“THIS WE BELIEVE”
In ongoing observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we have presented a brief overview of those confessional documents that make up
the Book of Concord. This is the last article in the series.
When Will Durant sought a title for the volume of his magnificent eleven-volume The Story of Civilization covering the Middle Ages (Volume 4), he came up with The Age of Faith. One Lutheran reviewer suggested that it would have been better to use that title for the volume on the Reformation (Volume 6), for that was truly the era when real faith reigned. But since faith is unseen, perhaps even better for Volume 6 would have been The Age of Confessions. This was a time when serious Christians not only sought to live their faith in the quiet of their personal lives, but also sought to make it clear to others, and to take a stand on the truth.
But even among those who confessed the Augsburg Confession, divisions arose after Luther’s death, threatening to divide the heirs of the rediscovered Gospel. These were doctrinal differences that arose from overstatements and compromise statements, as well as from new questions that had arisen.
No one wanted such division.
All agreed that unity in the Gospel is God’s desire for His children. And many efforts were made on many fronts to attain that unity. But it proved hard to reach. Disagreements seemed to multiply.
Part of the problem involved politics. Only those who agreed to the Augsburg Confession were granted a degree of religious freedom and privileges by Emperor Charles V. Others were granted no legal status in the empire. This led many to want to crowd in under the protective umbrella, claiming agreement—and the benefits. We mostly agree, they said, and surely our few reservations on this or that point should not exempt us. And some on the Lutheran side were willing to accommodate them by altering the wording of the Augsburg Confession a bit. In this way a larger political alliance could be formed in the face of Catholic foes.
Then, too, Germany as a whole and the Lutheran territories in particular were divided among many rulers, each with his own issues and concerns. Consider how the four main authors of the Formula of Concord lived and worked under different princes. Jacob Andreas worked in Wuerttemburg, Martin Chemnitz in Brunswick, David Chytraeus in Mecklenburg, and Nickolaus Selnecker in Saxony.
Their personalities, too, could pose problems. These second-generation reformers were pious men and highly gifted, determined to uphold the truth of Scripture and oppose error, but they could be impatient and insensitive of others, proud and overbearing, suspicious and sensitive to perceived slights, even abrasive. In short, they were all too human. Selnecker even felt it necessary to keep a lengthy diary of Andreas’s behavior to document his claims that Andreas was unreliable in keeping his promises!
And yet they hammered out a lengthy document that all agreed stated what is true and rejected error related to twelve highly-contested teachings. This was submitted to a larger group for review and revision. The document was finally signed by over eight thousand leaders in the church, and united two-thirds of German territory under one confession.
The title helps explain this miracle—it is The Formula of Concord. The word concord means “with united heart.” Despite all their differences, they were united where it counts. They shared the heart-felt conviction that Scripture is God’s truth. They shared a willingness to submit humbly to His every word.
Perhaps the difficulty of reaching this unity helps explain why there is both an “Epitome” (a brief digest) and a “Thorough Declaration of the Formula of Concord.” The short form assures us that this confession is accessible to everyone; the long form assures us that the answers are complete and the objections are fully answered.
Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.