The Lutheran Confessions: a Handbook for Sharing the Faith
by Timothy J. Wengert (January / February 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 1)
The essence of The Book of Concord, according to one of the editors of Lutheranism's newly translated confessions, is letting others understand the truth of our faiththat is, sharing the gospel of Christ
For the past nine years, I have been laboring over a new translation of The Book of Concord — along with the co-editor of the volume, Robert Kolb, and a host of translators, readers, and editors at Augsburg Fortress.
The countless close readings of the text, in the original Latin and German and in old and new English translations, provided me with opportunities to think about this book and its use in the ELCA and its congregations. The following reflections may stimulate other pastors and rostered leaders to open the book in the old or new versions and, as the saying goes, to "taste it again for the first time."
Almost all "rostered leaders" in the ELCA own a copy of The Book of Concord, a.k.a. "Tappert." It is somewhere on the shelf — or sometimes propping up a shelf — in the studies of most pastors and rostered lay ministers. We may not have read it lately but — with the exception of one exuberant senior at my seminary 10 years ago who sold it back to the bookstore without erasing his name from the front cover — we all have one.
However, like the ubiquitous fire extinguisher in public buildings, we take comfort in seeing it hanging there, know it is useful, but have no clue how to use it in an emergency.
|What if — and this is the heart of my discovery — this book has a beating, pastoral heart, not simply a stony doctrinal one? |
Part of our neglect of and insecurity around The Book of Concord stems from the purposes to which it is, in fact, most often put. In some seminaries, students were required to sign a statement vouching for the fact that they had read the entire thing. (Don't tell Professor Charlie Anderson, but even I skipped part of the Solid Declaration, article 12.)
When preparing for approval from seminary faculties and candidacy committees, few students have recurring nightmares about being surrounded by rabid Lutherans, waving their red books and chanting Luther's catechism in Latin. However, most do imagine that someone might ask them a tough question about the descent into hell, adiaphora, or (this is the one that left me speechless) the dreaded communicatio idiomatum.
We treat students forced to read The Book of Concord rather like their hormonally challenged, eighth-grade counterparts in our congregations who must memorize Luther's Small Catechism. "This is good for you; you'll thank me later."
Our perplexity about The Book of Concord also arises from the one legitimate use of it that has effectively obscured all the others. In recent debates over ecumenical agreements, for example, people often defended their position from sections of The Book of Concord. This was not the only authority in the discussions, but it was one.
For me, as a professor of Lutheran Confessions at an ELCA seminary, it is heartening simply to hear people who think The Book of Concord is worth quoting at all!
This has not always been the case among Lutherans in America. Quite frankly, there is no guarantee that, some time in the future, we will not completely jettison the book in favor of ecumenical politeness, fundamentalistic fervor, or simply the power of positive growth and thinking.
However, behind much of the present quoting and counter-quoting of the venerable Book lurks the notion that it is, in the final analysis, simply an answer book. It is treated like the fortune telling machines at old seaside (or lakeside) resorts: you pay your money and the mannequin in the turban with the crystal ball will spit out your future. If you just know what topic to search in the index of "Tappert," you will have the answer to every theological question worth asking.
In some cases, this approach reduces The Book of Concord even further: to a theological rule book with which to smite the unsuspecting seminarian (or ignorant parish pastor) into submission. To be sure, some folks deserve to be smitten, but this purpose of The Book of Concord narrows and becomes legalistic.
What if that is not the spirit of this book at all? What if the authors and compilers of The Book of Concord had other uses in mind for this collection of documents — uses we neglect at our peril as parish pastors and staff? What if — and this is the heart of my discovery — this book has a beating, pastoral heart, not simply a stony doctrinal one?
Think of what a difference that discovery could make! Then using it regularly or even reading it in a new translation may not seem like some cruel form of seminary hazing. It may finally serve us as its authors intended: as a handbook for parish ministry.
Evangelism: the Heart
It always surprises me, but each year a student or two in the course on Lutheran Confessions will sneak up to me after class and, with no small amount of embarrassment, admit that they first became Lutheran because someone told them to read the Augsburg Confession or even The Book of Concord .
I do not know why it should catch me off guard. The facts are that this document in particular arose as a confession of faith, put in such a form as to convince its listeners of the truth of it.
Thus, this volume in particular can function as a handy training manual for congregational members who wish to share their faith. Take my favorite article, CA XX. Although it comes at the end of the doctrinal section (CA I-XXI), it consists of a feisty defense of the evangelicals at Augsburg and their "preaching," that is, their message.
With his fellow preachers and teachers falsely accused of forbidding good works, Philip Melanchthon does not simply stick out his tongue and move on to the next article. He gives a rousing summary of what mattered most to the early Lutherans. The point is faith, not works.
In fact, for the first time, Melanchthon himself uses the phrase that is still hard for many to comprehend: we are justified by faith alone. However, just to make sure we do not misunderstand that little word faith (and turn it into knowledge or some other work), he defines it as "assurance..."
Even his discussion of good works strikes modern readers like a breath of fresh air, so that he ends where he began, with Christ's own words, "Apart from me you can do nothing." In a world where Christianity has once again been taken hostage by workaholics, Melanchthon's personal confession and defense of faith (alone) gives us such good news to share. It is a wonder that gospel-starved folks aren't falling over themselves to get in the doors of Lutheran churches!
Ministry with Inactives
Some time ago I published an article in Word and World (17 : 54-60) outlining connections between struggles with inactive members and Luther's admonition in the Large Catechism (par. 39-84) to receive the Lord's Supper. Luther's remarks stemmed from his Holy Week preaching in 1529. On Maundy Thursday, he dedicated an entire sermon to encourage his congregation to commune.1
He concluded with this exhortation (p. 79): "First of all it is commanded that you go to the Sacrament; then there are promised comfort and salvation. Do not wait two long years! With God's help overcome the temptation to wait one Sunday and then another and another! Say instead: Whoever is not worthy today will be even less so tomorrow."
There one hears the basic outline of Luther's later remarks in the Large Catechism: Law (Christ's command to "Do this") and Gospel (Christ's promise that it is "for you").
We receive an even clearer glimpse of Luther's pastoral side in the Catechism. He begins with the law for those "cold and indifferent" people who think the Lord's Supper is a frill. As Luther reminds his readers in the preface to the Small Catechism (par. 22) "Christ did not say, 'Omit this,' or 'Despise this,' but instead, 'Do this, as often as you drink it....'" Thus, receiving communion (or attending worship) is not a matter of pleasing the pastor but obeying Christ.
Moreover, and this is a pastoral side that deserves emulation, Luther admits in the Large Catechism that he discovered by his own experience that neglecting the sacrament turned his heart cold (par. 53). Even with this worst group, Luther does not scold them but identifies with them!
Unworthiness blocks a second group from coming to the Lord's Supper. This obstacle not only plagues a host of our older folks haunted by the pietism of their youth but many inactive members who, for example, often abandon the church in the face of divorce or other moral crises.
Luther also identifies with this group (par. 55). He again uses the law (par. 61-63) — not as a club but as an invitation. The fact that Christ commands us to come means that "this sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness." The command to take and eat applies to all. But he also uses Christ's promise (par. 64-66) and encourages his tender but timid listeners to include themselves in the "for you."
Finally, he recognizes a third group, which feels no need at all (par. 75-84). With them he employs the Scripture and their own experience to prove that they are in the flesh, in the world, and assaulted by the devil. "If you could see how many daggers, spears, and arrows are aimed at you every moment, you would be glad to come to the sacrament as often as you can."
If, after such a rehearsal, they still feel nothing, Luther does not relegate them to the church's ash heap. Instead, he considers how tragic their condition is and suggests that they lament to God and beg help from a brother or sister.
What an encouragement to evangelism committees, pastors, congregation councils, and concerned members! When dealing with this tragic question, Luther does not divide people up between us and them. He does not make snide comments in church newsletters or sermons about "Christmas and Easter Christians." He carefully distinguishes different kinds of reasons for such inactivity, identifies with the sufferers, and skillfully applies the law and gospel.
Even with the disinterested — a particularly difficult category — he does not finally dismiss them but instead talks about the stone laid upon their hearts. Would that our approaches to the inactive and fallen away would show as much sensitivity to how the law and gospel function!
Words of Comfort
People often speak about "crises" in our church. Very often, these authors link their pet struggle with a crisis in the ordained ministry itself. How easily we become confused about the nature of the public ministry and its purpose! What am I supposed to be doing? Am I social worker, therapist, executive, enabler, recruiter, activist, baby sitter? What does a pastor do?
The Reformation itself provoked a sea change in the function of the pastor from ritual functionary (in 1519 alone, thousands of private masses were still being recited in Wittenberg at the Castle Church) to proclaimer of the Good News. The Book of Concord reflects this change and thereby provides a wonderful way to focus Lutheran ministry in the present.
Do you know what one concept most often occurs in The Book of Concord? Comfort for the terrified. That, in a nutshell, describes what pastors do. First, by telling the truth about the human predicament (in traditional terms: preaching the law), we name the terrors afflicting our people. Note that in this sense "preaching the law" is not simply "making folks feel guilty" but simply telling the truth.
Then, in the midst of this predicament we bring the voice of the One who commands wind and waves for the terrified disciples in the sinking boat and for us — all who are (literally) "mini-believers." The concept of law and gospel does not simply describe two types of biblical words (commands and promises); it alerts us to how God's Word works on us: to terrify and kill the old creature and to bring to life the new. That Word and its work alone shape the public office of ministry.
How easily we forget this! How often have I not heard sermons delivered by pastors at gatherings of pastors and rostered lay ministers, where the preacher takes it upon him- or herself merely to clobber the listeners with the law.
Just take a look at a few of the places where Luther, Melanchthon, and the Concordists make this clear. In CA XX, after describing the content of the gospel (justification for Christ's sake, through faith alone), Melanchthon proves his case not only by citing Paul, Augustine, and Ambrose, but also by describing the believer's experience of the gospel. "Now although untested people despise this teaching completely, it is nevertheless the case that it is very comforting and beneficial for timid and terrified consciences" (par. 15).
|Comfort for the terrified. That, in a nutshell, describes what pastors do.|
In article XII on repentance in the Apology, we read (par. 53), "For these are the two chief works of God in human beings, to terrify and to justify the terrified or make them alive." Earlier (par. 35), Melanchthon had emphasized that to the terror of the law "we therefore add faith in Christ as the second part of repentance, namely, that in the midst of these terrors, the gospel about Christ (which freely promises the forgiveness of sins through Christ) ought to be set forth to consciences...This faith uplifts, sustains, and gives life to the contrite..."
Every sermon, every newsletter article, every teaching moment or pastoral encounter, in short, everything we do as pastors leads to that universal, law-free comfort. The old saw that in Luther's day people were searching for a gracious God but nowadays we wonder whether there is a god, is wrong on both counts. Whether terrified by an angry God or by the disappearance of God, what folks need — in Luther's day and ours — is the sweet voice of their Savior's consolation.
Not only Melanchthon, but Luther also emphasized comfort. In the Smalcald Articles (III.3.2 & 4), using characteristically vivid language, he describes the law and gospel this way. "Now this is the thunderbolt of God, by means of which he destroys both the open sinner and the false saint and allows no one to be right but drives the whole lot of them into terror and despair....To this office of the law, however, the New Testament immediately adds the consoling promise of grace through the gospel."
Even the somewhat stodgy Formula of Concord gets into the act. Its discussion of predestination (Epitome, XI, 1) begins by reminding readers that "it is an article of comfort when properly treated."
In one of the most lyrical parts of the same article (XI, 13), the author, Jakob Andreae, writes, "We have a glorious comfort in this salutary teaching [on election], that we know how we have been chosen for eternal life in Christ out of sheer grace, without any merit of our own, and that no one can tear us out of his hand."
This comforts us today as well, in an age when many think God has abandoned this world and the church and has left us here to fend for ourselves. Our little flocks need once again to hear the unconditional promise, "Do not be afraid."
Space does not permit me to deal in detail with all the insights for parish ministry contained in this book. What we have in The Book of Concord are people caught in the act of confessing their faith. As a result, for many of the issues we face today, this book offers refreshing perspectives.
Consider how the Small Catechism may inform how and what we teach confirmands. In my introduction to the Contemporary Translation of Luther's Small Catechism (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), I remind folks that in the Catechism young Hans asked Martin not "what does this mean" but "what is this."
This invites us to place the students' most heartfelt questions about God in the center of our instruction and confessing our own faith by stating the basic texts and actions of the faith (Ten Commandments, Apostles' Creed, Lord's Prayer, and sacraments) in our own words.
But there is more still! For congregational fights, one may turn to the discussion of adiaphora in article 10 of the Formula of Concord.
For adult forums' perennial interest in prayer, how seldom do pastors or other leaders use Luther's brilliant introduction to the Lord's Prayer in his Large Catechism.
One of the greatest temptations faced by church members is ignoring God's Word and replacing it with our ownwhat Luther called Schwärmerei or Enthusiasmus. For this disease, inherited from Adam and Eve, Luther provides the perfect antidote in the Smalcald Articles, Pt. III, art. 8.
What a unique thing it would be if we began to provide Small Catechisms at baptisms and marriages or (better still) used them in pre-baptismal and pre-marital counseling (especially now that Luther's idea of providing the services of Baptism and Marriage as appendixes has been reinstated)!
The authority of the pastoral office has become a hot topic in the current debate over certain ecumenical agreements. One need look no further than the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope or Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology for new insights.
In 1883, a publishing house in Weimar, Germany began publishing the critical edition of Luther's works. The result sparked a Luther renaissance that has affected church life to this day. While we as editors hardly could hope for such an impact, nevertheless if even one pastor or rostered lay minister, or congregation or synod assembly, gains a single insight into the gospel and the witness of our 16th-century forebears in the faith, this project will have succeeded.
That this new translation may even spark a renaissance of interest in and commitment to The Book of Concord and its pastoral heart would be my fondest dream.
Timothy J. Wengert is professor of Reformation History at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
1. See The 1529 Holy Week and Easter Sermons of Dr. Martin Luther, trans. by Irving L. Sandberg (St. Louis: Concordia, 1999), 71-79.