An Apostolic Church
In the Nicene Creed we profess one holy and apostolic church. This expresses a very essential aspect of the church. The church has various characteristics. She is one, universal and holy. Among these characteristics, her apostolicity occupies a very important and also a remarkable place because with this characteristic a clear link is made to a unique past. Suddenly something human appears in regard to the church. There appears to be an inseparable involvement of the church with the disciples whom Christ appointed as his apostles. At the same time it shows that this relationship is of fundamental significance for the church. After all, the New Testament proclaims that the church is built on the foundation of apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20), and that the twelve names of the apostles of the Lamb are written on the foundations of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:14).
In this article I will examine in which way the apostles are of fundamental importance for the church of Christ and what this apostolicity concretely entails. In short: what do we confess in the Nicene Creed when the church is so emphatically called apostolic, and what are the implications of this confession?
The Position of the Apostles
In our churches — in contrast to some “Apostolic [often Pentecostal] groups” — we no longer have apostles. But this does not mean that the role of the apostles has concluded. In a certain way one could say that they travel with the church until the last day. They have a lasting significance. The Lord Jesus left nothing to us in terms of actual writings. There is no text of which we can say: Jesus himself wrote this. Between him and us there are the apostles. There is the apostolic testimony that speaks of him. 1 What the apostle John writes is the actual reality: “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Fellowship with our Saviour is only possible through fellowship with the apostles, through faith in their proclamation!
This is because it derives from the unique redemptive-historical place that the apostles occupied.2 What is characteristic of their function is first of all that they were chosen and sent by Christ himself (see Matt. 4:18f; Luke 6:13). Matthias, who replaced Judas Iscariot, is appointed by the Lord himself. Paul, too, calls himself “an apostle called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:1). Their task was to be “with him” (Mark 3:14), to see and hear everything Jesus did and said. They were to be the ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ for the later Christian church.
The apostles specifically stand out as witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. Peter mentions this as a significant qualification for “the twelve” (see Acts 1:22). We also see them functioning as such after the day of Pentecost: “And with great power the apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus...” (Acts 4:33; see 10:41, 42). This testimony is accompanied by “signs and wonders” (Acts 5:12) that underscore their power to witness.3
There were many brothers who had accompanied Jesus (see Acts 1:21) and who had seen him as risen Lord (see 1 Cor. 15:6). It is therefore inadequate to say that characteristic of the apostles is that they had to be eye- and ear witnesses. Indeed, they qualify fully as such, but then as specifically-appointed and empowered by Christ/God. In addition to the requirement of having been a witness, the special calling also needs to be mentioned as typifying the twelve and Paul.
Just before his ascension the Lord once again reminded the apostles of their special duty: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). They fulfilled this task, enabled to do so by the special assistance of the Holy Spirit. All the words we find in the Gospel according to John about the Paraclete (the “Comforter”), have primarily to do with the task of the apostles.4 It is he who guides them into all the truth (John 16:13), and who helps them to fulfill their unique mission: to be Christ’s witnesses to the church of all times (John 15:26, 27).
With their testimony they laid the foundation of the church as skilled master builders (see 1 Cor. 3:10), yes even better: as authorized witnesses they are the foundation of the church. For Paul writes that the church is built on the foundation of apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). The Lord Jesus said earlier that he would build his church on “this petra” (Matt. 16:18), by which he meant Simon Peter as a confessor of the Christ. “Simon may be called (individually) as to what all the disciples together are: the rock on which Jesus is building.”5
The Teaching of the Apostles
Of the congregation at Jerusalem it is said that the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). This teaching initially came verbally to the believers. Later, this teaching was put in writing. Paul points out to the Thessalonians what they have been taught either orally or in writing (2 Thess. 2:15). A “tradition” was formed early on, in which the testimony of the apostles played a decisive role (see 1 Cor. 15:3f). This tradition, oral at first and written later on, “is nothing other than the authoritative preaching which has been entrusted to the apostles as the witnesses of Christ, as the foundation of the church, and which they have to pass on as a precious deposit, in precise accordance with their commission (1 Tim. 6:20)”.6
This tradition ultimately finds its final fixation in the canon of the New Testament. In this canon, the unique significance that the apostles have for the church of all times is expressed and the criterion for her apostolicity is given for all times and ages.
In the books of the New Testament we now find “the teaching of the apostles,” or as it is also called, “the sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:10), “the good doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6), “the doctrine of God our Saviour” (Titus 2:10). The authority of the canon rests profoundly in the authority with which the apostles presented their teaching. In their speaking it was the Spirit of Christ himself giving witness (see Acts 5:32; John 15:26, 27). Thus, Peter can write that his readers heard the good news through those “who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12). What this apostle says about (Old Testament) prophecy also applies to New Testament writings: “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
All of this leads to the conclusion that the apostolic character of the church stands or falls with her staying with this teaching of the apostles, with her remaining faithful to the proclamation we find in the New Testament. Only in this way will she remain built on the foundation once laid and upon which she must continue to build in obedience (1 Cor. 3:10).
It is well known that the church of Rome believes that the church not only has to adhere to its apostolic foundation, but is itself permanently endowed with the apostolic ministry by Christ. The apostles, according to this church, have taken care of successors: the bishops, with the pope as vicar (substitute) for Peter. There is an apostolic succession of persons who — by virtue of an unbroken chain of consecrations — have the authority to teach and govern the church in the footsteps of the apostles. This chain of ordinations constitutes, in fact, the legitimacy for the position of pope and bishops.7 Through it they possess the power that belongs to their office, through it they are to be honoured as the authorized successors of the apostles.
It is the sacrament of ordination (or: “Holy Orders”) that makes the bishop what he is: pastor and teacher, representative of Christ on earth, ruler of the church.
However, this ordination is not only the way in which the apostolic authority remains guaranteed for the church, it also gives the church the certainty of the continuing assistance of the Spirit of truth. Through the laying on of hands the gift of this Spirit is transmitted to the bishops throughout the ages. The pope, as the successor of Peter, has the final say in the church. He is the first among the successors of the apostles and their head. Although the pope does act in “unison with the bishops” in important matters, it is he who possesses the highest and ultimate authority in the doctrine and government of the church.
This doctrine of apostolic succession is decisive for Rome’s view of the apostolicity of the church. For Rome the church is in fact self-evidently apostolic, for she cannot stray from her foundation. By virtue of the assistance of the Holy Spirit, guaranteed by the sacrament of ordination, she follows in the footsteps of the apostles. The Spirit guides her in the truth, and the history of the church shows it as well.
This conviction was given special emphasis when at the First Vatican Council (1870) the doctrine of papal infallibility was established. It was expressly stated there that the pope cannot err when he speaks “ex cathedra”: as the successor of Peter and as teacher of all Christians.
Rome believes that the paraclete-promises from John 14-16 are still being fulfilled and that it is through this sure assistance of the Spirit that the pope (together with the bishops) infallibly holds the church to its foundation and leads it forward in God’s truth. There is a “holy guidance” that keeps the church defined by her apostolicity throughout the ages!
The Reformation rightly protested against this deeply-rooted theological axiom. There is no apostolic succession of persons, but only of doctrine. There is no transfer of power through a chain of ordinations, for the only authority in Christ’s church is that of his Word. Therefore, the bond with the apostles is not based on a chain of ordinations, but in abiding by the teaching of the apostles. That is decisive for the apostolicity of the church. It is an apostolicity that the Reformation did not take for granted. It did not deny the “holy guidance”. There is indeed an abiding preservation through the Spirit. But this preservation is in fact connected with the obedience to the Word. The church must never assume that the Spirit leads her in the truth and that she can therefore never go astray. What Calvin writes in a letter to Cardinal Sadoleto (1539) has lasting relevancy: “For seeing how dangerous it would be to boast of the Spirit without the Word, he [Christ] declared that the Church is indeed governed by the Holy Spirit, but...he annexed it to the Word.” 8
Because the apostolic character of the church stands or falls with her obedience to the Word, the teaching of the apostles needs to determine all that she is and does. She needs to be rooted in Christ Jesus and established in the faith (Col. 2:7). She has to be built on the foundation that was once laid by the apostles (1 Cor. 3:2f). It is therefore characteristic that she perseveres in the apostolic teaching (Acts 2:42) and preserves herself in the most holy faith (Jude 20).
This is characterized specifically in her preaching. Article 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith therefore rightly mentions as the first characteristic of the true church that she “practises the pure preaching of the gospel”. Practising it is more than merely hearing a good sermon once in awhile. The church of Christ has to see to it that the preaching is always done according to the apostolic Word. The doctrine must be “sound (healthy) and pure” (Titus 2:1f). “Straight lines” need to be drawn in bringing the word of truth (see 2 Tim. 2:15). It is for this reason that the elders are “sitting on the doctrine”, as our fathers expressed it. They have to see to it that the preaching indeed builds the congregation on the apostolic foundation and that, after the example of Paul, the full counsel of God (“the whole will”) is proclaimed (Acts 20:27) and that no “different gospel” is proclaimed (Gal. 1:6).
In this context we also need to mention the exercise of discipline over doctrine and life. The apostolicity of the church also manifests itself in the fact that she does not allow the teaching of error and that it has no place in her house for anyone who “does not bring this teaching” (2 John 10). Church discipline “reproves” all those who live in sin (1 Tim. 5:20), and removes from her midst those who are wicked (1 Cor. 5:13). A church that tolerates wrongs denies its primary identity: its bond and fellowship with the apostles.
The task of the apostles included more than laying the foundation of the church. From the New Testament it is clear that they also took the building-up of the church in their own hands. We read that they administered the Word and led the prayers (Acts 6:4) and initially also served “at tables” (Acts 6:2). In addition to being a founder (1 Cor. 3:10), Paul is also the one who has authority to “build up” the Corinthians (2 Cor. 10:8). Peter calls himself a “fellow elder” (1 Peter 5:1) and was also given the task of “strengthening” his brothers (Luke 22:32) and to feed (“pasture”) Christ’s sheep (John 21:17).
The apostles built up the early Christian church with their letters and at the same time indicated how the church of Christ can also continue as his church in the future. They indicated how one should behave in the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15), how the church should be led (Titus 1:5f) and how people should serve one another in the church (1 Cor. 12:12f).
All of this also touches upon the apostolicity of the church. She is only apostolic when she honours the teaching of the apostles in all these matters. She may not forget that the apostles also have a unique place in this, in that they left the congregation an example of how to obey the gospel. They outlined the way in which ministers and members of the congregation should function. Paul points out his example to the elders of Ephesus: “I have showed you in everything...” (Acts 20:35) and he reminds Timothy of his way of life, his purpose, etc., (2 Tim. 3:10). The apostle exhorts the Corinthians, “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1) and he sets himself as an example to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 3:9).
As founders, the apostles also have a unique place and lasting significance in this connection in that they have exemplified to us in their lives the devotion to Christ and to his service in doctrine and life. Their “way of doing” is normative for the church of all times. Only when the church follows in their footsteps may it lay claim to the predicate “apostolic”. It affects not only her doctrine, but also her life!
I have only been able to touch upon the main points. We might also have pointed to the missionary aspect of the apostolic church, the equipping of office-bearers and the functioning of the gifts given by the Spirit in the congregation. However, I will leave it at that: this article should not become too lengthy. It was my intention to show what it means to confess an apostolic church: how she depends on the teaching of the apostles; why there is this link with a unique past; and in what way the apostles still “accompany” the church until the last day.
What has been written about this suddenly acquires new topicality when reference is made to the early Christian creeds and when some people claim: “There, above all, we find the boundaries that really matter.”9
As much as the ancient creeds are to be honoured, the reformed churches have confessed the apostolic faith more fully in the “Three Forms of Unity” (the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort). In them, I believe, they have drawn the boundaries “that matter,” and indicated how one maintains the teaching of the apostles. One may revise these forms, but one cannot change the doctrine that is summarized in them, unless one proves from Scripture that there are some things to be changed. The binding to this reformed doctrine affects, in my conviction, directly the apostolic character of our churches.
The way to unity with protestant Christians is not to return to the ancient creeds (exclusively), but to find each other more and more in the teaching of the apostles, as it is summarized in our churches in the three great confessional documents. These reformed confessions are not merely an extra “to be abandoned”, but they are a matter of “obedience of faith” (see Rom 1:5), nothing other than “the faith once delivered to the saints” and for which the church of Christ also has to “contend” today (see Jude 3)!
We have no choice in this matter. We cannot give up portions of this faith, for the apostolicity of the church depends on the “observing of all that Christ has commanded us“ (Matt. 28:19).