"THE APOSTOLICITY OF THE CHURCH"
OF THE LUTHERAN-ROMAN CATHOLIC COMMISSION FOR UNITY
COMMENTARY BY WOLFGANG THÖNISSEN
The study document on the "Apostolicity of the Church" presents us with a text which is complex in its origins, in its methodology and in its outcomes. it was produced between 1995-2006 by the Lutheran I Roman Catholic Commission for Unity, as commissioned by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and has been submitted to the two commissioning institutions and through them to their respective churches. Accordingly it constitutes a study document of a Commission and not of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity itself.
Although this is not the first time the subject of apostolicity has been on the agenda of the international commission, this is the first document to present an explicit and comprehensive historically and theologically differentiated exposition of this subject. In contrast to the preceding documents, it indeed represents a study document in the fullest sense of the word, accessible only to ecumenism experts.
With its many biblical, theological and historical insights it goes beyond all previous study documents, but nevertheless still requires more precise and in-depth reflection from the perspective of systematic theology.
Even after decades of hard-fought ecumenical struggle, a common understanding of ecclesial office remains a rich source of conflict. The question of ministry is the crux of ecumenical dialogue. The core questions here involve the subjects of tradition and apostolic succession. Even though appreciable rapprochement can be discerned in the question of succession, the differing theological approaches still diverge considerably from one another. The Study Document of the Lutheran- Catholic Commission does not offer a fully formulated consensus on the issue under consideration as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification does, but it does present ways and means or clarifying such a consensus. The present document is explicitly intended as an interim appraisal, and should therefore not be confused with an ecumenical consensus document. The significance or the issue does not depend solely on the differing intrinsic evaluations of these specific theological controversies, but rather on the circumstance that questions or aposto1icity and apostolic succession coincide with the fundamental sacramental structure of the church. The dispute over apostolic succession in the episcopal office is at the same time a dispute over the understanding of the church as such.
THE OBJECTIVES, METHODOLOGIES AND SUBJECTS OF THE DIALOGUE SO FAR
The starting points of a document in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue are the actual traditional controversial theological problem constellations inherent in each specific issue, and the related reciprocal condemnations. The dialogue is therefore directed towards an examination of the existing confessional differences at issue, with the goal of overcoming the theological obstacles. Ali previous documents are understood to be steps along the path towards the reestablishment of full visible communion between the as yet separated churches.
The international Lutheran-Catholic dialogue has from its inception dealt with the questions which led to the schism between Lutherans and Catholics. The first document of 1972 "The Gospel and the Church "maintained the normativity of the apostolic origin of the church, represented in concrete form in the apostolic succession. Therefore if we wish to sound out the future prospects of a far-reaching common understanding between Lutherans and Catholics, that can only take place within the context of a continuous process of theological rapprochement, in which Lutherans and Catholics gradually come to understand one another better, dear away the existing obstacles between them and finally attempt reciprocal acceptance.
The international dialogue commission long ago identified four areas of theological controversy on which the clarification of the question of reciprocal recognition of ministry depends:
1. the question of the institutional continuity of the church;
2. the ordained ministry within this ecclesial institution;
3. the teaching function of ecclesial office: and
4. its jurisdictional function (DWU 3,375).
While the first question revolves around the problem of apostolic continuity in the structures of the church and apostolic succession in particular, the second concerns the concrete shaping of this ministry within the apostolic continuity of the church, the third question deals with the resulting problem of the teaching function of the church, the fourth with the legal and canonical governance which is important for the external structure of the church. The current document takes up the first three questions explicitly, while the fourth has not been considered here.
The particular process followed by the study document is based on a detailed description of the fundamental methodological questions. The entire biblical and historical material on the issue of the apostolicity of the church and apostolic succession, including the question of ecclesial teaching and its binding character is reviewed from a joint Catholic and Lutheran perspective.
SHARED UNDERSTANDING OF THE APOSTOLICITY OF THE CHURCH
The starting point of these specific reflections is the question whether Lutherans and Catholics are able to find a common answer to the question of what makes the church apostolic. In order to answer this question, extensive investigation is undertaken of the New Testament and of historical theology. As well as a variety of voices and forms, the New Testament offers one clear option for the apostolicity of the church. The document states: Jesus' proclamation of the gospel of God led, according to the testimony of the gospels, to the call to follow Christ. From among the disciples who followed him, Jesus chose a group of twelve persons whom he sent out entrusted with the task of mission to the world. Matthew, Luke and John testify to a definitive universal commissioning of the apostles by the risen Christ, which is to be understood as authorization. According to Paul, an apostle is a messenger who has been named and authorized by Christ. To that extent an apostle is a missionary, but not every missionary is also an apostle. This apostolic sending of the messenger is essential [or the foundation of the congregation. The apostle is therefore a founder. The congregations derive their origin from him. Even though the title "apostolos" is applied retrospectively to the twelve, the college of apostles does not lack authority on that account. That is made clear by the example of Paul, who was not one of the twelve. The first ecclesial structures and congregational forms grow out of this foundational apostolic community. Then the ministry of "episcope" plays an essential role, The "episkopos" is the overseer, guardian and protector, as far as the defense of the apostolic legacy of the Christian congregations and their communion with one another is concerned. The emergence of a threefold order within the local structure is ultimately the logical progression of the apostolic legacy. Since that time the church has constantly striven to remain faithful to apostolic testimony. Thus fidelity to the apostolic mission is integral to the essence of the church.
The second chapter is able to build on this foundation. Statements about apostolicity in the early church and in the Middle Ages make it clear that there were at first very different and diverse perceptions, conceptual developments, forms and constructions of this one office. The question now is to determine how the apostolicity of the church can be understood from a Catholic and a Lutheran perspective respectively. In the first instance it is essential to keep in mind the asymmetry in the relationship of the Lutheran and Catholic churches which results from the fact that the Lutheran Church sees no difficulty in regarding the Catholic Church as apostolic, while on the other hand the Catholic Church has until now considered the reverse out of the question. In order to find a way out of this impasse, the study document takes recourse to an argumentation set out at the Second Vatican Council and in the Decree on Ecumenism in particular. According to this, Catholic theology sees itself as justified in inferring an implicit recognition of these churches and ecclesial communities as apostolic by asking in what measure the ecclesial elements which speak for apostolicity are to be found in the separated churches and communities. Crucially, the Decree on Ecumenism pointed out that the separated churches and communities indeed stand in an as yet imperfect ecclesial communion with the Catholic Church by virtue of the fact that the elements referred to, such as baptism, can be validated for our own as well as for the other separated churches or communities. Therefore everything which comes from Christ and leads to rum (UR 3) must be included in the assessment process.
The study document recognizes as a commonality the fundamental biblical insight that the apostles are sent out by Christ as authorized witnesses to his resurrection, and the recognition that the apostolic testimony is both the normative origin and the abiding foundation of the church. The central and decisive factor for the apostolic legacy is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel is to be understood as the definitive message of the proclamation of Jesus Christ. The church is therefore apostolic in as far as it remains faithful to this truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ as testified by the apostles.
With the Council of Trent and in the light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, we are able to establish the hard-won common insight that the gospel proclaimed by Christ through the apostles is the source of all saving truth in the faith and life of the church (DH 1501). To maintain this gospel within the church is the task of apostolic tradition (DV 8). When the study document seeks to represent the Lutheran understanding of the apostolicity of the church, it highlights apostolicity in the dimension of the gospel as God's Word. The proclamation of the gospel represents the core of the church. Therefore the church is apostolic from the Lutheran perspective because it can be traced back to the substance of the gospel. But the main problem facing a Lutheran-Catholic consensus seems to reside in the clarification of the question whether and in what way this recognition of the apostolicity of the church is necessarily linked to the criterion of a specific form of the apostolic succession of individual ministries. Is a particular historical structure integral to the substance of the gospel, and therefore also binding? It is not only the question of the apostolicity of the church, its doctrinal and conceptual description as a characteristic of the church, which stand in the foreground, but the question of how to define the relationship between the foundation of the church on the one hand, which is as such apostolic, and its apostolic structure and ordering on the other. While efforts towards regaining a common ground are commendable, the theological problem becomes evident immediately in this distinction between foundation and structure, which is constantly reiterated throughout this study. To speak of shared participation in the apostolicity of the church is not unproblematic, for it could give rise to the impression that while we are in agreement on the foundation, we are prepared to accept the freedom of a diversity of concrete forms and orders. Catholic doctrine however stresses that maintaining the truth of the gospel on the basis of the sacramental character of the church is bound up with a concrete structure of transmission. At this point we must take up the question of apostolic succession and ordained ministry.
RAPPROCHEMENT IN THE UNDERSTANDING OF MINISTRY
The task of the third part of the study is then to answer the following question: How has the sub- stance of the apostolic legacy been maintained in the structure and order of the church? In order to answer this question the document begins with a biblical orientation once more. Already in New Testament rimes, taking their direction from the apostolic origin of the church, structures and orders of local leadership and church doctrine are developed, whereby the dose connection between leadership and doctrine is particularly underscored. The progressive formation of a structure of differentiated ministries with a threefold hierarchy, the development of the episcopal office and the continuity of the bishops in a local church are the decisive criteria for the church and markings of its foundational apostolic orientation. At the time of the Reformation and the Council of Trent a whole complex of problems become intertwined which now need to be disentangled. The study document develops two perspectives which are intended to lead to common understanding on the controversial issues, According to the intentions of the Reformers, the doctrine of the priesthood of all the baptised is meant to deprive the social and juridical subdivision of the whole of Christendom into clergy and laity of its theological foundation, and to abolish the class hierarchy with its salvation history interpretation (No. 202). In baptism all Christians participate in Christ's priesthood. Luther's reform efforts are therefore not directed against the establishment of the ministry as such. Ecclesial office is understood as ministry in the service of public proc1arnation of the gospel in word and sacrament within the congregation. On many occasions Luther speaks of the divine institution of ordained ministry, for without the special ministry of proclamation there can be no fitting proclamation of the gospel. The crucial question for Luther was whether in an historical emergency situation a congregation can also recommend one or more persons from within its midst for the special ministry of proclamation through prayer and the laying on of hands, The episcopal office arises out of the need for visitation as care for the purity of proclamation, and the task of ordination. The sacramental episcopacy can therefore also in Luther’s view be understood as a sign of the apostolcity of the church. The challenge facing Lutheran-Catholic dialogue consists in the scrupulous investigation and evaluation of these historical actualities. The principal task is to overcome simplistic alternatives in the understanding of ministry. The following sets of dichotomies have for a long time been considered mutually exclusive characterisations: on the Lutheran side ministry as the function of the congregation alone, and on the Catholic side the character indelebilis attached to the office and distinguishing the person of the office-bearer; on the Catholic side the hierarchical prominence of the episcopal ministry, on the Lutheran side the office of presbyter as the sole form of ordained ministry. The long-pursued goal of confrontation on controversial theological issues by both sides has denigrated the one at the expense of the other. The Second Vatican Council succeeded in overcoming this dichotomy by rightly highlighting the significance of the common priesthood. The priesthood of ministry and the priesthood of all believers each participate in their specific way in the priesthood of Christ (LG l0). The episcopacy becomes the fundamental form of ordained ministry as the office in which the church is grounded, and into which the ministry of the presbyter is integrated (LG 26, 28).
A joint appropriation of this complex history of the office and its succession leads to the insight: the priesthood of all the baptised and the special ordained ministry do not stand in competition with one another for Lutherans or for Catholics. The one ministry established by God is necessary for the existence of the church. Within the apostolic mission of the whole church, ordained office bearers have special duties which relate to the public ministry of the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, which the church is commissioned to proclaim to the whole world. Ministry is essentially service of the gospel. Each office and each office bearer must be measured against this apostolic mission. Induction into office occurs through ordination, whereby a Christian is called and sent, through prayers and the laying on of hands, into the service of public proclamation of the gospel in word and sacrament. The sub-division of the office into a more local and a more regional ministry arises as an historical development out of the significance and task of the office as a ministry of unity and faith. The Lutheran churches too acknowledge their episcopal polity in so far as they recognise an office which has the duty of care for the communion in faith of the local congregations.
In spite of these common perspectives some distinctions must be drawn. The sacramentally transmitted office of the bishop in apostolic succession is integral to the structural fullness of the church. To that extent it is a sign and an instrument of the apostolic tradition. When Lutheran theology maintains that the sacramental episcopacy is a sign of the apostolic mission of the church, then we can see that as progress towards a common Lutheran-Catholic understanding. But according to Catholic doctrine, as the study document itself stresses, the sacramental sign of ordination is not present in all its fullness because of the lack (defectus) in the understanding of the doctrine of apostolic succession. Thus within the perspective of shared historical appropriation a difference is perceived which does not yet seem to be overcome.
CLARIFICATION IN REGARD TO THE BINDING TEACHING OF THE CHURCH
While a promising rapprochement can be discerned in fundamental insights of ecclesial office in apostolic succession in regard to the fundamental testimony of Holy Scripture, Catholic and Lutheran conceptions of the canonicity of Scripture diverge widely, in particular on the substantiation and understanding of the binding teaching of the church. Is there, in view of the great differences, any prospect of a common understanding? Can a renewed re-examination of the biblical material and historical developments lead to progress with a view to convergence?
Shared remembrance of the history of the binding teaching of the church brings to light numerous shared elements: the rule of faith (regula fidei) as a form of transmission of the gospel, the creeds as expressions of the truth of revelation, the canon of Holy Scripture as normative testimony for the teaching and life of the church, the interpretation of scripture in the service of the church’s proclamation, the Councils of the first eight centuries in service of the truth of faith and its public confession. In contrast to this normative development within the common doctrinal development, the process of differentiation in the epoch of confessionalisation results in divergent elements: the appeal to scripture in critical contrast to the appeal to the authority of the teaching office. In the end this debate was conducted in terms of the disputed definition of the relationship between church and scripture. At this point the authority of scripture and the authority of the church clearly diverged from one another. What had for centuries necessarily been thought of as mutually exclusive alternatives can today from the perspective of regained commonality be considered as different but need not be seen as contrary.
If it is essential for the church to remain in the truth of the gospel in order to be church, it can at the same time be said of the Lutheran side that the church can only make explicit what the Holy Scriptures already contain. The teaching office which exists within the Lutheran church is indeed not binding in the sense of an institutional authority, but nevertheless the teaching of the church plays a significant role within the church. Teaching is related to the interpretation of the Holy Scripture. This is a task which implies a supra-congregational responsibility over and above the individual local congregation which i s binding and necessary. Therewith i t becomes clear that for the Lutheran side, too, episcope is necessary for the teaching of the church. Therefore in the Lutheran view the ministry of teaching must be exercised in an interplay of persons and authorities.
For the Catholic side, too, this leads to a deeper insight. The Canon of Holy Scripture established by the Council of Trent is based on the authority of the tradition, the canon is a gift of the tradition, that does not exclude Holy Scripture itself from making its presence felt in the tradition as testimony of God's work of salvation and as God's words (DV 9). To that extent we arrive at an interim balance: the ecclesial teaching office does not exist in isolation in the interpretation of scripture, thus scripture itself is an active subject within the church and the tradition. Consequently it gives rise to various instances of witness which, working together, take responsibility at different levels and with varying degrees of binding force for the task of teaching. The structures and the working methods of ecclesial teaching are of course necessary in order to establish the binding force of scriptural interpretation, extending up to the ultimate binding authority of the teaching office.
The study document sets down the following as its interim results: Firstly, there is agreement on faith in God's work of salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is testified by the Easter witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit. "Jesus Christ is God's definitive word of grace in person" (No. 432). Secondly: it has been entrusted to the church to proclaim Gods word and to maintain it in continuous succession. Thirdly: the content of Scripture is the source and touchstone for the proclamation of the church.
From that point on differences become evident, in the definition of the relationship between gospel and church, scripture and tradition, and in the relationship of the teaching office to the various instances of witness of the word of God. When Catholics emphasise that the tradition is indispensable for the interpretation of the word of God, they mean that scripture is the inspired word of God which is entrusted to the living process of the transmission of the church and its teaching office. Lutherans on the other hand point to the norm of scripture which stands as a critique of the process of tradition and has precedence over it. But Lutherans too are certain that the creeds which originate in the tradition of the church are grounded in Holy Scripture. In regard to Scripture and tradition we must ask whether Lutherans and Catholics do not today agree with one another more than has occurred in the past. Finally, if Catholic doc trine understands magisterium as the task of teaching pertaining to the bishops and to the college of bishops with the Pope as its head, then that represents an indispensable component of the ministry of the church in which scripture, tradition and teaching office are intertwined (DV l0), But Lutherans are also of the conviction that the teaching office as one of the various instances of witness fulfils a critical function in the public proclamation of the gospel.
GROWTH IN AGREEMENT, REMAINING DIFFERENCES
Lutheran-Catholic dialogue on apostolicity and apostolic succession leads to the following common understanding: the apostolic tradition, as transmission of the mission or the apostles - emanating from Christ - to proclaim the gospel, is bound to the personal succession of those who proclaim it as the concrete form of the tradition within the structured community of the church. That occurs in the sense of a working together of different forms of witness of the word of God. Here particular significance is accorded to the communion of bishops as a sign of fidelity to the gospel. Ali or these individual factors together combine to form an intrinsic, essential and ordered interrelationship which owes its existence to divine institution. The study document links apostolicity, succession and communion together in one common theologal interrelationship which is indissoluble. “Fidelity to the apostolic gospel is therefore pre-eminent in the interplay of traditio, successio, and communio. The internal ordering of those three aspects of the apostolic succession is of great significance” (no. 291).
With that the study document succeeds in giving prominence to an important commonality in the understanding or the church as apostolic, and over and above that, it is able to identify a series or elements which lead to an essential rapprochement. In this sense the document reflects a pleasing interim account which takes up various preceding study documents, affirms them and carries them further.
The question whether that provides a far-reaching and promising agreement in the question of apostolicity and apostolic succession cannot yet be conc1usively answered in the affirmative. The difficulty in this issue lies above all in the circumstance that here we are not dealing with a single classical doctrinal question but with the nature and structure of the church. The document therefore offers in the first instance a renunciation of mutually exclusive alternative possibilities. It seeks ways out of the constrictions of the theological controversies of the past centuries. That must be expressly taken into consideration here. Therefore this document forms an important stage on the way lo mutual recognition of ministries, and deserves to be appreciated as such. The question is no longer whether apostolic succession belongs to the apostolicity of the gospel but how it does so. An important step towards a common understanding has therefore been taken, although different pathways are still being trodden by Lutherans and Catholics in the evaluation of this question.
Therefore the study document does not establish any full consensus in the question of apostolicity of the church. To what extent one can already speak of a "differentiated consensus ", as the study document implies, is a matter for further debate. The judgement within the document that specific remaining differences are no longer to be seen as church dividing is premature. When the aposto1icity of the church is defined in the study document essentially as fidelity to the gospel, that gives priority to the Lutheran perspective rather than giving expression to the full Catholic understanding. In Catholic understanding, the sacramental structure of the church, which is realised in the eucharist and in the ecclesial office including the teaching office, is essential. There the fundamentally incarnational character of the church is realised. The Catholic understanding seeks thereby to unswervingly maintain the salvation event of Jesus Christ in the community and in the living witness of the church, as the body of the Lord in his many members. Therefore from the Catholic view-point the study document, in referring to the relationship of the church to the word of God or the gospel, fails to give sufficient expression to this sacramental structure of the church. It does not satisfactorily clarify the indispensable necessity of the concrete form of the sacramental office of consecration and in particular of the sacramental episcopal office in apostolic succession.
The document in its entirety draws the strength or its argumentation from a hermeneutical interplay of foundation and form which has not yet been sufficiently discussed. Il takes up this characteristic distinction between the foundation and the form of office without wishing to determine exactly in which way the two dimensions of the one office are to relate to one another. But it is at precisely this point that the main problem of the suggested solution lies. The study document implies that the one essence or apostolicity can find concrete realisation in different forms, which are then able to grant one another reciprocal recognition. That solution would however call into question the unicity and universality of the one church of Jesus Christ and its sacramental nature.
The desire to clarify the question of reciprocal] recognition of ministries in apostolic succession therefore demands a scrupulous systematic theological argumentation. If one adopts the figure of thought of "nature and form" which has in the meantime become current in ecumenical dialogue, in the first instance one must proceed on the basis that foundation and form of ecclesial office are not to be played off against one another. The question is of course how differing formations of office can lend expression to the unity of the church of Jesus Christ in a concrete visible form. According to Catholic understanding the interconnectedness of the two aspects constitutes the sacramental] nature of the church and the episcopal office. To that extent the answer to the question cannot consist in complete license for any form of office.
Any conclusive judgement of these complex ecumenical issues will proceed from the doctrine of apostolicity and apostolic succession as it was renewed by the Second Vatican Council: the church stands once and for all on the foundation of the apostles. In the creed the churches participating in ecumenical dialogue jointly confess the abiding normativity of the apostolic testimony, But in the precise definition of that apostolicity the conceptions of the churches and the ecclesial communities diverge from one another.
The Catholic Church proceeds from the conviction that the apostolic succession is an essential expression and an instrument of the apostolic tradition of the church. The Second Vatican Council has within the framework of the traditional ecclesial doctrine contributed the more recent conviction that the church is bound forever to the one word of God, and that tradition and Scripture, springing from the one source, together form the one treasure of the word of God (DV 10). In that tradition the succession represents the form of the transmission while the transmission is the substance of the succession. The successio apostolica arises from the word of God and is abidingly bound to it. Succession is thus participation in the mission of the gospel. The ecumenically significant question, to which ecumenical dialogue seeks an answer, arises in regard to the extent to which the successio apostolica belongs to the traditio apostolica, and how the two are related to one another, The question to be clarified in the future is whether Christianity today can jointly support the conviction that the succession in episcopal office is a sign and instrument of the apostolicity which is essential for the life of the church.
Paderborn, July 16, 2008
[Information Service 128 (2008/II) 133-138]