October 26, 2003
Notes on the Augsburg Confession

Allen Brill recommended that to learn more about Lutheranism I should read the Augsburg Confession, and kindly unearthed an online version. It's only 18 pages long, including the introduction, but it's quite an action-packed 18 pages.

The Confession was written by Luther's friend Philip Melanchthon, to spell out the movement's positions at the request of the Holy Roman Emperor. I mentioned before that I tend to see Lutheranism as a "via media," and they seemed to see themselves that way at the beginning also. The Confession affirms a lot of basic Catholic creeds and takes care to reject ancient heresies such as Pelagianism and Donatism, and also rejects some splinter groups around at the time, especially the Anabaptists.

I don't know a lot about the Anabaptists; apparently their only surviving descendants are the Mennonites, but spiritually they sound like the great-grandparents of evangelicals, as well as other unorthodox groups like the Quakers. They rejected infant baptism and institutionalized churches; they thought churches should be voluntary associations of believers. They had their wingnuts too: my encyclopedia says one guy, John of Leiden, took over a German town and proclaimed himself King David.

The picture that the Confession draws of them in the negative adds some more details. Melanchthon says Lutherans believe one needs to hear the Word, whereas Anabaptists "think that the Holy Ghost comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and works." I'm not sure what this means; maybe in an era when literacy largely belonged to the clergy, the Anabaptists denied the need for deep knowledge of the Bible, and relied on "inspiration." We are also told that Anabaptists deny that one can lose the Holy Ghost once justified; this sounds like the Calvinist "once saved, always saved" position. (There's no mention of Calvinists in this document; I'm assuming they hadn't split off yet.) The Anabaptists also believed that "there will be an end to the punishments of condemned men and devils." I don't know if that means they're universalists, or annihilationists.

Melanchthon dispatches the disputes with the Anabaptists fairly quickly, but the disputes with Catholicism, not surprisingly, he describes in more detail. In particular he explains the idea of "justification by faith" vs. "justification by works", something I was never that clear on myself.

Lutherans are not opposed to good works, Melanchthon says. Rather, they oppose the idea that doing certain things to expiate or prevent sins are what set you right with God. Along the way, he makes an argument actually very similar to Kynn's point a while ago, that faith entails a trust in God, rather than a belief in certain factual events. Or as Melanchthon puts it:

Men are also admonished that here the term "faith" does not signify merely the knowledge of the history, such as is in the ungodly and in the devil, but signifies a faith which believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history—namely, this article: the forgiveness of sins, to wit, that we have grace, righteousness, and forgiveness of sins through Christ.

That message of God's love and forgiveness had been lost in recent Catholic practice, Melanchthon charges. Instead of believing they had already been forgiven through Christ's sacrifice, many people apparently believed Christ only atoned for original sin, and subsequent sins had to be taken care of through "childish and needless works, as particular holy-days, particular fasts, brotherhoods, pilgramages, services in honor of sainsts, the use of rosaries, monasticism, and such like."

Now, I think Melanchthon is too harsh in calling these "childish and needless," but I see the point he's getting at. When I think of Christian "good works" I think of loving one's neighbor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked etc. What Lutherans objected to was ritualistic and self-punishing actions undertaken out of fear of hell. Time and again, Melanchthon invokes the "terrified conscience," to which Christ is supposed to bring comfort, not new burdens. Good works should not spring from fear, says Melanchthon, but from faith:

And because through faith the Holy Ghost is received, hearts are renewed and endowed with new affections, so as to be able to bring forth good works. For Ambrose says: Faith is the mother of a good will and right doing.

This sounds a lot like the line of Telford's I quoted last week: "If you have a relationship with Jesus you can become sanctified through that, not because there's some rule." Since Telford would be more of an Anabaptist in the scheme of the time, he might be taking this farther than Lutherans would, but that seems to be the general idea.

I don't actually know what the Catholic side of all this is. Neil Dhingra recently mentioned the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that Catholics and Lutherans agreed on not long ago, which I haven't read yet. And Melanchthon doesn't actually accuse the church of teaching works justification so much as watching these ideas take over popular opinion, and not correcting them.

Melanchthon also spends a long time ripping into clerical celibacy and monasticism. Luther was himself a disaffected monk, so I guess the ire here is not surprising, and he particularly objected to people being sent to convents and monasteries against their will or when they were too young to know what they were doing. I've admired monastic life since I was a teenager studying Buddhism, so I can't go along with the wholesale rejection of the concept. Also, the scriptural arguments are less than totally compelling. He uses Matthew 19 ("For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven") to argue that not everyone is intended for the single life, which is true enough, but somehow that seems to morph into nobody being suited to the single life. Also, in the course of arguing that forced celibacy invites abuses, he makes the bizarre claim: "...as the world is aging, man's nature is gradually growing weaker, it is well to guard that no more vices steal into Germany."

I suspect some sort of medieval metaphysics are at work there, but anyway. He kind of sidesteps the question of who makes himself a eunuch because of the kingdom, if anybody. He presumes that being called to ministry is not necessarily hitched to being called to celibacy, but never explains why. I don't have a strong opinion about this one way or the other, but this didn't help clear it up.

He also mentions communion. From my sketchy knowledge of religious history at this time, communion was a weirdly contentious issue. For all their doctrinal difference, what apparently ultimately split the Lutherans and the Calvinists was whether Christ's body and blood were physically or just spiritually present in the bread and wine. Lutherans, meanwhile, differed from the Catholics on whether the body actually replaced the food or whether they were both present. It seems strange to make such a fuss about the exact physics of communion, though I understand its importance as a sacrament. But actually, the Confession doesn't really talk about that much. It mainly criticizes Catholic churches for not actually sharing communion with the congregation (instead having priests take it on their behalf) or sharing it only partially. Apparently to this day most Catholic churches only give bread and not wine for the Eucharist, and I don't know why.

Another hot topic that's not exactly discussed here is sola scriptura. It's something Catholics criticize Protestants for a lot, and with some reason, because it can lead to ridiculous abuses. Melanchthon often bolsters his objections to certain practices by saying they aren't Biblical, but it's clear that the main impetus for the objections was the practical effects of those practices at the time. If the Anabaptists really were discounting the importance of the Word, sola scriptura seems like another via media: a way of staying grounded in the Church's past and basic beliefs while providing a scythe to clear away later practices that Lutherans saw as cluttering up the message.

Anyway, my overall impression of the document is that it should be viewed through a historical lens, but it's striking how many of the conflicts are still with us in various ways. The basic configuration of Catholics, mainline Protestants and the radically unchurchy is still with us, as are the questions over the importance of faith vs. actions, the role of sexuality in spiritual life, and the power of the clergy. I was afraid when I started it that the Confession might seem dusty and ancient, but it actually feels quite alive.

Posted by Camassia at October 26, 2003 12:31 PM | TrackBack

To get at Lutheran spirituality, here are some excerpts from an article by the historian Scott Hendrix in the 1999 Lutheran Quarterly:

"Luther rejects the church's regulation of external matters as essential to the Christian life. Fasting, festivals, vestments, other external matters - none of those things is Christ, he says, and without Christ none of those externals brings faith, the Spirit, or anything else that belongs to the spiritual life. It comes from Christ alone (ex solo Christo), not from your fasting, not from your cowl, not from your monastery, nor from any of those things ever established by popes, councils, or monasteries.

"The spiritual life comes out of Christ alone - ex solo Christo - and consists of an intimate connection to Christ. In 1537 Luther expresses this connection forcefully, stringing together several different metaphors: 'Christ and Christians become one loaf and one body,' he writes, 'so that Christians can bear good fruit - not their own fruit but that of Christ. For when Christians baptize, preach, console, exhort, work, and suffer, they do these things not as children of Adam, but Christ does it in them. The lips and tongues with which they proclaim and confess God's Word are not theirs; they are the lips and tongue of Christ. The hands with which they toil and serve their neighbors are the hands and members of Christ, who is in them, and they are in Christ.' This emphatic statement of the connection between Christ and the Christian and others like it testify to Luther's conviction that life in Christ is a new reality in which the baptized and justified participate. The spiritual life in Christ is for Luther not just a possibility but in some sense a present reality."

For Hendrix's Luther, the sheer force of this "new reality" - which does need to be nourished by the work of the Spirit through Word and sacrament - replaces the need for externals with the enduring sense of being on a journey with Christ in the midst of an always provisional world. Luther: "Thus they live in the world at all times... and yet are aware that they are exiles and strangers, like their ancestors. They make use of the world as an inn from which they must emigrate in a short time, and they do not attach their heart to the affairs of this life."

Neil Dhingra

Posted by: Neil Dhingra on October 26, 2003 10:31 PM

At the risk of wearing out my welcome, I should add that it is always interesting to compare and contrast Luther with Ignatius Loyola. With regard to the intimate connection with Christ described above, here is an excerpt from Balthasar on the Spiritual Exercises, more specifically above active indifference (indiferencia):

"Text 5: ...the Exercises use the entire 'first week' for cleaning out the sinful disorder; in the process, perhaps for the first time, a life is penetrated by the light of the divine judgement, by the full seriousness of the Cross. However, this first week of purification is not an end in itself, but preparation: removal of all illusions about things constructed and reached out of one's own power, humiliation to the point of insight into one's own perdition – if existence did not still hang on the unbreakable thread of God's grace (no 71). The meditations on sin do not only create emptiness, they open a gaping abyss and, through deep fright at one's own disorder, they make yearning for a true order of life possible. In the double meaning of disponer, the first meaning is reached in the first phase of the rhythm of the exercises: to dispose oneself through (indifference) that the second meaning may prevail: that God dispose of me. The second to fourth week serve this second meaning: in the meditation on the life, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus, in following from situation to situation, Christ's choice will happen and will be understood by me 'if I am not deaf to his call" (no .91). He chooses; we choose what he chooses for us. We know now 'how we are to prepare (disponer) ourselves, so that in every state or life which God our Lord gives us to choose (nor diere para eligir) we may come to perfection' (n.135). We have been created for this reality that has been chosen for us by God from eternity; by choosing God's choice we realize our own ideal as it exists in God, and this is supreme freedom."

Neil Dhingra

Posted by: Neil Dhingra on October 26, 2003 10:42 PM

You've done a fine job parsing the AC. It was presented before the Holy Roman Emperor with the hope a avoiding schism, but the response of the Roman church, designated the Confutation, all but ended that. Melanchthon responded with the Apology for the Confession which elaborates on the AC and answers the points made by the Confutation.

I'm a Lutheran who has come to recognize the dangers of sola scriptura. Faced with papal authority, I can understand why the Lutherans would want to claim the Bible as irrefutable evidence that God was on their side even though the pope condemned them. They could not have seen the dangers of "scripture alone" combined with "inerrancy" would bring.

My understanding, and it comes from a Lutheran perspective, is that the cup is not given to laity because of the danger of spillage. At base, it is because of the reverence held for the very blood of Christ that I confess as a Lutheran. Luther's response was that neither the body nor the blood of Christ in communion were there to be adored but to be eaten and drunk as Christ commanded. We do our human best to prevent accidents, but fear of them should not prevent us receiving them as Christ intended. There is, of course, the story about the cup being dropped once either by Luther or just in his presence. Legend has it that he got down on hands and knees and licked up every drop from the stone floor. I haven't seen the Luther movie yet so I don't know if that story makes it in.

Posted by: Allen Brill on October 27, 2003 01:01 PM

Thank you both for your illuminating remarks. I agree with Allen about sola scriptura. One interesting thing I didn't mention is how often Melanchthon refers to the writings of early church fathers, such as Augustine and Ambrose, to support his arguments. Clearly he and Luther didn't look at the Bible in the radically ahistorical way that many fundamentalists today do.

If spillage was really the reason for not sharing the Lord's Supper, I guess I can see why the Real Presence issue mattered -- if you don't think the body and blood are actually there, there isn't much excuse not to share them with everybody. Though even if they are present, I sympathize with Luther's point of view there. I thought the idea of God incarnating himself, and the ripping of the curtain shielding the Holy of Holies in Luke, indicated that God is no longer untouchable to us lowly humans. Though of course I learned that interpretation from evangelicals, so Catholics may disagree with me...

Posted by: Camassia on October 27, 2003 08:20 PM
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