Thursday Theology: The Six Steps of the Augsburg Confession

by Chris Repp

Co-missioners,

Nine years ago Chris Repp made a presentation at a Crossings seminar about the Augsburg Confession (AC) and how its opening articles overlap with the six steps of the Crossings Matrix. Some of us who heard the presentation at the time were impressed by the clarity with which Chris laid out the logic of the AC’s progression from Articles One through Six. For some reason the presentation wasn’t added to our website at the time, so we asked Chris if he would share it with us in this week when we pause to honor those Augsburg Confessors all over again. (June 25 is their day on the Lutheran church calendar.) Our thanks indeed to Chris for doing so.

Chris’s work here includes three direct quotations of the text of the AC in the Kolb-Wengert edition of the Book of Concord (Fortress Press, 2000). Page numbers are noted on the spot.

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community

_________________________________________________________________

 

The Six Steps of the Augsburg Confession
by Chris Repp

(Adapted from a presentation given in 2015)

 

Rev. Chris Repp

I was struck some years ago by the convergence of the six steps of the Crossings method for proclaiming the gospel from scripture, with the first six articles of the Augsburg Confession, that fundamental statement of the Lutheran idea. I am sure that that is no accident, and that I was just slow in coming to realize this. I have come to see the first six articles of the Augsburg Confession as an adequate summary of the entire Confession, and indeed of the whole of Lutheran theology. I believe that if we had nothing of the Lutheran Confessions but those first six articles, along with the elaboration on faith and good works found in article 20, that would be enough. The articles don’t map perfectly, but the central idea is the same. And if you compare Articles 3-6 of the Augsburg Confession with steps 4-6 of the Crossings Matrix, I think you see that there is a remarkable congruence. Let me talk you through it.

The Augsburg Confession was written in 1530 at the invitation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who needed to reconcile with the Protestant princes of Germany in order to present a united front against the Turkish threat to the east. It was an attempt to put forth the chief articles of faith held by the reformers, to show that the faith they confessed was in accord with the teaching of the scriptures and that the changes they had made in church practice were corrections of innovations that threatened the church’s proclamation of the gospel. The strategy was to begin with articles on which they hoped everyone was in agreement and then to show how that agreement could lead to agreement on the more disputed articles.

So the first article is a simple restatement of Nicene Trinitarian doctrine and a condemnation of various Trinitarian heresies. There is one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the creator and sustainer of all things. A look at the Apology to the Augsburg Confession (the Lutheran response to the Roman Catholic response, the Confutatio or “refutation”) shows that there was no disagreement on this article whatsoever. So far, so good.

Then comes the second article, on sin. This article emphasizes the pervasiveness of sin, following Paul and Augustine. All humans sin, and cannot now by nature fear or trust God. Here again, the Apology says the Roman Catholic responders approved this article, with qualifications. All agree that humans are sinful, but the writers of the Confutatio reject that this means that we are not capable of fearing or trusting God. Already here we see some obvious differences in approach between the two sides. If we are capable of fearing and trusting God, as the Confutatio suggests, then we need to get about doing that. Try harder. Just do it! as the Nike slogan puts it. If we are not capable of fearing and trusting God, then we’re stuck and need help. We’ve fallen and we can’t get up, to paraphrase another old commercial. The Augsburg Confession tries to preempt this discussion when it condemns Pelagianism. If it’s just a matter of trying harder, if we can “just do it,” then, as Paul says in Galatians (2:21), Christ died for nothing.

And what do you know, the third article is about Christ, whose death and resurrection are the solution to our sin that achieve our reconciliation with God. No objection to this article in the Confutatio.

Johanniskirche 2 001 (Ausschnitt)
From Wikimedia Commons

Now comes article four on justification, which everybody knows is the chief article of the Augsburg confession, the article upon which the church stands or falls. And as you know the fourth article of the Apology is by far the longest because it is precisely this issue that was the focal point of the dispute between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic authorities, the assertion that we are made right with God by God’s grace alone, and it is by faith alone that we are connected to this grace.

Now I haven’t told you anything you don’t already know. All good Lutherans know the importance of this doctrine. Justification by faith was the functional core of the whole Reformation project. I like to say that it was Luther’s one idea that pervaded all of his important writings. For him it was not just the foundation, the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls, the one thing we can’t give up, as he says in the Smalcald Articles (II:1), it is also the core conviction from which all of the church’s teaching and practice must proceed.

We might not get that if the Augsburg Confession had stopped at article four. And that is why article five has become for me an article equal in importance to article four, because I think that we have had a tendency in the history of Lutheranism to get stuck at article four. But in addition to narrowing our focus to our individual salvation and the hope of life after death, if we stop here, we’re also left with this idea: “all we need to do is have faith. We just have to believe.” And if we’re not careful, that is what we end up preaching. God has done all this for you, now all you have to do is have faith. We are relieved of the burden of many commandments and are given a single simple commandment in their place: “Have faith! Reach up and grasp that helping hand that is being extended to you.” But this flight of fancy is not where article five goes. Faith, though necessary, is not simply a commandment, a choice you make for Jesus today. But we are nonetheless left with this question: “Whence and how do we get this faith that we so need?” And this is just the question that article five answers. Where do we get such faith? I hear Bob Bertram answering, “I’m so glad you asked.” Here’s what article five says:

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. [Lat: the ministry of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments.] Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe. Condemned are the Anabaptists and others who teach that we obtain the Holy Spirit without the external word of the gospel through our own preparation, thoughts, and works. (Kolb-Wengert 40)

How do we get faith? Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit that is given when the gospel is communicated in word and sacrament. So then not only is forgiveness and reconciliation with God a gracious gift, but so is the faith that receives the gift.  The only thing we can do in this matter is—proclaim the gospel! Don’t be fooled by the titles of the articles in the Augsburg Confession. They’re a later addition anyway. This article is about the church. This is the quintessential church article.  The articles that are labeled as being about the church, articles 7 and 8, refer back to article 5. Article 7: “[The church] is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.” (Kolb-Wengert 42) In other words, when article 5 happens, there is the church.

A quick aside here: What does it mean that the “sacraments are administered according to the gospel”? I’ve had people tell me it means it should be done the way it was done in the Bible, using the words of institution found there. Now that is my practice and I’m all for it, but I don’t think that’s what is meant here. I think it means simply this, that the sacraments are administered in a “gospel-y” way, as instances of the gospel—Augustine’s “visible words.” Not, in other words, as works we perform, or as special holy rites that we have to be worthy of. They are means of grace, as is the gospel itself. I tell my first-communion kids that baptism and holy communion are God’s way of giving you a hug, another way—a physical way—for God to say “I love you, my child.”

So article 5 in my estimation is the real article concerning the church. Seven and eight are just elaborations and clarifications. This is the first article that gives us anything constructive to do, and in fact all of the subsequent articles, not just 7 and 8, tie back into this one in one way or another. And really it is the only thing we are given to do as church. The church’s job is simply this: to communicate the gospel through word and sacrament so that the Holy Spirit can do the Holy Spirit’s job of producing faith.

But what do we do if we faithfully preach the gospel and administer the sacraments and faith does not result? In other words, what do we do if the Holy Spirit chooses to exercise the escape clause, the “where and when he wills” clause of the fifth article? (I actually like this clause. It means that God is not a vending machine or a genie in a lamp.) So what do we do? Or put it another way, what do we do when we only have one thing to do? Answer: We do the one thing! Like the persistent widow with the unjust judge in Luke 18, we preach the gospel and administer the sacraments, again and again and again until the Holy Spirit relents and creates faith—or doesn’t, but in any case, the creation of faith is out of our control.

Martin Luther Quote

There is yet something else in this article that deserves our attention. The antithesis at the bottom there against the Anabaptists. The claim is made there that Holy Spirit works through the means of grace and only through the means of grace, never apart from them. This is a challenging and extraordinary claim. It means that if we do not proclaim the gospel through word and sacrament that the Holy Spirit does not get the chance to do the Holy Spirit’s job (the Spirit’s only job?) of creating faith. I have had people object to this claim when I’ve presented it in the past. Surely the Holy Spirit works in all sorts of ways that we’re not aware of, and surely we cannot limit the work of the Holy Spirit. Maybe the Reformers were wrong on this point? Maybe we’ve been unfair to Anabaptists? Actually, on that latter point there is little doubt. Lutherans have much to repent of in the history of their relationship with the Anabaptists whether or not they are right on this particular point. So maybe they were wrong. If they’re wrong, then the church itself is optional, which is a problematic claim to make about the body of Christ. But if they’re not, does this claim really limit the Holy Spirit in any meaningful way? Isn’t creating faith in those who hear the gospel enough of a full-time job for the Holy Spirit? Isn’t it enough that the Holy Spirit connects us through faith to the saving work of God in Jesus Christ? What else is there that matters?

As you ponder that rhetorical question, I’ll move on to article six. Once the Holy Spirit creates faith, then good works happen as a matter of course.  I like the Latin version of the Augsburg Confession better at this point, or at least the English translation of the Latin as opposed to the English translation of the German.  “[T]his faith is bound to yield good fruits and … it ought to do good works commanded by God on account of God’s will and not so that we may trust in these works to merit justification before God….” (Kolb-Wengert 41) The crux of this article is this: “faith is bound to yield good fruits.”  The rest is a reiteration of article four, just as we had another reiteration of article four in article five.  It’s a simple claim, and one that has implications for how we teach and preach and console one another as Christians. Good works follow from faith as a matter of course. So the letter of James is at least partly right on this point. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:17) Except that I think the Reformers would say that if it has no works then it’s not faith. This also means that the solution to a lack of good works cannot be to urge us to add good works to our faith, as if to say “now that you have faith you must do some good works as well.” If good works do not happen, then the problem lies in the person’s faith. And you know what we need to do about that. The only thing we are given to do: proclaim the gospel.

So there it is. The Augsburg Confession in a nutshell in those first six article which the Crossings method attempts to put to work. Everything else is elaboration.


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
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