The Roman Catholic Church has a claim of apostolic succession, from St. Peter transited by the laying on of hands.

Most Protestants reject this understanding of apostolic succession, and instead teach that apostolic succession simply means where "the Word and the Sacraments are purely administered and taught."

However, the Catholic accusation of historicity still stands.

So how do Protestants explain/justify the fact that their understanding of Christianity only started in the XVI century? Was the whole Church corrupt or in error till then? If not, how come, since there was only the Orthodox and Catholic Churches (+ others but not Protestants)?

  • A lot of overlap (possibly could just close this as a duplicate) of According to Evangelicals, before the Reformation, who were Christians if “Catholics are not Christians”?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 12:17
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    Please could you make the lead question more clear. What do you mean by "accusation of historicity"? It means almost nothing to me. Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 14:53
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    There are plenty of groups, before the 16th century, that many subsequent Protestant groups would recognise as precursors (Lollards, Hussites and Waldenses particularly). Quite a lot of Protestant historiography exists which plots "genuine" (so it would say) Christian movements through history. Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 20:08
  • "How do Protestants answer the Catholic accusation of historicity?" -- surely different Protestants will answer in different ways, with a great many, perhaps most, having no interest in the issue. Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 9:59
  • So how do Protestants explain/justify the fact that their understanding of Christianity only started in the XVI century? Surely you do not think that there were zero persons with the same doctrine as the reformers for a period of 1,600 years ?
    – Nigel J
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 11:52

3 Answers 3


Protestant reformers were at pains to argue that all they sought to do was restore the church to purity which had become corrupted in medieval times. They wanted to ensure that their teachings were not just in line with Scripture but with many of the church fathers e.g. Augustine. You will find that the writings of the reformers are full of quotes to many early church fathers.

Just to give one example, the first homily from the first Anglican book of homilies ("A fruitful exhortation to the reading and knowledge of Holy Scripture") quotes seven times from ancient writers - Chrysostom, Augustine, and Fulgentius.

John Calvin says this in his reply to Cardinal Sadeleto:

But here you bring a charge against us. For you teach that all which has been approved for fifteen hundred years or more, by the uniform consent of the faithful, is, by our headstrong rashness, torn up and destroyed. Here I will not require you to deal truly and candidly by us, (though this should be spontaneously offered by a philosopher, not to say a Christian.) I will only ask you not to stoop to an illiberal indulgence in calumny, which, even though we be silent, must be extremely injurious to your reputation with grave and honest men. You know, Sadolet, and if you venture to deny, I will make it palpable to all that you knew, yet cunningly and craftily disguised the fact, not only that our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours, but that all we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of the Church, which, at first sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character, was afterwards flagitiously mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman Pontiff and his faction. [My emphasis]

So the Protestant reformers did not believe their understanding of Christianity only started in the 16th century. They believed they were doing away with the corruptions of the faith which had come into the church in medieval times to a more pure Scriptural faith. They quoted from the Fathers to support what they were saying.


To answer, we have to understand "apostolic succession"; what it meant very early on and what it subsequently came to mean.


The early form of apostolic succession was the biblical idea that faithful men would teach the same to other faithful men.

Paul taught Timothy and Titus (among others directly and via the written word) and instructed us this way.

And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. 2 Tim 2:2

Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. Titus 1:9

This definition of apostolic succession is also found here.

Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. Jude 1:3

The idea of the same doctrine being passed from elder to elder finds its way into the very early church fathers. As an example, here is Irenaeus regarding his mentor Polycarp.

  1. But 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, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom,3314 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,—a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. A.H. 3.3.4.


Some time later the idea of apostolic succession changed from elders who "teach the same" to one of sacerdotalism whereby the so-called succession became one of "holy orders" or a valid priest line (similar to a blood line).

This redefinition was done to accommodate large denominations such as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox who do not teach the same as each other and thus as apostles, yet who want to claim that redefined apostolic succession. They just hope no one understands history and redefinitions.


So, the idea that Protestants only began in the 16th century is basically meaningless within the original definition of apostolic succession as "teach the same". Protestants were trying to reestablish the Christian idea of what that meant.

Extraneous dogmas developed apart from the Bible and much later than apostles were to be rejected by those who actually were of an apostolic succession. Teach the same as apostles as revealed in the Bible; when you do that you are of that apostolic line.

  • For why "this redefinition was done" and "they just hope," please elaborate. Commented Apr 5, 2021 at 4:13
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    "Extraneous dogmas developed apart from the Bible and much later than apostles were to be rejected", so why did they persist with the trinity?
    – steveowen
    Commented Apr 5, 2021 at 7:40
  • "So, the idea that Protestants only began in the 16th century is basically meaningless within the original definition of apostolic succession as "teach the same". Protestants were trying to reestablish the Christian idea of what that meant."-meaningless? So, from St.Paul to 16th century, you have no historical reference of succession of your Pastors or leaders? No names can be cited in history before 16th century? Commented Apr 5, 2021 at 7:46
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    @user47952 It is generally taught that there is Scriptural support for the Trinity, even if it is not directly stated. Statements like "I and my Father are One" as stated by Jesus, and places where one verse will say God and the other Holy Spirit or Jesus. That said, I don't know that sola scriptura Protestants get into all the trinitarian heresies so much: as long as you' believe there are three persons in one God, that's treated like the Trinity. The non-Trinitarians I know of are Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses (which are not Protestants) and the Apostolic or "Oneness" Pentecostals.
    – trlkly
    Commented Apr 5, 2021 at 10:03
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    If there was scriptural support there wouldn't be a problem.'I and my Father are One' are taken totally out of context. The bible explains all these proof-texts without the need for other interpretations. I guess they haven't finished fixing the errors yet.
    – steveowen
    Commented Apr 5, 2021 at 10:37

Here is what the early Church Fathers have said about the heretics in Apostolic succession, i.e. Martin Luther.

Ante Nicene Fathers by Philip Schaff, p. 1061

Chapter III.—A refutation of the heretics, from the fact that, in the various Churches, a perpetual succession of bishops was kept up.

  1. It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should 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 [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.
  2. 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, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] 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; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority,665 that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

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