the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27). That is why, when Jesus spoke to Saul who was persecuting Christians, he said to Saul, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4).

So while the church as a whole is a sacrament, the priests are sacraments in a special way. The priesthood, therefore, has to be a sacrament (one of the seven), because it consecrates priests to act in this special capacity.

So my answer to your question is - Yes! Indeed!

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  • It's worth noting that the priesthood of all believers doesn't necessarily make believers individually priests - in the same way when we talk about the Godhood (Godhead) we don't mean that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are individually Gods. Instead it has to do with the sacramental nature of Christian life itself, and given that we compose the body of the High Priest himself- Christ - we are certainly part of the priesthood. But our role in it is not the same, so the 'priesthood of all believers' cannot be understood as the Aaronic priesthood, but as membership in a body. – user304 Jun 20 '12 at 21:50
  • @RiverC I covered this in my post! – LoveTheFaith Jun 20 '12 at 23:12
  • By the way, who downvoted? In what way is my answer not useful? – LoveTheFaith Jun 20 '12 at 23:13

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