What are the Lutheran Confessions?–Part 3


Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess (Hebrews 3:1).

In the first two posts of this series we examined why Christians confess their faith and began looking at the confessions of faith the Evangelical Lutheran Church subscribes to. In this post, we cover the distinctly ‘Lutheran’ confessions.

Over the course of about fifty years (1529-1577), as the Lutheran Church was conceived and grew into maturity, she too faced struggles that forced her to confess her faith, just as did those who prepared the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.

In the mid to late 1520s, Lutheran princes and theologians decided to undertake a visitation of the nascent “Lutheran” churches. It didn’t go well. “The deplorable, miserable condition that I discovered recently when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare this catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form,” Luther wrote in 1529 in the preface to his Small Catechism. They discovered pastors who didn’t know the Creed or Commandments and couldn’t preach. One historian estimated that a third of pastors in some regions were dismissed. Meanwhile, again from eye-witness Luther, “the common person, especially in the villages, has no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine….They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.”

Though he tried to pawn the job off on others, as Luther said, he was finally forced in 1529 to put pen to paper and prepare a catechism for parents to use in instructing their children. He considered these items to be the bare minimum one can know and call themselves a Christian: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. For the preachers and teachers he prepared a larger volume, aptly named the Large Catechism, which went into more detail than the usually brief explanations in the Small Catechism.

These two books were received with joy and became the Layman’s Bible, for they remain the simplest and easiest of the Lutheran Confessions to understand and serve as the obvious beginning point for someone exploring the Lutheran faith. In most Lutheran churches the Small Catechism of Dr. Luther remains the outline of confirmation instruction for children and adults.

The next year, 1530, the Lutherans faced a different crisis. This time it was not the discovery of poor preachers and ignorant congregants, but the summons of the Emperor, Charles V.  He called a meeting at the German city of Augsburg. He hoped to sort out and put an end to any and all religious differences between the Roman Catholics and the Evangelicals (“good newsers”), or Lutherans, as their enemies called them.

In preparation for this meeting, Lutheran princes and theologians met and drafted a document. Luther helped, even though he couldn’t go to the meeting (he was still considered outlaw, since the Diet of Worms in 1521). His Wittenberg colleague, Philip Melanchthon, authored the document. The princes would formally present it as their confession of faith and the confession of the people in their territories.

On June 25, 1530, the Lutheran princes had the document read to the Emperor. Melanchthon divided it into two parts: the Chief Articles of the Faith and a Review of the Various Abuses that Have Been Corrected. The Lutherans truly hoped for reconciliation. They believed that what they taught the Church had always taught. Supposedly one of the Roman bishops in attendance said about the confession made at Augsburg: “What has been read to us is the truth, the pure truth, and we cannot deny it.”

Not everyone agreed with him. Roman Catholic theologians prepared a document called the Confutation, which they demanded the Lutherans to accept without allowing them to see a copy of it, but only hear it read to the Emperor. This document tried to refute the Augsburg Confession. Lutheran scribes took notes and Philip Melanchthon spent a year working on a response, or defense, of the Augsburg Confession, which has been called the Apology (defense) to the Augsburg Confession and was published in 1531.

As with his original confession of 1530, Melanchthon sought an irenic tone. He, and others, truly felt reconciliation was still possible with Rome. Where he could he pointed out agreement. Where he could not, he used the Scriptures to establish the truth. These two documents really mark the moment when the Lutheran Church became more than a reform movement, but an actual and separate denomination or church body.

Seven years passed and a new crisis took hold. The Lutherans had been asking the pope to call a general council of the Church to hash out these issues. He called their bluff, announcing a council and inviting Lutherans to come. Skeptically, Lutheran princes gathered their theologians together to discuss strategy and ask, “Should we show up?” In preparation for this meeting, held at Smalcald, Martin Luther prepared a confession of faith, simply called, The Smalcald Articles.

This document pulled no punches. Reconciliation was now clearly a pipe dream. The peaceful, hopeful words of 1530 were traded for clear denunciations of abuses and heresies promulgated by the pope. Even though Luther believed no council would actually be held, and if it was, it wouldn’t be free, still he prepared a confession. He even divided it into three parts: articles in which there is no argument or dispute; the chief article (the office and work of Jesus Christ, that is, our redemption) that cannot be compromised in any way; some articles in which some discussion might be had.

Luther was right, the council got postponed and moved repeatedly, only meeting in 1545, at Trent, and serving not as a peace-making council, but Rome’s establishment of her doctrinal position and a condemnation of the Reformation theology.

That same year (1537), and at the same meeting, Melanchthon was asked to prepare a document on the papacy. This document was meant to be an addition or appendix to the Augsburg Confession of 1530, since, in an attempt to make peace, Melanchthon had at that time included no article on the pope. Here at Smalcald he produced a Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. This document exploded the pope’s claim to divine right and earthly power over the Church, and, as Luther did in the Smalcald Articles, identified the office of the papacy as the man of lawlessness and Antichrist identified in Scripture.

Forty years passed before the Lutheran Church needed to formulate another confession. This time the crisis came not from the outside, but the inside. Luther forecast that the greatest challenges to the Lutheran Church after his death would be internal. He was right. A series of controversies broke out beginning in the 1540s and lasting into the 1570s. Not helping at all was the war the Holy Roman Emperors waged against the Lutherans during much of the same period. Controversies about original sin, free will, justification, good works, the law, Jesus, the Lord’s Supper, the descent into hell, adiaphora, and the doctrine of election caused much confusion. People wondered what the “Lutheran” position was.

Another bit of unhelpfulness was the rise of other “confessions” of faith. Followers of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin worked to form their own churches, the Evangelical Reformed churches. These churches had their own confession of faith. In some instances, the teachings of these Reformed churches crept into Lutheran theological faculties, sometimes openly, sometimes secretly, causing more division. The Lutheran Church divided into theological camps.

Finally a group of theologians, led by Martin Chemnitz, Jacob Andreae, and Nicholas Selnecker, prepared a document meant to sort it all out and bring peace, a Formula of Concord, as it came to be called. They produced two documents, an epitome, or summary, and a solid, or thorough declaration.

Check out the final post in this series “What are the Lutheran Confessions–Part 4”, which examines the question: “Why do we use these nearly five hundred year old documents that we’ve been talking about still today?

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