Lutheran theology is derived from and reflective upon not just Martin Luther but also the Lutheran Confessions, as found in the Book of Concord. Within Lutheranism, there is much debate over exactly how tightly one must adhere to the Book of Concord. On one side, there are those who insist we must affirm the Book of Concord “because” it agrees with the Bible. On the other side, others maintain we should affirm it “in so far as” it agrees with the Bible.
Because it Agrees
Representative of the view that one must agree with the Book of Concord because it teaches what the Bible teaches is the following:
Authentically Lutheran churches insist on a subscription to the Confessions [The Lutheran Confessions/Book of Concord are used interchangeably] because they agree with the Bible, not merely in so far as they agree with Scripture. Otherwise, there would be no objective way to make sure that there is faithful teaching and preaching of God’s Word. Everything would depend on each pastor’s private opinions, subjective interpretations, and personal feelings, rather than on objective truth as set forth in the Lutheran Confessions. (Book of Concord (.org) FAQ)
Note some important aspects in this quote. First, the Book of Concord just does agree with the Bible. That is insisted upon. Second, the Book of Concord is said to be “objective truth” as opposed to the “subjective interpretations” of the individual. These considerations frame what I’d like to comment on regarding those who hold to the view that we must agree with the book of Concord “because…”
I’ll start with the second aspect noted above. There are, of course, all kinds of increasingly detailed issues people on either side of the debate might raise here. For example, how are “objective” and “subjective” being here defined? I’m going to set that kind of issue mostly aside and focus on a few difficulties I see.
The first is that one cannot simply read the words off the pages of the Book of Concord without going through the necessary step of interpreting them. That is, I as a reader of the Book of Concord must try to make sense of the words I am reading, and thus I am participating in the act of interpreting the Book of Concord. If, as the quote above states, the problem is the individual’s subjective nature, then the problem is completely unavoidable. Indeed, even if we grant that the Book of Concord is “objective truth” in its entirety, all we’ve done is moved the problem of subjective interpretation one step back. Now the reader must interpret the Book of Concord in order to get to the objective truth about Scripture found therein.
Another difficulty with this objective/subjective distinction is that it assumes the writers of the Lutheran Confessions were themselves either not subjective (which seems impossible) or explicitly guided by the Spirit to write out objective truth only. I would not dispute that the Holy Spirit could bring about a completely faultless writing, but the question is whether those who affirm the “because” position would like to argue this. The first thing we should do if they do want to argue this would be to see whether the writers of the Book of Concord assert the Holy Spirit did bring about such a completely objective, 100% correct work.
In the Preface to the Book of Concord, we can read:
Finally, with invocation of God Almighty and to his praise and glory and with careful deliberation and meticulous diligence through the particular grace of the Holy Spirit, they wrote down in good order and brought together into one book everything that pertains to and is necessary for this purpose. (Preface, 12)
Later, the Preface makes clear (15) that this Book was “the correct, Christian understanding of the Augsburg Confession…” In the closing of the Preface, we read (23) that those who signed on to it that they “are minded not to manufacture anything new… nor to depart in either substance or expression… from the divine truth… by the grace of the Holy Spirit we intend to persist and remain unanimously in this truth and regulate all religious controversies and their explanations according to it.”
These are all strong statements, and they clearly called upon God the Holy Spirit for guidance in the composition of the various works that make up the Book of Concord. But does it follow that they were explicitly, inerrantly inspired and guided by the Spirit to never once get a single thing wrong in this book? Those who affirm the “because” position must answer yes. There is no wiggle room.
But a close reading of the Preface seems to suggest that although the writers certainly believed everything in the Book of Concord to be without theological error (otherwise they would not have it regulate all controversies, etc.), I have yet to find anywhere that a claim could be made that the book is explicitly inerrant. It would have to be, however, for the “because” position to be true. This human composition would have to be 100% correct in every single minute detail down to the last proof text cited in order for it to be acceptable to affirm that we must agree with it “because” it agrees with Scripture.
Among other things, what follows from that is that anyone who subscribes to the Book of Concord “because” position must have read the entirety, looked up every citation, and assured themselves that every single interpretation, doctrinal position, and the like is 100% correct, lest they be saying that it is a human-made book without error on God’s Word without actually knowing every detail it contains.
The first issue raised above will be addressed in the section named “A Case Study,” below.
In So Far As
A supporting argument for the “In So Far As” position is that we should always only affirm that which is true. If we can agree that the Bible is true in all it teaches, then we should only agree with other writings about the Bible so far as they agree with the Bible. This seems like an obvious conclusion, but the whole debate centers on whether this argument is sound. It is difficult for me to figure out how to support this argument, not because I think it is a poor argument, but because it seems just intuitively clear.
It may help to use an analogy. Historians have debated how to write history and whether writers of history can ever fully get at the “true” history as it happened. Yet very few would deny that there is such a thing as a “true” history. There must be some absolutely correct sequence in which events occurred such that if we had a complete set of writings that simply reported those events, that would be the “true” history. Thus, there is an objectively true history, against which historians can be measured. Granting some of the hand waving involved in this thought experiment, suppose we had a book, The True History of the World, and we looked up the John F. Kennedy assassination therein. We would then have the objectively true report of that hotly-debated historical event as it really did happen. Now suppose I wanted to write a book about the JFK assassination based upon The True History of the World. However careful a historian I am, however excellent and detailed my mind is, however much guidance I may have had, would it be reasonable to say that you agree with my book, The Objective JFK Assassination “because” it agrees with The True History of the World or “in so far as” it does? It seems that the reasonable conclusion would be “in so far as” it does, because we know that The True History of the World is objectively true.
Though imperfect, this analogy gets at the argument written above. We can agree the Bible is inerrant. Thus, if I were to write a book entitled The Objective Bible, I think we can agree that we should only agree with my book so far as it agrees with the Bible, right? No matter how detailed I am, no matter how meticulous, no matter how large a group of thoughtful interpreters I got together to vet my work, it would be entirely reasonable to only affirm agreement with my book so far as it is biblical. Then why would such a standard not also apply to the Book of Concord? I see no reason why that standard would not.
Indeed, to argue against those who affirm the Book of Concord only “in so far as” it agrees with the Bible would mean that one would have to assert that the caution and respect for God’s word implicit in that position–that I would not want to affirm anything, even by mistake, as biblical if it is even possibly in error anywhere–are mistaken. That the care and caution necessary to say “I will only agree with any book in so far as it agrees with the Word of God” is mistaken, and that that the Book of Concord must also be included under the umbrella of books against which all others must be judged.
For the “because” position ultimately, unswervingly leads to the conclusion that we should only affirm any other book “in so far as” it agrees with the Book of Concord. After all, if it is true that the Book of Concord is affirmed because it agrees with Scripture, then it follows that the authority of the Bible is effectively equivalent to the authority of the Book of Concord. The Bible is God’s word, and the Book of Concord is the objective teaching of God’s word without even possible error. That is not simply rhetoric; it is what must follow from the “because” position. Any interpretation of the Bible must be judged against the Book of Concord; hence, any reading of the Bible must also be judged against it.
A Case Study
Finally, we are in position to ask whether the Book of Concord does indeed have any error therein. That is a crucial question, of course, and one not easily resolved by those who remain faithful Lutherans. If, however, there is even one incorrect use of a proof text in the Book of Concord, the “because” position fails.
In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIII (XI) on the Marriage of Priests, section 25, we read:
Therefore this law concerning perpetual celibacy is peculiar to this new pontifical despotism. Nor is it without a reason. For Daniel 11:37, ascribes to the kingdom of Antichrist this mark, namely, the contempt of women.
Daniel 11:37 reads (ESV) “He shall pay no attention to the gods of his fathers, or to the one beloved by women. He shall not pay attention to any other god, for he shall magnify himself above all.”
The whole passage is difficult to interpret given its prophetic message about the Kings of the North and the South. I’m not going to enter into whether this is specifically referencing “Antichrist” or “the kingdom of Antichrist” or anything of the sort. Instead, the issue is with the reading as “contempt of women.” The Reformers were obviously not using the ESV or anything in English. But older English editions like the KJV might support this text as a proof for contempt of women: “Neither shall he regard the God of his fathers, nor the desire of women, nor regard any god: for he shall magnify himself above all.”
But the problem is that critical editions of the Old Testament don’t support a reading as contempt of women. Without going into depths of detail, and because I’m not a Hebrew scholar by any measure, I would just point out that the Hebrew does seem to clearly state “the one desired by women.” So if we are to read 11:37 as a proof text for contempt of women, it doesn’t seem to be a right reading. It’s a minor difficulty, but one nevertheless. Did the citation above from the Book of Concord properly exegete the Bible? I would assert that the use of this proof text is mistaken. If we are to take “paying no attention” as “contempt”–itself a move that could be disputed, then the subject remains “the one desired by women” not “women.”
Now, if the Book of Concord should be agreed with because it agrees with the Bible, then how are we to take this? I don’t know. It seems to me that this is more an example of the way people read the Bible at the time and used proof texts–often stripped of context–in defense of their positions. A single dispute over a citation is not a paradigm shift; indeed, I think that the authors of the Apology were correct on this notion about the marriage of priests. But that doesn’t mean everything they wrote is correct.
I agree with and affirm the Book of Concord in so far as it agrees with Scripture. I think it is correct on a huge amount of the things it teaches. I am currently re-reading it (slowly) and checking citations as I go. I have found it to be edifying and a source of profound theological insight. But it is not the Bible, and I do not think that to be Lutheran–or even a confessing Lutheran–I need to affirm that the Book of Concord is without possible error.
Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. with Charles P. Arand, translator, The Book of Concord.
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