What did the Apostolic Fathers, Ante-Nicene Fathers and the Ante-Nicene Church in general believe about the continuation of the office of Apostle? Were they cessationists or continuationists with respect to the office of Apostle? Can this be reliably answered from the historical records of the Ante-Nicene period of the Church?

Appendix - NT passages on Apostles

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22 ESV)

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11-14 ESV)

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:27-30 ESV)

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The Ante-Nicene Fathers provide a variety of viewpoints on this matter. As with so many other topics, there was lively disagreement among their ranks.

I'll loosely group ideas into 3 broad categories, and offer examples of each:

  • Continuation of authority
  • Reduction in authority
  • Rampant apostasy


Continuation of authority

Irenaeus of Lyons (late 2nd century) is among the most commonly cited fathers for support for apostolic succession. 3 of his more emphatic statements are provided below.

In refutation of the teachings of those he considered heretical he appealed to the authority of Rome:

...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 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 preeminent authority (Against Heresies 3.3.2).

He cites Clement of Rome as a successor to the apostles and the author of a letter teaching apostolic truth:

...in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles (Against Heresies 3.3.3)

After relating the succession of Roman Bishops from the 1st century down to his own time, Irenaeus states:

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 3.3.3)

Though Irenaeus does not use some of the vocabulary of apostolic succession that would be developed in later years, it is not difficult to see how his statements can be interpreted in favor of apostolic authority being handed down through a succession of Bishops.


Tertullian of Carthage (late 2nd century)

As already noted by SupportiveDante, Tertullian emphasized that the church leaders of his day could trace their authority to the apostles:

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...

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. (Prescription Against Heretics ch. 32)


Reduction in authority

Ignatius of Antioch (an Apostolic Father) had much to say about church structure and the importance of respecting church authorities. He was also very careful to acknowledge that he, as a Bishop, was not an apostle and did not have the authority to speak as they had.

Several excellent examples of his views are expressed in his letter to the Trallians:

without the bishop ye should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ (chapter 2)

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 sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church (chapter 3)

continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our God, and the bishop, and the enactments of the apostles. He that is within the altar is pure, but he that is without is not pure; that is, he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience. (chapter 7)

(note that writing circa AD 107 Ignatius strongly implies that there are no longer apostles in their midst, as it is bishops, presbyters, and deacons who must be consulted, and without whom there is no church. This statement could hardly be made if the church was still being led by apostles)

But shall I, when permitted to write on this point, reach such a height of self-esteem, that...I should issue commands to you as if I were an apostle? (chapter 3)

From his Epistle to the Romans:

I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles of Jesus Christ, but I am the very least (chapter 6)

Ignatius is clear that the officials of the church have authority and ought to be respected, but he repeatedly acknowledges that they are not apostles, cannot speak as apostles, and cannot replace that which was given by the apostles.

Finally, from his epistle to the Magnesians:

your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles (chapter 6)

The parallelism shows that as the bishop is clearly lower in authority than God, the presbyters are lower in authority than the apostles (see also his deference to higher, apostolic authority in Trallians ch. 10 & Ephesians ch. 11).


Clement of Rome (another Apostolic Father) also acknowledged the authority of the bishops & deacons came from the apostles, but does not treat these officials as replacements of the apostles--their position is lesser & distinct:

1 The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God.

2 So then Christ is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ. Both therefore came of the will of God in the appointed order.

3 Having therefore received a charge, and having been fully assured through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and confirmed in the word of God with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth with the glad tidings that the kingdom of God should come.

4 So preaching everywhere in country and town, they appointed their firstfruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe. (1 Clement 42:1-4)

By Clement's time the apostles' appointees were bishops & deacons; not successor apostles.


Rampant Apostasy

Cyprian of Carthage (3rd century)

Each had been bent on improving his own patrimony, and had forgotten what believers had done under the Apostles, and what they ought always to do. They were brooding over the arts of amassing wealth; the pastors and the deacons each forgot his duty; works of mercy were neglected, and discipline was at the lowest ebb...fraud and deception practiced among brethren....

Even many bishops, who ought to be guides and patterns to the rest, neglected the peculiar duties of their stations, gave themselves up to secular pursuits. They deserted their places of residence and their flocks; they traveled through distant provinces in quest of pleasure and gain; gave no assistance to their needy brethren, but were insatiable in their thirst of money. They possessed estates by fraud and multiplied usury.

What have we not deserved to suffer for such conduct? Even the divine word hath foretold us what we might expect: “If his children forsake my law and walk not in my judgments, I will visit their offenses with the rod and their sins with scourges.” These things had been denounced and foretold but in vain. Our sins had brought our affairs to that pass, that because we had despised the Lord’s directions, we were obliged to undergo a correction of our multiplied evils and a trial of our faith by severe remedies. (as quoted in End of Religious Controversy, Milner, Letter 26)

In rejecting the authority of any other bishop over himself he wrote:

I marvel that some, with daring temerity, have chosen to write to me as if they wrote in the name of the Church (The Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:305).

As summarized by Tad R. Callister:

On one occasion...Stephen [Bishop of Rome] attempted to asssert his general command over the African Council of Bishops on the issue of whether or not a heretic needed to be rebaptized. In AD 258, Cyprian the bishop of Carthage, called a council of eighty-seven bishops to discuss a response to what Cyprian called "the bitter obstinacy of our brother Stephen." As part of their response, these bishops expounded that there was no successor to Peter there was no pope, and there was no supreme bishop. (The Inevitable Apostasy p. 61)


Eusebius of Caesarea (3rd-4th century) lamented:

the ambitious aspirings of many to office, and the injudicious and unlawful ordinations, that took place, the divisions among the confessors themselves, the great schisms and difficulties industriously fomented by the factions (HE Martyrs of Palestine ch. 12)


Hippolytus of Rome (3rd century):

And he [Callistus, bishop of Rome] first invented the device of conniving with men in regard of their indulgence in sensual pleasures, saying that all had their sins forgiven by himself...should he commit any transgression; the sin, they say, is not reckoned unto him, provided only he hurries off and attaches himself to the school of Callistus. And many persons were gratified with his regulation. (The Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:131)

The very bishops of the church expressed tremendous distrust that the leaders of the church in their time were acting in accordance with God's will, doctrine, or authority.

My own interpretation of this evidence (aka HoldToTheRod's ravings):

  • The earliest writers acknowledge the apostles had appointed stewards over various responsibilities in the church, but had not appointed successors with apostolic authority. Their focus is on following the teachings given and the officers appointed by the apostles.
  • A generation later, Irenaeus sees schism and fracturing and heresy, and promotes a hierarchical structure to avoid fragmentation of Christianity
  • By the third century, disarray and apostasy were abundantly evident

My own personal view, as one who believes in the doctrine of priesthood keys, is that the apostles did indeed appoint Bishops and others as stewards of various churches, but with the departure of the apostles, the keys to administer the church collectively, or to appoint successors for subsequent generations, were no longer on the earth.

It appears that Polycarp of Smyrna was the last known Bishop who was appointed by apostolic authority; he did not have apostolic authority to appoint his own successor. If John's departure (circa AD 100) marks the end of apostolic leadership of the general church, Polycarp's death (circa AD 155) can perhaps be considered the end of local church leadership under anyone authorized by the apostles.

God withdrew apostolic authority due to apostasy, necessitating a subsequent restoration.

Acknowledgement to Ante-Nicene Father quotations compiled by earlychristianwritings.com, newadvent.org, & The Inevitable Apostasy by Tad R. Callister

  • 2
    And so the gates of hell did prevail against the church for some 1700 years? Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 11:42
  • @MikeBorden this is the most debated passage in the New Testament. I doubt we're going to solve that one in the comments =). FWIW, I don't think the gates of Hades prevailed against the rock. Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 14:56
  • New question: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/75675/… Commented Apr 16, 2022 at 12:31

Q: Did the Early Church (ante-Nicene period) believe in the continuation or cessation of the office of Apostle?

A: In the ante-Nicene period it was held that the Apostles chose their own successors, who held the same office and could themselves choose successors.


The Apostles appointed their successors

“Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]).


“When I had come to Rome, I [visited] Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And after Anicetus [died], Soter succeeded, and after him Eleutherus. In each succession and in each city there is a continuance of that which is proclaimed by the law, the prophets, and the Lord” (Memoirs, cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4:22 [A.D. 180]).


“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about” (Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).

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, 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” (ibid., 3:3:4).

Presbyters (priests) also receive Apostolic succession, though they are distinct from the Bishops, in that they cannot ordain.

“[I]t is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the infallible charism of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth” (ibid., 4:26:2).

The true knowledge is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere” (ibid., 4:33:8).


"Apostolic men" would seem to be those immediate disciples and successors of the Apostles

“But if there be any [heresies] which are bold enough to plant [their origin] in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: 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 [their first] 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” (ibid., 32).

“Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic Church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. But in truth they neither are so, nor are they able to prove themselves to be what they are not. Nor are they admitted to peaceful relations and communion by such churches as are in any way connected with apostles, inasmuch as they are in no sense themselves apostolic because of their diversity as to the mysteries of the faith” (ibid.).

  • This is a useful answer...but it looks like it is copy-pasted directly from this website Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 4:20
  • That's because it is
    – user54757
    Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 20:59

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