Martin Chemnitz on Rites and Ceremonies

The following passages show with what spirit the public gatherings of the church were to be approached and how the people were to behave in them: 1 Cor. 11:17; Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4; Lev. 26:2; Is. 1:13; 1 Cor. 14:26,40. The words of the Decalog teach us that the soul must be called away from all other concerns and give itself entirely over to the public divine services. In Matt. 18:20 Christ repeats the promise given in Ex. 25:8 and Ezek. 37:26, “I will be in the midst of them and I will hear.” In 1 Cor. 14:24-25: “A person who comes into the church should be convinced, so that he will report that God truly is among us.”
At this point we might add testimonies which show what pious people should be doing in the public meetings of the church. They include the following: (1) Acts 13:14-15, the words of the prophets are read every Sabbath; cf. Acts 15:21; 20:7; 13:44 ff. (2) There were prayers, Acts 16:13; Luke 1:10; 1 Tim. 2:1, 8. (3) They praised God with psalms and encouraged one another, Col. 3:16; 1 Cor. 14:26; Ps. 42:5. (4) The Lord’s Supper was administered, 1 Cor. 11:20 ff.; Acts 2:42; 20:7. (5) They collected alms, 1 Cor. 16:1-2. (Loci Theologici [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1989], Vol. II, p. 392)

When...the question is asked whether the administration of the sacraments ought to be made without any certain and particular external rites, the answer is clear and obvious. For the very name and definition of a sacrament embraces the presence of some visible and external element to which the Word must come and includes this, that the whole action is performed and administered in a certain way and with a specific divinely instituted ceremony. How this ought to be done has been stated in Scripture and traced beforehand for the church in a sure and clear word of God, namely, that those signs and those words should be used which God Himself instituted and prescribed at the institution of each sacrament and that they should be performed and used as the institution ordains and directs. These rites are essential and necessary in the administration of the sacraments, for they carry out the institution. Furthermore, it is clear from Scripture that the apostolic church in the administration of the sacraments carefully observed this, that they should not be mute spectacles but that the doctrine concerning the essence, use, and efficacy of the sacraments should faithfully be set forth and explained to those present and about to receive the sacraments, from the Word of God and in a language to which they were accustomed and which was known to them, and that those who were about to use the sacraments, having been rightly instructed, should be diligently admonished concerning their lawful and salutary reception. The Acts of the Apostles and Paul (1 Cor. 11:23 ff.) describe the administration of Baptism and of the Lord’s Supper on the basis of their institution: “Preach the Gospel!” Likewise: “Whoever believes.” And: “Do this in remembrance of Me”; “You proclaim the Lord’s death”; “Let a man examine himself,” etc. That also prayers were used, and thanksgivings taken from the institution of the sacrament itself, Scripture clearly testifies. For the institution testifies that Christ gave thanks and that He commanded the church to do it: “Do this.” And Paul says: “You proclaim the Lord’s death.” Likewise (Acts 22:16): “Be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of Jesus.”
Scripture also shows the sources from which the explanations, exhortations, prayers, and giving of thanks should be taken, namely, from the institution and from the teaching concerning the sacraments as it is handed down in the Word of God. It does not, however, prescribe a certain form in set words but leaves this free according to the circumstances for edification, so long as the foundation is preserved. These are the things which are chiefly to be observed and required in the administration of the sacraments, because they are prescribed in the institution and have the testimony and example of Scripture, that all may be done decently, in order, and for edification. ...
The following are the things which have the testimony and example of Scripture in the administration of the sacraments. Also after the time of the apostles, in the primitive church, there remained for a time the evangelical and apostolic simplicity that in the administration of the sacraments only those ceremonies were employed which have the command and example of Scripture. Later, however, little by little certain other things began to be added to these, at first with no evil or wicked intent, namely, that by the external rites as they met the senses of the faithful, and particularly of the more ignorant in the church, the grandeur of the sacraments might be the more commended and protected against contempt and that the power, effect, and use of the sacraments might through that action be explained more brilliantly and set forth before their eyes. Also in these added ceremonies consideration was given to what seemed to serve the preservation of order and decorum in the assemblies where the celebration of the sacraments was to be observed.
These additions were of two kinds, for they consisted either of words, or of ceremonies and gestures. I say that they consisted of words, such as exhortations, prayers, thanksgivings, readings from Scripture concerning the sacraments, the confession of faith, interrogations, and certain formulated words by which the doctrine concerning the use and efficacy either of Baptism or of the Lord’s Supper is explained and as it were set before the eyes, as the exorcism, renunciation, etc. But as they administered the sacraments, they were not content only by words to set forth instruction in the doctrine concerning the worth of each sacrament and concerning its use and efficacy; but that this instruction might be more lastingly impressed on the senses and on the memory, and that it might move the spirit more strongly, they began to add to those words certain ceremonies and gestures. And indeed what once was set forth in words and instruction, they began afterward to change for the worse into many symbolic acts. So, for instance, at one time they taught in words that Baptism is spiritual enlightenment; for this there later came the great Easter candle. Yet in the beginning these ceremonies were very few in number, but later they gradually began to accumulate, so that finally those ceremonies almost turned into a theatrical production. And although this plan of the ancients is certainly not to be condemned outright, yet the masters and exacters of ceremonies exalt it far too rigidly and grandly, as if without them neither the genuineness nor the worth nor the efficacy of the sacraments would be there. (Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978], pp. 109-10, 112-13)

That the apostles instituted for the churches certain rites is firmly established from their own writings; and it is likely that also certain other external rites which are not mentioned in the Scripture were handed down by the apostles.
Also there is no doubt that the church after the apostles added certain other rites for the purpose of edification, order, and decorum. It can, indeed, not be proved with sure and firm testimonies which rites were certainly delivered by the apostles, although [since?] they cannot be shown from Scripture. We can nevertheless have a sure apostolic approach to the evaluation and use of all traditions, to rites or external ceremonies regardless of where they may have their origin. And this is more sure and more useful than to carry on uncertain quarrels regarding the authors. Accordingly, that the traditions concerning external rites may not, in the absence of some sure apostolic rule, fluctuate now in this direction, now in that, or roam on endlessly, certain sure rules are gathered from those institutions or external rites, concerning which it is known from their own writings that the apostles handed them down, and according to these rules one should and can judge in the manner of the apostles concerning any and all rites or ceremonies.
I. There are some rites which can be proved from the Scripture, because they contain the use, exercise, and profitable explanation of that doctrine which is divinely revealed in the Scripture. Thus Paul, in 1 Cor. 11:27-29, deduces from the institution how the Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated in a godly manner. And from the doctrine of the apostles which is contained in the Scripture there are conclusions: in 2 Thess. 3:6-8, that one should withdraw from those who lead disorderly lives; in 1 Cor. 5, concerning excommunication; in Acts 14:23, concerning appointing ministers for the church, etc. Such rites we rightly love and retain: as the confession of faith, the renunciation of Satan, and other rites in the act of Baptism, which explain and illustrate the doctrine concerning Baptism which is delivered in the Scripture as profitably for edification. So there are found in Scripture clear testimonies concerning the abrogation of the Sabbath, and the Scripture clearly indicates in Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor. 16:2 that the apostles held their meetings on the first day of the week. And in Rev. 1:10 is found the designation “the Lord’s Day.” So the apostles based their decision on the teaching of love to the neighbor and of receiving the weak in the faith.
Such are also those ecclesiastical customs of which Augustine believes that they have their origin from the tradition of the apostles: concerning the baptism of infants and about not rebaptizing such as had received Baptism from heretics according to the form instituted by Christ. For these customs teach the exercise and use of that doctrine which is contained in the testimonies of Scripture. That such rites should be called apostolic we do not oppose, since in this way, as has been said, they have testimony in the Scripture itself.
II. Paul distinguished apostolic rites with these marks, that all things should be done decently, in an orderly way, and for edification. Thus he shows in 1 Cor. 11:5-10 that the custom of the women veiling themselves is commendable from the Scripture; he cites the custom and shows that it serves decorum. In 1 Cor. 14, when he wants to show the reasons for the directions regarding tongues, prophecy, psalms, prayer, etc., he mentions edification, decorum, and order. And I judge that such rites should certainly be retained and preserved which are (as has been well said) inducements and aids to piety, that is, according to Paul’s rule, which first of all make for edification, that men may be invited to the Word, to the sacraments, and to other exercises of piety; that the doctrine may be more aptly set forth, valued more, received more eagerly, and better retained; and that penitence, faith, prayer, piety, and mercy may be kindled and cherished, etc. Secondly, those which serve good order; for it is necessary that in the public meetings of the church there be order worthy of churchly dignity. Thirdly, those which make for decorum. Now, by decorum we understand not theatrical pomp or courtly splendor but such decorum as shows by means of external rites the honor in which we hold the Word, the sacraments, and the remaining churchly functions, and by which others are invited to reverence toward the Word, the sacraments, and the assemblies of the church.
III. Christian liberty places a limit on apostolic rites, namely, that ceremonies may be according to their nature adiaphora, few in number, good and profitable for edification, order, and decorum, and that this whole kind, except in the case of offense, should be observed in freedom, so that they can be instituted, changed, or done away with for reasons of edification, place, time, persons, etc. Thus the decree of the apostles concerning that which was strangled and concerning blood has long ago ceased to be in use, because the reason for which it was made no longer exists. In 1 Cor. 11:4 Paul orders that men are to pray and prophesy with uncovered head, the women with veiled head. And this he takes from the circumstance of the places and times. For at that time and in those places men went out into the public with their head uncovered, but women, both slave and free, with their head veiled, as Plutarch writes in Quaestiones Romanae. And it was a sign of authority to speak with uncovered head, as, on the other hand, a covered head was a sign of subjection. In our times and places the opposite is observed. For to speak or listen with uncovered head is a sign of subjection, but the sign of authority is to speak with the head covered.
Thus the threefold immersion, previous tasting of milk and honey, the positions in prayer on the Lord’s Day and between Easter and Pentecost, have long ago ceased to be in necessary use. The birthday feasts of which Tertullian makes mention the Synod of Nicaea freely abolished. Even the papalists now have no special words when the consecrated bread of the Eucharist is shown, and yet the ancients believed that these customs had been handed down by the apostles. The church has therefore declared its liberty in traditions of this kind by this very fact. For the doctrine is universal and perpetual, but the ceremonies can be freely changed according to circumstances.
Besides, certain rules are also gathered from the writings of the apostles, which show when traditions of this kind about ceremonies must be opposed by both teaching and example, namely, when they assert things which conflict with the Word and the divine command (cf. Matt. 15:1-9) or when with ceremonies, which are in themselves indifferent things, notions of worship, merit, and necessity are connected, even if they do not give offense. Here also belongs the complaint of Augustine in Letter No. 119: “Religion, which the mercy of God wanted to leave free, with very few and very clear sacramental celebrations, these ceremonies oppress with slavish burdens, so that the condition of the Jews is more tolerable, who were subjected to the burdens of the Law, not to human presumptions.”
This is the true apostolic way of judging concerning traditions of this kind. And it is more certain and useful than to dispute about uncertain things, as, for instance, which traditions were handed down by which apostles, at which time, in which place, etc., concerning which no proof can be brought forward from the Scripture.
Therefore we do not simply reject and condemn all traditions which are of this kind. For we do not disapprove of what Jerome writes to Lucinius, namely, that the churchly traditions, especially such as do not harm the faith, are to be observed as they were handed down by the elders. Also what Augustine says: “Whatever is commanded that does not hinder faith or good morals is to be considered an indifferent thing and observed for the benefit of those among whom one lives.” I want these things to be understood according to the apostolic rules, which, as we have said, are brought together from the Scripture. For also Augustine, in Letter No. 119, says that certain rites must be curbed, although one could not easily find in what way they are against the faith, yet, because they burden the church by their number and by the presumption of necessity, they should be abrogated. (Examination of the Council of Trent, Part I [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971], pp. 268-71)

The ceremonies of the Mass are not all of one kind. For some have a divine command and examples of Scripture that they should be done at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, being as it were essential, e.g., to take bread and the cup in the public assembly, to bless, distribute, eat, drink, proclaim the death of the Lord. Some indeed do not have an express command of God, that they must of necessity be done thus in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, nevertheless they are in their nature good and godly if they are used rightly for edification, such as psalms, readings from Scripture, godly prayers and giving of thanks, confession of the Creed, etc. Some are per se superstitious and ungodly, for instance the sacrifice of the Mass for the living and the dead, invocation of the saints, satisfaction for the souls in purgatory, the private Mass, consecration of salt, blessing of water, etc. Some ceremonies indeed are adiaphora, such as vestments, vessels, ornaments, words, rites, and things which are not against the Word of God. Things which are of the first kind must of necessity be observed, for they belong to the substance of the Lord’s Supper. Of the things that belong to the second and fourth kind, many which make for the edification of people are observed in our churches without infringing on Christian liberty.
The third kind, however, being superstitious and godless, has deservedly, rightly, and of necessity been abrogated and done away with. ...
...the fathers...In the celebration of the Lord’s Supper...observed such ceremonies as might aid and explain the proclamation of the Lord’s death, which was made by means of the public preaching of the Word; such ceremonies, together with the Word, would usefully teach men something about the doctrine and use of the sacrament and would incite them to give heed more attentively to the doctrine of the Word and the things which belong to the substance of the Lord’s Supper. Such ceremonies were observed in Christian liberty, for they were not the same and alike everywhere, nor did any force others to the observation of their ceremonies. We gladly approve and observe good and useful rites in such liberty.
But the papalists have heaped up the ceremonies of the ancients, mixing in many useless, foolish, and superstitious rites, with the result that the doctrine and true use of the Lord’s Supper began, little by little, to be obscured and overwhelmed by the multitude of such rites, until finally the action of the Lord’s Supper was transformed into what is clearly a thing of another kind -- a sacrifice. (Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, pp. 524-26)

For in the administration of the sacraments we distinguish among the ceremonies, and teach that a distinction must be made. For there are first of all certain rites which are commanded in the institution and thus are necessary and essential in the administration of the sacraments. We affirm that in these nothing is to be omitted, changed, or abrogated.
Second, there are certain things in the administration of the sacraments which have testimonies and examples in Scripture, for we read in Scripture what things the first apostolic church observed in the administration of the sacraments, e.g., explanations of the doctrine of the sacraments, exhortations, prayers, giving of thanks, etc. These things also we both observe and teach that they should be diligently observed -- however, in such a way that they conform to the doctrine of the sacraments as it is handed down in Scripture, for the sacraments are not mute or idle shows, but they were instituted that they should both strengthen faith and set forth the promise of the Word more clearly.
Third, there are certain other rites which have neither the command nor the testimony of Scripture but were added by churchmen. And I judge that not even all of those should be rejected or condemned in general, but those which consist of words and interrogations that agree with the Scripture and usefully call to mind and explain something concerning the doctrine of the sacraments can be freely retained, as among us the exorcism, the renunciation, the confession of faith, etc., are retained in the administration of Baptism. However, in the things which consist of ceremonies or gestures, that liberty should be preserved which Scripture gives and which the true church has always used in human traditions of this kind, namely, that those things may be retained and used which have no admixture of ungodliness and superstition. Likewise such as have no idle games but serve either good order or decorum in the church, or can promote the edification of the people by useful and godly admonition. Finally, such as illustrate the things which belong to the essence of the sacraments but do not hide or obscure them nor transform them into an action that is plainly a different thing, as happens in the sacrifice of the Mass. However, in the case of those ecclesiastical ceremonies concerning which we teach that they may be retained, let that be observed which we have said above, namely, that these should be distinguished by a clear distinction from those which have either a command or a testimony of Scripture, lest they be made equal to them in any way, much less be preferred to them. Let no spiritual efficacy be attributed to these things without a divine promise, neither let the things which are peculiar to the sacraments be transferred to such ceremonies either in whole or in part. Nor should it be thought that such ceremonies belong to the integrity and genuineness of the sacraments, much less that they are necessary for this, but they are to be considered as indifferent rites which, if they cease to be useful for edification and if they degenerate from their salutary purpose and use into superstition and abuse, must either be corrected or changed or, after the example of the brazen serpent, be abrogated and wholly taken away. Those rites also which are retained should remain what in fact they are -- indifferent ceremonies, in order that they may not become snares of consciences but be freely observed without any idea that they are necessary, so that, barring offense, they can be omitted or be changed or abrogated by the direction and consent of the church. For this should not be permitted privately to the whim of anyone. However, if this is done lawfully, it is useful to show freedom in the case of adiaphora of this kind, yet in such a way that all things are done orderly, decently, and for edification, according to the rule of Paul. Neither should churches be condemned on account of differences in rites of this kind or if, in omitting or changing them, they use their liberty according to the said rule of Paul. (Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, pp. 116-17)

“Chemnitz, the greatest theologian of the Sixteenth Century”
-- Theodore E. Schmauk

Chemnitz on Rites and Ceremonies: Confessional Principle, Confessional Practice [RTF]

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