“Why The Apostolic Succession Debate Matters,” by the Rev. Heath R. Curtis

The Ordination of Pr. Roy Axel Coats.

The Ordination of Pr. Roy Axel Coats.

“Why The Apostolic Succession Debate Matters”
The Rev. Heath R. Curtis

Trinity Lutheran Church – Worden, IL
Zion Lutheran Church – Carpenter, IL

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Like many men of my calling I am a collector of literary portraits of clergymen. It is instructive and enjoyable to glimpse how the world views us. Incumbents of the Office of the Ministry on page and film are variously portrayed – from good and wise Father Dowling to the more dynamic Mr. Ecko. But my favorite – and I would challenge anyone to disprove my veracity in saying that this is also simply the best portrayal in all of literature – is “Raymond Thomas Montrose, doctor of divinity, rector of the Church of the Holy Ghost.” Fr. Montrose, an Episcopal priest, is the center of Russel Kirk’s story The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost. I will let him introduce himself,

Thomas is my confirmation name, and my patron is Saint Thomas of Canterbury. Like my patron, I stand six feet four in my armor. Yes, armor; but my mail is black leather, and I sleep with a pistol hanging from my bedhead. A sergeant’s son, I was born in Spanish Town Jamaica, and I am shiny black: nobody excels me in negritude. The barmaids of Pentecost Road say I have a ‘cute British accent.’ I believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; the resurrection of the dead; and the life everlasting. I am celibate, not quite forty years of age, and since my ordination chaste of body. I have survived in Hawkhill a whole year.

Needless to say, you should read this story. But for now, I call your attention to the following scene. Fr. Montrose serves in the inner city and by night walks the streets of Hawkhill seeking to aid the runaways forced into prostitution. We join him as he enters a bar, the Mustang:

Just outside the door of the Mustang someone gripped my arm – but not with the customary unimaginative ‘Want to have some fun, honey?’ This person was saying, ‘Brother, have you been washed in the blood of the Lamb?’

I swung round. It was a young black man, fantastically dressed, a street preacher, wild-eyed. He had a companion. This colleague, seated in a sort of primitive wheelchair was paler than death . . . He then plucked the white boy out of his chair and exhibited him at arm’s length to the street-people. Praise be, the pallid thing was an inanimate manikin, marvelously realistic, after all. . . .

‘Cept you take the Lord Jesus for your personal saviour, you’re no better’n this here dummy!’ the wild-eyed preacher was shouting. ‘Where you goin’ to spend eternity? You want to spend it with the Whore o’Babylon and the Beast, whose number is six six six? The wages of sin is death. You want to be like this here dummy, no brains in your head? You want to be cast into the fire eternal?. . . ‘Cept you follow the Lord Jesus, Ol’ Man Death put his bony hands on you, and you curl up like a worm. . . .’

Two mighty hands took me by the shoulders, from behind. Their clutch was terribly painful; a shock like electricity ran through me. ‘Gottcha, Doc!” said Fork. ‘You come along with me into this hell on earth they call the Mustang. Wahoo!’

[The blind man’s] ears has singled me out in the crowd by my few words in retort to the street-preacher.

‘In a minute, Fork, you Beast from the Abyss,’ I muttered.

With his stick tucked under his arm, the blind man stood beside me, listening to the crazy preacher. ‘It always was a scandal, that faith, eh, Doc?’ He poked me in the ribs with the head of his stick. ‘That there raving and ranting fellow – sort of like a caricature of you, eh, Doc?’

‘Go to hell, Fork,’ I told him.

More powerfully than any essay, this scene, and the story as a whole, goes to the core of the question that keeps Lutheran pastors up at night: legitimacy. Fr. Montrose is moved to cursing because in the person of the street-preacher he has faced his greatest nightmare vision: himself as an impostor. Are we, when fantastically dressed in our vestments on Sunday morning ranting and raving about sin and grace and the pope as the Antichrist – are we but a caricature of real priests? Jeremiah condemns those prophets who run when they are not called. Are we sure that we are called by God to our ministry – or are we but the next thing to self-appointed charlatans: that is, those appointed by the self-appointed charlatans and schismatics of the sixteenth century?

This is exactly the charge leveled against us by Rome and the Eastern Orthodox when they speak of our lack of apostolic succession. In this essay I will examine what exactly they are claiming, provide a critique of contemporary replies to the charge, and offer what I hope to prove is the proper scriptural and confessional defense of Lutheran apostolicity.

Apostolic Succession in Rome and the East

While they are not in full fellowship, Rome and the Eastern Orthodox do recognize each other’s ministry and sacraments because they recognize each other as apostolic churches. What do they mean by this? We can state the notion of apostolic succession in a general way as follows: The bishops of their respective churches were placed into their office properly by other holders of that office, and they in turn were placed into that office by other holders of that office, and so on back to the Apostles and Christ himself.

Why do Rome and the East deny that we as Lutherans (or even the Anglicans, who do claim to possess apostolic succession in just this sense) have this apostolicity? Because in both Rome and the East, the Office of the Ministry is seen as fully and truly present only in the bishop. It is the bishop who possesses all the rights and duties of the Office Christ gave his Apostles, including the right and duty to place other men to that Office. Priests and deacons are only given part of the Office which Christ gave to his Apostles. Specifically, a priest is not given the power to ordain other men into the Office and the deacon is further deprived of the ability to confect the Sacrament of the Altar.

In the sixteenth-century Reformation the pope and the bishops faithful to him refused to ordain clergy for the regions that followed the Augsburg Confession. Subsequently, men were called by the church in those jurisdictions (whether through the ruler, a town council, or an actual congregation) to be ministers and were placed into office by other priests, not bishops. Since Rome and the East claim that the priest lacks exactly that power to put others into office, the line back to Christ and the Office he gave to the Apostles was broken. Our ministers are thus not ministers, but impostors like Kirk’s wild-eyed street preacher.

Inadequate Lutheran Responses

Contemporary Lutheran responses to this charge have, in my opinion, confused refusing to debate on your opponents ground with refusing to debate at all. It is clear that we cannot rebut this charge on the theological ground of Rome and the East. They have their facts straight: during the 16th century Reformation there was a break with episcopal ordination in the sense that there was break with the bishops recognized by Rome as bishops. It is simply folly to claim, as the Anglicans have claimed, that we really do have apostolic succession under Rome’s definition of the terms. Lutherans must therefore look for other replies that do not operate under the assumptions of Rome and the East.

What we're trying to avoid.

What we’re trying to avoid.

The reply of many Lutherans today is that succession in office simply does not matter. The theological move attempted here is to AC VII. The Church is where the Word is rightly preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered according thereto. The correct doctrine is preached among us and the sacraments are rightly administered among us. Quod erat demonstrandum: we are certainly in the true Church. So Herman Sasse writes, “Authentic apostolic succession, then, is always and only the succession of doctrine.”1 Kurt Marquart agrees, “There is of course a true apostolic succession, but it has little to do with external connections (Mk. 9:38-40) to privileged places, persons, or hands. Instead it has everything to do with the faithful transmission of evangelical, sacramental substance – and only with that.”2

This reply at first strikes Lutheran ears as pious and wholly confessional. After all, that is what AC VII says, isn’t it? But place this reply in front of those who have made the charge, and they are likely to point out that it is petitio principii – a begging of the question. That is, the reply assumes in the premises what needs to be proved in the arguments. For what does AC VII actually say? The sacraments must be “administered in conformity to the divine Word” (KW translation of die Sakramente dem göttlichen Wort gemätz gereicht werden). And does not Article XIV state that no one may teach or administer the sacraments unless properly called? Thus, if our priests are not properly called to their office, then we are not administering the sacraments in accord with the divine Word and are thus not achieving what is satis for the existence of the Church. By our own confessional standards, then, if we are without the Office of the Ministry, without men rite vocatus, then we are without the Church.

Critiquing Sasse’s Reply

The charge that we lack ministers because we lack apostolicity, therefore, deserves more than a one sentence reply that merely asserts our purity of doctrine. And Sasse does attempt to provide such a reply in the essay from which I quoted above – although I do not think it is unfair to state that the cornerstone of his reply is the one sentence which I have just shown to be inadequate. Over the course of two essays in the We Confess the Church anthology (“Ministry and Congregation,” July 1949, pp. 69-83 and “Apostolic Succession,” April 1956, pp. 84-107) Sasse brings forward at least four other arguments in reply to the charge of non-apostolicity leveled against Lutheranism by Rome and the East.

Before critiquing these replies in turn, it is instructive to look at the introduction Sasse gives to his essay titled, “Apostolic Succession.” There he laments the sad case of what we might call apostolic anxiety disorder on the Lutheranism of his day. With Anglicans and Nordic Lutheran Churches harping on the necessity of their brand of apostolic succession and even secretly ordaining German Lutherans (86), it is little wonder that Sasse wished to combat this disorder forcefully. He was right to combat it – but the treatment he prescribed, while showing great insight at times, is less than adequate to alleviate sufferers of the disorder. But if Sasse’s arguments fail to be fully adequate, the fault is certainly mitigated by the distress the notion of apostolic succession was causing the Lutheranism of Sasse’s day.

A matter of faith

Above I examined Sasse’s claim that purity of doctrine and administration of the sacraments is an adequate response to the charge that we do not have ministers rightly called among us. Closely related to this is Sasse’s assertion that in the final analysis one cannot really argue about these matters at all,

The apostolicity of origin, the claim that the church to which I belong is identical with the church of the apostles, is a matter of faith. The answer has to do with whether I consider the doctrine of my church to be apostolic. The claim of the Lutheran Church to be apostolic stands or falls with the claim that it has faithfully preserved the doctrine of the New Testament. For Lutherans certainly everything depends on the question: Where today is the doctrine of the apostles? (87-88)

This is again open to the charge of question-begging or even tautology. For certainly, the doctrine of the ministry is a doctrine. So the argument at hand, concerning the apostolicity and thus the reality of the ministry in the Lutheran Church, cannot be gotten around by simply saying that our doctrine is pure. That must be argued, not assumed. Furthermore, by declaring that the issue is “a matter of faith,” Sasse comes close to neglecting what we are to have faith in. That is, this statement would seem to imply that the matter is beyond argumentation over what the Scriptures say. I believe in Lutheran doctrine. Lutherans reject Rome’s version of what makes for a valid minister, therefore I do not need to argue about what makes for a valid minister. Here two different schemata are acknowledged to exist, Rome’s and Lutheranism’s, but they are forbidden to interact and debate one another because, after all, it is “a matter of faith.”

Rome’s doctrine is mere tradition

A major part of Sasse’s reply to Rome’s view of apostolicity and its necessity for a valid ministry is to say that it is merely an extra-biblical tradition that solidified in the institutional church over time. Certainly Sasse is correct at least this far: the Roman insistence that a man may only be placed into the ministry by a Roman bishop saying just these words, with just this intention, with just this laying on of hands is indeed without any explicit foundation in the Scriptures. And Sasse is further correct in linking up Rome’s doctrine of succession with her doctrine of the infallibility of the magisterium, “In the tradition of doctrine and the succession of teachers there is said to be an inherent spirit at work infallibly revealing things” (92).

But Sasse inadvertently accepts his opponents ground when he says that “we nowhere have a mandate of our Lord to carry out an ordination, let alone instructions as to how it should be done” (100). We certainly do not have a mandate from the Lord to pick up the Roman Rituale, read just those words, while placing hands on someone’s head, etc. But it is equally certain that we do have a mandate from the Scriptures to have in our midst men fulfilling the Office of the Ministry, an Office that is distinct from the royal priesthood of the baptized. Surely, therefore, we have a Dominical imprimatur for placing men into that Office (usually called ordination in our midst). We must defend the reality and validity of the Lutheran Church’s placing of men into that Office (the validity of what are commonly called our ordinations).

This highlights a recurring problem in Lutheran discussions of the Office of the Ministry: equivocal terminology. What does “to ordain” mean? If it means to lay hands on someone’s head and say such and such words, then clearly, ordination is an adiaphoron. But if “to ordain” means to place a man in the Office of the Ministry, then clearly it is not an adiaporon but a necessity for the Church (AC VII, AC XIV). This confusion over what the word “ordination” should refer to has wrecked sad havoc on the ability of Lutherans to write and think clearly on the topic of the ministry, as can be seen here in Sasse. For my part, I will refer to “placing a man in the Office of the Ministry” rather than ordination. This is, I believe, a necessary acquiescence of brevity to precision and I encourage other Lutheran commentators on these issues to follow the same procedure.

Historical Cynicism

Regrettably, part of Sasse’s reply slips into what can only be called historical cynicism. Having accepted Rome’s definition of apostolic succession, and thus accepting that Lutheranism does not possess it, Sasse attempts to prove that Rome cannot have it either. He does this by way of a skeptical reading of the history of the Church.

There is first the fact that it was not always the Twelve who founded and organized the churches, yes, not even apostles in the real meaning of the word. Indeed the greatest of the ancient churches, Antioch and Rome, were founded by unknown Christians. (96)

A bishop receives his consecration from another bishop, whose consecration goes back to other bishops, right back to the first bishops who were consecrated by the apostles. How historical is this succession? In later times it can certainly be demonstrated or accepted with confidence[.]. . . But does this tell us that all consecrations go back to the apostles? Timothy was ordained by Paul with the laying of hands (2 Tim 1:6). In 1 Tim. 3 and 5 he was given instruction for appointing bishops, deacons, and widows (deaconesses), where the laying on of hands is explicitly mentions. But were bishops everywhere ordained in this way? How were things done in Rome in Clement’s day? We do not know. (99-100)

Does Sasse really mean to imply that the Church at Antioch or Rome existed without a connection to the Apostles and their Office? That is as little provable as Rome’s more lavish traditions about the founding of the Church at Rome. That we may not know the first preachers at Antioch and Rome (although we are not without educated guesses from the Book of Acts) is one thing – to then cynically claim that these churches were founded without benefit of clergy in fellowship with the Apostles is quite another.

Furthermore, Sasse’s cynicism is again needless as it is based on a faulty acceptance of Rome’s understanding of placing men into the Office of the Ministry. Sasse is correct to doubt that Rome’s notions of what a bishop is and how a man should be placed into Office extend back to the time of the apostles. But that is not a concern to Lutherans who view the Office of the Ministry as unitary and the ceremonies accompanying the placing of a man into the Office as adiaphora – while acknowledging that the placing in Office itself is not an adiaphoron. That is, since Lutherans assert that all ministers are bishops – that is, that all ministers possess the whole Office of the Ministry – is it so far fetched to claim that the Office of the Ministry was passed down from the apostles to those they placed in Office at the behest of the Church, and so on down through the ages? As we shall see below, this is exactly the claim of the Lutheran Confessions.

The validity of lay-only ordination

The most radical argument Sasse brings to bear against Rome’s notion of apostolic succession is that not only are Roman (or Eastern Orthodox) bishops not necessary to place a man into the Office of the Ministry, but that no clergy at all are necessary for this.

The regular way in Vilmar as in Löhe is that shepherds are ordained by shepherds, which is also regarded as the normal thing in the Confessions of the Lutheran Church and its church orders. Here our church expressly acknowledges the ancient catholic practice. The church of the Lutheran Reformation, however, has never been in doubt regarding the possibility of the office being bestowed without the traditional ordination by an ordained servant of the Word. Herein is agreement also among all those who do not simply regard the exercise of the holy ministry as the priesthood of all believers performing its function. (77)

A person was usually placed in the orders and offices of the congregation by the laying on of hands with prayer. This laying on of hands could be done by a single person, as the apostle Paul did (2 Tim 1:6). Or it could be done by the presbytery (1 Tim. 4:14), or by both, as was apparently the case with Timothy, or by a whole congregation through their representatives (Acts 13:3). (80)

Here Sasse’s exegesis of the pastoral epistles and Acts is simply flawed. Clearly, 2 Tim. 1:6 and 1 Tim. 4:14 refer to the same event – and when taken together, it is clear evidence that Paul considered himself part of the presbytery, as did St. Peter (1 Peter 5:1). These passages are vital for understanding the Lutheran insistence on the unitary nature of the Office of the Ministry: that Paul and Peter called themselves part of the presbytery shows that the Office of presbyter is the continuance of the Office Christ gave to the Apostles. Furthermore, Acts 13:3 may indeed be a proof text for the Confessional claim that the laity must be involved in placing a man in the Office (but it can be argued that this text in fact is not a good one for that proof), but to claim that the passage shows that laity placed men into the Office of the Ministry apart from the clergy is simply fanciful.

I cannot dispute the fact that Hermann Sasse was much better read in the Confessions and history of the Lutheran Church than I or nearly any of my contemporaries. With that caveat, I must state that I am puzzled by Sasse’s assertion that there has never been doubt that laity could place a man into the Office of the Ministry without the involvement of the clergy at any point in the process. I think his vehemence against the Roman and Eastern notion of apostolic succession has driven from his mind what the Confessions actually say in Tr. 63-72.

Jerome therefore teaches that the distinction between the grades of bishop and presbyter (or pastor) is by human authority. The fact itself bears witness to this, for the power is the same, as I have already stated. 64 Afterwards one thing made a distinction between bishops and pastors, and this was ordination, for it was decided that one bishop should ordain the ministers in a number of churches. 65 But 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. 66 Consequently, when the regular bishops become enemies of the Gospel and are unwilling to administer ordination,the churches retain the right to ordain for themselves. 67 For wherever the church exists, the right to administer the Gospel also exists. Wherefore it is necessary for the church to retain the right of calling, electing, and ordaining ministers.

This right is a gift given exclusively to the church, and no human authority can take it away from the church. It is as Paul testifies to the Ephesians when he says, “When he ascended on high he gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8, 11, 12). He enumerates pastors and teachers among the gifts belonging exclusively to the church, and he adds that they are given for the work of ministry and for building up the body of Christ. Where the true church is, therefore, the right of electing and ordaining ministers must of necessity also be. So in an emergency even a layman absolves and becomes the minister and pastor of another. It is like the example which Augustine relates of two Christians in a ship, one of whom baptized the other (a catechumen), and the latter, after his Baptism, absolved the former.68 Here the words of Christ apply which testify that the keys were given to the church and not merely to certain individuals: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).

69 Finally, this is confirmed by the declaration of Peter, “You are a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9). These words apply to the true church which, since it alone possesses the priesthood, certainly has the right of electing and ordaining ministers. 70 The most common custom of the church also bears witness to this, for there was a time when the people elected pastors and bishops. Afterwards a bishop, either of that church or of a neighboring church, was brought in to confirm the election with the laying on of hands; nor was ordination anything more than such confirmation [comprobatio]. 71 Later on new ceremonies were added, many of which Dionysius describes; but he is a late and fictitious writer, whoever he may be, just as the writings of Clement are spurious. Still more recent writers added the words, “I give thee the power to sacrifice for the living and the dead.” But not even this is found in Dionysius!

72 From all these facts it is evident that the church retains the right of electing and ordaining ministers. Wherefore, when the bishops are heretics or refuse to administer ordination, the churches are by divine right compelled to ordain pastors and ministers for themselves using their own pastors for this purpose.3 And it is the wickedness and tyranny of the bishops that give occasion to schism and discord, for Paul commands that bishops who teach and defend impious doctrines and impious forms of worship should be regarded as anathema. (Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, 63-72. Tappert translation.)

The Church is neither just the laity nor just the clergy: it is the clergy and the laity, the whole people of God. As Sasse himself writes, “It is therefore in fact impossible in the New Testament to separate ministry and congregation” (78). Luther concurs, “Now wherever you find these offices or officers, you may be assured that the holy Christian people are there; for the church cannot be without these bishops, pastors, preachers, priests; and conversely, they cannot be without the church. Both must be together.”4

Thus, when the Church is said to retain the power to ordain, this means that the laity and the clergy both have roles to play in placing a man into the Office of the Ministry, as the overall context of Tr. 63-72 makes clear. Much has been made of Augustine’s famous thought experiment about the two men in the boat. It is interesting that it is often used in an attempt to show that everyone is a minister while Melanchthon uses it to show that the Church has the right to put men who are not ministers into the ministry. Furthermore, we might add an additional thought experiment. Imagine if a number of laymen broke off from a local congregation and elect one of their number as their pastor – a man whom the clergy of the church unanimously say is unfit for the ministry and thus refuse to agree (grant their comprobatio, Tr. 70) to his call to ministry. If the newly formed, breakaway congregation then insisted and installed the man in office without the comprobatio of any clergyman whatever, would the man actually be in the Office of the Ministry?5 Likewise with a group of clergymen who identify a man they want in the Office of the Ministry and proceed to place him in office without any involvement of the rest of the Church, that is, the laity – would a man so placed actually be in the Office of the Ministry? The overall context of Tr 63-72, and certainly the history of the Lutheran Church, urges the negative answer in both situations. The people of God as a whole, laity and clergy, place a man into the Office. If one acts without the other, at the very least there would be great doubt about the validity of such a placing in Office.

A Better Reply

The argument brought by Rome and the East that Lutheranism lacks the ministry because it lacks apostolicity is a serious charge which must be met squarely from the Scriptures and the Confessions. As we have seen, our Confessions force the question on us by defining the Church as the place where the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered and then further saying that to administer the sacraments rightly one must be rite vocatus. So what is the positive Lutheran case for the fact that our ministers are really ministers? How do we argue that the apostolic ministry is in fact among us?

First, we examine the assumptions our opponents present to us and compare them to the Scriptures. Rome and the East present a neat syllogism to Lutheranism to deny the validity of its ministry. Major premise: There is no accession to the Office of the Ministry without a bishop. Minor premise: Lutherans do not have bishops. Conclusion: Lutherans cannot place men into the ministry.

As we have just seen from the Treatise, the Confessions do not attack the major premise. Rather, the Confessions attack the minor premise, vehemently asserting that we have bishops a plenty; for all ministers are bishops because there is only one Office of the Ministry by divine right. These ministers do their part along with the laity in putting other men into the Office of the Ministry: that is, the Church as a whole retains the right to place men in Office. The division of duties between bishop and presbyter is an invention of men for the sake of order in the Church. Rome cannot rob our churches of clergy (and thus of part of the church) by claiming that only a part of the Office of the Ministry is given to the presbyter while the whole gift is given to the men they call bishops. Christ gave his gift of the Ministry as one gift, no one may divide it piecemeal. That Christ did give it as a unit is seen from the Biblical witness, where the terms episkopos and presbyteros are used interchangeably. And it is further proven from the history of the Church, where ordinations by presbyters were consistently recognized in the ancient and medieval periods. These points have been eloquently demonstrated by A. C. Piepkorn in his vital essay, “A Lutheran View of the Validity of Lutheran Orders.” Indeed, here I am largely providing the outlines of the argument that he conclusively proves in this essay.

So the Confessional response to the claim that Lutherans don’t have the ministry is more robust than merely claiming that we have pure doctrine —although that is true, and vital! Nor do the Confessions claim that men ever have or even can be placed into the Ministry without the whole Church, clergy and laity. Nor do our Symbols assert that the ministry itself is unimportant, or identical to or derivative of the priesthood of the baptized. Rather, the Confessional response to the charge that we do not have the apostolic ministry among us is to say, “That is a slur against us and one not to be tolerated. Our ministers are ministers by divine right, holding the same Office of the Apostles as they passed it down to us through the call of the entire Church, both laity and clergy doing their part in the calling, electing, examining, and installing of ministers. We use our own ceremonies and customs in putting these men in the Office to be sure – just as Rome has its own canon law for placing men in the Office. These things, derived by human right, are free. We retain what is essential: the Church puts a man in the Office received from the Apostles.” In short, the Confessional reply to, “You don’t have apostolic succession” is, “Oh yes we do, and here is why.”


But now someone will ask, “So what? Does having a succession of men in the Office traceable back to the Apostles protect us from error or establish the validity of God’s Word?” No, it does not – it is, at the very least not a sufficient condition for those things. But there is much value in confessing the truths examined here. The unity of the Office of the Ministry is one of the key emphases of the Lutheran Reformation, a piece of ancient, Biblical teaching rescued from the accretions of false tradition. If we nod in agreement when the the Romanists or Easterners say, “You do not have apostolic succession because you do not have bishops” then we deny this point of teaching.

Second, the Church as a whole is given the task of placing men in the Office of the Apostles. If it really were true that our Church was a fabrication of a cabal of laity alone, or a cabal of clergy alone, we would be a sect and not a church, for we would be conducting the ministry of the Church outside of Christ’s institution. Perhaps in that case we could fall back on Mark 9 as Marquart recommends. But happily we do not have to. We can confess that the ministry among us, and thus the right administration of the Sacraments and preaching of the Word among us, stands on the Institution of Christ. Our ministers are rite vocatus based on the injunctions of God’s Word for the whole Church to place men into this Office. We know full well, and history demonstrates that we are correct, that we thus stand in what may properly be called apostolic succession. Here is a final coda from Luther, demonstrating the importance of holding on to the Office of the Apostles, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the gifts:

Now, if the apostles, evangelists, and prophets are no longer living, others must have replaced them and will replace them until the end of the world, for the church shall last until the end of the world [Matt. 28:20]. Apostles, evangelists, and prophets must therefore remain, no matter what their name, to promote God’s word and work. The pope and his followers, who persecute God’s word while admitting that it is true, must be very poor apostles, evangelists, and prophets, just like the devil and his angels. But why do I keep coming back to these shameful, filthy folk of the pope? Let them go again, and bid them not to return, or etc.

Just as was said earlier about the other four parts of the great, divine, holy possession by which the holy church is sanctified, that you need not care who or how those from whom you receive it are, so again you should not ask who and how he is who gives it to you or has the office. For all of it is given, not to him who has the office, but to him who is to receive it through this office, except that he can receive it together with you if he so desires. Let him be what he will. Because he is in office and is tolerated by the assembly, you put up with him too. His person will make God’s word and sacraments neither worse nor better for you. What he says or does is not his, but Christ, your Lord, and the Holy Spirit say and do everything, in so far as he adheres to correct doctrine and practice. The church, of course, cannot and should not tolerate open vices; but you yourself be content and tolerant, since you, an individual, cannot be the whole assembly or the Christian holy people.7

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1.“Apostolic Succession,” We Confess The Church, trans. Norman Nagel, (St. Louis: CPH, 1986) pp. 84-107, 94.

2.The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance. Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics Series, vol. IX, Robert Preus, ed. (St. Louis: The Luther Academy, 1990) 28.

3. The italicized words do not appear in Tappert’s translation – nor in the first printing of KW, though they do appear in Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche and in the second printing of KW. In the that second printing of KW there is no note explaining their absence in the first printing. Furthermore they are translated as “in the presence of their pastors,” which is hardly accurate. The words in Latin are adhibitis suis pastoribus and are well enough translated in the first version of McCain as “by having their pastors do it.” These words, while undoubtedly part of the original Treatise as penned at Smalcald, were omitted in the anonymously printed version of 1540, and from there were not translated by Dietrich for the 1580 German Concordia and were subsequently lost to the 1584 Latin printing. However, the context obviously assumes what they make clear: when “the Church” is said to ordain, it is understood that this means both laity and clergy doing their respective parts in the process.

4On the Councils and the Church (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 1966) LW 41:164.

5. Another thought experiment that goes beyond the scope of this paper, but is nonetheless apropos the general discussion is this: imagine that the two people in the stranded boat were women who had thought ahead and packed a lunch including a bottle of wine and some bread. Could the woman who baptized the other also conduct the Lord’s Supper? Not should she, but could she: would she have the ability to do so?

6. Part of Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue IV: Eucharist and Ministry (LWF & BCEIA, 1970), 209-226.

7On the Councils and the Church (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 1966) LW 41:155-56.




  1. It’s a good piece, but in his criticism of other Lutheran approaches to the question, I think he glosses over a distinction that is in fact another valid way to answer the RCs and EOs. Ordination by the _Church_ is not the same thing as Apostolic Succession. AS makes a further claim that the reason the Church (in the person of the bishops) has this power is that the Apostles had it first, and granted it charismatically to the men they consecrated as bishops. When we maintain, following AC 7, that the power to ordain belongs to the Church qua Church, we do in fact contradict the theory of Apostolic Succession.

    Our full answer is, “It doesn’t really work like that, but if it did, we’d still be fine.”

    • Sorry — then what is that other valid way to answer the RCs and EOs? I think I missed it.

      And can you spell out again the difference between ordination (placing into the the Office of the Holy Ministry) by the Church and “Apostolic Succession”? Are you saying that Apostolic Succession refers specifically to the passing down of a special charism that only bishops possess, which was received from the first bishops, a.k.a. the Apostles?

  2. Are you saying that Apostolic Succession refers specifically to the passing down of a special charism that only bishops possess, which was received from the first bishops, a.k.a. the Apostles?

    The way it’s defined by RCs and EOs, yes. You can attack that claim at two points: as Pr. Curtis does, at the “only bishops” part, or as Sasse et al. did/do, at the “special charism” part. There’s just one Office of the Holy Ministry, to which all pastors belong whether they’ve been granted episcopal honors or not, so if there were a special church-constituting Apostolic charism capable of being passed from individual to individual throughout history, our pastors would all have it, as Curtis says. But there isn’t, as lots of other people say, and that seems a more fundamental answer. Curtis says Marquart and Sasse were begging the question when they said Apostolic Succession = succession of Apostolic Doctrine, but they weren’t. They were speaking the language of the people whose position they were rebutting: “If Apostolic Succession is an actual traditio of power that is constitutive of the Church, it can only be defined as the transmission of the Apostolic Doctrine. [And if you insist on it being personal and charismatic instead, we must simply deny that such a thing exists.]“

  3. “[I]f you insist on it being personal and charismatic instead, we must simply deny that such a thing exists.”

    One wonders, though. A full acceptance and affirmation of the italicized assertion above, is complicated by the curious event occurring early in Church history, and narrated in the Acts of the Apostles 8.

    There we learn that Philip preached (v.5), baptized (vv. 12,13) and performed wonders (vv. 6,7) amongst the Samaritan community, in a most powerful manner. Nonetheless, upon hearing that the Word had broken forth into that community’s midst through Philip’s acting as vessel, the Jerusalem congregation charged the Apostles Peter and John with a mission to the Samaritans … to pray, and to lay “their hands on them” (v.17; Authorized Version), so that the Holy Ghost would be received (v.17).

    It is not explicit … from lose inspection of the printed AV text in any event … that the Apostles actually re-baptized the Samaritan believers, whatever the implications of v. 16. It is difficult to reconcile the mind, to the possibility that Philip ignored the baptismal injunction of our Lord as found in Mt 28:19. What Acts 8 might be saying is that the Samaritans had been baptized in accordance with orthodoxy and orthopraxy (“in the name of the Lord Jesus,” v. 16, being a primitive Church code, similar in function to that of the “breaking of bread” as stand-in for the Eucharistic meal). But the Samaritans had “only been baptized” (cf. v.16, AV); they were sheep of God’s pen through Baptism, to be sure, but were at this time without a full-time under-shepherd to call their own. The ground-breaking Philip was an itinerant preacher of sorts, a fellow known to be suddenly caught up by the wind of God from time to time. The Lord and His church, at Jerusalem, solved this problem with the Apostolic “laying on of hands,” which might be alluding to a transfer of the most Holy Office so that the gifts of the Spirit, through Word and Sacrament, could be received by the laity in a right, rite, decent and orderly (i.e., God pleasing) manner).

    My contention is that this was something very personal (Ss. Peter and John are mentioned as being critical to the process, after all), and very charismatic.

    And very Apostolic “succession.”

    Of course, there would always be scheming rascals like “a certain man called Simon’ (v.9, AV) perceiving the Holy Office as something of a cash-cow, to benefit their pocketbook and lust for power.

    But that’s a different topic.

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor

  4. I think it happened the way it did in Samaria because it was Samaria. The Samaritans had a long tradition of bucking Jerusalem, insisting that their own cultus was the real deal. So in their case the Spirit did not immediately come upon them when they were baptized. He waited until the leaders of the Jerusalem church came to visit, in order to communicate to the Samaritans that they were not to found their own independent Church the way they had founded their own independent Temple. There was one Church, and it was built on the Apostles.

    Something like this happened also in Acts 19 (the gift of the Spirit being separated from the moment of Baptism, and later added through an Apostle’s hands). In that case, it was because the Baptism previously received had been John’s.

  5. p.s. Also it’s worth pointing out that I’m not denying that there was a “special church-constituting Apostolic charisma,” only that it was “capable of being passed from individual to individual throughout history.”

  6. Much to think about here. The distinction between bishop and presbyter is most definitely a development, though an early one. How would we view the fact that the early church would not have given a council of ordinary presbyters the authority to define doctrine? Should the presbyters who formed the BoC have the same authority as the Bishop-led councils of the church?

    Would Fr. Curtis’ argument not make valid the orders of the majority of Protestantism? The Anglicans and at least some of the early Reformed were ordained priests. And all their offshoots were likely started by some ordained clergyman.

    It seems a bit much for the average layman to figure out which church, among the plethora of options, is teaching biblical doctrine.

  7. Hi Nick,

    1. I reject the notion that the 4th century counts as “the early church.” Are folks commentating on Shakespeare today “early commentators”? Are commentators on the works of Ben Franklin today “early commentators”? Then why do we give Augustine, Jerome, et al, the title of “early church”?

    2. The notion of a council “defining doctrine” is a tricky one. But if that idea has any validity, and you want a truly early church to hold a council that does so…well, Acts 15:2 “And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” Acts 15:6 “The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.” So there’s your presbyters at the council!

    3. Augsburg Confession VII does not require us to make judgments regarding the “validity” of orders in other Protestant groups. The Formula of Concord also treads lightly here especially with the Anglicans in mind (that is the reference to “whole countries” in the preface). We are concerned with saying “I know the Church is here.” We really don’t have much to say regarding, “I can see that the Church is plainly not over there.”

    4. As GK Chesterton is wont to say: if a job is worth doing, its worth doing badly. There are are some things a man must do himself, whether he is particularly skilled at them or not. A man may not be a great poet, but we want him writing his own love letters to his own wife. There is no escaping the necessity of each man saying, “I find this to be the true doctrine.” All you can do is push it back a step. Thus some say men can’t be expected to figure out whether or not the NT uses the word grace in regard to justification to mean the favor or God or a created inherent virtue in man. But the folks who say that a man can’t do that expect the same man to decide that the NT does say that Christ left an infallible teaching office upon the earth and that it’s locus is in Rome.

    Bollocks. Whether a man will do it poorly or not, he’s going to have to do both. For to do less is to be less than human. “My sheep hear My voice.” They can’t farm out the listening to others.


  8. The 4th century is the Early Church because we live so much later. In the 32nd century, Harold Bloom very well may be considered an early interpreter of Shakespeare. The earliness isn’t the main point, though: rather the fact that the church of the 4th century was still undivided, and its doctrinal definitions still define the core that is confessed by all the competing heirs of the Catholic tradition.

    Having said that, though, I find Pr. Curtis’s reply to be quite good, and heartily echo the rest of it. I’d just like to add something to address Nicks statement that “the early church would not have given a council of ordinary presbyters the authority to define doctrine.” There wasn’t a council behind the BoC, exactly. It was composed by theologians and signed by heads of government. And the theologians who composed it were hardly “ordinary presbyters.” Chemnitz, for example, was the ecclesiastical superintendent of Brunswick, meaning he was basically a bishop, just one serving in a Caesaropapist system. And the same goes for all the other ecclesiastical superintendents who advised the various signatories at whose behest they served the Church. And when it comes to the business end, I accept the Concordia for the same reason I accept the doctrinal formulations of the Ecumenical Councils (and _don’t_ accept the decisions of quite a few other councils): because they draw their teachings from Scripture by the means of clear and forceful reason, in conformity with the Fathers, and I am convinced by them. Outside the book of Acts there is no Church Council to which we are beholden simply because of who the participants were.

  9. Eric,

    Thanks for the kind words on the main point. Just to continue the conversation on the minor point of “early church”….

    My point on refusing to call the 4th century early is precisely that “relative” should not come into play here. Fact is, the 4th century situation is just as foreign to the 1st century origin of the NT as we are, just in different ways. Nothing in the 4th century is normative of our understanding of the NT because it comes from an “early” 4th century. You note that the 4th century was good on formulating certain things that still resound through the ages now. True enough: but only because Christology (to take one example) was so exceedingly controverted and messed up in the early 4th century. That is, because they had first fallen so far from the message of the NT. Other low points in the 4th century include baptismal theology and practice (as witness: the common practice of delaying adult baptism until late in life), the development of purgatory (see Augustine), the downplaying of the Hebrew origin of the OT (Augustine again), and the development of prayer to the saints (as the papyri found in Egypt attest along with some things in the Cappadocians).

    All those things are products of the 4th century church and none of them are normative because they are “early developments.” Indeed, I’d call them late developments!


  10. Well, yeah. I’m defending the term, not the fallacious connotations that people sometimes smuggle into the word “Early.” “This guy wrote a mere 250 years after the death of St. John. He must have known what he was talking about!” There’s no problem with relativity coming into play in the naming of the era as long as we don’t allow that kind of fuzzy thinking. And if “Early” sounds superior to “Medieval,” well, it was.

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