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FC X and the Confession of the Gospel
Imagine a situation where folks called Lutherans were split into two camps. Where brothers who had known one another long and studied at the same institutions suddenly found themselves looking at each other with distrust and suspicion. Where bitter recriminations of betraying the Gospel were hurled in all earnestness by either side at their opponents in one press release after another. Where the question of the relationship between church and state seemed to complicate the situation and muddy the theological waters. Where the laity were often left behind in trying to figure out what their pastors were arguing about. Imagine a situation like that.
Does it sound familiar? It should. You learned about it in your Confessions class at the seminary. It’s what happened in Lutheranism after the disaster of the Smalcaldic War and the attempt to impose the Interims on the evangelical lands. Article X of the Formula of Concord is how our Lutheran forebears finally sorted out the question that had divided them and how they united together again as one Church speaking one message of the one saving Gospel. They did it not by compromise, but by sorting out what the point at issue really was, and then listening to what the Divine Word had to teach about it. May God give us the same humility and wisdom in our day!
“It would hardly seem that the church would need an article of doctrine on things that really do not matter. But it was a controversy over adiaphora that precipitated the first recognizable split in Lutheran ranks after Luther’s death.”
We do not have the time to trace out the whole of the sad story of the Smalcaldic War and of its aftermath. What finally resulted is what interests us: Charles V began a program to restore the evangelical territories to the Roman fold, including the Saxon territory ruled by the traitor Moritz. The emperor set about doing that at a Diet in the City of Augsburg in 1548. By May 15th of that year he was able to promulgate a document that has become known as the Augsburg Interim.
This document was designed to gently lead the Lutheran churches back to the Roman fold, and to address issues they had raised in a temporary manner until the final disposition of the problem could be issued by the Council of Trent. The only evangelical to participate in the drafting of the document was Agricola, who by then was court preacher in conservative Brandenburg.
It threw a few bones to the evangelicals. They could keep their married priests for the time being. With permission they might even also continue to administer the chalice to the laity. The huge problem with the Augsburg Interim, however, was its gutting of the doctrine of justification. Just a sample: “When God justifies, he does not act only in a human way with people, by merely ignoring their sin, forgiving them the sin and absolving them from guilt, but he also makes them better…..” Additionally the Augsburg Interim reinstated virtually the whole of the medieval ceremonial surrounding the administration of the sacraments – as in, all seven of them, if you get my drift!
So there was Moritz in a mess of his own making. On the one hand, the emperor – forgetting any promises about Moritz’ faith - demanding that Moritz enforce this Augsburg Interim in his lands. On the other hand, a populace and preachers who would not stand for it. What to do? Well, Moritz took the very modern option of prevarication. He’d have his theologians compose another document that would be intended to appease both sides. The compromise that his men struck upon was this: attempting to appease Rome by yielding to the fullest extent on every matter of indifferent ceremonies in addition to using language that Rome might understand one way and the evangelicals another, and appease the Lutherans by confessing with clarity the Lutheran doctrine of justification.
This compromise document, which ended up really pleasing neither side, was known as the Leipzig Interim. It is a fascinating document. It lays out its basic premise on adiaphora right up front:
“Accordingly, our first consideration is that everything that the ancient teachers regarded as adiaphora, that is, things that are neither commanded nor forbidden by God, may still be regarded as adiaphora without compromising the Scripture. Even when they are still in use by the other party, they may continue to be observed. No one should try to make them a burden or regard them as such or as something to be avoided since they may be observed without harming consciences.”
What did this include? A number of items: the restoration of Unction; the full set of Marian feasts in the church year; the feast of Corpus Christi; even the rules on fasting from meat, though these fasting regulations were cleverly packaged as done in obedience to the Emperor!
An example of the prevarication that pervades this document is in its description of the mass. The first part reads just like any Lutheran or Roman Church order; no big differences there. But then listen carefully:
“The Dominus vobiscum, the Oremus, the Offertorium, the Praefatio, the Sanctus, the Consecratio, the Lord’s Prayer in German, the Agnus Dei, the Communio and administration of the sacrament, the Communicatio or partaking, the Collects, the Benediction [shall be sung].”
Now add to this, that the Augsburg Interim had made specific reference to the Roman Eucharistic canon and said that it was not to be changed. Comparing the two interims, you see a subtle move: the Leipzig Interim refers to the Consecration, which the Roman party was intended to hear as the canon and the Lutheran party was intended to hear as the Words of Institution. Clever, wasn’t it? Devilishly clever!
And who is the primary author of this compromising document with its deceptive wording? Philip Melanchthon. Who else stood behind it? Try Johannes Bugenhagen on for size, Luther’s own pastor. What gives with that?
To be most charitable, Melanchthon thought he was faced with a nasty alternative: either accept a handful of dropped Romanist practices back, many of them admittedly neutral, some of them even still practiced by Lutherans in neighboring territories, and by so doing still keep Lutheran priests in Lutheran parishes preaching the saving Gospel OR have Spanish troops march into Saxony, remove Lutheran priests forcibly from their pulpits and altars, and replace them with Roman priests, preaching salvation by faith AND love. Looking at it from his academic perspective, it seemed like a no-brainer, distasteful as it might be. Concede the battle in hopes of later winning the war.
Meanwhile, over in the relative safety of Magdeburg, Amsdorf, Flacius and assorted other exiled company did not see with the eyes of academics, but of parish pastors. They were convinced that following the Leipzig Interim would result in the common laity drawing a false conclusion. Namely, that the Reformers had gotten it wrong after all, and that Rome had the real scoop on the Gospel. “For the common people pay more attention to the external state of things than to doctrine.” The exiles in Magdeburg were persuaded that no amount of evangelical words would be able to shout down what the action of restoring the outward ceremonies would actually communicate to the people. It was a no-brainer to them too. Tell that traitor Moritz where he might like to put his Interim (as in, where the sun doesn’t shine) and forge ahead, trusting in God. Suffering may indeed result. But they were utterly convinced that we are precluded by Scripture from “doing evil that good may come.” They were very much in the spirit of A Mighty Fortress: “And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, let these all be gone, they yet have nothing one. The kingdom ours remaineth.”
The Truce of Passau (1552) and the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555) made the Interims moot by recognizing the right of the Lutheran Church to exist as a Church, but the conflict between these two sides raged on long after the Interims were history. As Kolb characterized matters: “the controversy had burned too hotly for it to be put out at once. The Gnesio-Lutherans insisted that the Philippists repent publicy for their composition and defense of the Leipzig Interim. Although Melanchthon did admit that he had taken the wrong stand, he and his followers refused to submit to the kind of public penance Flacius and his friends insisted upon. So the two parties continued to exchange verbal and printed blasts on the subject of the Interim throughout the 1550’s.”
So what the Confessors of the Formula inherited was a period of roughly 25 years of “bitter exchanges of charges and counter-charges.” They found themselves in the unenviable position of being students and friends of the men on either side. What to do?
The Theological Decision
The first thing the Confessors did was to disentangle the personalities. Instead of naming names and lining up sides, they sought to discern under the mess what exactly was the point that was at issue. They were able to express this point at issue without any reference to the personalities involved. Going with the Epitome (since life is brief!), we find that the point at issue was simply this:
“The chief question concerned a situation of persecution, in a case in which confession is necessary, when the enemies of the gospel refuse to come to terms with us: the question was whether, in that situation, in good conscience, certain ceremonies that had been abolished (as in themselves indifferent matters neither commanded nor forbidden by God) could be revived under the pressure and demand of the opponents, and whether compromise with them in such ceremonies and indifferent matters would be proper? One party said yes, the other said no to this question.” (BOC KW, p. 515)
To sort out an answer to this question, they had recourse to the Scriptures as the final rule and norm.
1. Distinguishing Human Additions from Divine Mandates
The first point was that Scripture draws a line that we dare never cross between humanly instituted ceremonies and divinely instituted ceremonies. Humanly instituted ceremonies, no matter how venerable and beneficial for good order and decorum “are in and of themselves neither worship ordained by God nor a part of such worship.” In fact, when we let them parade around as such, we are in danger of falling into the trap that Christ warned about: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Matthew 15:9. Put crassly, for the Holy Eucharist you do not have to have candles on the altar – that is a reverent and fitting addition, but one that is humanly instituted. But for the Holy Eucharist you dare never omit the Words of Institution by which Christ has connected His speaking with our speaking in order to give to us the bread that is His body and the wine that is His blood. So that’s point number one: what’s mere human in origin dare not be confounded with that which is divine in origin in the church’s life. And its negative is stated as well as its positive: we reject and condemn as contrary to God’s Word “when anyone teaches that human ceremonies are in and of themselves worship ordained by God or even a part of it.” (FC X:9)
2. Locus of Authority in Regulating Adiaphora
Point number two is that the community of God (or, as in the Latin, the churches of God in every land and every time) is where the authority resides to alter such ceremonies according to its own situation and as may be most “useful and edifying for the community (or churches) of God.” We understand what that means best by reading the negative: we reject and condemn as contrary to God’s Word “when anyone imposes such ceremonies, commands, and prescriptions upon the community of God (churches of God – Latin) with coercive force as if they were necessary, against its Christian freedom which it has in external matters.” (FC X.10). Now without trying to parse out how that comes to application for us, let’s just be clear on what it meant for them and what it did not mean. It meant that the pope could not enforce his dietary regulations on the Saxon churches (even under the guise of obedience to the emperor). It meant that the pope could not mandate the observance of Corpus Christi on the Saxon churches. It meant that the pope could not insist that only bishops obedient to him be allowed to ordain clergy in the Saxon churches. What it most certainly did not mean was pastors could replace the pope in ordering their congregations around in what they were to do; in what they would drop and what they would add and what they would change. Rather, we know what they actually did at the time was this: the Church in each territory promulgated a Church Order which was then enforced by Church authority, not as necessary for salvation, but as a matter of good order. Further, superintendents (such as Martin Chemnitz was for the province of Braunschweig) would then visit the clergy to see whether they were teaching correctly, including whether they were teaching correctly about ceremonies, and whether they were observing the ceremonies as prescribed for the churches in that land. We are miles away here from what FC X is popularly taken to mean. The Australians have addressed this extensively and in a scholarly manner in their Statement 35: Solidarity in Worship: A Lutheran Understanding of Adiaphora. Rather than deal more with that now, I’d just refer you to it.
3. Love and the Confession of the Faith Guide Use of Adiaphora
Next point: when ceremonies are being altered “all frivolity and offense must be avoided and special consideration must be given particularly to those who are weak in faith.” Remember the gentle and kindly way that St. Paul dealt with the question of meat offered to idols. Again the corresponding negative is helpful by way of clarification: we reject and condemn as incorrect and contrary to God’s Word “when such external ceremonies and indifferent matters are abolished in a way that suggests that the community of God is not free at all times, according to its specific situation, to use one or more of these ceremonies in Christian freedom as may be most beneficial to the church.” The late scholar Bodo Nischan has written extensively about how in 17th century Brandenburg, the Calvinists condemned rites that were essentially indifferent but retained by the Lutherans in that territory. He cites two examples. First, in the mass, the Lutherans retained elevation and even embellished it by the use of the so-called ostenatio. The priest would hold our Lord’s body and blood up before the people and say: “Dear Christians, this is the true body of Christ which was given for you. This is the true blood of Christ which was shed for you." The ostentatio was added when the elector was campaigning for the abolition of the elevation because he no longer believed in the real presence of our Lord’s body and blood. Similarly, in the rite of Baptism, there was the exorcism. Calvinist sympathizers among the Lutherans pastors just hated it! Nischan tells the somewhat amusing story of the butcher who had his suspicions about whether his pastor was truly a Lutheran. Consequently, he turned up for the baptism of his child armed with his butcher’s cleaver, which he threatened to apply to the pastor’s head, should the pastor dare to omit the exorcism from Baptism. (Oh, for such lay activism in our day!) Thus the Church of the Augsburg Confession jealously guards her freedom in regard to adiaphora – not merely to simplify the ceremonial of the church, but even to amplify it. The governing principle always being: “as is most beneficial to the church.” (FC X:12) But she does so in such a way that the churches are not to condemn each other because has more or another less of these humanly instituted ceremonies: St. Irenaeus is cited: “Disagreement in fasting does not destroy the unity of faith.” Thus, in Brandenburg they had the elevation and fought to keep it; in Saxony it was dropped. But the FAITH that was confessed in both places was the same.
4. Christian Freedom Must Not Be Used to Give False Impressions
Further, whenever we are dealing with adiaphora we must always have a care that we do not seek to give the impression, nor even to so unwittingly, that our church is at one with those have distorted the divine truth. The Solid Declaration (X:6) cites 2 Corinthians 6:14,17: “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers… What fellowship is there between light and darkness?” “Therefore, come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord.” Now if this holds for our relationship with the papists, so that “we must not include among the truly free adiaphora or indifferent matters ceremonies that give the impression or (in order to avoid persecution) are designed to give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly from the papist religion or that our religion were not completely contrary to theirs” (SD X 5) – if it holds for the papists, how much more so does it obtain when dealing with those who are not even Christian? In any dealings we have with Muslims or Hindus or Jews, we owe it to them to avoid anything that would compromise or give the appearance of compromising the truth that is confessed in the Athanasian Creed: “whosoever would be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith, which faith except a man do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” An illusion of unity (FC SD X:5) is simply not worth the price of one lost soul.
5. Nothing Coerced Remains Theologically Neutral.
Final point: When the enemies of the Gospel demand that we conform in indifferent matters to them, Scripture teaches us that we may not. Galatians 2 and 5 are cited: Paul’s refusal to yield to those who demanded circumcision as necessary (SD X:12) Now surely here we have the definitive answer to the question at issue. We have circumcision, an indifferent matter in itself. We have Timothy who loses his foreskin to confess the Gospel of Christ to the Jews. We have Titus who keeps his foreskin to confess the Gospel of Christ to the Jews. What Paul could freely grant when it gave him greater opportunity to spread the Gospel, he wouldn’t budge an inch on when it became a demand, a law, something coerced. So in a nutshell, we reject and condemn as contrary to God’s Word “when anyone teaches that in a situation of persecution, when public confession is necessary, one may comply or come to terms with the enemies of the holy gospel in these indifferent matters and ceremonies. Such actions serve to damage God’s truth.” (FC X:12)
Thus, without invoking the personalities, the Confessors settled the matter according to the Word of God. Scaer summarized their conclusion: “Christians have freedom to practice or to avoid customs and rituals which are neither forbidden nor commanded in God’s Word, but they are duty bound to resist where compliance in customs would give the impression that they were complying with false doctrine. Should a human ordinance be given the stature of a divine command or be viewed as necessary to salvation, it must be resisted.”
Digging through to the point at issue is always the most difficult task of theological controversy. FC X has resourced us helpfully.
- It suggests that we move beyond personalities and individual instances to look at the theological questions before us,
- It reminding us that theology is never done by compromise, but by listening to the Word of God together, which Word alone is the final arbiter in our disputes.
- It reminds us that actions can speak louder than words and that we need always to assess not merely what we sought to convey by an action, but rather assess what message our action in fact conveyed.
- It warns us again looking for practical and workable solutions (remember, that was what caused the whole mess FC X sought to address in the first place), but calls for us simply to be faithful in our confession and be willing even to suffer for it, knowing that God will certainly bless our faithfulness in the end.
- It warns us against pleading Christian freedom when the exercise of such freedom gives the impression (especially to the weak) that we support false teaching.
- And finally, by the very manner in which the situation at that time was addressed, the FC reminds us to avoid attempting to embarrass or ridicule a brother or sister for a wrong position, but in gentle, loving yet firm spirit, to call an erring brother to repentance.
This way and only this way is the path toward concord – the outward expression of a true inner unity.
St. Paul Lutheran Church
Hamel, IL USA
 Scaer, David P. Getting into The Story of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House), p. 91.
 Kolb, Robert and Nestingen, James, eds., Sources and Contexts of the Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), p. 150.
 Ibid, p. 184.
 Ibid, p. 194.
 Ibid, p. 179.
 Kolb, Robert, Andreae and the Formula of Concord: Six Sermons on the Way to Lutheran Unity (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977), p. 93.
 Ibid, pp. 93,94.
 Ibid, p. 26.
 Ibid, p. 25.
 Lutheran Church of Australia: Commission on Worship: http://www.lca.org.au/whos/whos_pdf/stat_35.pdf
 Nischan, Bodo. Lutherans and Calvinists in the Age of Confessionalism.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
 It is interesting in this regard to study the difference between Anglicans and Lutherans. Anglicans sought for unity in ceremony and tolerance in doctrine; Lutherans the exact opposite. The result for the Anglicans was the unified liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer that can be interpreted in a variety of ways; for Lutherans there were numerous liturgical variations almost too great to catalog, but a solid unity in doctrinal confession.