In what sense do we understand the church as apostolic? While Christians can no longer speak with the same authority as the apostles, there is justification in speaking of the church’s apostolicity, if by that we mean the faithful preservation and transmission of the apostles’ teaching.
The apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received…” He adjures Timothy, “…what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.”
This appears to be what Jürgen Moltmann is arguing for when he states, “The apostolic succession is, in fact and in truth, the evangelical succession, the continuing and unadulterated proclamation of the gospel of the risen Christ.” Hans Küng interprets the church’s apostolicity in terms of its ongoing fulfillment of the apostolic commission.
As direct witnesses and messengers of the risen Lord, the apostles can have no successors. No further apostles are called. Apostleship in the original and fundamental ministry of the first witnesses and messengers died out with the death of the last apostle. Apostleship in this sense of witness and mission cannot be repeated or continued. What remains is a task and a commission. … The apostolic task is not completed; it embraces all peoples to the ends of the earth.
The first dimension of this is for the church of today to listen to the apostles and through their witness to the Lord. “There is no route to the Lord which bypasses the apostles.” This means that we have no right to relativize it, to suit it to the prevalent cultural and philosophical norms of society or to our own predilections, so that the gospel no longer presents the offense of the cross and the word of God is stripped of its power. This was one of the dangers against which the apostle Paul warned in his letter to the Galatians.
We must be clear that the apostolic teaching is not the invention of the church. Nor can the church’s acceptance of the authority of Scripture be based on a functional approach, that is, on the Bible’s power to shape and transform both individual communities. Rather, the church must recognize itself as the product of the gospel of Christ and of the word of God. It becomes unmoored from its biblical and true apostolic roots only to its peril.