Thursday, June 10, 2004

Getting into the Book of Concord

Getting into the Book of Concord


Jim Huffman

I was dragged kicking and screaming into Lutheran orthodoxy several years ago. A new pastor,at the time fresh out of seminary, was used by God to show me that millenialism, limited atonement, and similar ideas could not be considered "Lutheran" even if I had been attending a Lutheran church for several years.

There is a frightening feeling, though, of having lost some beliefs, and having nothing to replace them at the moment. Jesus' word about the devils leaving a house, and finding it later swept and clean applied to me. What I longed for was a feeling for how Lutheranism hung together, as a cohesive system (for want of a better word) for seeing the Bible whole.

I think this is something lost on those who grew up Lutheran. I did not. Born into a Southern Baptist family, I attended Moody Bible Institute, and later came to a rather hardened form of Calvinism. So, while I found myself persuaded that some of my ideas were unbiblical, I could not yet see the forest of Lutheranism for the trees of individual doctrines. No one seemed able to help me see cohesion.

But finally someone did. I have Gregory Jackson to thank for showing me a way. And that was in reading the Lutheran confessions, The Book of Concord.

C. S. Lewis said it much better than I can. In his introduction to a recent reissue of Athanasius' On the Incarnation, Lewis says:

"There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something aboiut Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said."

I think this is a similar problem in orthodox Lutheran circles. While it is considered admirable or even necessary for pastors and other theologians to read the confessional books, there is the unspoken feeling that they are too difficult or inaccessible or something for the average layman to read, ponder, consider, or be changed by.

I'd like to disabuse that notion. I'm of no more than average intelligence, and while I have some theological training, it was hardly rigorous. I have four children, three of whom we are homeschooling, and I operate two home businesses, so I have no more time than anyone else. What I did have was a desire to learn what the confessional books said, and what made being a Lutheran different in a cohesive whole.

And the confessions give an even mildly interested reader that ability. It is a shocking thing to realize that modern explanations of Lutheran doctrine, well-intentioned they may be, are often more complex to the reader than the simple (though not so simple) confessional writings. What I'd like to do is offer a guide. Through trial and error, I've found a way to get into the Book of Concord. I have not arrived. Actually, I haven't even finished my preliminary study (that being a long-term goal). But I have begun, and I would be surprised if there aren't others in my boat.

There are probably few Lutherans who have not read Luther's Small Catechism. Borne of a desire to provide a way for parents (fathers, actually) to teach their children about the faith, and designed to be a "layman's Bible," most Lutherans see the SC as being something worthy of one's attention only at age 9. Not so.

Luther had no such illusions, and chastises those who scorned the catechism, saying that he still pondered it daily. Since I would guess that myself and most readers are not yet quite at Luther's point in understanding the gospel, may I suggest that we do the same? If you can't see your way clear to read it daily, how about at least reading it through again? It's where I suggest starting. Take off your confirmation class blinders, and read it afresh. And be ready to be amazed at the wealth of understanding there.

After spending some time with the SC, go on to the Large Catechism. Designed as a catechism for pastors, it's an entirely different animal from the SC, and is not really designed as a sort of expanded commentary on the smaller, though that would be the logical thought. Instead of looking at the LC as a catechism (which of course it is) enjoy the opportunity to see some of Luther at his finest. The Large Catechism is an enjoyable book, a fun read, although the topics covered are often neither fun nor comfortable. It's not designed to be. But I've found that reading something with grim religious blinders is often the surest way I've found to be completely put to sleep. But to read this book for the sheer enjoyment of knowing Luther is a good way to spend an evening or a lifetime. We Lutherans condemn saint worship but compound the problem by going in for hero worship. Luther was a great and wonderful man. But he was a man, and there was no stained glass element to his life. He was rough and ready, and knew the smell of battle, and his writings reflect that. Read his writings for fun. If you want to read a dry-as-dust religious writer, try some Calvin, and you'll immediately see the difference. Approach the Large Catechism as something you're going to enjoy reading. You probably will. And you'll be amazed at what you'll learn.

But another problem immediately comes to mind: which translation of the Concord should you read? If you have one already, the answer is simple: use the one you've got. But if you don't, I recommend the Tappert edition, published by Fortress.

Now, at this point, I've lost 50% of my hard core readers. It is customary in orthodox circles to lift one's skirts when passing Tappert, and sniff that reading the Concord in Tappert's edition is like reading The Living Bible. Perhaps that is true. I am not one to judge. I am sure that someday soon I will break down, and buy the Triglotta edition, but I haven't yet.

But the Tappert edition is easy to read, and probably not designed for the scholar, and that recommends it to me, at least for the start. I am told there are problems with the translation. I am told that Tappert was a pietist, and he (like any other translator) allowed this to influence his translation (although the book is not entirely his translation -- Pelikan, for example, translated the Apology). All of this may be true. But I am primarily interested in getting you to read the confessions. If an easier to read edition does that, then I'm glad. We would probably all be better off reading the New Testament in Greek. But since not one out of a thousand of us (pastors included, if the truth were told) do that, I feel comfortable sticking with the KJV I've been using for the last eleven years. If you don't have the Triglotta already, start with the Tappert edition, and (to paraphrase Luther) bless God.

After you've enjoyed the Large Catechism, dig into the Augsburg Confession. Be prepared to be amazed at how contemporary the concerns it raises are, and how this perhaps defining document of Lutheranism speaks to you right now. Ponder how some of the excesses in the American church might be remedied by some serious study of this short book.

After that, go in for the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. The Apology will speak to you, and be useful in ways you probably never imagined. When I was in college, it was popular among me and some friends to make a sharp divergence between "devotional Bible reading" and "Bible study." Never mind that this bit of Platonism was difficult to do; it was something God never commanded. Nevertheless, you will walk away from the Apology with a greater love for God, and an even greater wonder at His love toward us. It will answer questions you have probably pondered for much of your life, if you are like most American Lutherans. For example: what is meant by "perfection"? Try reading the bottom of page 273, in Tappert. And do some pondering of the wonderful story of St. Anthony and the shoemaker on pps. 275 and 276. A friend grumbled that Melanchthon was verbose in the Apology; I found him not verbose, but grumbled within myself when it was over! I think you will find the same to be true.

There are many -- myself one, at times -- who feel that we in the early 21st century alone have problems establishing orthodox teaching and worship. That's wrong, and I'm convinced it's an error Satan sends into our hearts to discourage us. The world, the flesh, and the devil are hard at work in 2004, just as they were in 1530, and what goes on now went on then, as well -- only in perhaps slightly different forms. But we're coming now into confessional books that were part of the church's carving out niches of orthodoxy in the 16th century. It was no easier then than it is now, and reading these books will show you.

The Smalcald Articles was Luther's dealing with some of the then current doctrinal problems. It was to be presented at a papal council -- the infamous one eventually held at Trent. His introduction is enlightening. Since Luther's time, it has been customary to argue by this group or that that Luther would eventually have "come around," been "more reasonable," and more willing to accomodate to whatever this particular group is urging. Luther foresaw this, and worried about it. We may be assured that Luther was neither faultless nor sinless. But he was a great and enduring Christian, and the burden is on those who think that Luther would somehow have changed his mind to prove it. No, he thought long and hard about the Christian faith. The customary (and erroneous) idea of a divergence between the "young" and "old" Luther doesn't hold true, upon even a cursory examination of what he wrote. Like any great man, he developed the implications of what he believed. But what was there in 1517 was there in 1546 and vice-versa.

The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope is not a popular book now, and for that reason alone warrants your careful attention. I think even among orthodox Lutherans there is the feeling that somehow Luther's attacks on the pope was due to the latter's inhumanity -- that is, if Paul III had been just a nice guy, that Luther would not have been compelled to go to such extremes, as calling him (for
heaven's sake!) the anti-Christ. No, we sit in 2004, and see a pope who is a grandfatherly type, and nice, and kind, and even pro-life, and we just can't envision him as anti-Christ. (An aside: my wife -- of pure Italian descent -- said that that was the shocking thing to Italians about the election of John Paul II. Popes are supposed to be grandfatherly Italian men -- all the kids in her Catholic parochial school had known that. For the Cardinals to elect a Pole was beyond the pale!)

We must remember that Luther's doctrine of the pope as anti-Christ had nothing to do with the personal holiness (or lack thereof) of whatever man currently held the papal chair. It was this, and simply this: that the pope sat in the church, teaching and commanding obedience apart from the word of God, and proclaiming that such obedience to his commands were necessary for salvation. Of course, we (on a secular level) rejoice that Roman Catholics are pro-life, in the same way we rejoice when Hasidic Jews or Moslems are pro-life. But a Roman Catholic who faithfully believes Roman dogma is no more saved than a Jew or a Moslem. This is a hard saying, but one that must be repeated.

And that's where we need the Treatise. Designed as an appendage to the Augsburg Confession, it sets forth the scriptural and historical arguments about the papacy, the scriptural teachings about the anti-Christ, as well as refuting Rome's arguments.

At a time when Rome's attraction is greater than ever to many Lutherans, the Treatise is a needed antidote. When a teaching or book or idea is neglected by a society or culture or church, it is worthwhile pondering why it is neglected. And it would behoove all of us to ponder afresh the scriptural doctrine of the papacy as anti-Christ, and even further, ponder why we are so embarrassed by it.

Finally, we come to the Formula of Concord. I mentioned earlier the very prevalent idea in Christian circles that there was some golden age of orthodoxy, when the church reveled in doctrinal purity, and had no enemies. This is no idea -- it's a myth! And a myth that we would all be better off without, because it causes us to despair. We somehow think that we have it worse than other ages. Not true! While there are horrible problems in our time -- doctrinal, liturgical, and practical -- be assured that other ages have faced ones as bad or worse. And with God's help, they dealt with those problems.

That's the beauty of studying history, and the sadness of an age (our own) which devalues knowledge of the past. There's nothing magical about the past. The men and women who lived in that time were neither better nor worse than those in our own time. But we learn from them things we could not learn from anyone else -- how their problems were surmountable with God's Word, and how our problems can be dealt with in the same way.

Luther's time was horrible. Defenders of orthodox doctrine were in constant danger of their lives from the papal forces, hostile civil authorities, and religious extremists. What's more, it was by no means certain that orthodoxy would "win" and the future looked bleak.

Even more problematic, though, was the constant temptation to give in to doctrinal deviations. Men were men then as now, and it is no easier to stand up for orthodox Christianity against a world that seems united against the faith. Then as now, they were faced with the canard that 'surely you cannot alone in all the world be right, while others are wrong.' And there were many who gave in, many who were at one point solidly orthodox, but in the end answered affirmatively to Jesus' question, "Will ye also go away?" (John 6:67)

This is the point of the Formula of Concord. It is the last document in the Book of Concord, and it addresses nine specific doctrinal errors which had arisen among the church of the Augsburg confession. It remains amazingly relevant to our time. This is the most shocking thing, perhaps, about reading old books: those most "out of date" and "irrelevant" are the most needful, while there is nothing less useful and more irrelevant than most contemporary books. Some of the questions it addresses: are good works necessary to salvation? (a constant temptation to the church), does man cooperate in conversion?, is our justification objective or subjective?, what is the effective cause of salvation?, and what is the nature of Christ's presence in the sacrament?

And so we've come to the end of the Book of Concord. And yet, like any other great book, it is a journey that never ends. Each reading brings out fresh insights, engendering faith anew in the reader. This is what we mean when we talk about a great book, and the total picture of practicality. What seems to the human mind practical and useful is often not. But the Book of Concord does more than give the reader practical insights for our personal and churchly lives (though it does that); it brings about an inner change so that the reader is himself changed. This new man realizes in a way he couldn't before the reading that the solution that beforehand seemed best is not the right question. Most contemporary books may be useful in changing this or that piece of a bad situation. But they will not change you. That is the key to important and great reading. That is what I am seeking in the Book of Concord. I encourage you to seek it along with me.

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