Augsburg Confession Article VII and the Grounds for Communio in Sacris
This paper, admittedly a complex argument, is built on a close reading of two pieces of the confessional writings of the Lutheran Church: Formula of Concord Solid Declaration (FC SD) X, 31, and Augsburg Confession (CA) VII, 2. My attempt is to read these texts in the light of their historical settings in 1577 and 1530, respectively.
In FC SD X, 31 my focus is on the statement, “Churches will not condemn each other if they are otherwise agreed in doctrine and in all its articles.” I demonstrate that this translation of the original German text cannot mean what it is made to mean in the published writings of recent LCMS theologians, namely, that it requires complete and prior agreement in all theological/doctrinal formulations as a condition for church fellowship. On the basis of the language used in the FC itself, in other writings of the reformers that were significant at the time and in the historical setting, I demonstrate that the phrase in question is best understood as saying, “Churches will not condemn each other so long as they are agreed in the gospel, at whatever points it is articulated.” That is to say, churches will not break their unity (much less maintain their brokenness) over ceremonies, over canon law or over theological formulae when they are otherwise united in the gospel they in fact proclaim and celebrate.
In reading CA VII my focus is on the statement, “It is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments”— where the assumption is that the reformers and the Roman church do indeed so agree. Two points are made in this part of the argument: (1) in the setting of 1530 this statement is primarily an appeal to the law of the empire, which required that, for princes to hold their lands and their offices, they must adhere to the common Christian faith (in the Justinian Code, the Latin phrase is doctrina evangelii, “the teaching of the gospel”); and (2) both this statement and the preceding sentence of CA VII point to the gospel that is actually proclaimed and the sacraments as they are actually celebrated/administered in the churches (called here “the assembly of believers,” viz., the liturgical gathering of the baptized on the Lord’s Day). The appeal is not to formal theological or doctrinal statements about the gospel preached and sacramentally enacted. My point here is that what makes the church church is the very same thing that makes the church one: the gospel proclaimed and enacted as pure, sheer, promise from God without any condition in human performance (good works). The corollary is this: the gospel itself is what keeps the faithful and their theological/doctrinal formulations “pure”; it is not the theological/doctrinal formulations that defend or keep the gospel “pure.”
My conclusion: for the LCMS to continue in its separate path and, presuming its own purity of gospel, to abstain from participation in the significant ecumenical conversations of our day— and then to castigate the Roman Catholics and the other Lutherans for what they have agreed upon (viz., the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”), is to perpetuate a divisive sin, an action directly contradictory to the affirmation of CA VII. I call upon the LCMS to abandon its judgmental and self-righteous abstention from genuine ecumenical dialogue—on the grounds that the Augsburg Confession:
(a) refuses to break fellowship with the Roman Catholic Church of 1530 and;
(b) declares the confessors= determination “not to omit doing anything … that will further the cause of Christian unity” (CA Preface).
We do not need complete and prior agreement for a declaration of fellowship; we need to submit to a mutual test for the recognizing of the pure and unconditional gospel in the proclamation and sacramental celebration that actually occurs in our liturgical assemblies. In that vulnerable and open situation churches of the Augsburg Confession must be as committed to the recovery and the maintenance of Christian unity as were the confessors at Augsburg in 1530 and the Concordists in 1577.
I really thought this was all pretty obvious. We’re a confessional church body, are we not? We even have a tendency, do we not, to take our authoritative documents a bit more literally than not? And, above all, we’re really quite sure, are we not, that we have it all right? So how has it happened that our dearly-beloved, let’s-all-walk-together, reading of the confessions on church fellowship is itself a partisan—nay, sectarian—reading? Simple fact is, most of the published voices in the LCMS have flat-out blown their reading of the seventh article of the Augsburg Confession and its commitment regarding the unity of the church. I aim to demonstrate that charge in the presentation that follows, and I aim, further, to suggest that the corrective is latent, open for all to see (and seen, especially, by those “other” Lutherans from whom the LCMS has remained smugly separate).
In 1979 I published a short piece that suggested in a relatively popular tone that my church body’s ecumenical policies had departed from the confessional basis this article provides. A year later I presented a scholarly amplification of that argument at the annual meeting of the American Society of Reformation Research. I mention this fact only as a context-setter for my next sentence: At that meeting, after the discussion following my presentation had concluded, a theologian from the German Lutheran church said, “Excuse me, Professor Truemper, but it seems to me that your point ‘is Arsch-klar!’” Now, I had thought at that time that I might have been venturing a bit aggressively into what we’d now call “revisionist” attitudes. But when I reviewed that presentation some months ago, I had to conclude, in the light of the movement in my own theological position and in the light of what has happened in the process of the realignment of American Lutheranism, that what was Arsch-klar in 1980 must by now have been flushed into the cesspool of synodical politics. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that what I understood then is not far from what needs to be said on this issue today. So here we go again. First, a look at representative arguments in recent literature. Second, a historically contexted look at FC SD X—simply because my fellow Missouri Synners have come to treat a misleading translation of that article as the key to the “real” meaning of CA VII. Third, an equally historically contexted look at CA VII—because no appeal to the confessions can ever be appropriate that cannot show itself to have some demonstrable continuity with what the confession meant in its original setting in June of 1530. Then I shall conclude with a few constructive comments by way of application.
I. So What Are We Really Talking About?
Best I can tell, the interpretation of CA VII has been a matter of controversy among theologians of the churches of the Augsburg Confession—controversy made more acute in the last several decades. The key sentence, for our purposes today, reads like this:
It is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word.
Now, one would think that there aren’t too many ways for [even] theologians to disagree about what that statement means. Sorry. We do.
Some have argued that the church’s true unity here refers to a spiritual unity of faith, a unity shared by an invisible church; accordingly, they assert that article seven of CA has really nothing to do with the business of ecumenical relations but only with the essential and spiritual unity which holds together Christians of differing communions and confessions in spite of their lack of apparent concord or fellowship or communio in sacris.[i] Others, contrariwise, have insisted that the article states the normative conditions both for the existence and for the unity of the church, and that it is indeed relevant to the contemporary ecumenical discussions of the churches of the Augsburg Confession.[ii] And there are attempts to occupy various supposed bits of high ground in the intervening spaces.[iii]
In recent years, advocates of the first view have found the concluding paragraph of the tenth article of the Formula of Concord of 1577 as a kind of authoritative gloss on CA VII, indicating the understanding of the Augsburg Confession allegedly held by its adherents a generation and a half later. There the Solid Declaration reads:
churches will not condemn each other because of a difference in ceremonies, when in Christian liberty one uses fewer or more of them, as long as they are otherwise agreed in doctrine and in all its articles and are also agreed concerning the right use of the holy sacraments.[iv]
On this basis it has been argued that both the Formula of Concord and the Augsburg Confession require full and prior doctrinal agreement between churches as a precondition for the declaration of altar and pulpit fellowship, and thus as a condition for unity in the church. If this view were correct, a serious challenge would have been raised to the claim of the Augsburg Confession to present nothing but the catholic faith, for it would mean that agreement in theological formulations would replace the gospel and the sacraments that are actually preached and administered in the liturgical assemblies as that which “satis est” for the unity of the church. And the confessors at Augsburg would apparently be guilty of no small insincerity in using words which seem to state a catholic principle but which allegedly intend to establish a narrower view as essential for the true unity of the church, namely, full agreement in all the larger and smaller parts of Christian doctrine.
My purpose here is to offer and defend a reading of both CA VII and SD X that understands both documents to agree in asserting that the sufficient grounds for maintaining and regaining and preserving the unity of the church is the actual preaching of the gospel and the actual administration and reception of the sacraments—and not a doctrine or doctrines about the gospel and about the sacraments. To do this, I will first examine FC SD X in order to sketch its understanding of the key term “doctrine.” I will then rehearse the argument of CA VII. Finally, I will seek to show the essentially catholic nature of these two articles of the Lutheran confessional writings. On that basis I will offer some concluding observations. I thereby make the case that insistence on full doctrinal agreement as a precondition for church fellowship is alien to the confessional writings of the churches of the Augsburg Confession; what makes the church “church” is the gospel said and done in its assembly, and what makes the church one church is precisely that same gospel-in-action.
II. The Doctrine and All Its Articulations
Article ten of the Formula of Concord is addressed to the central issue in the inner-Lutheran controversy over the Augsburg and Leipzig interims.[v] Was it permissible for the churches in Lutheran lands to reintroduce otherwise indifferent matters of ceremony or canon law, so long as they were then able to continue to preach and teach in accord with the gospel as they had come to understand it? The Formula’s answer is that such reintroduction was compelled by imperial edict and therefore constituted an attack upon Christian freedom and, as a consequence, upon the gospel itself. Under such circumstances, the Concordists argued, to yield by cooperating with the Interim would have been to abandon the understanding of the gospel that had emerged in the course of reformation. The occasion became “a time of confession” (FC SD X, 10); to yield would have been faithless, apostasy. The stalwart, ready to face the consequences of their disobedience of imperial authority, were not to imply by any tacit cooperation at the level of ceremonial or canon law that the differences that had emerged between themselves and the reforming church of Rome were of no consequence. The Concordists sought to uphold “the truth of the gospel” in all that they taught and did, and in no way to give support to enemies of the gospel, “either in ceremonies or in doctrine.”[vi] Then, as a way of indicating a sort of limit or boundary to the hard line the article was taking, the authors conclude the article with the words referred to earlier:
In line with the above, churches will not condemn each other because of a difference in ceremonies, when in Christian liberty one uses fewer or more of them, as long as they are otherwise agreed in doctrine and in all its articles and are also agreed concerning the right use of the holy sacraments, according to the well-known axiom, “Disagreement in fasting should not destroy agreement in faith.” (FC SD X, 31; the crucial phrase is, in the original German text, “ in der Lehre und allen derselben Artikel.”)
In what sense does this constitute a gloss on the ecclesiology of the Augsburg Confession? What sort of a program for relationships between churches does the Formula of Concord in fact here offer? And what, indeed, is meant by agreement “in (the) doctrine and … all its articulations”?
(1) There is compelling evidence within article ten itself to support the contention that “doctrine” here means the gospel that is in fact proclaimed and sacramentally acted out in the churches.
(2) The article frequently links the words “doctrine” and “gospel” in such a way as to suggest that the terms are essentially synonymous.
(3) It speaks of a time “when enemies of the holy Gospel have not come to an agreement with us in the doctrine.” (FC SD X, 2.)
(4) It refers to “the pure doctrine of the Gospel” as the property of the evangelical churches in contrast with the churches prior to reformation (FC SD X, 5).
(5) Later it speaks of “the pure doctrine of the Gospel” which is opposed by “enemies of the Word of God [who] desire to suppress it” (FC SD X, 10).
(6) In frequent quotation of Galatians 2:5, the article makes reference to “the truth of the Gospel” (FC SD X, 11, 12, 13, 14); there the antithesis is the legalistic insistence of the “Judaizers” on the binding nature of the requirements of the Mosaic legislation.
(7) Another section focuses on “the chief article of our Christian faith, so that … the truth of the Gospel might be preserved” (FC SD X, 14). Striking, isn’t it, that in this passage the formulations point to the “chief article,” i.e., the word of forgiveness, as that which will preserve the truth of the gospel, rather than insisting on agreement on a whole range of doctrinal formulations as a way of protecting or preserving that truth.
(8) A later paragraph sets in antithesis “agreement in doctrine” and “conforming in external things” (FC SD X, 16); in the setting of the Interim this referred not only to ceremonies and matters of canon law and polity, but also to a significant extent to theological formulations, which, like ceremonies, are of human origin.
(9) Again, “true bishops” would be “concerned about the church and thegospel”; this is said in contrast with the work of “enemies of the holy Gospel”—those who opposed the central notion of the gospel as that was recovered in the reformation (FC SD X, 19, 28, 29).
From all of this it should be clear that the term “doctrine” in article ten of the Formula of Concord is primarily and essentially an equivalent term for the “gospel” and that the term is used by the evangelical theologians as the label for the central insight of the reformation, the notion of the forgiveness of sins “by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith” (CA IV, 1).[vii] The word “doctrine” is always used in the singular in the article under discussion, and consistently with the same connotation and against similar antitheses.
This accords with usage elsewhere in the Formula of Concord and in the other documents of the Book of Concord and in contemporary usage by other evangelical theologians as well. In the “Summary Formulation” which precedes the numbered articles of the Formula of Concord, we read that the “churches of the pure Christian religion” agree in their confession of the “pure doctrine of the Word of God” (FC SD Summary Formulation, 1, 2, et passim). The Apology of the Augsburg Confession contrasts papal claims to the right to establish “articles of faith” with the evangelical churches’ claim to “preach the blessing of Christ, that we obtain forgiveness of sins through faith in him and not through devotions invented by the pope” as articles of faith (Ap VII, 23–27). It is a commonplace to observe that almost wherever the Book of Concord uses the word “article” or “article of faith,” the referent is either the second article of the Creed (i.e., that concerning Jesus Christ) or the preaching of justification/ forgiveness as the chief “article” (Cf. Ap IV, passim). Similarly, “the doctrine of the gospel” is, according to the Apology, the proclamation that sinners “have a gracious God not because of works but freely for Christ’s sake”; the contrast here is between what “the gospel teaches” and the merit-by-performance notion invented by human tradition (Ap XV, 5, 6, 11).[viii]
One finds the same conception in the Six Sermons of Jacob Andreae that were a precursor of the Formula of Concord. Particularly in the fourth sermon, dealing with the problem of the interims, Andreae contrasts the “truth of the holy gospel” with the “command and obligation” to observe otherwise indifferent things. To accept the imposition of such things under the weight of imperial command (whether ceremonies or doctrinal statements) “means the abrogation and diminution of Christian freedom.” One may not yield, Andreae says, to “enemies of God’s Word;” rather, one “is obligated to maintain his Christian freedom—and with it the truth of the holy gospel—and to confess it publicly,” for “the Lord certainly knows how to preserve pure doctrine and his Church.”[ix]
Similar statements can be found in the Loci communes of Melanchthon, which in its several editions stands as evidence of the way in which many Lutherans in the years prior to 1577 used and understood words like “doctrine” and “gospel.” As in the Formula of Concord, here the term “doctrine” is used regularly in the singular, and its frequent association with “gospel” and related terms and ideas suggests that its normal referent is the faith as the Lutherans understood it—or, as we shall argue below, the catholic faith in evangelical garb. For example, in the dedicatory epistle of the 1555 edition, Melanchthon announces, “My intention was to relate only that doctrine contained in the confession of the churches of Saxony, which was delivered at Augsburg in 1530.”[x] Melanchthon’s locus on the church contains this instructive parallel use of “gospel” and “doctrine”:
The visible church is a gathered company of men who confess and obey the gospel. … Hypocrites mingle in such a gathered company and are included in the confession of true doctrine with the saints if they keep and confess [the] true doctrine.[xi]
And in the same locus Melanchthon writes that Isaiah 59:21 teaches “not only that there will always be a true Church and people of God, but also shows where and how it will be, namely, where the correct, true doctrine of the gospel rings out.” It is evident that for Melanchthon the common and decisive referent for the term “doctrine” is the proclaimed gospel, the key and central notion of the Augsburg Confession, indeed, of the whole reformation movement.
For all of these reasons one must conclude that the tenth article of the Formula of Concord uses the term “doctrine” as another word for the “gospel”—preached from the pulpits and visibly enacted in the sacraments. This is what is called “the chief article of our Christian faith,” and it is the common core, the center to which all other doctrinal statements must relate.[xii] Thus, far from stating maximalist conditions for church unity, FC SD X, 31 actually assumes agreement in the gospel; churches will not condemn each other, will not break the unity of the faith, over a difference in such external matters as vestments or ceremonies or theological formulations, “so long as they are one with each other in the doctrine [i.e., the gospel as we have come to understand it] and all its articulations [my translation] as well as the right [viz., evangelical] use of the holy sacraments.” That is, churches that can recognize each other’s preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments as authentically that, and not as “enmity” against Christ, are bound not to condemn one another’s practices, canon law or theological formulations. The statement is addressed to churches that are “one with each other” in their preaching of the gospel and use of the sacraments, and they will not break their unity— much less continue a divided and separate existence—over more or fewer or differing external matters.[xiii] The next step is to show that this reading of the Formula breathes the same spirit as the CA.
III. The Ecclesiology of CA VII
In CA VII the grounds for the church’s very existence and the grounds for the church’s “true unity” are the same: “that the gospel be preached einträchtiglich,” i.e., harmoniously, agreeably, with unanimity, and that the sacraments be administered accordingly. The Latin version reads, “to consent concerning the doctrine of the gospel”; “doctrine” here means the activity of teaching or preaching the gospel, since de doctrina evangelii is paired with de administratione sacramentorum. One ought perhaps translate, “concerning the preaching of the gospel and the administering of the sacraments,” since this is the evident intention of the German version’s phrase, “that the gospel be preached.” Thus the primary referent here for “doctrine” is the gospel as it is actually proclaimed and sacramentally enacted, not theoretical doctrinal formulations about which scholars might or might not agree.[xiv]
In light of this, the qualifying words “purely” and “rightly” and their parallels in CA 7 are, strictly speaking, tautologies. Impure gospel is, in the view of the reformers, no gospel at all. Sacraments that are not administered “according to the gospel” are not proper sacraments but empty ceremonies. At best, “purely” and “rightly” serve to denote the reformers’ evangelical understanding of the faith, over against what they regard as hopeless distortions thereof.[xv]
A look at some of the background of CA 7 will make this clearer. The twelfth of the Schwabach articles, in effect an earlier stage of the article under discussion, asserts:
This church is nothing other than the believers in Christ, who hold, believe, and teach the above-named articles and parts, and who are on that account persecuted and tortured in the world. For where the gospel is preached and the sacraments are rightly used, there is the holy Christian church.[xvi]
And the copy of an early draft of the Augsburg Confession sent to Nuremberg reads:
This church, however, is a gathering of the saints, in which the gospel is preached and the sacraments are given. And for the unity of the churches it is enough that people are agreed about the gospel and the sacraments.[xvii]
The qualifying adverbs pure and recte do not usually appear at this stage in the development of AC 7. They are a virtually gratuitous insertion into the final version (though, of course, there is a hint of recht in the Schwabach articles). By the time the Variata was prepared a decade later, Melanchthon was noticeably freer with the qualifying adverbs and adjectives; there the introductory sentences of article seven read:
The church of Christ, then, is properly a congregation of members of Christ, i.e., of saints, who truly believe and obey Christ, even though there are many evil persons and hypocrites mixed in with this congregation until the last judgment. And the church, properly speaking, has its marks, namely, the pure and wholesome doctrine of the gospel and correct use of the sacraments.[xviii] (Then follows the satis est sentence of the original.)
From this summary we may provisionally conclude that CA VII stresses, not the purity and correctness of a church’s doctrinal formulations, but the genuineness of the gospel and sacraments in its midst.
This is neither a reductionist principle, requiring only some minimal consent that the gospel has to do with Jesus, nor is it a maximalist principle, requiring complete and prior agreement in theological formulations as preconditions for church fellowship, nor is it even a spiritualizing principle, pointing to an invisible and spiritual unity as a sort of given for the real (i.e., invisible) church. It is a simple and straightforward assertion that that which makes the church church is also that which makes the church one church.[xix] Gospel and sacraments as actually preached and done require all that is essential for the church’s being and for the church’s oneness.[xx]
Related to these concerns is the notion which Melanchthon clarified in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, namely, that the church is not some “Platonic idea” but a real and visible/audible community, replete with characteristic distinguishing marks.[xxi] These marks are regularly described, though in varying terminology, as the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.[xxii] That the church is said to be recognizable—in opposition to a mere Platonic idea—serves to maintain the essentially catholic character of the Augsburg Confession’s view of the church, and thus to counter any non-catholic, i.e., sectarian, predilection for a really pure but hidden or spiritual body.[xxiii] In this view the church is always an identifiable body of believers, a congregation actually proclaiming and hearing the gospel and actually celebrating the sacraments.
IV. The Question of Catholicity
Essential to the understanding of the Augsburg Confession—both as a whole and in the case of any particular article—is to see it as a putative confession of the catholic (i.e., universal Christian) faith, in the light of the evangelical theology of the Saxon reformers (and their associates in that moment of crisis and confession in 1530). Though the confession has since come to be regarded as the distinguishing document of a particular tradition, viz., Lutheranism, the confession’s claim to catholicity must not be undervalued. Our purpose in this section is to pay attention to those claims, both of the Augsburg Confession as a whole and of article VII in particular.
At several key places, the Augsburg Confession makes explicit claim to be a confession of the catholic faith, and this explicit claim is then supported by the several articles of the confession. Indeed, the basic logic of the confession was to demonstrate to the assembled estates that the reformation in Saxon and other lands did not constitute, as Eck had charged,[xxiv] a lapse from the catholic faith and therefore grounds for a breach in the unity of the church, to say nothing of being illicit in the empire. The Preface declares the confessors’ readiness, in language echoing that of the imperial summons to the 1530 diet, to maintain one church and one faith. Contrary to Eck’s critique, the reformation had studiously avoided any innovation, either in doctrine or in practice; rather, the churches had maintained the catholic tradition while correcting certain abuses that had crept into the late-medieval church.
This catholic claim is evidenced not least by the otherwise gratuitous condemnations of ancient heresies (e.g., the condemnations in articles I, II, VII, XII) and by the reiteration of the catholic creeds, by name or in substance, in the first three articles. Articles four through six indicate the confessors’ decisive understanding of the gospel, the application of the benefits of Christ’s work to the believer through the church’s ministry in such a way as to issue in a life of obedience and holiness. One misses the confessors’ intention entirely if one takes these articles as particular Lutheran views, rather than as the confessors’ understanding of what the center of the catholic faith really is. Articles seven through fourteen confess the church and the sacraments, which in extremely brief compass locate the reformers squarely (at least in their confessed self-understanding) in the catholic tradition. Accordingly, the epilogue to the doctrinal articles (after article XXI) says that nothing here departs from the teaching of the Scriptures or of the catholic church or even of the Roman church.[xxv]
For the Lutherans who submitted the confession, the twenty-one doctrinal articles were not thought to be in themselves controversial. The whole dispute, they insisted, was not over the “Articles of Faith and Doctrine” at all, but “chiefly with various traditions and abuses” which were then dealt with in the final seven articles.[xxvi] To be sure, the Confutatio of the papal theologians disputed that claim, but that only puts into bolder relief the reformers’ own claim to catholicity.
In the case of article VII in particular, the claimed catholicity may be noted at several points:
(1) The article says that “one holy church will be and remain forever.”[xxvii] This is an attempt to assert both the essential oneness of the church against all non-Catholic and/or schismatic notions, as well as to assert the perpetual duration of that church as such.
(2) It is said that this church is the assembly of believers or saints around the gospel and sacraments.[xxviii] Here the congregatio sanctorum is tantamount to the communio sanctorum of the Apostolic Creed, and that in both the personal sense (developed particularly sharply in Luther) of a communio of the sancti (holy people) and in the objective sense, characteristic of the ancient church, of a communio in the sancta (holy things). Here the confessors, especially by identifying the communio in terms of the preached gospel and administered sacraments, make a claim to stand in the tradition of the communio ecclesiology of the ancient church.[xxix]
(3) The satis est statement[xxx] locates the ground for the true unity of the church there where its very existence is grounded, namely, in the gospel actually preached and the sacraments actually in use. What makes the church church makes the church one. Just as CA V had defined the gospel materially (“it is not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ that God justifies those who believe”), so article VII defines the gospel formally as that which is actually preached and taught and done, rather than in secondary reflections and formulations about the gospel.[xxxi] This is echoed in article XXIV where the claim is made that the mass “is observed with greater devotion” in the confessors’ churches; the decisive ecclesiological event is the Mass, the communio in the sancta by the sancti (CA XXIV, 1). Even the Council of Trent was able to argue that the gospel is not a code of doctrinal laws but a source of saving truth.[xxxii]
(4) The condemnation of the Donatists in CA VIII not only makes a formal claim to catholicity, but also underscores the confessors’ material claim as well: only a neo-Donatist would require more than gospel and sacraments in practice; only a neo-Donatist would insist on something like agreement also in externals or perfection in doctrinal formulations.
(5) Finally, we need to recall the situation in which the satis est statement was made, namely, the plea for Christian unity within the empire. The statement is an expression of concern for catholic unity. And the signatories were not calling for the breaking of communio with the Roman bishops in the interim between the imperial diet and the hoped-for free and general council of the church. (Such readiness is reflected also in Ap XIV, 5 and in Melanchthon’s subscription to the Smalcald Articles.)
For all of these reasons, the seventh article of the Augsburg Confession must be understood as an attempt to confess a catholic ecclesiology and a catholic program for the preservation of the unity of the church.[xxxiii]
To conclude: Article VII shares fully in the Confession’s claim to be a statement of the universal Christian faith, and it does so most decisively by its appeal to the communio ecclesiology of the ancient church with its focus on the sharing in the holy gospel and the holy things. Thus the unity (like the very existence) of the church is said to depend, not on the mere possession of a proper doctrine about the gospel but on the actual proclamation of the gospel, not on a formal doctrine about the sacraments but on the actual use of the sacraments.[xxxiv] And that is precisely what we saw to be the case in the tenth article of the Formula of Concord.
I have sought to read the texts of CA VII and FC X against the background of their respective situations in order to show that a common and essentially catholic vision of the church and its unity is to be found in both articles. Just as the confessors at Augsburg in 1530 were prepared to preserve the unity of the church while reforming certain abuses by appealing to the gospel and sacraments in operation in their midst (and in the midst of the other churches of the empire as well), so also the Concordists in 1577 were prepared to recognize the same criterion as sufficient grounds for the preservation of church unity. Even in the hardened and polemical climate of the 1570s, the churches of the Augsburg Confession were not moved to a narrow non-Catholic view of the church and its oneness; there was no insistence on total and prior agreement in formulations of doctrine as a condition for fellowship or communio or unity in the church. Rather, the gospel actually preached and the sacraments actually done were held up as the sufficient grounds. Recognizable authentic gospel and sacraments then constitute a prima facie case for mutual recognition of churches as church and for expressions of unity such as communio in sacris.
In the light of these observations, then, I make these concluding observations and judgments:
(1) Read in its historical context, CA VII is an explicit appeal to the gospel said and done in the liturgical assembly as grounds for maintaining the unity of the church; as a point of imperial law, the Emperor and Diet ought not rule the confessors out of the catholic church.
(2) As a liturgical and practical argument for the unity of the church, CA VII confesses that recognizably authentic gospel said and done in the assembly is sufficient, thus ruling out the notion that theological and doctrinal statements about preaching and sacraments might be required.
(3) The entire line of argument among LCMS theologians, insisting that maximal doctrinal agreement is necessary as a precondition for full communion, is both sub- and anti-confessional.
(4) The LCMS position and practice on church fellowship perpetuates a division that is not only not required by, but in fact contradictory to, the commitment of the Augsburg Confession and the other confessional writings.
(5) Because it is the gospel-and-sacraments actually done in the church that make the church church and that make the church one, it is anti-confessional to seek more than that; accordingly, we have absolutely no grounds for refusing the ELCA’s offer of full communion nor for criticizing that church’s recent ecumenical initiatives.
(6) Should the Roman church, in some post-Ratzinger ejaculation of grace, find our confession of the gospel and our doing of the sacraments to be in fact catholic and Christian, we would be confessionally bound to take a position within the Roman church rather like that of other particular and non-conforming rites, but decidedly within the Roman church.
(7) The LCMS must absolutely and unconditionally participate in genuine, no-holds-barred, ecumenical conversation, such that our listening not only is open to learning but also puts us in the position of being corrected by our partners in conversation.
(8) While CA VII may indeed not be enough by itself to reconstruct unity among the churches, it nevertheless calls the LCMS to repent of its separation from the conversation and to come to the table without pride of purity in doctrine; this confessional commitment is open to critique by that confessional commitment.
All of this is to say, finally, that the Lutheran confessional writings open for all of us an ecumenical future in which the bottom line is, simply, “Enough is enough!”
[i] From this literature, notably Ralph Bohlmann, “The Celebration of Concord” in Samuel F. Nafzger, ed., Formula for Concord (St Louis: Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1977), 55–89; Robert Preus, “The Basis for Concord,” ibid.; and Kurt Marquart, “Article X: Confession and Ceremonies,” in Robert Preus and Wilbert Rosin, eds., A Contemporary Look at the Formula of Concord (St Louis: Concordia, 1978), 260–70.
[ii] This view is paradigmatically argued by Edmund Schlink, The Theology of the Lutheran Confessions, trans. Paul F. Koehneke and Herbert J. A. Bouman (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1961), 194–225. See also Schlink’s later essay, “The Ecumenical Character of the Augsburg Confession,” LWF Report, 6 & 7 (1979): 1–28.
[iii] Recent scholarship on CA VII includes several significant publications. Here follows a digest of a number of them: Robert C. Schultz, “An Analysis of the Augsburg Confession Article VII,2 in it’s [sic] Historical Context, May & June, 1530,” Sixteenth Century Journal XI/3 (1980): 25–35. Schultz bases his argument on the (at the time of his writing not yet translated) work of Wilhelm Maurer, subsequently published as Historical Commentary on the Augsburg Confession). Suggesting that dogmatic considerations have dominated in the 450-plus years since the CA appeared, Schultz asks that one “lay aside such dogmatic presuppositions and look at this sentence in terms of its contemporary historical context.” (26). Two points dominate: (1) doctrina evangelii is shown to be an explicit appeal to the Code of Justinian, thus to the law of both the empire and (since the thirteenth century also) of the church, which code by that phrase sought to provide a definition of catholic orthodoxy. But this is crucial: “The CA
asks to be judged on the basis of the imperial constitution of civil law rather than by papal definition of heresy” (30). (2) The unity of the church is a new element added in the hubbub of confession-editing activity by the Saxons and their associates during the late spring of 1530 in Augsburg; the Schwabach articles had, to be sure, included a confession of catholic orthodoxy, but CA VII,2 makes a new appeal to the unity of the church on the basis of the doctrina evangelii. Here the confessors are at pains to add a clear assertion that they explicitly do not deny the validity of the sacraments in the papal churches, and they claim to be at one with them in their own confession and sacramental practice! The Augsburg Confession is careful not to suggest that the Romanists should be excluded from membership in the one holy church because of bad theology. That had been suggested in earlier writings of the reformers and would be suggested again—but only about selected Romanists. …Lutherans affirmed their unity not with a Roman church to be reformed by a council such as Trent or Vatican II, but with the Roman Church of 1530 (33). CA VII is, in Schultz’s view, designed to “assert Lutheran catholicity without calling the catholicity of the Roman church into question” (34). Schultz concludes by drawing the analogy of a family split by quarrels: For it to be reunited, it need not resolve the old quarrels, need not come to terms with all that has happened during the years of separation. Rather such a family in the process of reconciliation needs to focus on present and future tasks and on the resources available to members of the family in meeting those tasks. (35) And on that basis Schultz imagines the possibility of Rome welcoming Lutheran catholics into the fold—leading to a situation in which “the lines of division will be no more painful than those presently existing between the various religious orders and dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church.” (35) Thus “there is no confessional reason for Lutherans to wait for Rome to recognize the CA, but Lutherans are rather confessionally obligated to imitate the CA in declaring effective catholic unity with Roman Catholics.” (35) Maxwell E. Johnson, “A Liturgist Looks at the Ecumenical Implications of Augustana VII,” Lutheran Forum 31:1 (Spring 1997): 12–18. Johnson’s key observation is that CA VII gives an essentially liturgical definition of the church and of its unity. The great mistake of medieval Scholasticism to the present thinks that we can actually talk about the meaning of the sacraments without realizing that we need to talk about the liturgy. (13) A liturgical reading of this article suggests that the issue is about legitimate liturgical diversity in the Church as long as the central ceremonies of preaching and sacramental administration are done. … true unity already exists by God’s gracious gift in Word and Sacrament, a gift that calls all churches to an ecumenical fidelity to this liturgical center where the Gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered. (14) While on the one hand Johnson’s argument moves toward a support for the notion that CA VII’s vision of unity refers really to an invisible and spiritual unity among all churches who similarly gather around the word evangelically proclaimed and sacramentally administered—an argument that would tend to remove CA VII from the sphere of ecumenical negotiations, Johnson makes the creative step forward of asserting that a liturgical definition of church and unity requires a liturgical criterion or test for assessing relationships among the churches. That is, the question for Lutherans is not, primarily at least, about the lex credendi (“rule of believing”), the doctrinal stance of a particular ecclesial body. The primary question is about its lex orandi (“rule of praying”), that is, the liturgical expression of its faith. In other words, are Word and Sacrament visibly central? Are they constitutive of the life and mission of this assembly? In spite of what may or may not be said officially, is it the gospel that is proclaimed in their assemblies or is it something else? … This is not about sacramental theology, not even about the contents of liturgical books—though one might hope for a correlation here—but about sacramental-liturgical practice. … If there is, in fact, unity here, unity in the satis est, then it would be nothing short of sinful not to pursue that unity further. (17f) Thus Johnson suggests that it is extremely questionable to refer CA VII to ecumenical issues in our time. One finds the horizon of concern oscillating, dream-like, between the spiritual union of all the baptized and the quest for visible unity based on it. Still, the conclusion is hopeful: Does not the true and spiritual unity given by pure gospel proclamation and right sacramental administration, in fact, call for a concrete, incarnational, visible, and public expression of that unity “so that the world may believe” (John 17:21)? If so, then, what are we going to do ecumenically, now that we don’t have to do anything? (18) Frank C. Senn, “The Church: ‘People of God’ or Liturgical Assembly?” dialog 25 (Spring 1986):134–38. It is by doing its liturgy, its “public work,” that the church is known. That public work includes the reaching of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments by the ordained ministers of the church and the response of the people with their prayers, praise and thanksgiving. The word “church” itself means “assembly” (ecclesia); and liturgy is what it assembles to do (137). Senn’s article is noteworthy for its connecting of the liturgical definition of church in CA VII with the implicitly liturgical definition of justification (IV) and ministry (V). Charles P. Arand, “The Future of Church Fellowship: A Confessional Proposal,” Concordia Journal 25 (July 1999):239–52. What a teaser of an article! Arand has the chutzpah to admit that Missouri has not earned much standing by its work for church fellowship. “At first glance, the future does not look very bright for the Missouri Synod’s ecumenical prospects” (239). And, even better, he works out a distinction between “movement Lutheranism,” which he finds prominent in the ELCA, and “denominational Lutheranism,” which he finds descriptive of the LCMS; the former sees the CA as a “negotiating document,” a “proposal,” while the latter sees the CA as “a bill of divorce” that the Lutherans issued to the Roman Catholic church at Augsburg. From this he concludes that “neither approach provides an adequate description of the Augsburg Confession nor an adequate assessment of how Lutherans today should exercise the confessional stance that was modeled at Augsburg in 1530” (242). He seeks to transcend that polarity in favor of a “confessional-ecumenical proposal” (242). Then Arand proposes applying the old quia/quatenus distinction to the church (245f). As theological reality, the church is church because it has the gospel; yet all sociological manifestations of the church are church only insofar as they have the gospel (245). On this basis he suggests that Missouri needs to be ready to see the gospel wherever and whenever and to acknowledge those among whom we find it to be sisters and brothers. Baptists and Catholics are “in”; Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are “out.” Our primary ecumenical goal is not to create or establish the true unity of the church, for that is a given. Nor is our primary goal necessarily the external unity of the church. Our primary goal is to manifest the true unity of the church among ourselves and others by confessing the one Gospel (250). And it’s downhill from there—even though he describes “listening” as our first task, which is first only on the way to confessing the “truth of the Gospel” (250). Note what the options are: we listen to our sisters and brothers, we listen to the confessions and decrees of the others, and we listen to what is actually proclaimed. “Sometimes the
Lutheran confessions will line up with us against both the tradition and the contemporary teaching of our
conversation partners. Sometimes the contemporary teaching of these Christian siblings will join us and the Lutheran confession against the past” (251). Striking is that he does not envision the possibility that we may turn out to be the non-conforming party! We need to proclaim, to confess. “People’s lives depend upon it” (251). What Arand’s Missouri is guilty of is named thus: “We have not worked hard enough at conveying the riches of our tradition in fresh language to our own people. We need to work harder to convey the treasures which God has given us outside our own circles” (251f). It’s just that we don’t seem to need to learn anything! Michael Root, “‘Satis est’: What Do We Do When Other Churches Don’t Agree?” dialog 30:314–24. Root takes a distinctive approach. While at Augsburg in 1530 “the question was not, how do we bring divided churches back into fellowship? But rather, what makes the church one and where is the one church to be found?” (316), today we have the “modern denominational reality of separate churches with quite separate lives and histories” (316). When CA 7 says that it is enough for unity to agree in gospel and sacraments, the paradigm of agreement is agreement that is consciously realized in the life of the church. … Agreement cannot be assumed; it must be consciously realized (318). The satis est clause does not constitute an ecumenical program. It is a crucial assertion of Lutheran ecclesiology and must be at the center of Lutheran ecumenical work, but it is only one statement about the church, not a full ecclesiology. …Only when the satis est clause is placed in the context of such a full sense of the concrete life of the church can it truly play its critical role (323).
[iv] FC SD X, 31. Unless otherwise noted, English quotations are from The Book of Concord, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1959).
[v] For a thorough discussion of the controversy over the Interims, see Robert Kolb, “Historical Background of the Formula of Concord,” in Preus and Rosin, 12–87.
[vi] “Likewise we hold it to be a culpable sin when in a period of persecution anything is done in deed or action to please enemies of the Gospel contrary to and in opposition to the Christian confession, whether in things indifferent, in doctrine, or in whatever else pertains to religion” FC SD X, 29.
[vii] Eric Gritsch summarizes the point this way: “‘gospel’ means the promise that [a person] is saved without any human merit” (Eric Gritsch and Robert Jenson, Lutheranism [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976], 114).
[viii] Cf. also CA XXVIII, 20–27 (Latin), where bishops are called upon to “reject doctrine which is contrary to the gospel.” Cf. also SA III, x, 1; Ap XIV, 5; Tr 77; SA III, xv, 5; and Melanchthon’s interestingly qualified subscription to SA.
[ix] Jacob Andreae, “Six Sermons,” in Robert Kolb, Andreae and the Formula of Concord (St Louis: Concordia, 1977), 94–96.
[x] Philip Melanchthon, On Christian Doctrine, trans. Clyde L. Manschreck (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), xliv. Cf. also, on the same page: “After the almighty Son of God, Jesus Christ, graciously allowed his doctrine to shine again through the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther. …”
[xi] Ibid., 267. Cf. also p. 270: “where there is true doctrine some saints … must also be present … the Church, or the true people of God, is bound to the gospel. Where the gospel is truly acknowledged, there are some who are holy.”
[xii] FC SC X, 14. This is a distinctive and characteristic feature of the churches of the Augsburg Confession. See Guenther Gassmann, “Die Rechtfertigungslehre in der Perspektive der Confessio Augustana und des lutherischkatholischen Gespraechs heute,” Luther L (1979):49–60; esp. 52.
[xiii] So, one must ask, how does a church body like the LCMS manage to justify its sullen separation from the others, when there were not sufficient grounds for its separation in the first place?
[xiv] Schlink comments: “A comparison of the German and Latin versions shows that purity of the gospel refers to its preaching, its challenge, and not simply to a doctrine about the preaching of the gospel. Equally, in the administration of the sacraments what is important is the distribution and reception of the sacraments, not a doctrine of the sacraments or adherence to a certain liturgical order. Both statements are concerned with the worshiping assembly where the gospel is preached and the sacraments distributed and received. The church is thus defined through God’s action in word and sacrament” (LWF Report, 22).
[xv] One sees a similar connotation in various passages from the Loci communes of Melanchthon: “The churches of God are only those gatherings in which the holy gospel of the Lord Christ is rightly preached”; the saints of God are those “who also have external signs …, such as the true gospel, the right use of the sacraments, confession of true doctrine, and invocation of God with trust in Christ”; “God’s people are bound only to the gospel, not to the precepts of men, to Rome or to Antioch” (Manschreck, 142, 266, 267). On this matter Robert Jenson observes, “There can be no such thing as an ‘impure,’ almost-unconditional gospel. … The Lutheran reformers believed themselves to live in a time when most of what was claimed to be gospel had not really been gospel; it is that ‘really’ that the rein (pure) of the German text or the recte of the Latin text enforces” (Gritsch and Jenson, 132).
[xvi] “Solche Kirch ist nit ander dann die Glaubigen an Christo, welche obgenannte artikel und Stuck halten, glauben und lehren und daruber verfolgt und gemartert werden in der Welt. Denn wo des Euangelion gepredigt wird und die Sakrament recht gebraucht, do ist die heilige christenliche Kirche. …” (Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelischlutherischen Kirche, 4th ed. [Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1959], 61f; hereafter this volume will be cited as BSLK).
[xvii] “Die Kirch aber ist ein Versammlung der Heiligen, darin das Evangelium gepredigt und die Sakrament gereicht werden. Und zu Einigkeit der Kirchen ist genug, dass man des Evangeliums und der Sakrament halben ubereinkomm. …” (BSLK 61).
[xviii] “Est autem ecclesia Christi proprie congregatio membrorum Christi, hoc est sanctorum, qui vere credunt et oboediunt Christo, etsi in hac vita huic congregationi multi mali et hypocritae admixti sunt usque ad novissimum iudicium. Habet autem ecclesia proprie dicta signa sua, scilicet puram et sanam evangelii doctrinam et rectum usum sacramentorum” (BSLK 62; emphasis added). In the locus on the church Melanchthon writes: “Up to now I have spoken about the visible church in which the doctrine of the gospel is pure and right use of the sacraments is kept without open idolatry. Although many hypocrites or ungodly people are not in this visible company and make this same confession, where there is true doctrine, some saints and heirs of eternal life who truly acknowledge and invoke God must also be present” (Manschreck 270).
[xix] Some have argued that “unity” is a hidden, spiritual phenomenon, a gift of Christ to the church, while “concord” or “fellowship” is an external and human affair—to be achieved and maintained by Christians through doctrinal consensus. In addition to the essays by Bohlmann and Preus cited above, see also Arthur Carl Piepkorn, “What the Symbols Have to Say about the Church,” Concordia Theological Monthly XXVI (1955):721–63; note especially 750, 751, 759. Against these views Kurt Marquart argues that no such distinction is proper; however, because he treats FC X as an authoritative gloss on CA VII, and because he understands “doctrine and all its articles” in maximalist fashion, Marquart’s position is no net gain over those with whom he differs. See his essay in Preus and Rosin, 268ff.
[xx] “The question, therefore, is not about an ecclesiastical body’s formal doctrine of the sacraments, but about its practice of them” (Gritsch and Jenson, 133). “Spricht Melanchthon von der pura doctrina Evangelii als einer nota der Kirche, so hat er immer die lebendig verkuendigte und in der Kirche oeffentlich vorgetragene reine Lehre des Evangeliums im Auge” (Hellmut Lieberg, Amt und Ordination bei Luther und Melanchthon [Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1962], 254).
[xxi] Ap VII, 20–26. Lieberg comments: “Vielmehr ist die Kirche sichtbar, insofern in ihr das Evangelium und die Sakramente hoer-und sichtbar sind und sie ja Sammlung von konkreten Menschen um dieses hoer- und sichtbare Wort und Sakrament ist. Die Kirche ist nie ohne das hoerbare Evangelium und die sichtbaren Sakramente und darum also immer coetus visibilis” (Lieberg, 253).
[xxii] “The church is not merely an association of outward ties and rites like other civic governments, but it is mainly an association of faith and of the Holy Spirit in men’s hearts. To make it recognizable, this association has outward marks, the pure teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments in harmony with the Gospel of Christ. This church alone is called the body of Christ, which Christ renews, consecrates, and governs by his Spirit” (Ap VII, 5; see also Ap VII, 10, 20f.).
[xxiii] Jenson comments: “The church is purified not by a Puritan discipline but by the continuous encounter between the Word of God and the word of men” (Gritsch and Jenson, 130).
[xxiv] An English translation of Eck’s Articulos 404 appears in J. M. Reu, The Augsburg Confession: A Collection of Sources (Chicago: Wartburg, 1930), 97–121. See especially Eck’s preface, which speaks of false prophets in Germany “attempting to tear away the people from the unity of the Catholic Faith.”
[xxv] The German version reads, “So dann dieselbige in heiliger Schrift klar gegrundet und darzu gemeiner christlichen, ja auch romischer Kirchen, so viel aus der Vaeter Schriften zu vermerken, nicht zuwider noch entgegen ist. …” The Latin reads, “nihil inesse, quod discrepet a scripturis vel ab ecclesia catholica vel ab ecclesia Romana, quatenus ex scriptoribus nobis nota est” (BSLK, 83d).
[xxvi] “Inasmuch as 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, we pray that Your Imperial Majesty will graciously hear both what has been changed and what our reasons for such changes are in order that the people may not be compelled to observe these abuses against their consciences” (CA, Introduction to Part Two, 1 [Latin]). See also the comments by Eugene Brand, “1980: Lutheran-Roman Catholic Kairos? Trinity Seminary Review (Summer 1978):38f.
[xxvii] “Es wird auch gelehret, dass alle Zeit musse ein heilige christliche Kirche sein und bleiben.” “Item docent, quod una sancta ecclesia perpetuo mansura sit” (CA VII, 1).
[xxviii] “Welche ist die Versammlung aller Glaubigen, bei welchen das Evangelium rein gepredigt und die heiligen Sakrament lauts des Evangelii gereicht werden.” “Est autem ecclessia congregatio sanctorum, in quo evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta” (CA VII, 1).
[xxix] Cf. Walter Kasper, “The Augsburg Confession in Roman Catholic Perspective,” LWF Report 6/7 (December 1979), 165. Cf. also Jean Laporte, “The Ancient Notion of Unity in Communion and Communion with Rome,” unpublished xerographic copy of an essay read at the joint meeting of the Theology Faculties of Notre Dame and Valparaiso Universities, November, 1979.
[xxx]“Dann dies ist gnug zu wahrer Einigkeit der christlichen Kirchen, dass da eintraechtiglich nach reinem Verstand das Evangelium gepredigt und die Sakrament dem gottlichen Wort gemaess gereicht werden.” “Et ad veram unitatem ecclesiae satis est consentire de doctrina evangelii et de administratione sacramentorum” (CA VII, 2). The argument developed by Robert Schultz in his essay cited above provides further support for the explicit and overt claim to catholicity in this statement.
[xxxi] “The gospel does not merely convey historical information. Nor is it a collection of doctrines, … the gospel occurs in preaching and in the administration of the sacraments” (Kasper, LWF Report, 169.9; cf. also Ap XV, 3844).
[xxxii] Kasper summarizes the developments at Trent, as well as the secondary literature concerning the decree on Scripture and tradition in Trent’s fourth session; there the gospel is called the “fons omnis et salutaris veritatis et morum disciplinae,” where fons replaced regula, which had appeared in the first draft of Trent’s decree (Kasper, LWF Report, 174).
[xxxiii] To be sure, there is a decidedly non-hierarchical note to the view of the church in CA VII: the church is not pope and bishops and priests, but rather believers gathered around gospel and sacraments. Yet that polemical note is no denial of the essentially catholic claim being made.
[xxxiv] Schlink observes in this connection, “Not the silent possession of doctrine is meant here but the act of oral teaching and, again, not a teaching that ignores assurance and comfort but a teaching that is preaching” (Theology, 199).