“THIS WE BELIEVE”
In ongoing observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are
presenting a brief overview of those confessional documents that make up the Book of Concord.
“I will speak of Your testimonies also before kings, And will not be ashamed.” (Psalm 119:46)
If asked, most Lutherans would be able to tell you what happened on October 31, 1517. That is the day that Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, igniting the Reformation. How about June 25, 1530? Does that date ring a bell? Perhaps it should.
On that Saturday afternoon, Dr. Christian Beyer boldly read in the German tongue a confession in front of Emperor Charles V at an Imperial Diet in Augsburg, Germany. This confession clearly stated the doctrines adhered to by Lutherans of that day. In its preface it states, “We offer and present a confession of our pastors’ and preachers’ teaching and of our own faith, setting forth how and in what manner, on the basis of Holy Scriptures, these things are preached, taught, communicated, and embraced in our lands, principalities, dominions, cities, and territories.” Upon completion of the reading, Dr. Gregory Brueck handed written copies in Latin and German to the emperor and said, “Most gracious Emperor, this is a confession that will even prevail against the gates of hell, with the grace and help of God.”
Just nine years earlier, Martin Luther had been declared an outlaw at the Diet of Worms by this same emperor because he had refused to recant his writings that opposed the Catholic Church unless someone could convince him from Scripture that he was in error. With the help of Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, Luther went into hiding.
Over the next several years, support for Luther’s teachings continued to grow, especially among the northern German states. What the pope had once considered a local problem involving a rebellious monk could no longer be ignored.
The primary reason for Charles V calling a meeting in Augsburg was the hope of ending religious disputes within Christendom so the country could present a unified front in opposing the invading Turks from the East. Charles told the Lutheran princes to prepare a statement of their beliefs. Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and Justus Jonas prepared such a statement, called the Torgau Articles, for their prince, John the Steadfast. Because Luther was yet a declared outlaw, he did not attend the diet himself, but he corresponded regularly with those who did.
Meanwhile, Luther’s enemies, most notably his old nemesis John Eck, were working to stamp out Lutheranism. Eck published a scathing and slanderous book identifying what he claimed were over four hundred “errors” in Luther’s teaching, including many things taught by other reformers. Eck hoped to lump Lutherans in with the most radical reformers, including the followers of Ulrich Zwingli, and the Anabaptists.
To address Eck’s false charges, Melanchthon had to expand the Torgau Articles. So what became known as the Augsburg Confession not only dealt with topics on which there was controversy, but also outlined the basic tenets of the Christian faith, proving that the Lutherans were not heretics, but rather were teachers and confessors of the ancient apostolic teaching.
Many German princes and city leaders risked their lives and territory by signing their names to the document. After its reading, Charles V demanded that the Catholics respond with a document pointing out errors in the Augsburg Confession. Eck and others then wrote a “Confutation” document and presented it to Charles a few weeks later. Charles found it bulky and bungling and returned it for revision. After five revisions it was finally read publicly on August 3, 1530. It was never published or given to the Lutherans for further inspection. Luther later referred to it as a “flimsy rebuttal . . . [that] a woman, a child, a layman, a peasant, are fully able to refute with good arguments taken from the Scriptures, the Word of Truth.”
The Augsburg Confession remains today a document that plainly sets forth the truths of the Bible. Mark June 25 on your calendar and use it as an occasion to read this important part of your Lutheran heritage!
Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.