The Ecumenical Councils and the Lutheran Confessions

An Anthology

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

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)

We unanimously hold and teach, in accordance with the decree of the Council of Nicaea, that there is one divine essence, which is called and which is truly God, and that there are three persons in this one divine essence, equal in power and alike eternal: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. All three are one divine essence, eternal, without division, without end, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, one creator and preserver of all things visible and invisible. The word “person” is to be understood as the Fathers employed the term in this connection, not as a part or a property of another but as that which exists of itself. Therefore all the heresies which are contrary to this article are rejected. Among these are the heresy of the Manichaeans, who assert that there are two gods, one good and one evil; also that of the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Mohammedans, and others like them; also that of the Samosatenes, old and new... (Augsburg Confession I [German], pp. 27-28)

...we confess that there are two natures in Christ, namely, that the Word assumed the human nature into the unity of his person; that this same Christ suffered and died to reconcile the Father to us; and that he was raised to rule, justify, and sanctify the believers, etc., according to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession III, p. 107)

Our doctrine, faith, and confession do not divide the person of Christ, as Nestorius did. He denied the genuine sharing of the properties of the two natures in Christ and thus he actually divided the person, as Luther explains it in his treatise On the Councils [and the Church]. Nor do we mingle the natures and their properties together in one essence, as Eutyches erroneously taught. Nor do we deny or abolish the human nature in the person of Christ, or change the one nature into the other. Christ is, and remains to all eternity, God and man in one indivisible person. Next to the Holy Trinity this is the highest mystery, as the apostle testifies [I Tim. 3:16], and the sole foundation of our comfort, life, and salvation. (Epitome VIII:18, p. 489) far as the discharge of Christ’s office is concerned, the person does not act in, with, through, or according to one nature only, but in, according to, with, and through both natures, or as the Council of Chalcedon declares, each nature according to its own properties acts in communion with the other. Thus Christ is our mediator, redeemer, king, high priest, head, shepherd, and so forth, not only according to one nature only, either the divine or the human, but according to both natures... (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VIII:46-47, p. 600)

1. In the first place, it is a unanimously accepted rule of the entire ancient orthodox church that whatever the Scriptures testify that Christ received in time he received not according to his divine nature (according to which he has everything from all eternity) but that the person received this in time according to the assumed human nature. 2. In the second place, Scripture testifies clearly (John 5:21,27; 6:39,40) that the power to make the dead alive and to execute judgment has been given to Christ because he is the Son of Man and inasmuch as he has flesh and blood. 3. In the third place, Scripture not only speaks in general terms of the person of the Son of Man, but expressly points to his assumed human nature when it states, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:7). This does not refer only to the merit that was once achieved on the cross. John is saying in this passage that in the work or matter of our justification not only the divine nature in Christ but also his blood actually cleanses us from all sins. Likewise, John 6:48-58 says that Christ’s flesh is a life-giving food, and accordingly the Council of Ephesus decreed that the flesh of Christ has the power to give life. Many other noble testimonies of the ancient orthodox church concerning this article are recorded elsewhere. According to the Scriptures we should and must believe that Christ received all this according to his human nature and that it was all given and communicated to the assumed human nature in Christ. ... In this matter we have not developed a new doctrine of our own, but we accept and repeat the statements which the ancient orthodox church made herein on the basis of sound passages of the Holy Scriptures, namely, that such divine power, life, might, majesty, and glory were not given to Christ’s assumed human nature in the same way in which the Father communicated his own essence and all the divine properties from eternity to the Son according to the divine nature so that he is of one essence with the Father and equal with God. For only according to the divine nature is Christ equal with the Father, but according to the assumed human nature he is below God. ... This exchange or communication did not take place through an essential or natural outpouring of the properties of the divine nature into the human nature in such a way that the humanity of Christ has them of itself and apart from the divine essence, nor in such a way that the human nature in Christ has completely laid aside its natural and essential properties and is now either transformed into the Godhead or by means of these communicated properties has become intrinsically equal with the Godhead, nor in such a way that the natural, essential properties and acts of both natures are henceforth of the same kind or even identical. These and similar erroneous doctrines have been justly rejected and condemned in the ancient approved councils on the basis of the Scriptures. (Solid Declaration VIII:57-62, pp. 602-03)

Because of this personal union and the resultant communion that the divine and human natures have with each other in deed and truth in the person of Christ, things are attributed to Christ according to the flesh that the flesh, according to its nature and essence outside of this union, cannot intrinsically be or have -- for example, that his flesh is truly a life-giving food and his blood truly a life-giving beverage, as the two hundred fathers of the Council of Ephesus attested when they stated that Christ’s flesh is a life-giving flesh, whence only this man and no other human being in heaven and on earth can say truthfully, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” [Matt. 18:20], likewise, “I am with you always even to the close of the age” [Matt. 28:20]. (Solid Declaration VIII:76, p. 606)

Inasmuch, then, as the Mass is not a sacrifice to remove the sins of others, whether living or dead, but should be a Communion in which the priest and others receive the sacrament for themselves, it is observed among us in the following manner: On holy days, and at other times when communicants are present, Mass is held and those who desire it are communicated. Thus the Mass is preserved among us in its proper use, the use which was formerly observed in the church and which can be proved by St. Paul’s statement in I Cor.11:20ff. and by many statements of the Fathers. For Chrysostom reports how the priest stood every day, inviting some to Communion and forbidding others to approach. The ancient canons also indicate that one man officiated and communicated the other priests and deacons, for the words of the Nicene canon read, “After the priests the deacons shall receive the sacrament in order from the bishop or priest.” (Augsburg Confession XXIV:34-38 [German], p. 60) is certain that most people in our churches use the sacraments, absolution and the Lord’s Supper, many times in a year. Our clergy instruct the people about the worth and fruits of the sacraments in such a way as to invite them to use the sacraments often. ... The openly wicked and the despisers of the sacraments are excommunicated. We do this according to both the Gospel and the ancient canons. But we do not prescribe a set time because not everyone is ready in the same way at the same time. In fact, if everyone rushed in at the same time, the people could not be heard and instructed properly. The ancient canons and the Fathers do not appoint a set time. (Apology XI:3-5, pp. 180-81)

Among our opponents there is no catechization of the children at all, though even the canons give prescriptions about it. In our circles the pastors and ministers of the churches are required to instruct and examine the youth publicly, a custom that produces very good results. (Apology XV:41, p. 220)

...our churches dissent from the church catholic in no article of faith but only omit some few abuses which are new and have been adopted by the fault of the times although contrary to the intent of the canons... (Augsburg Confession, prologue to XXII,1 [Latin], pp. 48-49)

The pope is not the head of all Christendom by divine right or according to God’s Word, for this position belongs only to one, namely, to Jesus Christ. The pope is only the bishop and pastor of the churches in Rome and of such other churches as have attached themselves to him voluntarily or through a human institution (that is, a secular government). These churches did not choose to be under him as under an overlord but chose to stand beside him as Christian brethren and companions, as the ancient councils and the time of Cyprian prove. But now no bishop dares to call the pope “brother,” as was then customary, but must address him as “most gracious lord,” as if he were a king or emperor. This we neither will nor should nor can take upon our consciences. (Smalcald Articles II, IV:1-2, p. 298)

The Council of Nicaea decided that the bishop of Alexandria should administer the churches in the East and the bishop of Rome should administer the suburban churches, that is, those that were in the Roman provinces in the West. Originally, therefore, the authority of the Roman bishop grew out of a decision of a council and is of human right, for if the bishop of Rome had his superiority by divine right, it would not have been lawful for the council to withdraw any right from him and transfer it to the bishop of Alexandria. In fact, all the eastern bishops should forever have sought ordination and confirmation from the Roman bishop. Again, the Council of Nicaea decided that bishops should be elected by their own churches in the presence of one or more neighboring bishops. This was also observed in the West and in the Latin churches, as Cyprian and Augustine testify. ... Since, therefore, neither ordination nor confirmation were sought from the bishop of Rome in the greater part of the world, whether in Greek or Latin churches, it is quite apparent that the churches did not attribute superiority and lordship to the bishop of Rome. ... When writing to [Eulogius] the patriarch of Alexandria, Gregory [the Great] objected to having himself designated as universal bishop. And in the records he states that at the Council of Chalcedon the primacy was offered to the bishop of Rome but he did not accept it. (Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, 12-15,19, pp. 321-23)

...the doctrine of the pope conflicts in many ways with the Gospel, and the pope arrogates to himself a threefold divine authority. First, because he assumes for himself the right to change the doctrine of Christ and the worship instituted by God, and he wishes to have his own doctrine and worship observed as divine. Second, because he assumes for himself not only the power to loose and bind in this life but also the jurisdiction over souls after this life. Third, because the pope is unwilling to be judged by the church or by anybody, and he exalts his authority above the decisions of councils and the whole church. Such unwillingness to be judged by the church or by anybody is to make himself out to be God. (Treatise, 40, p. 327)

...the pope wrests judgment from the church and does not allow ecclesiastical controversies to be decided in the proper manner. In fact, he contends that he is above councils and can rescind the decrees of councils... (Treatise, 49, pp. 328-29)

Since decisions of synods are decisions of the church and not of the pontiffs, it is especially incumbent on the kings to restrain the license of the pontiffs and see to it that the church is not deprived of the power of making judgments and decisions according to the Word of God. (Treatise, 56, pp. 329-30)

...we say that no one should be allowed to administer the Word and the sacraments in the church unless he is duly called. On this matter we have given frequent testimony in the assembly to our deep desire to maintain the church polity and various ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, although they were created by human authority. We know that the Fathers had good and useful reasons for instituting ecclesiastical discipline in the manner described by the ancient canons. But the bishops either force our priests to forsake and condemn the sort of doctrine we have confessed, or else, in their unheard of cruelty, they kill the unfortunate and innocent men. This keeps our priests from acknowledging such bishops. Thus the cruelty of the bishops is the reason for the abolition of canonical government in some places, despite our earnest desire to keep it. Let them see to it how they will answer to God for disrupting the church. In this issue our consciences are clear and we dare not approve the cruelty of those who persecute this teaching, for we know that our confession is true, godly, and catholic. We know that the church is present among those who rightly teach the Word of God and rightly administer the sacraments. (Apology XIV:1-4, pp. 214-15)

It can be demonstrated from history and from the writings of the Fathers that it was customary for priests and deacons to marry in the Christian church of former times. Paul therefore said in I Tim.3:2, “A bishop must be above reproach, married only once.” It was only four hundred years ago that the priests in Germany were compelled by force to take the vows of celibacy. ... The decree concerning celibacy was at once enforced so hastily and indecently that the pope at the time not only forbade future marriages of priests but also broke up the marriages which were of long standing. This was of course not only contrary to all divine, natural, and civil law, but was also utterly opposed and contrary to the canons which the popes had themselves made and to the decisions of the most renowned councils. (Augsburg Confession XXIII:10-13 [German], pp. 52-53)

We cannot approve the law of celibacy put forth by our opponents because it clashes with divine and natural law and conflicts with the very decrees of councils. (Apology XXIII:6, p. 240)

...the pontifical regulation also disagrees with the canons of the councils. The ancient canons do not forbid marriage, nor dissolve marriages that have been contracted, though they remove those from the public ministry who married while in office. In those times such a dismissal was an act of kindness. These new canons do not represent the decisions of the synods but the private judgment of the popes. They forbid the contracting of marriages and dissolve them once they have been contracted, and all this in open defiance of Christ’s command (Matt. 19:6), “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” In the Confutation our opponents shriek that the councils have commanded celibacy. We do not object to the councils, for they do allow marriage under certain circumstances; but we do object to the regulations which the Roman pontiffs have set up since the ancient synods and contrary to their authority. (Apology XXIII:23-24, pp. 242-43)

Because the lapsed or notorious sinners were not accepted without certain satisfactions, they made confession to the priests so that these satisfactions might be suited to their offenses. ... The reason for the confession was not that without it there could be no forgiveness of sins before God but that satisfactions could not be prescribed without knowing the character of the offense. Different offenses had different canons. Our word “satisfaction” is a relic from this rite of public penitence. The holy Fathers did not want to accept the lapsed or the notorious sinners unless they had given public evidence of their penitence, as far as was possible. There seem to have been many reasons for this. Chastising the lapsed served as an example, ...and admitting notorious people to communion immediately was improper. These practices have long since become antiquated, nor need we bring them back because they are not necessary for the forgiveness of sins before God. The Fathers did not believe that by such practices or such works men merit the forgiveness of sins. ... The scholastics saw that there were satisfactions in the church, but they did not notice that these public exhibitions had been instituted as an example and to test those who wanted to be accepted into the church; that is, they did not see that this was a discipline, and a secular one at that. Thus they superstitiously imagined that satisfactions were valid not for discipline in the church, but for placating God. Look how our opponents prove these fictions of theirs... They quote many Scripture passages to give the inexperienced the impression that this idea has authority in Scripture, though it was unknown in the time of Peter Lombard. ... Then they quote certain statements from the Fathers and the canons and conclude that the abolition of satisfactions in the church would be contrary to the express commands of the Gospel, the councils, and the Fathers... May God destroy these wicked sophists who so sinfully twist the Word of God to suit their vain dreams! (Apology XII:112-14, 120,122-23, pp. 199-200)

Scarcely any of the ancient canons are observed according to the letter, and many of the regulations fall into disuse from day to day even among those who observe such ordinances most jealously. It is impossible to give counsel or help to consciences unless this mitigation is practiced, that one recognizes that such rules are not to be deemed necessary and that disregard of them does not injure consciences. (Augsburg Confession XXVIII:67-68 [German], pp. 92-93)

We gladly keep the old traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquillity, and we interpret them in an evangelical way, excluding the opinion that they justify. Our enemies falsely accuse us of abolishing good ordinances and church discipline. We can truthfully claim that in our churches the public liturgy is more decent than in theirs, and if you look at it correctly we are more faithful to the canons than our opponents are. (Apology XV:38-39, p. 220)

The primary requirement for basic and permanent concord within the church is a summary formula and pattern, unanimously approved, in which the summarized doctrine commonly confessed by the churches of the pure Christian religion is drawn together out of the Word of God. For this same purpose the ancient church always had its dependable symbols. It based these not on mere private writings, but on such books as had been written, approved, and accepted in the name of those churches which confessed the same doctrine and religion. In the same way we have from our hearts and with our mouths declared in mutual agreement that we shall neither prepare nor accept a different or a new confession of our faith. Rather, we pledge ourselves again to those public and well-known symbols or common confessions which have at all times and in all places been accepted in all the churches of the Augsburg Confession... 1. We pledge ourselves to the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments as the pure and clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true norm according to which all teachers and teachings are to be judged and evaluated. 2. Since in ancient times the true Christian doctrine as it was correctly and soundly understood was drawn together out of God’s Word in brief articles or chapters against the aberrations of heretics, we further pledge allegiance to the three general Creeds, the Apostles’; the Nicene, and the Athanasian, as the glorious confessions of the faith -- succinct, Christian, and based upon the Word of God -- in which all those heresies which at that time had arisen within the Christian church are clearly and solidly refuted. 3. By a special grace our merciful God has in these last days brought to light the truth of his Word amid the abominable darkness of the papacy through the faithful ministry of that illustrious man of God, Dr. Luther. This doctrine, drawn from and conformed to the Word of God, is summarized in the articles and chapters of the Augsburg Confession against the aberrations of the papacy and of other sects. We therefore declare our adherence to the first, unaltered Augsburg our symbol in this epoch, not because this confession was prepared by our theologians but because it is taken from the Word of God and solidly and well grounded therein. This symbol distinguishes our reformed churches from the papacy and from other condemned sects and heresies. We appeal to it just as in the ancient church it was traditional and customary for later synods and Christian bishops and teachers to appeal and confess adherence to the Nicene Creed. (Solid Declaration, Rule & Norm: 1-5, pp. 503-04)

Compiled and Edited by David Jay Webber

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