Apostolicity in 20th Century Lutheran Theology (I)

By Bryce P Wandrey

Why have I chosen to explore specifically 20th century Lutheran theology in relation to the place of apostolicity in the life of the Church?  The doctrine of apostolicity of the Church has received much attention in the 20th century in particular.  Coming into close contact and dialogue with Christians across the denominational spectrum through ecumenical work, apostolicity became a rallying point and emphasis for Lutherans.  Hermann Sasse was a well-known theologian of the 20th century ecumenical movement.  His writings lay the foundations for the first part of our exploration of the Lutheran Church’s understanding of its apostolicity.  But there were also has many other Lutheran devotees to the ecumenical movement and their scholarship, as it differs from Sasse’s, dominates the second section of this analysis (this may well be a false boundary to draw, but hopefully the lines drawn don’t damage the analysis too much).

Another issue is why not start with and ultimately find all that needs to be said for Lutherans on this issue in Martin Luther and his writings?  One reason such a route is not pursued in this analysis is because, as Sasse himself admits, Luther never specifically wrote on the “apostolic church”.  The confessions also never speak of the “apostolicity” of the church as they do speak of its oneness, catholicity and holiness.[i]

Another question must be asked: why is apostolicity such an important topic?  Other ecclesial communions make very strong claims for their apostolicity in opposition and exclusion to some of the Lutheran churches:  the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church being the two most vocal in the Western world.  Every church that confesses one of the ecumenical creeds claims to be apostolic (and even those churches that do not confess one of the creeds still envision themselves to be an apostolic church); it is a universal claim.  The crux of the issue lies in which forms and manifestations an ecclesial communion locates its apostolicity.  This analysis that we are involved with here will ultimately find itself discussing apostolic doctrine, traditions and visible elements of apostolicity.

The whole debate of apostolicity begins in the Niceano-Constantinopolitan Creed that reads and confesses, “I believe the in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”  As a result of this creedal statement, the Church in both the East and the West began to be confessed as apostolic.[ii] In the first distinct part of our analysis, Sasse picks up on this theme and develops it in his essay “I Believe in the Apostolic Church”.  That essay along with his other major contribution, “Apostolic Succession”, forms the backbone of one position within the wider Lutheran Church concerning apostolicity.  This analysis will first systematically develop Sasse’s treatment of the Church’s apostolicity across four main categories (with supplementary assistance from two other theologians (Francis Peiper and Kurt Marquart) who agree with his conclusions):  the appearance and use of the word apostolic in the early church, the meaning of the word apostolic, the history of the term in the ‘Roman’ Catholic Church, and the “true” understanding (obviously in contrast to a “false” understanding) of the apostolicity of the Church.

Sasse’s study of “apostolic” in the early church

Due to the overwhelming absence of the church being defined as apostolic in the first couple centuries of theology, Sasses concludes that the term started to be utilized during the reign of Constantine to supplement the expression “catholic church,” thus expanding it to be the “catholic and apostolic church”.  This phrase then made its way into creedal formulations of the church.[iii] In the year 324 Alexander of Alexandria wrote a letter to Alexander of Thessalonica and within it calls the church an “apostolic church”.  Alexander does not expound upon the meaning of such a title but Sasse considers to possibly be the originating source for the creedal affirmation of the “apostolic church”.[iv] Tertullian used the phrase “apostolic” while Irenaeus used “apostle” to describe the “doctrine of the apostle’s”.[v] According to Sasse, it is significant that in using the term, both men refer to doctrine.

Possibly the most significant aspect of the early church’s use of “apostolic” is the origin of the lists of bishops.  In the second century the Gnostics were the main opponent to orthodox Christianity.  Due to their opposition, it became necessary for the church to ensure its apostolicity.  In the process of doing so, Sasse states that the office of catholic bishop arose to create the idea of succession in order to ensure the right teaching and guardianship of pure doctrine.[vi]

Sasse is critical of these “bishop lists” because they were created with the false pretense that one could prove the transmission of pure doctrine merely by a succession of bishops.[vii] The logic runs that one could surely prove the succession of bishops with such a list but it would prove more difficult to assert that these bishops were ensuring the pure doctrine of the apostle’s based purely upon a continuous list.  This is what ultimately began to take place though in the church; a claim to a list for its apostolicity and a denial of the substance of that claim.  Hence, Sasse insists that if there is to be true “apostolic” succession there must be true content connected to the word and its use.

Sasse’s defining of the term “apostolic”

As we search, with Sasse, for the meaning and significance of the word “apostolic” we find ourselves confronted with the Gnostics again, this time in the fourth century.  Dating back to the second century there are echoes of the use of the term in regards to “apostolic faith” and “apostolic doctrine”.  This faith that is spoken of is that same faith that is encountered in Jude 3, that “was once for all delivered to the saints.”[viii] According to Sasse, this type of faith finds itself manifested in the doctrinal formulations of the apostles and the early church.  As it was delivered to the “saints”, for it to be truly “apostolic”, it must be delivered to their successors in its purest form.  Sasse claims that this purity must be maintained without blemish in doctrinal formulations and creedal statements.  Mere outward and visible signs cannot in and of themselves deliver this purity and as history has shown, may damage its purity due to over reliance upon such outward forms.

For Sasse, to fully understand the “apostolic” church is also to understand the “catholic” church.  Both attributes represent distinct aspects of the church.  “Catholic” designates the church’s universality spread spatially throughout the world.  It is a term of unity referring to the here and now.  “Apostolic” designates the identity of the church of all times from its beginnings and infancy in Christ and his apostles until the present.  To the catholicity of the church belongs such Biblical ideals as “all nations” and “to the end of the earth”.  To the church’s apostolicity belongs “always to the close of the age”.[ix]

Sasse on Rome’s use of the term “apostolic”

Sasse ironically points out that the Roman Catholic Church has no particular doctrine that devotes itself to apostolic succession.[x] He directs us to the Interim of 1548 as a good representation of the Roman Catholic position on “catholicity”, which is seen to be a sign of the true church that is poured out over all times through the apostles and their followers right up until now through a succession until the end of the world.  What becomes distinctive is where Rome locates its apostolic succession. This is found in the Interim’s section on ordination where succession is seen as taking place when a bishop lays hands on a man to ordain him and thus acts in a continual succession of the church.  Sasse states that Rome still follows this approach today as it limits the guarantee of apostolic succession to ordination.[xi] He presses this point by contending that Rome knows full well that apostolic succession, in its sequence of bishops and consecrations, does not and never has guaranteed apostolic doctrine.[xii] The result of this for Sasse is that true apostolicity is found elsewhere, aside from visible forms that ensure nothing on their own.

(Go to part 2)


[i] Hermann Sasse, “We Confess Jesus Christ, Volume 1,” We Confess Anthology, trans. Norman Nagel, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1984), pp. 94-95.

[ii] Sasse, Jesus Christ, pp. 88, 90.

[iii] Sasse, Jesus Christ, p. 92.

[iv] Ibid, p. 91.

[v] Ibid, p. 94.

[vi] Hermann Sasse, “We Confess the Church, Volume 3,” We Confess Anthology, trans. Norman Nagel, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1984), p. 97.

[vii] Ibid, p. 98.

[viii] Sasse, Jesus Christ, p. 94.

[ix] Ibid, pp. 94-95.

[x] Sasse, Church, p. 84.

[xi] Ibid, p. 85.

[xii] Ibid, p. 101.

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