Sunday, January 27, 2008

Roundtable 31: Preface to the Smalcald Articles

"I have decided to publish these articles in plain print in case I should die before there would be a council (as I fully expect and hope)." (SA Preface, 3; Concordia, p. 259). This is the assumption of Martin Luther as he composed what we know today as the Smalcald Articles. His prince, Johann Frederick the Magnanimous, asked Luther to put together this statement of "non-negotiables" that the Lutherans would take with them when, and if, they attended a council called by Pope Paul III (see Roundtable 30 for more details). [Painting by Lucas Cranach of Luther in 1535, a year before he wrote the Smalcald Articles].

So, how does Luther proceed? The Smalcald Articles are a very personal statement for Luther. By this time the Reformation had been well underway, long enough for Luther's own writings and statements to be used against him, even by "false brothers who profess to be on our side" (Preface, 4). To counteract the claims of those who would come after Luther saying, "Dr. Luther would have agreed with this, or have said that" Luther was anxious to present these articles, particularly in light of his equally strong conviction that he was going to die.

"They want to dress up their poison with my labor. Under my name, they want t mislead the poor people. hat will happen, dear God, when I am dead?" (Preface, 4). Indeed! What has happened since Luther's death? Is it not sad reality that the greatest abusers of Martin Luther are the very people who often use his name in their church's body name?

Luther goes on at some length bitterly bemoaning the abuse of his writings, an inevitable reality that Satan is responsible for. And then he moves into the purpose of this document almost cheerily says, "I really would like to see a truly Christian council, so that many people and issues might be helped. Not what we need help. Our churches are now, through God's grace, enlightened and equipped with the pure Word and right use of the Sacraments, with knowledge of the various callings and right works. So, on our part, we ask for no council." (Preface, 10).

And so what is Luther's concern? All the parishes that have not been so blessed with the brilliant light of the Gospel once more, those languishing under the supposed pastoral care of Roman Catholic bishops who are more concerned about their fancy clothing and various rituals than for "how the poor people live or die. Christ has died for them and yet they are not allowed to hear Him speak as the true Shepherd with his sheep [John 10:11-18]." (Preface, 10).

Luther then launches into a condemnation of the problems in secular society: "high interest rates, greed, disrespect, lust, extravagance in dress, gluttony, gambling, pomp, and all kinds of bad habits and evil." (Preface 12). Much to think about for our own time! A council can hardly begin to address all these issues, but the church's leadership is more concerned about regulating things that are not pertinent to the much more important "commands of God" given us to observe "in the Church, the state, and the family"; so many in fact that we can never hope to fulfill them all. And then comes one of the several prayers found in the Book of Concord, and here Luther offers it before beginning the various points in the Smalcald Articles.

O Lord Jesus Christ, may You Yourself hold a council! Deliver Your servants by our glorious return! The pope and his followers are done for. They will have none of You. Help us who are poor and needy, who sigh to You,and who pray to You earnestly, according to the grace You have given us through Your Holy Spirit, who lives and reigns with You and the Father, blessed forever. Amen.

For consideration:
How do Luther's words apply today, to our times and to our churches? Where are our priorities?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Roundtable 30: Introduction to the Smalcald Articles

We have come to the conclusion of our roundtable discussions about the Augsburg Confession and will now turn our attention to the Smalcald Articles. You may read them on-line at The purpose of this post is to offer an introduction to the historical context of the Smalcald Articles; in words and pictures, providing a brief overview of the events that led to the writing of these doctrinal articles and their eventual inclusion in the Book of Concord. [Note about the photos: the church pictured to the right is the town church in Smalcald. If you view the church from this angle, and then turn around and look down the street, you see the house where Luther stayed in 1537, as pictured later in the article. The other photo immediately below is of the court chapel in the town castle. Note the uniquely Lutheran architecture with pulpit over altar, in the style of the first, from the ground-up Lutheran church built in the Elector's Torgau Castle. This was, no doubt, an imitation of that design].

Smalcald, as it is commonly known in English, [Schmalkald in German] remains much as it was in the days of the Reformation, a small town nestled among rolling forested hills in Thuringia, accessible only by twisting and turning two lane roads on which one can become quite easily lost, particularly when it is foggy, raining and one has not figured out yet how to use the GPS system in the rental car (speaking from personal experience). It is about 89 km north-northwest of the Coburg Fortress, and about 70 km southwest of Erfurt, and some 270 km from Wittenberg.

This little town came to play a pivotal role in the Reformation because it was in Smalcald that a number of German rulers and leaders of free cities gathered to form the Smalcaldic League, a sort of "NATO" for the Evangelical German territories. The Schmalkaldischer Bund was formed as religious association of rulers and free cities, which soon recognized the need to marshal their forces politically, economically and, most significantly, militarily. It came to a tragic end on April 24, 1547 at the Battle of Mühlberg, which decisively concluded the Smalcaldic War.

The Smalcaldic League was formed in February of 1531, in the wake of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession the previous June. John Frederick the Magnanimous was the leading figure in the Smalcaldic League. A lifelong Lutheran, he had been tutored by one of Luther's oldest and best friends, George Spalatin, and regarded Luther as his spiritual father his whole life. He was a large man, in body body and soul, and, was, arguably, the single most important lay leader of the Lutheran Reformation. He demonstrated remarkable courage and self-sacrifice where many others failed when the moment of testing came. He asked Luther to prepare a series of doctrinal assertions to be used at what the Lutheran princes were told was the soon-to-be convened Roman Catholic council, which Pope Paul II had called for in 1536. It was supposed to have begun in the Italian city of Mantua on May 23, 1537, but did not materialize. In fact, it was not until after Luther's death that the first sessions of the Council of Trent finally took place.

The challenge given to Luther by John Frederick was to provide a set of articles that the Lutheran princes could use as their "non-negotiables." John Frederick particularly was in no way inclined to compromise, at all, with Rome. He had, no doubt, learned from his experience at the Diet of Augsburg that a compromising and irenic spirit did not get the Lutherans anywhere with either the Emperor or the Roman Curia, and so he asked Luther to set to work on the article they would take with them to the General Council. [Painting: Johann Frederick the Magnanimous, by Lucas Cranach, 1531].

Martin Luther himself had been calling for a free and open general council of the church since at least 1520, in his Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. There was however considerable debate among the Lutheran nobility when Pope Paul II issued his call for a council in 1536. John Frederick flatly did not want to attend. He believed that the very act of attending would be an acknowledgment that the Pope was the head of Christendom. Luther encouraged him, and the other Lutheran princes, to attend because of the opportunity it presented to bear witness to their faith and to persuade others. In September 1536, John Frederick's concerns were heightened after the Pope indicated there was to be no debate, dialog or discussion about any of the points raised by the Lutherans in their Augsburg Confessions, but only, "the utter extirpation of the poisonous, pestilential Lutheran heresy" (see Bull Concerning the Reforms of the Roman Court, AE 16). [Painting of Pope Paul III].

Finally, John Frederick was persuaded to attend and on December 11, 1536, he formally directed Luther to prepare the confession of faith in the form of articles for a meeting of Lutheran theologians and lay leaders in Smalcald on February 7, 1537. He did so saying, "It will be necessary for Doctor Luther to prepare his foundation and opinion from the Holy Scriptures; namely, the articles as hitherto taught, preached, and written by him, and which he is determined to adhere to and abide by at the council, as well as upon his departure from this world and before judgment of Almighty God, and in which we cannot yield without becoming guilty of treason against God, even though property and life, peace or war, are at stake (Bente, 120). Indeed, this was very serious, even deadly, business. [Photo of house in Smalcald where Luther stayed and where the Lutherans met].

It is important therefore to read the Smalcald Articles in this light, and to recognize that they are very much Luther's theological "last will and testament." He knew precisely what he was doing when he wrote them, how significant they were and how seriously they would be regarded by friends and foes alike. Given Luther's health difficulties at this time, which he and his friends regarded as life-threatening, he did regard the Smalcald Articles to be his last chance in a public statement to testify to what he believed, taught and confessed. [Photo: The house where Luther stayed while in Smalcald].

After Luther had finished his first draft in December 1536, they were reviewed by fellow theologians in Wittenberg, who offered a few minor changes, which Luther accepted. He then signed his document and forwarded it to John Frederick, who in turn presented the theses to the meeting of the Smalcaldic League in February 1537. The Elector was sure that the articles would be simply accepted by the League. But things did not turn out the way he had planned. [Photo: Coat of arms of the members of the Smalcaldic League in the city museum in Smalcald, Germany].

Some of the League's members were concerned that Luther's statement was too strongly worded; a feeling encouraged by Philip Melanchthon who was there, with Luther, and who, unfortunately, worked behind Luther's back to discourage the Smalcaldic League from accepting them. The decision was made simply to present the Augsburg Confession and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession.

Ironically, this decision set in motion a series of problems created because of the fact that Melanchthon was tinkering constantly with both the Augsburg Confession and the Apology, a problem that came to a head when Melancthon's changes became quite substantial, resulting in Lutheran doctrinal assertions being changed, for instance concerning Free Will and the Lord's Supper, were seriously jeopardized because of Melanchthon's changes. This would be cleared up later when the Book of Concord was being edited. The decision was made to reject all of Melanchthon's second and later editions of the Augustana and the Apology and to stick with what were regarded to be the first and better editions from 1530 and 1531.

Ultimately, Luther was not able to be present personally for the meetings of the princes, but he lay in a house nearby the town castle, which was located just down the street from the city church in Smalcald, where Luther preached. The Lutheran leaders gathered also in the house in which Luther was staying to be able to seek his advice and input, though he lay suffering from what were apparently kidney stones. The ride back to Wittenberg jostled them free and he said he felt like a man "reborn."

And so, although the Smalcald Articles were not formally adopted by the Smalcaldic League in 1537, forty four of the Lutheran princes present did sign them. Five delegates from cities in Southern Germany, who were inclined to Zwingli's view of the Lord's Supper did not sign the articles. By the time the Formula of Concord was completed and adopted in 1577, Luther's articles were highly regarded and were included in the Lutheran Church' formal confession of faith. John Frederick so highly regarded them that in 1554 he ordered them to be printed as a part of his last will and testament when he recognized his death was drawing near. And so it was that the Formula states that the Smalcald Articles are "everywhere regarded as the common, unanimously accepted meaning of our churches" to be used to interpret and explain and understand the meaning of the Augsburg Confession.

The Smalcald Articles return, again and again, to the beating heart of the Gospel of Christ: the sinner's justification before God by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. They consist of fifteen articles, prefaced by affirmations of historic Christian truth concerning God.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Roundtable 29: Church Authority

A dispute arose among the Apostles, on more than one occasion, over the question of power, authority and rights. The desire for power and control is an ancient evil temptation that plagues humanity; and so, it should come as no surprise that it also has been an ongoing subject of concern, debate, discussion and intense disagreement in the Church. Our Lord Jesus Christ, in Matthew 20, says, "It shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." (vv. 26-28).

Article 28 offers an expansion of several points made about the nature of the ministry of the Church and the authority of the Church, in Articles 5 and 14. What power, precisely, do Christian pastors have? What authority do supervisors, or bishops, have in the Church? Over the course of the centuries, bishops had become powerful political as well as ecclesiastical leaders.

To be fair, this happened often through the force of circumstances. When the political and social structure of the Roman Empire was collapsing in the sixth and seventh centuries, it was the Church that was the only institution that had a structure that could provide societal order and control.

Roman bishops and popes soon were claiming, by divine right, the authority to govern and to rule both the Church and civil society. Lutheranism often refers to these two realms as the "kingdom of the right" and the "kingdom of the left." The Augsburg Confession offers in this article its assertion of proper Biblical teaching concerning the authority Christ has given to His Church and, by extension, to the Church's ministry and ministers.

The pastoral concern of this article is clear from the outset when Melanchthon writes, "All the while the popes, claiming the Power of the Keys, have instituted new services and burdened consciences with Church discipline and excommunication. But they have also tried to transfer the kingdoms of this world to the Church by taking the Empire away form the Emperor." (par. 2). No doubt this comment was made in an effort to persuade the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to be more sympathetic toward the cause of the Lutheran princes and theologians. Charles V was no great fan of the Roman Papacy.

The Lutherans point out how these problems in the Roman Church had been the subject of many learned men's protests and concern (par. 3). This article makes very clear that the authority specifically given to the Church, referred to as the Keys, is the "power or commandment of God, to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer Sacraments." Why? Because Christ had sent His Apostles out with this very set of marching orders, as recorded in John 20:21-22.

"This authority is exercised only by teaching or preaching the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, either to many or to individuals, according to their calling." (par. 8). This is a key sentence in this article. "According to their calling" indicates that there are various offices in the Church by which the authority of the Keys is carried out, but in every, and any, case, the authority of ministerial offices in the Church is the authority that Christ has given to the Church to proclaim the good news of forgiveness. The focus and point of the Church's ministry are eternal things: eternal righteousness, the Holy Spirit and eternal life. "These things cannot reach us except by the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments." (par. 9).

Civil government is instituted by Christ to "deal with things other than the Gospel does. Civil rulers do not defend minds, but bodies and bodily things against obvious injuries. They restrain people with the sword and physical punishment in order to preserve civil justice and peace." (par. 11).

The confusion of the power and authority of the office of bishop had reached a point where there was great confusion between the different authority God entrusts to the Church and to the civil government; in addition, bishops assumed that because they had been given authority by God to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, they also had authority to come up with new "ordinances, instituted as though they are necessary, or with the view that they merit grace" (par. 50). The Augsburg Confession rejects this claim. What is essential in the Church, and most necessary, is "for the chief article of the Gospel to be preserved, namely that we obtain grace freely by faith in Christ, and not by certain observances or acts of worship, devised by people" (par. 52).

But what then is the Church to do about ordering itself properly to provide for all things to be done decently, in order to facilitate the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments? Is it the case that it is in the Church's best interest for there to be a "free for all" when it comes to proper order and the institution of certain customs and practices? No, this was never the intention of this article, or any other in the Book of Concord concerning things termed later in the Book of Concord as "adiaphora." This point is one that is the source of considerable confusion in the Church today. The Augsburg Confession acknowledges that it is in fact perfectly "lawful for bishops, or pastors, to make ordinances so that things will be done orderly in the Church, but not to teach that we merit grace or make satisfaction for sins" (par. 53). But, the Augsburg Confession asserts "that it is proper that the churches keep such ordinances for the sake of love and tranquility, to avoid giving offense to another, so that all things be done in the churches in order, and without confusion (1 Corinthians 14:40; comp. Philippians 2:14).

Article 28 concludes on an irenic tone by indicating that the Lutherans would be willing to accept the leadership of Roman bishops just as long as they "allow the Gospel to be taught purely, and that they relax a few observances that they claim it is sinful to change." Allowing the Gospel to be taught purely was, and remains, a very tall order for an ecclesiastical system of thought, like Romanism, premised on certain key and fundamental theological positions that conflict with the very heart of the Gospel: justification by grace, alone, through faith, alone. Rome acknowledges salvation is by grace alone, but it is the continuing failure of Rome to acknowledge that grace is received through faith alone that remains the problem, resulting in the dangerous interjection of imperfect human works into the equation, thus throwing sinners continually back on their own devices, rather than exclusively, always, and only Christ and Him Crucified.

About the painting:

Albrecht Dürer
The Four Holy Men (John the Evangelist and Peter)
Oil on panel

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Blessed New Year

A very blessed and holy Christmastide to you all, and a happy New Year in our Lord. You will notice a new header for our blog site, provided by "Orthodoxy Hunter." She did a really great job, incorporating elements from the Concordia edition of the Book of Concord, with some sharp graphics I sent her way, including on the left, a picture of the title page of the first edition of the Book of Concord, the Dresden edition from 1580, on the left, the symbol created for the motto of the Lutheran Reformation, "VDMA" which stands for the Latin words, "Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum" or "The Word of the Lord Endures Forever." She integrated page elements into the design from the Concordia edition and in the background she has an image of the words of the Nicene Creed. Many thanks for making us look so much better.

To our patient readers, we will be gearing this blog site up again in the New Year and resume a more regular posting habit, striving to maintain a once-a-week posting schedule. Thanks for your interest and your support. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.