In the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, we see Paul in two distinct places warning the Corinthian Church not to boast about their ministers. The Church in Corinth had been founded by St. Paul with the help of Apollos, an Alexandrian Jewish convert who was known for his erudition and powerful preaching. Shortly after the founding of the Church of Corinth, around 55 AD, dissension and schism broke out among the Christians there over sectarian disputes. It is regarding these disputes that Paul addresses the following passage:
Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing and that there be no schisms among you: but that you be perfect in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been signified unto me, my brethren, of you, by them that are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith: I indeed am of Paul; and I am of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul then crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?…For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not in wisdom of speech, lest the cross of Christ should be made void (1 Cor. 1:10-13, 17).
St. Paul returns to this same theme two chapters later in the third chapter of First Corinthians :
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal. As unto little ones in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not meat: for you were not able as yet. But neither indeed are you now able: for you are yet carnal. For, whereas there is among you envying and contention, are you not carnal and walk you not according to man? For while one saith: I indeed am of Paul: and another: I am of Apollos: are you not men? What then is Apollo and what is Paul? I have planted, Apollos watered: but God gave the increase…For all things are yours, whether it be Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. For all are yours. And you are Christ’s. And Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:1-7,22-23).
In speaking with a non-Catholic friend about these passages, I was surprised to hear these verses used invoked as an argument against the Catholic Church’s understanding of Apostolic Succession. Here we see, says the non-Catholic, that St. Paul specifically condemns the practice of Christians boasting about who might have founded their local church or from whom they derived their baptisms. And yet, in the Catholic Church, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession depends upon this very principle; i.e., noting that our episcopal succession possesses authority and power precisely because we can trace its origin back to the Apostles. Thus, the non-Catholic says, Paul commands us not to say “I am of Paul; I am of Apollos” while the Roman Catholic Church says the opposite, proclaiming her Apostolic Succession by saying, “I am of Peter.” Does not this passage of St. Paul clearly condemn the Catholic notion of the importance of a valid apostolic succession?
Apostolic Succession in the Early Church
Before looking at the meaning of these passages, let us consider how the early Fathers valued Apostolic Succession. From the earliest times, we can see clearly that the Fathers laid great importance on who happened to found a particular local church. The apostolic foundation of a particular church was seen to be a kind of divine guarantor of the doctrine handed down in that church; doctrinal orthodoxy was connected with apostolic foundation —this apostolic foundation and doctrinal unity coalesced in the person of the bishop, the living face of the Succession and the source of each local church’s unity.
This vesting of the church’s unity in the person of a validly ordained bishop is laid out very clearly in St. Irenaeus’s Against Heresies:
It is necessary to obey those who are the presbyters in the Church, those who, as we have shown, have succession from the Apostles; those who have received, with the succession of the episcopate, the sure charism of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father. But the rest, who have no part in the primitive succession and assemble wheresoever they will, must be held in suspicion. (Book IV. 26:2)
Notice here the connection between “succession from the Apostles” and the “sure charism of truth. Conversely, those who have “no part in the primitive succession” are “held in suspicion.” Orthodoxy is intimately linked with Apostolic Succession. This is why the primitive church placed great importance on from whom their bishops received episcopal ordination.
If we look at the fragments of the Roman presbyter Caius (c. 150), he makes the same argument. In debating the Gnostic heretics, he appeals to the apostolic foundation of the See of Rome as a strong point in favor of the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Roman Church. Thus, to the Gnostics, he says:
And I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you choose to go to the Vatican or to the Ostian Road, you will find the trophies of those who founded this church. (Fragments of Caius, preserved in Eusebius’ Eccles. Hist., ii. 25)
The implication is clear. “You heretics think you hold the true Faith? Our Church in Rome preserves the true faith, because we were founded by the Apostles. If you don’t believe it, go look at their tombs. What Apostles founded your church?” Again, a great importance is placed on the apostolic foundation of this particular church in connection with doctrinal orthodoxy.
Those who maintain that the identities of the founders of various churches were not important to the Fathers have to contend with statements like this one from St. Irenaeus. In arguing with the Gnostic heretics, he again appeals to Apostolic Succession as the sure means of gauging the orthodoxy of a particular church:
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, apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, 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…To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telesphorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. 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, Book III.2-3).
Reread the bolded passages and see the connection between the “preaching of truth” and the “faith” with “this succession”; the truth comes to us “by means of the succession of bishops.” That phrase “by means of” is important; it tells us that the Apostolic Succession was not just a matter of historical interest, the way it would be to us, for example, if we were to visit the Episcopal Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia and note with passing interest that Robert E. Lee had once worshiped there. The importance laid on apostolic foundations by the early Christians was not one of passing historical fancy, but a key component in their understanding of how the Church lived and taught in the present. Apostolic Succession is the framework or the box within which the sure charism of truth was deposited in by the Holy Spirit.
Tertullian, writing around 200, makes the same case in his Prescriptions Against the Heretics. Note again the connection between Apostolic Succession and doctrinal orthodoxy:
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. 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. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. (Prescription Against Heretics, 32).
The bishops are the “transmitters of the apostolic seed”, and the confidence we have that this seed is uncorrupted is that, unlike the heretics who cannot “unfold the roll of their bishops”, we have a clear succession of bishops going back to the apostles. Clearly the identity of the men who founded the particular churches was of great importance to the early Church, for it was this Succession that ensured doctrinal orthodoxy.
But what of the original argument, that laying this stress upon Apostolic Succession violates the teaching Paul, who commands us not to say “I am of Paul; I am of Apollos; I am of Cephas”?
Properly Interpreting St. Paul
The problem here is a misappropriation of the passage. Though it does clearly refer to contentions and schisms in the church relating to certain sects identifying themselves too zealously with their ministers, it does not bear on the question of Apostolic Succession. The early Church always considered Succession important, as we have seen, and even in the New Testament we see that preachers of the Gospel had to be specifically commissioned or ordained by the Apostles to do so. If being ordained or authorized by an Apostles was not important, St. James would not have written to the Palestinian Christians after the Council of Jerusalem: “We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said” (Acts 15:24).
The 1859 Haydock Bible Commentary points out that these contentions were related to baptism—the Corinthian Christians seemed to be asserting that one baptism was of more value than another based on who had administered it. This is the root of the old Donatist heresy that the efficacy of the sacraments depends on the worthiness of the minister. The Haydock Commentary says:
That there is no schisms….contentions, &c. To hinder these, was the chief design of this letter; one saying, I am of Paul, &c. each party bragging of their master by whom they had been baptized, and made Christians. I am of Apollo, the eloquent preacher, and I of Cephas, the head of the apostles, and of the whole Church; whilst others, the only party not to be blamed, contented themselves with saying, and I am of Christ. — Is Christ divided? Is not your salvation, is not your justification in baptism, and all gifts from him? Was Paul crucified for you? Though, says St. Augustine, brothers may die for brothers, yet the blood of no martyr is shed for the remission of a brother’s sin.
The last quote from Augustine is very pertinent. No matter how eminent Paul or Apollos or Cephas may have been, the efficacy of baptism comes from Christ, who alone was put to death for the remission of sins. Hence, Augustine is quoted to the effect that nobody else, not even a martyr, can shed blood to remit the sins of another. This prerogative belongs to Christ alone. Yet the Corinthians seem to have been arguing that, because Paul was a more eminent apostle, or Apollos, or whoever, that baptism administered by them was of greater worth, thus making baptism a function of Paul or Cephas’s holiness and not of the redemptive work of Christ.
The Teaching of Aquinas
Though it is lengthy, I think it is also helpful to quote from St. Thomas Aquinas here, who goes into this question in some detail in his Commentary on 1 Corinthians (available online here). St. Thomas notes that the dissension referred to be Paul is not over who founded any given church but rather over schismatic sects developing within one local church; and furthermore, that the source of this contention has to due with the question of baptism and its effects. He first talks about the nature of schism and then goes on to elaborate the essence of this particular contention. Aquinas says:
Properly speaking, there are schisms, when the members of one group separate into various factions according to their various beliefs or according to their various opinions about conduct…[Paul] urges them to seek perfection, which is the good of the whole. Therefore, he says: “but that you be united in the same mind”, which judges about conduct, and “in the same judgment”, which judges about belief. As if to say: These things will enable you to be perfect, if you continue in unity: “Over all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection” (Col 3:14); “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).
…[A]nd the contention consists in this, that every one of you gives himself a name derived from the person by whom he was baptized and instructed, and says: “I belong to Paul, because he had been baptized and instructed by Paul”; another says: “I belong to Apollos, who had preached to the Corinthians” (Acts 19); still another says: and I belong to Cephas, i.e., Peter, to whom it had been said: “You shall be called Cephas, which is interpreted Peter” (Jn. 1:42). Now they made these statements, because they thought that they received a better baptism from a better baptizer, as though the virtue of the minister had an influence on the one baptized. Finally, others say: “I belong to Christ, Who alone give grace, because the grace of Christ alone works in Christ’s baptism: “He upon whom you shall see the Spirit descending and remaining upon him, he it is that baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 1:33). Accordingly, the baptized are called Christians from Christ alone and not Paulians from Paul: “Only let us be called by your name” (Is 4:1) (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 1-2: 23-24).
Aquinas says this dispute was about faction. Faction happens when there is a division about belief or conduct. Aquinas, and Paul, condemn these “I am of Apollos” sorts of arguments from those who would use them in defense of their schismatic dissensions. But neither Paul nor Aquinas condemn the Church herself from citing her own apostolic foundations for the purpose of striving to maintain the bond of unity, for it was with an aim towards unity that the episcopal succession was established to begin with.
Besides, as we have said, this particular argument had to do with baptism. That is why Paul asks rhetorically, “Was Paul then crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Aquinas continues on this question of contention over this issue of baptism and offers three possible interpretations of what Paul is arguing here:
[Paul]says, therefore: “I have said that everyone of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’; from which it follows that Christ is divided. This can be understood in one way, as though he were saying: ‘Inasmuch as there is contention among you, Christ is divided from you, because He dwells only in peace: “His place is in peace” (Ps 76:3); “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Is 59:2).But it is better understood of him as saying: ‘Inasmuch as you believe that a baptism performed by a better minister is better, it follows that Christ, Who principally and interiorly baptizes, is divided, i.e., differs in His power and effect, depending on the differing ministers.’ But this is false, because it says in Eph (4:5): “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” An even better interpretation is to understand the Apostles as saying that inasmuch as you attribute to others the things that are exclusively Christ’s, you divide Christ by forming many Christs, which is contrary to what is stated in Matt (23:10): “One is your master, Christ”; “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other” (Is 45:22) (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 27-28).
The Real Context
So we see that the true meaning of 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 and 3:1-7 really does not concern the issue of Apostolic Succession at all, nor did the Fathers think so, since they were very quick to appeal to Apostolic Succession in defense of orthodoxy. St. Paul does warn against belief that baptism is more or less efficacious depending upon the minister; it is this belief which he refers to as “carnal” in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 when he says:
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual, but as unto carnal. As to little ones in Christ, I gave you milk to drink, not meat: for you were not able as yet: but neither indeed are you now able: for you are yet carnal. For, whereas, there is among you envying and contention; are you not carnal, and walk according to man?
It is also worth noting that this passage in 1 Corinthians has great relevance with regards to how heretical movements tend to take on the name of the heresiarch who founded their sect. St. Irenaeus says:
For, prior to Valentinus, those who follow Valentinus had no existence; nor did those from Marcion exist before Marcion; nor, in short, had any of those malignant-minded people, whom I have above enumerated, any being previous to the initiators and inventors of their perversity. (Against Heresies, Book III.4:3).
We could also add the Lutherans from Luther, Calvinists from Calvin, Mennonites from Menno Simmons, Arians from Arius, and on and on. Whenever a sect breaks away from the Church and takes the name of its founder, “they must be held in suspicion”, as Irenaeus says. This is why our Church and our Church alone is called “Catholic.” It alone derives its power and origin from Christ and the Apostles, holding firm to the “sure charism of truth” which resides in the succession of bishops, the successors of the Apostles, whom themselves maintain Catholic unity by their individual union with the Bishop of Rome, successor of Peter, Prince of the Apostles.
Thus, the non-Catholic’s argument that 1 Corinthians 1 and 3 preclude any concept of Apostolic Succession are unfounded and based on a misapplication of the relevant biblical texts.
Phillip Campbell, “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, May 12, 2012. Available online at www.unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2023/01/12/i-am-of-paul-i-am-of-apollos