FROM THE PASTOR
by Pastor Daniel A. Hinton
The Book of Concord: What is it?
Part 2 – The Augsburg Confession
If October 31, 1517 (Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses) was the event that sparked the Reformation, June 25, 1530 – the presentation of The Augsburg Confession (Confessio Augustana in Latin) – was the event that irreversibly solidified The Reformation and its Gospel-centered theology. Just over nine years earlier, a similar meeting (diet) had taken place in the town of Worms. There is where Luther stood up to the Emperor and papal emissaries alike, concluding his defense with the famous words, "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. [Here I stand, I can do no other.] God help me. Amen."
Unlike at Worms, at Augsburg Luther didn’t stand alone in his confession of faith. In fact, Luther could not be present at Augsburg as he had to remain in Saxony in order to be under the protection of his prince, Frederick the Wise. However, he was able to contribute from afar as he corresponded with the group by messenger. With the many princes and other leaders of the German states at Augsburg, Luther’s courageous stand 9 years earlier at Worms had now grown into a foundation of enduring resistance against the tyrannical captivity of the Church catholic by papal false teaching and practice.
The Augsburg Confession (AC) is the document that forms the backbone of the entire body of work known as the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, or the Book of Concord. As noted in my previous article, the theology of the Reformation was neither innovative nor progressive. It sought to clearly articulate beliefs which dated back to Christ and His Apostles; and to demonstrate how, in the last few centuries, the leadership of the papacy veered the Church, to her detriment, away from the clear teaching of Scripture alone. As with the Creeds, the Augsburg confession merely states what the Church had universally believed and taught for the first thousand (or more) years of its existence.
The first 21 articles of the AC comprise The Reformers’ theses meant to clarify the basic tenets of the Christian faith, even as they reject errors coming from either the papists or other protestant groups who were cropping up in various places around the same time. It was important for The Reformers not only to clarify their beliefs and where they agreed and disagreed with Rome, but also to establish that they were not in league with other reform movements (such as Zwingli and his radicals in Switzerland) where important aspects of the faith (like the Sacraments) were being denied. It was important for the Reformers to show that they held to an orthodox view of these critical teachings. Topics addressed include the Trinity, Original Sin, Justification, The Office of the Ministry, the Church, the Sacraments, and other important aspects of the faith.
The final 7 articles address abuses in teaching and/or practice, which the Reformers wanted to correct, based upon both Church tradition and the teaching of Scripture. The following corrections in teaching and practice were called for:
1. Article XXII: Restoring the practice of communing everyone in both kinds – both body/bread and blood/wine. The current practice of the blood of Christ being only for the priests was contrary to Christ’s own words in the institution of the Sacrament, "drink of it all of you."
2. Article XXIII: Restoring the allowance of the clergy to marry; something forbidden since around 1100AD for reasons based on an incorrect interpretation of Scripture. The Reformers here emphasize the gift of God that marriage is, and they argue from Scripture why this gift ought not be denied to servants of the Church.
3. Article XXIV: Clarifying the purpose of the Mass (what we now call the Divine Service). The Reformers begin this article by emphasizing their desire to maintain the historic liturgy of the Church catholic (their papist opponents often accused them of abolishing it). Most important, they clarify that The Mass (Divine Service) is not a "work of the people" who, by simply attending and observing, merit forgiveness (a standard teaching at the time). The Reformers emphasize instead the true teaching of the Church catholic, that the Liturgy is a work of God for the people. The Mass/Divine Service is the means by which God serves His people with the forgiveness of sins. So it is that the Divine Service is not a work for us to perform to appease God, but a feast of Word and Sacrament to which we are invited as honored guests; a gift and blessing to be received in faith and thanksgiving.
4. Article XXV: Clarifying the purpose of Confession and Absolution as being something to bring comfort to a terrified sinner who is repentant of their sin. The prevailing practice of the day made it something that either instilled yet more guilt on people (as one was required to enumerate specific sins in order to receive forgiveness and usually had requirements for penance heaped upon them as a condition of absolution), or used as licensure for sin as one could simply live a life of sin so long as they went regularly to confession (cheap grace).
5. Article XXVI: Objecting to the requirement that all Christians abstain from meat at certain times, as if fasting or other bodily discipline should be by compulsion. They do acknowledge the good that can come from fasting and other corporeal preparation, but they condemn the teaching that any such thing merits the forgiveness of sins. Such activities can indeed help to curb sin and focus on God, and for that reason are beneficial to the Christian. But they should be done according to Christian freedom rather than dictates from leaders of the Church.
6. Article XXVII: Objecting to the false teaching that monasticism and the works of priests, monks, and nuns are more valuable and spiritual than other work. This article highlights the spiritual good in the vocation of husband/wife, father/mother, etc., and shows that any work that involves love and service to neighbor is a good work, whether it is accomplished in connection to the Church or not. It should be noted that monastic life in and of itself is not condemned by the Lutheran Confessions, but only the abuses connected with it and the idea that monastic life is somehow more holy than other "worldly" (yet God-given) vocations.
7. Article XXVIII: The final article of the AC expands on Articles V and XIV which address issues concerning the Office of the Ministry. Here is leveled an important objection to bishops gaining political power and worldly leadership roles when the God-given purpose of clergy (whether deacon, pastor, or bishop) is to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments, denounce false teaching, and proclaim forgiveness to repentant sinners. This article emphasizes the grace of God given to us through faith alone, and that the clergy’s authority is always and only connected to the forgiveness of sins, not to any worldly power.
These were not the only abuses being propagated by the Church in that day, but they were the primary ones. This document was truly a call for reform. It was not a "declaration of independence" from the Church catholic, but a call for those in authority to return her to her roots in the teaching of Christ and the Apostles.
In a private meeting between Emperor Charles and the German princes, just prior to the formal gathering, the emperor ordered the princes to attend the Corpus Christi festival (which was rooted in some of the very false teachings to which the princes were objecting) planned for the next day, and to forbid any "Lutheran" preaching in Augsburg or in any of their lands. In response to this, one of the princes, George, Margrave of Brandenburg, refused to concede to Charles’s demands, saying, "Before I let anyone take from me the Word of God and ask me to deny my God, I will kneel and let them strike off my head." This climactic scene in history brings to mind the words of Peter and the Apostles in Acts 5:29. When commanded by the chief priests to cease teaching in the name of Christ, they boldly responded, "We must obey God rather than men." May we always seek to uphold this same witness to the truth of Holy Scripture. Amen.