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With the present study document on the apostolicity of the church, the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity completes, after working from 1995 into 2006, the fourth phase of the Lutheran-Catholic world-level dialogue. The Commission was mandated and its members were appointed by their churches, as these acted through the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The study document is presented to these two mandating bodies, and so to the respective churches, but as well to the wider public of persons and groups engaged in the ecumenical movement. The Commission hopes that the study will open fresh perspectives in the area of ecumenical ecclesiology and will throw light on pathways along which significant steps may be taken toward the goal of full communion between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran churches of the world.

The document offers, first, a careful examination of New Testament texts pertaining to the apostles and the main aspects of apostolicity (Part 1), and then sets forth the outcome of investigations from three specific perspectives on apostolicity, namely as a creedal attribute of the church (Part 2), as a characteristic of church ministry (Part 3), and as a decisive quality of the teachers and doctrine which our churches require in order to remain in the truth of the gospel (Part 4).

The History of this Phase of Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue

In the early years of this phase, the Commission discussed two topics in addition to the topic of apostolicity, namely, first, ethics and moral teaching in our churches and their significance for ecumenical relations, and, second, the degree of Catholic-Lutheran doctrinal agreement on the Eucharist. But the Commission soon recognized that both these topics are so extensive and complex in themselves that it could not do justice to them while carrying out its investigation of apostolicity. It was decided, therefore, to concentrate all the effort on the topic of apostolicity. Thus we present only one text, which however has grown to notable length.

The make-up of the Commission provided the ample geographical background of the members themselves, who represent Catholic and Lutheran perspectives formed by life and work in their local churches. They come from Argentina, Canada, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Tanzania, and the United States.

During its years of dialogue, the Commission entered into exchanges with local churches in the places where its annual week-long meetings were held, namely in Germany (Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Würzburg and Tutzing-Munich), Scandinavia (Finland and Denmark), Hungary (Dobogokö near Budapest), Poland (Opole), Italy (Bose, Milan, and Cassano delle Murge near Bari), and the United States (Baltimore). Reports were heard on ecumenical efforts in these locales and the Commission sought to communicate to others in these places something of its commitment to Christian unity and of its dialogue method. The Commission hopes that these meetings have enriched local churches and fostered the ecumenical dedication of their members in the places where the Commission met.

While meeting in Baltimore in July 2004, the Commission heard a report on the then just-concluded Round X of the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue in the USA, which has since been published as The Church as Koinonia of Salvation. Its Structures and Ministries.1 Here the Commission found points of contact and a complementarity between that text and Part 3 of its document which treats church ministry and apostolic succession. Also, support was found in the project of the German Ecumenical Working Circle of Evangelical and Catholic Theologians (Jaeger- Staehlin Kreis), in which two Commission members are active participants. Several sections of Part 4 of the present study, on how the church remains in the truth of the apostolic gospel, were aided by the Working Circle's ample study, Verbindliches Zeugnis.2

The decade of this dialogue was marked by the major event of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed amid considerable solemnity on October 31, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany. During the first years of its work on apostolicity the Commission accompanied and discussed the processes by which our churches received the Joint Declaration and reached agreement to proceed to the signing in Augsburg. Some members of the Commission contributed to the drafting of the Joint Declaration itself and they along with others helped present it to the churches.

The Context of this Study

The world-level official dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics began immediately after Vatican Council II and completed its third phase in 1993. The Commission that has now completed its work thus represents the fourth phase of this dialogue. The present work should be understood as a further step along the path of the three previous phases and as extending what they proposed in the documents they produced. It relates especially to the Lutheran-Catholic world-level dialogue reports, The Gospel and the Church of 1972, The Ministry in the Church of 1981, and Church and Justification of 1994.3

An important characteristic of the present work is its connection with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The Joint Declaration has a notable weight and authority, because with its signing in 1999, the two churches in dialogue formally received the results of several Lutheran-Catholic dialogues which had treated the doctrine of justification both on the world-level and in national dialogues in the United States and Germany.

The Methods of the Joint Study

The investigation of the New Testament witness to the apostles and to their mission on behalf of the gospel of Jesus Christ contributes extensive and important results to our document. Scholarly exegetical study has been central in the effort to avoid an older style of using Scripture as the source of proof-texts. Part 1 presents the New Testament texts in their complexity and allows them to speak for themselves. Then Parts 2, 3, and 4 each contain sections of "biblical orientation" in which the relevant New Testament texts are placed within the horizon of the topics and questions of each of these Parts. The Commission was attentive to the dynamic of development within the New Testament itself. In a real sense, the entire process went ahead in the Commission as an intense dialogue grounded in Scripture as the primary testimony of our faith.

Parts 2, 3, and 4 also survey developments in the church of the patristic and medieval periods. Many detailed studies exist concerning the issues taken up in these sections. These studies have been drawn upon in a selective manner in the different sections, without any presumption of giving complete and fully nuanced accounts of the relevant topics.

The surveys of the centuries between the apostolic age and the outbreak of the Reformation aim to be more than just a historical narrative. These centuries are for both Lutherans and Catholics a common history of the development of doctrine and church order. The Lutheran churches see their tradition as rooted in the mission and founding work of the apostles, but also as carrying forward through the Reformation essential elements of the doctrinal and structural developments that occurred, after the apostles, in the early-church and medieval periods.

While not exhaustive, the historical surveys have nonetheless produced unsuspected benefits, as appears in Part 3, regarding the transformation of the episcopal ministry in the fourth century, from which an important contribution has been provided to the interpretation of both the Reformation and more recent Catholic developments.

The sections on Luther and the Lutheran Reformation rest on detailed studies, but not simply as historical accounts, but also for systematic theological explanations and arguments. Similarly, detailed studies have been carried out on the modern Catholic doctrinal tradition as shaped by the Councils of Trent, Vatican I, and especially Vatican II. Important points are taken over from Trent on the Sacrament of Order in Part 3, while Vatican II contributes to Part 2, on the ecclesial "elements" originating from the apostles, and to Part 4, on the place and role of the Bible in Catholic life.

Limits of This Study of Apostolicity

The Commission agreed from the beginning not to take up a point of serious difference between Lutherans and Catholics, namely, the ordination of women to the pastoral ministry and their appointment to the episcopal office. The Lutheran members of the Commission emphasize, however, that when the text speaks of "ministry" they have in mind men as well as women as office bearers.

Concerning another controversial issue, namely the special apostolic ministry of the Bishop of Rome, this does in fact enter into our study at several points. But the Commission does not presume to provide an ecumenical treatment of the papacy at a fundamental level or in a comprehensive manner. Other Lutheran-Catholic dialogues, conducted in the United States, have focused directly on the Roman primacy and on infallibility in teaching.4 Moreover, the recent dialogue-study brought out in Germany, Communio Sanctorum (2000), contains a substantial Catholic-Lutheran exchange on the papacy.5 The Commission recognizes that it could not aspire to add new insights to this discussion. Furthermore, we are aware that Pope John Paul II's encyclical on ecumenical commitment, Ut unum sint (1995), has led to a broad discussion and many publications on the papal ministry, which we could not hope to work through and integrate into our study.

A Note on Language

This dialogue document has been prepared, at all stages of the Commission's work, in both English and German. The two versions aim to respect the stylistic requirements of each language and thus do not stand in literal, word-for-word correspondence with each other. But an editorial sub-group of Commission members carefully examined the two versions in order to be sure that the two texts agree fundamentally with each other.

Thus, both the English and the German versions of this study may be considered original texts of the Commission and may be cited in reports on and analyses of its contribution toward hastening the recognition of greater communion between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran churches of the world.

Bishop Béla Harmatí
Archbishop Alfons Nossol
Budapest, Hungary
Opole, Poland
Lutheran Co-Chair
Roman Catholic Co-Chair



  1. Eds. R. Lee and J. Gros, FSC (Washington, D.C. 2005).

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  2. Eds. G. Wenz & T. Schneider, 3 vols. (Freiburg & Göttingen 1992-98). In 2002 the German Working Circle took up the topic that the present study document treats in Part 3, namely, the church's ministry in apostolic succession. The Working Circle has published two volumes of papers, but as yet no agreed conclusions, in Das kirchliche Amt in apostolischer Nachfolge. I. Grundlagen und Grundfragen, eds. T. Schneider & G. Wenz (Freiburg & Göttingen 2004), and II. Ursprünge und Wandlungen, eds. D. Sattler & G. Wenz (Freiburg & Göttingen 2006).

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  3. Given in Growth in Agreement, eds. H. Meyer and L. Vischer (New York/Ramsey & Geneva 1984), pp. 168-89 (The Gospel and the Church) and pp. 248-275 (The Ministry in the Church), and in Growth in Agreement II, eds. J. Gros, FSC, H. Meyer, and W. G. Rusch (Geneva & Grand Rapids 2000), pp. 485-565 (Church and Justification).

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  4. See the publications of Rounds V and VI of the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in the USA, Papal Primacy and the Unity of the Church (Minneapolis 1974) and Teaching Authority and Infallibility in the Church (Minneapolis 1980).

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  5. Bilateral Working Group of the German National Bishops' Conference and the Church Leadership of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany, Communio Sanctorum. The Church as the Communion of Saints, trans. M. W. Jeske, M. Root, and D. R. Smith (Collegeville 2004), treating the Petrine Ministry on pp. 51-68.

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