views updated


The first creed to mention the "apostolic Church" comes from Salamis and is dated 374 (DS 42). The creed of the Council of Constantinople in 381 follows this practice (DS 150), and henceforth mention of the apostolic Church is general practice. The adjective had been developed earlier in the vocabulary of Christians, first appearing in ignatius of antioch (Trall, intro.). In the course of the controversies with marcion and gnosticism, it appeared more frequently. irenaeus of Lyons in particular was at pains to define the faith as apostolic, by which he meant to indicate that its content and normative writings derive from the public teaching of the apostles in contrast to a purported hidden or secret revelation from the apostles in gnostic Christianity. But the term was never fixed definitively and was used in various controversies to address neuralgic issues, sometimes of faith-statements, Christian writings, ecclesial practices, or Church institutions.

Meaning. Some of the fluidity of the term can be attributed to the multivalence of the term "apostle" in the early Church. Modern biblical scholarship indicates that apostleship began in the period after Easter, that there was a broader use of the term than just the Twelve and Paul, and that the term included a wide range of persons: missionary, Church-founding figures such as Paul, Peter, Apollos, Andronicus, and Junia; coworkers in missionary activity such as Timothy, Titus, and Silvanus, who were also accorded the title of apostle; resident figures such as James of Jerusalem; such delegates of local churches as Epaphroditus (Phil 2.25); and wandering preachers well into the second century (see Didache 11.36) who are sometimes mentioned with "prophets" (see Lk 11.49 and Rv 2.2). Even Christ is given the title of apostolos (Heb 3.1). Other scholars have pointed out the different conceptions of an apostle in Luke and Paul, uses that apparently cannot be harmonized. Also, the group of the Twelve and the broader group of apostles are not inter-changeable.

Apostolicity Has Many Dimensions. First, one can point to the apostolic origin of the local churches. Apostles were responsible for founding churches. In the early centuries, Christians distinguished between communities clearly established by an apostleprimary apostolic churches, e.g., Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, etc.and those that were founded by primary apostolic churches (see tertullian). According to this usage, not all churches were of apostolic origin in the same sense. In resolving disagreements among the churches, recourse was had first of all to the primary apostolic churches as depositories of the apostles' teaching (J. McCue calls them "norm churches"). In most instances, such recourse would settle the matter. Thus, communion among all the churches fostered their apostolicity. Second, a church is apostolic because of its beliefs and practices. One looks to the concrete life of a Christian community to determine its genuinenessits doctrines, its sacred writings, its sacramental practices, its style of discipleship, its exercise of charity, its moral principles, its internal discipline, its leadership structure, etc. This aspect of apostolicity today is called "substantive apostolicity." It is the living traditio apostolica, and is more than purely doctrinal since it is also based on right praxis. Since Vatican II, this dimension has received increased attention. It is based on the importance of apostolic witness to the Christian mystery in the early Church. The accent has also shifted away from the isolated authoritative witness of the leadership of the local church to the authentic witness of that church as such. Substantive apostolicity points to the Church as a communion of churches. Third, there is apostolicity of the ordained ministry. Apostolic succession of the bishops is not an affair of a historically unbroken chain of episcopal leaders, but of proper, sacramental succession to the leadership of an apostolic community. This leadership is equipped with its own ministry of symbolizing, defending, and confirming that church's internal apostolic character. Apostolic succession points to the very sacramentality of the Church, i.e., the Church as the Fundamental Sacrament (Grundsakrament ). Apostolicity in the full meaning is found only when all three senses are operative and interacting.

Theological Reflection. The meaning of apostolicity is dictated by the Church's historical circumstances. From a hermeneutical point of view, the term's formal content demands interpretation. When an ahistorical cognitional theory is operative, apostolicity tends to be envisioned as sameness. The Church's beliefs, practices, and offices are identical throughout time. Until Vatican II, under the dominance of a scholastically inspired epistemology, apostolicity was often identified with such a historically naive theory of identity. The Council, opening itself up to more contemporary philosophical influences, encouraged greater historical consciousness. Change and development are a part of reality. Thought and language are theory laden and methodologically directed. The understanding of reality is never without presuppositions, and reality must be approached by a critical understanding. Increasingly, theologians reject a theory of the simple identity over time of substantive apostolicity and ecclesial structures in favor of theories of continuity in the course of change and development. Past meanings of teachings and the stages of the exercise of structures are not simply discarded but are organically incorporated into newly emerging expressions and forms. Revelation and the gospel are not superseded by novelty but are critically rethought and receive new life. G. Thils gave an admirably flexible definition of apostolicity as the Church's character of being "in perfect reference to the Apostles." This phrase both refuses to claim too much and demonstrates an openness to inevitable change. A more hermeneutically conscious epistemology positively forces us to rethink the Church's apostolicity.

Historicity is not an accident but a constitutive dimension of what it is to be human, both as an individual person and corporately. The apostolicity of the Church points to this gift and task. It points to the fact that the Church must be located in history and not in timeless myth or immaterial idealism. Apostolicity emerged out of the ministry of Jesus and the encounter of the apostles with the risen Christ. The experience of having been commissioned by the Lord to bring the gospel to human-kind and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit led Christians to treasure the unrepeatable ministry of the apostles as well as the unfulfilled apostolic mission throughout history, in all of the unavoidable tension that unrepeatability and genuine open-endedness include. Apostolicity points, Janus-like, both to its historical past in Jesus and the earliest community of disciples, as well as to its future goal, the salvation of all humankind in accord with God's universal salvific will (1 Tm 2.4). God's will to save can be worked out only as history unfolds, both under the positive lure of Christ from the future fulfillment that the resurrection represents and the real burden of human freedom to achieve itself in time. In Christ, God has once again and definitively announced the dialogic structure of revelation. In a word, only the mystery of the Trinity helps us understand and realize the Church's apostolicity. Apostolicity, then, is an expression of the Church's experience of God as Trinity, and so founds the Church's understanding of itself as missionary.

Because the Church experiences its apostolicity in freedom, it is conscious of its burden of ever realizing itself in history. While always remaining true to the gospel, it is free to realize its faith-expressions, its practice of the faith, and its governing structures in forms appropriate both to the historical moment and to its transcendent mission. For the human being as spirit and history, or spirit in the world, particularity and transcendence are not antithetical to one another but mutually related. Contemporary Catholic ecclesiology struggles to keep in balance an eschatological view of apostolicity and one that takes the data of historical origins and historical growth seriously. At the same time, it seeks to strike a balance between its christological and its pneumatological dimensions. Not everything in the Church can be determined from a purported will of the historical Jesus as the Church's founder, for christology also includes the paschal existence of Christ. Moreover, the risen Lord continues to enrich the Church with the ever new and creative outpouring of the Spirit, and so to endow the Church with a certain unpredictability.

Finally, theologians have been at pains to show how apostolicity needs to be considered in relation to the catholicity of the Church. The latter opens the Church in its extension in time and space to the multiplicity of cultures. As the Church becomes more aware of its character as world church (K. rahner) and not primarily as culturally Eurocentric, it is challenged to interpret its apostolicity as open to inculturated expressions and governance structures. Here, again, greater advertence to the Church as communio, while not forgetting that it is also sacramentum, can underscore more forcefully the relationship between the Church's apostolicity and its catholicity.

In Ecumenism. Apostolicity has been treated in extenso in the various bilateral and multilateral national and international dialogues between the churches. The "Ministry" section of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Faith and Order Commission's Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) ranks among the most important. The document prefers to speak about "apostolic tradition" rather than "apostolicity," and defines it as "witness to the apostolic faith, proclamation and fresh interpretation of the Gospel, celebration of baptism and the Eucharist, the transmission of ministerial responsibilities, communion in prayer, love, joy and suffering, service to the sick and the needy, unity among the local churches and sharing the gifts which the Lord has given to each" (art. 34). It stresses the role of the Spirit as well as that of Christ. On the matter of apostolic ministry, the document states that "the primary manifestation of apostolic succession is to be found in the apostolic tradition of the Church as a whole" and it shows a deep appreciation of the Church's ministry by indicating that "the ordained ministry has a particular task of preserving and actualizing the apostolic faith. The orderly transmission of the ordained ministry is therefore a powerful expression of the continuity of the Church throughout history" (art. 35). "Ministry" challenges the non-episcopal churches to consider restoring the episcopacy as a service to the apostolic faith and the episcopal churches to purify the concrete exercise of the ordained apostolic ministry (see art. 38). The WCC's Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, 19821990: Report on the Process and Responses indicates the persistence of problems in the area of apostolic ministry and apostolic succession (see D. 2627). Some progress is noted in the openness of the churches to accept a distinction, not a separation, between apostolic tradition and apostolic succession. In its document The Nature and Purpose of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement (1998), the WCC's Faith and Order Commission notes the progress made in the course of the various dialogues and indicates a possible way out of the impasses that have resulted from the different historical contexts of the churches. The document stresses the notion of koinonia or communion as a possible way of reconciling differences that are seen to be legitimate and not church dividing. The New Testament itself and early church practices indicate a legitimate variety in the ministry. If there is fundamental unity on apostolic faith and life, how far can the churches go in recognizing a diversity of ministries in service of apostolicity?

Progress has also been made in Roman Catholic dialogues with the Lutheran Church, the Anglican Communion, the World Methodist Council, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Orthodox Church. In all of these, one notes the introduction of broader theological categories for rethinking apostolicity. One of these is communio. Another is mission, which introduces important ideas of dynamism, historicity, and the mystery of the Trinity into the ecclesiological discussion of apostolicity and apostolic succession. Promising ground, too, has been broken between the British and Irish Anglican Churches and the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches in The Porvoo Common Statement (1992). Though the Catholic Church was not directly involved in the discussions, the matter concerns it, since the agreement between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church and the Anglican Communion is so advanced. Porvoo continues to stress the apostolicity of the whole Church without compromising the importance of the ordained episcopal ministry, which it sees as abidingly constitutive for the Church. Thus, it is more successful than earlier reports in maintaining the delicate balance between these two dimensions of apostolicity. In fact, it looks to the intention and action of the ordaining church and judges the apostolic character of ministry by the total life of a church and the ministry. Porvoo does not dispense with concerns of validity with respect to ordained ministry, but places these concerns in the broader context of the underlying apostolicity of any given church.

The Catholic Church still struggles with finding a formula that can maintain the right balance between the apostolicity of the whole Church and episcopal apostolic succession, between the validity of ordained ministries in the churches and the signs of apostolicity of these churches, and finally between the rightful concerns for the Church's unity and a desirable diversity of structures given to the Church by the continuing presence of the Spirit in the churches.

Bibliography: w. beinert, "Die Apostolizität der Kirche als Kategorie der Theologie," Theologie und Philosophie 52 (1977) 16181; "The Picture of the Apostle in Early Christian Tradition," in e. hennecke and w. schneemelcher, eds., New Testament Apocrypha, rev. ed. (Louisville 1992) 2:527. y. congar, "Composantes et idée de la succession apostolique," in Oecumenica: Jahrbuch für ökumenische Forschung (Minneapolis/Neuchâtel 1966) 6180; "Apostolicité de ministère et apostolicité de doctrine: Essai d'explication de la réaction protestante et de la tradition catholique," Ministères et communion ecclésiale (Paris 1971) 5194. l. m. dewailly, "Note sur l'histoire de l'adjectif Apostolique," Mélanges de Science Religieuse 5 (1948) 14152. w. kasper, "Die apostolische Sukzession als ökumenisches Problem," Theologie und Kirche (Mainz 1999) 2:16382. j. n. d. kelly, "'Catholic and Apostolic' in the Early Centuries," One in Christ 6 (1970) 27487. j. f. mccue, "Apostles and Apostolic Succession in the Patristic Era," in Eucharist and Ministry, Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue 4 (Washington, D.C. 1970) 13871. m. o'gara, "Apostolicity in Ecumenical Dialogue," Mid-Stream 37 (1998) 175212. w. pannenberg, "The Significance of Eschatology for an Understanding of the Apostolicity and Catholicity of the Church," in The Church, tr. k. crim (Philadelphia 1983) 4468. j. roloff, g. g. blum, and f. mildenberger, "Apostel/Apostolat/Apostolizität," in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, 3:430477. f. j. sullivan, "The Church Is Apostolic," in The Church We Believe In: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic (New York 1988) 15284; "Apostolicity in Ecumenical Dialogue," in ibid., 185209. g. thils, "Apostolicity," in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1:699f. j. m. r. tillard, "Ministry and Apostolic Tradition," One in Christ 25 (1989) 1422. o. tjo/rhom, "The Porvoo StatementA Possible Ecumenical Breakthrough?" One in Christ 29 (1993) 302309. j. wicks, "Ecclesial Apostolicity Confessed in the Creed," Pro Ecclesia 9 (2000) 15064. j. d. zizioulas, "Apostolic Continuity and Succession," in Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, N.Y. 1985) 171208.

[j. j. burkhard]