Those of us from a tradition in the magisterial reformation (i.e. Lutheranism, the Reformed, and to a certain extent Anglicanism) have the privilege of having confessional documents that define what we believe, teach, and confess. These documents arose out of various historical situations during the Reformation when Christians from these traditions needed to make it clear what they taught over against the radical sects, their Roman opponents, and even at times each other.
Furthermore, these writings still play a big role today. For those of us who still hold to them, these documents provide a definition of what we believe. In other words, if you want to know what the Lutheran tradition teaches, go read the Book of Concord.
The Confessions ≠ Scripture
Now I must make it abundantly clear that the confessions are in no way on par with scripture. The confessions are not inspired. The scriptures are. We believe that the confessions are a faithful explanation/exposition of what the scriptures teach on various topics. Thus, when someone “subscribes” to the confessions, as do all pastors in the LCMS (my own denomination), they are affirming that they agree with all of the doctrinal content of the confessions. Essentially, if you disagree with what the Small Catechism teaches about baptism or the Lord’s Supper, you don’t get to be a Lutheran pastor, since this is what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess.
Scripture is still the final and ultimate authority, but for practical purposes it’s not enough to just say that you believe the scriptures. The question still remains, what do you believe the scriptures teach? The confessions are for Lutherans the answer to that question. This is what we believe the scriptures teach.
Sounds pretty simple, right? Certainly this is a lot more ordered than what often happens for non-confessional Protestants. Everyone might have their own reading or interpretation of scripture. Everyone reads and interprets scripture for themselves and everyone may have different readings.
But of course, not in a confessional church.
Except, having the confessions does not solve all of our problems. Sure, it makes things more ordered and it encourages more agreement and concord, but there are still issues that we have to deal with.
The main question has to do with what exactly the confessions’ purpose are for us and what they are to be used for. Here, I’ll go through a few ways I’ve seen people use the confessions before proposing a tentative alternative.
The Confessions as Source (aka Confessions as Canon Law 2.0)
Too often I see the confessions quoted as if the fact that the confessions say something about good works or baptism or whatever means that it’s necessarily true. Lutherans will argue about the confessions with each other as if it were our own Roman Catholic Canon Law. Sometimes it’s as if the Book of Concord is the Lutheran Book of Mormon revealed by God’s great latter day prophets, Luther, Melanchthon, and Chemnitz. For example, when we say that the confessions are a faithful exposition of scripture, does that mean that their interpretations are authoritative in themselves, as if it were the Mishnah?
Obviously I’m exaggerating. Nobody actually thinks this, but too often it seems like people do. In my own experience, I think the issue is failing to recognize that the confessions are not authoritative for establishing doctrine. Only the scriptures are. In other words, if your question is, what does baptism do, then go to the scriptures where baptism is discussed. Don’t go to the confessions. If the question is, what do Lutherans believe about baptism, then it makes sense to go to the confessions.
The Confessions as Weapon
Related to using the confessions as a source is using the confessions as a bludgeon with which to beat people over the head when they appear to stray in the slightest from the verbiage of the confessions. Yes, we should be able to use the confessions to call each other to account when necessary, especially with pastors who have publically sworn to teach according to the confessions. However, the intention is different. The former delights in finding people teaching or practicing not in accord with the confessions. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate one’s superior confessionalism. The latter is merely offering a gentle redirection when necessary. The confessions are a tool to remind a pastor what he has promised to uphold, not a law code that I can play gotcha with.
This also happens when people use sections of the confessions to speak to issues that they were not intended to speak to. For example, people will often use AC XXIV “we do not abolish the Mass” (Ap XXIV:1) to argue against the use of guitars and “contemporary worship” music. But this is obviously not the immediate issue in the context of the Augsburg Confession. It furthermore ignores what the Formula says, “We believe, teach, and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has the power, according to its circumstances, to change such ceremonies in such manner as may be most useful and edifying to the congregation of God” (FC Ep X:4). Now obviously this does not mean that we can or ought to do whatever we want. The confessional principle of not abolishing the mass can and should have some effect on how we put together worship services regardless of the style, but it shouldn’t be used as a way to demand obedience to a particular strictly-defined form of worship.
The Confessions as Obscure Seminary Textbook
On the other side, there are those who treat the confessions as nothing more than a dusty, antiquated set of writings that have to be somewhat slogged through when one goes to seminary, but left behind as soon as one graduates. But it’s important for pastors and even laypeople to know their confessions in at least some way. When used correctly, they help to strengthen our unity and commitment to the true teaching of the scripture. They help to give us an anchor in our own tradition lest we be blown around from every trend coming from the Evangelicals or the Eastern Orthodox.
Now, I’ll admit, I’m not sure how the confessions are best integrated into the life of the congregation or its people. There are better and worse ways to do it for sure. But there should be a place for them, first in the pastor’s study, but then also among the people.
Tentative Solution: The Confessions as Map
I’ll admit that when I first heard this idea, I was skeptical. I didn’t quite like it for various reasons. But recently it’s begun to grow on me. Like a fungus.
The basic idea is that the scriptures are like a landscape. There are a lot of intricate details and it’s easy to get lost. It’d be real easy to get lost in a place that you had never been before without some kind of a map or knowing the significant landmarks. Therefore, the confessions are like a map. They aid us in making sense of the landscape so that we can go where need to go without getting lost. A map simplifies and summarizes details and points out the main features of interest such as roads, borders, or cities. Furthermore, a map was initially made by a cartographer who based it off of the landscape. He took his team out, they surveyed the land and produced a map that was based off of the landscape itself. Now we come along later to the landscape with map in hand. The map is not the main thing. The map is not what we are travelling through. The map draws us into the landscape. It shows us where the points of interest are, like say a waterfall. The map will guide you to the waterfall and it might even give you information about it, but the point is so that you can go to the waterfall itself and experience it yourself with your own eyes, not just stare at it on the map.
Finally, I think this way of viewing the confessions guards us against some of the abuses. You’re never going to confuse the map for the landscape. The landscape is the source of the map. You wouldn’t use a map as a weapon against someone else. If someone is going the wrong way, you come alongside them and show them. Unless they want to get lost, they’ll listen to you. Finally, it’d be foolish to study the map haphazardly at home before setting out only to leave the map behind. That’s how you get lost.
There are more issues than these, but I think if we can start here, we’ll be in pretty good shape.
Note: A special thank you to Charles Arand, professor at Concordia Seminary, for proposing the idea of viewing the Confessions as a map. I’ve taken his ideas and expanded them a bit here.
Image: Title page from 1580 Book of Concord, public domain