[The following thoughts were shared with a friend a few months ago; I post them in full here as a fuller explanation of my thoughts on the subject as it was introduced by my friend David Juhl on his blog Uneasy Priest. They might provide some further good discussion.]
Such a short little article to cause so much trouble over the years! And at the heart of the controversy is the even littler Latin phrase: rite vocatus. “Our Churches teach that no one is to preach, teach or administer the Sacraments *nisi rite vocatus*” - without being called by rite, or regularly called, or orderly called.
The Augsburg Confession is very bold in its insistence: “As can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church universal, or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers.” (Conclusion of first half of the AC) “In doctrine and ceremonies we have received nothing contrary to Scriptures or the Church universal.” (Conclusion of the second half of the Augsburg Confession).
I would contend, however, that precisely at the point of AC XIV Melanchthon KNEW that something needed to be introduced that was new in both doctrine and in ceremony. But he was betting the farm that his opponent, Johann Eck, would NOT notice what he had done. And so what Melanchthon did was to scrounge up a term from canon law that might be a tad ambiguous – rite voctaus – and hope that Eck wouldn’t notice that the term was being used in a novel manner.
Fat chance. Eck was a careful student of the Lutheran movement and watched it with growing alarm. He did not let AC XIV slip by without telling commentary:
“When in the fourteenth article, they confess that no one ought to administer in the Church the Word of God and the sacraments unless he be rightly called, it ought to be understood that he is rightly called who is called in accordance with the form of law and the ecclesiastical ordinances and decrees hitherto observed everywhere in the Christian world, and not according to a Jerobitic (cf. 1 Kings 12:20) call, or a tumult or any other irregular intrusion of the people. Aaron was not thus called. Therefore, in this sense the Confession is received; nevertheless, they should be admonished to persevere therein, and to admit in their realms no one either as a pastor or as a preacher unless he be rightly called.” (Reu’s *A Collection of Sources for the Augsburg Confession*, p. 357)
Eck seems to have had in mind some of Luther's writings and deeds on the subject. See especially Babylonian Captivity (AE 36:116) and the fact that in 1525 Luther himself ordained Georg Rörer. [Notes: While it is certainly true (as Piepkorn has amply demonstrated) that there were exceptions to the rule of bishops only ordaining here and there in the medieval West, it appears that this practice was limited to the conditions obtaining in the mission field or to the privelege granted by certain popes for abbots in presbyteral orders to ordain to diaconate or presbyterate within their monasteries; but that a university professor should undertake this task was in all points a novelty that would have troubled Eck and other traditionalists among the "old believers".]
This means quite simply that Melanchthon’s bluff did not work. He was called to explain what he had apparently hoped to avoid: detailing what he meant by “rite vocatus.” If the meaning was not the old canonical meaning – priestly ordination in apostolic succession – then what DID it mean?
The Apology is not terribly helpful in answering that. It more or less admits the bluff, with a “well we WANTED to, but you guys were too mean to allow it!” But nowhere in this article does Melanchthon actually provide a positive definition of the term. I suspect he hadn’t worked one out yet. What could “rite vocatus” mean if not employed of “canonical ordination” (Ap XIV:24)?
After searching in vain through the Apology for an answer, a number of years later a possible answer emerged in the much-neglected Tractatus. The answer Melanchthon had been searching for was implied in his reading of St. Jerome, who pointed out that priests and bishops in Scripture hold the same rank (Tractatus 61-64) – an argument that Jerome no doubt relished, being himself a presbyter and never elevated to the Episcopal throne unlike the other three “doctors” of the Western Church. Melanchthon then made the argument that the distinction between bishop and presbyter was a matter of discipline rather than doctrine, and therefore not strictly speaking
something that could be considered divinely mandated. Thus, “it is clear that ordination administered by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine law. Therefore, when the regular bishops become enemies of the Church or are unwilling to administer ordination, the churches retain their own right to ordain their own ministers.” (Tractatus 65, 66) And in summary: “From this it is clear that the Church retains the right to elect and ordain ministers. Therefore, when the bishops are heretics or refuse to administer ordination, the churches are by divine right compelled to ordain pastors and ministers for themselves by having their pastors do it (Latin: adhibitis sui pastoribus).” (Tractatus 72)
The Churches are authorized here to do what the bishops are unwilling to do, and the Churches do so by using their own priests to get the job done. Thus, in this first “positive” definition of rite vocatus, we may define this as a case of presbyteral succession in case of necessity.
But the phrase rendered “by having their pastors do it” is soon lost from the Tractatus and does not even make it into the 1580 or 1584 Book of Concord (this is why it is absent in the Triglotta). The loss of this phrase meant that the Symbols, while mandating the rule “nisi rite vocatus” (without a call according to rite) never then
define what this phrase means. Each successive generation of Lutherans have squabbled over it – and it has been defined in accordance with the whims of each. All Lutherans agree that no one should preach, teach or administer the Word and Sacraments “nisi rite vocatus” but no group of Lutherans can come to agreement on what that
“rite vocatus” consists of!
To some it is a term for ordination (albeit, a non-canonical presbyteral ordination). To some it means that the congregation asks an elder to administer the Sacrament on a Sunday when the pastor is on vacation.
Each side may legitimately argue from Lutheran tradition – for it has come to mean all that and more! Just listen to the current Synodical president talk about it. He admitted in the 2006 convention of the Southern Illinois Convention that the seminary faculties can’t agree on its meaning! And of course they cannot. It HAS no definitive
meaning in the BOC of 1580 except this: it doesn’t mean what it always HAD meant, canonical ordination.
Thus the AC XIV is somewhat of a question mark behind the claim that the Lutherans did not introduce anything "new" in doctrine or in ceremonies. Here is something NEW – and it is new both in doctrine and in ceremony. The sad story of the Lutheran inability to speak with clarity about the Office of the Ministry is the result.
[Addendum: An area that I find fascinating and would like to explore further is the comment by Piepkorn that where the Symbols do not allege any support from the Word of God, it is questionable whether one is bound by what they teach. He uses as prime example the affirmation of the perpetual Virginity of the Holy Theotokos. But also note that the Symbols nowhere allege any Scriptural support for what is found in AC XIV! Does this explain the reason, perhaps, that growing sectors of Missouri feel free to dispense with it entirely?]