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The Smalcald Articles

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.

From the beginning of his dispute with Rome, Luther had asked that a council be convened to weigh his arguments fairly on the basis of Scripture. In 1520, in his Address to the Christian Nobility, he asked for their support of this idea, and listed twenty-seven issues to be aired. A diet in Nuremberg took up this proposal in 1524. The preface to the Augsburg Confession promised that the Lutherans would “appear and defend [their] cause in such a general, free Christian Council.” The electors Frederick, John, and John Frederick all supported the idea of a council and pressured Emperor Charles V, who in turn pressured the pope to convene such a council. But the pope was reluctant to place the issues into the hands of any council not firmly under his control.
Then, finally, in June 1536, Pope Paul III published an announcement of a council which was to convene in Mantua the next May. The German princes thought they should attend since they had promised to do so, and Luther assured Vergerio, the papal nuncio who came to Wittenberg, that he would come “with head and neck.” But everyone became less eager when they read that one goal of the council was “the utter extirpation of the poisonous pestilential Lutheran heresy.” This was not the sort of council they had wanted!
Meanwhile, Elector John Frederick assigned Luther the task of writing a confession that could be presented to this council, if they did attend. This became the Smalcald Articles. Luther had an additional reason for writing this statement: he was dying, or thought he was. Just before Christmas, he had had a fairly severe heart attack. He intended this treatise to be his spiritual last will and testament. However, his health improved enough to make it to the town of Smalcalden, where the Lutherans were making their preparations for the proposed council. His statement was read, approved, and signed by most of the gathered princes and theologians, but it was not adopted as an official statement.
This may have been due to the fact that Luther was unable to attend the meetings, this time due to severe kidney stones. His colleague, Melanchthon, offered a substitute statement, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, which was adopted [for more on this treatise, see next month’s Spokesman.]
In the end, neither statement was presented to the council, for the simple reason that the council was delayed, then delayed again, and finally canceled altogether (only one bishop actually showed up at Mantua—an exiled bishop from Uppsala, Sweden). When a council did finally convene in Trent eight years later, there were no Lutherans present. Both statements became official Lutheran confessions when they were included in the Book of Concord published 40 years later.
What was in Luther‘s Smalcald Articles? First, he reconfirmed the doctrine of the Trinity and the Apostles’ Creed, over which “there is no argument.” Second, he listed certain teachings where no yielding was possible. Here he included abuses in the mass, prayers to the saints, and the claim that the pope is head over all the church. About that, Luther bluntly states, “The pope is the very Antichrist.” Finally, he added fifteen topics “[w]e may be able to discuss . . . with learned and reasonable people, or among ourselves.”
Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.