I’m a Lutheran, though some would say I am not. Why? Because many try to define out of existence those who adhere to the Book of Concord “in so far as” it agrees with Scripture as opposed to “because” it agrees with Scripture. Entire denominations argue that the affirmation “because” is the only way to be a genuine Lutheran. I have argued that this places adherents in an impossible situation before. First, I’ve argued that there are actually wrong interpretations of Scripture in the Book of Concord. There is also at least one etymological error. Must Lutherans, to be Lutheran, be saddled with these? According to the “because” position, the answer is yes, they must affirm these errors.
But it gets worse. In light of the despicable act of evil that occurred in Pittsburgh and with Reformation Day having just passed, I’ve been reading about Martin Lutherr and also decided to look up what the Book of Concord says about Jews. I believe the latter demonstrates conclusively that we cannot and must not give the Book of Concord “unconditional subscription.”
I take my definition from one of the conservative Lutheran sites that is pushing for this as the definition of Lutheran:
What is an “unconditional subscription” to the Confessions?
Confessional Lutheran pastors are required to “subscribe,” that is, to pledge their agreement unconditionally with the Lutheran Confessions precisely because they are a pure exposition of the Word of God. This is the way our pastors, and all laypeople who confess belief in the Small Catechism, are able with great joy and without reservation or qualification to say what it is that they believe to be the truth of God’s Word. (Lutheran Reformation emphasis removed)
Unconditional subscription, then, is the notion that Lutherans must pledge to agree without reservation to the entirety of the Lutheran Confessions, which are those contained in the Book of Concord.
Jews and the Book of Concord
I have not cited every instance of the occurrence of “Jew” or “Jewish” in the Book of Concord. Rather, here I’ll be citing three instances which I believe demonstrate beyond a doubt that we cannot affirm unconditional subscription without seriously compromising our morality.
The first section comes from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XIII, section 18:
This is absolutely a Jewish opinion, to hold that we are justified by a ceremony, without a good disposition of the heart, i.e., without faith.
There are a number of problems with this sentence even apart from the use of “Jewish” here. First, it doesn’t just imply but states that Jewish “opinion” believes in justification without faith. Yet this contradicts the New Testament’s own teaching on the faith of Jewish people. For example, Hebrews 11:8-10:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
So Abraham, the father of Judaism, acted by faith, looking forward to the city whose designer is God. This famous passage in the New Testament goes on to affirm the faith of Rahab, Sarah, Jacob, the Israelites coming out of Egypt, and many, many more Jews, noting, ultimately, that though they acted on faith none of them received the promised final perfection (Hebrews 11:39-40). So the Book of Concord appears to simply be wrong in this offhanded remark about how “Jewish opinion” holds to a position that is “without faith.”
The next sentence in the Apology states that this “Jewish opinion,” now united with the Pope, is “impious” and “pernicious.” This ascribed to a view of faith that was simply assigned offhandedly to the Jewish people without proof!
The Large Catechism is one of the most important expositions of Lutheran faith, and therein, regarding the Ten Commandments, it is stated (Conclusion of the Ten Commandments, section 330):
Therefore it is not in vain that it is commanded in the Old Testament to write the Ten Commandments on all walls and corners, yes, even on the garments, not for the sake of merely having them written in these places and making a show of them, as did the Jews…
Here, a practice of Jews is simply dismissed offhand as “making a show” of the Ten Commandments. Jewish practice surrounding the Ten Commandments is dismissed as simply for the sake of having them written; as if the Jewish people had no more regard for the Ten Commandments than anyone else. I hope it need not be stated that we should not “unconditionally subscribe” to this.
A final example comes from the Solid Declaration VII, section 30:
Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, [1 Corinthians 11:27] sins not merely against the bread and wine, not merely against the signs or symbols and emblems of the body and blood, but shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, which, as there [in the Holy Supper] present, he dishonors, abuses, and disgraces, as the Jews, who in very deed violated the body of Christ and killed Him; just as the ancient Christian Fathers and church-teachers unanimously have understood and explained this passage.
Here is a seriously problematic passage, though it is historically tied to the context. The Germany of Luther’s day was filled with anti-Semitic imagery, sayings, and practices. Churches had imagery of Jews suckling on pigs; the notion of Jews as killers of Christ was quite common. And here, in the Book of Concord, we see that leaking in, as Jews generally, not just a handful of people but all Jews are blamed for the “violation” of the body of Christ and killing him. Not only that, but it is alleged that the Church Fathers and “church-teachers” unanimously agree upon this language. This is exactly the language that is used to this day to attack Jews as “Christ-killers” and to raise anti-Semitic sentiment among Christians. This is the kind of language that we must take a firm stand against.
I realize some may stand up and try to cite 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 here, arguing that the New Testament teaches specifically that Jews killed Jesus. Such would be a mistaken conclusion, because it also speaks of “the Jews” as killing the prophets. Jesus and the prophets were Jewish, and the common use of the phrase “Jews” in the New Testament refers to the leaders (see its use in the Gospels, each written by people who were Jewish, to refer to certain factions among Judaism).
I have already argued that the Book of Concord has errors of etymology and interpretation. In this post, we see that its treatment of the Jews is deeply problematic. Those who argue that we must have “unconditional subscription” to the Book of Concord must affirm these problematic statements in the name of being a “true” Lutheran. But what is more Lutheran than self-examination, confession of sins (like those of anti-Semitism), and the continuing Reform of the church? What can be more Lutheran than demanding that any document with which we agree, we will only agree with “in so far as” it agrees with Scripture?
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Adhering to the Book of Concord “In So Far As” or “Because” it Agrees with Scripture?– I argue that Lutherans must hold the position that we adhere to the Book of Concord In So Far As it Agrees with Scripture.
Another Problem for Book of Concord Inerrantists– I discuss an etymological error in the Book of Concord.
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I congratulate and admire you for facing anti-Semitism in your tradition head-on and in so public a forum, J.W. It is high past time for all Christians, of all traditions, to deal with prejudice toward and hatred of Jews that’s such a sad part of our theological past. The relationship between Judaism and Christianity is complicated, but it’s also not one that should ever encourage bigotry and hostility toward the Jewish people, to whom our Lord and his earliest disciples all belonged.
Subscription in confessional traditions is another tricky matter. In my own PC(USA), we currently require all our officers (ministers of the word and sacrament, elders, and deacons) to affirm our confessional documents (more than a few of which require awful anti-Semitic elements of their own) as presenting “the essential tenents of the Reformed faith,” but we don’t ever spell out what those tenets are (much to the dismay of some of our members who would identify as conservative and evangelical). There have been numerous attempts in Presbyterian history to “nail down” the essentials (including the fundamentalist controversies in the 1920s), but the idea (admittedly easier to state in theory than to live out in practice) is that we discover the essentials only in the difficult and messy process of living faithful lives as individuals and communities. We don’t check off a laundry list of “believe that, believe that” — we discover whether we are in line with the essentials by how we live.
Likewise, we require officers accept our confessional documents as “authentic and reliable” — but not infallible — “expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do.”
Maybe more Presby polity than you want to know, but your blog sparked the thoughts! Thanks again for taking the stand you do here.
We should also be aware there was no comma in the original text. So where we read “the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets” the original reads “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets” ie a sub section of Jews.