77 "In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority."35 Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time."36
Paragraph 77 provides the underpinnings for the authority and power exercised by bishops. The identity of a bishop throughout the history of the Church is derived from their intentional consecration by the laying on of hands of the Apostles. The Church has held from earliest times that the Apostles shared their Spirit-filled authority and their possession of the body of revealed truth of Jesus with chosen successors. The apostolic succession through the laying on of hands is what gives your bishop the right and duty to teach authoritatively in your diocese. The sharing of apostolic responsibility is both horizontal and vertical. A bishop receives his mandate vertically: through the Pentecost event and the historical line of bishops who succeeded him. He receives power horizontally by his membership in the body of bishops from around the world.
The identity of bishop has passed through several stages in the Church’s history. While we think of the Apostles as missionary bishops, there is no unified model in the first century. For every clear example of a stable, functioning apostle-bishop, such as Peter in Rome or James in Jerusalem, we have the more charismatic church life exemplified by Paul, who per his letters founded many local churches (the equivalent of today’s dioceses, on a smaller scale.) There is no record that Paul ever consecrated someone to serve as a designated leader, which is surprising when one considers all the problems with Eucharistic celebrations described in 1 Corinthians. Paul’s epistle of strong reprimand is sent to the entire assembly, not a local bishop.
From the New Testament text itself, one can assume that the passage of apostolic leadership was real but perhaps less formalized than now. A number of twentieth century historical texts hypothesize that the very early Church was somewhat free spirited, with the Eucharist celebrated by a wide range of individuals from Apostles to fathers of homes to itinerant prophets and preachers. Feminist theologians contend that woman may have presided over the Eucharist in the early days. Whatever the truth may be, it is certain that it took nearly two centuries for the Church to arrive at the sacramental identity and model of the episcopate we would recognize today.
At the risk of gross simplification, the Church figure who solidified our understanding the purpose and the office of the body of the bishops was St. Irenaeus (c. 120-200 A.D.) He was a bishop of extraordinary energy and wisdom who served the Church both in Asia Minor and Lyon in modern day France. Para. 77 speaks of the apostolic preaching preserved “in the inspired books,” and the “continuous line of succession” in preserving the apostolic preaching until the end of time. Irenaeus understood the that the twin doctrinal pillars of inspired books and historical succession were inseparable, and in his lifetime the Church would reach common practice on defining exactly which books contained the Apostolic Tradition and who was entrusted to determine this and carry the tradition forward.
For much of Irenaeus’ life Christians did not speak of “the Bible” as we do today. The Church held faithful to the Old Testament, as we do, but it venerated the apostolic preaching which by now had been put to paper. The apostolic preaching in its printed form was proclaimed at the Eucharistic liturgies. There was no formal church calendar as we have today, so local communities could choose from among texts revered in the early Church, such as the Gospel of Matthew or the letters of Paul. As the year 200 approached it was fairly clear which books sustained the faith of the Christians in liturgy and study.
So, the time came for the establishment of the New Testament Canon, and the first individual to undertake a deliberate list of books was Marcion of Sinope. Unfortunately, Marcion held views we would term today “heretical;” he denied the Old Testament (the entire canon!) and edited Jewish references from New Testament texts. Marcion’s “canon” made the final establishment of an apostolically sanctioned canon a high priority. This process would continue long after Irenaeus’ death, but in his lifetime he confronted an even greater challenge—the authenticity of the books themselves. While it was true that Christians were creating an authentic canon from liturgical use, did the text themselves reflect the Apostolic Tradition?
Irenaeus argued that the apostles had designated successors who both enjoyed the inerrancy of their office and who, by the Holy Spirit, guaranteed the passage of sacred texts to the present time. In other words, Irenaeus and other had to defend the authenticity of the books and the existence of successors of the Apostles who would insure the transmission. The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that “Irenaeus maintains that the bishops in different cities are known as far back as the Apostles—and none of them was a Gnostic—and that the bishops provided the only safe guide to the interpretation of Scripture. With these lists of bishops, the later doctrine of “the apostolic succession” of the bishops could be linked.” We do not have the lists of “guarantor bishops” Irenaeus refers to, but later Church historians such as Eusebius (c. 300 A.D.) would attempt to be more specific. Certainly, the belief in the unbroken line of apostolic bishops was strong enough that by 325 A.D. the Church was comfortable enough in both its bishops and its sacred texts to define the heart of Christian belief, the Nicene Creed.
The doctrines expressed in para. 77—which in turn come from a stream of teaching documents—derive authority from the authenticity of the New Testament and the divine credibility of the successors of the Apostles.