by Timothy Teuscher
While Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517 was the spark that ignited the Reformation, it wasn’t until the presentation of the Augsburg Confession on June 25, 1530 that there emerged what might be termed a distinct Evangelical Lutheran Church. For it is in this confession made at the Diet (or meeting) of Augsburg that the Reformation principles of grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone are clearly articulated and set forth.
The first part of the Augsburg Confession itself presents in twenty-one articles a clear and concise statement of the faith held by the Lutherans—articles in common with the Roman Catholics, in common with the church fathers, in opposition to the unscriptural teachings of Rome, and in distinction from the Zwinglians, Anabaptists, and other radical Reformers. The second part rejects, in seven articles, those abuses in the Roman Church which were deemed most objectionable and had already been changed and corrected among the Lutherans.
Following the first part, we read these words: “This is just about a summary of the doctrines that are preached and taught in our churches for proper Christian instruction, the consolation of consciences, and the amendment of believers. 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…. 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.”
After the public reading of the Augsburg Confession, a refutation was prepared by Roman Catholic theologians, to which Luther’s colleague, Philip Melanchthon, responded the following year with what is called the Apology (or Defense) of The Augsburg Confession. In reading and studying the Augsburg Confession, it is important to thus note what the Roman Confutation says regarding the various articles and how the Apology answers. The Diet of Augsburg itself closed soon after the Lutheran representatives had left; the last item of business being a resolution to proceed with violent measures against them if they should not return to the Roman Catholic faith.
For various reasons, however, this would not be initiated until a year after Luther’s death in 1547. Although the Lutheran forces were defeated on the field of battle, the imposition of Roman Catholic teachings and practices, called the Interim, could not change the faith of a whole generation of pastors and people who had espoused the teachings of the Augsburg Confession. Finally, at another Diet of Augsburg in the year 1555, it was simply agreed to accept the religious divisions that had by now become entrenched.
The crisis faced by the Lutherans during these years sadly revealed a weakness in Philip Melanchthon who had been willing to give up fundamental principles of the Augsburg Confession in order to achieve outward peace with the Romanists by supporting the Interim. After a period of internal controversies among the Lutherans concerning the Interim and other issues, unity was restored under the leadership of “the second Martin”—Martin Chemnitz—with the adoption of the Formula of Concord. Three years later, on June 25, 1580, fifty years to the day after the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, the Book of Concord containing all the confessional writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, including Luther’s Catechisms, would be published and initially signed by three electors, two bishops, eighteen princes, twenty-four counts, four barons, thirty-eight cities, and more than 8,000 clergy… and since that time also by all of the church bodies in the International Lutheran Council and their congregations and pastors.
What, however, does such subscription mean? Just this: as the true Church is gathered not simply around the Bible, but around the rightly understood and correctly proclaimed Bible, so the Augsburg Confession expresses the right understanding of the Scriptures and does not supplant God’s Word, but simply expresses the central teachings of the Bible in an orderly fashion. This is why we say we subscribe to the Augsburg Confession and the other confessional writings because they are in agreement with the Scriptures, not insofar as they agree. In other words, we don’t pick and choose which ones we will abide by and which ones we can dispense with—a symptom of our post-modern society. An insofar subscription is, however, really no subscription at all; interpreted in this way, after all, we could “subscribe” to the texts of any religion.
In the Preface to the Book of Concord we thus read the following words which are just as timely and necessary for our own day. And, if we actually took them to heart, they would go a long way to help us address and deal with some of the problems and issues facing our churches: “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.” And further: “We are reminded by the grace of the Holy Spirit to abide and remain unanimously in this confession of faith and to regulate all religious controversies and their explanations according to it. We have resolved and purpose to live in genuine peace and concord with our fellow-members, and to demonstrate toward everyone, according to his station, all affection, service, and friendship. We likewise purpose to cooperate with one another in the future in the implementation of this effort at concord in our lands, according to our own and each community’s circumstances…. If the current controversies about our Christian religion should continue or new ones arise, we shall see to it that they are settled and composed in timely fashion before they become dangerously widespread.”
On this day of June 25, we not only thank and praise God for the example of the fearless confessors of Augsburg (who, by the way, were all laymen), but also ask Him to preserve us in that same confession of faith and to pass on this saving faith to future generations. This we do mindful of our Lord’s own words: “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).
Rev. Timothy Teuscher is President of Lutheran Church–Canada and Vice-Chairman of the International Lutheran Council.