Confessing the Faith in the Language of America
The Historical Context and Enduring Significance of
the Henkel Translation of the Book of Concord
DAVID JAY WEBBER
In the words of Gerhard Friedrich Bente,
The Lutheran Church differs from all other churches in being essentially the Church of the pure Word and unadulterated Sacraments. Not the great number of her adherents, not her organizations, not her charitable and other institutions, not her beautiful customs and liturgical forms, etc., but the precious truths confessed by her symbols in perfect agreement with the Holy Scriptures constitute the true beauty and rich treasures of our Church, as well as the never-failing source of her vitality and power.1
The entirety of these Symbols, as contained in the Book of Concord of 1580, first appeared in English in 1851, due largely to the translating and editing efforts of Socrates Henkel. English-speaking Lutherans in America and in the world now had unimpeded access, in their own language, to the official Confessions of their church: the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds; the Augsburg Confession and its Apology; the Smalcald Articles (including the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope); Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms; and the Formula of Concord. At a time when American Lutherans were struggling with the question of what it means to be a Lutheran, the Henkel translation of the Book of Concord helped many of them to find the answer.
In the closing paragraph of the Formula of Concord, its sixteenth century authors offered a firm declaration of their convictions that reflected their prayerful hope that their posterity would also know and embrace the faith which they had confessed:
In the presence of God, therefore, and before the whole Christian church, we have desired to testify to those who now live, and to those who shall come after us, that this Declaration now made, concerning all the controverted articles already mentioned and explained, and no other, is our faith, doctrine, and confession; in which, by the grace of God, we shall appear with humble confidence before the judgment-seat of Christ, and render an account for the same.2
Respect for the Lutheran Confessions and for their theology did indeed remain strong in the institutional Lutheran Church during the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy, but the rise of Pietism in the late seventeenth century inaugurated a trend toward doctrinal indifference and religious subjectivism that undermined the authority of the Confessions. And when Pietism gave way to Rationalism, Confessional theology was almost totally eclipsed. This loss of Confessional consciousness also engendered a “unionistic” spirit, which led to the notorious 1817 Union of Lutheran and Reformed Churches in the Kingdom of Prussia, and to similar Unions in some other German territories.
But another wind was also in the air in the early nineteenth century. There were many Christians in the Lutheran churches of Europe who had never completely forgotten the teachings of their catechism, and their slumbering faith was finally stirred. Under the pastoral leadership of Claus Harms, who penned 95 Theses against Rationalism and Unionism in 1817, along with other revitalized Lutheran theologians, the Confessional Revival was born. But this revival had to compete with the Unionism, Rationalism, and lingering Pietism that also inhabited the institutional Church, and the frustrations and ecclesiastical persecutions which the “Old Lutherans” often experienced led many of them to immigrate to the United States. Especially notable were a large group of Saxons who left in 1838 and in 1847 helped organize the Missouri Synod, and a large group of Prussians who left in 1839 and in 1845 organized the Buffalo Synod.
The Lutheran Church had originally been brought to America in the seventeenth century by Swedish and Dutch settlers, and many German Lutherans arrived in the first half of the eighteenth century. The earliest Lutherans in the American colonies were for the most part Orthodox in their orientation. For example, the avowedly Orthodox ministers of the New York Classis, under the leadership of Wilhelm Christoph Berkenmeyer, declared in their 1735 church order that they would “regulate their teaching and preaching according to the rule of the divine Word, the Biblical prophetical and apostolical writings, also according to our Symbolical Books, the Unaltered Confession of Augsburg, its Apology, the Smalcald Articles, both Catechisms of Luther, and the Formula of Concord.” They declared furthermore that they would not “teach or preach, privately or publicly, anything against these [Confessions] nor even use any other new phrases which would contradict the same.”3
The Confessions also held an important place in the theology and practice of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, often styled the “Patriarch” of American Lutheranism. Socrates Henkel notes that Muhlenberg and his co-laborers in the Pennsylvania Ministerium, founded in 1748, did not “teach any other doctrines, nor endeavor to establish, in this country, any other system of faith, than that inculcated in the Lutheran Confessions and Catechisms.”4 The congregations of the Pennsylvania Ministerium, in the earlier decades of its existence, subscribed to “the Evangelical Lutheran doctrine, according to the foundation of the Prophets and Apostles, and the unaltered Augsburg Confession and all the other Symbolical Books.”5
However, the American Lutheran Church was eventually influenced by the more destructive theological trends of its European counterpart. Henkel elaborates on this:
Pietism and Rationalism prevailed to an alarming extent in Germany and other countries. The former, inaugurated by Spener, — a man of distinguished talents and rare learning, — for the purpose of reviving, in the Church, greater zeal for vital piety and practical Christianity, was afterwards carried beyond its contemplated object by Franke, a very zealous and able minister, and thus, amidst the agitation, it finally resulted in fanaticism, as well as in a perversion of many of the leading doctrines of the Church, and in ignoring, to a greater or less extent, her true Confessions. … Some of the ministers who immigrated to this country were of the Halle, Frankean, Pietistic school, and they came imbued with that spirit, to some extent, and infused it in some parts of the Church… Rationalism…crept into the Protestant theology of the continent, especially of Germany. The extremes of Pietism, it appears, prepared the way for Rationalism, the other extreme. One extreme usually results in another, in the opposite direction. Fanaticism generally ends in skepticism. This pernicious, disturbing element, Rationalism, also found its way to North America, and exerted a very baneful influence over the people in regard to the teachings of the Bible, as presented in the Confessions of the Church. The tendency was to yield or compromise nearly everything that was positive or definite, until, as Dr. [Charles Porterfield] Krauth said, in speaking of the condition of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, at the close of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, “We had a weak, indecisive pulpit, feeble catechisms, vague hymns, and constitutions which reduced the minister to the position of a hireling talker, and made Synods disorganizations for the purpose of preventing anything from being done.” Unionism followed in the wake.6
What eventually emerged from this chaotic situation, in the first half of the nineteenth century, was a new form of “American” Lutheranism. The doctrinal character of the “American Lutheran” movement is reflected in an 1845 letter from Samuel Simon Schmucker, its acknowledged leader, together with Benjamin Kurtz and others, to representatives of the Prussian Union Church:
Now as to our doctrinal views, we confess without disguise, indeed confess it loudly and openly, that the greatest majority of us are not old Lutherans, in the sense in which a small party exists in Germany under that name. We are convinced that, if the great Luther were still living, he would not be a member of it either. We believe that the three last centuries have also produced men who were capable of independent thought, research and growth equal to the 16th. Yea, as insignificant as we consider ourselves, we are nevertheless emboldened, particularly through our feeling of duty, to investigate and explore Scripture, and to draw our doctrinal views from this heavenly source. But, nevertheless, we are Evangelical Lutheran. Committed to Luther’s fundamental principle that God’s Word is without error, we have proved that Luther’s doctrinal construction is essentially correct. In most of our church principles we stand on common ground with the union or merged church of Germany. The distinctive views which separate the old Lutherans and the Reformed Church we do not consider essential; and the tendency of the so called old Lutheran party seems to us to be behind our time.7
The General Synod had been organized in 1820 by several “American Lutheran” regional synods, and as a bulwark against the more extreme forms of Rationalism it did acknowledge the Augsburg Confession — in an admittedly qualified way — “as a substantially correct exhibition of the fundamental doctrines of the Bible.”8 The “American Lutherans” would be quick to add, however, that they did not, “after the additional experience and light of more than three centuries, feel any reluctance in departing from some of the minor doctrines of the Augsburg Confession.”9 These “minor” doctrines included some which the sixteenth century Reformers would certainly not have considered minor. For example, Schmucker condoned the views of Pastor Johann Augustus Probst, a member of the Pennsylvania Ministerium who, in promoting an American version of the Prussian Union, made a series of truly breathtaking assertions:
The doctrine of unconditional election cannot be in the way. This doctrine has long since been abandoned; for there can scarcely be a single German Reformed preacher found who regards it as his duty to defend this doctrine. Zwingli’s more liberal, rational and scriptural view of this doctrine, as well as of the Lord’s Supper, has become the prevailing one among Lutherans and Reformed, and it has been deemed proper to abandon the view of both Luther and Calvin on the subject of both these doctrines.10
The whole mass of the old Confessions was occasioned by the peculiar circumstances of those troublous times, has become obsolete by the lapse of ages, and is yet valuable only as matter of history. Those times and circumstances have passed away, and our situation both in regard to political and ecclesiastical relations, is entirely changed. We are therefore not bound to these books, but only to the Bible. For what do the unlearned know of the Augsburg Confession, or the Form of Concord, of the Synod of Dort…[?]11
All enlightened and intelligent preachers of both churches agree, that there is much in the former symbolical books (or confessions of faith) that must be stricken out as antiquated and contrary to common sense, and be made conformable with the Bible, and that we have no right to pledge ourselves to the mere human opinions of Luther, or Calvin, or Zwingli…12
Schmucker himself stated that, in his capacity as a professor in the General Synod’s seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he would “defeat the design of the institution” if he inculcated on his students “the obsolete views of the old Lutherans, contained in the former symbols of the church in some parts of Germany, such as exorcism, the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the eucharist, private confession, baptismal regeneration, immersion in baptism, as taught in Luther’s Large Catechism, etc.”13
The “American Lutherans” wanted very much to “fit in” with the established religious culture, and not to be perceived as being in any way less than fully “American.” A few years before the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Pennsylvania Ministerium, Schmucker observed that
The memory of the pilgrim fathers is cherished by our New England brethren, with an interest bordering on veneration. And yet we hesitate not to affirm, that in regard to piety and zeal, father Muhlenberg, and Brunnholtz, and Handschuh, and Bolzius, were by no means inferior to Cotton, Hooker, Davenport, or the Mathers; and in learning they were their superiors. Let then the contemplated centenary be improved as a favored season, to review the goodness of God to us and his American Zion in general. Let us bless God, not that we are better than our fathers; but that they were so good, so faithful, so rich in blessings, which have flowed down to us. Let us thank God, not that we are better than other portions of his kingdom in our land; but that, in common with them, we have fallen heirs to so rich a legacy of civil and political, and above all, of religious liberty, bought by the joint blood of our fathers and theirs, bestowed by the kind Providence of their God and ours.14
It is interesting to note that the colonial Lutheran fathers admired by Schmucker had, for the most part, held to a Confessional position. Joseph Augustus Seiss laments the fact that their theology was not embraced by the generations which followed them:
A happy thing would it have been for our Church, its usefulness and success in this country if their successors and descendants had all and always remained steadfast to the true confessional basis on which the Lutheran Church in this new world was started. But a long period of defection came — a period of rationalistic and then Methodistic innovations — a period of neglect of the confessions and of the doctrines of the church as Luther and Muhlenberg taught them — a period of self-destructive assimilation to the unsound and unchurchly spirit of surrounding sects, by which the life and vigor of our churches were largely frittered away…15
William Julius Mann describes the extent to which the “American Lutherans” accommodated themselves to the religious environment that surrounded them:
Gradually a desire manifested itself to gain popularity for the Lutheran Church in this country. The hard dogmatical knots of the old Lutheran oak were to give way under the Puritan plane. The body was deprived of its bones and its heart, and the empty skin might be filled with whatever was most pleasing, if only the Lutheran name was retained. The statement of the seventh article of the Augsburg Confession, that “unto the true unity of the Church it is not necessary that human traditions, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men should be everywhere alike,” was most extensively used, and in the desire to make the Lutheran Church as much as possible like others, her leaders were much more ready to adopt foreign elements than to retain her own distinctive features. Thus the liturgy, the ancient lessons of the Gospels and Epistles, the festivals of the Church Year, the gown and other usages were given up, in order that as little as possible might be seen of these Lutheran peculiarities. Hoping to gain others, they lost themselves. The Lutheran Church had given away her own spirit, her own original life and character.16
As we might expect, the “American Lutherans” had little sympathy with the views of the Old Lutherans who had emigrated to America in the late 1830s. To Schmucker and his supporters they were a foreign element, promoting an antiquated, foreign theology. In the face of criticism from them, especially from the pen of the Missouri Synod’s Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, Schmucker defended the position to which he was committed:
American Lutheranism grew out of the Lutheran predilections of our fathers, the unrestricted liberty of following the scriptures, which they enjoyed in this Western world, and the influence of our free civil institutions. Under this joint influence they gradually rejected the symbolical bondage of Germany, and restored the original liberty in fundamentals, which Christ and his apostles bequeathed to us. They bought this liberty at the price of great sacrifices; and shall their American sons, that were ‘born free,’ suffer it to be taken from them?17
If our old Lutheran brethren are willing to regard their peculiarities as non-essential, and live in peace with us, they are welcome to take part with us in our ministry and ecclesiastical organizations; but if they cannot refrain from either regarding or denouncing us as dishonest, and pseudo Lutherans, and perjured, because we do not believe everything contained in confessions which we never adopted, and because we will not adopt books as symbolical, which contain numerous errors and Romish superstitions; for ourselves, whilst we wish them well as individuals, we desire no ecclesiastical communion with them, either in our Synods, or General Synod; and believe it will be for the furtherance of the Gospel of Christ, that they should be associated with those who share their intolerance and bigotry. In less than twenty years they will themselves see their error, and change their position, and their children will be worthy members of our American Lutheran Church.18
Schmucker was confident that when the Missourians became culturally Americanized, they would also become “American Lutherans.”
Schmucker noted that
It has sometimes been said, as Lutherans we ought to adhere to the standards of the Lutheran church. This is perfectly true and just, if the standards of the Lutheran church in America be intended; for these are none other than the “Word of God and the fundamentals of that Word as taught substantially in the Augsburg Confession.” But as to the former symbolical books of the Lutheran church in Germany, we are under no such obligation. Our churches, for near a century, have not acknowledged any one of them except the Augsburg Confession, and for fifty years past have received as binding, none at all, until the General Synod formally adopted the Augsburg Confession, and that only as to fundamentals; and probably not a dozen of all our American ministers have ever read all these books.19
One of the primary reasons why “probably not a dozen” American Lutheran pastors had ever read all of the Lutheran Confessions, as contained in the Book of Concord, was the fact that the Book of Concord was still locked away in the German and Latin languages. The Ancient Creeds, the Small Catechism, and the Augsburg Confession had all been translated into English, but the rest of the Confessions, with the exception of a few excerpts, had never been so translated. It was therefore that much easier for Schmucker and the “American Lutherans” to think of the recently-immigrated Confessionalists as a foreign element that need not be taken seriously, since the historic Symbols they embraced were accessible only in a foreign language. Of course, the lack of orthodox Lutheran material in the English language during the time when Lutherans in America were making their transition to that language was one of the important factors which facilitated the development of “American Lutheranism” in the first place. Juergen Ludwig Neve writes that
The English language reached ever widening circles at a time when there was not yet an English literature breathing the Lutheran spirit. English speaking Lutheran laymen had to resort to a devotional literature full of Methodistic and Puritanic suggestions; while ministers, barely familiar with the German tongue, filled the shelves of their library with books of Reformed authorship and assimilated erroneous view-points. Thus many lost the sense of consistent Lutheranism. They recognized as fundamental those features which all denominations held in common, and considered as non-fundamental the special heritage from the Church of Luther.20
In spite of all this, and in spite of Schmucker’s disdain for the Old Lutherans, there were some well-established Lutherans in early nineteenth century America who were not a part of the “American Lutheran” movement, and who were attempting to rediscover, and cling to, the heritage of the Lutheran Reformation. If Schmucker could dismiss the Missourians as misguided foreigners, he could not so easily dismiss the Henkels, or the Tennessee Synod to which they belonged. Pastor Paul Henkel, the patriarch of the family, was the great-grandson of Anthony Jacob Henckel, a Lutheran minister who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1717. Paul’s genealogical credentials as an “American” were therefore beyond reproach. However, both he and his sons, most of whom were also Lutheran pastors, did not endorse the “American Lutheran” attempt to redefine Lutheranism according to Zwinglian/Puritan/Methodist norms. In his earlier years Paul Henkel was somewhat more lax in his commitment to the distinctive theology of the Lutheran Church, and the North Carolina Synod, to which he had belonged since its founding in 1803, definitely reflected the “American Lutheran” viewpoint. But by the time of the organization of the Tennessee Synod in 1820, in which Paul and two of his sons, Philip Augustus and David, played a major role, he had come to embrace a consistent Confessional position.21 Richard H. Baur notes that the Henkels and their Tennessee Synod colleagues
anchored themselves to the Word of God and the Confessions of the church as correct expositions of it. It was “the only Lutheran Synod in America at that time that unreservedly and unqualifiedly received the Augsburg Confession,” and no one could serve in their church who did not agree to this. In all contacts with other synods through which fellowship or mutual understanding was sought, this was fundamental.22
As we would expect, the Tennessee Synod did not even consider joining the General Synod.
David Henkel, Paul’s most gifted and theologically-astute son, immediately became the theological leader and literary apologist of the new body. Before his untimely death in 1831 at the age of 36, David had translated Luther’s Small Catechism into English, and had also written, in the English language, several essays and pamphlets that defended and promoted the Confessional Lutheran position on various doctrinal issues. While still a licentiate of the North Carolina Synod, before his ordination, David had already earned a reputation as an outspoken proponent of this position. Socrates Henkel, David’s son, recounts some of the tumultuous events which took place during this stage of his father’s life:
One of the leading ministers charged Rev. David Henkel with teaching doctrines contrary to the position of the Church. To defend himself against such unfounded charges, the latter appealed to a Latin copy of the Book of Concord, which he had in [his] possession. That gave him a decided advantage, in some respects, in the estimation of many of the people, who were not willing to acquiesce in the extreme, latitudinarian views inculcated by the former. To counteract this increasing advantage, that minister called into question the correctness of these translations from the Latin. This proved disparaging for a while, but soon afterwards Rev. David Henkel happened to come across a German copy of the Book of Concord, at the residence of a German in South Carolina, with whom he spent a night or two. After much persuasion, the German let him have the book. This he brought with him, rejoicing in his good fortune to get it, to North Carolina. — This he presented to sustain the correctness of his translations made from the Latin copy of his Book of Concord. For, this the people could read and understand for themselves, and finding that his translations from the Latin copy referred to, were correct, many of the members of the Church took a decided stand in favor of him and his positions, and faithfully defended him and his doctrines against the innovations and false charges of his opponents. The council of the congregation met, and after considering the matter, one of the Elders, Capt. John Stirewalt, father of the late Rev. Jacob Stirewalt, presented the Book of Concord to the minister, saying, We want to know whether you intend to preach according to this book, in the future. The minister hesitated and evaded, but being pressed, he raised the book up and brought it down on the table, saying, From this day henceforth, I will not; it is nothing but a controversial book. Mr. Stirewalt then raised the book up, and brought it down on the table, saying, From this day henceforth, you won’t be our preacher. The differences in doctrine becoming more apparent, the controversies and conflicts assuming a wider range and more formidable aspects, effecting some of the more vital doctrines of the Church, and the authority of her Confessions being called into question, furnished occasion for rupture and schism, and gave rise to the chief causes or reasons which ultimately resulted in the organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Tennessee Synod…23
The “American Lutherans,” of course, entertained a different interpretation of the events and people referred to above. The opinions of John Bachman, a member of the North Carolina Synod at the time of the rupture, were quoted with approval by Schmucker:
Some years ago several individuals residing in North Carolina, who had previously been members of our church, on account of some dissatisfaction separated themselves from our communion. They chose as a leader an individual by the name of (David) Henkel, (hence they are called Henkelites,) a weak and illiterate man, whose ground of dissent, as far as can be gathered from the crude, visionary and inflammatory publications, which have from time [to time] appeared, either under his name or that of his sect, was, the Evangelical Church had departed from the true doctrines of the Reformation, which he and his church had attempted to restore.24
Schmucker himself had served as a pastor in Virginia before his call to the Gettysburg seminary, and he therefore had some personal knowledge of the Tennessee Synod and its leaders. He wrote that
nearly one half of this Tennessee Conference, which for some years consisted chiefly of David Henkel, his father, and several of his brothers, resided in our pastoral district in Virginia between 1820 and 1825, and during the whole time carried on the same warfare against us, charging us with upholding the General Synod and not adhering to the doctrines of the Augsburg Confession. Hundreds of our parishioners yet live to testify that we never pretended to deny the differences between us, and that in whatever defence we felt called on to make, we represented their peculiarities either as misapprehensions of the Augsburg Confession, or especially the doctrine of the bodily presence as being remnants of Romanism, retained indeed in the Confession, but universally rejected by our church in the present age.25
But the writings of David Henkel — the American “Claus Harms” — had helped to ignite a Confessional Revival that could not be stopped.
The Ohio Synod, organized in 1818, had never joined the General Synod, and due in part to the fact that two of its early members were Andrew and Charles Henkel, sons of Paul, it had a cordial relationship with the Tennessee Synod. Professor William Frederic Lehmann also exercised a very positive Confessional influence on the Ohio Synod, and soon after he began his labors at its Columbus seminary in 1847, the Board of Directors noted with approval “That the new Professor had fulfilled his manifold duties with faithfulness and diligence, and that as respects doctrine it is always his endeavor to remain faithful to the Confessions of our Church.”26 Under Lehmann’s consistent theological leadership the Ohio Synod continued to grow in its Confessional consciousness and in its commitment to historic Lutheranism.
The Confessional Revival also began to spread to the General Synod. Charles Philip Krauth, the president of Pennsylvania College in Gettysburg (and after 1850 the president of the Gettysburg seminary), described the theological struggle that he and others experienced as they gradually came to accept the historic Lutheran position:
I find the Lutheran doctrine of the Sacraments hard to accept, in view of my Puritanic training, but I find the Scripture passages quoted in favor of them still harder to get over and explain away, and this I apprehend is the feeling of many who see the truth, but are slow to make a decided and public demonstration of it.27
By 1849 Krauth was much more confident in his endorsement of orthodox, Confessional Lutheran theology:
Our verdict is unequivocally in behalf of the study, the thorough study, of this theology. We would have it thrown over our church with a liberal hand; we would have all our ministers acquainted with the Symbolical Books; we would have them all versed in the distinctive theology of the Church. We would have introduced into our theological schools the study of the Symbols, and didactic and polemical theology so administered as to bring before the view pure, unadulterated Lutheranism.28
Charles Frederick Schaeffer, who, ironically, was married to Schmucker’s sister, was another leader among the Confessional pastors of the General Synod. Already by 1839 “the intensity of his conviction of the truth of the Confessions of the Church in all their teachings, and of the binding obligation of those Confessions on Lutheran ministers, began to make him uncomfortable in his surroundings.”29 John Gottlieb Morris, who had signed the infamous 1845 letter to the Prussian Union Church, dissociated himself from the erroneous views he had endorsed in that document as he grew in his understanding and appreciation of Lutheran theology. In his later years Morris said of the preparation and sending of the letter: “Never was a more senseless blunder committed.”30 Yet there were many “American Lutherans” who refused to reconsider or correct their views. As a greater number of General Synod pastors began embracing the distinctive theology of the Lutheran Symbolical Books, Schmucker and his supporters, especially Benjamin Kurtz, intensified their opposition to it. William Morton Reynolds, then a professor at Pennsylvania College (and later the president of the Ohio Synod’s Capital University), expressed his frustration with them when he wrote that
there is a large body of men in our church who have no knowledge of her history, no sympathy with her doctrines, no idea of her true character, and whose whole conception of the Church is that of a kind of mongrel Methodistic Presbyterianism, and of this party Drs. S.S. Schmucker and Kurtz are the coryphaei.31
The Tennessee Synod was certainly able to recognize its allies in the effort to promote Confessional Lutheranism, both among and beyond its own membership. The following resolution was passed at its 1848 convention:
Resolved, That we rejoice to learn that some of our German Lutheran brethren in the West, have formed themselves into a Synod, called “The German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and other States,” and that they are publishing a German paper, styled “Der Lutheraner,” which is devoted to the promulgation and defence of the primitive doctrines and usages of the Lutheran Church; to which paper we would call the attention of our German brethren.32
The Tennessee Synod likewise understood the importance of the printed word in the work of the church, and in this regard saw one of its primary responsibilities to be the publication of soundly Lutheran materials in the English language. And as Baur observes, in this work
the Henkels had one advantage over other synods: a printing establishment. It had been founded in the early years of the 19th century by Paul Henkel and his oldest son Solomon in New Market, VA. From it came theological, doctrinal, devotional, and polemical works, all supporting the Henkels’ position. One of the most significant and influential of these publications was an English edition of the Book of Concord in 1851. It was widely and well received, indicating that the earlier Henkel interest in confessionalism had finally pervaded a large part of the Lutheran church in the United States.33
Charles P. Arand calls its publication of The Christian Book of Concord “the Tennessee Synod’s greatest contribution to American Lutheranism,”34 and indeed it was. Since culture is reflected and conveyed primarily through language, the distinctive theology of the Book of Concord was now just as much a part of the English-speaking American culture as “American Lutheranism” had been. The existence of the Lutheran Symbolical Books in the language of the United States was a vivid testimony that, while the members of the Tennessee Synod were not “American Lutherans,” they were Confessional Lutherans, and Americans!
In their Preface to this translation its publishers explained, with a typically “American” spirit of optimism, the reasons for the project:
The Book of Concord, comprising the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, has as yet enjoyed but a limited circulation in the United States. Wrapped in the obscurities of its original languages, — the Latin and German, — that venerable production of the Reformation has been left to slumber almost entirely in silence and neglect. Numerous causes have contributed to prolong this neglect. The descendants of German emigrants in America, have never cultivated the language and literature of their fathers with due interest; many of them are unable to read German; while many, able to read, and occupying elevated stations, have never manifested a laudable zeal for the doctrines of the church. The most obvious cause, however, seems to be, that the larger portion of Lutherans in America are accustomed to read the English language only, and consequently have never had an opportunity to appreciate the value of their Symbols. Yet, we cherish the anticipation of a brighter day in the Lutheran church. In a land of freedom, of science and art, where the generous spirit of political wisdom encourages the exercise of reason, and guards the decisions of conscience; where industry, energy, and enterprise, though daily attaining fresh prospects of future improvement, are continually unburying the sacred treasures of the past, we believe that the doctrines of our church will ultimately be reclaimed, and that men of our western clime will enter into the investigation of these doctrines with all the avidity natural to a love for the truth. … At the urgent solicitation of many zealous members of the church, we announced, Oct. 9th, 1845, our resolution to procure a correct English version of the entire work, and publish it as soon as practicable. Since that period no time or labor has been spared to fulfil our promise. … May our labors be the instrument, in the hands of Providence, for promoting an acquaintance with the Book of Concord, the norm of all genuine Lutherans since 1580, and for extending the doctrines taught by the illustrious Reformer!35
As a final indication of the publishers’ belief that Confessional Lutheranism was fully compatible with the values and ideals of American culture, this Preface was dated, “Newmarket, Shenandoah, Va., July 4th, 1851.”36
Socrates Henkel assumed the general editorial responsibility for the book, and he and his uncle, Ambrose Henkel, also prepared the initial translations of the Augsburg Confession, the Apology, the Smalcald Articles, and the Catalogue of Testimonies (an appendix to the Formula of Concord). The initial translation of the Larger Catechism was prepared by Jacob Stirewalt (the son of John Stirewalt, noted earlier). The Formula of Concord was initially prepared by Henry Wetzel, who translated the Epitome, and Jonathan Reinhard Moser, who translated the Full Declaration. All of these men were Tennessee Synod ministers. As a lasting tribute to David Henkel, his 1827 translation of the Smaller Catechism was also incorporated into the volume. Once all the manuscripts had been gathered together and compared with the original texts by Ambrose Henkel, they were given their final revision by Socrates Henkel.37
Abdel Ross Wentz comments on the phenomenal reception which The Christian Book of Concord received:
It is a clear indication of the new spirit that was arising in the General Synod that this English book found a ready acceptance in all parts of that body. Many copies were bought in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The professors and students in the seminary and college at Gettysburg studied it. So also did Dr. Reynolds and Dr. Lehmann and their students of Capital University and its Theological Department at Columbus, Ohio. The south eagerly welcomed it.38
The literary efforts of the Tennessee Synod also got the attention of the German-speaking Missouri Synod. In 1853 two Missouri Synod pastors, Theodore Julius Brohm and August Hoyer, wrote to the Tennessee Synod on behalf of their body:
…we take the liberty, with consent of our president, to address your reverend body by these few lines, assuring you of our fraternal love and sympathy, founded upon the conviction, that it is one and the same faith which dwells in you and in us. We are highly rejoiced in this vast desert and wilderness, to meet a whole Lutheran Synod steadfastly holding to the precious Confessions of our beloved church, and zealously engaged in divulging the unaltered doctrines and principles of the Reformation among the English portion of Lutherans, by translating the standard writings of our Fathers, at the same time firmly resisting the allurements of those who say they are Lutherans, and are not. Our synod extends, through our instrumentality, the hand of fraternity to you, not fearing to be refused, and ardently desires, however separated from you by different language and local interests, to co-operate with you, hand in hand, in rebuilding the walls of our dilapidated Zion.39
Due to the widespread popularity of The Christian Book of Concord, a second edition was soon needed. This time the publishers enlisted the assistance of English-speaking Lutheran scholars from outside the Tennessee Synod, in order to produce a more accurate, improved version. The Augsburg Confession was revised by Charles Philip Krauth, the Apology by William F. Lehmann, the Smalcald Articles by William M. Reynolds, the Catechisms by John G. Morris, and the Formula of Concord and Catalogue of Testimonies by Charles F. Schaeffer. Socrates Henkel once again supervised the whole process, and put the revised edition into its final form before its publication in 1854.40
To the Confessional Lutherans of the mid-nineteenth century, the availability of the Book of Concord in the English language gave them a clear and authoritative way to response to the aberrations of the contemporary “American Lutheran” establishment. When it was asserted that Zwingli’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was “more liberal, rational and scriptural” than that of Luther, and that a Lutheran may feel free to reject the latter and embrace the former, the Book of Concord reminded everyone that “the Zwinglian teachers are not to be reckoned among the number of theologians receiving the Augsburg Confession, from whom they withdrew at the time when this Confession was delivered”; and that “they now attempt to obtrude themselves upon the latter, and to circulate their error under the cover of this Christian Confession.”41 When it was said that no harm will be done to the Lutheran Church if its ministers or members “depart from some of the minor doctrines of the Augsburg Confession,” the Book of Concord warned:
But though the pious doctrine of this Confession, in general has met with no opposition, except that which proceeded from the Papists, it must be confessed that some theologians, in several articles of chief importance, have departed from it, and either have not arrived at its true sense, or have certainly failed to adhere to it uniformly; while some also have endeavored to affix to it a sense really foreign to it, who nevertheless professed that they embraced the Augsburg Confession, and pretended to glory in the profession of it. But from this circumstance very grievous and pernicious controversies arose in the reformed churches…42
To the claim that “if the great Luther were still living” he would probably be an adherent of the Prussian Union or something similar, the Book of Concord responded:
But inasmuch as this highly enlightened man saw in spirit that, after his death, some would endeavor to render him suspected of having receded from the doctrine just mentioned, and from other Christian articles, he subjoined to his Larger Confession the following protestation: “Whilst I behold faction and error increase as time advances, whilst I see no cessation of the raging and raving of Satan; lest therefore, during my life, or after my death, some might hereafter conceal their device under my name, and fraudulently employ my writings to establish their errors, as the Sacramentarians and the Anabaptists now begin to do, I shall by this instrument of writing, profess my faith on all points before God and all the world. And in this faith, by the help of God, I intend to persevere until death, and, in it, to depart from this world, and to appear before the judgment-seat of our Lord Jesus Christ; and if, after my death, any one should say: ‘If Dr. Luther lived now, he would teach and believe differently concerning this article or those; for he did not consider such sufficiently;’ in opposition to this, I say now as then, and then as now, that by the grace of God I have most diligently considered all these articles, and compared them again and again with the Scriptures, and would as warmly defend these as I have now defended the Sacrament of the Altar.”43
The nineteenth century Confessional Revival in America, inaugurated by the writings of David Henkel and bolstered by the publication of The Christian Book of Concord, finally resulted in the organization of the General Council in 1867, by several synods that had withdrawn from the General Synod and that had come to embrace a more genuinely Lutheran doctrinal position. It also eventually inspired a more conservative form of Lutheranism even in the General Synod, and in other American Lutheran bodies as well.
The Henkel translation of the Book of Concord established a literary tradition which, to a greater or lesser extent, was perpetuated through later English translations of the Symbolical Books. When Henry Eyster Jacobs edited a new English version of the Book of Concord in 1882, which also appeared in a revised second edition in 1911, he stated in the Preface that the second edition of the Henkel translation had “been frequently consulted” and had “furnished material aid.”44 When G. Friedrich Bente and William Herman Theodore Dau prepared the English text of the Concordia Triglotta in 1921, their work was based on the original German and Latin and “on the existing English translations, chiefly those incorporated in Jacobs’s Book of Concord.”45 And in the Forward to the 1959 version of the Book of Concord which he edited, Theodore Gerhardt Tappert mentioned the three English translations that had previously appeared, and then noted that “It is of course inevitable that the present translators should have been influenced by the work of those who preceded them.”46
As the Lutheran Church in America enters the twenty-first century, it is once again plagued by many of the same problems that plagued it in the past. The Historical-Critical dismantling of Biblical authority in many segments of the institutional church, combined with the pervasive influence of the Charismatic Movement and other forms of American Evangelicalism, have paved the way for a resurgence of “American Lutheranism” in our day. Lutherans are once again trying to “fit in” with what they perceive to be the accepted religious culture of the United States. We note the popularity of the so-called Church Growth Movement, with its anti-liturgical “entertainment evangelism” methods; the strong proclivity, on the part of many Lutherans, toward church fellowship with various Reformed bodies; a willingness to ignore or distort, on the basis of rationalistic assumptions, the clear statements of Holy Scripture pertaining to the question of women’s ordination and other important issues; and a general spirit of indifference that often reveals itself in the practice of “open Communion” and in similar expressions of Confessional laxity.
In the midst of these and other problems, the Henkel edition of the Book of Concord speaks to us, even if through its successor translations, as we struggle to be both American and Lutheran. It calls on us to return to the Word of God, to the pure Gospel, to the divinely-instituted Means of Grace, and to the orthodox faith of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It does not call on us to renounce or remove ourselves from our culture, but it does call on us to preserve, promote, and proclaim our Lutheranism within that culture. Charles F. Schaeffer posed some crucial questions which are just as applicable to our situation as they were to his, almost a century and a half ago:
Have we really made such progress in the discovery of truth since the era of the Reformation, that we understand the Scriptures more thoroughly than those who framed the Symbolical Books? When Luther and his associates were prepared to surrender their lives, but not the doctrines of the Augsburg Confession, the Apology, the Schmalkald Articles, and the Catechism, had these men of faith and prayer discovered treasures of divine truth of less extent and less value than we possess in modern times? When the Elector Augustus with holy fervor prayed to God that the authors of the Concord-Formula might be guided by the Divine Spirit in the preparation of that admirable work, was his prayer for the illumination of the Spirit less efficacious than modern prayers are? If the writers of the Symbols were unworthy of regard, or are erroneous in their exhibition of truth, who are the men that are more competent to unfold the Scriptural doctrine? … Are we wiser, more holy, richer in divine grace, more useful through the inspiration of the “spirit of the times” than our pious fathers were? We are weary of the superior intelligence of the Nineteenth Century in matters of Christian faith.47
2. Formula of Concord, Full Declaration XII, in The Christian Book of Concord, translated and edited by Socrates Henkel (New Market, Virginia: Solomon D. Henkel and Brs., second edition 1854), p. 732.
3. Karl Kretzmann, “The Constitution of the First Lutheran Synod in America,” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Vol. 9 (1936), p. 5. See also David Jay Webber, “Berkenmeyer and Lutheran Orthodoxy in New York,” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Spring 1987), pp. 19-31.
7. “Aus Amerika,” Zeitschrift fuer Protestantismus und Kirche, Vol. 11 (1846), pp. 263-64; quoted in E. Clifford Nelson, editor, The Lutherans in North America (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, revised edition 1980), p. 220. The letter was also signed by Henry N. Pohlman, John G. Morris, and Henry I. Schmidt. We are gratified to read in this otherwise discouraging letter that its authors did at least recognize and acknowledge Luther’s belief in Scriptural inerrancy, and were willing to take their stand with him on this point. John Warwick Montgomery notes that modern scholars often deny that the Reformer held to this view, in large part “because of the common human failing we all have to want great men to agree with us.” (“Lessons From Luther on the Inerrancy of Holy Writ,” The Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3 [Spring 1974], p. 283.) See also Michael Reu, Luther and the Scriptures (Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press, 1944), and Eugene F. Klug, From Luther to Chemnitz on Scripture and the Word (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), which demonstrate that Schmucker and his associates were correct in their assessment of Luther’s position.
16. W. J. Mann, Deutsche Kirchenfreund, Vol. VIII , p. 386 ff.; quoted in Adolph Spaeth, Charles Porterfield Krauth (Philadelphia: Christian Literature Company, 1898), Vol. I, pp. 354-55; quoted in J. L. Neve, A Brief History of the Lutheran Church in America (Burlington, Iowa: German Literary Board, second revised and enlarged edition 1916), p. 120.
23. Henkel, pp. 13-14. The “leading minister” who opposed David Henkel was apparently Gottlieb Schober (or Shober), who seems to have held dual membership in the North Carolina Synod (of which he was secretary and later president) and in the Moravian Church. (See Charles P. Arand, “David Henkel and the Lutheran Confessions,” Concordia Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1 [January 1989], p. 39; see also Baur, pp. 167-68, and Henkel, pp. 10-11.)
24. John Bachman, The Doctrines and Discipline of the Lutheran Church (1837), p. 12; quoted in Schmucker, p. 216. See also Jerry L. Surratt, Gottlieb Schober of Salem (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1983), pp. 193-202.
27. Quoted in Spaeth, Vol. I, pp. 18-19; quoted in David A. Gustafson, Lutherans in Crisis (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1993), pp. 117-18. Charles Philip Krauth was the father of Charles Porterfield Krauth, also a leading Confessionalist.
29. Beale M. Schmucker, “Rev. Charles F. Schaeffer, D.D.,” in Jensson, p. 650. Beale Melanchthon Schmucker was the son of Samuel Simon Schmucker, but in his theological position he followed his uncle rather than his father.
31. Quoted in Abdel Ross Wentz, History of the Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary, 1826-1965 (Evangelical Press, 1965), pp. 171-72; quoted in Gustafson, p. 124. Reynolds himself had been a supporter of the “American Lutheran” agenda in his earlier years, but after his theological “conversion” he actively opposed Benjamin Kurtz’s literary efforts on behalf of that agenda. “The ‘Evangelical Review’ was founded in 1849 by Professor William M. Reynolds (of the faculty of the Pennsylvania College in Gettysburg). The aim of this paper was to oppose the ‘Lutheran Observer’ edited by Dr. Kurtz, and at that time serving as the chief organ of the American Lutheranism. Soon, however, Reynolds was called to the presidency of Capital University, Columbus, O., and now Dr. Charles Philip Krauth, of the Gettysburg Seminary, became his successor [as editor of the ‘Evangelical Review’].” (Neve, p. 128.)
40. See The Christian Book of Concord, p. vi; see also “Rev. Socrates Henkel, D.D.,” in Jensson, p. 347. In spite of his zealous efforts on behalf of the Confessional Lutheran movement, William M. Reynolds became a minister of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1864. He claimed that his sole motive for leaving the Lutheran Church “was that every door for employment within it was closed against him.” (Henry E. Jacobs, “Reynolds, William Morton, D.D.,” Lutheran Cyclopedia [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899], p. 410.) All the other translators and translation revisers remained true to the faith of the Confessions for the remainder of their lives.
47. Charles F. Schaeffer, Evangelical Review, Vol. I (1849), p. 482; quoted in Theodore E. Schmauck and C. Theodore Benze, The Confessional Principle and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1911), p. 684.
This essay was delivered at the first General Meeting of the Lutheran Confessional Synod in Decatur, Illinois, October 6-7, 1994. It was later published in Logia, Vol. IV, No. 3 (Holy Trinity/July 1995), pp. 39-48. On November 7, 1996, the Concordia Historical Institute presented an “Award of Commendation” to the author of this essay, recognizing it as “an important and perceptive article about the still-relevant contributions of the Henkel family to confessional Lutheranism in America.” The printed version of this essay differs slightly from the online version that appears here.
The Nicene Creed and the Filioque:
A Lutheran Approach
DAVID JAY WEBBER
On November 4, 1998, representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas approved “A Lutheran-Orthodox Common Statement on Faith in the Holy Trinity.” This communiqué addresses, among other things, the historic debate between the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom on the subject of the Filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. The older Greek version of the Creed, used in churches of the Eastern or Byzantine tradition, confesses that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” The later Latin version, used in churches of the Western tradition, confesses that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Filioque in Latin). According to the recent ELCA-Orthodox statement,
the Lutheran members of this dialogue are prepared to recommend to their church that it publicly recognize that the permanently normative and universally binding form of the Nicene Creed is the Greek text of A.D. 381, and that it undertake steps to reflect this recognition in its worship and teaching. This would be a way of enacting in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America the Lutheran World Federation resolution of 1990, which found it “appropriate” that member churches “which already use the Nicene Creed in their liturgies may use the version of 381, for example in ecumenical services,” and further found it appropriate that Lutherans preparing common vernacular texts of the Nicene Creed together with Orthodox churches “may agree to a version without the ‘western’ filioque.”1
Does this mean that the ELCA and other LWF affiliates are now in doctrinal agreement with the canonical Orthodox churches on the question of the Holy Spirit’s procession? No, it does not. Again, according to the statement,
Lutherans are not prepared to regard the teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as a heresy – a teaching against faith in the Holy Trinity. It is part of their confessional documents, and many of the chief teachers of the Lutheran tradition, including Luther himself, taught it vigorously. Lutheran recognition that the Filioque is not part of the Nicene Creed in its original and ecumenically binding form is not, therefore, to be equated with Lutheran rejection of all theological teaching which ascribes to the Son a role in the procession of the Holy Spirit, still less with an acknowledgment that all such teaching is heretical.2
In contrast, the statement also declares that
Orthodox do not regard the teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father to be one which they can accept. This teaching is opposed to the monarchy of the Father and to the equality of the Spirit to the Father and the Son as a hypostasis or person distinct from both, as expressed by the original Creed. … That the Holy Spirit eternally comes forth from the Son, so as to depend for his being and his possession of the one divine nature on the Son as well as on the Father, is a teaching which Orthodox uniformly oppose.3
The ELCA members of the Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue are willing to set aside, at least in certain respects, the version of the Creed that they have always used, but at the same time they wish to retain the pneumatological theology that this version of the Creed embraces and reflects. What are we to make of this?
The Greek version of the Nicene Creed, which is the only version that has ever been used in the Eastern Orthodox Church, was,
according to the traditional view, constructed at the Council of Constantinople, A.D. 381, as a revision of the creed of Nicaea (N). There is no doubt that this text (designated as C) was ratified at the Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, and that within a half-century it was in general use. The uncertainty concerning its composition arises from the lack of documentary evidence from the Council of Constantinople, together with alleged silence concerning it in the literature of the time, as well as discrepancies in wording. It is probable, however, that the Council of Constantinople did indeed approve the text C, not as a revision of N, but as a parallel statement fully in the Nicene spirit.4
The version of the Nicene Creed that appears in the Book of Concord, and that therefore forms a part of the historic Confessional basis of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, is, of course, the Latin version, which includes the Filioque.5 This form of the Creed originated on the occasion of the reception of the Visigoths into the communion of the Catholic Church in sixth-century Spain. The Filioque clause “was officially sanctioned and incorporated into the Constantinopolitan Symbol at the third council at Toledo (589), in order to express the rejection of Arianism which had been held by the Visigoths.”6 The Latin Fathers, most notably St. Augustine, had always taught that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (on the basis of passages such as John 16:14-15, Galatians 4:6, Philippians 1:19, and 1 Peter 1:11). This teaching had also already found symbolical expression in the so-called Athanasian Creed. The participants in this council therefore did not think that what they were doing would be seen as divisive or doctrinally problematic. Nevertheless, this alteration was not immediately accepted by all segments of the Latin Church. It eventually did achieve normative status in the West, but only after several centuries. When the Council of Toledo (a local council) added the Filioque to the text of the Creed,
The pope protested, not for dogmatic reasons, but because he considered it technically incorrect to add this word to an official document of an ecumenical council. Leo III, the contemporary of Charlemagne, also opposed the filioque. By the middle of the eleventh century the Roman Church included the filioque in the symbol or creed.7
As we study the history of each version of the Creed, and the theological tradition that lay behind each version, we must begin by noting that no reputable theologian in the Latin Christian tradition (including the Lutheran Confessors of the sixteenth century) ever considered the Creed that was adopted at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 to be a heterodox statement. When the Constantinopolitan Fathers confessed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father,” they were, of course, directly quoting the words of Jesus as recorded in John 15:26. In their theological correspondence with the Patriarch of Constantinople in the latter part of the sixteenth century, Jacob Andreae8 and his colleagues on the faculty of Tübingen University comment on this passage, with reference to the Filioque issue:
Yes, we too, of course, believe in that saying; but we cannot see how it follows if someone would thus say: that because the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, He [the Spirit] does not proceed from the Son. For the procession of the Spirit from the Father does not negate the procession from the Son.9
And as Andreae and his colleagues note further, the Creed adopted at Constantinople “states that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, but it does not teach that He proceeds from the Father alone.”10 In other words, the absence of the Filioque is not necessarily a denial of the Filioque, just as the absence in both versions of the Creed of explicit references to many other important articles of faith, such as original sin or the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, is not a denial of those doctrines.
The ancient Greek and Latin Fathers certainly acknowledged each other as brethren, with whom the blessings of church fellowship were enjoyed. However, because of their linguistic differences these Fathers frequently used different words and concepts in their theological writing. This was not perceived as a major problem, since the differences in terminology did not reflect differences in doctrine. The ancient Fathers understood that the same Biblical truth can be stated in a variety of ways, just as Lutherans recognize the Augsburg Confession and the Smalcald Articles as mutually-compatible expressions of the same faith, despite the marked differences in style and vocabulary between Philip Melanchthon and Martin Luther.
In regard to the historic discussions among the Greek and Latin Fathers on the eternal interrelationships of the Persons of the Godhead, Martin Chemnitz11 observes that
Both parties confessed that the Spirit is of the Son as well as of the Father; but the Greeks said that He is “from the Father through the Son,” and the Latins said “from the Father and the Son.” They each had reasons for speaking the way they did. Gregory of Nazianzus, on the basis of Romans 11[:36], says that the prepositions ek, dia, and eis express the properties of [the three persons in] one unconfused essence.12 Therefore, the Greeks said that the Holy Spirit proceeds from (ek, ex) the Father through (dia) the Son, so that the property of each nature [or person] is preserved. Nor did the Latins take offense at this formula for describing the matter. For Jerome and Augustine both say that the Holy Spirit properly and principally proceeds from the Father, and they explain this by saying that the Son in being begotten of the Father receives that which proceeds from the Father, namely, the Holy Spirit; but the Father receives from none, but has everything from Himself, as Lombard says, Bk. 1, dist. 12.13
Andreae and his colleagues interpret this history in much the same way. The leading Fathers of the Greek Church do not explicitly teach that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from” the Son. The Tübingen theologians still believe, however, that these Fathers “hold the same opinion with us, even though they might differ somewhat in expression.”14 They cite as an example St. Epiphanius of Salamis (+403), who had written that the Holy Spirit “is from the same essence of the Father and the Son,”15 and who had also written that the Spirit is “truly of the Father and the Son, being of the same Godhead, proceeding from the Father, and forever receiving from the Son.”16 Another Greek Father who “agrees with us,” according to Andreae and company, is St. Cyril of Alexandria (+444), who had taught that the divine nature of the Holy Spirit “is of God the Father and certainly also of the Son,” and “that the Spirit comes forth from the Father through the Son.”17
Regarding the phrase “from the Father through the Son,” frequently employed in the Greek Church as an alternative to the Filioque formula, the Tübingen theologians state that “for us it is not customary to speak thus.”18 They also forthrightly reject any interpretation of the phrase which would make it mean “that the Holy Spirit proceeds indirectly.”19 But the phrase can be understood and used correctly. According to the Tübingen faculty, the words “through” (dia) and “from” (ek), as they are used in this context by St. Cyril, “are here to be understood in the same way as in the statement: ‘yet we know that a man is not justified by works of the law but “through” faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not “from” works of the law’ [Gal 2:16].”20
As the Tübingen theologians state their own position regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit, they are very careful to identify themselves with the teaching of the ancient Fathers, especially St. Augustine of Hippo (+430), who understood and appreciated the legitimate doctrinal concerns of the Greek Church more clearly than the Scholastic theologians of a later era.21 On the basis of the many Trinitarian statements in the Gospel of John, and elsewhere in Scripture, Andreae and his co-laborers recognize that there is indeed an eternal order among the Divine Persons. They acknowledge that the Father is “the source of the Godhead, but outside of time so that we will not place the Son after the Father [in time].”22 Elaborating on this point, they explain that
The Father, indeed, is the first hypostasis of the All-Holy Trinity, for He is the origin, source, and cause of the others [Son and Holy Spirit]. And the Son is the second [hypostasis], by reason of origin but not of time, being posterior to the Father and anterior to the Holy Spirit. Also, the Holy Spirit is the third [hypostasis], being posterior to both [Father and Son] by reason of origin.23
This statement clearly echoes the position of Luther, who like Andreae and his colleagues was a student of the patristic tradition in his understanding and explanation of intra-Trinitarian distinctions. For example, Luther had written:
All of this has been said so that we may recognize and believe in three distinct Persons in the one Godhead and not jumble the Persons together nor divide the essence. The distinction of the Father, as we have heard, is this, that He derived His deity from no one, but gave it from eternity, through the eternal birth, to the Son. Therefore the Son is God and Creator, just like the Father, but the Son derived all of this from the Father, and not, in turn, the Father from the Son. The Father does not owe the fact that He is God and Creator to the Son, but the Son owes the fact that He is God and Creator to the Father. And the fact that Father and Son are God and Creator they do not owe to the Holy Spirit; but the Holy Spirit owes the fact that He is God and Creator to the Father and the Son. Thus the words “God Almighty, Creator” are found [in the Creed] as attributes of the Father and not of the Son and of the Holy Spirit to mark the distinction of the Father from the Son and the Holy Spirit in the Godhead, again, the distinction of the Son from the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the distinction of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son; namely, that the Father is the source, or the fountainhead (if we may use that term as the fathers do) of the Godhead, that the Son derives it from Him and that the Holy Spirit derives it from Him and the Son, and not vice versa.24
The Tübingen theologians also explain why the Spirit’s procession from the Son should not be conceived of in exactly the same way as his procession from the Father:
Indeed, it is a matter of perfection that the Father with the Son, but not without Him, is to emit the Holy Spirit. And even though the two, the Father and the Son, emit the one, the Holy Spirit, yet they do not emit Him [the Spirit] as two, separately and distinctly, but they emit Him as one conjoined together; and the primacy of the emission returns to the Father, who indeed has given this perfect power of breathing to the Son through the begetting as Augustine in Book fifteen in The Holy Trinity says: from whom the Son has [power] to be God; certainly, from the same He has the [power] so that the Holy Spirit proceeds from Him [the Son] also.25
St. Augustine’s actual words, in his treatise On the Trinity, are as follows:
And yet it is not to no purpose that in this Trinity the Son and none other is called the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit and none other the Gift of God, and God the Father alone is He from whom the Word is born, and from whom the Holy Spirit principally [principaliter] proceeds. And therefore I have added the word principally, because we find that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son also. But the Father gave Him this too, not as to one already existing, and not yet having it; but whatever He gave to the only-begotten Word, He gave by begetting Him. Therefore He so begat Him as that the common Gift should proceed from Him also, and the Holy Spirit should be the Spirit of both.26
Elsewhere in this treatise, Augustine says that “in their mutual relation to one another in the Trinity itself, …the Father is a beginning [principium] in relation to the Son, because He begets Him.” He says furthermore “that the Father and the Son are a Beginning [Principium] of the Holy Spirit, not two beginnings.”27
At the risk of oversimplifying a very nuanced discussion, we might say that the Latin Fathers taught that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father in the “proper” and “principal” sense, and that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Son in a secondary and derivative sense (because of the Son’s eternal “begotten-ness” of the Father). The Son’s co-emission of the Spirit, in conjunction with the Father’s emission of the Spirit, is, of course, an eternal and timeless co-emission, since “among these three persons none is before or after another, none is greater or less than another, but all three persons are coequal and coeternal.”28
By comparison, the Greek Fathers did not categorize the concept of “procession from” into two senses. Instead, they taught that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father, with a meaning that is comparable to the Latin understanding of “proceeds from” in the “proper” and “principal” sense. In describing the eternal relationship of the Spirit to the Son they used different terminology altogether, stating that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds through the Son, or that he eternally receives from the Son, and similar expressions. The Greek Fathers certainly believed that the Spirit “is from the same essence of the Father and the Son,” but they were hesitant to say that the Spirit proceeds from the Son. In their theological vocabulary that phrase was reserved to describe the eternal relationship of the Spirit to the Father, who, as the eternal “source” of the Godhead, is the ultimate “source” of the Holy Spirit. In their careful use of this distinct and precise terminology, they hoped to preserve the church’s understanding of the distinct “internal” operations of each of the Divine Persons as taught in Holy Scripture. And especially in their teaching on the eternal emission of the Holy Spirit, they wanted it to be clearly understood that “the primacy of the emission returns to the Father.” The version of the Nicene Creed that was adopted at Constantinople confesses, in effect, “that the Holy Spirit properly and principally proceeds from the Father.” The Latin Church, at a later time, added to the Creed a confession of the Spirit’s procession from the Son (in a secondary and derivative sense), while the Greek Church never made such an addition. If it had, it almost definitely would not have followed the distinctive Latin approach, for the reasons given above.
According to Chemnitz and Andreae (who studied this subject more intensely than most Lutheran theologians have done), the intended meaning of the classic Greek terminology was essentially the same as the intended meaning of the classic Latin terminology. It was therefore not necessary for Christians in the Greek tradition to say, in so many words, that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from” the Son, since the terms that they did use to describe this relationship conveyed the same thought. But this ancient patristic consensus on the procession of the Holy Spirit, which the Lutheran Concordists recognized, began to be obscured in the eighth and ninth centuries. The overall relationship between East and West had started to sour, due largely to the Pope’s increasingly vocal claims to universal authority and jurisdiction over the entire church. In this climate of strained relations and mutual suspicions, the differences in theological vocabulary that had always existed between the two traditions, in reference to the intra-Trinitarian relationships, began to be portrayed by the more contentious elements on each side as evidence of real doctrinal differences. The Eastern Church was also offended by what it perceived as the unfraternal presumptuousness of those segments of the Western Church that had altered the official conciliar text of the Nicene Creed without its concurrence. The Greeks were especially displeased by the active efforts of Carolingian theologians and missionaries to promote and disseminate the altered version of the Creed, with the Filioque addition.
The growing tensions over the Filioque issue finally flared up in the year 867 when Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, accused the Western Church of heresy because of its belief that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.29 According to Photius the Latin teaching represented a new form of modalism or “semi-Sabellianism,” which “relativizes the reality of personal, or hypostatic existence, in the Trinity.”30 Communion between the Pope and the Patriarch was actually suspended for a time, although before Photius’ death that communion had been restored. It was, however, an uneasy peace. When fellowship between Rome and Constantinople was finally broken in 1054, disagreement over the Filioque was cited as a major cause of the separation.31
Some moderate and conciliatory voices were occasionally raised in the East, however. Theophylact of Ohrid, an Orthodox bishop and theologian from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, is described in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession as “a sensible writer.”32 His evaluation of the significance of the differences in expression regarding the Spirit’s eternal relationship with the Father and the Son is very similar to that of Chemnitz and Andreae, who may in fact have been influenced by him.33 Theophylact lived and wrote in the period immediately after the Great Schism (1054), when tensions between the Eastern and Western Churches were high. Nevertheless,
in the matter of the filioque Theophylact was surprisingly eirenic, and he sought to transfer the whole controversy from the dogmatic to the linguistic level. The basic problem, in his view, was the poverty of the Latin language, which possessed only the one word procedere where Greek possessed three or four terms: as a result the Latins were unable to distinguish with precision between the different types of relationship within the Trinity. In this way Theophylact refrained from accusing the west of downright error in doctrine.34
Gregory of Cyprus, Patriarch of Constantinople in the thirteenth century, and Gregory of Palamas, an influential Orthodox theologian and bishop who wrote in the fourteenth century, also attempted to build theological bridges to the West on this issue. These men maintained that there is,
within the inner life of the Trinity, an ‘eternal manifestation’ (aïdios ekphansis) of the Spirit by the Son. In this sense of ‘eternal manifestation’, so they argued, the Spirit may correctly be said to proceed ‘through’ (dia) or even ‘from’ (ek) the Son. But the two Gregories were careful to distinguish this ‘manifestation’ from ‘procession’ in the strict sense.35
According to Chemnitz, “This division was healed at the Council of Florence”36 which met from 1438 to 1445. This was a “union council,” with participants from the Latin and Greek Churches. Its aim was to heal the breach between Eastern and Western Christendom by reaching agreement on four divisive issues: papal primacy, the form of bread to be used in the Eucharist (leavened or unleavened), purgatory, and the Filioque.37 From the Latin side, the Pope was prompted toward this effort in part by the fear that the “conciliarists,” who believed in a limited papacy, might attempt to achieve union with the Byzantines on their own terms, without him. From the Greek side, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Byzantine emperor (who both attended) were prompted toward this effort in part by the imminent threat of conquest at the hands of the Turks. They hoped that one result of ecclesiastical reunion with the West would be much-needed military assistance from the West.
Chemnitz notes that the proceedings of the council are extent,
showing what each side said. When the Greeks saw the explanation of the Latins and how they believed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and on the basis of what evidence they established their case, they agreed with the statement. … It is worthy of note that the Greeks said and proved on the basis of authentic manuscripts of the Nicene Canon, not only in the Greek manuscripts but also in the Latin ones which had been preserved at Rome, that the [original] wording was, “The Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father.” They were vehement in their contentions that the Latin manuscripts had been falsified because they had added the words “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” But when the explanation of the Latins was heard, they approved with general consensus that this had been done because when the controversy had arisen, this expression, “proceeds from the Father,” had been taken in a sinister sense as if the Son were not in all respects equal and consubstantial with the Father. Therefore the Latins had not added the words “who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” but had taken them over from the Athanasian Creed because the statement there is more explicit.38
The Latin participants at Florence reassured the Greeks that in their teaching on the Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son they were not implying that there are two processions within the Godhead, or that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as from two principles. Rather, as stated in the conciliar decree Laetentur caeli, “The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son eternally and substantially as it were from one source and cause.”39 On their part, the overwhelming majority of the Greek participants, who signed the decree, accepted the legitimacy of the Filioque addition to the Nicene Creed, “but with the stipulation that they were not to be required to introduce the filioque clause when they used the creed.”40 This was acceptable to the Latins. If the Filioque clause in the Creed would imply in a Greek context that the Father is not the ultimate source of the Godhead (something that was confessed in common by East and West), but that somehow the Father and the Son together are the ultimate source, or that there is no ultimate source, then Christians in a Greek context need not be required to use the Filioque clause in their version of the Creed. Laetentur caeli also declared that the two phrases, “from the Father and the Son” and “from the Father through the Son,” are, when properly understood, identical in meaning.41
The Council of Florence was ultimately unsuccessful in achieving the general union between East and West that its participants had hoped to see. This failure was due largely to the fact that the agreement that was reached on papal authority strongly reflected the Roman viewpoint, and was unacceptable to the majority of Orthodox Christians. Many of the Orthodox were also unwilling to acknowledge the Filioque teaching in any form, and repudiated the concessions that had been made by the Greeks at Florence. Still, at least from a Lutheran perspective, Chemnitz’s endorsement of the council’s settlement of the Filioque controversy is theologically and ecumenically significant.
While the deliberations at Florence did not result in a comprehensive reunion of the Latin and Greek Churches, they very definitely did provide a backdrop for later successful union efforts between Rome and certain sections of the Byzantine Church. In 1595, for example, as a prelude to the 1596 Union of Brest (which brought the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church into fellowship with Rome), the Ruthenian (Ukrainian) bishops drafted, and sent to the Pope, “Articles for Which We Need Guarantees from the Lord Romans before We Enter into Unity with the Roman Church.” The very first of these articles (to which the Pope did acquiesce) addressed the Filioque issue in a very Florentine fashion:
Firstly, since among the Romans and the Greeks there is a dispute as to the procession of the H(oly) Spirit, which is a considerable obstacle to unification and which probably endures for no other reason than that we do not want to understand each other, we, therefore, request that we not be constrained to a different confession [of faith], but that we remain with the one that we find expressed in the S(acred) Scriptures, in the Gospels, and also in the writings of the H(oly) Greek Doctors [i.e. Church Fathers], namely that the H(oly) Spirit does not have two origins, nor a double procession, but that He proceeds from one origin, as from a source – from the Father through the Son.42
The Ukrainians also requested, and were granted, the right to retain their own Eastern-Rite Liturgies, ceremonies, and rites. This would, and still does, include the continuing use of the Greek version of the Nicene Creed.43 Chemnitz certainly would have disapproved of the Union of Brest as a whole, since it involved the Ukrainians’ submission to papal authority and their acceptance of the Tridentine theological system. However, he would probably have been very sympathetic to the Florentine approach of the Union of Brest on the specific question of the procession of the Holy Spirit, and on the question of which version of the Creed would be used by the Ukrainian Catholics.
Returning now to an earlier question, what are we to make of the recent proposal that the Greek version of the Nicene Creed may be used in place of the Latin version, even in Western-Rite Lutheran churches where the Latin version has always been used? On the basis of what we have seen in the writings of Chemnitz and Andreae, and from the perspective of the Confessional Lutheran theology that they represent, it is the judgment of the present writer that the implementation of this proposal would too easily be misunderstood as a repudiation of the Lutheran belief that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father. Historically considered, “perhaps it was not a good idea to add new phrases to the Nicene Creed.”44 But since the Filioque has in fact been added to the Creed, it would not be a good idea now, after all this time, to take it out. Such an obvious change would certainly not go unnoticed, and would invariably be interpreted by many people as an admission that there was something doctrinally wrong with the deleted portion of the Creed. The Filioque teaching in the Latin Christian tradition, and the parallel forms of expression that were used by many of the Greek Fathers, do in fact reflect an important Biblical truth that is intimately connected to the Christocentric soteriology of Holy Scripture. St. Paul writes:
But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. (Romans 8:9, NKJV)
Lutherans should not minimize the importance of this teaching. The creedal change that is proposed by the Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue would very likely give the impression that agreement on this matter has now been reached with the modern-day Eastern Orthodox Church, on Orthodox terms. It would be another example of putting the ecumenical “cart” before the “horse” of doctrinal unity.45
It is true that the Latin version of the Creed was never approved by an ecumenical council.46 Nevertheless, it has been given formal symbolical status within the Lutheran Church through its incorporation in the Book of Concord. And according to the “Confessional Principle” of our church, which must not be sacrificed on the altar of modern ecumenism, this has as much standing among us as a doctrinal decree of an ecumenical council.
However, also on the basis of what we have seen in the writings of Chemnitz and Andreae, and from the perspective of the Confessional Lutheran theology that they represent, it is the judgment of the present writer that a Lutheran church which might emerge from, or take root in, the Byzantine Christian tradition, need not be required to start using the Latin version of the Creed in place of the traditional Greek version, if the members of that church are accustomed to the Greek version. The chief concern would be whether or not such a group has come to agree with the Biblical and Confessional teaching that the Holy Spirit is, from all eternity, the Spirit of the Son as well as the Spirit of the Father, and whether or not it has come to agree with the theological point that the Filioque addition was intended to make, even if it would prefer to use different terms to make that point. The Latin version of the Creed is present in the Book of Concord as a Scripturally-based doctrinal standard for the church, in which certain ancient heresies “are clearly and solidly refuted.”47 Its presence in the Book of Concord is not a liturgical rubric, implying that this version of this Creed must be chanted or recited in Lutheran worship services.48 If Greek-Rite Lutherans are in doctrinal agreement with the Lutheran Confessions, and in doctrinal unity with Confessional Lutheranism, then there should be no objection if they wish to continue to use the more ancient, and to them the more familiar, version of the Creed in their Liturgy. The members of such a church would not be removing the Filioque clause from the Nicene Creed, but in Christian freedom they would simply be declining to insert the Filioque clause.
This is not merely a theoretical discussion. The Ukrainian Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession was organized in 1926 in the “Galicia” region of Ukraine, which was at that time under the government of Poland.49 These Ukrainian Lutherans, with roots in the Greek Catholic Church and in the Eastern Orthodox Church, were Byzantine-Rite Lutherans who used in their worship services a Lutheran revision of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The version of the Nicene Creed that they employed was the Greek version, without the Filioque addition. In their liturgical use of the Greek version of the Creed the Ukrainian Lutherans were not in any way renouncing or rejecting the teaching of the Book of Concord on the procession of the Holy Spirit. But they were, in a sense, “re-connecting” with an ancient and orthodox theological tradition that would be well represented by such notable churchmen as Epiphanius of Salamis and Cyril of Alexandria. Those Greek Fathers did not reject the doctrinal point that the Latin Fathers were making in their Filioque teaching, and they in fact made the same point themselves in their own writings. But in making this point they used terms and concepts that were more natural to their own linguistic and theological context than the Latin term and concept would have been. They and their theological tradition should not be faulted for this.
In conclusion, let us never forget that when we consider and discuss such sublime questions regarding the Holy Trinity, we are, more than at any other time, treading on the holy ground of God’s unfathomable mysteries. We therefore should always do so humbly, circumspectly, and prayerfully.
Almighty God, by Your grace alone we are called into Your kingdom, to confess the true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the true Unity: We beseech You, that You would keep us steadfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities; for You, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, live and reign, one true God, now and forever. Amen.50
April 3, 1999
3. “A Lutheran-Orthodox Common Statement on Faith in the Holy Trinity,” paragraph 11. This would seem to be an expression of what Kallistos Ware calls the “rigorist” position within the Orthodox Church. (“Christian Theology in the East,” in A History of Christian Doctrine, edited by Hubert Cunliffe-Jones [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980], p. 209.) Ware maintains that a more “liberal” position on this issue is “also held by many Orthodox at the present time.” He writes that “According to the ‘liberal’ view, the Greek and the Latin doctrines on the procession of the Holy Spirit may both alike be regarded as theologically defensible. The Greeks affirm that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, the Latins that He proceeds from the Father and from the Son; but when applied to the relationship between Son and Spirit, these two prepositions ‘through’ and ‘from’ amount to the same thing.” (Ware, p. 208)
5. The Book of Concord, translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), pp. 18-19. The Filioque teaching is also expressed in the Athanasian Creed (22, Tappert, p. 20), in the Smalcald Articles (I, Tappert, p. 291), and in the Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration VIII:73, Tappert, p. 605).
7. Lars P. Qualben, A History of the Christian Church (Revised and enlarged) (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1936), p. 149. See also Henry R. Percival, “Historical Excursus on the Introduction Into the Creed of the Words ‘And the Son,’” in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace), Vol. XIV (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), pp. 165-69.
17. Mastrantonis, p. 120. The Cyril quotations are from The Adoration and Worship of God in Spirit and in Truth, Homily 1. In Thesis 34 of his Treasury of the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity, St. Cyril had also gone so far as to say that, “Since the Holy Spirit when He is in us effects our being conformed to God, and He actually proceeds from the Father and Son, it is abundantly clear that He is of the Divine Essence, in it in essence and proceeding from it.”
21. Ware, pp. 210-11. We do not agree with Ware’s generally negative evaluation of the settlement of the Filioque controversy that was reached at the Council of Florence, or with his conclusion that it represented a significant departure from the basic ideas of Augustine’s Trinitarian theology.
26. Augustine, On the Trinity, Book XV, 17:29, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (edited by Philip Schaff), Vol. III (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), p. 216. St. Athanasius (+373) had expressed himself in a similar way in his Epistle to Serapion: “Insofar as we understand the special relationship of the Son to the Father, we also understand that the Spirit has this same relationship to the Son. And since the Son says, ‘everything that the Father has is mine’ [John 16:15], we will discover all these things also in the Spirit, through the Son. And just as the Son was announced by the Father, who said, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’ [Matt. 3:17], so also is the Spirit of the Son; for, as the Apostle says, ‘He has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father” [Gal. 4:6].’”
29. Ware, pp. 203-04. For a detailed discussion of the “Photian Schism,” and of the factors that led up to it, see Aidan Nichols, Rome and the Eastern Churches (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992), pp. 105-218.
31. See Walter F. Adeney, The Greek and Eastern Churches (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), pp. 237-41; see also Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), Vol. IV, pp. 476-89. For an excellent discussion of the theological, linguistic, and ecclesiastical issues that have played a role in the Filioque controversy, see Nichols, pp. 218-28.
32. Apology X:2, Tappert, p. 179. Luther pays the Bulgarian churchman this compliment: “Among the teachers Theophylact is the best interpreter of Paul.” (What Luther Says [compiled by Ewald M. Plass] [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959], p. 313)
42. Quoted in Borys A. Gudziak, Crisis and Reform: The Kyivan Metropolitanate, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Genesis of the Union of Brest (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 264. Isidore, Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Rus’, was one of the key participants in the Council of Florence. He actively supported, and unsuccessfully tried to implement, the would-be “Union of Florence.” His efforts received a favorable reception among his Ruthenian constituents, laying the groundwork for the acceptance of the Union of Brest some 150 years later, but the Muscovites were completely unsympathetic and hostile in their response. (Gudziak, pp. 43-58)
43. In the most recent published edition of the Divine Liturgy, as authorized for use in the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, the text of the Nicene Creed includes the Filioque clause only in parentheses. Its liturgical use is therefore seen as permissible, but not obligatory.
45. The last two sentences of the ELCA-Orthodox statement are quite telling: “We look forward to a time when our churches will affirm the Nicene faith through common liturgical usage of the unaltered creed of A.D. 381. We trust that such common affirmation of faith will lead to the resolution of those theological differences which are still before us.” (“A Lutheran-Orthodox Common Statement on Faith in the Holy Trinity,” paragraph 13.)
46. According to its own criteria, the Roman Catholic Church does, of course, consider the Council of Florence, which endorsed the Filioque addition to the Nicene Creed, to be an “ecumenical” council.
48. The rubrics in some Lutheran liturgical orders call for the Apostles’ Creed to be used in public worship on all occasions. Lutherans have also frequently used hymn paraphrases of the Creed in place of the Creed itself. Luther’s well-known paraphrase, Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott, says nothing about the Holy Spirit’s procession. And while the official Confessional version of the Nicene Creed is in the singular number (“I believe”), some Lutheran bodies now use in their worship services a version of the Creed that is rendered in the plural number (“We believe”). (See Peter Toon, Yesterday, Today, and Forever [Swedesboro, New Jersey: Preservation Press, 1996], pp. 197-201, where the author explains why such a creedal change is, in his judgment, very ill-advised. See also An Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism [Mankato, Minnesota: Lutheran Synod Book Co., 1981], p. 96.) Hugh Wybrew notes that “Creeds certainly played no part in the early liturgy of the Eucharist. Exactly when, where and why the creed was introduced into the service is unclear. Peter the Fuller, the monophysite Patriarch of Antioch towards the end of the fifth century, is said to have started the practice there in 473.” (The Orthodox Liturgy [Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990], pp. 84-85)
49. This church body ceased to exist on the territory of Ukraine, at the institutional level, when Galicia was occupied and then annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. It was reorganized in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the Ukrainian Lutheran Church.
This essay was published in Logia, Vol. VIII, No. 4 (Reformation 1999), pp. 45-52. The printed version of the essay differs slightly from the online version that appears here.
Some Thoughts on the Divine Call to the Ecclesiastical Ministry of Word and Sacrament
DAVID JAY WEBBER
Prepared for the General Pastoral Conference of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church, 30 August 1999
As indicated by the title of this paper, I am here offering “some thoughts” about the Lutheran doctrine of the Ministry, and about the Lutheran doctrine of the Call to the Ministry. This paper is not, and is not intended to be, a comprehensive presentation on these subjects. All of the pastors of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church now have access to Christian Dogmatics by John Theodore Mueller. This book includes a section entitled “The Doctrine of the Public Ministry,” in which Mueller provides us with an exegetical and dogmatic summary of the basic teachings of Confessional Lutheranism on these subjects. All of you also have access to Pastoral Theology by Norbert H. Mueller and George Kraus, which discusses the same subjects from a practical viewpoint. Since I am in essential agreement with what both of these books say on these matters, I will not take the limited time we have at this conference to restate what has already been written. In this paper I will, however, expand on some of the points that these authors make. It will probably become evident through what I say that on certain points I would also prefer to express things somewhat differently than they do. It nevertheless needs to be understood that the present paper does not stand on its own. It builds on the foundation that is laid by the Muellers and by Kraus, and it presupposes a familiarity with the classic Lutheran understanding of the Ministry and of the Call to the Ministry which is reflected in their writings.
Also, the thoughts that are offered in this paper are intentionally unoriginal. In regard to the matters that we are discussing today I am not as much of a teacher as I am a student of the theologians who have gone before us. I have therefore included many quotations from the Book of Concord and from the writings of recognized Lutheran scholars. I have, however, selected those quotations that I think best address some of the important issues that the Ukrainian Lutheran Church is facing at the present time, in the early years of its reorganization. In my judgment the Lutheran theologians who are herein quoted expounded on the applicable Biblical teachings in such a way that their insights will be helpful to us.
The title of this paper also serves as the basic organizing principle for the paper, which will be divided into three sections: I. The Divine Call; II. The Ecclesiastical Ministry; and III. Word and Sacrament. Let us therefore begin with a consideration of the concept of
THE DIVINE CALL.
During the Middle Ages in western Europe a certain elitist attitude developed within the institutional church. Christians were divided up between those who lived in the world – the common laity – and those who were a part of the “spiritual estate” – priests, monks, and nuns. The members of the spiritual estate were believed to have received a special call or “vocation” from God to enter into a spiritually superior form of life. They lived not only according to the ordinary requirements of God’s law, to which all Christians are bound, but also according to the “evangelical counsels.” These evangelical counsels, especially “poverty, chastity, and obedience,” had been derived from the Gospels with the use of a faulty hermeneutical method that did not operate according to the proper distinction of law and Gospel.
Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformers totally rejected these unbiblical notions, and emphasized in opposition to this teaching the truly evangelical teaching that all proper occupations and stations of life are connected to, and based on, a divine call. This Biblical doctrine of vocation is reflected in the preaching of John the Baptist, as recorded in Luke 3:12-14. John the Baptist, more so than any other New Testament figure, lived the equivalent of a monastic, or anchoritic life. In his preaching, however, he did not invite others to join him in this life. Instead he encouraged his listeners – tax collectors and soldiers, no less – to remain in the callings that they already had, and to carry out the duties of those callings with honesty, fairness, and integrity. The conventional wisdom of the time would not have seen very much “spiritual” content in these vocations, but according to John the Baptist a tax collector or soldier who repents and believes does not have to forsake his office. Rather, he is to conduct himself within his office in the fear of God and as a servant of God and man.
The Lutheran doctrine of vocation provides a basis for understanding certain aspects of the doctrine of the Ministry. Ministers have a divine call to their office. This must be emphasized again and again in response to those who think that a pastor is “hired” by the members of a congregation, and can therefore be “fired” by them at will if he does not please them. Pastors are called by God. To oppose a pastor who is faithfully carrying out his duties is therefore to oppose God himself. But we say this with a realization that the concept of divine vocation extends to other occupations and stations of life as well.
Luther and the Lutheran Confessions usually categorize the activities and tasks and offices that exist among men into two “kingdoms” or “realms,” the spiritual and the civil. The civil realm, in turn, is frequently divided into the “domestic” estate and the “political” estate. Luther observes, however, that “Out of the authority of parents all other authority is derived and developed” (LC I:141), at least in regard to the civil realm. This means that even the authority of the civil government is, ultimately, “to be classed with the estate of fatherhood, the most comprehensive of all relations,” from which it is derived. Luther elaborates:
In this case a man is father not of a single family, but of as many people as he has inhabitants, citizens, or subjects. Through civil rulers, as through our own parents, God gives us food, house and home, protection and security. Therefore, since they bear this name and title with all honor as their chief glory, it is our duty to honor and magnify them as the most precious treasure and jewel on earth. (LC I:150)
The point of all this is that all godly occupations and stations of life, whether in the spiritual or civil realms, are governed by God. In one way or another he calls us into these occupations and stations, and he takes an active interest in the fulfillment of the duties of these various offices. Lutherans accordingly recognize that
The Gospel does not overthrow civil authority, the state, and marriage but requires that all these be kept as true orders of God and that everyone, each according to his own calling, manifest Christian love and genuine good works in his station of life. (AC XVI:5 [G])
The sixteenth-century Lutherans were sometimes accused of having abolished proper ecclesiastical and secular order. For example, Luther recounts that “There was a doctor here in Wittenberg, sent from France, who reported in our presence that his king had been persuaded beyond a doubt that among us there is no church, no government, and no state of matrimony, but that all live promiscuously like cattle and everybody does what he pleases.” (SA Pref.:8) But the truth of the matter was that, by God’s grace, the Lutheran churches had been “enlightened and supplied with the pure Word and the right use of the sacraments, with an understanding of the various callings of life, and with true works.” (SA Pref.: 10) As a result of the Reformation, the Lutheran faithful were now aware of “the works which everybody is obliged to do according to his calling – for example, that a husband should labor to support his wife and children and bring them up in the fear of God, that a wife should bear children and care for them, that a prince and magistrates should govern land and people, etc.” (AC XXVI:10 [G])
The concept of vocation does not apply only to those “comprehensive” occupations that are explicitly mentioned in Scripture. The concept is properly linked also to the carrying out of the individual tasks, or specific “offices,” of the various stations of life. Luther, for example, when speaking of the office of hangman, says that “God of his own accord instituted that office.” (LC I:274) He refers in this context to comments he had previously made in a discussion of the Fifth Commandment, but here he had simply observed that “God has delegated his authority of punishing evil-doers to civil magistrates in place of parents,” and that the commandment’s prohibition of killing therefore “applies to private individuals, not to governments.” (LC I:181) And so, for Luther, God’s institution of civil government, with its coercive powers (cf. Rom. 13:1-5), is best understood as an institution of all the individual duties and functions of civil government, which can legitimately be apportioned out to different people in different ways, at different times and in different places. It is not only the king or the president who holds a divinely-instituted office, with a divine call to that office, but everyone who carries out a legitimate governmental function can make the same claim, and be held accountable to the same high standards. This can and must be said also of “all other states of life instituted by God – whether the office of pastor and preacher, of ruler, prince, lord, or the like, all of whom serve in their appointed calling according to God’s Word and command without invented spirituality.” (AC XXVII:13 [G])
The specific duties to which God has called a Christian pastor are unique and special, but their uniqueness and specialness do not lie in the fact that the pastor’s office and call have their origin in God. The pastor’s call and office do in fact have such a divine origin, but the divine call to the office of the Ministry is no more divine than the divine call or calls that anyone else may have, according to his or her station of life. Understanding this may help pastors and laymen alike in their appreciation of the proper and God-pleasing roles that all Christians have both in church and in society. When with God’s help the members of a congregation grow in their recognition of the divine vocation or vocations that God has given to each of them, and when they accordingly think of and treat each other with the respect that this recognition engenders, we can expect to see fewer and fewer occurrences of the sins of pride, jealousy, and love of power. Christians are not, like the Gentiles, to “exercise lordship” over each other (cf. Luke 22:24-26). Instead, we must see that God has called each of us – pastors and laymen, men and women – to fulfill our own vocations in accordance with the law of love and in a way that harmonizes with the vocations that he has given to others.
Having said that, however, we should remind ourselves that the office of the Ministry is indeed a very special and profoundly important office. It is not the only office that God has instituted, but he very definitely did institute it. Jesus personally instituted the Christian Ministry when he appointed the apostles as the first ministers of the Church and sent them forth into the world with the “Great Commission.” Charles Porterfield Krauth notes that “In their extraordinary powers and functions the Apostles had no successors,” but that “In their ordinary ones all true ministers of Christ are their successors.” (Krauth TS, p. 1) Krauth elaborates on this point as he describes the establishment of the earliest Christian congregations, and the office of the Ministry (in its various New Testament forms) within those congregations, under the supervision of the apostles:
The Apostles were missionaries, not merely under the necessity of the case, but, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit gave security to the work and wrought and made a basis for its extension by organizing congregations in which the life of the disciple found its home and sphere of labor. With the establishment of these congregations, and as an essential part of their organization[,] was connected the institution of the congregational pastorate, the vocation which was to superintend and spiritually rule the congregations, to conduct the public services, to administer the sacraments, to labor in the word and in doctrine and to watch for souls to the conversion of sinners and the building up of saints. The pastorate was the determination to a distinct office of so much of the Apostolate as pertained to the single congregation. The institution of the Apostolate was the general institution of the entire ministry, whose specific forms, especially the Presbyterate-episcopate, and the diaconate, were but concrete classifications of particular functions involved in the total idea of the ministry. The specific ministries are but distributions of the Apostolate in its ordinary and permanent functions. (Krauth CP, p. 317)
The office of the Ministry, according to Christ’s institution, is inextricably bound up with the Means of Grace that it administers. The office of the Ministry cannot be understood without a proper understanding of the Means of Grace and of their divine purpose. As we confess in the Formula of Concord,
in his boundless kindness and mercy, God provides for the public proclamation of his divine, eternal law and the wonderful counsel concerning our redemption, namely, the holy and only saving Gospel of his eternal Son, our only Saviour and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Thereby he gathers an eternal church for himself out of the human race and works in the hearts of men true repentance and knowledge of their sins and true faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. And it is God’s will to call men to eternal salvation, to draw them to himself, convert them, beget them anew, and sanctify them through this means and in no other way – namely, through his holy Word (when one hears it preached or reads it) and the sacraments (when they are used according to his Word). (FC SD II:50)
While the Means of Grace can be conceived of in the abstract, they do not actually exist in the abstract. God did not institute the Gospel as an abstract idea, but he instituted the proclamation of the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is always the proclaimed Gospel. This is true also of the Scriptures, which are the apostles’ and prophets’ preaching in written form. Other theological or devotional books are likewise the written “sermons” of their authors. When Christians meditate on the Gospel, this is simply the devout remembrance of “preachments” that had previously been heard or read. The Sacraments are constituted by, and must always include, an audible Word of God. In accordance with the very nature of this proclaimed Gospel, therefore, it is necessary for flesh-and-blood “priests” or pastors to be called
to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments to the people. … If ordination is interpreted in relation to the ministry of the Word, we have no objection to calling ordination a sacrament. The ministry of the Word has God’s command and glorious promises: “The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith” (Rom. 1:16), again, “My word that goes forth from my mouth shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). If ordination is interpreted this way, we shall not object either to calling the laying on of hands a sacrament. The church has the command to appoint ministers; to this we must subscribe wholeheartedly, for we know that God approves this ministry and is present in it. It is good to extol the ministry of the Word with every possible kind of praise in opposition to the fanatics who dream that the Holy Spirit does not come through the Word but because of their own preparations. (Apology XIII:9,11-13)
Ministers of the Gospel (pastors, bishops, etc.) are called by God publicly to exercise the “office of the keys,” through which the entrance to heaven is closed against the impenitent and unbelievers, and through which the entrance to heaven is opened wide to those who repent and trust in Christ’s promises. The importance of this authoritative proclamation of law and Gospel must not be underestimated. The Lutheran Church confesses that according to the New Testament,
the power of keys or the power of bishops is a power and command of God to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer and distribute the sacraments. For Christ sent out the apostles with this command, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21-23). This power of keys or of bishops is used and exercised only by teaching and preaching the Word of God and by administering the sacraments (to many persons or to individuals, depending on one’s calling). In this way are imparted not bodily but eternal things and gifts, namely, eternal righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life. These gifts cannot be obtained except through the office of preaching and of administering the holy sacraments, for St. Paul says [Rom. 1:16], “The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” (AC XXVIII:5-9 [G])
Of course, the binding and loosing authority of the keys is attached to the keys themselves – that is, to the message of law and Gospel that the minister proclaims – and not to the person or office of the minister as such. But by virtue of their holy office the pastors of the Church are still deserving of a higher measure of respect than they often receive. The ministers of the Gospel who have been placed over us in the Lord are to be honored as our “spiritual fathers,”
For the name spiritual father belongs…to those who govern and guide us by the Word of God. St. Paul boasts that he is a father in I Cor. 4:15, where he says, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” Since such persons are fathers, they are entitled to honor, even above all others. But they very seldom receive it, for the world’s way of honoring them is to harry them out of the country and grudge them as much as a piece of bread. In short, as St. Paul says, they must be “the refuse of the world, and every man’s offscouring.” [1 Cor. 4:13] Yet there is need to impress upon the common people that they who would bear the name of Christians owe it to God to show “double honor” to those who watch over their souls and to treat them well and make provision for them. [1 Tim. 5:17] (LC I:158-61)
The pastor, as he carries out his God-given duties among God’s people, is clothed with God’s own authority. The pastor’s work is God’s work, not man’s work. His message is God’s message, not his own. And the respect that Christians pay to him they pay to God, who has called him to this office and who works effectually through it for the salvation and preservation of souls.
But how exactly does God call people into this office? What mechanism or mechanisms does he use to confer the office of the Ministry on those whom he has chosen for this work? He does this through the Church, and this is one of the reasons why we describe the Ministry of the Gospel as
THE ECCLESIASTICAL MINISTRY.
We have already discussed the “office of the keys.” The spiritual authority of a pastor is based on the fact that he is, according to his divine call, publicly exercising the power of the keys as he proclaims God’s Word and administers the Holy Sacraments. However – and this is a very important point – Christ did not entrust the keys originally and immediately to the Ministry as such. Rather, he entrusted the keys, and their authority, principally and primarily to the Church. In his explanation of the relevant passages from the Gospels, Philip Melanchthon observes that in Matthew 16
Christ did not question Peter alone but asked, “Who do you [plural] say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). And what is here spoken in the singular number (“I will give you [singular] the keys” and “whatever you [singular] bind” [Matt.16:19]) is elsewhere given in the plural (“Whatever you [plural] bind” [Matt. 18:18]), etc. In John, too, it is written, “If you [plural] forgive the sins,” etc. (John 20:23). These words show that the keys were given equally to all the apostles and that all the apostles were sent out as equals. In addition, it is necessary to acknowledge that the keys do not belong to the person of one particular individual but to the whole church, as is shown by many clear and powerful arguments, for after speaking of the keys in Matt. 18:19, Christ said, “If two or three of you agree on earth,” etc. Therefore, he bestows the keys especially and immediately on the church, and for the same reason the church especially possesses the right of vocation. (Tr 23-24)
The following excerpt from the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope is one of the most important Confessional summaries of the interrelationships between the doctrine of the Ministry, the doctrine of the Call, and the doctrine of the Church. Melanchthon writes that
wherever the church exists, the right to administer the Gospel also exists. Wherefore it is necessary for the church to retain the right of calling, electing, and ordaining ministers. This right is a gift given exclusively to the church, and no human authority can take it away from the church. It is as Paul testifies to the Ephesians when he says, “When he ascended on high he gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8,11,12). He enumerates pastors and teachers among the gifts belonging exclusively to the church, and he adds that they are given for the work of ministry and for building up the body of Christ. Where the true church is, therefore, the right of electing and ordaining ministers must of necessity also be. So in an emergency even a layman absolves and becomes the minister and pastor of another. It is like the example which Augustine relates of two Christians in a ship, one of whom baptized the other (a catechumen), and the latter, after his Baptism, absolved the former. Here the words of Christ apply which testify that the keys were given to the church and not merely to certain individuals: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). Finally, this is confirmed by the declaration of Peter, “You are a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9). These words apply to the true church which, since it alone possesses the priesthood, certainly has the right of electing and ordaining ministers. The most common custom of the church also bears witness to this, for there was a time when the people elected pastors and bishops. Afterwards a bishop, either of that church or of a neighboring church, was brought in to confirm the election with the laying on of hands; nor was ordination anything more than such confirmation. (Tr 67-70)
Jesus Christ has given the keys of his kingdom to the Church. He has thereby designated his Church, which is his body and his royal priesthood, as the instrument through which he will bring the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins to the world. Paradoxically, the Church is both the assembly of the faithful which receives the Gospel from Jesus Christ, and the divinely-appointed custodian of the keys which dispenses the Gospel as the agent of Jesus Christ. The Church is, as it were, the corporate “voice” of Christ through which Christ, by his Spirit, impels the proclamation of his Word and the administration of his Sacraments. By virtue of the authority of Christ which has been entrusted to the Church, the Church always and under all circumstances retains the right to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments. It therefore always and under all circumstances retains the right to issue calls to the public ministry of the Gospel. In ordinary circumstances the Church exercises this right through an established, orderly calling process which reflects its submission to the applicable directives of Holy Scripture, and which reflects the fraternal accountability that Christian church bodies, congregations, and individuals owe to one another. However, in extraordinary circumstances the Church may exercise this right in extraordinary ways through extraordinary means. Two or three confessing Christians gathered in the name of Christ are the Church, and as such they have the authority to call one of their number to some form of the public ministry of the Gospel if there is an emergency situation that truly requires it. A call that in regular circumstances would be “irregular” is therefore “regular” when it is issued according to the legitimate needs of irregular circumstances.
From this perspective, those who publicly preach the Gospel are doing so on behalf of the Church, as its representatives. The work of the pastor is from this viewpoint an intensification, and a vocational channeling, of the work that God has actually given to the Church, as a whole and in all its parts. The work of the Ministry is in a very real sense the work of the Church, to which the keys have been entrusted. Indeed, “The keys are a function and power given to the church by Christ to bind and loose sins, not only the gross and manifest sins but also those which are subtle and secret and which God alone perceives.” (SA III, VII:1)
We maintain, therefore, that the Church truly is “the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God.” (LC II:42) We also maintain that
Until the last day the Holy Spirit remains with the holy community or Christian people. Through it he gathers us, using it to teach and preach the Word. By it he creates and increases sanctification, causing it daily to grow and become strong in the faith and in the fruits of the Spirit. Further we believe that in this Christian church we have the forgiveness of sins, which is granted through the holy sacraments and absolution as well as through all the comforting words of the entire Gospel. (LC II:53-54)
We believe furthermore that “In I Cor. 3:4-8 Paul places ministers on an equality and teaches that the church is above the ministers.” (Tr 11)
Is there a contradiction here? Do pastors serve under God’s call, or under the congregation’s call? Do they represent Christ, or do they represent the church? Actually there is no contradiction. The pastor serves under God’s call, but he also serves under the congregation’s call insofar as the congregation is the corporate “voice” of God. He represents Christ, but he also represents the church insofar as the church itself represents Christ. The key to understanding all of this is to note carefully what the calling Church of Jesus Christ really is. We are not discussing the Church as a social or political entity, but the Church as a Christic entity. We are not discussing the Church according to its outward forms and administrative structures, but according to its inner spiritual character as the body of Christ. The church that is able to issue divine calls to the office of the Ministry is the Church to which the keys of Christ’s kingdom have been entrusted – that is, the Church in which Christ himself graciously resides and savingly acts. Ministers of the Gospel publicly exercise the power of the keys which Christ gave to the Church, and therefore they act on behalf of the Church. But in giving the keys to the Church, Christ did not separate himself from these keys. They are still his keys, just as he is and always will be the head of his body. Christ himself lives and acts in and through his Church, because he lives and acts in and through the keys. Christ’s giving of the keys to his Church was in reality his giving of himself as the divine forgiver of sins. And when the Church, through its call, conveys the public use of these keys to its ministers, Christ is thereby conveying himself and his forgiving activity to these ministers. Pastors always remain under God’s authority and call, and are accountable to him as his servants. They are also under the Church, because God has, in effect, “lodged” himself, and his supervisory authority, in the Church. We therefore believe and confess that those who hold office in the Church
do not represent their own persons but the person of Christ, because of the church’s call, as Christ testifies (Luke 10:16), “He who hears you hears me.” When they offer the Word of Christ or the sacraments, they do so in Christ’s place and stead. (Ap VII/VIII:28)
Because God has not relinquished his authority in the calling process, the calling process is to be carried out by the Church in strict conformity to his revealed will – that is, in accordance with the applicable directives of Holy Scripture. And so, for example, a congregational call to a woman to be its regular pastor is null and void, since we know from Scripture that women do not receive calls from God which would place them into a Church office that involves the exercise of authority over men (cf. 1 Tim. 2:11-12). The doctrine of the “divinity” of the Church’s call expresses the condescending love of God, who has graciously deigned to use the humble “little flock” of believers on earth as the chosen instrument of his own calling activity. But the doctrine of the “divinity” of the call also serves as a firm warning to this little flock, that it must not presume to speak where God does not speak or to issue calls that are contrary to his Word. We shall not tempt the Lord our God!
As Lutherans we believe and teach “that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call.” (AC XIV [G]) A regular call is a call that comes from the Church, through the established ecclesiastical order, according to Christ’s institution. The presence of the Church, with its God-given vocational authority, can be outwardly discerned on the basis of the presence of the Means of Grace. The Means of Grace, by virtue of their intrinsic salvific power, create and preserve the Church. They therefore serve as the outward marks of the Church, since wherever God is creating and preserving faith, there the Church must be. In its essence, the Church is “holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” (SA III, XII:2) And as stated in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession,
The church is not merely an association of outward ties and rites like other civic governments, …but it is mainly an association of faith and of the Holy Spirit in men’s hearts. To make it recognizable, this association has outward marks, the pure teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments in harmony with the Gospel of Christ. This church alone is called the body of Christ, which Christ renews, consecrates, and governs by his Spirit, as Paul testifies when he says (Eph. 1:22, 23), “And he has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness,” that is, the whole congregation “of him who fills all in all.” Thus those in whom Christ is not active are not members of Christ. (Ap VII/VIII:5)
There might seem to be a certain amount of circular reasoning here. Without its outward marks, the presence of the Church as a calling entity cannot be discerned, and therefore a call to the public Ministry cannot be issued. But according to God’s institution, the presence of the marks of the Church, which are also the Means of Grace, presupposes an active Ministry that has already been called into existence. The apparent riddle is solved when we realize that Jesus himself got the whole process started when he appointed the apostles, who in turn organized the first congregations. According to this ongoing, expansive process, congregations that already exist, and that therefore already bear the marks of the Church, call missionary preachers to bring the Gospel to new locations and thereby to bring into existence new congregations. Therefore, while it is true that the public Ministry is in a certain sense derived from the Church, it is also true that the Church, in its continual expansion from community to community and from nation to nation, is derived from the public Ministry.
In describing the practice of sixteenth-century Lutheranism, Robert D. Preus notes that, according to the Lutheran Confessions,
The congregations’ right to call and ordain pastors is not a mere option that the church may or may not exercise. The office of pastor is not a matter of Christian liberty. The church must ordain pastors, public ministers of the Word (Tr, 72). It is a “command” of God (Ap, XIII, 12). Just how the churches call, elect, and ordain is not set forth in our Confessions. The how of it all is a matter of Christian liberty. In some cases a pastor would apply for a call, in other cases a bishop (who occupied a higher rank in the church only by human right) or a prince would arrange for the call and ordination of a pastor. Usually the congregation itself would attend to such matters. But it was always done. (Preus, p. 60)
In 1577 Jacob Andreae and his colleagues on the faculty of Tübingen University described the practice of the Lutheran Church in Württemberg at that time:
…those among us who shall minister in the church are, from an early age first, not only reared toward piety, but are also educated in the important languages (namely Latin, Greek and Hebrew). They also study the liberal arts and sciences. But above all, they are taught holy theology, and it is presented to them accurately, according to the Holy Scriptures by the teachers of theology. And when the time comes, following their schooling, to enter into the ministry of the church, they are called by the theologians and counselors, who have been appointed for this purpose by our most illustrious and most pious prince. They bring from their teachers written testimonies of their conduct of life. Then they are carefully examined whether they understand the pure content of the Christian faith and whether they possess the necessary gifts to teach the multitudes. When they are judged worthy, if they will be engaged [as ministers], they pledge under oath to teach the church piously and correctly, and to lead a blameless life so that to no one is given occasion for scandal [cf. Rom 14:13]. Following this they are sent to the church which they are to be assigned, where in one or two sermons they give a sample of those gifts which they have received from God. When they are approved by the church, then in a full assembly of the people (after a sermon has been preached and a number of prayers said relating to this matter), they are ordained by the superintendent of the locality in the presence of one or more ministers. And from then on, he takes care of the church which has been entrusted to him. (Mastrantonis, pp. 130-31)
In discussing the general situation in which the Lutheran Church found itself in the sixteenth century, Krauth observes that
Many embarrassing circumstances prevented the Lutheran Church from developing her life as perfectly in her church constitution as in her doctrines and worship. The idea of the universal priesthood of all believers at once overthrew the doctrine of a distinction of essence between clergy and laity. The ministry is not an order, but it is a divinely appointed office, to which men must be rightly called. No imparity exists by divine right; an hierarchical organization is unchristian, but a gradation (bishops, superintendents, provosts) may be observed, as a thing of human right only. The government by consistories has been very general. In Denmark, Evangelical bishops took the place of the Roman Catholic prelates who were deposed. In Sweden the bishops embraced the Reformation, and thus secured in that country an “apostolic succession” in the high-church sense; though, on the principles of the Lutheran Church, alike where she has as where she has not such a succession, it is not regarded as essential even to the order of the Church. The ultimate source of power is in the congregations, that is, in the pastor and other officers and the people of the single communions. The right to choose a pastor belongs to the people, who may exercise it by direct vote, or delegate it to their representatives. (Krauth CR, pp. 152-53)
Because of government interference in the affairs of the Lutheran Church, both on the part of “friendly” Lutheran governments which wanted to control the church, and on the part of hostile Roman Catholic and Reformed governments which wanted to suppress the church, the theological principles summarized by Krauth were not always fully fleshed out in the ecclesiastical structures of European Lutheranism. However, when the Lutheran Church was transplanted to America, where its institutional life could assume a natural shape that was more in harmony with the theological impulses of its internal life, Lutheranism did begin to take on a slightly different outward appearance.
The presence of the Church is discerned on the basis of the presence of the marks of the Church, and the local congregation is quite obviously the Christian gathering in which the marks of the Church can most readily be discerned. The Means of Grace are in regular and full use in the local congregation, more so than in any other periodic or temporary Christian gathering. For this reason Confessional Lutheran ecclesiology recognizes the “foundational” character of local congregations, and acknowledges that the eternal Church of Jesus Christ is most firmly “anchored” to the earth through them. This also entails a recognition of the priority of the local congregation in the determination of how a regular ecclesiastical call to the Ministry should ordinarily be issued. But while the marks of the Church are most vividly evident in the local congregation, they are also evident, to one extent or another and to one degree or another, in periodic and temporary Christian gatherings. For this reason Lutherans also acknowledge the churchly character of synodical assemblies, and believe, with proper qualifications, that “decisions of synods are decisions of the church.” (Tr 56)
Synods should certainly acknowledge the priority of local congregations in the process of issuing orderly calls, but congregations should also recognize the legitimate yet limited role of synods, when they do exist, in this process. Francis Pieper writes that
the Church is free to take care of some things through representatives chosen by it for this purpose. The elders or the church council can represent a congregation, and conferences, synods, councils, etc., can represent other Christians and small or large groups of congregations. But if we ask what authority or power these representatives, these ecclesiae representativae, have, the answer is: With respect to the congregation and the individual Christians they always have only advisory power. (Pieper III, p. 428)
Synods, at the organizational and structural level, are established by congregations for the joint deliberation of matters of mutual interest, for the carrying out of joint church work, and for the preservation of good order among themselves. The normal direction of authority and control is therefore from the congregations to the synod, and not from the synod to the congregations. In the calling process the congregation does have priority, but congregations collectively may also issue calls through and to the synodical structures that they themselves have established. And so, a divine call from the Church to the office of the Ministry “may be the call of the congregation to the pastorate, or the call of the representative Church to the mission field or to professorships in a theological seminary, or executive offices in the Church, or to any other work in which the Church may be engaged, or which it may find it necessary to perform.” (Little, p. 58)
In the Church’s calling process, the specific avenues of cooperation that are set up among congregations, and the specific roles that are assigned to congregations and synods, are not mandated by God in Scripture. These functions are matters of external church government, and as Hermann Sasse reminds us,
For the Lutheran Church, matters of church government belong to the adiaphora, to the “rites and ceremonies, instituted by men” (Augsburg Confession VII), concerning which there may and must be freedom in the church. Christ is not the legislator of a human religious fellowship, and the Gospel has in it no law which prescribes the only right way of organization and polity for the church. One must be clear as to what this means. Other churches have “an order by which the Lord wills the church to be governed,” as Calvin put it. This is true of all Catholic churches, both of the East and of the West, and of all Reformed churches. Their differences have to do only with what that order must be – the universal monarchy of the pope, the episcopal-synodical government of the church as in the Eastern churches and Anglicanism, a ruling senate of presbyters among whom there must be no differences of rank, or the autonomy of the individual congregation as in Congregationalism and among the Baptists. These are just a few notable options, all of which claim to represent what the New Testament requires for the polity of the church. Luther’s entire greatness and the boldness of his basic theological principle of the strict separation of Law and Gospel become evident when one sees how[,] beyond all these possibilities[,] he goes his lonesome way: Christ gave his church no such law prescribing one right organization, government, and polity (de constituenda ecclesia). Any way of organizing things may do, so long as the means of grace are going on and are not frustrated. (Sasse, pp. 70-71)
Paul Althaus adds that
The outward church organization exists for the purpose of making possible and guaranteeing the right proclamation and hearing of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments. What form that organization will take may be determined by the use of intelligence and common sense in the light of a given historical situation. No form of church organization exists by divine right. (quoted in Sauer, p. 338)
In the context of the “American experience,” many Lutherans did reconsider certain practices that had been connected to the ecclesiastical calling process in earlier times. Armin W. Schuetze and Irwin J. Habeck express their disagreement with some of these practices, especially in the disfigured and distorted form in which they sometimes appear today:
Since in a call it is the Lord who through his church seeks out a man for a particular office, the office should seek the man and not the man the office. A pastor will not take steps to secure a call to a particular position in the church. It must be considered an objectionable practice for a pastor to let a congregation know that he is available, to offer himself as a candidate to a congregation, or to use acquaintances, friends, or relatives in a congregation to suggest his name and influence the voting in his favor. … Any form of actively seeking the office or the preaching of trial sermons is contrary to the nature of a call and degrading to the sacred office by making it a matter of competition. This readily degenerates into an effort on the part of the pastor to “sell himself” to the congregation. (Schuetze & Habeck, p. 30)
Schuetze and Habeck describe the process that is used within their church body when a vacant congregation issues a call:
A congregation will experience the advantages of its membership in the Synod when it needs to choose a new pastor. The elected officials of the Synod can keep themselves informed of the doctrinal and practical qualifications of men far better than any one congregation. Hence the Synod constitution provides that the district presidents are to assist congregations in calling. They are to suggest candidates to the congregation as well as to approve such as the congregation may propose. … The autonomy of a congregation in the choice of the person called must be maintained. On the other hand, a congregation will appreciate the orderly procedures that have been set up to assist it in this weighty responsibility. (Schuetze & Habeck, pp. 27-28)
Regarding the first call that a new seminary graduate receives, Schuetze and Habeck again describe the practice of their synod:
The qualifications of students of theology are attested to by the faculty entrusted with their education. Since the candidates have been trained by the church-at-large, the Synod has agreed that calls should be extended to them through an assignment committee. For a congregation to circumvent this procedure by calling a student directly would be a breach of love and good order. (Schuetze & Habeck, p. 27)
The American ministers who have assisted in the reorganization of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church, myself included, come from church bodies whose established calling procedures reflect the views of Schuetze and Habeck as stated above. It is to be expected, therefore, that these ministers will probably recommend to you the kind of procedures with which they are familiar. The Ukrainian Lutheran Church may ultimately decide to embrace these practices in their totality, or it may decide that certain modifications would be advantageous in the Ukrainian setting. Americans and Ukrainians alike must always distinguish between doctrine and custom. The doctrine of the Ministry, and the doctrine of the Call, must always remain unchanged. The customs and traditions surrounding the doctrine are always open for review and possible modification, according to the Church’s collective judgment, expressed through its constitutional decision-making processes.
When we speak of the priority of the congregation in the issuing of calls, it is necessary to note briefly that not every baptized member of the congregation participates directly in this process, just as not every member participates directly in the general governance of the local church. Here, too, the applicable directives of Holy Scripture must be recognized. In his examination of St. Paul’s prohibition of women exercising authority over men in 1 Tim. 2:11-12, C. H. Little concludes that
This passage not only excludes women from the pastorate, but also from every other office in the church in which she would be “exercising dominion over the man.” This certainly excludes her from the church councils of the congregations, where such authority is exercised. … It leaves a wide sphere of activity open to women for faithful and laudable service; but not the ministry or the subordinate office of those who are the minister’s assistants and who with him bear rule in the congregation, or in the conferences or synods. (Little, p. 71)
On the basis of God’s Word Luther also concludes, as a general principle, that “The Holy Ghost has excluded women from the government of the Church.” (quoted in Pieper I, p. 524) Still, when the men of the congregation or the members of the congregational council make decisions on the issuing of calls, they must always remember that they are functioning on behalf of all the members of the church, and should use reasonable means to discern the thoughts and wishes of the general membership. Likewise, when the delegates at a synodical assembly or the members of a synodical board make decisions on the issuing of calls, they must always remember that they are functioning on behalf of all the congregations of the synod, as the servants and representatives of those congregations.
The Church, as the divinely-appointed custodian of the keys, is God’s instrument for the issuing of calls. It is also God’s instrument for the monitoring of calls and, when necessary, for the revoking of calls. But just as with the issuing of calls, the Church may not act arbitrarily, or on the basis of non-Biblical criteria, in the carrying out of such a sad duty. The Church may revoke a call only when it would in good conscience be acting in the name of God in such an action. Therefore a pastor may not be dismissed simply because his personality clashes with the personalities of congregational leaders, or because he occasionally makes mistakes in judgment, or because of any other relatively minor difficulty. If a pastor is faithful in the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, in the administration of the Sacraments, in the offering of pastoral care to those who are in special need, and in leading a moral life, then there are no Biblical grounds for dismissal. And a pastor, too, should not discourage or provoke the members of his church, or test the limits of their patience, through neglect of duty, the making of unreasonable demands, or the failure to cultivate a proper and harmonious relationship with them. Melanchthon, on the basis of Colossians 3:14, warns us about the problems that result when either the clergy or the laity fail in the duty of love and forgiveness that they owe to each other. He writes that here St. Paul
is talking not about personal perfection but about fellowship in the church. He says that love is a bond and unbroken chain linking the members of the church with one another. Similarly, in all families and communities harmony should be nurtured by mutual aid, for it is not possible to preserve tranquility unless men cover and forgive certain mistakes in their midst. In the same way Paul commands that there be love in the church to preserve harmony, to bear, if need be, with the crude behavior of the brethren, to cover up minor mistakes, lest the church disintegrate into various schisms and the hatreds, factions, and heresies that arise from such schisms. For harmony will inevitably disintegrate if bishops impose heavy burdens on the people or have no regard for their weakness. Dissensions also arise when the people judge their clergy’s behavior too strictly or despise them because of some minor fault and then seek after some other kinds of doctrine and other clergy. On the other hand, perfection (that is, the integrity of the church) is preserved when the strong bear with the weak, when the people put the best construction on the faults of their clergy, when the bishops take into account the weakness of the people. (Ap IV:232-34)
We may not dismiss or forsake a weak but faithful pastor without Biblical grounds. However, in the case of a pastor who persistently teaches false doctrine it is a different story. In the words of Melanchthon,
We should forsake wicked teachers because they no longer function in the place of Christ, but are antichrists. Christ says (Matt. 7:15), “Beware of false prophets”; Paul says (Gal. 1:9), “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” (Ap VII/VIII:48)
In summary, even if a pastor exhibits certain personal weaknesses, he is nevertheless to be honored as God’s gift to the Church, and as God’s own representative, as long as he continues to discharge the God-given duties of his calling in the faithful administration of
WORD AND SACRAMENT.
All those who have been called by the Church to carry out a comprehensive ministry of Word and Sacrament have been entrusted with the same office. The Church may, and according to common circumstances usually will, appoint certain pastors to exercise a supervisory role in the Church. In accordance with the doctrine of vocation, the carefully-defined authority that has been delegated in this way to bishops, superintendents, or synodical presidents should be respected. David Chytraeus states that
This episcopal order and the ranks connected with it are not evil in themselves. They should not be disparaged when they serve to uphold the unity and harmony of the church in true evangelical doctrine and the preservation of Christian discipline and peace; when they maintain and spread right doctrine and reverent worship of God; when they do not claim that they possess the illicit power to interpret Scripture arbitrarily, to establish new articles of faith, to legislate in matters of doctrine and worship; and when they do not assume tyrannical authority over the other members of the church; etc. (Montgomery, pp. 101-02)
It must also be remembered, however, that the office of bishop ascends from the office of presbyter or pastor. The office of presbyter or pastor does not descend from the office of bishop. According to the essential functions of a bishop, his office exists within the general office of Word and Sacrament, not above it. This is, to be sure, a very different understanding than what would be found in the hierarchical churches of Christendom, but it is a Biblical understanding, and a genuinely patristic understanding. Melanchthon writes:
The Gospel requires of those who preside over the churches that they preach the Gospel, remit sins, administer the sacraments, and, in addition, exercise jurisdiction, that is, excommunicate those who are guilty of notorious crimes and absolve those who repent. By the confession of all, even of our adversaries, it is evident that this power belongs by divine right to all who preside over the churches, whether they are called pastors, presbyters, or bishops. Accordingly Jerome teaches clearly that in the apostolic letters all who preside over the churches are both bishops and presbyters. He quotes from Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, that you might appoint presbyters in every town,” and points out that these words are followed by, “A bishop must be married only once” (Titus 1:5-7). Again, Peter and John call themselves presbyters. And Jerome observes: “One man was chosen over the rest to prevent schism, lest several persons, by gathering separate followings around themselves, rend the church of Christ. For in Alexandria, from the time of Mark the Evangelist to the time of Bishops Heracles and Dionysius, the presbyters always chose one of their number, set him in a higher place, and called him bishop. Moreover, in the same way in which an army might select a commander for itself, the deacons may choose from their number one who is known to be active and name him archdeacon. For, apart from ordination, what does a bishop do that a presbyter does not do?” Jerome therefore teaches that the distinction between the grades of bishop and presbyter (or pastor) is by human authority. The fact itself bears witness to this, for the power is the same, as I have already stated. Afterwards one thing made a distinction between bishops and pastors, and this was ordination, for it was decided that one bishop should ordain the ministers in a number of churches. But since the distinction between bishop and pastor is not by divine right, it is manifest that ordination administered by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine right. (Tr 60-65)
The Augsburg Confession likewise teaches that
no jurisdiction belongs to the bishops as bishops (that is, to those to whom has been committed the ministry of Word and sacraments) except to forgive sins, to reject doctrine which is contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the fellowship of the church ungodly persons whose wickedness is known, doing all this without human power, simply by the Word. Churches are therefore bound by divine law to be obedient to the bishops according to the text [Luke 10:16], “He who hears you hears me.” However, when bishops teach or ordain anything contrary to the Gospel, churches have a command of God that forbids obedience: “Beware of false prophets” (Matt. 7:15), “If an angel from heaven should preach any other Gospel, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8), “We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth” (II Cor. 13:8), and also, “Given to me is the authority for building up and not for tearing down” [II Cor. 10:8]. The canons require the same thing… Augustine also says in reply to the letters of Petilian that not even catholic bishops are to be obeyed if they should happen to err or hold anything contrary to the canonical Scriptures of God. (AC XXVIII:21-28 [L])
Pieper defines more clearly the proper parameters of a bishop’s or pastor’s authority in the context of confronting what he describes as a “Roman leaven” that has penetrated into some segments of the Lutheran Church. He notes that certain Romanizing Lutherans
teach a divinely appointed church government that has, besides the office of the Word, the authority to give orders iure divino, which the congregation must obey. True, they, too, add the restriction that the church government may not prescribe what is contrary to God’s Word. But this limitation is a contradiction in itself, inasmuch as the type of church government they set up is contrary to God’s Word. In defense of their wrong position they invoke the Fourth Commandment, to wit, that parents have authority to order their children to do things that are not commanded in God’s Word as long as these things are not in conflict with God’s Word. Pastors and other ecclesiastical superiors, it is urged, belong to the spiritual fathers; therefore one owes them obedience by God’s order in all things not commanded in God’s Word if only they command nothing prohibited in the Word of God. This argument has confused some people, but it is false. Parents may indeed bid their children do things not commanded in God’s Word because they have been endowed by God with legislative authority over their children. Col. 3:20: “Children, obey your parents in all things.” But God has not invested the Church, or individuals in the Church, with legislative authority; on the contrary, here the rule is: “One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren” (Matt. 23:8). He who in the Church seeks to command over and above what Christ has commanded is usurping Christ’s authority and infringing on Christ’s sovereignty. Christ purchased the Church with His blood for His own, that He might be its only Lord and Master. Whoever now seeks to rule independently of Christ in the Church, no matter to what extent, is thereby encroaching on Christ’s position as Savior and Lord. (Pieper III, p. 432)
According to Pieper, “Christ has commissioned neither some one person (Pope, princes, governors, presidents, etc.), nor a college of persons (bishops, pastors, board of directors, consistories, parliaments, conferences, synods, councils, etc.) to decide and ordain ecclesiastical matters for the Church in any way binding on the conscience.” (Pieper III, pp. 427-28) Again, in matters neither commanded nor forbidden by God Christians should not
take orders from other men, be they few or many, as binding their consciences. To do so would be contrary to Matt. 23:8; and 1 Cor. 7:23; etc. Adiaphora are not settled among Christians by compulsion, but through mutual consent according to love. … In adiaphora a vote is taken to ascertain what the majority regards as best. The natural order is that in adiaphora the minority yields to the majority and acquiesces, not because the majority has the right to rule, but for love’s sake. Since, however, love is queen here, it may happen that the majority will yield to the minority. … Christians, as Christians, never quarrel about adiaphora, since, insofar as they are Christians and walk in the Spirit, “none of them desires to be the ruler of the other, but everyone wants to be the other’s servant,” as Luther expresses it. (Pieper III, p. 430)
The call that is issued to a minister of the Gospel is not a call to rule in the Church with the use of human power or intimidation. Christ continues to be the loving divine Lord of his Church, and he continues to govern it with his Word alone. The only power that the pastor has, therefore, is the power of God’s Word, and he shares this power with the church as a whole. We may say, therefore, that
The form of government in the Church is, on the one hand, a monarchy, and on the other hand, a democracy. – The Church is a monarchy, because Christ is the sole Head and absolute Ruler of the Church (Eph. 1:22.23; Col. 1:18). In spiritual matters, doctrines of faith and rules of life, Christians are subject to no other authority than that of Christ. … His Word must be accepted without question and reservation. He has bought us; we are His own; therefore we must not again become the servants of men (1 Cor. 7:23). – The Church is a democracy, because in the Church “all ye are brethren.” Whatever may otherwise be the social, economic, political, or ecclesiastical status of the individual member of a congregation, in the Church there is no distinction and difference of rank, or authority, and of superiority. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female; for they are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28); none is greater than his neighbor (Luke 22:24-26). (Koehler, p. 251)
Pastors obviously should not be disappointed that Christ retains for himself the government of his Church. There is certainly enough for them to do already, without trying to assume those divine prerogatives that Christ has not relinquished, according to the call that they have received to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. Joseph Stump reminds us that
The minister’s sphere of work is found in the particular field to which he has been called. That is the place where he is to administer the Word and sacraments. This does not mean that he may not, in response to special calls, administer the Means of Grace anywhere else, but that his own field and not the world is his parish. His work is among the people to whom God has called him to minister, and includes first of all the members who belong to his congregation or congregations. But it also includes an obligation to the community which his parish may reasonably be supposed to cover. To confine his work to the routine administration of Word and sacraments among the members of his flock is to fail to realize the breadth of his mission and the greatness of his opportunity and responsibility. Christ wills that the world shall be evangelized; and the world includes the indifferent, impenitent, unbelieving and hostile at home as well as the heathen in darkest Africa. Christ’s command is to go into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in. The adult catechetical class should be a standing institution in every parish, and constant efforts should be made to persuade those outside of the Church to attend. (Stump, pp. 382-83)
Pastors should prayerfully devote themselves to the work of the Ministry which has been entrusted to them, especially the work of preaching, since “the chief worship of God is the preaching of the Gospel.” (Ap XV:42) Every sermon should be textually-based and Christ-centered, and should properly distinguish and apply the law and the Gospel. Since “the whole Gospel and the article of the Creed, ‘I believe in the holy Christian church, the forgiveness of sins,’ are embodied in” the Lord’s Supper (LC V:32), Gospel preaching is also sacramental preaching. Therefore “We should so preach that, of their own accord and without any law, the people will desire the sacrament and, as it were, compel us pastors to administer it to them.” (SC Pref.:22) It also will not hurt to be reminded of the fact that “Practical and clear sermons hold an audience” (Ap XXIV:50), and that a pastor’s sermons should touch on a wide range of practical subjects. Melanchthon writes that in the Lutheran churches of his time “all sermons deal with topics like these: penitence, the fear of God, faith in Christ, the righteousness of faith, comfort for the conscience through faith, the exercise of faith, prayer and our assurance that it is efficacious and is heard, the cross, respect for rulers and for all civil ordinances, the distinction between the kingdom of Christ (or the spiritual kingdom) and political affairs, marriage, the education and instruction of children, chastity, and all the works of love.” (Ap XV:43)
Closely associated with the pastor’s preaching ministry is his teaching and catechizing ministry. In the Lutheran Church “the pastors and ministers of the churches are required to instruct and examine the youth publicly, a custom that produces very good results.” (Ap XV:41) But we must not think that the Lutheran pastor’s duty to instruct the people from God’s Word, especially in regard to the Lord’s Supper, is limited to a one-time catechetical course. According to the Augsburg Confession,
the people are instructed often and with great diligence concerning the holy sacrament, why it was instituted, and how it is to be used (namely, as a comfort for terrified consciences) in order that the people may be drawn to the Communion and Mass. The people are also given instruction about other false teachings concerning the sacrament. (AC XXIV:7 [G])
On the subject of the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of the fact that the normal practice of Confessional Lutheranism – and of Christianity – is that “Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals, when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved.” (Ap XXIV:1) As pastors of Lutheran congregations we should all be able to say, in the words of the Augsburg Confession, that
On holy days, and at other times when communicants are present, Mass is held and those who desire it are communicated. Thus the Mass is preserved among us in its proper use, the use which was formerly observed in the church and which can be proved by St. Paul’s statement in I Cor. 11:20 ff. and by many statements of the Fathers. (AC XXIV: 34-35 [G])
When the city of Nürnberg sought Luther’s guidance on these matters in 1528, he offered this response:
Should anyone request my counsel in this way, then I would give this advice: … that you should celebrate one or two Masses in the two parish churches on Sundays or holy days, depending on whether there are few or many communicants. Should it be regarded as needful or good, you might do the same in the hospital too. …you might celebrate Mass during the week on whichever days it would be needful, that is, if any communicants would be present and would ask for and request the Sacrament. This way we should compel no one to receive the Sacrament, and yet everyone would be adequately served in an orderly manner. If the Ministers of the Church would fall to griping at this point, maintaining that they were being placed under duress or complaining that they are unfitted to face such demands, then I would demonstrate to them that no merely human compulsion is at work here, but on the contrary they are being compelled by God Himself through His Call. For because they have the Office, they are already, in virtue of their Call and Office, obliged and compelled to administer the Sacrament whenever people request it of them, so that their excuses amount to nothing; just as they are under obligation to preach, comfort, absolve, help the poor, and visit the sick as often as people need or ask for these services. (quoted in Stephenson, pp. 161-62)
As a liturgical leader the Lutheran pastor must remember that “The purpose of observing ceremonies is that men may learn the Scriptures and that those who have been touched by the Word may receive faith and fear and so may also pray.” (Ap XXIV:3) “Places, times, persons, and the entire outward order of worship are therefore instituted and appointed in order that God’s Word may exert its power publicly.” (LC I:94) And while “it can readily be judged that nothing contributes so much to the maintenance of dignity in public worship and the cultivation of reverence and devotion among the people as the proper observance of ceremonies in the churches,” we also know that “The real adornment of the churches is godly, practical, and clear teaching, the godly use of the sacraments, ardent prayer, and the like.” (AC prol.to XXII,6 [L]; Ap XXIV:51) The term “liturgy” actually means “a public service”:
Thus it squares with our position that a minister who consecrates shows forth the body and blood of the Lord to the people, just as a minister who preaches shows forth the gospel to the people, as Paul says (I Cor. 4:1), “This is how one should regard us, as ministers of Christ and dispensers of the sacraments of God,” that is, of the Word and sacraments; and II Cor. 5:20, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Thus the term “liturgy” squares well with the ministry. (Ap XXIV:79- 81)
In conclusion, we can all be comforted to know that
the ministry of the New Testament is not bound to places and persons, as the Levitical priesthood is, but is spread abroad through the whole world and exists wherever God gives his gifts, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers. Nor is this ministry valid because of any individual’s authority but because of the Word given by Christ. (Tr 26)
Dear brothers in faith and office, God has given you to the people of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church, and indeed to the people of the Ukrainian nation. You are his gifts to them. And God has given to you his unconquerable and saving Word, which fully validates your ministry, and which fills it with the faith-creating power of Christ himself. And in the final consummation, when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ welcomes his servants into his eternal kingdom,
Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:3)
Koehler: Koehler, Edward W. A. A Summary of Christian Doctrine. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1952.
Krauth CP: Krauth, Charles Porterfield. “Church Polity,” I, Lutheran Church Review, Vol. II, Whole No. 8 (Oct. 1883).
Krauth CR: Krauth, Charles Porterfield. The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology. Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1871.
Krauth TS: Krauth, Charles Porterfield. “Thetical Statement of the Doctrine Concerning the Ministry of the Gospel,” Lutheran and Missionary, Vol. XIV, No. 12 (Dec. 31, 1874).
Little: Little, C. H. Disputed Doctrines. Burlington, Iowa: Lutheran Literary Board, 1933.
Mastrantonis: Mastrantonis, George. Augsburg and Constantinople. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1982.
Montgomery: Montgomery, John Warwick. Chytraeus On Sacrifice. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1962.
Pieper I: Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics, Vol. I. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950.
Pieper III: Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics, Vol. III. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953.
Preus: Preus, Robert D. Getting Into the Theology of Concord. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977.
Sasse: Sasse, Hermann. We Confess the Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986.
Sauer: Sauer, Alfred von Rohr. “The Doctrine of the Church,” The Abiding Word, Vol. III. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1960.
Schuetze & Habeck: Schuetze, Armin W., and Irwin J. Habeck. The Shepherd Under Christ. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1974.
Stephenson: Stephenson, John Raymond. “The Holy Eucharist: At the Center or Periphery of the Church’s Life in Luther’s Thinking?”, A Lively Legacy: Essays in Honor of Robert Preus, edited by Kurt E. Marquart, Stephenson, and Bjarne W. Teigen. Fort Wayne, Ind.: Concordia Theological Seminary, 1985.
Stump: Stump, Joseph. The Christian Faith. New York: Macmillan Company, 1932.
CONFESSIONAL QUOTATIONS are from The Book of Concord, translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959).
Are the Lutheran Confessions a Practical Document Today?
DAVID JAY WEBBER
Are the Lutheran Confessions a practical document today? This is the question that has been posed for the purposes of this paper, and this is the question that we will seek to answer. However, before we reach any conclusions about whether or not the Confessions are “practical,” we must first be clear on the question of what the Confessions are.
First, the Lutheran Confessions are sound Biblical exegesis. The Formula of Concord states very plainly
that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged, as it is written in Ps. 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And St. Paul says in Gal. 1:8, “Even if an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (FC Ep R&N:1, p. 4641)
The Fathers and Reformers firmly believed in the unique authority of Holy Scripture for the faith and life of the church. They accepted St. Paul’s declaration that the Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus,” and that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:15-17 NKJV) As referenced in the Augsburg Confession, St. Augustine, for example, taught “that one should not obey even regularly elected bishops if they err or if they teach or command something contrary to the divine Holy Scriptures.” (AC XXVIII:28 [G], p. 85)2
In keeping with this principle, those who composed the various Confessional documents were always very conscious of the fact that what they were doing was providing for the church a faithful statement and exposition of Holy Scripture, in response to Gnosticism, Arianism, Pneumatomachianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, Romanism, Zwinglianism, Calvinism, or whatever else might have been threatening the apostolic and Biblical Gospel. The Lutherans at the Diet of Augsburg declare that they are offering and presenting “a confession of our pastors’ and preachers’ teaching and of our own faith, setting forth how and in what manner, on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, these things are preached, taught, communicated, and embraced…” (AC Pref.:8, p. 25) The authors of the Formula of Concord echo this thought when they reaffirm their adherence “to the first, unaltered Augsburg Confession…as our symbol in this epoch, not because this confession was prepared by our theologians but because it is taken from the Word of God and solidly and well grounded therein.” (FC SD R&N:5, p. 504) The same is true of all the other Symbols in the Book of Concord. Their only claim to authority is based on their claim to having faithfully reproduced the teaching of the Bible. As Lyle W. Lange expresses it,
We subscribe to them because they accurately reflect the teaching of Scripture. They are relevant today because they reflect the unchanging and ever timely word of God.3
While the Lutheran Church’s confessional obligation “does not extend to historical statements, ‘purely exegetical questions,’ and other matters not belonging to the doctrinal content of the symbols,” nevertheless, “All doctrines of the Symbols are based on clear statements of Scripture.”4 Consequently, the authority of the Book of Concord, as “a confession of the doctrines of Scripture over against those who deny these doctrines,”5 rises or falls with the authority of Holy Scripture itself. In the words of Charles Porterfield Krauth, “We do not interpret God’s word by the Creed, neither do we interpret the Creed by God’s word, but interpreting both independently, by the laws of language, and finding that they teach one and the same truth, we heartily acknowledge the Confession as a true exhibition of the faith of the Rule — a true witness to the one, pure, and unchanging faith of the Christian Church, and freely make it our own Confession, as truly as if it had been now first uttered by our lips, or had now first gone forth from our hands.”6 And as Joseph A. Seiss aptly remarks, “We do not believe in the Symbols; we only believe with them, and that for no other reason than that we are persuaded that they do fairly and truly grasp and declare what, on adequate examination, is found to be the true sense, intent and meaning of God’s holy Word on the points presented in them.”7
Second, the Lutheran Confessions are preeminent examples of the faithful ministry of some of the most important pastors and teachers in Christian history. St. Paul writes that Christ himself
gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints[,] for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ… (Eph. 4:11-15 NKJV)
The apostles and prophets clearly have a special status in the history of the church. Their teaching was supernaturally guided and preserved from error by the Holy Spirit in a unique way, and through the Holy Scriptures, which they penned by divine inspiration, they continue to carry out their unique calling as the foundational teachers in the Christian church. “Pastors and teachers” are, however, also a part of the divinely-instituted Ministry, and when they faithfully carry out their calling they also do so with divine assistance and with divine authority. To the extent that a pastor accurately reflects and conveys the doctrine of the apostles and prophets in his own teaching, then to that extent his teaching is also apostolic and prophetic. As Krauth puts it,
Our English translation of the Bible is a human explanation of a certain humanly transcribed, humanly printed text, the original; which original alone, just as the sacred penmen left it, is absolutely in every jot and tittle God’s Word; but just in proportion as our translation is based upon a pure text of the Hebrew and Greek, and correctly explains the meaning of such an original, it too, is God’s Word. Our sermons are human explanations of God’s Word, but so far as they explain it correctly, they do set forth God’s Word, and he who hears us, hears our Lord. Our Confession is a human explanation of God’s Word, but so far as it correctly explains it, it sets forth God’s Word.8
St. Paul certainly envisions the continuation of such a teaching office beyond his own lifetime and even to the end of the age, to instruct and guide and console and protect God’s people with God’s Word. The Symbolical Books of the Lutheran Church were written by men who held this office, and who fulfilled its duties faithfully. To honor these books is therefore to honor the God-given and God-pleasing ministry of those who wrote them. We do not show special honor to the divinely-given ministry of apostles and prophets by disparaging the divinely-given ministry of pastors and teachers. Rather, we show proper honor to all that God gives to his church by honoring all such ministries precisely in accordance with how God defines them and in accordance with the purposes for which he has given them. In regard to the pastors and teachers who are currently governing the church with God’s Word, the New Testament directs us to “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.” (Heb. 13:17 NASB) In the same context, the New Testament gives us a similar directive regarding faithful ministers of the Word from the past, who are no longer with us in this earthly life:
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings… (Heb. 13:7-9 NASB)
The apostles and prophets are infallible. Those who have been and are called to be pastors and teachers, including the Fathers and Reformers who wrote our Creeds, are not infallible. But as Krauth points out,
We do not claim that our Confessors were infallible. We do not say they could not fail. We only claim that they did not fail.9
The Confessions are certainly not the same as the Scriptures, just as pastors and teachers are not the same as the apostles and prophets. But if the Confessions accurately reflect and convey the Biblical doctrine, then we are able to recognize that they flow ultimately from God, under divine providence, through the divine vocation of the Fathers and Reformers who produced them at critical times in the church’s history. Krauth again explains
that correct human explanations of Scripture doctrine are Scripture doctrine, for they are simply the statement of the same truth in different words. These words are not in themselves as clear and good as the Scripture terms, but as those who use them can absolutely fix the sense of their own phraseology by a direct and infallible testimony, the human words may more perfectly exclude heresy than the divine words do. … There is no personal Christianity in the world which is not the result of a human explanation of the Bible as really as the Confession of our Church is. It is human because it is in human minds, and human hearts, — it is not a source to which we can finally and absolutely appeal as we can to God’s word. But in exact proportion as the word of God opened to the soul by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, is truly and correctly apprehended, just in that proportion is the “human explanation” coincident with the divine truth. I explain God’s truth, and if I explain it correctly, my explanation is God’s truth, and to reject the one in unbelief, is to reject the other.10
The Reformers in the sixteenth century looked back on the earlier history of the Christian church in this way. They honored God by honoring, referring to, quoting from, and identifying with the men who had so obviously been used by God in history to preach and teach his Word. In their endorsement of the three ancient Creeds, the Concordists declare:
Immediately after the time of the apostles — in fact, already during their lifetime — false teachers and heretics invaded the church. Against these the ancient church formulated symbols (that is, brief and explicit confessions) which were accepted as the unanimous, catholic, Christian faith and confessions of the orthodox and true church, namely, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. We pledge ourselves to these, and we hereby reject all heresies and teachings which have been introduced into the church of God contrary to them. (FC Ep R&N:3, p. 465)
The marks of the church are discernible in history, revealing the presence of God’s people and of their faithful shepherds on the timeline of human existence. The Reformers, as students of the history of the church, are thereby able to “hear” the powerful voice of Christ, not only in the preaching and teaching of the apostles, but also in the preaching and teaching of the ancient orthodox Fathers:
…in order to keep the Gospel among men, he visibly pits the witness of the saints against the rule of the devil; in our weakness he displays his strength. The dangers, labors, and sermons of the apostle Paul, Athanasius, Augustine, and other teachers of the church are holy works, true sacrifices acceptable to God, battles by which Christ restrained the devil and drove him away from the believers. (Ap IV:189-90, p. 133)
Regarding the article on justification, Philip Melanchthon is able to say: “We know that what we have said agrees with the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, with the holy Fathers Ambrose, Augustine, and many others, and with the whole church of Christ, which certainly confesses that Christ is the propitiator and the justifier.” (Ap IV:389, p. 166) In regard to another important article of faith, Melanchthon states that “we teach nothing about original sin that is contrary to the Scripture or the church catholic, but we have cleansed and brought to light important teachings of the Scriptures and the Fathers that had been obscured by the sophistic arguments of modern theologians.” (Ap II:32, p. 104) It is clear to the Reformers that God had preserved his church, and the testimony of his Word within his church, even in more recent centuries. Martin Luther writes: “…God has confirmed Baptism through the gift of his Holy Spirit, as we have perceived in some of the fathers, such as St. Bernard, [John] Gerson, John Hus, and others…” (LC IV:50, p. 443) The second-generation Lutheran Confessors look back on the first-generation Lutheran Confessors with a similar attitude. For example, the authors of the Formula of Concord believe that “By a special grace our merciful God has in these last days brought to light the truth of his Word amid the abominable darkness of the papacy through the faithful ministry of that illustrious man of God, Dr. Luther.” (FC SD R&N:5, p. 504) The Concordists themselves, while less pretentious concerning their own importance, nevertheless know that what they are doing they are doing according to the divine authority of their divine office: “As far as our ministry is concerned, we do not propose to look on idly or stand by silently while something contrary to the Augsburg Confession is imported into our churches and schools in which the almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has appointed us teachers and shepherds.” (FC SD XII:6, p. 633) And finally, the perspective of people like us, who live and serve in post-Reformation times, but who live and serve in a Reformation-minded church, is summarized well by Seiss:
The Symbols of the orthodox Church of Christ are the matured fruits of the deepest devotion, experience and learning of its greatest and wisest members in its most trying ages; and as we may practically learn much from the biographies of the good, so we may learn much more from the Spirit-moved biography of the Church and the principles and testimonies which mark her life of faith. They are the sign-posts set up by the faithful along the King’s highway of salvation to designate the places of danger to those who come after them, to warn and admonish us where we would otherwise be liable to err and miss the goal of our high calling in Christ Jesus. They are not laws to rule our faith, for the Word of God alone is such a Rule; but they are helps and tokens to enable us the more surely to find the true import of the Rule, that we may be all the more thoroughly and sincerely conformed to that Rule. They are the human tracks which the best of the saints have left, by which we may the better detect the way which God has laid out and opened for the fallen and sinful children of men to travel, that they may fill their Christian vocation and come to everlasting life.11
Krauth recognizes that the Reformers “may have made mistakes, and nothing but mistakes; they may have known nothing, and we may know every thing; but we have seen no evidence that such is the case, and until it be brought before us, we must beg indulgence for our skepticism.”12 In the last century Charles F. Schaeffer also posed some crucial questions that are just as applicable to our time as they were to his:
Have we really made such progress in the discovery of truth since the era of the Reformation, that we understand the Scriptures more thoroughly than those who framed the Symbolical Books? When Luther and his associates were prepared to surrender their lives, but not the doctrines of the Augsburg Confession, the Apology, the Schmalkald Articles, and the Catechism, had these men of faith and prayer discovered treasures of divine truth of less extent and less value than we possess in modern times? When the Elector Augustus with holy fervor prayed to God that the authors of the Concord-Formula might be guided by the Divine Spirit in the preparation of that admirable work, was his prayer for the illumination of the Spirit less efficacious than modern prayers are? If the writers of the Symbols were unworthy of regard, or are erroneous in their exhibition of truth, who are the men that are more competent to unfold the Scriptural doctrine? What palliating features have they discovered in man’s corruption, in more recent times? What useful changes do they suggest in the doctrine of the atonement? What improvement do they propose in our old doctrine of justification by faith? What more ready access to the throne of grace have they discovered? Are we wiser, more holy, richer in divine grace, more useful through the inspiration of the “spirit of the times” than our pious fathers were? We are weary of the superior intelligence of the Nineteenth Century in matters of Christian faith.13
Third, the Lutheran Confessions are in fact the received public confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Through them Lutherans fulfill, in large measure, the obligation we have under Christ always to “be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15 NKJV), and “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3 NKJV). At the conclusion of the Augsburg Confession, the Lutherans declare:
Certainly we should not wish to put our own souls and consciences in grave peril before God by misusing his name or Word, nor should we wish to bequeath to our children and posterity any other teaching than that which agrees with the pure Word of God and Christian truth. Since this teaching is grounded clearly on the Holy Scriptures and is not contrary or opposed to that of the universal Christian church, or even of the Roman church (in so far as the latter’s teaching is reflected in the writings of the Fathers), we think that our opponents cannot disagree with us in the articles set forth above. Therefore, those who presume to reject, avoid, and separate from our churches as if our teaching were heretical, act in an unkind and hasty fashion, contrary to all Christian unity and love, and do so without any solid basis of divine command or Scripture. (AC epilog to XXI, 1 [G], pp. 47-48)
In continuity with this conviction, the writers of the Formula of Concord
again whole-heartedly subscribe this Christian and thoroughly scriptural Augsburg Confession, and we abide by the plain, clear, and pure meaning of its words. We consider this Confession a genuinely Christian symbol which all true Christians ought to accept next to the Word of God, just as in ancient times Christian symbols and confessions were formulated in the church of God when great controversies broke out, and orthodox teachers and hearers pledged themselves to these symbols with heart and mouth. Similarly we are determined by the grace of the Almighty to abide until our end by this repeatedly cited Christian Confession as it was delivered to Emperor Charles in 1530. And we do not intend, either in this or subsequent doctrinal statements, to depart from the aforementioned Confession or to set up a different and new confession. (FC SD Intro.:4-5, p. 502)
At the conclusion of the Formula of Concord (which sets forth and includes all the Symbols in the Book of Concord), its authors declare with all seriousness and solemnity:
Therefore, in the presence of God and of all Christendom among both our contemporaries and our posterity, we wish to have testified that the present explanation of all the foregoing controverted articles here explained, and none other, is our teaching, belief, and confession in which by God’s grace we shall appear with intrepid hearts before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ and for which we shall give an account. Nor shall we speak or write anything, privately or publicly, contrary to this confession, but we intend through God’s grace to abide by it. (FC SD XII:40, p. 636)
And orthodox Lutheran churches to the present time are not ashamed to confess the same Biblical faith, through the same Confessions. Harold Wicke speaks for the Wisconsin Synod, but not only for the Wisconsin Synod:
On June 25, 1580, the Book of Concord was officially published in Dresden, Germany, and presented to the world as the doctrinal position of the Lutheran Church. … Today our churches still accept this book as their confession of faith. Thus the constitution of our Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod states: “The Synod also accepts the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church embodied in the Book of Concord of 1580, not insofar as, but because they are a correct presentation and exposition of the pure doctrine of the word of God.” Our individual congregations have a similar article in their constitutions. Our pastors and teachers also pledge to preach and teach in accordance with these confessions. … Though these confessions were all written in Germany, they are not German. Though they were written by Lutherans, they are not sectarian. Though they were gathered together centuries ago, they are not obsolete. If you want to believe the gospel, these are the confessions you will want to stand by. It is our conviction that the Book of Concord meets the needs of the church. This is so because it is a positive statement of what the church of God believes according to the Scripture, a rejection of those teachings which do not agree with Scripture, an accurate statement of what we must abide by when asked to give an account, a simple statement of Scripture truth to be taught our children, a clear statement of what we as pastors, teachers, and parents should preach and teach, and a faithful exposition of the word in such a way that schisms and compromises are prevented. These confessions — from the Apostles’ Creed to the Formula of Concord — are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Jesus Christ is their cornerstone.14
Krauth also writes:
The basis of the Evangelical Lutheran Church is the Word of God, as the perfect and absolute Rule of Faith, and because this is her basis, she rests of necessity on the faith of which that Word is the Rule, and therefore on the Confessions which purely set forth that faith. She has the right rule, she reaches the right results by that rule, and rightly confesses them. This Confession then is her immediate basis, her essential characteristic, with which she stands or falls. The Unaltered Augsburg Confession and its Apology, the Catechisms and Schmalcald Articles, and the Formula of Concord, have been formally declared by an immense majority of the Lutheran Church as their Confession of Faith. The portion of the Church, with few and inconsiderable exceptions, which has not received them formally, has received them virtually. They are closely cohering and internally consistent statements and developments of one and the same system, so that a man who heartily and intelligently receives any one of the distinctively Lutheran Symbols, has no difficulty in accepting the doctrine of the whole. They fairly represent the faith of the Church, and simply and solely as so representing it are they named in the statement of the basis of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. … The propositions we have just advanced, no Lutheran, in the historical sense of the word, can deny; for the man who would deny it, would, in virtue of that denial, prove that he is not in the historical sense Lutheran; for he, and he only, is such who believes that the doctrine of the gospel is rightly taught in the Augsburg Confession.15
Krauth here touches on the old question of whether a genuine Confessional subscription must of necessity include the entire Book of Concord, or if (as in the Danish-Norwegian tradition) formal subscription can be made only to the three ancient Creeds, the Augsburg Confession, and the Small Catechism. In reality, a sincere and thoughtful subscription to the chief Symbols is a subscription to the theology of all the Symbols. On this basis the Norwegian Synod was admitted to membership in the old Synodical Conference in nineteenth-century America. Its constitution bound it formally only to the Creeds, the Augustana, and the Small Catechism. But the Creeds, the Augustana, and the Small Catechism correctly understood are, for all practical purposes, the whole Book of Concord. At any rate, the fathers of the Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio Synods certainly saw it that way when they embraced the Norwegians confessionally and organizationally in 1872. When the Norwegian Synod, several years later, successfully resisted and overcame a destructive attack on one of the chief elements of its doctrinal basis — Confessionally embodied most thoroughly in Article XI of the Formula of Concord, to which the Synod had not formally subscribed — the soundness of this decision was most gratifyingly demonstrated.16
As Henry E. Jacobs expresses it, “The unity of the Church does not consist in subscription to the same Confessions, but in the acceptance and teaching of the same doctrines.”17 This does not mean, however, that any particular group of Lutherans today may, if they see fit, dispense with the historic Confessions of their church and replace them with what they consider to be better or equally good Confessions — attempting all along, of course, to preserve the doctrine of the old Symbols.18 First of all, it is highly unlikely that any collection of Lutherans in our time would in actuality be able to improve on or match the wisdom, insight, and skill of the extraordinarily gifted Doctors of the Church who wrote the Confessions that have been passed down to us. And second, it would be very difficult if not impossible to protect such a project from the arrogant and sectarian spirit that would so easily and naturally lurk behind an idea of this kind. The Confessions of the Lutheran Church are not our personal “property,” to be tinkered with at will. They are, as it were, the “property” of the entire church, and those who are alive at any given time in Lutheran history are really just the stewards and temporary custodians of this noble legacy. As Wilhelm W. Petersen writes, it is important for Lutherans to be acquainted with the historic Lutheran Confessions
because the Confessions are a correct exposition, or interpretation, of the Bible and it is in our Confessions where we as a Lutheran Church publicly confess our faith before the world and confidently declare: “This we believe, teach, and confess.” They are also the banner under which we march and by which we identify one another as brethren. I believe that it is fair to say that if it were not for our Confessions the Lutheran Reformation would not have gotten off the ground and, consequently, there would be no Lutheran Church today. It is also fair to say that if we depart from our Confessions, as many have, the time may come when there will be no true Lutheran Church.19
Also, the true loyalty of the Lutheran Church to its distinctive Confessions has little if anything to do with the supposed “German-ness” of either or both. As Wicke points out, “Though these confessions were all written in Germany, they are not German.” The Latin Church did not consider the Nicene Creed to be unimportant simply because it had been produced by Greeks. German Christians did not ignore the Athanasian Creed simply because it had arisen among Gallic Christians. The Danish and Norwegian Lutherans did not consider the Small Catechism to be someone else’s catechism simply because it had been written by a German. The Swedish Lutherans did not refuse ultimately to adopt the Augsburg Confession simply because Sweden was not a part of the Holy Roman Empire. And the Slovak Lutherans did not refrain from embracing the entire Book of Concord simply because it had been compiled in the context of theological struggles among Germans. To dwell a bit longer on this example, the Slovak Lutherans as a group, unlike many of the ethnic Germans who lived among them, had little sympathy with the “mediating” theology of the Philippists. They wanted to make a clear confession of their faith, over against both Rome and the Reformed. As David P. Daniel notes,
After 1580, attempts to have the Formula of Concord accepted as the normative statement of Lutheran theology for the Lutherans of Slovakia resulted in a generation of debate. On the one hand, many German Lutherans of the central and eastern cities of Slovakia were reluctant to accept the very precise doctrinal definitions which had been incorporated into the Formula of Concord and accepted by the orthodox Lutherans in Germany. On the other hand, the clergy of Slovak ancestry, often supported by the leading magnates of Slovakia, and seeking a greater voice in the administration of the Church in which Slovaks were now numerically the majority, became the ardent advocates of the Formula.20
Lutherans in Slovakia and elsewhere in the Slavic world have traditionally identified themselves as the “Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession.” As is self-evident, they took “ownership” of that Confession, originally brought to them from Germany, just as much as the new converts in the Grand Principality of Kyiv, at the time of St. Volodymyr, took “ownership” of the Nicene Creed that was brought to them from Byzantium.
The battles and victories chronicled in the Book of Concord are not, at the deepest level, the battles and victories of Germans, or of Gauls, or of Greeks. They are the battles and victories of God, fought and won not for the benefit of one or another ethnic group, but for the benefit of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We should never think that there is anything “ethnic” about believing
that the three ecumenical creeds, the Apostles’, the Nicene and the Athanasian, as well as the Lutheran Confessions as contained in the Book of Concord of 1580 give expression to the true doctrine of Scripture. Since the doctrines they confess are drawn from Scripture alone, we feel ourselves bound to them in our faith and life. Therefore all preaching and teaching in our churches and schools must be in harmony with these confessions. … We reject every effort to reduce the confessions contained in the Book of Concord to historical documents that have only relative confessional significance for the church today.21
Those who suppose that the Lutheran Confessions have little bearing on the theological controversies of our time either do not know what is really going on in modern Christendom, or they do not know what is really contained in the Book of Concord, or both. Although the Book of Concord was published over 400 years ago, its teachings and explanations are demonstrably applicable to many doctrinal issues that are all too contemporary.
When Pentecostals and Charismatics make their extraordinary claims, the Lutheran Church confesses:
On the one hand, it is true that both the preacher’s planting and watering and the hearer’s running and willing would be in vain, and no conversion would follow, if there were not added the power and operation of the Holy Spirit, who through the Word preached and heard illuminates and converts hearts so that men believe this Word and give their assent to it. On the other hand, neither the preacher nor the hearer should question this grace and operation of the Holy Spirit, but should be certain that, when the Word of God is preached, pure and unalloyed according to God’s command and will, and when the people diligently and earnestly listen to and meditate on it, God is certainly present with his grace and gives what man is unable by his own powers to take or to give. We should not and cannot pass judgment on the Holy Spirit’s presence, operations, and gifts merely on the basis of our feeling, how and when we perceive it in our hearts. On the contrary, because the Holy Spirit’s activity often is hidden, and happens under cover of great weakness, we should be certain, because of and on the basis of his promise, that the Word which is heard and preached is an office and work of the Holy Spirit, whereby he assuredly is potent and active in our hearts (II Cor. 2:14 ff.). (FC SD II:55-56, pp. 531-32)
When promoters of the so-called “Church Growth Movement” assert that the Divine Service should be redesigned to serve the purposes of “entertainment evangelism,” the Lutheran Church confesses:
The purpose of observing ceremonies is that men may learn the Scriptures and that those who have been touched by the Word may receive faith and fear and so may also pray. (Ap XXIV:3, p. 250)
Places, times, persons, and the entire outward order of worship are therefore instituted and appointed in order that God’s Word may exert its power publicly. (LC I:94, p. 378)
…the holy Fathers themselves had rites and traditions…because they were profitable for good order, because they gave the people a set time to assemble, because they provided an example of how all things could be done decently and in order in the churches, and finally because they helped instruct the common folk. For different seasons and various rites serve as reminders for the common folk. For these reasons the Fathers kept ceremonies, and for the same reasons we also believe in keeping traditions. (Ap XV:20-21, p. 218)
So in our churches we willingly observe the order of the Mass, the Lord’s day, and the other more important feast days. With a very thankful spirit we cherish the useful and ancient ordinances, especially when they contain a discipline that serves to educate and instruct the people and the inexperienced. (Ap VII/VIII:33, pp. 174-75)
…it can readily be judged that nothing contributes so much to the maintenance of dignity in public worship and the cultivation of reverence and devotion among the people as the proper observance of ceremonies in the churches. (AC, prolog to XXII,6 [L], p. 49)
When they similarly assert that pastors should adjust their role in the congregation in accordance with “contemporary” leadership models, shaped and driven by psychology, sociology, and modern marketing strategies, the Lutheran Church confesses that ministers of the Gospel
do not represent their own persons but the person of Christ, because of the church’s call, as Christ testifies (Luke 10:16), “He who hears you hears me.” When they offer the Word of Christ or the sacraments, they do so in Christ’s place and stead. (Ap VII/VIII:28, p. 173)
The Gospel requires of those who preside over the churches that they preach the Gospel, remit sins, administer the sacraments, and, in addition, exercise jurisdiction, that is, excommunicate those who are guilty of notorious crimes and absolve those who repent. By the confession of all, even of our adversaries, it is evident that this power belongs by divine right to all who preside over the churches, whether they are called pastors, presbyters, or bishops. (Tr 60-61, p. 330)
…a minister who consecrates shows forth the body and blood of the Lord to the people, just as a minister who preaches shows forth the gospel to the people, as Paul says (I Cor. 4:1), “This is how one should regard us, as ministers of Christ and dispensers of the sacraments of God,” that is, of the Word and sacraments; and II Cor. 5:20, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (Ap XXIV:79-81, p. 264)
When defending the efficacy of Christ’s Word and the real presence of his body and blood in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, the Lutheran Church confesses:
“Here, too, if I were to say over all the bread there is, ‘This is the body of Christ,’ nothing would happen, but when we follow his institution and command in the Lord’s Supper and say, ‘This is my body,’ then it is his body, not because of our speaking or of our efficacious word, but because of his command in which he has told us so to speak and to do and has attached his own command and deed to our speaking.” (FC SD VII:78 [quoting Luther], pp. 583-84)
For the truthful and almighty words of Jesus Christ which he spoke in the first institution were not only efficacious in the first Supper but they still retain their validity and efficacious power in all places where the Supper is observed according to Christ’s institution and where his words are used, and the body and blood of Christ are truly present, distributed, and received by the virtue and potency of the same words which Christ spoke in the first Supper. For wherever we observe his institution and speak his words over the bread and cup and distribute the blessed bread and cup, Christ himself is still active through the spoken words by the virtue of the first institution, which he wants to be repeated. (FC SD VII:75, p. 583)
…in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present and are truly offered with those things that are seen, the bread and the wine, to those who receive the sacrament. After careful examination and consideration of it, we firmly defend this belief. (Ap X:1, p. 179)
When battling the spiritual deadness and worldliness of “cultural Lutheranism,” the Lutheran Church confesses:
It is, of course, self-evident that in true conversion there must be a change, there must be new activities and emotions in the intellect, will, and heart, so that the heart learns to know sin, to fear the wrath of God, to turn from sin, to understand and accept the promise of grace in Christ, to have good spiritual thoughts, Christian intentions, and diligence, and to fight against the flesh, etc. For if none of these things takes place or exists, there is no true conversion. (FC SD II:70, pp. 534-35)
…as Luther writes in his Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, “Faith is a divine work in us that transforms us and begets us anew from God, kills the Old Adam, makes us entirely different people in heart, spirit, mind, and all our powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. Oh, faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, so that it is impossible for it not to be constantly doing what is good. Likewise, faith does not ask if good works are to be done, but before one can ask, faith has already done them and is constantly active. Whoever does not perform such good works is a faithless man, blindly tapping around in search of faith and good works without knowing what either faith or good works are… Faith is a vital, deliberate trust in God’s grace, so certain that it would die a thousand times for it. And such confidence and knowledge of divine grace makes us joyous, mettlesome, and merry toward God and all creatures. This the Holy Spirit works by faith, and therefore without any coercion a man is willing and desirous to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything for the love of God and to his glory, who has been so gracious to him. It is therefore as impossible to separate works from faith as it is to separate heat and light from fire.” (FC SD IV:10-12, pp. 552-53)
When challenged by broadcast-media advocates of the new “gospel” of self-esteem and self-improvement, the Lutheran Church confesses
that a poor sinner is justified before God (that is, he is absolved and declared utterly free from all his sins, and from the verdict of well deserved damnation, and is adopted as a child of God and an heir of eternal life) without any merit or worthiness on our part, and without any preceding, present, or subsequent works, by sheer grace, solely through the merit of the total obedience, the bitter passion, the death, and the resurrection of Christ, our Lord, whose obedience is reckoned to us as righteousness. The Holy Spirit offers these treasures to us in the promise of the Gospel, and faith is the only means whereby we can apprehend, accept, apply them to ourselves, and make them our own. Faith is a gift of God whereby we rightly learn to know Christ as our redeemer in the Word of the Gospel and to trust in him, that solely for the sake of his obedience we have forgiveness of sins by grace, are accounted righteous and holy by God the Father, and are saved forever. (FC SD III:9-11, pp. 540-41)
The examples could go on and on. In summary, the Confessions faithfully proclaimed and applied God’s Word to the historical circumstances in and for which they were written. But since neither human nature nor the Gospel of Christ have changed since then, it should not surprise us that the Confessions faithfully proclaim and apply God’s Word to the circumstances of our day as well. The Book of Concord not only was, it is — very definitely — the public confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Fourth, the Lutheran Confessions are effective tools for the preservation and promotion of true Christian unity. St. Paul literally pleads with the church, “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (1 Cor. 1:10 NKJV) Our forefathers in the faith who in every generation subscribed to the Confessions did so because they were conscientiously “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:3 NKJV) They knew that the “unity of the Spirit” is not a sentimental, man-made, superficial unity, but that it is rooted instead in the Trinitarian reality of “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Eph. 4:4-6 NKJV) The Biblical content of the Lutheran Confessions defines and facilitates this God-given unity both within and between the churches that accept and use them. Joseph Stump elaborates on this basic point:
Confessions or symbols are official formulations of the common faith of the Church. They are public testimonies as to the manner in which the Church apprehends and teaches the doctrines of the Holy Scriptures. … They serve the twofold purpose of exhibiting what the Church believes and teaches, and of guarding against error and heresy. … They are useful also as criteria by which those who hold the same faith may know one another and join together in one organization. The Lutheran Confessions are contained in the Book of Concord, and include the three Ecumenical Creeds, the Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Schmalcald Articles, Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther’s Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord. Bona-fide subscription to these Confessions is required of Lutheran ministers, because the Church must see to it that those who go forth in her name preach only the pure doctrines of the Gospel as she holds them. No one is compelled to subscribe. But if any minister refuses to do so, he thereby testifies that he is not in harmony with the doctrinal position of the Lutheran Church, and has no right to preach in her name. On the other hand, if he is a Lutheran in his convictions, he will be glad to subscribe to the Confessions and to preach the doctrines set forth in them. 22
Melanchthon very sensibly writes: “In these controversies I have always made it a point to stick as closely as possible to traditional doctrinal formulas in order to foster the attainment of harmony.” (Ap Pref.:11, p. 99) When we are able to use the same terminology with the same commonly-understood meaning, we can indeed more easily understand each other and more easily recognize a unity in faith, if such a unity does exist. For orthodox Lutherans, the formulations of the Book of Concord provide just such a working “lexicon” for fraternal discourse, encouragement, support, and cooperation:
The primary requirement for basic and permanent concord within the church is a summary formula and pattern, unanimously approved, in which the summarized doctrine commonly confessed by the churches of the pure Christian religion is drawn together out of the Word of God. For this same purpose the ancient church always had its dependable symbols. It based these not on mere private writings, but on such books as had been written, approved, and accepted in the name of those churches which confessed the same doctrine and religion. In the same way we have from our hearts and with our mouths declared in mutual agreement that we shall neither prepare nor accept a different or a new confession of our faith. Rather, we pledge ourselves again to those public and well-known symbols or common confessions which have at all times and in all places been accepted in all the churches of the Augsburg Confession before the outbreak of the several controversies among the adherents of the Augsburg Confession and which were kept and used during that period when people were everywhere and unanimously faithful to the pure doctrine of the Word of God as Dr. Luther of blessed memory had explained it. (FC SD R&N:1-2, p. 503)
The Lutheran Confessions recognize the Biblical parameters for church fellowship, and they go a long way in facilitating such fellowship among those who mutually subscribe to them. The Confessions eschew sectarianism in all of its forms. From the perspective of the Book of Concord, church fellowship must not be withheld from those who may exhibit various forms of personal weakness if they are otherwise sound in their confession of faith:
We should forsake wicked teachers because they no longer function in the place of Christ, but are antichrists. Christ says (Matt. 7:15), “Beware of false prophets”; Paul says (Gal. 1:9), “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” Christ has also warned us in his parables on the church [Matt. 13:24-50] that when we are offended by the personal conduct of priests or people, we should not incite schisms, as the Donatists wickedly did. (Ap VII/VIII:48-49, pp. 177-78)
…Col. 3:14, “love, which is the bond of perfection.” … Paul…is talking not about personal perfection but about fellowship in the church. He says that love is a bond and unbroken chain linking the members of the church with one another. Similarly, in all families and communities harmony should be nurtured by mutual aid, for it is not possible to preserve tranquility unless men cover and forgive certain mistakes in their midst. In the same way Paul commands that there be love in the church to preserve harmony, to bear, if need be, with the crude behavior of the brethren, to cover up minor mistakes, lest the church disintegrate into various schisms and the hatreds, factions, and heresies that arise from such schisms. For harmony will inevitably disintegrate if bishops impose heavy burdens on the people or have no regard for their weakness. Dissensions also arise when the people judge their clergy’s behavior too strictly or despise them because of some minor fault and then seek after some other kinds of doctrine and other clergy. On the other hand, perfection (that is, the integrity of the church) is preserved when the strong bear with the weak, when the people put the best construction on the faults of their clergy, when the bishops take into account the weakness of the people. (Ap IV:231-34, pp. 139-40)
In the words of C. F. W. Walther, “The church militant must indeed aim at and strive for absolute unity of faith and doctrine, but it never will attain a higher degree of unity than a fundamental one.”23 This, too, is a Confessional principle. And so, from the perspective of the Book of Concord, church fellowship must not be withheld from those who exhibit certain differences in theological emphasis, in preferred forms of theological expression, or in non-dogmatic “theological opinions,” as long as there is a genuine “fundamental” agreement in the articles of faith:24
In order to preserve the pure doctrine and to maintain a thorough, lasting, and God-pleasing concord within the church, it is essential not only to present the true and wholesome doctrine correctly, but also to accuse the adversaries who teach otherwise (I Tim. 3:9; Titus 1:9; II Tim. 2:24; 3:16). “Faithful shepherds,” as Luther states, “must both pasture or feed the lambs and guard against wolves so that they will flee from strange voices and separate the precious from the vile” (John 10:12-16, 27; Jer. 15:19). On this point we have reached a basic and mutual agreement that we shall at all times make a sharp distinction between needless and unprofitable contentions (which, since they destroy rather than edify, should never be allowed to disturb the church) and necessary controversy (dissension concerning articles of the Creed or the chief parts of our Christian doctrine, when the contrary error must be refuted in order to preserve the truth). (FC SD R&N:14-15, pp. 506-07)
Hermann Sasse recognizes the fact that there has never been one monolithic “school of thought” within Lutheranism. He notes that Melanchthon
became a genuine Lutheran theologian under Luther’s strong influence, as the first edition of his Loci shows. But he never ceased to be a humanist, and in the course of time the humanist tendencies of his theology came forth again. This did not matter as long as he remained faithful to Lutheran dogma; in every living church there must be room for a variety of theological thinkers, provided they are in agreement as to the dogma of the church. Thus, a difference of interest in, or emphasis on, certain points of doctrine, and even a difference of expression, could well be tolerated. Luther always felt that he and his learned friend supplemented each other. As Melanchthon had learned from him, so he had learned from Melanchthon. It has great significance for the Lutheran church that its Confessions were not written by Luther alone. As Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession, Apology, and Tractatus are happily supplemented by Luther’s Smalcald Articles and Catechisms, so even the Formula of Concord was written by disciples of Melanchthon and of Luther. This variety in expression of one and the same truth gave the Lutheran Confessions a richness which the confessions of other churches do not possess. Nothing is more significant for the Lutheran church’s independence of human authority than the fact that Luther approved of the Augsburg Confession although he clearly stated that he would have written it in a totally different way. It is the doctrine of the Gospel that matters, and not human theology.25
To elaborate on one of Sasse’s points, we must remember that the authors of the Formula of Concord truly were a very diverse group in many respects. The mix included Andrew Musculus, who had said of Luther:
Since the Apostles’ time, no greater man has lived upon the earth. God has poured out all His gifts on this one man. Between the old teachers (even Hilary and Augustine) and Luther, there is as wide a difference as between the shining of the moon and the light of the sun.26
The mix also included Nicholas Selnecker, who had said that one of the greatest blessings of his life was that he “had had Melanchthon as his instructor, had heard him, had come into almost daily contact with him, had conversed with him, and had consulted with him.”27 The rest of the committee was comprised of people who stood between these two at various places on the “sliding scale” of Lutheranism’s sixteenth-century theological tradition. And yet, in spite of the many personality clashes, tensions, and suspicions that existed among them, and in the midst of the many controversies that had been raging for decades, the Concordists were able to hammer out a precise, clear, and Biblical statement that has been profoundly appreciated by their theological and ecclesiastical heirs ever since. The Formula does not represent the idiosyncratic views of any one of its authors, but is in every sense the church’s confession of the church’s faith.
Of course, none of this means that the Formula of Concord, or any of the Symbolical Books, are doctrinal compromises rooted in anything other than a thorough and consistent submission to God’s Holy Word. As the authors of the Formula declare:
From our exposition friends and foes may clearly understand that we have no intention (since we have no authority to do so) to yield anything of the eternal and unchangeable truth of God for the sake of temporal peace, tranquillity, and outward harmony. Nor would such peace and harmony last, because it would be contrary to the truth and actually intended for its suppression. Still less by far are we minded to whitewash or cover up any falsification of true doctrine or any publicly condemned errors. We have a sincere delight in and deep love for true harmony and are cordially inclined and determined on our part to do everything in our power to further the same. We desire such harmony as will not violate God’s honor, that will not detract anything from the divine truth of the holy Gospel, that will not give place to the smallest error but will lead the poor sinner to true and sincere repentance, raise him up through faith, strengthen him in his new obedience, and thus justify and save him for ever through the sole merit of Christ, and so forth. (FC SD XI:95-96, p. 632)
The Concordists in the late sixteenth century, and we in the late twentieth century, recognize clearly (in harmony with Article VII of the Augsburg Confession) that the proper basis for church fellowship is agreement in the pure marks of the church, and in all that Holy Scripture plainly teaches — that is, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the widest sense. Lutheran churches and church bodies accordingly “will not condemn each other because of a difference in ceremonies, when in Christian liberty one uses fewer or more of them, as long as they are otherwise agreed in doctrine and in all its articles and are also agreed concerning the right use of the holy sacraments, according to the well-known axiom, ‘Disagreement in fasting should not destroy agreement in faith.’” (FC SD X:31 [quoting St. Irenaeus], p. 616)
Publicly preaching and teaching the Word of God in or on behalf of the church is not a right. It is a privilege, granted by God’s call, through the instrumentality of his believing and confessing church. The church certainly expects its ministers to preach, to teach, and to carry out all other aspects of their office in accordance with the Holy Scriptures, as believed and confessed in its midst. For this reason the orthodox Lutheran Church has always demanded a quia subscription to the Confessions, in which the candidate for ordination declares that he embraces the Symbolical Books of the Church because, not “insofar as,” they agree with Scripture. The idea that someone would subscribe to a document of any kind “insofar as” it agrees with Scripture is an idea that would make sense only before the person has read and studied the Bible and/or the document in question. Once the Bible and the document have both been studied, the person can then be asked in a straightforward way, “As you now see it, do the two agree? Yes or No?” The Confessional subscription that the church demands of a pastor is not a statement of his hermeneutical method, but a statement of the results of his hermeneutical method. We could in all honesty subscribe to a whole host of books and documents “insofar as” they agree with Scripture, if there is even a remote trace of Biblical truth contained in them. It would, however, be nothing more than a waste of everyone’s time to say that we subscribe to the Koran, the Talmud, the Book of Mormon, or the Communist Manifesto “insofar as” they agree with Scripture, even though we could say this truthfully. A subscription to the Book of Concord “insofar as” it agrees with the Bible is just as useless to the church.
The Preface to the Book of Concord, signed by Lutheran princes and magistrates, recounts the original instances of a procedure that the Lutheran Church, under various forms of ecclesiastical government, has carried out in regard to its ministers and potential ministers ever since:
…some of us have had this document read article by article to each and every theologian, minister, and schoolmaster in our lands and territories and have had them reminded and exhorted to consider diligently and earnestly the doctrine contained in it. When they had found that the explanation of the dissensions which had arisen was agreeable and conformable first of all to the Word of God and then to the Augsburg Confession as well, the persons to whom it had been presented, as indicated above, gladly and with heartfelt thanks to almighty God testified that of their own volition and with due consideration they accepted, approved, and subscribed this Book of Concord as the correct Christian interpretation of the Augsburg Confession and publicly attested this with their hearts, lips, and hands. Therefore this Christian agreement is called and also is the unanimous and concordant confession not only of a few of our theologians but generally of each and every minister and schoolmaster in our lands and territories. (pp. 7-8)
The Lutheran princes and magistrates knew, of course, that it would be improper to ask people to subscribe to a confession with which they were not thoroughly familiar. (Such a procedure would border on one of the chief sins of the Masonic Lodge, namely, requiring an oath in uncertain matters.) For this reason they asked the theologians, pastors, and teachers in their territories to study the Formula of Concord carefully before signing their names to it. For the same reason they also specify that the theological students in their territories are to be trained in the Confessions as a part of their ministerial education, in preparation for the day when the church will ask each of them in his ordination vow to confess his and its faith, and in preparation for a life of faithful service to God’s people:
…our disposition and intention has always been directed toward the goal that no other doctrine be treated and taught in our lands, territories, schools, and churches than that alone which is based on the Holy Scriptures of God and is embodied in the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, correctly understood, and that no doctrine be permitted entrance which is contrary to these. …we have directed our churches and schools first of all to the Holy Scriptures and the Creeds, and then to the aforementioned Augsburg Confession. We desire particularly that the young men who are being trained for service in the church and for the holy ministry be faithfully and diligently instructed therein, so that the pure teaching and confession of the faith may be preserved and perpetuated among our posterity through the help and assistance of the Holy Spirit until the glorious advent of our only Redeemer and Saviour Jesus Christ. (p. 12)
The Confessions, and especially the Catechisms, can and should fulfill a similar function in the religious education of the laity. In his Shorter Preface to the Large Catechism, Luther writes that it
has been undertaken for the instruction of children and uneducated people. Hence from ancient times it has been called, in Greek, a “catechism” — that is, instruction for children. Its contents represent the minimum of knowledge required of a Christian. Whoever does not possess it should not be reckoned among Christians nor admitted to a sacrament, just as a craftsman who does not know the rules and practices of his craft is rejected and considered incompetent. … I well remember the time when there were old people who were so ignorant that they knew nothing of these things — indeed, ever now we find them daily — yet they come to Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar and exercise all the rights of Christians, although those who come to the sacrament ought to know more and have a fuller understanding of all Christian doctrine than children and beginners at school. As for the common people, however, we should be satisfied if they learned the three parts which have been the heritage of Christendom from ancient times [the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer], though they were rarely taught and treated correctly, so that all who wish to be Christians in fact as well as in name, both young and old, may be well-trained in them and familiar with them. (LC Sh.Pref.:1-2,5-6, p. 362)
Luther gives these directions to pastors in the Preface to the Small Catechism:
Begin by teaching them the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, etc., following the text word for word so that the young may repeat these things after you and retain them in their memory. If any refuse to receive your instructions, tell them that they deny Christ and are no Christians. They should not be admitted to the sacrament, be accepted as sponsors in Baptism, or be allowed to participate in any Christian privileges. (SC Pref.:10-11, p. 339)
According to the Formula of Concord,
Since these matters also concern the laity and the salvation of their souls, we subscribe Dr. Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms as both of them are contained in his printed works. They are “the layman’s Bible” and contain everything which Holy Scripture discusses at greater length and which a Christian must know for his salvation. (FC Ep R&N:5, p. 465)
But of course, the other Confessions are also accessible to the laity of the church, and should be familiar at least to the better educated among them. Let us not forget that the original audience to which the Augsburg Confession was addressed was not a clerical audience but a lay audience — Emperor Charles V to be exact — and that it was written specifically so that it could be clearly understood by him (and by laymen in general).
We have been asked if the Lutheran Confessions are “a practical document today.” Now that we have spent some time considering what the Confessions actually are, we are ready to answer that question. Is sound Biblical exegesis practical in our day? Yes. Are preeminent examples of the faithful ministry of some of the most important pastors and teachers in Christian history practical in our day? Yes. Is the received public confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church practical in our day? Yes. Are effective tools for the preservation and promotion of true Christian unity practical in our day? Yes. Are the Lutheran Confessions a practical document today? By all means, Yes!
1. Standard abbreviations will be used for Confessional references. All Confessional quotations are from The Book of Concord, translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959).
2. St. Athanasius, the great defender of Nicene orthodoxy, unambiguously stated that “the sacred and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth.” (Against the Heathen I:3.)
6. Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology (Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1899), p. 169. We will be referring to Krauth quite often in the course of this paper. We beg indulgence to do so, since in our judgment he wrote so eloquently, pointedly, and correctly on the subject of the practical authority of the Confessions in the life of the Lutheran Church.
13. Charles F. Schaeffer, Evangelical Review, Vol. I, p. 482; quoted in Theodore E. Schmauk, The Confessional Principle and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1911), p. 684.
16. While in the throes of the Predestination Controversy, the Norwegian Synod had tactically withdrawn from formal membership in the Synodical Conference in 1883, but remained in fellowship with the Conference and with its constituent synods.
17. H. E. Jacobs, “The General Council,” The Distinctive Doctrines and Usages of the General Bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1914), p. 100.
18. We are not here discussing the question of whether or not a new statement may or should be added to the corpus of the church’s official Confessions, in response to contemporary doctrinal issues that were not matters of controversy in the sixteenth century. That is a different subject, not addressed within the parameters of this paper.
This essay was delivered at the meeting of the European Region of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference near Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 28, 1998. It was published in Lutheran Synod Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3 (September 1999), pp. 244-78. The printed version of this essay differs slightly from the online version that appears here.