Apostolicity in 20th Century Lutheran Theology (II)

By Bryce P Wandrey

(Go to Part 1)

A Sassean (With a Little Help from His Friends) Understanding of the Apostolicity of the Church

Finally we are now able to analyze that which defines the church as being “apostolic” for Sasse (and some of those who share his same understanding). Sasse finds it absolutely necessary to base the apostolicity of the church solely on its pure teaching.  Necessarily, this means that a ‘visible’ element of unity and apostolicity has been tarnished beyond recovery by Rome and Anglicans. Due to this, episcopal ordination is not safe to ensure anything.  Francis Pieper, a leading dogmitician in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the 20th century, states that the attempt by the Roman Catholics and Anglicans to derive their apostolicity from episcopal ordination through the laying on of hands is “childish folly”.  This is because, first, Scripture makes no distinction between the offices of bishop and teaching elders, or pastors; second, Scripture tells us to avoid teachers who stray and depart from the Gospel, no matter their title.[i]

Sasse echoes the oft stated historical fact that the Lutheran fathers never intended to establish a new church but that they were renewing Christ’s one church with the pure apostolic doctrine in contrast to Rome.[ii] Consequently, the doctrine of the church is what ensures its apostolicity.  He intends to encapsulate this interpretation by writing,  “As the church of the One who truly became man, was actually crucified, and truly rose again, the church is called apostolic.  It is the apostolic church because it is the church of Jesus Christ.”[iii] The “apostolicity” of the church’s doctrine is its true mark of being the church of Jesus Christ and to argue from historical proofs is problematic. Consequently, the “apostolicity of origin”, a central claim made by Rome for its apostolicity (claiming that the church is the church of the apostles), must be a matter of faith.[iv]

The fact that Sasse sees the true apostolicity of the church as a matter of faith is significant.  In so doing, “apostolic” assurance must then lie in the apostolicity of doctrine and not in anything symbolic or visible. While the true unity of the church is found in her union with Christ, this is a union that is an article of faith and not of sight.  Kurt Marquart, former professor of Lutheran dogmatics at Concordia Theology Seminary (Fort Wayne), agrees when he asserts that confessional and sacramental unities are outward and visible, but only faith itself can see and understand these outward appearances as expressions of the true unity of the church.[v] Outward signs can be deceiving; because of this faith must be the true interpreter and badge of apostolicity.

Integral to this discussion, according to Sasse, is the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. When scripture is no longer definitive for the articles of faith, the doctrine of the New Testament is consequently impinged upon and corrupted.  Resultant is the complete loss of the apostolicity of the church.[vi] “When sola scriptura is left behind, left behind also are God’s revelation and its authority.”[vii] The sola scriptura principle can be used to call into question the emphasis placed upon tradition by other ecclesial communions. Sasse asserts that tradition in its initial stages is likened to a “tethered balloon” which is held in place by the apostolic witness.  When scripture and tradition become equal manifestations of revelation the rope upon the balloon is severed and it flies about unfettered.  This is what has happened to Rome and because of this approach they are no longer “apostolic”.[viii] Sasse believes that Rome’s doctrine is no longer based upon the apostolic witness of sola scriptura and the result is that it is corrupted by a tradition that is not a reflection of the New Testament message.  According to his logic, once that true apostolic witness is either tarnished or lost, so too is the apostolicity of the church.

Sasse highlights what understands to be one of the major problems with tradition in Rome’s system: its insistence upon the theory of development. This is the idea that at the Church’s conception all of the New Testament (apostolic) doctrines were contained within a seed and over time these doctrines unfold themselves. Contrarily Sasse makes the claim that doctrines do not progress from century to century but their understanding does. What happens within the true “apostolic” church is a development of a deeper understanding of the apostolic words but there is no unfolding of any doctrine that is not contained in those words.[ix] Within the true “apostolic” church doctrines are continually understood in ways that are accessible to their communities.  This is evidenced most clearly in the formulations of the Trinity and in Christ’s sonship in the first centuries of the church.  No doctrine was created, but these doctrines were defined and developed to respond to misunderstandings and disagreements enabling the church to more clearly proclaim its faith. For a Lutheran theology as formulated by Sasse, the Gospel and its subsequent doctrines are the true uniting factor.[x] Nothing beyond this can be held up to create the necessary unity to be labeled “apostolic”.  “Authentic apostolic succession, then, is always and only the succession of doctrine.”[xi]

The use of a visible element, as mentioned earlier, to illustrate apostolicity is rendered unnecessary and adiaphorous by some Lutheran theologians, Sasse included.  He makes the claim that, in order to counteract the Pharisees, Jesus intentionally did not lay his hands upon the apostles at their sending/ordaining.[xii] Pieper echoes this claim by stating that ordination by the laying on of hands and prayers is not a divine ordinance.  It is merely a church custom because, even though it is mentioned in Scripture, it is not commanded.  Due to the lack of a dominical injunction, ordination by the laying on of hands and prayers is to be considered an adiaphorous practice.[xiii]

Marquart joins his voice with both Sasse’s and Pieper’s as he states that true apostolic succession has little to do with external connections to privileged places, persons or hands.  The true succession of the church has everything to do with the faithful transmission of the Gospel and sacramental substance. Mere forms or appearance ensure nothing. Apostolicity is found in content, substance and truth. He claims that an outward connection to ancient Christian sees or links to an unbroken chain of hands are irrelevant attempts at maintaining apostolicity. Ancient customs may be valuable symbols and reminders of continuity with the apostolic truth but they must never be allowed to bear their own independent weight.[xiv]

Within such an overwhelming insistence upon doctrine contra ordination (as a symbol of continuity) as the guarantor of apostolicity stands that last statement from Marquart: that ancient customs and signs may not be allowed to bear their own independent weight when apostolicity is concerned.  And here we must beg the question: what if a visible form of unity does not try to bear the weight of apostolicity independent of apostolic doctrine? Can these two elements—doctrine and a visible element (episcopal ordination?)—be guarantors in Lutheran theology of apostolicity, working hand-in-hand to be evidence for the apostolicity of the Church?

(Go to Part 3


[i] Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Volume III, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), pp. 411-12.

[ii] Sasse, Church, p. 87.

[iii] Sasse, Jesus Christ, p. 99.

[iv] Ibid, p. 86.

[v] Kurt Marquart, The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance (Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics IX), (Fort Wayne, IN: The International Foundation for Lutheran Confessional Research, 1990), p. 25.

[vi] Ibid, p. 88.

[vii] Ibid, p. 90.

[viii] Ibid, p. 88-9.

[ix] Ibid, p. 89.

[x] Marquart, p. 27.

[xi] Sasse, Church, p. 94.

[xii] Ibid, p. 100.

[xiii] Pieper, p. 454.

[xiv] Marquart, p. 28-29.

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