Architects and Builders: T.F. Torrance on the Apostolic Foundation of the Church’s Mission

In previous posts I have reflected on the importance of developing a theology of the church’s mission and practice in a scientific way. This means that, at a ground level, the church’s mission is understood exclusively in terms of the message that it proclaims, the gospel, and specifically takes its cue from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. As the ascended and invisible Lord, Christ drives us back to his history narrated in the gospel as the point in which he continues to encounter us today, and it is on this phase of his incarnate ministry that we begin to construct our missiological thinking.

Another piece of the puzzle must be put into place, however, for the church’s relation to the historical Christ, both in being and act, is not a mere imitatio Christi. The full meaning and implications of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were not comprehensible to his followers until Pentecost when he poured out his Spirit on them. It was thus the unique task of those followers — the apostles — to unfold the fullness of God’s revelatory and reconciliatory work in Christ, laying thereby the one Acts 15 1-2 22-29 - Paul dissents with the necessity of circumcisionfoundation upon which the church would be built. Torrance describes the mission of the apostolate and its relevance to the mission of the church as follows:

The whole continuity of the Church in its apostolic foundation depends upon the unique character and function of the apostolate. The apostles were the chosen vessels appointed to be with Christ, to receive His Revelation and to assimilate it in their obedience to Christ and to be assimilated to it, and in that way to pass it on to the Church. But they did that as special instruments in the hand of God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for through the Spirit Jesus Christ Himself returned to them clothed in His Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, and gave Himself to be fully known, the same historical Jesus but now shining forth in the glory of the resurrection….

That was the apostolic mission, and the primary function of the apostolate. In it we do not have the initial stage of a continuous process, but the perpetually persisting foundation of the Church and its grounding in the incarnational Revelation and Reconciliation. In this sense there can be no talk of apostolic succession, for that apostolic function cannot be transmitted…. [T]he apostles do not belong to the succession of ministry, for they are not within it—the whole succession depends on them and is entirely subordinate to them…. Only the apostles were appointed by Christ to sit upon the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel; only apostolic witness is Holy Scripture, for their word is of judicial and magisterial authority through assimilation by Christ to His own Word.

It was as such that they built up the Church, ordered it and gave it shape in its ministry and its ordinances, and above all by supplying it with the authoritative oracles of the New Testament. It was as such that they commanded the Church to be followers of them as they were of Christ, and as such that they instituted a continuing ministry different from but entirely dependent on their own…. This Church continues to be apostolic in that it continues through its movement and change from age to age to be schooled in the apostolic tradition, and determined by the apostolic Gospel. It is therefore a succession through the Spirit in obedience, in mission, a succession of service, of faith and doctrine, all in the continuity of the redeemed life of the people of God…. The apostles were the wise master-builders, the architects, of the Church’s pattern of life, faith, and ministry in conformity to the pattern of the obedience of Christ.[1]

As Torrance insists, the apostles were uniquely tasked, among other things, with establishing the parameters and pattern that would define the church’s mission in conformity with that of Christ. Subsequent generations of the church cannot simply skip over the apostolate on their way back to the historical Christ. Rather, the apostles were those who, in an unrepeatable and thus once-for-all way, established and enacted the authoritative pattern for mission that would show the church in all times and places how to continue that mission in a gospel-governed, christologically-determined way. As Paul succinctly stated: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Note carefully: not simply imitators of Christ, but imitators of Christ in the form of imitation exemplified by the apostle.

It is through obedience to the apostles’ pattern of mission that the church of today is properly identified as apostolic. Thus, while the apostolic ministry is in one sense unrepeatable, it is in another sense reproducible, not because the apostolic foundation must be altered or enlarged, but because the missional edifice that rests on it must be constructed in strict conformity to it. Any form of mission that does not do this is neither apostolic nor scientific.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 26-28, 30.

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