Peter Leithart, Irenaeus, and Bishops


Peter Leithart, a man for whom I have tremendous respect, recently wrote something on how the doctrine of Apostolic Succession articulated by Irenaeus. Irenaeus explains that unbroken line of ordinations from the laying on of hands from the Apostles to the Catholic Church’s bishops (the doctrine of Apostolic Succession) ensures that the doctrine of Christ will be preserved in the Catholic Church against Gnostics and heretics. Leithart seeks to show that this succession was not proper to the bishops but also to the presbyters. Leithart writes:
Irenaeus is cited as one of the early proponents of apostolic succession through episcopal ordination. Only bishops who could reconstruct a line back to the apostles could claim apostolic authority: “With the succession of the episcopate they received the assured gift of truth.” Yet, according to K. J. Woollcombe, “in the earliest days, it is likely that bishops were elected and consecrated by their fellow-presbyters. Irenaeus can only have been consecrated to succeed the martyred Pothinus of Lyons by his fellow-presbyters. The Bishops of Rome were probably consecrated in the same way at least until the middle of the second century.”

Woollcombe loads the deck of cards to prove his point and Leithart follows his reasoning. They have left out one piece of history, but I’ll get to that next.

Woollcombe tells it like this:

1) Pothinus was the bishop of Lyons. (This by the way, presumes that Lyons had a monarchical episcopate, which was of course the case. Lyons like all other local churches had a bishop who oversaw the presbyterate.)
2) Pothinus the bishop of Lyons died a martyr’s death, presumably before he could consecrate a bishop to succeed him.
3) Irenaeus became the bishop after Pothinus and since there were no other bishops in Gaul, the presbyters of Lyons must have “consecrated” Irenaeus to the episcopate.
4) This proves that Apostolic Succession is passed down through the presbyterate and not through a separate office of the episcopate. This last claim is the goal of the Presbyterian or any other Protestant who wishes to deny or undermine the Catholic doctrine that the episcopate is fullness of the priesthood and that it alone transmits apostolic succession.

Woollcombe leaves out one very important detail! The presbyters of Lyons sent Irenaeus to Rome in 177/178 with a letter of endorsement to meet the Bishop of Rome Pope Eleuterus. We are told that when Irenaeus returned to Lyons, he was received as the bishop of Lyons.

The presbyters elected Irenaeus, but they didn’t dare consecrated him to the episcopate. They recognized that they as presbyters could not themselves elevate a fellow presbyter to the episcopate and so they sent their candidate with a letter of commendation to the Pope so that the Pope would then consecrate Irenaeus as their bishop.

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