A dialogue on Apostolic Succession

Please feel free to weigh in in the comments. The following dialogue transpired over email, but is by no means exhaustive — or closed, for that matter.

Bishop Walter Obare of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya. Thank you Fr. Larry Beane for the the use of the image.

Dear Robert, Fr. Charles,

I hope this note finds you well. I’m writing to you both today because I was hoping you could help me understand something, namely, the Lutheran understanding of “apostolic succession”/ordination, etc. I’m going to frontload some things which I think are probably part of the answer as I go, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

It all started yesterday night at a party I was hosting at my house. A number of my friends from Hillsdale were in town for the wedding of a friend. My Eastern Orthodox friend was feeling punchy, and said something in jest (I’m not even remembering the original context) about how, “you Lutherans don’t have apostolic succession — ha, ha!” To which I replied, “Yes, we do. Ha, ha!” She then wanted to pursue the question further and in more seriousness, so we went and sat outside the apartment building to talk about it. Here’s what her understanding of apostolic succession was:

Christ sent the apostles, who, through the laying on of hands — which I will refer to as “tactile succession” from now on — ordained bishops, whose function it is to ordain priests, that they might preach, keep the liturgy, dispense the sacraments, etc. Bishops ordain bishops, and that’s how you ensure the continuity of the apostolic faith: it ostensibly reaches back through individual, concrete connections, man-to-man, all the the way to the apostles and, ultimately, Christ. Of course, she grants that the teaching was also passed down, and that it, too (i.e., pure doctrine), is a necessary condition of the apostolic successors. But without tactile succession via ordination by a bishop, if all you have is pure doctrine, while you may be an orthodox person, believing the correct things, you are not a bishop, priest, pastor, whatever. Implicit in this view (correct me if I’m wrong) is that tactile succession is regarded not as some mere condition of the priesthood, but an actual and abiding cause or surety/guarantee of the Church’s orthodoxy. Put another way, orthodoxy alone doesn’t make a priest a priest; he has to be ordained by a bishop who stands in an unbroken line of succession which stretches back to Christ. Furthermore, this is how you makes sure that you are, in fact, orthodox. I don’t think that the East believes in the indelible character, but, even so, this summation seems to hold for them. Rome would not disagree with what I said, I don’t think, but they would want to go even farther. Both Rome and the East, of course, cast aspersions on Lutherans for lacking “apostolic succession,” and more or less strenuously insist that because our ordinations are “invalid,” so, too, are all of our sacraments — except Baptism, which isn’t allowed to be invalid.

I can imagine how we might answer this:

It seems like we would start by pointing out that the office of bishop is a human, temporal office — a bishop is a pastor of pastors by iure humanum, but his divine office (indeed, the only church office instituted by Christ) is the Office of the Keys/Office of the Holy Ministry, same as that of Pastor Esget, Pastor James, etc. Therefore when Christ sends out the twelve, he sends them out as pastors, not as bishops, per se, though by ordaining and sending others, they become and are acting as bishops. So all pastors are, or at least can be, bishops. The fact that no “official” bishops were among the first generation of Lutheran fathers is no problem: seeing the clear need for superintendence, the churches of the Augsburg Confession called upon their current pastors to ordain other pastors, i.e., called them to act as, and therefore be, bishops. So we do have “tactile succession” if you want to term it as such, and we do have it through bishops, since all pastors are bishops. But we would demur from the contention that tactile succession doth orthodoxy make and maintain, because the authority of a man in the Office of the Keys is never more than (never anything but) the authority of the Word of God, come down to us through the Old Testament and the apostolic writings… and, come on, we all know that validly ordained men have obscured the Word of God before.

So, in short, we don’t need to go around wringing out hands about having “proper” apostolic succession from “real bishops.”

A second, related question is about the nature of the priestly function of the pastoral office, i.e., the consecration of the Eucharist, specifically:

Would we say that the verba effect the change in the elements? If so, is this only so when the celebrant has been ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry? Christ promises that when we “do this” (i.e., gather in His Name and Remembrance) and the pastor speaks the verba, He will be present with His body and blood. Yes?

Would it be correct to say, then, that the verba comprise a prayer offered in complete trust, since even qua celebrant, the pastor does not effect the change (or to use RC-speak, “confect the sacrament upon the altar”) in his own person or because of abilities concomitant with an “indelible character”? Christ gives Himself to us in the Sacrament, where and when He has promised to be, through the man in the Office He has ordained and promised to work through. So it is the promise of Our Lord which gives us all things — not any variety of human work wrought out of an indelible character, etc.

This just came to me — even the Roman view of the consecration is works-based! Plus, they think they’re offering God a sacrifice for the sins of those assembled: “May my sacrifice be acceptable in your eyes…” *shudder* Ergo, li’l uneducated peasants in the medieval Roman church just needed to show up to obtain the ostensible benefit of the sacrifice; they didn’t need actually to (nor, quite often, could they) partake of the Sacrament.

Why, then, cannot I “confect the sacrament”? Well, because I’m not ordained. Christ has promised to work through the Office of the Holy Ministry, i.e., those who carry on the apostolic teaching and are ordained by the Church into that office. He has not promised to work through me.

I guess this begs a further question: who issues the call? Who does the ordaining? Why can’t I get together with a bunch of my Christian friends and ordain one of them (with the consent of the rest) to be our pastor? Or…can I? Would it just be unwise, but not technically invalid? Why or why not?

I’m going to end my dithyrambic ratiocinations for now, and let Fr. Charles, and you, Robert, take first stabs, if you please.

+ in Christo



Dear Trent,

The Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, and some Anglicans hold that the difference between presbyter/priest and bishop exists by divine institution and that only bishops can validly ordain. The Church of the Augsburg Confession teaches that the difference between presbyter/priest and bishop exists by human institution and that presbyters/priests can validly ordain. This teaching is clearly set forth in Articles V, XIV, and XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, also in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope 60-73, notably: “Since the distinction between bishop and pastor is not by divine right, it is manifest that ordination administered by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine right” (TPPP65).

It is interesting to note that it was not until the Second Vatican Council that the Roman Church authoritatively decided that the distinction between bishop and priest is one of two distinct orders and not merely of gradations within one order, the latter opinion having given rise to several instances in the late middle ages of popes authorizing abbot-presbyters/priests (not ordained to the episcopate) to ordain deacons and priests. Some contemporary Roman theologians have also insisted that one cannot find the distinction between priest and bishop in the New Testament, e.g. “From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church” by Francis A. Sullivan SJ (NY: Newman Press, 2001), also “Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections” by the distinguished NT scholar Fr. Raymond Brown (NY: Paulist Press, 1970). The Roman Catholic/Lutheran Dialogue has also in essence come to this conclusion. Fr. Sullivan taught at the Gregorian University in Rome from 1956-1992.

The Church of the Augsburg Confession does not teach the “indelible character” claimed by the Roman Church; nevertheless when one is ordained to the pastoral office he is ordained to that office for life – unless deposed from the Ministry or renouncing it.

You will sometimes find Lutherans claiming that ordination is an adiaphoron. That is true only in the sense that Christ did not explicitly command the use of the laying on of hands in conferring the pastoral office. (Interesting enough, it was not until the late 1940s that Pius XII decreed that the laying on of hands was the essential “matter” of ordination. Some RC theologians had in the past claimed that it was the anointing of the ordinand’s hands or the giving of the chalice & paten to the ordinand.) But Christ did command His Church to place men in the pastoral office: in this sense ordination is not an adiaphoron. In 1531 Luther advised John Sutel of Goettingen that he should not celebrate the Eucharist  until “he publicly before the altar with prayer and the laying on of hands receives from the other clergymen the evidence [of the legitimacy of his status] and authority to celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar (tum publice coram altari a reliquis ministris cum oratione et impositione manuum testimonium accipires et autoritatem coenae tractandae) (Weimar edition of Luther’s Works Br 6:43-44).

Regarding the consecration of the Sacrament: According to Lutheran doctrine the pastor/presbyter/priest has not been given some kind of occult power to consecrate the bread and wine. He has been given authority to speak in the name and in the stead of Christ. So also in Holy Absolution: “in the stead & by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ…” No one should presume to celebrate the Eucharist unless he has been given authority to do so, “nisi rite vocatus/unless rightly [“ritely”] called” (Augsburg Confession XIV). Contrary to what some Lutherans have said, “rite vocatus” includes ordination. That this is so can be proved from the fact that the papal party in its Confutation in fact accepted Article XIV with the reservation that “rite vocatus” implies episcopal ordination. They would never have approved the Article had they imagined that it spoke only of election by a congregation or some other personage.

I hope this is of some help. I’d carefully read the cited passages of the Book of Concord. I also highly recommended an article on the Sacred Ministry by Bishop Emeritus Jobst Schoene of our German sister church. I’ll bring the book containing that article to church tomorrow.

As Lutherans we in fact have Apostolic Succession both in the sense of continuity of Apostolic Doctrine and a succession of pastors/presbyters/priests who proclaim that Doctrine.

Fr Charles




  1. To what extent is the purpose of CA and AP XIV as well as SA III X grounded specifically in the elevated distinction between pastor/presbyter and bishop, therefore not entirely pertinent to the narrower discussion of apostolic succession? Since the main focus of PPP is on the primacy of Rome and allows for the church to ordain its own, does this document help get at the issue of apostolic succession at all?

    More specifically, how are we to read “the church” in PPP? Trying to adopt a pre-Waltherian perspective and noting that the more specific examples given in PPP reference a church’s own pastor ordaining another pastoral candidate, could it be said that apostolic succession should be retained, not exactly through the office of bishop, but rather from one person who has been called to another? If the sense of “churches ordaining on their own apart from bishops” is intended to be read “pastors of churches ordaining on their own,” is apostolic succession assumed?

    By the way, Hi.

    • Warmbier! So nice to hear from you. Are you all ordained’n’stuff now? A valid successor to the Office of the Keys and preacher of the apostolic faith?

      I’m not sure I can answer your questions. Can you use smaller words, and perhaps terser prose? Maybe you could turn those questions into statements. I’m definitely interested in what your thoughts on this matter are. I will be posting a longer piece by Pastor H.R. Curtis on the question of apostolic succession soon, however; perhaps it addresses some of the points you raise (if memory serves, I think it does). Feel free to continue commenting here or on the new post.

      How are you? Tell me of your life. Email me, eh?

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