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.

1 comment:

Rev. Ryan Fouts said...

A fine summary --

Though I would probably scratch the "unfortunately" from Melanchthon's encouragement to use the AC/Apology as opposed to the Smalcald Articles for council. Keep in mind, for over a decade Melanchthon had been *the* Wittenberg representative in the dialogues between the adherents to the Augsburg Confession and Rome. Melanchthon, more than Luther, was privy to the sort of discussion that would be apt to be most persuasive if such a council were to occur. Melanthon, more than Luther, upheld the ideal (as unrealistic as it might be) that Rome would be persuaded to repent of its errors and that they may, again, be united. This is behind the "provisio" in Melancthon's subscription to the Smalcald Articles -- a provisio that angered John Frederick (he had no hope of reconciliation, for political reasons as well as religions ones). But it is nonetheless a provisio that embodied, more appropriately, the enduring hope of the Augsburg Confession -- a hope that may be unrealistic, but a hope worth hoping for nonetheless.

I would also scratch the "unfortunately" because, in fact, it was this decision at Smalcald that led to the composition of the Treatise on the Power and the Primacy of the Pope -- a writing that is *not* an appendix to the Smalcald Articles, but was written to become an appendix to the Augsburg Confession addressing the errors of the papacy (which AC had not addressed). Had Melanchthon not encouraged that the Smalcald Articles be tabled *as articles for council* (they were still subscribed to, nonetheless, as a confession they all upheld as a matter of conscience) we may never have had the Treatise, which provides a more thorough and level-headed refutation of the papacy. It is also a treasure which, likewise, provides us much for our confession of the Office of the Ministry.

Keep in mind also -- some significant portions of the Smalcald Articles were actually written well later after the meeting at Smalcald. When the articles were being prepared for publication, Luther made some revisions and additions in order to refute antinomianism (these portions, obviously, were not present when Agricola signed the articles... the Agricolan anit-nomian controversy erupted in 1537) and some of the correlations that Luther draws between the Papists and the Enthusiasts. Particularly the lengthy portion in the article on Confession.