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A Sneak Peek Inside the Trinity 2019 Issue: SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Here’s a sneak peek inside the Trinity 2019 Issue of the journal. So as not to miss out on other great articles, SUBSCRIBE TODAY.


“What We Have is Apostolic Succession”

by Rev. Dr. Korey D. Maas

The clerical abuse crisis once again roiling the Roman Catholic Church has, even if unintentionally, brought the issue of apostolic succession to the fore once more. By precipitating a number of public defections from Rome, it has also prompted many Catholics to publicly articulate reasons for remaining. Probably the most frequently heard justification has been that, however morally compromised the Roman Church might be, Christ cannot elsewhere be found in the Eucharist. Though such a claim is indefensible even on the grounds of Catholic theology itself (which recognizes Christ’s true presence also on the altars of Eastern Orthodox Churches), it has the potential to persuade any who might consider seeking fellowship even with a confessional Lutheran Church.

To the Lutheran who might respond, “But we’re not like other Protestants! We also believe Christ’s body and blood are truly present on our altars!” the Catholic apologist will reply: “However commendably pious your belief, it is wrong; because your clergy do not stand in apostolic succession, their ordinations are invalid, and they cannot therefore effect Christ’s presence in the sacrament.” 

But the abuse crisis is only the most recent context in which the rejection of Lutheran orders is heard. Because it has been voiced with some regularity since the Reformation itself, Lutheran theologians have not neglected to articulate responses to the charge. Some of those responses, however, as Heath Curtis has rightly pointed out, are less helpful than others. It is therefore worth reviewing what the traditional Roman objection to Lutheran orders is, and what the confessional Lutheran reply to that objection is. I’d like then only to add a couple of points by way of further bolstering the contemporary credibility of that confessional reply. 

Curtis has noted that the traditional Roman rejection of Lutheran orders might be reduced to a concise syllogism. Only bishops can place men into the ministerial office; Lutherans do not have bishops; Ergo, Lutherans cannot place men into the ministry. As this formulation makes evident, Roman references to “apostolic succession” are often synonymous with “episcopal succession”; succession is maintained by episcopal—and only episcopal—ordination. 

With reference to the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, Curtis reminds us that 

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.

In other words, the problem with the Roman objection is not its insistence that only bishops can ordain pastors. The problem lies with any claim that the episcopal office is, by divine right, an office distinct from that of the pastorate. In the words of the Treatise (§65) “since by divine authority the grades of bishop and pastor are not diverse, it is manifest that ordination administered by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine law.” 

For patristic confirmation of the divine right unity of the ministerial office, the Treatise appeals especially to Jerome. But as Arthur Carl Piepkorn further observed, many other early fathers, on the basis of the biblical testimony, similarly concluded that presbyteros and episkopos refer to the same office, and even into the eleventh century it could be confessed that “the sum total of the priesthood is settled in the presbyters.” This being the case, he also notes that, through the Middle Ages, ordinations by non-episcopal presbyters and even monastery abbots were often acknowledged to be valid. (For those interested, this exchange refers to works even by contemporary Roman Catholic scholars who grant that the New Testament does not distinguish between pastoral and episcopal offices.)

In light of the above it becomes clear that a Lutheran claim to apostolic succession via episcopal ordination can indeed be maintained, so long as the episcopal office is understood in biblical terms, i.e., as simply synonymous with the pastoral office. Conversely, though, Heath Curtis warns that “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.” 

It’s to this assertion that I’d like to offer a friendly qualification, if only because “Rome’s definition of the terms”—in this as in so many matters—tends curiously to shift (or “develop”) whenever necessary or convenient. And some of these shifts, whether intended to do so or not, lend further credence to the confessional Lutheran claim to apostolic succession. 

Responding, for example, to the kind of argument Curtis dubs “historical cynicism,” which questions whether even Rome itself can convincingly claim apostolic succession, Catholic theologian Mats Wahlberg recently attempted to walk back the traditional “no bishops, no succession” argument. He offers instead that, “If the apostles authorized some people to succeed them as leaders and gave them a mandate to authorize their own successors, what we have is apostolic succession” (emphases added). He goes on: “It does not matter if some of those who were authorized by the apostles were called ‘presbyters’ rather than ‘bishops.’ Nor does it matter if the apostles passed along their authority not to ‘bishops ruling their flocks as monarchs,’ but to bodies of elders.”

So, if even presbyters (rather than bishops specifically or exclusively) were authorized to succeed the apostles in their ministry, and if even presbyters (rather than bishops specifically or exclusively) were to authorize their own successors in this ministry, “what we have is apostolic succession.” Good to know. Or, rather, good to see that even Roman theologians are finally acknowledging what Lutherans have known and said for five centuries. 

Nor is Wahlberg’s a lone voice. In fact, he makes a point of emphasizing that he merely summarizes Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Ratzinger, of course, would in 2005 become Pope Benedict XVI. Prior to his elevation to the papacy, but while Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he addressed the doctrine of apostolic succession in what he called a “primer of Catholic ecclesiology,” Called to Communion

How did Rome’s chief doctrinal officer and future pontiff treat the topic in light of “Catholic ecclesiology”? By frankly acknowledging that, according to Scripture, the “terms presbyter and episcopoi are identified,” that they are “equated and defined as a single office of apostolic succession” (emphasis added). Because the pastoral and episcopal office are indeed the same apostolic office, Ratzinger can even allow specific references to the episcopate to drop out of his discussion of apostolic succession. He can note, for example, that the New Testament “theologically identifies the apostolic office and the presbyterate,” and that “The whole theology of apostleship … is thus applied to the presbyterate.” And, finally, that “this linking of the content of the two offices [i.e., apostle and presbyter] … is, so to say, the consummated act of successio apostolica.” 

In other words, “since by divine authority the grades of bishop and pastor are not diverse,” but comprise one apostolic office, “ordination administered by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine law.” When and where this is done—even according to Rome’s contemporary theologians, and contrary to her popular polemicists and apologists—“what we have is apostolic succession.”


Korey D. Maas is an associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.