Starting at the Beginning:
A Laymanís Guide to the Lutheran Confessions
By Jim Huffman

 

I was dragged kicking and screaming into Lutheran orthodoxy a few years ago. A new pastor, at the time fresh out of seminary, was used by God 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.

Itís a frightening feeling, though, to lose some beliefs and have nothing to replace them with at the moment. Jesusí 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 term) -- a way for seeing the Bible whole.

This is something lost sometimes 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 somewhat peculiar form of Calvinism. But now while I had come to realize that some of my ideas were unbiblical, I could not yet see the forest of Lutheranism for the trees of individual doctrines. How did this all hang together? No one seemed to be able to help me see it whole.

Someone finally did. A noted Lutheran pastor and theologian introduced me to the Lutheran confessions, The Book of Concord.

C. S. Lewis said it much better than I can. In his introduction to a recent re-issue of Athanasiusí 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 about 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."

Thereís a similar problem in orthodox Lutheran circles. While itís 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. Wrong! Iím of no more than average intelligence, and while I have had some theological training, it was hardly rigorous, and it was decidedly not Lutheran. I have four children, two of whom I homeschool with my wife, and I operate two home-based 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 from the beliefs of other Christians.

And the Confessional books give an even mildly interested reader that ability. Itís a shocking realization 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 Iíd like to do is offer a guide. Through trial and error, Iíve found a way to get into the Book of Concord. I have not arrived. But I have begun. And the secret is that you will only begin to scratch the surface of Christian doctrine in this lifetime. But there is gold there. And whether we scratch the surface or dig a tad deeper, the gold is still gold, and it is there for the taking.

Letís begin with the book Lutherans are most familiar with, Lutherís Small Catechism. Borne of desire to provide a way for parents (fathers, actually) to teach their children about the faith, and designed to be a "laymanís Bible," most Lutherans see the SC as something worthy of attention only in confirmation class. Not so.

Luther himself 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 Lutherís level in understanding the gospel, may I suggest that you set about doing pondering it daily as well? If you canít see your way clear to read the catechism on a daily basis, how about at least reading it through again? Itís where I started reading. Take off your confirmation class blinders, and read it fresh. 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, itís an entirely different animal from the SC. It is not an expanded commentary on the smaller catechism, although thatís the logical way of looking at it. 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 LC is an enjoyable book, a fun read, although the topics covered are often neither fun nor comfortable. Itís not designed to be. But Iíve found that reading something with grim religious blinders is often the surest way Iíve 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 rightly condemn saint worship, but sometimes we Lutherans 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. There are plenty of dry-as-dust religious writers available, and not all of them are dead. Approach the Large Catechism as something youíre going to enjoy reading. You probably will. And youíll be amazed at what youíll learn.

(Let me also add in passing that I hope you realize that I am talking about a lifetime of reading, and not a one-time skimming of the Confessions. Any book worth reading once is probably worth reading many more times. You already know this about the Bible; while I am not putting other books on the level of the scriptures, good books bear re-reading. And re-re-reading).

A 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 youíve got. If you donít, I recommend the Tappert edition, published by Fortress.

At this point, Iíve already angered some readers. It is customary in orthodox circles to lift oneís skirts when passing Tappert, and sniff that reading the Concord in Tappertís edition is like reading The Living Bible. Perhaps that is true: I am not one to judge. I am sure that someday I will break down, and buy the Triglotta edition (thus called because it gives the Confessions in three languages, those being German, Latin, and English), but I havenít yet.

Tappert (named after the translator) 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 Iím glad. We might 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 Iíve been using for the last fifteen years. If you donít have the Triglotta already, start with the Tappert edition.

After youíve 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 defining document of Lutheranism speaks to you right now. Ponder how some of the excesses in the American church (including Lutheran churches) 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 for 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 so some pondering of the wonderful story of St. Anthony and the shoemaker on pps. 275 and 276. A friend grumbled that Phillip Melanchthon (the author of both the Apology and the Augsburg Confession) was too wordy 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 -- Iím one of them sometimes -- who feel that we at the cusp of the 21st century alone have problems establishing orthodox teaching and worship. Thatís wrong, and Iím convinced itís an error Satan sends into our hearts to discourage us. The world, the flesh, and the devil are hard at work in 1999, just as they were in 1530, and what goes on now went on then, as well -- perhaps in slightly different forms, but it went on nonetheless. Our confessional books were part of the churchís carving out niches of orthodoxy in the 16th century. It was no easier then than it is now, and reading these books -- especially the ones we are coming up to now -- will show you.

The Smalcald Articles was Lutherís 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. Lutherís introduction is enlightening. Since Lutherís time, it has been customary to argue by one group or the other that Luther would eventually have "come around," been "more reasonable," and more willing to accommodate to whatever agenda that 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. And he assures us in that introduction that what he is teaching is not going to change.

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. Even among some otherwise orthodox Lutherans, there is the feeling that somehow Lutherís attacks on the pope were due to the latterís inhumanity -- that is, if Pope Paul III had been just a nice guy, that Luther would not have been compelled to go to such extremes, as calling him (for heavenís sake!) the anti-Christ. No, for us in 1999 who see a grandfatherly old Polish man, who is nice and kind, and even pro-life, and we canít imagine that Luther meant that someone like him is the 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. Growing up Italian in New York, all the kids in Catholic parochial school knew that popes are supposed to be grandfatherly Italian men. For the Cardinals to elect a Polish pope was beyond the pale!)

Lutherís 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 obedience to his commands were necessary for salvation. Of course, we can rejoice (on a secular level) that Rome is pro-life, in the same way we rejoice that Hasidic Jews or Moslems are pro-life. But a Roman Catholic who faithfully believes Roman dogma is no more a believer than a Jew or a Moslem. This is a hard saying, but one that must be repeated.

And thatís 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 Romeís arguments.

At a time when Rome is more attractive than ever, even 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 being neglected. And it would behoove all of us to ponder afresh the scriptural doctrine of the papacy as anti-Christ, and even further, to 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 -- itís 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 Godís help, they dealt with those problems.

Thatís the beauty of studying history, and the sadness of an age like our own which devalues knowledge of the past. Thereís 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 Godís Word, and how our problems can be dealt with in the same way.

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

Even more problematic, however, 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 pure 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 Jesusí 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 for 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 name of Christís presence in the Sacrament?

And so we 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 will bring 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 anything but that. 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. The new man realizes in a way he couldnít before the reading that the solution that beforehand seemed best is in fact not even 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 seek in the Book of Concord. I encourage you to seek it along with me.


Mr. Jim Huffman is a member of Redeemer LCMS in Burlington, NC, where he teaches the middle school Sunday school class, and was previously an elder.  He and his wife Amy are blessed with 4 children.  He is a nurse in independent practice in the Burlington area.  His career guide for nurses Dare to Be Free: How to Get Control of Your Time, Your Life, and Your Nursing Career was published in 2000. 

March 25, 1999