What is a Confessional Lutheran?
“Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord,
nor of me His prisoner, but be thou partaker of the afflictions
of the Gospel according to the power of God.”
(II Timothy 1:8)
According to a 2006 study of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, there are at least 217 different Christian denominations in the United States and Canada. This doesn’t even include those who operate as a denomination, but who don’t regard themselves as such, namely, the so-called “non-denominational” churches. That means that there are literally hundreds of differing private interpretations of God’s Word, hundreds of different ideas about what it means to be a Christian, and hundreds of distinctly divided groups, all of which profess to be true followers of the Lord Jesus (Luke 6:46). Seeing that the instruction of the Lord to those who would be His brethren that they be “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10), “he that teaches and lives otherwise than God’s Word teaches” (Luther: First Petition) really has a lot to repent of. After all, one of God’s purposes in committing His holy Word to the prophets, apostles and evangelists, who would later also commit it to “faithful men” for its continued teaching (II Timothy 2:2), was to preserve the unity and the integrity of His Church as it kept on growing by the power of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:11-13). And yet, because of the constant wiles of the devil, the corrupt teachings of false prophets, and the temptations of the wicked world, the true teachings of Christ and His precious Gospel have become perverted; and the true [orthodox] visible church of God has become increasingly difficult to find. Thanks be to God, however, that in spite of mankind’s failings with respect to the proper teaching, preaching, and practice of His Word in the external, visible churches, the Lord has preserved and will continue to preserve for Himself the invisible Church, or Communion of Saints, “who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (I Peter 1:5). This Church will always be found wherever the Gospel of Christ is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered (Augsburg Confession, Art. VII). And, by God’s grace, out of the 217 plus denominations of the nominal Christian faith found here in America, there remains at least one which still regularly and consistently (Isaiah 55:10-11) has, teaches, professes and practices these things in their truth and purity, namely true Lutheranism, of which our precious Concordia Lutheran Conference is identifiably a part (Cf. Statement of Purpose of our Concordia Lutheran, ¶ 4, on the inside front cover of every issue).
Every denomination distinguishes itself from other groups by a unique confession, or testimony, of what it believes and teaches. For example, the “Roman” Catholic Church is so named because it holds to the teachings of Rome, i.e. of the Vatican and its various canons, decrees, and Papal edicts. “Reformed” church bodies are so called because they hold to the teachings of the Swiss Reformation, i.e. the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the canons of the Synod of Dort. And, of course, “Lutherans” are so called because, at least by profession, they hold to the Lutheran Confessions, comprising the Book of Concord of 1580. All of these religious groups can be filed under the name of “Christianity” insofar as they confess Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinful men (I Timothy 1:15), but they separate and distinguish themselves by their distinctive differences in doctrine and practice. The purpose of this article is to identify what a “confessional” Lutheran is. This title might seem to be somewhat redundant, since being a “Lutheran” assumes subscribing to the Lutheran “confession” of faith as found in the Book of Concord. But, just as many people who claim to be “Christians” do not really “continue in [Christ’s] Word” as His “disciples indeed” (John 8:31), so also there are many who claim to be “Lutherans” who do not really believe, teach, profess and practice their faith according to the standard of the Lutheran Confessions.
So, just as true disciples of the Lord distinguish themselves from other professing Christians by words like “orthodox,” those who sincerely uphold the symbols of the Lutheran faith distinguish themselves from those who do not by the word “confessional.” In short, a “confessional” Lutheran is someone who wholeheartedly accepts the doctrines taught in the Book of Concord of 1580 in their entirety because (quia) they are completely faithful to the teachings of Holy Scripture:
This Confession also, by the help of God, we will retain to our last breath, when we shall go forth from this life to the heavenly fatherland, to appear with joyful and undaunted mind and with a pure conscience before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Preface to the Book of Concord, Triglotta, p. 15)
Seeing that holding to the Lutheran Confessions “because they are a faithful exhibition of the Word of God in the matters they treat” is by definition essential to being a “confessional” Lutheran, it is important for everyone who would describe himself as such to know what it is he holds to. The Book of Concord is a collection of documents which contain the testimonies of Christians who lived from the fourth to the sixteenth century about what they believed and taught on the basis of God’s Word. The first group of testimonies found in this book is the most ancient, dating back to the post-apostolic Church of the New Testament. This first group consists of the three Ecumenical or Universal Creeds, also called the three “main symbols” or confessions of the Christian faith, concerning which there was no controversy between the Romanists and the Lutherans. These are the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. The second group originated during the time of the Lutheran Reformation. Some of these documents were intended for the instruction of simple Christians and ill-educated pastors, while the others treated at length the main doctrinal differences between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church and served as the chief confessions of the Lutheran faith. These include the Small and Large Catechisms of Dr. Luther, the Augsburg Confession (also known as the Augustana), and the Apology (or Defense) of the Augsburg Confession. The third and final group of testimonies was written after the Augustana and served to defend previous confessions and, in the case of the Formula of Concord, further to unify the Lutherans, settling the doctrinal controversies that came up after Luther’s death in 1546. These are the Smalcald Articles, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and the Formula of Concord (made up of an Epitome and a Thorough Declaration of doctrine). These ten documents faithfully expound the teachings of Holy Scripture in the matters they treat and thus serve as a standard of doctrine within the Lutheran Church (Epitome, Summary Content, Triglotta, 777). Those who are confirmed and received as communicant members of a Lutheran congregation are asked whether they hold “the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, drawn from the Bible, as [they] have learned to know it from Luther’s Small Catechism, to be the true and correct one” (The Lutheran Agenda, p. 24); and every Lutheran pastor promises to perform the duties of his office “in accordance with these Confessions” and that all of his teaching and the administration of the Sacraments shall be in conformity with the Holy Scriptures and with the afore-mentioned Confessions” (The Lutheran Agenda, p. 107).
Now part of being a correct exposition of the teachings of God’s Word is, first and foremost, acknowledging God’s Word to be the highest and purest norm and standard of Christian doctrine. The documents of the Book of Concord do not claim any authority in and of themselves to serve as a norm in the church, but they are accorded normative authority in a secondary sense only because of the primary authority of Holy Scripture which they faithfully set forth. In the introduction to the Epitome of the Formula of Concord, for instance, concerning the authority of Holy Scripture the Lutheran Confessions state:
We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with [all] teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone¼ In this way the distinction between the Holy Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament and all other writings is preserved, and the Holy Scriptures alone remain the only judge, rule, and standard, according to which, as the only test-stone, all dogmas shall and must be discerned and judged, as to whether they are good or evil, right or wrong.
(Epitome, Summary Content, Triglotta, pp. 777, 779)
And later on in the Thorough Declaration, the Confessions state concerning their own normative authority:
What has thus far been said concerning the summary of our Christian doctrine is intended to mean only this, that we should have a unanimously accepted, definite, common form of doctrine, which all our evangelical Churches together and in common confess, from and according to which, because it has been derived from God’s Word, all other writings should be judged and adjusted as to how far they are to be approved and accepted.
(Thorough Declaration, II, Triglotta, p. 885)
In order that this proper distinction between the authority of Scripture and the authority of the Lutheran Confessions is properly maintained, the Scriptures have been given the title norma normans, meaning “the rule that rules;” and the Confessions are designated as norma normata, meaning “the rule that is ruled.” Both serve as standards, or rules (normae), of what is to be taught as the clear will of God; both are authoritative; but they aren’t equal. The one is normed by the other. This proper distinction must be preserved so that the glory, honor, integrity and authority of Holy Scripture are always maintained and that Holy Scriptures is always recognized as the one and only source of Christian faith and life. A true, “confessional” Lutheran keeps this distinction in mind every time he studies God’s Word and whenever he reads the Book of Concord.
One can think of the relationship between the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions according to the following analogy. In the beginning, God created two lights in the heavens: the sun to rule the day, and the moon to rule the night (Genesis 1:16). Of of the two, the sun is the greater, brighter light; and the moon is the lesser, dimmer light. Both are lights, and both rule in their respective times. Yet, the moon doesn’t produce any light; it only reflects the light of the sun. So really, one could say the sun continues to rule even during the nighttime because its light is reflected by the moon. Now, the Holy Scriptures are like the sun in that respect; they are the great, spiritual light, ruling the day by their own power. They have spiritual power in and of themselves, being the verbally-inspired, revealed will of the Lord; and they are completely sufficient to teach men the way of salvation through faith in Christ Jesus and to train them in holy living (II Timothy 3:15-17). The Confessions are like the moon; they faithfully reflect and testify to the spiritual light of the Bible and rule the night by its truthfulness. They do not have any spiritual power of themselves, being the simple writings of men; but they are a correct witness of the Gospel in the wider sense, i.e. the entire Word of God in its purity. Together and in their proper order, these two great lights serve the Church to protect and maintain purity of doctrine and holiness of living, ruling God’s people by His glorious Word.
But in spite of these fine distinctions made by the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, there are many who do not stay true to them, but rather try to obstruct their clarity. There are three main groups of Lutherans that do this. The first group is made up of those who give only a partial or qualified subscription to the Book of Concord. While a true, confessional Lutheran subscribes to the Confessions because (quia) they are a completely faithful exposition of God’s Word in the matters they treat, these so-called Lutherans subscribe to them only insofar as (quatenus) they correctly set forth God’s Word. This means that in their estimation the Book of Concord is not completely faithful to what the Bible says, that there are places where it is not correct in its exposition of the Bible, and that therefore they can ignore or contradict certain things that are set forth in the Confessions.
The second group consists of those who confound the Norma Normans and the Norma Normata. While a true, confessional Lutheran recognizes that the Confessions are normed by Holy Scripture, and that the Confessions serve as a proper witness of what Scripture clearly teaches, in practice these Lutherans act as though the Confessions norm the Scriptures, or that they are the key to properly understanding the teachings of the Bible. In their uncontrolled zeal for the Lutheran faith, they turn the sun into the moon, give more honor to the writings of men than to those of God, and turn the Confessions into their primary source and norm of doctrine and practice.
And the third group of Lutherans who don’t stay true to the distinctions of their own Confessions is made up of those who claim to give a quia subscription to the Book of Concord, but who in practice act like those who give a quatenus subscription. These are the people who pride themselves on being Lutherans, proudly teaching the two principles of the Reformation, i.e. Scripture alone and Grace and Faith alone, but who never really promote the confessional documents of their church. At times, they almost seem ashamed of the Book of Concord or even show contempt for it. They often roll their eyes when someone brings it up in discussion or shy away from reading it themselves or from studying it in their local congregations. Oftentimes, it’s the opinion of these Lutherans that the Confessions are really insufficient for our day either to establish a basis for unity or to mark out the differences between church bodies. These are the same people who don’t like to be called “confessional” Lutherans, as though it were a stigma to have such a name; and they use that term to describe the fanatics, or zealots, who over-emphasize the writings of the Lutheran fathers, rather than wearing this name as a badge of honor. All three of these groups of Lutherans miss the mark when it comes to being a true, “confessional” Lutheran. They either fall too short, go too far, or feign real enthusiasm for the testimony of their spiritual fathers.
As St. Paul writes in II Timothy 1:8, we should not be ashamed of the testimony of God or of His apostles which is found first and foremost in the inspired writings of Holy Scripture but also in the faithful confessions of those who have gone before us. Instead we are supposed to honor and remember those who have faithfully spoken God’s Word to us, as our Lutheran fathers did, emulate their devotion to the Lord and to His truth, and by God’s grace hold to that right confession (Hebrews 13:7). In other words, we should want to call ourselves “confessional Lutherans,” because of what that name truly stands for: Pure and right doctrine (orthodoxy), faithful practice (the consistent application of Scripture doctrine), courage and fortitude to defend God’s truth in the face of error and adversity, and proper humility to know where all true authority lies. By God’s grace, we should be willing to make the same pledge regarding the Confessions of the Lutheran Church that the princes of Germany did when they wrote:
Therefore we also have determined not to depart even a finger’s breadth either from the subjects themselves, or from the phrases which are found in them, but, the Spirit of the Lord aiding us, to persevere constantly, with the greatest harmony, in this Godly agreement; and we intend to examine all controversies according to this true norm and declaration of the pure doctrine.
(Preface to the Book of Concord, Triglotta, p. 23)
To bear the name “Lutheran” is a great honor and privilege when one thinks about everything that it stands for. How much more an honor should it be to emphasize the fact that a “Lutheran” Christian wholeheartedly adheres to the correct doctrines of Holy Scripture by adding the word “confessional” to his title? It is becoming more important now than ever that we Christians, we “Lutherans,” yes even we “confessional Lutherans,” be able to stand up and testify to others what we believe, teach, and confess on the basis of God’s Word. After all, we are living in a time where there are over 217 different (heterodox) so-called Christian denominations, or confessions, in America alone, whose doctrine and whose practice is different (hetero-) or “contrary to the doctrine which [we] have learned” from the Word of God (Romans 16:17). Therefore let us diligently read and study our Bibles, read and study also the Book of Concord, and pray that the Lord give us proper, spiritual “understanding in all things” (II Timothy 2:7), so that as St. Peter says, you are always ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear (I Peter 3:15).
In his preface to the Concordia Triglotta, an edition of the Book of Concord containing both the German and Latin languages in which the original confessions were written, as well as an authoritative translation into English, Dr. F. Bente concludes his opening remarks with the following passage, which also serves as an appropriate conclusion to this article:
The Lutheran Church differs from all other churches in being essentially the Church of the pure Word and unadulterated Sacraments. Not the great numbers of her adherents, not her organizations, not her charitable and other institutions, not her beautiful customs and liturgical forms, etc., but the precious truths confessed by her symbols in perfect agreement with the Holy Scriptures constitute the true beauty and rich treasures of our Church, as well as the never-failing source of her vitality and power.
Wherever the Lutheran Church ignored her symbols or rejected all or some of them, there she always fell an easy prey to her enemies. But wherever she held fast to her God-given crown, esteemed and studied her confessions, and actually made them a norm and standard of her entire life and practice, there the Lutheran Church flourished and confounded all her enemies.
Accordingly, if Lutherans truly love their Church, and desire and seek her welfare, they must be faithful to her confessions and constantly be on their guard lest anyone rob her of her treasure.
(Dr. F. Bente, Preface, Concordia Triglotta)
May the Lord keep us all steadfast, intrepid, faithful, and confessional Lutherans, for Jesus’ sake.
— D. P. M.