The Presentation of the Augsburg Confession
As a Lutheran pastor and theologian, especially since I began writing Ask the Pastor, I continually receive questions about my church: Who are we, where do we come from, what do we believe? Since we Lutherans have a very special remembrance this Sunday, I thought this a good time to share a bit of our history and teaching.
In 1530, our Lutheran forefathers made public proclamation of a new summary of the ancient Scripture truth: Mankind is justified by God’s grace through faith in Christ Jesus. They set forth this notion in a religious document affirmed by secular rulers. Written by Philipp Melanchthon, approved by Martin Luther, and signed by princes, dukes, and other civil leaders, the Augsburg Confession was presented to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, on 25 June AD 1530.
Some thirteen years of activity preceded this gathering. Many Lutherans (and a considerable number of non-Lutherans) date the beginning of the Lutheran Church to Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-five Theses on the Wittenberg church doors on 31 October 1517. However, when he did this, he considered himself a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church. When ecclesiastical leaders resisted debate and discussion, defending doctrines and practices Luther considered Biblically indefensible, his efforts for reform increased and others began following his lead.
By the time the Charles declared a diet (an imperial assembly) in Augsburg and summoned German princes and free territories to explain themselves and their “new” religious convictions, almost ten years had passed since Luther had been excommunicated by Rome and subsequently declared an “outlaw” by the empire. His theological understanding had grown, his differences with Rome and its papacy sharpened, and few of his followers believed that the possibility of reconciliation existed.
Still, they came to Augsburg — or at least some of them did. Luther’s ruler, John “the Steadfast” of Saxony, forbad Luther to attend, fearing he would be arrested or killed outright. When Melanchthon sat down to compose a statement of belief for the Evangelicals (evangelical means “of the Gospel”), he based the document on the Torgau Articles, written by Luther with input from a number of other theologians.
After completing an early draft, he sent it to Luther, who made a few suggestions but approved of its overall content. Some of the other religious leaders added their ideas and “Master Philipp” put it all together into a statement of Evangelical belief, citing supporting Scriptures and quoting the Church fathers to show that what was written was no novelty but was fully supported and attested by Holy Writ and the orthodox theology of the ancient Church.
This wasn’t what the emperor wanted. He desired peace, unity, and an organized resistance against Islamic Turks who were invading Europe. Instead, a group of the empire’s foremost leaders, including some responsible for the election of emperors, affixed their names to a document claiming that much of what the emperor believed was wrong and stating that his church misunderstood, obscured, and misapplied much of the Gospel.
When the German leaders wanted to make a public reading of their articles of faith, Charles first denied them. He then shifted the venue into a small chapel where no spectators would hear. On 25 June 1530, Saxon chancellors Bruck and Beyer brought German and Latin copies of the document into the room. Although Charles objected, the German copy was read aloud, then both copies were given to him. He kept the Latin, giving the German to his chancellor, probably because he barely understood the language spoken by a large number of his subjects.
From this time forward, the Evangelicals (later to be known as Protestants and Lutherans) were clearly distinguishable. The leaders had made a confession — not that they had done wrong, but rather of what they believed to be right. Perhaps the 95 Theses had announced the beginning of the end for the medieval Church but it wasn’t until Augsburg, when rulers and theologians and rulers publically clarified their ongoing and irreconcilable differences with Rome, that we see what we might term a distinct Lutheran Church.
As the Evangelical movement spread, the Augsburg Confession became a test of Evangelical fidelity and a sort of “constitution” for Lutheranism. In some ways, we might draw a parallel from American history, where the Declaration of Independence set in motion events which culminated in the United States Constitution and the federal republic it established.
After Holy Scripture, the Augsburg Confession is the “heart” of the Lutheran Church. Based on Luther’s writings and in accord with his teaching, it also bears the mark of the gentler, more refined Philipp Melanchthon. It never seeks to be combative but in simple language states exactly what the Evangelicals believed, which Scriptures supported their faith, what beliefs and practices of Rome they thought contrary to the Gospel, and in what areas there was already agreement.
This “heart of Lutheranism” itself has a “heart” — the unmerited but full forgiveness of our sins won by Christ on the cross. The first three articles tell who God is, declare His wrath at sin, and proclaim the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. In Article IV, we then learn how God fixes all that is wrong in us: “[We] teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Romans 3 and 4.”
How does this salvation come to us? Article V says, “That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.”
The Confession continues by defining the Church in terms of the Gospel, condemning anything that obscures the Gospel or devalues Christ and detailing changes implemented by the Evangelicals to correct doctrinal abuses. It invites the reader (particularly Charles V) to see for himself that the Evangelicals had not tossed out any babies with the dirty bath water, but had kept any and all practices, ceremonies, and teachings that were not contrary to the Gospel.
Other statements of belief, ranging from the ecumenical Christian creeds of earlier centuries to other Lutheran documents of the 1500s, joined the Augsburg Confession in Concordia, the Lutheran Book of Concord (Agreement), in 1580. Just as a handful of thoroughly convinced public leaders signed the Augsburg Confession, so a large number of rulers and town council members joined in the initial subscription to Concordia. Meanwhile, over 8000 pastors and theologians had already become subscribers to the Formula of Concord, the summary confessional document in Concordia.
To this day, in The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, every pastor, teacher, and congregation pledges wholehearted agreement with Holy Scripture and with the entire Book of Concord, including the Augsburg Confession. This follows the practice of solidly Lutheran bodies around the world.
Of course, some always find disagreement with Biblical dogma and may try to weaken the force of a doctrinal statement in order to include a wider confessional range within its teaching. This happened with the Augsburg Confession. Philipp Melanchthon, as previously noted, was gentler and more conciliatory in nature than many of his contemporaries and wanted to expand Evangelicalism to include the followers of John Calvin and others and, perhaps, also extend olive branches to Rome. Furthermore, since he’d written the Augsburg Confession, he seemed to think of it as his own, a document he could change to suit circumstances rather than a fixed exposition of Lutheran theology.
Melanchthon developed several alternate texts, the most noted being the Variata of 1540. It so weakened communion theology that John Calvin could accept it in good conscience. Therefore, later confessional Lutherans learned to specify that their subscription was to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession (UAC), not to the Variata. That is why many Lutheran cornerstones here in the United States include the initials UAC, as an expression agreement with the document presented on 25 June 1530.
Those who call themselves “confessional Lutherans” continue subscribing (signing on) to its theology because they believe that the creeds and confessions of Concordia are true expositions of Holy Scripture. These do not supplant nor supplement God’s Word; they merely focus on particular teachings in an orderly fashion.
We sometimes speak of Scripture as the norma normans (ruling rule) — it defines and establishes all doctrine. The Augsburg Confession, as are the other creedal statements, is norma normata (ruled rule) — it draws its entire content from Scripture. In other words, Concordia “rules” in confessional Lutheranism because Holy Scripture “rules” the creeds and confessions.
Because of this, confessional Lutherans practice quia (because) and not quatenus (insofar as) subscription: We agree with the Lutheran Confessions because they agree with Scripture, not insofar as they agree. In other words, we don’t pick and choose which of Concordia’s doctrines we will uphold and which we will deny. Instead, we believe that since all of the theology of the Book of Concord is the theology of God’s Word, all of Concordia is suitable for the tasks of teaching the Church, reproving false doctrine, correcting behavior, and encouraging the saints.
Augsburg Confession quotes public domain from the Triglot Concordia of 1921 as found at The Book of Concord Online Edition.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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