Scripture and Tradition in the Lutheran Confessions


(Excerpts from A New Look at the Lutheran Confessions [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972].)

When the Confessions assert that they are based on the Bible and have grown up on its ground, they are following one of the basic Reformation principles, which can be traced straight through the theological writings of both [Martin] Luther and [Philip] Melanchthon. But alongside of the Bible, and also occupying a major place in the Confessions, is ecclesiastical tradition – as this can be seen above all in the church’s oldest doctrinal formulations. This appears both in programmatic expressions and in actual procedures. [Walther] Von Loewenich, who is by no means inclined to overemphasize the “catholic” element in Luther’s works, reminds us of the reformers’ efforts to preserve a genuine continuity with the ancient church. Luther reveals the same tendency in his attitude toward the iconoclasts, the liturgy, and the dogmas of the early church. In his rejection of the early Christian heretics, his acceptance of infant baptism, and his defense of private confession we see a clear indication of the Reformation tendency to preserve and restore. The aim of the Reformation was not to launch a radical new beginning but to link up with the heritage of the ancient church. Luther had a feeling for continuity.
This attitude toward the early church is seen to be even stronger in Melanchthon and in the confessional documents he wrote. Since [Peter] Fraenkel published his major work on the role of the patristic element in Melanchthon’s theology – from the first writings to the last – we can better understand why the Augsburg Confession and the Apology adhere so closely to the doctrinal formulations of the early church. Fraenkel demonstrates that Melanchthon’s interest in the traditions of the early church remained unchanged throughout his career as an author in the field of theology. Against this background we can see all the more clearly the earnestness of the Augsburg Confession’s declaration: “Nothing has been received among us, in doctrine or in ceremonies, that is contrary to Scripture or to the church catholic, contra Scripturam aut ecclesiam catholicam. For it is manifest that we have guarded diligently against the introduction into our churches of any new ungodly doctrines.” In order to evaluate the statements of the Lutheran Confessions in controversial theological questions, it is important that their orientation in the direction of the older formulations, especially those of the early church, be kept in view. In the contest of opposing theological tendencies which marked their era, the reformers supported historical continuity and refuted doctrines they judged to be novel, without support in either the Bible or the fathers of the early church. It was their desire to link up with the traditions of the Western Church – after these had been freed of later additions and excrescences. (pp. 45-46)

When Melanchthon supported the Evangelical position with arguments derived from the early church fathers, this was in harmony with his considered opinion concerning the Reformation as a continuation of the doctrinal formation of the early church. A study of those parts of the confessional writings for which Melanchthon was responsible reveals that the formal statements in the introduction and conclusion of the Augsburg Confession were not simply there for tactical-political reasons; they rather reflect a well-thought-out and distinctive point of view. The frequently repeated quotations from the church fathers speak very clearly as the expression of the theological method upon which the confessions are patterned. Reference is made first of all to the Bible, which must clearly support a doctrinal opinion, and secondly to the writings of the fathers. In connection with the controversial doctrine of original sin, Melanchthon asserted that there was nothing novel about it. We teach, he insisted, nothing concerning original sin which is in opposition to the Scriptures or the universal church; we have simply set forth the chief ideas of the Bible and the fathers. The same reasoning was applied to the doctrine of justification, which has support not only in the Bible but also in many of the church fathers, of whom Augustine, with his anti-Pelagian views, was cited first and foremost. Ambrose and Cyprian were also included. Melanchthon frequently referred to the fathers of the Eastern Church. Ideas which Melanchthon derived from Gratian are also given some space. Among the latter was the proposition that any custom which entered the church contra mandata Dei ought not be accepted or approved.
One finds the same attitude in Luther, generally speaking, although his critical eye was sharper. In those portions of the Confessions which he wrote quotations from the church fathers are relatively scarce and much further in the background. Luther makes direct references to the fathers only on a few occasions. Augustine is given a special place. Among the older fathers Luther also mentions Jerome, whom he quotes in support of his view concerning the equality of popes and bishops. Among the younger theologians he pays close attention to Bernard [of Clairvaux], [John] Gerson, and [John] Hus, which shows his unconventional attitude to ecclesiastical tradition.
Two other factors are of even greater importance. First of all, Luther rejected the radical, anti-Trinitarian reform movement, whose supporters were known as “enthusiasts.” There can be no doubt that this choice was made deliberately. In a letter concerning rebaptism Luther took a stand against Balthaser Hubmaier and wrote as follows: “It is our confession that in the papacy there are the right Holy Scriptures, the right Baptism, the right Sacrament of the Altar, the right keys for forgiveness of sins, the right preaching office, the right catechism, such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed. ... Now if Christianity exists under the pope, it must be Christ’s true body and members. If it is His body, then it has the right Spirit, Gospel, Creed, Baptism, Sacrament, keys, preaching office, prayer, Holy Scriptures, and everything that Christianity should have. Therefore we do not rave like the ‘enthusiasts’ that we reject everything in the papacy” [Von der Wiedertaufe (1528)]. Second, Luther attached himself positively to the dogmatic formulations of the early church. In his introduction to the Smalcald Articles he pointed to the doctrines on which both of the opposing parties agreed, and in so doing he made a direct connection with both the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.
These and similar expressions by Luther and Melanchthon clearly reveal the tradition to which they intended to adhere. (pp. 48-50)

Although the Confessions frequently point up areas of agreement with the early church fathers, they also include a variety of criticisms. Their attitude is that the church fathers cannot be accepted en bloc. They were not infallible; as men they could make mistakes; their opinions often revealed a serious lack of harmony. Since many of the fathers built with “hay and straw” on the true foundation, Christ, their work cannot endure (Ap VII 20 f.). No church father is infallible, not even the best of them all, Augustine; he too is criticized when he expresses opinions contrary to God’s Word. These and similar observations presuppose minds capable of historical criticism, and the reformers had this capacity. With regard to the sacrament of penance and the preaching office they discovered an obvious development, which they looked upon as a deviation. They maintained that the word “confession” had lost its original meaning and significance. Episcopal duties had increased over the centuries, and the number of sacraments was gradually fixed at seven. Luther and Melanchthon agreed with the humanists Erasmus and Lorenzo Valla in claiming that Dionysius the Areopagite was a pseudonym used by a man much more recent than the one mentioned in Acts 17:34. They also criticized other authors of whom it was erroneously said that they had written books which they could not in fact have produced.
There is also an obvious effort at classification to be seen in what the Confessions say about the doctrinal development of the early church. Some of the fathers are appreciated more than others. In general, the testimony of those who lived closest to the time of Christ is accepted in preference to those who lived later. The risk of error increased with the passing of time. The scholastic theologians were criticized with particular sharpness for their blending of theology and Aristotelian philosophy. Ap XXI 41 says of this: “We ourselves have heard excellent theologians ask for limitations upon scholastic doctrine because it leads to philosophical disputes rather than to piety. The earlier scholastics are usually closer to Scripture than the more recent ones, so their theology has steadily degenerated.” One can also observe, in a number of concrete instances, how the confessional writers play off the early fathers against the scholastic theologians, including, most prominently, Thomas [Aquinas], Duns Scotus, and Gabriel Biel. With regard to the doctrines of original sin, penance, and the Lord’s Supper the Lutheran Confessions seek support from the early fathers, inasmuch as their position was different from that taken by the scholastics. A number of individual theologians from the high and late Middle Ages also provided support for the Reformation teaching, at least at certain points. Among these, Bernard of Clairvaux and John Gerson were mentioned most frequently. (pp. 52-54)

Melanchthon wanted to preserve the historical continuity between the Lutheran Reformation and the older forms of Christianity, and he also wanted to eliminate irregularities within the church. These were the basic guidelines which he derived from his study of church history.
According to Melanchthon, the Lutheran Reformation was not an interruption of church history but a continuation. As he saw it, church history proceeds according to a definite pattern and is characterized by both apostasy and reformation. The divine truth concerning man’s salvation is one and the same from the beginning of the world to the present. This truth has been stifled and threatened with destruction time after time, only to be brought back into the light through a reforming movement. The church has always existed, sometimes strong, sometimes enfeebled. During periods of decay the true church lives on as a minority church.
In the earliest years of Christian history this pattern involved the revelation of the divine truth through Jesus and the apostles, whom Melanchthon considered to be reformers. Decay set in after the apostolic age, which reached its culmination in Origen and called forth a reformation via Augustine. After the Augustinian purge the same course of events recurred anew: decay throughout the entire medieval period, which elicited the Lutheran Reformation. But during the entire process, characterized by renewal-decay-renewal, the truth was always preserved by a minority. The truth can be stifled, but it can never be completely destroyed. Melanchthon could see a dogmatic doctrinal continuity running throughout the centuries of church history and the periods of decay, and it was to this that the Reformation wanted to attach itself. The Reformation was not designed to introduce novelties but to revive the ancient truths which had been forgotten or obscured as a result of the church’s decay.
This view of history is to be found in the Lutheran Symbols, and it throws light on both positive and negative expressions concerning the church’s doctrinal development. Augustine is accorded the highest rating. He was the only church father lectured upon regularly in Wittenberg. It also explains the generally negative attitude the Symbols take toward the post-Augustinian epoch, in which Pope Gregory the Great was thought to have brought about a trend leading in the wrong direction. It also makes clear why certain medieval theologians could be consulted on particular questions: the light was never completely put out, and the truth never totally obscured. (pp. 54-55)

The truth was given and established once and for all time. Those fathers whose work was acceptable had not formulated any new doctrines; they had restored the original ones and freed them from irrelevant additions. The Confessions sought to return to those fathers who had preserved the pure doctrines, without falsification. But to attempt such a critical sifting of the church fathers’ statements demanded the use of a higher norm, and the Lutherans found it in Scripture. This makes the question of the relationship between Scripture and tradition pertinent.
As one would expect, the Lutheran Symbols view tradition in relation to their concept of the church’s living proclamation. The church has God’s revealed Word, which is also a living Word. What the church proclaims cannot be altered; its content must remain the same from age to age. The Symbols place the greatest emphasis on the church’s living proclamation. Doctrine and preaching are very closely connected to one another in the Confessions – not in such a way that preaching should lack doctrinal content and that doctrina could be translated as preached Word, but so that God’s revelation and salvation may be told and taught and brought to life anew in every generation. This is expressed most clearly in the words of absolution and in the words of institution of both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, where no additions may be made; only God’s own voice is to be heard. As a result, the only function or duty of the clergy is to cause the voice of Christ to be heard. Put another way, the church must give voice to Christ’s Word. In preaching, in absolution, and in the administration of the means of grace we are to hear Christ’s own voice (in accordance with Luke 10:16). The Confessions energetically oppose the idea that the clergy have the authority to add new words themselves, either in the doctrinal sphere or with regard to church discipline. (p. 58)

One of the major points made by the Reformation has to do with the permanent identity of the church’s proclamation. The church has one and the same message to proclaim, from the promise of the protevangelium (in Gen. 3:15) forward to the present time. The promise of salvation given to Adam was repeated to the patriarchs and the prophets; it was renewed by Christ, and preached by the apostles as being valid for all men in all ages (Ap XII 53). It is into this context that legitimate ecclesiastical tradition must be placed. The symbols of the early church, certain of the church fathers, and a number of later theologians are included in the long list of witnesses. Melanchthon – and Luther too – was profoundly convinced of the church’s doctrinal continuity. The Confessions located the source and norm of the divine message in the Bible; as a result, the Bible occupies such a central position in Reformation theology. The apostolic Word is found preserved in Scripture, and all statements must be verified by Scripture. As Fraenkel has pointed out, the primacy of Scripture was axiomatic.
The fact that Scripture was accorded such significance did not mean, however, that its words had to be repeated in a literal way. As a result of the [mis]application of the Scripture principle there were circles within the Reformation where this demand was no stranger – but in the Confessions it is completely unknown. What is said in the Bible is also to be found in certain of the early church fathers and has been codified in the ancient creeds of the church. It is certainly true that they sometimes use other words and different modes of expression, but they nevertheless preserve the meaning of Scripture. Luther considered the Apostles’ Creed to be a revealed Word of God, faithfully preserving and summarizing Scripture’s Gospel. In the Smalcald Articles Luther associated himself unreservedly with “the sublime articles of the divine majesty,” as these are formulated in the three oldest creeds. Both Luther and Melanchthon identified themselves in this manner with the doctrines of the early church because they considered these doctrines to be in harmony with the Scriptures. There was no difference of opinion between the two reformers on this point. On the contrary, they both found a secure basis for the church’s doctrine and proclamation in the creeds of the early church. Inasmuch as the creeds were looked upon as an interpretation of Scripture, the Bible became both the source and the norm for judging the legitimate ecclesiastical tradition. That which harmonized with Scripture was accepted; that which did not was discarded. According to the Lutheran Confessions the real basis of all legitimate tradition is nothing other than the ecclesiastical exposition of the Bible.
That which can be accepted as genuine ecclesiastical tradition must be capable of verification by Scripture. Tradition may not include theses which lack Biblical support. It is this principle which gave rise to the saying, “The Word of God shall establish articles of faith” (SA II II 15) and which explains the critical rejection of certain points in the older doctrinal development. One of the Bible passages used most frequently in this connection was Acts 10:43, which says that forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake is given to all who believe in Him. This unanimous consensus prophetarum is the same as the church’s consentient opinion, and it carries more weight than all of the contrary teachings of the later theologians. Negatively, it implies a critique of individuals as well as of opinions. The conventional distinction made in the doctrine of penance between two kinds of repentance, contritio and attritio, as well as the doctrines of satisfaction, purgatory, and opus operatum, are contrary to Scripture. But this appeal to Scripture in no way includes a demand to reiterate Scriptural formulations in a literal way. The Confessions, too, use terms that cannot be found in the Bible but are in harmony with its meaning. The same is true of the formulations employed in the ancient creeds of the church. (pp. 59-61)

The conviction concerning the identity of the church’s proclamation also gives tradition a certain importance for the exposition of the Bible. Scripture therefore does not have a merely critical function to fulfill over against tradition; the latter also has a degree of importance as a guide for the church in its own exposition of Scripture. To support the argument that the Confessions did not introduce any novelties, it was important to be able to refer to patristic utterances. There is, in other words, a line which runs from the Scriptures to the later tradition; but also in the reverse: Beginning with tradition, one can also find the road which leads back to Scripture. During the sixteenth-century theological confrontations the ancient creeds served as guides to the Scriptures. Luther and Melanchthon approved of Biblical interpretations which affirmed the dogma of the Trinity, while those which did not were rejected as mistaken.
That Luther deliberately chose a line running counter to the radical tendencies within the Reformation can be seen in his letter on re-baptism written in 1528. He traced all heresy back to the denial of the Second Article of the Creed, which sets Christ forth as true man and true God. Melanchthon also upheld the idea that the ancient creeds can be used as guides back to Scripture. But the connecting line is not unbroken, not even in the first five centuries of the church’s existence. Rather, the truth is to be found in isolated points, elucidated by individual theologians, with Scripture serving at all times as the supreme norm. The authenticity of what the church says today depends on its factual agreement with what the church has said in all ages, through those who have understood the true meaning of Scripture. (pp. 61-62)

Fraenkel, Peter. Testimonia patrum: The Function of the Patristic Argument in the Theology of Philip Melanchthon. Geneva, 1961.
Loewenich, Walther von. Von Augustin zu Luther: Beiträge zur Kirchengeschichte. Witten, 1959.

Holsten Fagerberg


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