What is apostolic authority?
The Catholic Church claims that, through St. Peter and the other apostles, Christ established a special apostolic authority for acting in his name for the preservation and growth of the Church. This authority includes binding and loosing, forgiving sins, and having power over demons (Matthew 16:19, 18:18; Luke 9:1). The attribute of apostolic succession most relevant to this post is the ability to ordain others for the mission of the Church. This is seen in Paul's Message to Titus:
This ordination process involved the laying on of hands as it is still done today in multiple apostolic denominations (1 Tim. 4:14).5 For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and shouldest ordain priests in every city, as I also appointed thee:6 If any be without crime, the husband of one wife, having faithful children, not accused of riot, or unruly.7 For a bishop must be without crime, as the steward of God: not proud, not subject to anger, not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre.
Evidence of continuity?
Note: The exact dates and chronological order of the books in the New Testament have been disputed. For my dates I am using this source.
One may concede that apostolic authority and succession was implemented by Christ, and further that there was a structure and hierarchy preserved by this authority, but they may question the Catholic Church's claim of unbroken continuity. There may have been a line of apostolic authority and succession that was established and continued for a generation or two, but how do we know it continued beyond that? To answer this question, let us consider the records we have and their respective dates:
2 Cor 1: 21-22 (57 AD): Paul speaks of being confirmed, anointed, and sealed.
Acts 1:20-26 (64 AD): Matthias is ordained to fill Judas' bishopric.
Acts 14:23 (64 AD): Speaks of presbyters (priests) being appointed to each church.
Titus 1:5 (65 AD): Paul instructs Titus to ordain priests and bishops in the cities of Crete.
1 Tim. 4:14 (65 AD): Ordination given "with imposition of hands of the priesthood."
Heb 7:23 (67 AD): Verse speaks of other priests being called to replace those who have died.
Clement (98 AD):
"And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus saith the Scripture a certain place, 'I will appoint their bishops s in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.'... Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry...For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties." Pope Clement, Epistle to Corinthians, 42, 44 (A.D. 98).Ignatius (110 AD):
"For what is the bishop but one who beyond all others possesses all power and authority, so far as it is possible for a man to possess it, who according to his ability has been made an imitator of the Christ off God? And what is the presbytery but a sacred assembly, the counselors and assessors of the bishop? And what are the deacons but imitators of the angelic powers, fulfilling a pure and blameless ministry unto him, as…Anencletus and Clement to Peter?" Ignatius, To the Trallians, 7 (A.D. 110).... and the list continues here if you are interested.
There is abundant evidence that an apostolic structure that began during the ministry of Christ continued long after his death and resurrection; however we must acknowledge that it is technically possible that somewhere along the line one of these bishops or priests wasn't validly ordained, but for apostolic continuity to be completely severed there would have to have been a complete disappearance of validly ordained clergy. Given the spread of Christianity into various regions, a complete disappearance of apostolic authority seems unlikely. Further, such an event would contradict Christ's promise that "... I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," (Matt. 16:18) and "...behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world." Even if we disregard these verses, it is hard to believe God would establish an apostolic Church only to let it die.
Apostles aren't Bishops?
This is an argument I recently heard which is essentially that because the original apostles are only recorded as having ordained bishops, but not successors to fill the role of apostle, apostolic succession ceased. Underlying this argument is the idea that the early church had a priesthood office of "apostle" that was higher and distinct from that of bishop or priest. Put simply, apostolic succession stopped because the apostles ordained bishops, not apostles. However, there are two factors that I believe defeat this argument.
1. The idea that "bishop" and "apostle" are completely distinct from one another is refuted by Acts 1: 20, which states, referring to Judas ".. let his bishopric another take." Judas, who was an apostle, is also referred to as a bishop.
James, another of the original twelve apostles, is widely held to have been the first bishop of the Christian community in Jerusalem.
"...one cannot help but immediately focus on the figure of St. James the Just who, without question, functioned as the one-man monarchical leader of the Jerusalem city-church after the Apostles ceased to permanently reside there. Indeed, both Scripture and the universal witness of the Fathers illustrate this fact most clearly. For example, Eusebius of Caesarea, drawing from much earlier sources, directly states that the Apostles Peter, James [bar-Zebedee], and John appointed James the Just as the monarchical head ("bishop") of the Jerusalem city-church.2. This argument presupposes that, like bishop, apostle is a priesthood office. What is important to remember, however, is that the apostles were referred to as such prior to receiving priesthood authority; thus the word apostle cannot be necessarily tied to a priesthood office. The word apostle ("apostolos" in greek) means only "one who is sent." This definition is easily applied to both the original twelve apostles and the bishops and priests who were called and sent for the good of the Church.
Similarly, in Galatians 2:12, as St. Paul complains about some Judaizing Christians from the church of Jerusalem, he does not say that these Jewish brethren came "from Jerusalem" or from "the presbyters of Jerusalem," but rather "from James" -- thus equating James with the church of Jerusalem itself. Also, in Acts 12:17, as Peter flees Jerusalem after his miraculous escape from prison, he does not command the local flock to "report this to the presbyters"; but instead directly says, "Report this to James," thereby revealing that James was the leading authority." (source)
There are a few instances where there are minor absences of evidence for apostolic succession when the record is silent for a few decades, but there exists no evidence of the absence of a continuing apostolic structure. Further, there is nothing to suggest that the office of bishop is wholly distinct from the roles held by the original twelve apostles. In fact, there is evidence that some of the original twelve apostles were bishops. The term "apostle," meaning "one who is sent," is applied equally to apostles, bishops, and priests alike. There is no evidence that apostolic succession was severed, or that apostolic succession necessarily required the apostles to ordain other men who carried the title "apostle." Having established that there did indeed exist a structure of apostolic succession and ordination in the early Christian Church, the onus of proof is on those who doubt the Church's claim to unbroken apostolic succession.
Update (8 March 2013): Last night I ran into a Lutheran friend of mine, and we got to talking about this subject. As a Lutheran (ELCA), he believes in baptism, the celebration of the eucharist, and a church hierarchy; however, he does not believe in apostolic succession. Instead, he informed me that Lutherans (ELCA) believe the pastor assigned to each church merely fills an employment position of sorts in the church structure. Thus a priest does not have to celebrate communion or be ordained by other priests, strictly speaking. I thought I would consider this claim by examining the New Testament and Early Church Fathers along with the other claims already considered.
(My Friend's) Lutheran View of Apostolic Succession
First off, it is important to note that there is no uniform view of apostolic succession among Lutherans. Many churches in Scandinavia still hold apostolic succession as important and trace their authority back through pre-Reformation bishops. Therefore I will only be considering my friend's view of apostolic succession, being that it is unnecessary.
Power to Bind and Loose
In Matt. 16:19, Christ gives unto St. Peter the power to bind and loose, meaning that if he establishes something or discontinues something on earth it will also be so in heaven. Further, John 20:21-23 speaks of Christ sending his apostles and giving them authority to forgive or not forgive sins. If we do not understand this authority in the sense that apostolic churches understand it, as a priesthood authority, how else might we understand it?
Perhaps we could hold that the powers to bind, loose, and forgive sins belongs to the priesthood of all believers. This would mean than anyone who is a Christian possesses these powers. This poses a problem: what if some Christians want to bind, for instance, the admittance of women to the priesthood and other Christians are opposed to this binding? Who would have the final say? Perhaps we can conclude that when Christ told St. Peter that he would give him the power to bind, loose, and forgive he intended it to be a power of consensus by which Christians can vote on issues and make them official doctrines. It is important to acknowledge, however, that any time Christ speaks of giving authority to someone it is restricted to one or all of the apostles, not all believers.
While I believe the evidence up to this point remains in favor of the importance of apostolic succession it is not conclusive. Moving on, then, the next question to consider is whether the New Testament ever states that priests must receive authority from one already imbued with apostolic authority. In Ephesians 2:19-20, Paul speaks to the local community, saying "...you are fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone." This verse, along with Matt. 16:18-19, does imply that the church is founded upon the apostles to whom Christ gave special authority, but it may simply be interpreted to mean that Christianity is built upon the tradition preserved and declared by apostles and prophets. A reality that is difficult to overlook is that in every instant where someone is baptized, given the holy spirit, or given the authority to do these things it is done by Christ, the apostles, or one given authority from the apostles, such as Titus and Timothy (Acts 8:14-24; 1 Tim. 4:14, Titus 1:5).
The Old Testament further reveals a priesthood, established by God through Moses, that was exclusive and hierarchical as is the apostolic priesthood today (Exodus 18:25-26, 40:15; Numbers 3:3, 16:40, 27:18-20; Deut. 34:9).
Aside from the Bible, the Early writings of the Church Fathers reveal that apostolic succession and the episcopal structure of the Church was uncontroversial, and the very method by which one's authority was judged, as is demonstrated by this passage from Tertullian:
But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves 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 [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. …To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine…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." Tertullian, Prescription against the Heretics, 33 (A.D. 200).and further in this passage:
"Therefore the power of remitting sins was given to the apostles, and to the churches which they, sent by Christ, established, and to the bishops who succeeded to them by vicarious ordination." Firmilian, To Cyprian, Epistle 75:16 (A.D. 256).There are many more passages such as these that can be accessed here and here.
There are many implicit evidences of apostolic succession found in the New Testament, such as priesthood authority being exercised only by the apostles and their successors. Further, the apostolic model of priesthood authority is akin to the Levitical priesthood structure found in the Pentateuch (first 5 books of Old Testament). Finally, the writings of the Early Church Fathers, as early as the first century, clearly show a Christian church that fully accepted the episcopal structure and the importance of apostolic continuity. Any Christian, or Christian body, that denies the importance of apostolic authority and continuity stands against the evidence presented by the early Church.