The Catholic Faith of the Lutheran Church

Excerpts from the Writings of the Pre-Reformation Fathers that were Incorporated into the Lutheran Confessions of the Sixteenth Century

(Confessional quotations are from The Book of Concord, translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959].)


The sixteenth-century Lutheran Reformers were not sectarian innovators who set out to create a new church. Rather, they acknowledged, and rejoiced in, their continuity with the church of the apostles and ancient Christian Fathers. The Reformers knew that Christ had promised to preserve his church until the end of time, and in the history of the church they observed that, “in order to keep the Gospel among men, he visibly pits the witness of the saints against the rule of the devil; in our weakness he displays his strength. The dangers, labors, and sermons of the apostle Paul, Athanasius, Augustine, and other teachers of the church are holy works, true sacrifices acceptable to God, battles by which Christ restrained the devil and drove him away from the believers.” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession IV:189-90, p. 133) The Reformers formally and unreservedly endorsed the Ecumenical Creeds with the following declaration: “Immediately after the time of the apostles -- in fact, already during their lifetime -- false teachers and heretics invaded the church. Against these the ancient church formulated symbols (that is, brief and explicit confessions) which were accepted as the unanimous, catholic, Christian faith and confessions of the orthodox and true church, namely, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. We pledge ourselves to these, and we hereby reject all heresies and teachings which have been introduced into the church of God contrary to them.” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Rule & Norm: 3, p. 465)

It was the Reformers’ conviction that “the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged,” and they therefore agreed with St. Augustine “that one should not obey even regularly elected bishops if they err or if they teach or command something contrary to the divine Holy Scriptures.” (Epitome, Rule & Norm: 1, p. 464; Augsburg Confession XXVIII:28, p. 85) The Reformers knew that the Fathers of the church, like themselves, were men who “could err and be deceived,” and that “The writings of the holy Fathers show that even they sometimes built stubble on the foundation” of Christ [cf. 1 Cor. 3:11-13]. (Apology XXIV:95, p. 267; VII/VIII:21, p. 172) But they also believed that “good, useful and pure books, such as interpretations of the Holy Scriptures, refutations of errors, and expositions of doctrinal articles,” should definitely not be rejected or ignored. (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Rule & Norm: 10, p. 506) Such “writings of ancient and modern teachers, whatever their names, should not be put on a par with Holy Scripture,” but they may and should be received “as witnesses to the fashion in which the doctrine of the prophets and apostles was preserved in post-apostolic times.” (Epitome, Rule & Norm: 2, pp. 464-65) In keeping with this principle, the Reformers were able to say: “we teach nothing about original sin that is contrary to the Scripture or the church catholic, but we have cleansed and brought to light important teachings of the Scriptures and the Fathers that had been obscured by the sophistic arguments of modern theologians.” (Apology II:32, p. 104) In regard to the “chief article” of the Christian faith, they likewise were able to say: “what we have said agrees with the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, with the holy Fathers Ambrose, Augustine, and many others, and with the whole church of Christ, which certainly confesses that Christ is the propitiator and the justifier.” (Apology IV:389, p. 166) And it was clear to the Reformers that the Lord had preserved his Means of Grace within the church also in more recent centuries, for “God has confirmed Baptism through the gift of his Holy Spirit, as we have perceived in some of the fathers, such as St. Bernard, [John] Gerson, John Hus, and others.” (Large Catechism IV:50, p. 443)

What follows is an anthology of direct quotations from the writings of the Fathers, arranged topically, that appear in the official Lutheran Confessions of the sixteenth century. These Fathers -- Latin and Greek, Ancient and Medieval -- are in a very real sense pre-Reformation contributors to the Reformation theology of the Book of Concord. The presence of these patristic excerpts in the Book of Concord validates the Confessional claim that there is nothing in orthodox Lutheran teaching “that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church or the church of Rome, insofar as the ancient church is known to us from its writers,” and that Lutherans “dissent from the church catholic in no article of faith but only omit some few abuses which are new.” (Augsburg Confession, epilogue to XXI,1, p. 47; prologue to XXII,1, p. 48)


A contemporary of the heretic Manes by the name of Paul, a native of Samosata who had become a bishop at Antioch in Syria, taught godlessly that the Lord Jesus Christ was a mere man in whom the Word of God dwelled just as in each of the prophets. Hence he also held that the divine and human natures are separated and distinct from each other and that in Christ they have no communion at all, just as if Christ were one individual and God the Word who dwells in him another. (Theodore of Raithu [6th century], Preparation; quoted in Solid Declaration VIII:16, p. 594)


When the question is asked what original sin is, it is correct to answer that it is immoderate lust. It is also correct to answer that it is the lack of proper righteousness. And each of these answers includes the other. (Bonaventure [+1274], Commentary on the Sentences II, 30:2c; quoted in Apology II:28, p. 104)

Original sin denotes the privation of original justice, and besides this, the inordinate disposition of the parts of the soul. Consequently it is not a pure privation, but also a corrupt habit. (Thomas Aquinas [+1274], Summa Theologica II:1, q.82, a.1 ad 1; quoted in Apology II:27, p. 104)

If natural capacity, with the help of free will, is in itself sufficient both for discovering how one ought to live, and also for leading a holy life, then “Christ died to no purpose” (Gal. 2:21), and therefore also “the stumbling-block of the cross has been removed” (Gal. 5:11). Why then may I not myself exclaim, too -- yes, I will exclaim and chide with a Christian’s sorrow -- “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4); for “being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish your own, you did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:3). For even as Christ is “the end of the law,” so likewise he is the Savior of man’s corrupted nature, for righteousness to “every one who has faith” (Rom. 10:4). (Augustine of Hippo [+430], Nature and Grace 40:47; quoted in Apology IV:29-30, p. 111)

That soul is not in the image of God in which God is not always present. (Ambrose of Milan [+397], Hexaemeron VI, 8:45; quoted in Apology II:19, p. 103)

[I have erred when I said that] The grace of God consists merely in this, that God in the preaching of the truth reveals his will; but to assent to this Gospel when it is preached is our own work and lies within our own power. ... I have erred when I said that it lies within our power to believe and to will, but that it is God’s work to give the ability to achieve something to those who believe and will. (Augustine of Hippo, Concerning Predestination III:7; quoted in Solid Declaration II:27, pp. 526-27)

Lest anybody should flatter himself that he is innocent and by extolling himself should perish even more, he is instructed and taught that he sins daily, since he is commanded to pray daily for his sins. (Cyprian of Carthage [+258], The Lord’s Prayer, 22; quoted in Apology IV:322, p. 157)

First of all, you must believe that you cannot have the forgiveness of sins except by God’s indulgence; secondly, that you cannot have any good works at all unless he has given this, too; finally, that by no works can you merit eternal life, but that this is freely given as well. ... Let nobody deceive himself; for if he considers carefully, he will undoubtedly discover that even with ten thousand soldiers he cannot stand up against the Lord who comes at him with twenty thousand. (Bernard of Clairvaux [+1153], Sermon on the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary I:1-2; quoted in Apology XXVII:32, p. 274)

[“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11).] He invites us to salvation with an offer and even an oath. When God says, “As I live,” he wants to be believed. Oh, blessed are we for whose sake God swears an oath! Oh, most miserable are we if we do not believe the Lord even when he swears an oath! (Tertullian [+230], Penitence, 4; quoted in Apology XII:94, p. 196)

That law which is in the members is forgiven by spiritual regeneration, but it remains in the mortal flesh. It is forgiven because its guilt is absolved by the sacrament that regenerates the faithful. But it remains because there continue to work those desires against which the faithful struggle. (Augustine of Hippo, Against Julian II:3; quoted in Apology II:36, p. 105)

Woe to the life of men, however praiseworthy, if it is to be judged without mercy. (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions IX:13; quoted in Apology IV:322, p. 157)

God leads us to eternal life, not by our merits, but according to his mercy. (Augustine of Hippo, Grace and Free Will, IV, 9:21; quoted in Apology IV:322, p. 157)

God crowns his gifts in us. (Augustine of Hippo, Grace and Free Will, VI, 9, 15; quoted in Apology IV:356, p. 161)

I do not say that you should expose yourself in public or should accuse yourself before others, but I wish you to obey the prophet who says, “Show your way to the Lord” [Ps. 37:5]. Therefore, confess your sins to God, the true judge, in your prayer. Tell him of your sins not with your tongue but with the memory of your conscience. (John Chrysostom [+407], Homily 31 [on the Epistle to the Hebrews], quoted in Gratian, Decretum II:33, q.3, dist.I, c.87:4; quoted in Augsburg Confession XXV:11, p. 63)


The righteousness of law is set forth in the statement that he who keeps the law will live in it, so that by recognizing his weakness one may attain to it, keep it, and live in it. He reconciles the justifier [God] by faith, not by his own strength nor by the letter of that same law, for this is impossible. Only in a justified man is there a good work by the performance of which he can live. Justification is obtained by faith. ... By the law we fear God, by faith we hope in God. But to those who fear punishment grace is hidden; laboring under this fear, the soul by faith flees to the mercy of God, that he may give what he commands. (Augustine of Hippo, The Spirit and the Letter 29:51; quoted in Apology IV:106, p. 122)

But the world was subjected to him [God] through the law; for by the commandment of the law all are accused and by the works of the law none is justified, that is, by the law sin is recognized but its guilt is not relieved. The law would seem to be harmful since it has made all men sinners, but when the Lord Jesus came he forgave all men the sin that none could escape and by shedding his blood canceled the bond that stood against us (Col. 2:14). This is what Paul says, “Law came in to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20) through Jesus. For after the whole world was subjected, he took away the sin of the whole world, as John testified when he said (John 1:29), “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” So let no one glory in his works since no one is justified by his deeds. But he who is righteous has it as a gift because he was justified after being washed. It is faith therefore that frees men through the blood of Christ; for “blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Ps. 32:1). (Ambrose of Milan, Epistle to Irenaeus; quoted in Apology IV:103, pp. 121-22)

We should believe both that we should be penitent and that we shall be pardoned, in such a way that we hope for pardon from faith just as faith obtains it from the written agreement. (Ambrose of Milan, On Penitence Against the Novatians II:9; quoted in Apology XII:96, p. 196)


Having therefore considered and discussed these matters according to the ability that the Lord saw fit to grant us, we conclude that a man is not justified by the precepts of a good life, but through faith in Jesus Christ. (Augustine of Hippo, The Spirit and the Letter 13:22; quoted in Apology IV:87, p. 120)

You must believe, first of all, that you cannot have the forgiveness of sins except by the forbearance of God; but add further that you also believe that through him your sins are forgiven. This is the witness that the Holy Spirit brings in your heart, saying, “Your sins are forgiven you.” For thus the apostle [Paul] concludes, that a man is justified freely by faith [Rom. 3:28]. (Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary I:1; quoted in Apology XII:73, p. 192)

We are righteous, therefore, when we confess that we are sinners; and our righteousness does not consist in our own merit, but in God’s mercy. (Jerome [+420], Dialogue Against the Pelagians I:5; quoted in Apology IV:173, p. 131)

All the commandments of God are kept when what is not kept is forgiven. (Augustine of Hippo, Retractions I, 19:3; quoted in Apology IV:172, p. 130)


If God had threatened that because of his [David’s] sin he would be humiliated by his son, why did he [God] carry out the threat even when the sin was forgiven? The answer is that the sin was forgiven so as not to prevent the man from obtaining eternal life, but the lesson of the threat followed so that especially through humiliation his piety might be exercised and tested. Thus God imposed physical death on man because of sin, and even after the forgiveness of sin he did not abolish it, for the sake of righteousness, that is, to exercise and test the righteousness of those who are sanctified. (Augustine of Hippo, Merits and the Remission of Sins, II, 34:56; quoted in Apology IV:161, p. 208)

[“Put off the old man...” (Eph. 4:22)] Lest anyone might think that the substance or essence of man must be laid aside, he [Paul] himself explains what it means to lay off the old man and put on the new man by adding, “Therefore lay aside lies and speak the truth” [Eph. 4:25]. Behold, this is laying off the old man and putting on the new man. (Augustine of Hippo, Enarratio in Ps. XXV, II:1; quoted in Solid Declaration II:81, p. 537)


When the Word is joined to the external element, it becomes a sacrament. (Augustine of Hippo, Tractate 80 [on John 3]; quoted in Large Catechism V:10, p. 448, in Large Catechism IV:18, p. 438, and in Smalcald Articles III, V:1, p. 310)

Sin is forgiven in Baptism, not that it no longer is, but it is not imputed. (Augustine of Hippo, Marriage and Concupiscence I:25; quoted in Apology II:36, p. 105)


Christ himself prepares this table and blesses it. No human being, but only Christ himself who was crucified for us, can make of the bread and wine set before us the body and blood of Christ. The words are spoken by the mouth of the priest, but by God’s power and grace through the words that he speaks, “This is my body,” the elements set before us in the Supper are blessed. Just as the words, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” [Gen. 1:28], were spoken only once but are ever efficacious in nature and make things grow and multiply, so this word was indeed spoken only once, but it is efficacious until this day, and until his return it brings it about that his true body and blood are present in the church’s Supper. (John Chrysostom, Concerning the Betrayal of Judah 1:6; quoted in Solid Declaration VII:76, p. 583)

We receive this not as ordinary bread or an ordinary beverage, but we believe that just as Jesus Christ, our Savior, was incarnate through the Word of God and for the sake of our salvation had flesh and blood, so the food blessed by him through the Word and prayer is the true flesh and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Justin Martyr [+165], First Apology, 66; quoted in Solid Declaration VII:39, p. 576)

[In the Lord’s Supper] the bread is not merely a figure but is truly changed into flesh. (Theophylact of Ohrid [+1108], Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, 14:22; quoted in Apology X:2, p. 179)

We do not deny that we are joined to Christ spiritually by true faith and sincere love. But we do deny that we have no kind of connection with him according to the flesh, and we say that this would be completely foreign to the sacred Scriptures. Who has ever doubted that Christ is a vine in this way and that we are truly branches, deriving life from him for ourselves? Listen to Paul say, “We are all one body in Christ” (Rom. 12:5); “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf” (I Cor. 10:17). Does he think perhaps that we do not know the power of the mystical benediction? Since this is in us, does it not also cause Christ to dwell in us bodily through the communication of the flesh of Christ? ... Therefore we must consider that Christ is in us, not only according to the habit which we understand as love, but also by a natural participation. (Cyril of Alexandria [+444], John, 10:2; quoted in Apology X:3, p. 179)

Unless a man has committed such a sin that he has forfeited the name of Christian and has to be expelled from the congregation, he should not exclude himself from the sacrament. (Augustine of Hippo, Epistle 54, 3; quoted in Large Catechism V:59, p. 453)

Go to him and be absolved, for he is the forgiveness of sins. Do you ask who he is? Hear his own words (John 6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Psalms 118, 18:28; quoted in Apology XXIV:75, p. 263)

Assemblies for Communion were appointed by the apostles to be held on the fourth day, on Sabbath eve, and on the Lord’s Day. (Epiphanius of Salamis [+403], Heresies III; quoted in Apology XXIV:8, p. 250)


The Father revealed to Peter that he should say, “You are the Son of the living God” [Matt. 16:16-17]. On this rock of confession, therefore, the church is built. This faith is the foundation of the church. (Hilary of Poitiers [+368], The Trinity VI:36-37; quoted in Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, 29, p. 325)

The question is, where is the church? What then shall we do? Shall we seek it in our own words or in the words of its head, our Lord Jesus Christ? I think we should seek it in the words of him who is the truth and who knows his body best. (Augustine of Hippo, Epistle Against the Donatists [Concerning the Unity of the Church] IV, 15:2; quoted in Apology IV:400, p. 168)

The church is not made up of men by reason of their power or position, whether ecclesiastical or secular, because princes and supreme pontiffs [popes] as well as those in lesser stations have apostatized from the faith. Therefore the church is made up of those persons in whom there is true knowledge and the confession of faith and truth. (Nicholas of Lyra [+1349], Postil on Matthew, 16:10; quoted in Apology VII/VIII:22, p. 172)

The priests administer the Eucharist and distribute the blood of Christ to the people. (Jerome, Commentary on Zephaniah, 3; quoted in Augsburg Confession XXII:6, p. 50, and in Apology XXII:4, p. 236)

In order, after the presbyters, let the deacons receive Holy Communion from the bishop or from a presbyter. (Canon 18 of the Council of Nicaea [325], quoted in Augsburg Confession XXIV:38, p. 60)

Again, in Alexandria, the Scriptures are read and the doctors expound them on Wednesday and Friday, and all things are done except for the solemn remembrance of the sacrifice. (Socrates [5th century], Ecclesiastical History V:22; quoted in Cassiadorus, Tripartite Ecclesiastical History IX; quoted in Augsburg Confession XXIV:41, p. 61)

Wherefore you must diligently observe and practice, according to divine tradition and apostolic usage, what is observe by us and in almost all provinces, namely, that for the proper celebration of ordinations the neighboring bishops of the same province should assemble with the people for whom a head is to be ordained, and a bishop should be elected in the presence of the people who are thoroughly acquainted with the life of each candidate (as we have seen it done among you in the ordination of our colleague Sabinus) in order that by the votes of all the brethren and by the judgment of the bishops assembled in their presence, the episcopate might be conferred and hands imposed on him. (Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 67; quoted in Treatise, 14, p. 322)

One man was chosen [as bishop] over the rest [of the presbyters] to prevent schism, lest several persons, by gathering separate followings around themselves, rend the church of Christ. For in Alexandria, from the time of Mark the Evangelist to the time of Bishops Heracles and Dionysius, the presbyters always chose one of their number, set him in a higher place, and called him bishop. Moreover, in the same way in which an army might select a commander for itself, the deacons may choose from their number one who is known to be active and name him archdeacon. For, apart from ordination, what does a bishop do that a presbyter does not do? (Jerome, Epistle to Euangelus; quoted in Treatise, 62, pp. 330-31)

If it is authority that you want, the world is greater than the city. Wherever there is a bishop -- whether in Rome or Eugubium or Constantinople or Rhegium or Alexandria -- he is of the same dignity and priesthood. It is the power of riches or the humility of poverty that makes a bishop superior or inferior. (Jerome, Epistle to Euangelus; quoted in Treatise, 18, p. 323)


It was not the intention of the apostles to enact binding laws with respect to holy days but to preach piety toward God and good conversation among men. (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History V:22; quoted in Cassiodorus, Tripartite Ecclesiastical History IX:38; quoted in Augsburg Confession XXVI:45, p. 70)

Do not calculate [the date for Easter], but whenever your brethren of the circumcision do, celebrate it at the same time with them; even if they have made a mistake, do not let this bother you. (Epiphanius of Salamis, Medicine Box 70:10 [an “apostolic decree”]; quoted in Apology VII/VIII:42, p. 176)

Disagreement about fasting does not destroy unity in faith. (Irenaeus of Lyons [+202], Epistle to Victor; quoted in Augsburg Confession XXVI:44, p. 70, in Epitome X:7, p. 494, and in Solid Declaration X:31, p. 616)

Virginity [remaining unmarried] is something that can only be recommended, but not commanded; it is voluntary rather than obligatory. (Ambrose of Milan, Exhortation to Virginity 3:17; quoted in Apology XXIII:20, p. 242)

If they [those who have taken a vow of celibacy] are unwilling or unable to persevere, it is better for them to marry than to fall into the fire through their lusts; at least they should give no offense to their brothers and sisters. (Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 62:2; quoted in Augsburg Confession XXIII:25, p. 55)

Compiled and Edited by David Jay Webber


Return to the Lutheran Theology Web Site Home Page