Freedom for Ministry in the Lutheran Confessional Writings

A Presentation at the Daystar Free Conference

Portland, OR, 16-19 January 2000

By David G. Truemper

The conversation – and frequent banter – about the ministry, the church, and the reign of freedom therein has occupied a great deal of the Daystar online conversation for the better part of a year. Our organizers/leaders invited a paper from me on this particular theme already late last summer, and I have been alternately agonizing over and rejoicing in the work of producing these reflections. Really, it is two papers, at least. For one could easily imagine a presentation on the way in which the writers of the Lutheran Confessions work out of the basis or core of their radical understanding of the gospel to approach the whole range of issues then up for grabs with a breath of freedom. And it is equally easy to imagine a presentation on the way in which those confessors issue a fresh charter for ministry in the church. The burden of the present presentation is to link those two themes, and to do so in a way that is both faithful to the confessors’ vision and useful for our present crisis.

          Crisis it is, for the present leaders of our church body have succeeded in hoodwinking the masses into believing their claim to be conservers of the tradition while they deny that claim by their innovations of power-grabbing, sectarian filibusters, and ministry-destroying forays against pastors and teachers they deem to be vulnerable or ripe for the plucking. Crisis it is, I say, for the second-level leaders in our church body know better, know that the emperor’s new clothes are woven of threads of mirage and deceit, even as they are, apparently, powerless to break the alliance between the party in power and the modest majority they have mustered to perpetuate their power. We are here because we know the crisis, because we see (with embarrassment and shock) through the emperor’s clothes, because we have tasted the cup that is at once the blood of our Lord’s suffering and the toast for the feast that is to come.

          Still, I must confess that I am a curious candidate to do this piece of work for you. I have spent my academic career at an independent university – although, many of you know, the quest about Lutheran character is arguably more alive at Valparaiso University than at schools founded and administered by the church body. And my graduate pedigree is surely suspect: through an utterly byzantine story of changing fortunes, sabbatical leaves, and death, I am the Doktorkind of both (mirabile dictu) Arthur Carl Piepkorn and Robert Bertram, and I need to admit to you that I find their salutary influence to be my abiding encouragement and twinned lodestar. So, curiously, I shall try to unpack for you what it might mean to read the Book of Concord with both of those teachers as my guides. Well, anyway, that’s what our leaders asked for, and what (I trust) they suspected y’all were in for. To cartoon the result: radical gospel and radical catholicity are my passion. And you’re about to have the chance to tune in on the result.

I begin with a look at some assumptions about the confessions, about our situation today, and about the hermeneutical ground rules for reading the former as a resource for the latter. I continue with a report on my reading of the Confessions about ministry. That is followed by a report on my reading of the Confessions about freedom. I close with some modest, occasionally bold and occasionally cautionary, conclusions about freedom for ministry today.

 I. Assumptions Beneath the Present Analysis

Briefly, I need to indicate some of the assumptions that have indirectly helped to give shape to this presentation. As the weeks and months have passed since you asked me to prepare this paper, I have made a handful of judgments about what nuances might be most appropriate. I want to give account of those judgments now.                     

a. About our present situation

At this juncture in the history of our church body, we are desperate; we remain hopeful; we try to understand and define ourselves as trusters in the promise of the gospel.                                     

i. We are desperate.

Not for twenty-five years have moderates in the LCMS felt as strapped, as pushed against the wall, as backed into a corner, as we do now. Partly, that feeling is fueled by the sheer crassness of the exercise of raw power by the folks around the synodical president. The network has been filled with citations and quotations of the crassest evidences of abusive exercise of power by the president’s lieutenants. (In the spirit of Luther’s preface to the treatise on the Freedom of the Christian, I write in the appearance of naive hopefulness that the pope/the president is merely ill-advised, and that, were he better served by his advisers, he would surely rise in high dudgeon to right the ship.) So we moderates are desperate. We sense that we have looked into the maw of the chaos monster, and that those jaws are about to close and outen the lights on our hopes. Really, not less than that could have wakened us from our slumber and led us to gather here for these mid-winter days.

ii. We are hopeful.

          Still, we would not have gathered were we not hopeful. We would not have tossed those thousands of messages into cyberspace that have clogged our e-mail-boxes for the last months. We would not have ‘fessed our faith, ‘fessed our sins, ‘fessed our determinations. We hope that the Jesus First folks really do have a plan that has a chance of succeeding. We hope that our own voices will be heard as voices of not just moderation but of the very freedom of the gospel. We dare to hope that what we’re sticking our collective necks out for will reverse the obstinate, authoritarian, oppressive, and gospel-contrary path the current leadership is taking.

But the “44″ didn’t carry the day. The seminex confessors didn’t carry the day. Will we, or will our kind? Still, we hope. And in that hope, we risk. For that hope is grounded in the simplicity of trust in the gospel.

iii. We are trusters in the promise

And that trust is the key, the basis, the fundamentum on which we seek to stand. For there, in trusting the crazy promise of the gospel, there is the only ground for freedom that the confessors of the sixteenth century would have us know. God says, “I love you, for Christ’s sake; I will never let you go.” In our heart of hearts we know that our “amen” to that promise is the one thing needful. We’ve learned, at least in our best moments, that all our attempts to find something inside ourselves, something integral to our own being, is self-deception, for “all our righteousnesses are filthy rags.” But we know that experientially, and not just because we remember that piece of the prophet’s poetry. We’ve learned that all attempts to carve out a piece of territory on which to stand before God and expect a pat on the back are in vain; they are as likely to gain us a kick from the divine boot, aimed just a half meter or so beneath the place where we sought the pat on the back. Our temptation is to suppose that that lesson works only for our personal faith and justification, and that some other principles might apply when it comes to setting the direction of the church body. Well, duh! Is this Christ’s church? Is this a piece of the twelve times twelve thousand whose robes are washed in the blood of the Lamb? Then why does that temptation, viz., to suppose that the church’s well-being depends on something other than that gospel on which our salvation depends, seem so tantalizing?

b. About the Lutheran Confessions as resource

You asked me to talk about freedom for ministry in the Lutheran Confession, I presume, because you, like me, expect to orient our own confession to that one from our sixteenth century forebears. Here and now I need to account for how I read the Book of Concord and how I think you do, or ought to, too.

          I reject a positivism of the confessions, just as I reject a proof-text approach to the bible. No text, in either book (or in any other, for that matter) has any direct and uncontexted weight in any contemporary argument. I’m sorry, but the situational context of the biblical – or the confessional – material is absolutely crucial for any (!) attempt to make those texts useful today. Pardon this humorous attempt to make this point. Item: did you know they played tennis in the bible? Sure: “Joseph served in Pharaoh’s court.” Item: did you know that they had road rage  in the bible? Sure: “Jehu drove (his chariot) furiously.” Item: did you know that Plastic Man worked in bible times? Sure: “Abraham tied his ass to a tree and walked twenty miles.” Or, my favorite pair of blindly-relevant bible passages: “Judas went out and hanged himself.” “Go and do thou likewise.” Now, those are tired bits of humor, but they devilishly illustrate the point I seek to make here: no reading of any biblical or confessional text is tenable if it does not demonstrate at the outset what that text meant in its original setting. (Is this historical criticism? Of course it is!) St Paul to the Corinthians: let a woman cover her head when she prays, because of the angels. So women praying bareheaded exposes an erogenous zone to the angels – or so the Corinthians apparently believed. Do we? Heavens, no! Why? Because we know that that judgment was based on a primitive cosmology or angelology! When is the last time any of you banned a woman from prayer if she did not have a babushka over her head?

My point in all this is simple. Just because the bible, or the confessions, contain statement X, that does not mean that statement X is a directive for the church today! And the obverse is also to be understood: Just because the bible, or the confessions, do not contain statement X, that does not mean that statement X is not important for the church today! (That was what some of the network exchanges were about a couple of weeks ago when there was some cyber-handwringing about the fact that the bible does not speak of ordination – or of the sola scriptura principle, for that matter!)

i. Hermeneutical issues

There is in my view no more helpful or thorough discussion of the hermeneutical principles for reading the symbolical books than the long forgotten piece by Arthur Carl Piepkorn from 1958. While the article was only a personal essay, a proposal of principles to the church, I believe (and would argue until the cows come home) that the hermeneutical principles enunciated in Fr Piepkorn’s article are compelling and unsurpassed and beyond exception. On that basis, I simply assert a few points out of his two-and-a-half dozen that seem especially relevant here.

1)                  “Their proper office includes serving as a norm of teaching and of administering Sacraments, to which an individual solemnly and voluntarily committed to them strives conscientiously to conform¼” (CTM 39:1).

2)                  “In the public teaching of a Lutheran clergyman or instructor, he must interpret the Sacred Scriptures according to the Symbols and not vice versa” (CTM 39:4).

3)                  “The Symbols are to be interpreted as reflecting the unchanging regula veritatis christianae or analogia fidei catholicae which we have in the religio catholica” (CTM 39:5).

4)                  “A distinction must be made between institutions and ceremonies that exist and are valid by divine right [AC XXIII:13,24;XXVII:24; Ap VII:41; Tr 65, 67; SC IV: 1, 4; V:28; VI:2, 4; FC SD VII:80, 83, 84] and those that exist merely by human authority [AC VII:3; XV:1; Epilog to XXI: 2; XXVI:1; XXVIII:55; Ap XI:8; XIII:78]” (CTM 39:15).

5)                  “Those portions of the Symbols which refer to humanly established ceremonies and institutions are not binding in the sense that such ceremonies are of the essence of the Lutheran Church (procedures at elections, consecrations, and ordinations; ¼). But the doctrinal implications that may underlie such humanly established ceremonies and institutions are binding (for example, the necessity for a rightfully constituted ministry, ¼)” (CTM 39:16).


ii. Theological issues

I hold that the crucial key to understanding the Augsburg Confession is to remember to read it backwards, as, in a sense, it was in fact  written. Recall that Part Two was written before Part One. Recall that Article 28, on the authority of bishops, was likely the first of all the articles to be written; that is the longest and arguably the most crucial article, the climax to which the reading of the confession pointed on that sultry June afternoon in 1530 (witness the fact that it contains 15 out of 32 instances of the use of the word gospel in the German original version of the CA). Truth be told, the CA is massively about the church. And therefore it is massively about the ministry as that which keeps the gospel alive in the church – or, may I say, keeps the church alive in the gospel.

With that in mind, recall the sequence of the articles of faith and doctrine in Part One of the CA, and notice the consequences of that sequence for our understanding of church and ministry. Articles 1 through 3 rehearse the catholic and apostolic consensus, and they constitute a prima facie case for the catholicity of the confession. Article 4 identifies the reformatory impetus in the gospel of forgiveness by grace for Christ’s sake through faith; this is what Gritsch and Jenson (Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings {Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976], 2ff) have called the “proposal of dogma” to the universal church (and which the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification recognizes and affirms). Then come article 5 on the office of the ministry, article 6 on the holy life, 7 & 8 on the church, 9 through 14 on the sacraments, 15 on church rites, and 16 on matters civil/political. So the article on the office of the ministry stands at the head of the large central section of Part One of the CA, a section on the appropriation and implication of the gospel for the life and mission of the church in the world. That, it seems to me, constitutes sufficient grounds for a focus on church and ministry, one which can be made in the confidence that we are then touching on matters of central importance for the authors of the CA.

 II. Ministry in the Lutheran Confessions

          I have to confess something to you before I go any farther, lest you be misled. I used to think that the center of gravity of the Augsburg Confession was patently article four, justification. That had been, after all, the heart of the reformatory discovery of Luther and friends. And it constitutes, in the admirable view of Gritsch and Jenson, the unique and characteristic Lutheran proposal of dogma to the universal church. But I’ve changed my mind. Justification by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith may well have been the basis of the insight of the Lutheran reformers, but the focus of attention at Augsburg in the summer of 1530 was really on the church and its ministry. The whole confession was written as a way of drawing out the implications of faith-justification for the life and ministry of the church, and for the reform of certain late medieval abuses which had obscured such a fresh understanding of the gospel – and for doing all of that while preserving the unity of the Western church.

It is striking to notice that, though the papal Confutation had raised only a marginally and basically irrelevant objection to CA 7 and 8, Melanchthon’s Apology suddenly spends a great deal of time and ink on the question of the church, to a degree matched only by topics related to justification, such as original sin and penance. And it is also striking to notice that, though the negotiations in Augsburg in 1530 seemed hardly to touch on the topic of ecclesiology, that very topic rose to the top of the pile and in fact became the decisive point for the breakdown of the colloquy at Regensburg in 1541 – the last significant conversation between Lutherans and Roman Catholics until the resumption of negotiations in the mid 1960s. It is no accident that topics related to church and ministry have dominated both the North American and the international dialogues between Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians since that time. Are they trying to tell us something?

Since, as I have confessed, I am focusing my remarks on the Augsburg Confession, I want to make explicit some of the less-than-expected features of that document’s treatment of our issue.

a. The CA mentions the divinely-instituted office of the ministry before it takes up the question of the nature of the church – thus linking the office of the ministry in closest possible proximity with the notion of the gospel as the means for the attainment of saving faith, which saving faith is then productive of good works (CA 6) and of the one and abiding church (CA 7).

b. There is no mention in the CA whatsoever of the universal priesthood of believers, for that notion had by 1530 outlived its usefulness in reformatory polemics. It is in fact mentioned only once in the entire Book of Concord, and that in connection with the matter of ordaining persons to the sacred ministry!
c. There is no mention of an invisible church, or even of a spiritually-understood church in isolation from the concretely-existing church in which an ordered ministry provides the gospel and the sacraments.
d. The CA knows nothing of an abstract function of ministry apart from its concrete occurrence in incumbents of the office of the ministry. This parallels the notion that the gospel may not be abstracted from its concrete saying and doing in preaching and sacramental celebration. After all, justification by grace for Christ’s sake through faith is not a doctrine about the gospel, but the very work of “doctrining” the gospel.

e. The CA does not advocate separation from the existing church and its ordered ministry – in spite of manifest and serious abuses. It aims at renewal, while heeding its own promise not to omit anything which may serve the cause of Christian unity (Preface).


Here follow ten theses on the church and its ministry in the confessions.

1. The church is the creature of the Spirit of God via the office of the ministry as the incumbents of that office proclaim the gospel and provide the sacraments.

On this the testimony of the CA is univocal.  The church is comprised of believers (CA 7), and faith is the work of the Holy Spirit of God in those who hear the gospel (CA 3), and for the obtaining of such faith God has instituted the office of the ministry (CA 5).  To be sure, article 7 does not mention the office of the ministry when it speaks of the gathering of believers in which the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered; yet that is clearly intended in article 5.  We may therefore conclude that article 7 sees as constitutive of church not only the gospel and the sacraments, but also the office of the ministry whose function it is to preach and to preside at the sacramental celebrations of the gathering of believers. And article 28 is straightforward in its description of the power/authority of bishops:

To forgive sins, to reject doctrine which is contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the fellowship of the church ungodly persons whose wickedness is known, doing all this without human power, simply by the Word.  (CA 28, 21/Latin)

If God grants forgiveness only through the gospel, then people’s salvation depends upon that gospel being proclaimed and sacramentally enacted.  In that fact is grounded the necessity of the ministry of the gospel – a ministry which for CA is never mere or abstracted function, but an ordered, public, official ministry.


2. The church is that gathering of believers in which recognizably authentic (i.e., apostolic) gospel is proclaimed and done in sermon and sacraments.

The key passage here is article 7:

It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever.  This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.  For 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.  It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places.  (The article then concludes with an appeal to Eph. 4.)


Strictly speaking, the references to the purity of the gospel and the rightness of the administered sacraments are tautologies.  Gospel that is not pure is not gospel; sacraments that are not rightly done are not grace-conveying actings-out of the gospel promise.  On the other hand, however, the words pure et recte serve to strike the note of the apostolicity of the gospel.  The apostolic gospel, after all, is the criterion for what is to be preached and done in the church; even the Formula of Concord can point to that when it appeals to the prophetic and apostolic writings as the judge, rule, and norm of teaching and doing in the church.  The apostolicity of the church, then, is noted when in that church the same gospel is proclaimed as the one which Jesus transmitted to the apostles.

There is another comment called for at this point.  The apostolic gospel-and-sacraments is recognized precisely when and as it is in fact said and done in a concrete assembly of believers.  And it is recognized precisely in the act of trusting it!  The criterion is not a doctrine about the gospel, or a set of rubrics for the celebration of the sacraments, but the gospel as it is in fact preached and the sacraments as they are infact done in the churches.  When in the Apology Melanchthon calls the gospel and the sacraments marks of the church (and he is obviously following a developing notion in Luther’s thought as this point, a notion which comes to full flower in Luther’s On the Councils and the Church of 1539), he evidently is referring to that which is notable, obvious, audible and visible. The “pure doctrine of the gospel,” confessional phrase that it is, does not refer to a pure doctrine about what the gospel is or about what its effects are; it refers rather to the purely-preached and purely-taught gospel that actually occurs, that actually is said and done, in the congregation.


3. The church lives in the world, producing the fruits of faith in the good works of holy lives, yet it lives out of the very un-worldly source of the gospel said and done in its midst.

Here we recall that article 6 on good works stands, perhaps strangely and awkwardly, between the articles on the ministry and the church – as if, I suggest, to say that the first and necessary consequence of gospel heard with faith will be holy lives in the world, producing all the good works which God has commanded.  Article 20 makes specific appeal to the Decalog as well as to “instructions concerning true Christian estates and works.”  (CA 20,2)  Moreover, both article 6 and its expansion, 20, make it clear that the source for such holy living is the gospel, as that is heard and received with faith, which “not merely a knowledge of historical events but is a confidence in God and in the fulfillment of his promises” (CA 20,25).


If the church, then, is really promise-trusters at God’s work in the world, then we have in the CA a view of the church which successfully avoids several unwelcome excesses: it is first of all not hierarchical, as if the church consisted in the priests and faithful who are in obedience to a particular bishop, say, the bishop of Rome; nor is this view of the church “enthusiastic (schwaermerisch)” as if the church consisted of those reborn people who live manifestly as pure and holy people who refuse civil and military service and the like; nor is this view, to anticipate later developments, sociological, as if it consisted of like-minded devotees of Jesus who form an association based on a shared and common view of the world – or at least of Jesus.  Instead, the decisive element is the notion of gospel-trusters – in the shop, in the kitchen, at the desk, and in the chanceries.

4. The office of the ministry is not optional, nor merely beneficial to the church’s being, but absolutely necessary, in the only sense in which anything is necessary in the church, viz., necessary for salvation.

The notion of the pastoral office has its place in the CA’s conception of the church as the very place where the gospel and the sacraments stand.  Ministry is seen as one with gospel and sacraments.  The gospel is at the same time ministry of administering the sacraments (CA 5 and 7).  Church without office of ministry is unthinkable for Melanchthon, for a church without ministry would be a church without the gospel, without forgiveness of sins and salvation.  There can be no church without the office of the ministry of the gospel.  Without that office, the church is not a church.  “[Eternal righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life] cannot come about except through the ministry of Word and sacraments” (CA 28, 8-9).

Furthermore, the CA repeatedly underscores that the office of the ministry is a divine institution.  “God instituted the office of the ministry” (CA 5,1).  And article 28, in a passage cited earlier, reminds the churches of the obligation to be obedient to the bishops because their work (“to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, judge doctrine and condemn doctrine that is contrary to the Gospel, and exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose wicked conduct is manifest”) is carried out “according to divine right” and “not by human power but by God’s Word alone” (CA 28,21).  That is what lies behind the statement in CA 14 that those who publicly teach and preach and administer the sacraments must have a regular call, i.e., must have a call from a Christian congregation and must be ordained with invocation of the Holy Spirit and the laying on of hands by the bishops (or, when necessary, by neighboring presbyters).

All of this simply reflects a recurring element in Luther’s own view of the ministry, which sees the ministry embedded in the whole process of salvation.  The ministry, he says, is “the sort of office in which our life and our blessedness reside” (WA 28, 466).  Through the function of the means of grace in the office of the ministry “the passion and resurrection of Christ come into use” (WA 34/I, 318).  For all Luther’s readiness in the first half of the 1520s (in contrast to Melanchthon and the Augsburg Confession) to ground the office of the ministry also in the notion of the universal priesthood of the baptized, Luther steadily and regularly thereafter grounded the pastoral office in the institution of God.  That is something demonstrated with typical Teutonic thoroughness by Hellmut Lieberg in his magisterial and exhaustive study, Amt und Ordination bei Luther und Melanchthon (Goettingen: Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht, 1962).


5. The church, or community of believers gathered around and by the Gospel said and sacramentally enacted in its midst, has both horizontal and vertical dimensions; i.e., it is a gathering of believers, and it is also the creature of God’s spirit—a communio sanctorum in both the personal and the objective senses.


With its phrase, “assembly of believers” (Latin, congregatio sanctorum), CA 7 is simply reproducing the communio sanctorum of the apostolic creed, and it is doing so in a way common in the church since Thomas.  Now, though Luther tended to stress the personal aspect of that phrase, in which it is taken to mean a communion of holy people, and though that is surely the sense which dominates here in CA 7 as well as elsewhere in the Book of Concord, it is nevertheless also true that the next clause of CA 7 speaks of a reality which keeps alive also the objective sense of communio sanctorum, i.e., a sharing in the holy things, as it speaks of the gospel said and done in the midst of the liturgical assembly.

Accordingly, what we might call the horizontal dimension of the church is the fact that it is an assembly of believers, and what we might call the vertical dimension (though these labels are about as accurate as conceiving our Lord’s ascension as a kind of primitive space launch) its nature as creation of God’s Spirit.  This duality of nature is repeatedly noted by Melachthon in the Apology (7&8:5,8,13,20) – and it surely lies behind Luther’s famous and often misunderstood dictum in the Smalcald Articles: “thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers, and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd” (SA III, xii, 2).  And we might as well note at this point that the same duality is at the heart of the constitution on the church of Vatican II when it speaks of the church as people of God and also as mysterium.

The fruit of this tension or duality has been alluded to earlier.  As concrete event, as assembly of people, the church is not dissolved into a Platonic idea or into an invisible/spiritualized phenomenon as in Hus and Wycliffe.  That was, in fact, the fear of the Confutatores—and with good reason, since Luther had defended such views against John Eck at Leipzig.  And the church’s nature as creature of God’s Spirit through the ministry of gospel and sacraments preserves it from both hierarchical and sociological misconceptions which could make it the gathering of those who share at least obedience to a particular bishop as their common bond.

No, this church is truly extant on earth  (where else?), and it has eternal marks.  Yet, as the righteousness of Christ in people’s hearts, and as the creature of God or the body of Christ, it is a hidden body, a mixed body, and a reality apparent precisely to faith.  For faith alone can trust the promise that any given liturgical assembly is indeed the body of Christ!  (In some assemblies, a heroic faith is called for!)


6. The preference, indeed the goal, of the CA is the preservation of the traditional canonical episcopal polity, and it envisions no withdrawal from the then-existing church, but only its renewal according to the gospel.

CA 28 attacks the power of the bishops, to be sure, but it does so only on account of their then current claim to temporal power as something they held by divine right.  In fact, that article is positively fulsome in its ascription to bishops of authority in the gospel.


According to divine right, therefore, it is the office of the bishop to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, judge doctrine, and exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose wicked conduct is manifest.  All this is to be done not by human power but by God’s Word alone.  (CA 28:21)

The reformers were sensitive to this point because Eck and others had concluded that the several reforms which had been introduced in the territories that had gone over to the reformation had been done only as infractions of episcopal authority.  Thus, studies of the negotiations at Augsburg in the summer of 1530 show Melanchthon to be as diligent as possible in his efforts to preserve canonical church order and the episcopal constitution of the church.  Those efforts are reflected not only in Melanchthon’s famous qualification to his subscription of Luther’s Smalcald Articles, (“however, concerning the pope I hold that, if he would allow the Gospel, we, too, may concede to him that superiority over the bishops which he possesses by human right, making this concession for the sake of peace and general unity among the Christians who are now under him and who may be in the future”), but also more formally and for our purposes, even more pointedly, in the Apology:

On this matter (i.e., canonical ordination) 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 authority¼. Furthermore,  we want at this point to declare our willingness to keep the ecclesiastical and canonical polity, provided that the bishops stop raging against our churches.  (Apol 14:1,5, italics added)

It is simply an incontrovertible fact that Melanchthon wanted with all his might to preserve the canonica politia, and that means both the episcopal constitution and of the church (including the bishop of Rome in a kind of primacy by human right) and the various grades or ranks of the public ministry.

At this point we need to consider, if briefly, what the notion of “divine right (iure divino)” means in the CA. Article 28 speaks in such a way as to make it a parallel phrase with “according to the Gospel” as used in CA 7 (cf. CA 28, 21-23; CA 7,1).  This important clue suggests that, given the silence of the New Testament about the “will of God” in matters of church polity, the only way to determine whether a given X is “by divine right” is to determine whether that X is necessary for the authenticity of the gospel as trustable good news.  There is simply no other criterion regularly and systematically employed in the CA by which to settle the question whether a given aspect of church leadership is a matter of divine right or human choice.

Especially significant in this connection is that the CA envisions the exercise of a kind of three-layered magisterium or authority in the church: episcopal, confessional, and conciliar/synodal.  The authority of the bishops is evident from the passages already cited.  The authority of the confession is reflected in the several passages which indicate the readiness of the confessors to continue in the magnus consensus—a consensus they were not merely reporting but were also binding themselves to continue, in fact at the possible cost of their property, their domains, and their lives.  The conciliar/synodal layer of authority is reflected in several passages of the CA whish hold open the hope for a future council in which the matters which still needed clarification could be resolved in, it was hoped, a final and settled way.


But most significant of all is the insistence that such authority is itself ordered authority, limited authority.  The limit and bound for the exercise of all such authority is, simply, the gospel.  The recurring refrain in CA 28 is “according to the gospel.” Here we must observe again the concurrence of the second Vatican council with  the CA: The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (10,2) reminds the faithful that the magisterium is not above the word of God.

I would simply observe at this point that these considerations are significant grounds for insisting that the CA is not a charter for a separate church but rather for a  confessing movement within the one church, a church which, it was fervently hoped, would be renewed according to the gospel.


7. The term “gospel” as used in the CA means the message of forgiveness and justification sola gratia, propter Christum, sola fide; the stress is not on theological statements about the gospel, but on the actually-preached and actually-done gospel and sacraments by the public ministry within the concrete assembly of believers.

If we examine the use of the word gospel in the CA, we find that the word is used (in the German text, at least) 32 times.  Striking is the fact that 15 of those instances are in article 28, on the power of bishops; another 15 instances occur in articles directly dealing with church and ministry.  On just a few occasions the word used as a reference to the word of God; once it seems to refer to the scriptures, or at least to the four gospels.  But the vast majority of the instances of the word gospel in the CA are clearly references to the message of forgiveness or justification; in fact, the term most often functions as shorthand for that particular understanding of the Christian message which is the reformatory insight as reflected in CA 4.

From even the most casual study of the usage of the word gospel in the CA it is evident that it stands at the center of the confessors’ concern for the church and the ministry.  The gospel is the Spirit’s means for creating faith, and thus church.  The gospel is that which keeps the church the one church.  The gospel is the news that we have a gracious God, for Christ’s sake.  And according to the gospel, bishops have authority to preach, celebrate the sacraments, exercise the keys, and judge doctrine.  The point, I trust is clear.  Gospel provides the real touchstone and the final limits of churchly authority, just as it provides the source of the church’s life.

Such authority as the gospel authorizes is as unique as the gospel itself, as unique as the church it calls into being.  Gospel authority is not so much the authority of a fence or boundary; rather, it is the sort of authority which authorizes, i.e., authority which enables and makes possible.  I suppose my country parish calls have suggested to me that the gospel is the sort of authority which keeps the ecclesiastical cow where she belongs, not so much like the fence as rather like the feedbox, the source of nourishment far from which no proper cow would want to stray.  The gospel is the limit by being the enabler for the church’s teaching and practice, the criterion by which its very existence is not merely judged but given.


With such status in and for the church, it is also evident that “pure” gospel and “right” sacramental administration do not refer to teachings or theological opinions about the gospel and the sacraments, but, in fact, to the gospel promise as it is in fact said and done in the midst of a concrete assembly of believers.


8. The unity of the church is served and preserved by the very same force which creates the church, viz., the said gospel and the done sacraments—said and done, to be sure, by the incumbents of the office of the ministry; for that is what brings salvation.

CA 7 is again the crucial passage.  It does not say that the true unity of the church depends upon a right teaching about the doctrine of justification, or upon a correct sacramentology.  Rather, it says that the very gospel in word and deed which makes the church the church in the first place is the same gospel which is sufficient to keep the church the one church.  That seems to me now to be so inescapably obvious that I wonder how some of us Lutherans have ever managed to muddy that pellucid truth.  One has to perform the most amazingly intricate theological gyrations in order to confuse this point.  Yet some of my fellow Lutherans are in fact adepts at that!

Of course, CA 7 is hardly a full description of the nature and essence of the church.  Yet it points to the crucial center and to the genuinely reformatory element in the CA’s view of the church.  That is a radical concentration of the ecclesiological (and ecumenical) problem on the question about the proper proclamation of the gospel and its proper sacramental enactment.  One can, and often must, say a great deal more about the church.  Melanchthon hastens in article 8 to add at least an anti-Donatist sentence or two, and we have already alluded to the expansion of this ecclesiological motif in the Apology.  But this much is enough; stay connected to this source, the CA confesses, and your ecclesiology (to say nothing of your ecumenical relations) will not go astray!

The pair of sentences in CA 7 make an intriguing couplet:  satis est, and non necesse est; it is enough, and it is not necessary.  The one interprets the other, and in both directions.  To be sure, the logicians can point out that sufficient conditions and necessary conditions are not quite the same.  Nevertheless, the function of the two statements together is clear; and, by the way, Melanchthon the renaissance humanist hardly needed to be coached in logic!  Other things are not needed; said and done gospel is enough for the church.  That is so, because said and done gospel is all that is needed for salvation.  (That, you may recall, is where we started, back in article 5!)  The satis est statement, then, is no iconoclastic blast, nor is it a license for a sort of laissez-faire ecumenism of the least common denominator.  And it is surely not, as Siegbert Becker charged, the “Eclipse of Ecumenism” via what he once called my “worst kind of gospel reductionism.”  After all, only those things may count as signs and as constitutive elements or marks of the church which in fact mediate salvation, or justification sola gratia sola fide.  Article 28, again, works this notion out in great detail; one paragraph may be taken as typical:


Inasmuch as such regulations as have been instituted as necessary to propitiate God and merit grace are contrary to the Gospel, it is not at all proper for the bishops to require such services of God.  It is necessary to preserve the teaching of Christian liberty in Christendom, namely, that bondage to the law is not necessary for justification, as St. Paul writes in Gal. 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  For the chief article of the Gospel must be maintained, namely, that we obtain the grace of God through faith in Christ without our merits; we do not merit it by services of God instituted by men.  (CA 28:50-52)

What is it that is not necessary?  Bondage to the law, the denial of Christian freedom.  CA 15 helps us see what Melanchthon and the others had in mind, when it mentions foods, calendars, festivals, fasting, holy days and like.  There is in fact a whole range of such elements, developed in the history of the church, which are good and maybe even proper, and which surely may be observed to salutary effect.  But the gospel criterion exposes the curial matter:  these do not mediate salvation, and so they do not effect the unity or the existence of the church.  Therefore they are not necessary.  (Though, to be sure, the CA hastens to point out that most such usages are kept by the Lutherans because they contribute to peace and good order in the church.)

Now the hard question.  Is the office of the ministry among these developments conditioned by time and place which are not necessary?  To be sure, ministerial office is not mentioned in CA 7.  Recall, however, that article 5 says that the ministry, as office, was instituted by God, and thus sees that office to be necessary in the only way anything is necessary, namely, necessary for salvation.  CA 28:9 adds that such gifts as eternal grace, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life “cannot come about except through the ministry of word and sacraments.”  Recall, too, that this is said not about a universal priesthood, but about the rite vocati, the ordained incumbents of the office of the ministry, those who represent as Apology 7/8 puts it, not themselves, but the person of Christ (Apol 7/8:28).

To conclude this point:  Ministry is not mentioned in CA 7 because it has already been inextricably linked with the gospel and the sacraments in article 5.  As the Schwabach articles put it here, “There is no other means or manner, no other path or stairway, for obtaining faith” than the office of the ministry.


9. The necessary function of the office of the ministry is, simply, to provide the one thing absolutely necessary for the church’s life, viz., the gospel and the sacraments.

Let me say simply that it is the task of the office of the ministry to do that which keeps the church Christian.  The shoemaker will make shoes, but he will be a Christian as he has a share in the gospel said and done.  The farmer may farm his land, but he will be a Christian as he has a share in the gospel said and done.  The physician may treat her patients, but she will be a Christian as she has a share in the gospel said and done–said and done in the liturgical assembly of the believers in whose midst . . . — well, by now you have those lines committed to memory.


Of course each Christian is a part of the universal priesthood by virtue of baptismal incorporation into the body of Christ.  Luther could say, “If I call you Christian, I have already called you priest.”  And he also could say, “All Christians are priests, but not all are pastors.”  The priestly people do their work for their neighbor—when and as both are enabled by the ministry of word and sacrament in their midst!


10. The distinction between all the faithful and the special office of the ministry is not one of rank or privileges, though there is a certain authority ascribed to the incumbents of the office of the ministry.

Let it be said as clearly as possible:  the CA is no relapse into medieval clericalism.  It is no last stronghold for clerical chauvinists to play at magical or shamanistic power over the poor dumb uninitiated laity.  The stakes are too high for that—gospel and faith and church and salvation!

The CA knows nothing of the notion of a character indelebilis, yet the CA expresses a view of ministry and order which knows rather a kind of immutable blessing, one that, like Baptism, is irrevocable and needs no repetition.

The CA knows nothing at all about a theory of transference, in which the rights and prerogatives of the faithful are given over to the minister for the sake of decency and order.

The CA implicitly, and the Apology explicitly, approves the notion of a distinction between the potestas ordinis and the potestas jurisdictionis–precisely as the divine authorization, that is, the freedom, to say and do the gospel that is necessary for the church’s life, and so to judge doctrine and to exercise discipline in the community.

The CA grows out of a view of ordination in which the ordination rite is (1) a public confirmation of the community’s call, (2) the effective commissioning of the candidate into the office of the ministry, and (3) the blessing for the exercise of that office–all of that seen in such a way that God, who instituted the office, is the real actor in each case.

After all, the office of the ministry is not a “ceremony instituted by [human beings],” but is God’s own creation—whatever specific form and ordering it may have taken on in the history of the church’s life.  But then, so is indeed the Lord’s dear church, where all the dear children hear the good news of their forgiveness and of their incorporation into Abba’s family, and where in the blessed sacraments they enact the life and work and feasting of Abba’s family—reaching out to be served with the food of life, and reaching out to serve the brothers and sisters—all the while served by the ministry with the gospel said and done in their midst, so that they may be in their scattering what they are in their gathering, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation–yea, God’s own people.


III. Gospel Freedom in the Lutheran Confessions


The notion of “freedom” in the Lutheran Confessions is more than slightly alien in our contemporary, post-Enlightenment setting. First, all talk of freedom in our sources has nothing to do with innate, inherent, much less inalienable rights. There is not a shred of evidence in the confessions that the writers grounded their concept of freedom in a way like that of the Jeffersonian Declaration of Independence of 1776. Nor is there a shred of evidence of a broad rejection of top-down authority, as if the freedom that animates the confessors were simply a revolutionary rejection of “those bastards up there who are keeping us down.” Rather, freedom in the language of the confessors is a gift with an evident source and an equally evident focus and content: God grants freedom in the gospel’s promise, and that freedom is freedom from the crushing compulsion to ground/make/justify one’s life before God. Second, the confessors’ talk of freedom is regularly of a freedom that is, curiously, closely tied to their way of talking about authority. The idea here is that God authorizes believers to be free, to live and act in freedom from the accusation and condemnation of the “law of sin and death.” Luther’s beloved evangelist, St John, has Jesus say in the lesson usually read at Reformation, “if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed.” All other talk of freedom derives from that. No other freedom is greater. And none is independent of Christ’s gift of life in freedom–and that, of course, takes us back to baptism.

So if the Christian congregation of the baptized has that kind of freedom, that kind of authorization, to set apart someone for the public exercise of the ministry of word and sacrament, that is not a different or separated freedom from the freedom of which John 8 speaks. If the Christian assembly of the baptized has the freedom to let go of papal authority or to let go of sabbath requirements or to be loose about the date of Easter, that is not a different or separated freedom from that of which John’s Jesus speaks. No, the freedom of the Christian congregation is grounded in the gospel, via the gift of Baptism, which constitutes the assembly as a priesthood endowed with all spiritual gifts. That is the significant legacy of Luther’s early worrying about the notion of the priesthood of all believers, a notion which looms relatively large in his writings between 1520 and 1525, but which then virtually disappears from his work and which has no significant presence in the documents eventually collected normatively into the Book of Concord. 

It is striking, and perhaps a bit surprising, that the confessions nowhere (so far as I have been able to determine) connect the concepts “freedom” and “ministry.” Rather, they speak of “freedom” as the gift of freedom from wrath/sin/law/death, and they speak of ministry/preaching/pastoral office as the result of the will of God and the institution of Christ to see to it that the freeing gospel is held up and proclaimed and sacramentally administered. So I am forced to conclude that the terms I was assigned for the title of this paper need, genetically and theologically, to be reversed: “Ministry for Freedom” rather than “Freedom for Ministry.” God’s gracious will for the church is that sinners hear and trust the gospel. That’s why (CA 5) God institute the pastoral office. And a regular call, including a new ordination rite, both assures the church of the viva vox evangelii and supports the office-holder by authorizing the public proclamation of the gospel and the evangelical administration of the sacraments.


By now it should be clear that for Luther, the legal form in which the call occurs is unimportant; the only necessary thing is that it occurs. The reason, of course, is that one cannot place oneself in the preaching office. It is so tightly bound up with Christ’s deed and suffering, with the founding of the church, and with the action of the Spirit in the Word, that no one can assume it independently. The divine call alone, in whatever human form it occurs, is essential for the divine activity to ensue. Because God himself is at work in the ministry of the Word, no one can be self-called; only God–even if through human means–can call to this service. (Maurer, 190f).

“Freedom in regard to legal structure, however, does involve rejection of the traditional form of ordination” (Maurer 193). “In time we will have to ordain preachers,” Luther wrote in 1524 (WA 15:720.13-22), meaning thereby that he understood the key to ministry to be a revival of the office of “preacher,” and at the same time insisting that such ministers will have to be ordained, and ordained by leaders from the evangelical estates. There is also evidence (Maurer 196) that Luther had in mind a revival of the diaconate – thus holding to the traditional three-fold shape of the ministry. At the same time, Luther steadily insisted on an ordered ministry of fit persons. Maurer has a long and carefully nuanced summary paragraph in this regard:

From the beginning, however, the call involved elements of order. It must be “regular”; that is, it must occur within an ordered framework. Even if the forms could vary in detail, they were still taken over from available traditions. Of course the medieval sacrament of ordination was rejected, but as early as 1524 it was clear that a substitute order was needed. The call presupposes pure doctrine, so it is necessary to establish beforehand that the doctrine has been accepted. Granted that no one can ascertain another’s inner state, it is still necessary to demonstrate that a person can read the Bible, understand it, and transmit its content correctly. That is why academic study is necessary. Call to this office presupposes a curriculum and a system of church schools, and that in turn raises pressing questions of church order that had long been the subject of attention by reformers, in collaboration with the Christian humanists. The legal consequences were not drawn, however, until the territories confronted the connection between church order and the calling and installation of pastors. Pastors need helpers for pastoral care in the larger congregations, for education of the youth, and for care of the needy. The office of proclaiming the Word branches out. In addition to rite vocatus in its proper sense – pastors and preachers belong together in this category – there are congregational members who combine a civil office with particular ecclesiastical tasks and who are called to that service. Finally, this whole structure of proclamation, education, and social welfare requires a financial base. The general shift in social and economic life made it hard to establish that base, which could only be obtained by mustering congregational self-denial (Maurer 197).


IV. The Gospel’s Ministry for Freedom and Freedom for Ministry Today


A handful of issues have surfaced in the present crisis in our church body regarding ministry. I propose to conclude this paper by naming some of them and seeking to nuance them in the light of the understanding of the gospel and its ministry that I have tried to unpack in what has been said thus far.

·                       Is a seminary education a necessary prerequisite for call and ordination to the pastoral office? No, what is necessary is some kind of orderly process for the discernment of spiritual gifts and for the recognition of those requisite ministerial gifts. In the context of the 1520s and 30s, Luther and Melanchthon numbered among those gifts the ability to read and expound the scriptures in accordance with the gospel. Thank God, that gift is not exclusively mediated by seminary faculties. Bouman, Lueker, and Piepkorn summarize the evidence thus: “To alleviate the great clergy shortage in the Lutheran Church from the late 1530s on, according to the Ordination Record of St. Mary’s Church, Wittenberg, 1,979 persons were ordained in that church between 1537 and 1560, an average of one every four and half days. Of these at least 1,025 (possibly as many as 1,069) are known to have been recruited from other professions and crafts, because the former profession or craft of the ordained is listed (92 were former manual laborers). It is not unlikely that many more of the other 900 plus ordinands had similarly been recruited from other professions and crafts, since it is improbable that all of them were university graduates. In any case, however, it is quite clear that at the very beginning of the Lutheran community as an organized movement no reluctance was felt at ordaining spiritually qualified persons with minimal theological educational qualifications” (CTM ??:774-5).

·                       Is authorization by the bishop or judicatory a necessary prerequisite for call and ordination to the pastoral office? Desirable, and normally expected, but not necessary. The bishop or judicatory is obligated to supply the churches with suitable pastors, because suitable pastors are necessary for the churches to have the gospel said and done responsibly in their midst. But if the bishops refuse, then “the churches are by divine right compelled to ordain pastors and ministers for themselves, using their own pastors for this purpose” (Tr 72. The final phrase was unfortunately omitted from the translation in the Tappert edition; the Latin original is adhibitis suis pastoribus).


·                       Is maleness a necessary prerequisite for call and ordination to the pastoral office? While the ordination of women was socially and culturally not available to the churches in sixteenth century Germany, it is evident that Luther, and even the conservative Flacius could contemplate at least theoretically the ordination of women to the pastoral office. Each, in turn, found that femaleness was not an inhibiting or disqualifying characteristic for a candidate for ministry. On Luther, see his advice to the churches in Bohemia, LW 40: 3-44. On Flacius, see his Liber de veris et falsis Adiophoris, quo integre propemodum adiaphorica controversia explicatur. In Omnia latina scripta hactenus sparsim contra Adiaphoricas fraudes et errores aedita, #10 (Magdeburg, 1549); his opinion, that the gender of the candidate for ordination was an adiaphoron, was endorsed by the Hamburg Ministerium (Corpus Reformatorum VII, no. 4516, col. 372).


·                       Is call-and-ordination a necessary prerequisite for preaching and presiding at the Sunday assembly? Desirable, and normally expected. “If the situation in our church is so grave anywhere that it appears necessary to have ‘lay workers’ perform the functions of the sacred ministry, the proper solution would be ¼ that such ‘lay workers,’ provided they meet the requirements that the Pastoral Letters set up for bishops, be ordained to the sacred ministry” (CTM 39: 774).


I have tried to rub together the confessional witness about ministry and about freedom, and to do so in a way that makes that witness available for our present crisis. I thank you for your attention, and I look forward to discussion.




David Truemper was Professor and Chair of Theology at Valparaiso University, Director of the Institute of Liturgical Studies there, and Executive Director of the Council on the Study of Religion. Educated in the Concordias (Milwaukee, Fort Wayne, Saint Louis), he earned his MDiv and STM from Concordia, Saint Louis, and his PhD from the Lutheran School of Theology and Concordia Seminary in Exile in 1974. He spent his career at Valparaiso University, except for 1973-74, when he was guest professor of systematic theology at Concordia Seminary. With the dubious distinction of having been fired from that guest professorship for his role as a founding member of the faculty of Seminex, he returned to Valparaiso to help keep alive the “promising tradition” there.


Truemper wrote the chapters on Lutheranism in Arthur Carl Piepkorn’s Profiles in Belief, and he co-authored with Fred Niedner, Jr., the layperson’s introduction to Christian theology called Keeping the Faith. He played a major role in the development of the statement on sacramental practices called “The Grace-full Use of the Means of Grace,” offered to the Lutheran churches by members of the North American Academy of Liturgy (which Academy he served for 15 years as its Secretary).

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