Our church body, The American Association of Lutheran Churches, affirms that the Lutheran confessions, including the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, and the Formula of Concord are binding upon us because they are a fair and accurate summary of the teachings of Scripture. The good Lutheran, based on Luther's Small Catechism (another one of our confessional documents), would ask, "What do you mean by that?"
It's a completely fair question to ask of any church body. In fact, you shouldn't go joining a church or any other organizaiton without understanding and agreeing with what it stands for. For instance, lots of churches say they believe the Bible. That's great, but what do they mean by that? We also believe the Bible to be infallible, inerrant, and inspired by God. Our Clergy Commission regularly asks people to explain their views about the Bible. It matters. We need to be of one mind about the central tenets of our faith!
Since so many church bodies confess that they believe the Bible, and will use words like infallible, inerrant, and inspired, it helps to find a means of clarifying what we mean. This is where an appropriate use of tradition comes into play.
"Okay," you say, "Now he's done it. the Bible and tradition? Give me a break! That sounds like something that belongs in the Roman Catholic Church!"
I think we need to evaluate the role of tradition in our interpretation, though. In fact, you think so also. Before rejecting the idea of tradition out of hand, where will you stand on interpretive tradition? Does each Christian have an obligation to ignore all past interpreters? If we reject tradition does that also mean that we self-consciously reject any interpretation of Scripture anyone has held in the past? This throws us into a dystopian world of exegesis in which "I" am the only one who can be right, and can only be right by carefully dodging anything anyone else has ever thought is right in the past.
Rather than experiencing an implosion of the entire world, let's entertain a right role of tradition in our interpretation. Christianity has had about two millennia to try answering some important questions. Many times, as we have worked with these interpretive concepts carefully our scholars have developed good explanations of what the Scripture means and how it should be applied to our lives and our world. After all, the Word of God is intended to be clear and reliable. We should expect that most careful thinkers and interpreters would come to approximately the same interpretations, and that they would normally be right. This is why we don't reject all the history of Christian interpretation out of hand.
In the 16th century Reformation, a good deal of effort was put into clarifying some of the issues surrounding the conflict between the Roman church and the Evangelicals, who later became known as Lutherans. This led to the publication of the Augsburg Confession in 1530, which described many ways in which the Evangelicals held practices consistent with their Roman past. The Smalcald Articles, in 1537, served as a presentation of truth claims which took the place of testimony in person by Dr. Martin Luther. Later, in 1578, the Formula of Concord was developed, describing the doctrines which identified and held the Lutheran Christians together. These three documents, along with some ancillary helps and explanations make up the bulk of the Book of Concord, first published in 1580. The Confessions serve to clarify the Christian interpretation of the first Lutherans, defending their teaching and practice.
The Lutheran Confessions contribute to our understanding of the Christian faith because they are careful evaluations of theological statements, considered in light of Scriptures. Through a review of the concepts found in the Lutheran Confessions, we find a comprehensive summary of a biblical view on the topics included in the Confessions. The content of these Confessions has been tested and tried many times over nearly 450 years. Time and again, they have proven to be a fair and accurate summary of the teachings of Scripture.
When I teach a topical Bible study, the Lutheran Confessions are my go-to resource. They are chock full of solid biblical exposition. They raise timeless questions and life problems. A good edition normally has an extensive index of Scripture passages. Through use of our Confessions, we can know that we stand in a good place in our theology, our understanding of humanity, of the work of the church, and our role in society. We affirm them because they are a right exposition of Scripture.
Does your church congregation have a study of the Book of Concord or some of the Lutheran Confessions? I'm sure the Evangel editor would love to have letters from people talking about studies they are doing. Since our church body subscribes to these Confessions, we do well to devote some of our study to them. Now is a great time to gather with likeminded Christians, pull out a Book of Concord and your Bibles, and be like the Bereans in Acts 17 - study the Scriptures to find out if what we are saying is true!
For further study, you might find the following resources helpful.
www.bookofconcord.org provides a lightly searchable version of the 1921 edition of the Book of Concord as translated into English by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau.
Concordia Publishing House in St. Louis has issued A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord based on the same translation, but with some updates to the language and with extensive footnotes and introductory editorial information. This work is in its second edition, 2006.
The definitive 20th century edition, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church translated and edited by Theodore Tappert was published by Fortress Press in Philadelphia, 1959.
In 2000, an new scholarly edition, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church was released in a new translation, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, by Fortress Press, now in Minneapolis. This edition is gradually taking the place of the 1959 Tappert edition, though both are excellent scholarly works.
This article was submitted in December 2023 for publication to The Evangel, the magazine of The American Association of Lutheran Churches.
Pastor Dave Spotts serves as a missionary chaplain to the college campuses in Columbia Missouri under the auspices of Wittenberg Door Campus Ministry, a mission of The American Association of Lutheran Churches.