The Church: Her Nature and Purpose

By Luke T Zimmerman

A review of Bo Giertz, Christ’s Church: Her Biblical Roots, Her Dramatic History, Her Saving Presence, Her Glorious Future. Introduction and Translation by Hans Andrae. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2010).

To hundreds of American Lutheran seminary graduates in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Bo Giertz [1905-1998] has become a familiar name. This is due to the translation of his writings from Swedish into English, works published by both major Lutheran publishers in the United States. The introduction of Giertz’s writings into the curriculum at the seminaries of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has brought him a new audience.[i] Through the translation of Giertz’s works, a Swedish voice forms part of the harmony of Lutheran teaching in America.

The increasing number of Giertz’s works translated into English includes his 1939 book, Christ’s Church. Rev. Hans Andrae, a retired Lutheran pastor from Sweden now living in the United States, has brought this book into the hands of English-speaking Lutherans. The first of Giertz’s published works, Christ’s Church presents a Lutheran discussion of the nature and purpose of the Church. The book consists of two parts: the first (Ch. 1-5) discusses the Church’s essence; the second (Ch. 6-11) speaks of how the Church brings salvation to the world. This arrangement is familiar to Lutherans, since the first part aligns with Articles 7 & 8 of the Augsburg Confession, while the second part treats the teachings of Articles 5 and 9-12 of the same document.

Chapter two begins Giertz’s discussion of the Church’s essence. This discussion starts with an exploration of her Biblical foundations. Examining the New Testament name for the Church—ekklesia—Giertz makes the connection between this term and the Hebrew word qahal, comparing the Church to the Old Testament nation of Israel. Giertz also treats various New Testament terms for the Church: “body of Christ” and “kingdom of God.” Taking these terms at full value, Giertz shows that individualism and sectarianism are contradictory to the Church’s nature—a lesson that that American Christians should heed.

Chapter three is a treatment of the four-fold description of the Church in the Nicene Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Giertz provides a helpful historical summary of the schisms that have taken place within Christ’s Church on earth, honestly admitting the culpability of East and West, of Roman Catholic and Reformed, and lamenting the divisions. The author’s discussion of catholicity shows how Lutherans may fully embrace this term, including appropriating tradition when expositing the Scriptures.

Chapter four is a brief history of the Church in Sweden. For those unfamiliar with the Lutheran Reformation outside of Germany, this is a very useful primer. Giertz’s tracing of the roots of the Swedish Church and the way it received the Reformation shows the benefits of her keeping the Church’s historical form. However, Giertz speaks about the damage that the Enlightenment and “neo-Protestantism” inflicted upon the Church of Sweden. A return to the Church’s historical catholicity is needed: such a call deserves to be heard in every generation.

Part One concludes with a brief chapter on the parish church and how Christ is present within her and working through her. Part Two begins with a short chapter confessing that God is in our midst in the present day. The ways that Christ is present with His salvation in the Church forms the outline for the rest of the book, with a chapter on each of the means of grace.

Chapter seven about God’s Word is brief, yet the trust in the authority of the Scriptures is clearly seen. Giertz stresses the Lutheran understanding that the Scriptures are God’s authoritative statements that disclose what He desires to make known: the truth about mankind’s sin and God’s grace. He also states the key Lutheran hermeneutical principle: the Scriptures should always be read to learn about salvation. The author also emphasizes the dependence of salvation on hearing the Word of God and how the Church’s task of faithfully preaching it must not fall victim to estheticism: traditional or contemporary.

In chapter eight, Giertz discusses the Lord’s Supper. He puts forward six aspects of the sacrament’s essence: confession, remembrance, fellowship, seal of forgiveness, union with the Savior, and sacrifice. While lauding the greatness of the Lord’s Supper, Giertz also criticizes the infrequency that Swedish Lutherans had of participating in this sacrament. Giertz’s words would be helpful for Lutheran pastors seeking to increase communion frequency.

Chapter nine is about the new birth given in Holy Baptism. Giertz emphasizes how baptism makes an individual part of a new reality here on earth. It is how God’s life first flows into a person. The chapter also includes a short treatment about the propriety of infant baptism in the Church because it is an act of undeserved divine election, not a human deed.

The revival of private confession in the Lutheran Church is discussed in chapter ten. Giertz shows how this sacrament is thoroughly evangelical and should be provided in Lutheran parishes. The author answers several questions that are often raised by parishioners unfamiliar with private confession. Giertz’s discussion of this sacrament also includes a discussion about penance and satisfaction understood evangelically. This portion of the chapter may be unnerving to readers, but an open consideration of these two topics will likely reinforce already existing Lutheran pastoral practice.

The final chapter of the book treats the office of the holy ministry. Giertz begins his discussion by focusing on the commission that Christ gave to His apostles. That commission defines the office of the ministry, giving it divine authority and purpose. Having a divine commission, the holders of the office will know what is expected of them and be devoted to their calling. Giertz also speaks about the general priesthood of believers, distinguishing it from the office of the holy ministry. The author also briefly addresses the question of women’s ordination, speaking against it because it lacks divine institution. The chapter concludes with a discussion of apostolic succession and the importance of ordination in the Lutheran Church. This latter section would be very helpful for both new pastors and the congregations that they serve to read together.

Several incidents of errata are present in this edition of Christ’s Church. Inconsistency in italicizing foreign terms is noticeable. Occasional punctuation issues are also found. However, the errata present in this edition do not vary much from other first editions of self-published works.

Christ’s Church is not an exhaustive treatment of ecclesiology. But it does serve an important purpose for those who read it. Though brief, it does bring to the fore concepts and ideas about the Church that need to be emphasized and reemphasized among Christ’s people. This is seen in Giertz’s postscript:

It needs to be said with relentless persistency that even to people who call themselves Christian, the Church becomes all too often nothing more than an association of people who have become believers. They think that her foundations are placed in the human heart, that her beginning is the conversion of her members, that her attributes are certain pious characteristics, and that she is made up of people who think, act, and believe in a certain way.

Such an understanding of the Church loses her most important features. It leaves out her head, which is Christ, and her living pulse, which are the means of grace. It deprives her of that which makes her the Church, that which is not of this world but exists beyond all time and independent of all people. It reduces her to something far more insignificant than she actually is. (p. 177)

The truth about the essence and purpose of Christ’s Church cannot be heard too often, especially in the contemporary American Christian context.

Like the proverbial master of the house in Jesus’ teaching (Mt 13:52), there are new and old treasures brought out by the author. These treasures are accessible for both clergy and laity. The book would be very useful for a small group study about Lutheran teachings. The first of Giertz’s works, Christ’s Church whets the appetite for more from this author. One can hope that others will take up the task like Hans Andrae did in providing this gift from a bishop of the Swedish Church to English readers. Perhaps an English translation of the sequel to Christ’s Church, Church Piety (Kyrkofromhet), will be forthcoming. Giertz’s 20th century Scandinavian voice deserves to be heard by 21st century American Lutherans.


[i] The use of Giertz’s novel The Hammer of God in the 1999-2000 Field Education Classes led by Prof. John Pless at Concordia Theological Seminary was my first introduction to his works. Students from ELCA seminaries will have to relate their own accounts.


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A Brief Introduction to Law & Gospel

By Dr Hans Wiersma

There are some interesting words at the beginning of John’s Gospel—words that appear to drive a wedge between Moses and Jesus.  The words go like this:  “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17 NIV).  These words are noteworthy because of the implied converse:  Grace and truth do not come through Moses; the law was not given through Jesus Christ.  Distinctions like this one—telling the difference between Law and Grace—are the hallmark of the Lutheran understanding of, well, just about everything.

In 1525, Martin Luther preached a sermon about two different and distinct sermons.  At the beginning of his sermon, Luther explained how, in the Bible, God preaches only two public sermons—two sermons that all of the people can hear.  According to Luther, God’s first public sermon was on Mt. Sinai, when the people heard God give Moses the Law, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:9).  God’s second public sermon was on the Day of Pentecost, when the people heard the disciples proclaim the Good News of Christ in their native languages.  Although the two sermons have the same divine source, Luther discerned a stark difference in content.  Here’s Luther in his own words on the subject:

Now the first sermon, and doctrine, is the law of God. The second is the gospel. These two sermons are not the same. Therefore we must have a good grasp of the matter in order to know how to differentiate between them. We must know what the law is, and what the gospel is. The law commands and requires us to do certain things. The law is thus directed solely to our behavior and consists in making requirements. For God speaks through the law, saying, “Do this, avoid that, this is what I expect of you.” The gospel, however, does not preach what we are to do or to avoid. It sets up no requirements but reverses the approach of the law, does the very opposite, and says, “This is what God has done for you; he has let his Son be made flesh for you, has let him be put to death for your sake.” So, then, there are two kinds of doctrine and two kinds of works, those of God and those of men. Just as we and God are separated from one another, so also these two doctrines are widely separated from one another. For the gospel teaches exclusively what has been given us by God, and not—as in the case of the law—what we are to do and give to God.[1]

Since the two sermons, the two doctrines, Law and Gospel, do two different, opposite things, being able to tell the difference between Law and Gospel is essential to the theological task.  At least that’s how Luther saw it:  “Whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian.”[2]

So how is it done?  How are Law and Gospel distinguished?  How does one tell the difference between divine gift and divine requirement?  Here are some guidelines:

Keep in mind that the Word of God is (a) very sharp and (b) stickin’ it to you.  Yeah, that’s in the Bible:  “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 NRSV).  You may think that you are reading the word of God in scripture or hearing the Word of God in a sermon.  In reality, as you are reading or hearing, the Word of God is acting upon you, doing a number on you.  Understood in terms of Law and Gospel, the Word of God is (a) putting sinners to death with the unremitting pronouncement of commandments and punishments—including the punishment of death—and (b) raising up saints with the unrelenting pronouncement of the unmerited grace, forgiveness, and new and eternal life given in Jesus Christ.

Remember that Law and Gospel are necessarily related and therefore cannot be separated.  This is why Lutheran Christians prefer to talk about “distinguishing” or “discerning” Law and Gospel, rather than separating Law from Gospel.  Just as the words of the Bible are bound up into a single authoritative and holy scripture, so, too, are the words of law and gospel bound up into a single divine Word that does what God wants it to do (see Isaiah 55:11-12).  Biblically speaking, faithfully confessing, you can neither have law without gospel, nor gospel without law.  If you read and apply the word of God as law only, you get legalism.  If you read and apply the word of God as gospel only, you get antinomianism (the belief that the law has no use).

Do not confuse Law and Gospel.  The previous sentence is intentionally stated as a law (rather than a guideline).  Perhaps even more dangerous than separating Law from Gospel is confusing the Law with the Gospel, or vice versa.  Confusing Law and Gospel has the result of replacing faith in Christ’s work with faith in one’s own work—which amounts to no faith at all.  One common way in which law and gospel are confused is when we imagine that we make ourselves eternally right with God by deciding to do what God wants us to do.  For example, in a popular religious tract called the “Four Spiritual Laws” it is insisted that one must “receive Jesus Christ by faith, as an act of the will.”[3]  Such a “law” appears to make faith ultimately a matter of our own doing.  Lutherans instead insist (with the Apostle Paul) that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV).

Look for how Law and Gospel function literally.  Law and Gospel can be discerned in the message of the bible or in the message of the preacher or, really, in any kind of message.  Wherever and however you encounter a message, ask: what is the literal sense?  Is that message worded as a command?  Is it telling me to do something?  Does it contain a quid pro quo (“If you do X, then you’ll get Y”)?  Is there an implied consequence for not heeding the message?  If so, you are likely dealing with the law.  On the other hand, if the message declares that something good is going to happen, something to your benefit, and that the promised blessing does not depend on your attitude or activity, then you are almost certainly dealing with a word of grace, that is, unearned favor, that is, Gospel.

Look for how Law and Gospel function functionally.  Beyond the literal (or literary) meaning of a message lies a functional meaning.  The ways in which words function often depend upon context.  “I love you” can mean one thing when said over a candlelit dinner; “I love you” can mean something else when said just after the words, “Honey, I totaled the car.”  Take, for example, the so-called “Gospel in a Nutshell”: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NRSV).  Literally, the words sound like pure Gospel to those who believe:  God gave his son so that they will not perish.  But to those who do not believe, the words can function as law:  “I guess I should believe…or else.”

Tell the difference between Law and Gospel.  You’ll note that throughout this little essay, the phrase “tell the difference between Law and Gospel” has been used.  Usually, when you are asked if you can tell the difference between two things you are really just being asked whether you know or understand the difference between two things.  But when you are being asked to tell the difference between Law and Gospel, you are being asked to do more than merely know or understand the difference.  In addition, you are being asked literally to tell it—to speak it, talk about it, declare it, proclaim it!  For Lutheran Christians, telling the difference between Law and Gospel especially means preaching the difference between Law and Gospel.  For when you preach it, faith will come (Romans 10:14-17).


[1] LW 35:162.

[2] LW 26:115.

[3] “Four Spiritual Laws English,” http://www.campuscrusade.com/fourlawseng.htm, last accessed April 3, 2011.

Apostolicity in 20th Century Lutheran Theology (IV)

By Bryce P Wandrey


(Go to Part 3)

According to David Yeago, the church always finds herself gathered by the word addressed to her by an apostolic messenger.  In Lutheran ecclesiology this means that the universal communion of the church is historically manifested only if there is a universal pastorate.  This pastorate is a ministry that speaks the word of God to the people of God in order to gather the faithful into a (one) historical communio.  Yeago, in making these points, states that “gathering” in ecclesiastical terms means to “give concrete historical form”.[1]  The gathering is not (only possibly) an invisible community, but it is a community that takes concrete shape and form as it gathers together around such things as the sacraments, which are administered by and through the universal pastorate.  The church gathers itself around visible forms of the gospel and in so doing becomes a visible reality, a concrete and historical form.

Yeago believes that if the Lutheran Church lives its life with a view to eschatology some things would be different.  The urgency of having and needing a magisterium would become apparent because decisions about the truth of the gospel would have to be made for the sake of the gospel itself and truly for ‘the life of the world’.[2]  These decisions can only be made by a magisterium because of its binding nature.  Current Lutheran Church polity does not lend itself to such authoritative decision-making group or process.

The problem lies in the mission focus of the church.  The mainline Lutheran churches in Europe and North America envision themselves not as proclaimers of the gospel to a dying world but, Yeago claims, actually as producers of religious consolation to the population.  Operating within such a mindset makes a magisterium look quite different than one that presides over a church that operates with an ecclesiology of witness.  If the church sees itself as a service provider, its first obligation lies not in proclaiming the gospel of life to a dying world, but instead to remain available and ready to the population.  A magisterium hampers such a service providing approach.[3]

Yeago provides us with a totally new angle on this issue.  His claim is one that relies not on history but upon the practicalities of maintaining a visible and powerful church authority.  A shift in mission focus creates a vital need for a true apostolic magisterium within the church.  As the end of the world approaches (or indeed, simply as the church continues to exist in this world), important and final decisions need to be made to preserve the gospel and doctrinal purity of the church.  For Yeago, the Petrine function of the church (the promotion or preserving of the oneness of the church by a symbol of unity) is a fundamental necessity to direct the church towards its ultimate goal: the return of its triumphant king, Jesus Christ.

He concludes by noting that a Lutheran Church that operates upon a Reformation account of teaching authority (a magisterium led by chief pastors and parish clergy, always with an appeal to the discernment of the people[4]) would undoubtedly be able to dialogue with Rome and its magisterium.  The only way that this could happen is if the Lutheran Church reorders itself towards the eschatological mission instead of the mission of service provider.[5]  Yeago validly points out that a shift in mission emphasis would lay bare the necessity of an office that functions to promote and preserve the unity of the church symbolically.  This symbolic unity is encapsulated in the visible unity that the “apostolic succession” Lutherans find so vital to the church’s claim to apostolicity.

So once again our discussion finds itself dealing with the question of a visible element of apostolicity.  As has already been noted, this is not the only issue for this second group of Lutherans.  The gospel, in its truth and purity, is of the utmost importance for the apostolicity of the church.  Is this whole talk of a visible element truly necessary?  The answer for the “apostolic succession” Lutherans is that a visible symbol of unity, as a representation to the world of the inner and invisible unity, is needed as a clear witness of the church’s oneness, its catholicity and its apostolicity.

The focus of the church, and her eschatological mission, is the ministry of the Word and Sacraments.  The concentration upon this ministry, as it is rightly emphasized, does not minimize the importance of a visible, external sign and manifestation of the unity of the church.  If the Lutheran Church is to once again realize the need for this visible unity then why not resort to the historical structures once used faithfully to perpetuate the desired visible unity?[6]  Braaten strongly claims that when the Reformation churches decided to (or were forced to) break with the episcopal structure they too readily cast aside a tradition that extended too far back throughout the history of the church to simply be labeled “an erroneous church development”.[7]

Since the church is one—one in her confession of the apostolic gospel—she must outwardly express this oneness.  According to Braaten, Protestantism needs to surrender the abundance of talk about unity in completely spiritualistic terms.  By speaking thus, the unity of the church with Christ becomes an esoteric unity that resultantly defies any expression of unity in visible forms.[8]  Due to the absence of a physical structure of continuity along with the desire to affirm its apostolicity, the Lutheran Church is forced to find modes of continuity with the historic church through means other than visible ones.  Also, there is a disparaging of visible forms and an elevation of spiritual forms of unity and apostolicity.  A concreteness of lineage is (or should be) an important factor for the church and the status and theology of a church can be affected by a lack and rejection of a physical continuity.  Hefner believes one example of this may be the Lutheran interpretation of Matthew 16:16-20.  The historical Lutheran exegesis of this text results in interpreting the rock that the church is built on as the faith of the apostles and as a result, plays down the actual persons of the apostles and the authority given to them. [9]

Hefner’s raising of the anthropomorphic aspect of a visible apostolicity leads us to consider another aspect of this approach: an important anthropological study of the laying on of hands written by Norman Nagel.  The Old Testament writers knew that a hand was to be found at the end of an arm and at the end of that arm stood a person.  What the hand did, the person did.  Consequently what was done by mandate of the Lord by a person’s hand was actually done by the Lord.  This was the case in Old Testament ordination.[10]  Even though Christ did not originally send his apostles with the laying on of hands, this does not mean that such an act was unimportant and not in use within the New Testament church.  According to Nagel, evidence of the laying on of hands for ordination is found in the Book of Acts 8:18, 9:17 and in 1 Timothy 5:22.

What is important is the two-fold element of ordination: the promise of the Lord and the laying on of hands.  In an ordination, prayer and hands do not act alone, but they act and run together.  No one became an apostle unless the Lord made him one.  No one could put themselves into the office: that was the Lord’s doing.  This act was accomplished with the laying on of hands.  No one can lay hands upon themselves or give this gift to himself.  The promises of ordination go with the mandate; lose the mandate of the laying on of hands and the promise is thus lost as well.  Following this line of argument, Nagel makes this claim: Augustine is not the final word on the sacramental criteria for the church.[11]  It has become common within some Lutheran theology to claim that the laying on of hands is simply an adiaphoron at ordination, neither commanded nor forbidden, as witnessed earlier in Pieper.  According to Nagel, to reduce this visible act to an adiaphoron you would have to cut off the hand and by itself, pronounce it an adiaphoron.[12]

As was alluded to earlier in the essay, and as a way of concluding: the need for the church to structure itself in an episcopal way arose during the 2nd and 4th centuries as a response to Gnostic attacks.  There was an obvious need to unify the church and to ensure its apostolicity.  The way this was done was through both apostolic doctrine and apostolic ordination/consecration.  It can readily (and easily) be claimed that the needs that existed then still exist today.  The special, visible offices and functions, which assist the church in demonstrating her holiness, catholicity and apostolicity, are needed in the 21st century as much as they were needed in the first four centuries of the New Testament church’s existence here on earth.[13]


[1] David Yeago, “The Papal Office and the Burdens of History: A Lutheran View,” Church Unity and the Papal Office, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert Jenson, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2001), p. 105.

[2] Ibid, p. 117.

[3] Ibid, p. 118.

[4] Ibid, p. 116.

[5] Ibid, p. 119.

[6] Braaten, Mother, p. 34.

[7] Ibid, p. 35.

[8] Ibid, p. 34.

[9] Philip Hefner, “Can We Have Bishops—Reformed and Evangelical?” The New Church Debate, ed. Carl E. Braaten, (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1983), p. 82.

[10] Norman Nagel, “The Laying on of Hands,” All Theology is Christology, ed. Dean O. Wenthe, William C.

Weinrich, Arthur A. Just, Jr., Daniel Gard, and Thomas L. Olson, (Fort Wayne, IN: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 2000), p. 244.

[11] Ibid, pp. 246-8.

[12] Ibid, p. 252.

[13]Braaten, Mother, pp. 34-5.

Apostolicity in 20th Century Lutheran Theology (III)

By Bryce P Wandrey

(Go to Part 2)

A Lutheran Affirmation of ‘Visible’ Apostolicity

The group that has been labeled the “apostolic succession” Lutherans contains such names as Carl Braaten, Philip Hefner, David Yeago, Bruce Marshall and Norman Nagel[i].  Instead of placing all of their emphasis upon the true apostolic doctrine of the church as the assurance of apostolicity, these Lutherans instead prefer to move towards a regaining of the early church practice (as alluded to by Sasse) of the dual marks of true apostolicity: both visible unity and doctrinal unity.  As a bridging a gap with the first understanding of apostolicity as presented in this paper, I choose to begin with a defense of the necessity of doctrinal unity and the purity of the gospel for apostolicity, as witenessed to by most members of this latter group. I then move to the issue of visible unity and the element that can most appropriately be representative of this form of apostolicity.

As has already been illustrated, there are various ways of illustrating, or ensuring, the unity and apostolicity of the church.  These range from those that require a tangible, visible unity to those that rely upon a unity in a spiritual sense.[ii] Clearly the first group of Lutherans in this essay falls into the camp of a spiritual unity.  Hefner makes the claim that the first step for a church to identify itself as apostolic is to affirm that it is dependent upon its heritage as given to it by the apostolic witness.  The second consideration is how this apostolicity is to be achieved.  He claims that this must be done through the valid acts of the church because the church is not apostolic in a passive sense.[iii]

The second consideration that he alludes to is the valid acts of the church: such things as Baptism, Lord’s Supper, Proclamation, Absolution, Ordination, etc (‘marks’ of the Church).  These ‘marks’ represent the work of the church and only in them can a church see its apostolicity in action.  The church manifests its apostolicity in the ‘works’ of the apostles.  At their base and foundation lies the apostolic witness.  That witness is not static, it is a living witness.  The important aspect is not only the reality itself, but also the visible manifestation of this living reality in the world as a witness to Christ and to establish the visible unity of his church.

The unity that they speak of encompasses both elements of apostolicity raised so far: the visible unity, both historically and spatially, and the doctrinal unity, once again both historically and spatially.  Braaten states:  “The doctrine of the succession of bishops is not prior to, apart from, or constitutive of the succession of the church as the people of God.”  Instead, the succession of bishops supposes, if not presupposes, the advance of the true succession of the church and its faith.  The visible succession exists to promote that.[iv] Braaten claims that given what Luther was confronted with, it was inevitable that he make the true succession of the apostolic faith the essential factor of apostolicity compared to the continuity of the episcopal office.  Luther had two options; either he had to reform the church without bishops or not pursue a reform at all.  In the face of such a decision and emergency he was forced to break with the ancient and classical practice of ordination by episcopacy in continuity with the apostles through the laying on of hands.[v]

Doctrine was the one thing that was irreplaceable for Luther.  His particular circumstances made the loss of the episcopacy a necessity.  This does not mean that this is the way that Luther had envisioned the church operating for all time.  The “apostolic succession” Lutherans want to pose the question:  Is the emergency not over?  Can we not bring back the valuable practice of episcopal ordination and the visible element that it lends to the church’s apostolicity?  Before there is the conclusion that too much is being put into a visible means of apostolicity Braaten reminds us that episcopal succession in no way guarantees the apostolic faith. But this does not mean that it cannot serve as a guarantee of it if used properly.  On this basis he disagrees with theologians like Edmund Schlink and George Lindbeck who allow episcopal succession to operate as a sign of the apostolicity of the church.[vi] Braaten argues that episcopal succession is able to operate not a merely as a ‘hollow’ sign but as an assurance, along with doctrine, of true apostolicity.

To experience apostolic success, it may initially appear that a church’s emphasis must fall upon the evangelical truth over ecclesiastical unity, even as important as that unity may seem.  Braaten would rather that the unity of the church derives from the unity of the truth that it confesses.  A visible unity in the church’s structure is in no way a sufficient compensation for a lack of unity in its true gospel proclamation.[vii] In other words, there are no delusions of grandeur by the “apostolic succession” Lutherans: what they are not saying is that if the Lutheran Church can regain a visible element of episcopal ordination then everything—doctrine and practice—will straighten itself out.  No, both approahces recognize the importance of the purity of the gospel and its proclamation.

Truer Lutheran statements could not be better expressed than the following comments made by Carl Braaten.  He claims that if the primary accent falls upon the gospel, and if there is the correct understanding that the church herself is a servant of that gospel, then it is natural and necessary to conclude that the church is present where the true gospel is proclaimed in both word and deed.  Importantly, this line of thought in no way can be reversed to make the claim that the gospel is truly and necessarily present when a church bears certain institutional marks or perpetuates itself through certain externals.[viii] Here there is no evidence of an attempt to make the gospel or its doctrines subservient or secondary to outward signs of unity—be that ordination or consecration with the laying on of hands.

Bruce D. Marshall, in writing on the Lutheran-Episcopal Concordant, makes two important revelations for our discussion.  First of all, as a representation of the Lutheran approach to apostolicity, the Concordant distinguishes between the apostolicity of the church and the ministry of bishops.  This distinction is made because apostolicity is a trait of the church at large, as a whole, not just to an office within the church.  This apostolicity is found in the church’s continuity with both Jesus Christ and his apostles as it moves throughout history.  Marshall proceeds to point out that “movement through history” or time is a form of succession, hence the concept of apostolicity includes the notion of succession.  “Apostolic succession” is simply apostolicity itself with the stress upon continuity throughout time.  Marshall recognizes that the ministry of bishops cannot be equated with apostolicity but must be understood in its wider context, in service to the apostolicity of the church as a whole.[ix] These comments made by Marshall are a wonderful echo of Braaten’s position.  Therein lies the realization that bishops do not ensure apostolicity, but their position serves the church as an office to unify the church in her apostolicity.

(Go to The Conclusion)


[i] Nagel’s inclusion in this list may come as initially surprising due to his denominational affiliation (LCMS), but his defense of “ordination only with the laying on of hands and prayers” will prove important to this side of the argument for apostolicity as it stands in direct opposition to Pieper.

[ii] Philip J. Hefner, “The Church,” Christian Dogmatics, Volume 2, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 205.

[iii] Ibid, p. 211.

[iv] Carl E. Braaten, Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 36.

[v] Carl E. Braaten, “The New Lutheran Church and Its Ministry,” The New Church Debate, ed. Carl E. Braaten, (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1983), p. 7.

[vi] Ibid, p. 8.

[vii] Braaten, Mother, p. 32.

[viii] Ibid, p. 33.

[ix] Bruce D. Marshall, “The Lutheran-Episcopal Concordant: What Does It Say, and Why Does It Matter?”, Pro Ecclesia 3, no. 4 (Fall 1994):  p. 422.

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.

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.

Theological Fragments: Luther on repetitive prayers

‘…Honoured sir, I ask you to discontinue those Masses and vigils and daily prayers for her soul. It is enough to pray God once or twice for her, because he has said to us, ‘Whatsoever ye shall ask, if ye believe, ye shall receive.’ If we keep on praying for the same thing, it is a sign that we do not believe, and we only annoy him with our unbelieving prayers. For what does it mean if I repeatedly pray for the same thing except that my earlier prayers were not answered and that I have prayed contrary to his will? It is true that we ought to pray at all times, but we should do so in faith, certain that we are heard, otherwise the prayer is in vain. And we are never at a loss for something new to pray for.’

–Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. by Theodore G Tappert (Regent College Publishing: Vancouver, BC; 1960)