In one of the New Testament's shortest letters, Jude states that, while he had been eager to write to his readers about the salvation that he shared with them, he has found it necessary instead to urge them "to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). This plea has always been at the front of Protestant minds when we confess our belief in "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." It has always played a central role in our answering the question, What is the apostolic church and what is implied in our confessing faith in it? For Lutherans, answering this question raises issues about the nature of the church and its unity and about what it means for the church to abide in the apostolic faith "once for all delivered to the saints."
These issues were crucial in the reformers' time and they remain crucial today. For example, right now in the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America a controversy is raging over whether the church can remain faithful to its apostolic tradition if it blesses gay marriages and ordains noncelibate homosexuals. In the more conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a battle is being fought over whether that denomination's New York-area district president, David Benke, should have participated in the public, interfaith event that was held in Yankee Stadium following the September 11 terrorist attacks. There Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and others met together to pray about the world's perilous state. This raised the issue of whether Christians can stand clearly for the apostolic truth that there is "no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12) when they are at the same time seen praying in the company of others who hold to very different faiths. So it should be obvious that a lot rides on our answer to the question, What is this apostolic church in which we confess belief, and what is implied in our confessing belief in it?
The Church and the Apostolic Faith
In spite of past and current controversies, Lutherans have always enjoyed fundamental agreement regarding the doctrine of the church and its apostolicity. Lutheran agreement about these doctrines appears as early as 1530 in the Augsburg Confession that nearly all Lutherans affirm. This confession, consisting of twenty-one articles on doctrine and seven articles on church reform, was penned by Philip Melanchthon in response to the attempt of Roman Catholic theologian John Eck to identify Lutheranism with all sorts of heresies. In it and more especially in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (first published in 1531), Melanchthon labored to establish Lutheranism's orthodoxy and catholicity from the Scriptures, as the epigraph that heads the confession's preface portends: "I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame" (Ps. 119:46).
The first article of the Augsburg Confession sets the stage for all of its remaining articles by opening with the words: "The churches among us teach with complete unanimity that…." Article VII opens by declaring that these Lutheran churches teach "that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church" that is "the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy Sacraments are administered according to the gospel." This is what the first Lutherans confessed as their faith–and all who claim confessional fidelity to the evangelical Lutheran church continue to believe, teach, and confess it today.
Lutherans hold that the church is not, as one might otherwise imagine, an invisible spiritual community known and apparent only by faith. Instead, the "one, holy Christian church" is radically empirical. It is a decidedly this-worldly "assembly" (that is, ekklesia) of believers, a living communion of the faithful created and established by the all-powerful Word of the triune God. Indeed, the church is, in the Latin shorthand of the sixteenth century, a creatura verbi divini, a "creature of the Word." In this divinely created assembly, believers hear and receive the spoken word of the gospel as the very power of God unto salvation (see Rom. 1:16-17; 1 Thess. 1:4-5; 1 Pet. 1:25). In the washing with water of holy baptism they are raised by God the Father to new life (see Col. 2:12-13), united to Christ the Son (see Rom. 6:3-11), sealed by the Holy Spirit (see Eph. 4:30) and "marked with the cross of Christ forever." In the holy absolution spoken by their priest or pastor, they are continuously reconciled to God and to one another through confession and the forgiveness of sins. And at the Lord's Table they are offered by the hand of the minister and receive with their bodily mouths (!) Christ's true body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine.
If the Augsburg Confession's affirmation of the church, which "must be and remain" can be taken as the classic Lutheran definition of the church, then it is hard not to notice that this definition presupposes that the apostolic church is a community of people at work. Believers assemble and busy themselves with all the tasks we associate with Sunday morning services: preaching and hearing, baptizing and confirming, absolving and communing, and so forth. They rise and sit, kneel to confess, close and open their eyes, bow their heads, speak and sing, pray inwardly and process forward in faith to receive the Sacrament at the altar–and much more. This "liturgy" (in the Greek, leitourgia)–or "work of the people"–the confession takes for granted; indeed, it assumes it as the empirical context where the church happens. Wherever the faithful are gathered around the gospel and the Sacraments, they join in the orthodox praise of God. And there the church is and remains. There, by means of the visible marks that were identified above, we find the true church of Jesus Christ, the church that is not only "one, holy, [and] catholic" but that is also apostolic.
Apostolicity and Continuity
But when we affirm that the "one, holy Christian church" found in this assembly of believers is apostolic, exactly what do we mean? Among other things, we mean that the faith of the apostles is constitutive for the church–that is, this faith, and no other, constitutes the church as church. The church identified in the Lutheran confessions thus stands in historic and confessional continuity with the church of apostolic times. Their faith is our faith, for "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8). We devote ourselves unreservedly "to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). The faith believed and practiced in the church is the one faith, given in "the pattern of the sound words" (2 Tim. 1:13) by which the apostles witnessed to Christ the Savior. The Word proclaimed and administered by the apostles unites us and makes us their successors.
Our devotion to the truth of the apostolic faith does not stand alone, however, but is complemented by a commitment to reject false doctrine (see Acts 20:27-31; 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14; 1 John 4:1). Lutherans from the beginning adopted critical principles according to which flawed Christian faith or practice should be reformed in a manner consistent with the apostolic witness as we have it in Holy Scripture. As reformers such as Luther and Melanchthon saw the matter-and as is generally conceded today, both by Lutheran and by Roman Catholic scholars-the church's faith and practice in the later Middle Ages were flawed and needed reformation. In response, Lutherans called for a return to the sources of the faith. In order that the apostolic faith should be rightly taught and handed on to coming generations, they strove to bring Christian proclamation and practice into conformity with Scripture. At the very least, they argued, what we believe and do must not contradict the apostolic witness. Once again, what is crucial is that the apostolic faith-the evangel-should be clearly preached and the Sacraments faithfully administered. The apostolicity of the church today consists in our holding to the teaching and practice of the apostles, Christ's first and faithful witnesses, as they are preserved for us in God's holy Scriptures.
In itself, the claim that the church should be reformed based on the apostolic witness in Holy Scripture was neither new nor particularly threatening, even in Luther's day. Church-dividing differences arose only when the Lutherans-whose representatives were mostly secular princes, pastors, and university professors-came into conflict with the church's established leaders: the Roman Catholic bishops. Yet even this conflict was by no means necessary. Early Lutherans were willing to concede a lot to the structure and authority of the church's ordered ministry as it had existed since at least the times of the early church fathers.
The church's ministry of service to the whole people of God had long been structured and apportioned according to a threefold order: deacons were responsible for the church's caring ministry to the poor and needy (see Acts 6:1-4); priests administered the Sacraments and tended the local congregations (see 1 Cor. 11:23-26; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 4:11-16; 2 Tim. 4:1-5); and bishops held the "ministry of oversight" (episkop: see Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:1; Tit. 1:7 [esv margin]), attending to the unity of the local congregations in the apostolic faith. At Augsburg, Lutherans recognized and affirmed the bishops' leading role in the church, and they freely admitted that Christ had entrusted to them the "power and command of God to preach the gospel, to forgive or retain sin, and to administer and distribute the sacraments" (Augsburg Confession, Article XXVIII). Christ had established, in other words, the church's ordered ministry and charged it with the duty and responsibility of publicly ministering to the faithful through preaching and the administration of the Sacraments. As loyal sons of the church, the Lutherans vigorously asserted their willingness to be obedient to their bishops, provided only that the bishops would allow the preaching of that faith. When the bishops refused to do so, what had been a protest became a revolt, a rejection of ecclesiastical tyranny in defense of the apostolic faith.
Still, the Lutherans were not opposed to the church per se. In fact, the vital connection they saw between salvation and the church is made clear in the progression from the fourth to the fifth articles of the Augsburg Confession. According to Article IV, justification is a gift given by grace alone for Christ's sake alone through faith alone. But if faith is the medium of salvation, then there should be means through which it is given and effected in the Christian. The Holy Spirit works faith in us through the "external Word" present in the gospel and the Sacraments. Therefore, the church must have a ministry. So, "To obtain such faith, God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the Sacraments" (Augsburg Confession, Article V). The office of the ministry is necessary for faith, that is, as the instrument through which the means of grace-gospel and Sacraments-are administered and applied. Thus, in the "true, holy Christian church" it is clearly possible to speak of a successio apostolica, a succession of the apostolic faith down through the generations. Likewise, we can also affirm a succession in the church and its ministry, for if there is a historical continuity in saving faith, then there must also be continuity in the ministry of the gospel and Sacraments through which saving faith is given and imparted.
Consequently, the Lutheran doctrine of the church cannot be understood as in any way anti-institutional, as if saving faith could somehow "liberate" us from dependence on the church and its ministry. To the contrary, Lutherans teach that God has instituted the office of the holy ministry and that this ministry is essential to the matter of salvation by grace through faith alone. Lutherans never even imagine Christians without a church. Nor do they expect a church where there are not rightly called and ordained servants of the Word carrying out the divinely appointed tasks of preaching the gospel and administering the Sacraments. The church is a tangible institutional reality and it will always remain so, for the "gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18).
Lutherans have long been wary, however, of any move that would seem to make the gospel the servant of the church, rather than the church the servant of the gospel. Classically, this wariness is perhaps most powerfully expressed in Lutheran opposition to the notion that what is called "apostolic succession" can be reduced to the merely tactile-that is, as consisting in a continuous series of episcopal ordinations stretching back to the apostolic age. Lutherans, along with many others, have often spoken derisively of this understanding of apostolic succession. In its crassest form, this "pipeline theory" would make the implausible claim that a bishop's tactile relation to the apostles by means of the continuous historical application of the rite of the laying on of hands in episcopal consecration guarantees the apostolicity of the church's faith. Against this theory Lutherans have argued that a bishop's actual fidelity (or infidelity) to the apostolically delivered faith trumps any claim based solely on historic episcopal succession. In the sixteenth century, there were any number of rightly ordered bishops standing in historic succession who the Lutherans thought were unfaithful to the apostolic gospel and who, therefore, could not be understood as the apostles' successors. For Lutherans, when there is a conflict between the gospel and established authorities in the church, the gospel wins every time. The necessity of the church as an institution can never be pitted against the Word that the church was instituted to serve.
Apostolicity and Historical Episcopal Succession
As nervous as Lutherans tend to get when the talk turns to apostolic succession understood in strictly episcopal terms, we nevertheless believe firmly in a tangible church and ministry that are historically continuous over time. There have always been faithful pastors preaching the gospel and administering the Sacraments to faithful people. In fact, in classical Lutheran thought continuity in the apostolic faith extends back not only to the time of the apostles, but through the days of the prophets and patriarchs right back to the household of Adam and Eve. The promise made to the first fallen human beings in Genesis 3:15 (the so-called protoevangelium) is the very promise fulfilled in Christ. The Old Testament faithful looked ahead to his coming, while we, with the apostles, look back on it as an accomplished fact. Yet the faith of us all is the same (see Rom. 4:11, 16-25; Gal. 3:7-9). Thus, we privilege the apostles' witness to the gospel, but we do not separate their faith from our own. The communion in Christ given in the Word and the Sacraments brings us into fellowship with the apostles and all the saints in the "true holy, Christian church" (see 1 John 1:3).
Therefore, in Christ we stand united both with the living who share the apostolic faith, and with the dead who kept and still keep it (see Rev. 6:9-10). To be sure, this fellowship is spiritual. But because it is realized preeminently in the assembly of the faithful around Word and Sacraments, this fellowship leaves tangible external signs. For example, it leaves church buildings that witness powerfully to the continuity of the apostolic faith over time even when those buildings have long since fallen into disuse. Who could fail to be impressed by the faith of the Christian people who built the churches and monasteries in the Holy Land? Granted, the archeological remains of church buildings are insufficient to demonstrate that their builders or users kept the apostolic faith. But we know that the apostolic faith has been kept, at least by a few, and that people of faith build churches. The ruins–and in many places the continuing vitality–of ancient Christian churches speak powerfully, if not necessarily, of the faith of generations gone by.
Enduring Christian institutions can also be tangible signs of apostolic faith; and as long as we do not look to them to supply us with what can only be found in the means of grace themselves, Lutherans are free to affirm and accept them. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has done this in its recent adoption of the historic episcopacy. The fact that there have been Christian bishops exercising a ministry of oversight in particular places for centuries or millennia testifies powerfully to the church's continuity over time. Archbishops have exercised their ministry as "Primate of All England," for example, since St. Augustine of Canterbury in the late sixth century. Of course, this does not demonstrate the apostolicity of the faith believed and confessed by Augustine's current successor. But the fact that Augustine's successors have included great Christians such as St. Anselm should suffice to impress even the more skeptical that an impressive tradition of faith is embodied in the institution itself. Examples like this could be multiplied. It was, after all, the episcopally ordered church that bequeathed us the canon of Scripture and the great ecumenical creeds; and many bishops have given heroic testimony to "the faith that was once for all delivered," including Augustine of Hippo, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, and Gregory the Great.
We Lutherans make the history of the church our own and claim its apostolic heritage not only, of course, by means of this particular element of historical continuity. Our form of public worship, hymnody, and catechetical traditions likewise celebrate the faith of our patristic, medieval, and Reformation ancestors. We honor them on saints' days, and in the recognition of blessed Mary as the true mother of God. Our faith that the church of the apostles must "be and remain" means that it has not been invisible, so we eagerly take our own history captive in service to the church and its abiding apostolicity.