A Tiny Error Overthrows the Whole Teaching

“A little yeast leavens the whole lump.” Galatians 5:9

In Dr. Luther’s commentary on this verse, we may observe his typical approach in dealing with false teaching.  Even when someone seems to agree with right doctrine in most matters, divergence on a single point will usually taint his whole message. For Luther, in matters of theology, there was no middle ground.  He used these words ‘no middle ground’ to refer to his dispute with Ulrich Zwingli over the nature of the Lord’s Supper. [Luther Against Zwingli] Zwingli, accused him of sinful recalcitrance and being unloving toward his fellow believers.  (Zwingli’s theological descendants are the Reformed theologians also shaped by John Calvin’s teachings.)   Luther addressed these issues in relation to the debate over the Sacrament of the Altar in his own time:

“For the sectarians who deny the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper accuse us today of being quarrelsome, harsh, and intractable, because, as they say, we shatter love and harmony among the churches on account of the single doctrine about the Sacrament.  They say that we should not make so much of this little doctrine, which is not a sure thing anyway and was not specified in sufficient detail by the apostles, that solely on its account we refuse to pay attention to the sum total of Christian doctrine and to general harmony among all the churches.  This is especially so because they agree with us on other articles of Christian doctrine.” [Luther, Lectures on Galatians (1535), LW 27:36-37]

Dr. Luther observed that this accusation could be quite effective in making him “unpopular among their own followers” and portray Luther as disagreeing out of “sheer stubbornness or some other feeling.”  Essentially, the Reformed and even some other Lutherans might accuse Luther of just looking for a theological brawl. Luther rejected this smear tactic as a diabolical deception by which Satan was trying to overthrow all Christian teaching.  He asserted:

“In philosophy a tiny error in the beginning is very great at the end.  Thus in theology a tiny error overthrows the whole teaching.  Therefore doctrine and life should be distinguished as sharply as possible.  Doctrine belongs to God, not to us; and we are called only as its ministers.  Therefore we cannot give up or change even one dot of it (Matt.5:18).  Life belongs to us; therefore when it comes to this, there is nothing that the Sacramentarians can demand of us that we are not willing and obliged to undertake, condone, and tolerate, with the exception of doctrine and faith…On this score we cannot yield even a hairbreadth.” [LW 27:37] {Emphasis added}

What an incredible statement!  Luther recognized that Christians must deal with all sorts of people in daily life.  He taught in other places that we must always be quick to forgive someone’s sins and bear each other’s burdens.  However, when it came to Christian teaching, there could be no compromise, even if, there might be substantial agreement in many areas. [Life vs Doctrine]  Dr. Luther recognized that the Reformed accused him of lack of love, or as someone might say today, that Luther promoted a ‘cult of purity.’  He rejected this idea completely when he wrote:

“We are surely prepared to observe peace and love with all men, provided they leave the doctrine of faith perfect and sound for us.  If we cannot obtain this, it is useless for them to demand love from us.  A curse on a love that is observed at the expense of the doctrine of faith, to which everything must yield–love, an apostle, an angel from heaven, etc.!” [LW 27:38] {Emphasis added}

Luther wrote that love yields to others and bears other’s burdens.  The Word and faith will not yield to anyone’s false teaching, even if, it’s only in a single matter. Luther recognized the difficulty of the Christian, particularly the pastor, who must assert such truths.  He knew this teaching offended others, especially, the Reformed. He wanted this teaching to encourage believers to be steadfast and to teach others who do not understand his seemingly unloving manner of dealing with the Reformed theologians’ false teachings.

Does this historical lesson have present day application?

What should we learn from Luther’s teaching?

First, desiring to preserve the true doctrine of faith expressed in the Book of Concord is a good and God-pleasing thing.  However, this does not preclude us as individuals from loving others, especially loving those who are in error.  Faith will always produce deeds, even imperfectly. Yet, we may not excuse error for the sake of love. This certainly does not mean we would hate the apathetic, unbelievers, atheists, or even our persecutors.  We will interact with these folks on a daily basis in our post-modern societies.

Our congregations and specific Lutheran organizations should not give even the appearance of associating with those who teach or promote false doctrine. Additionally, we today, as Lutherans, must be concerned when any LCMS organization becomes too close with those who promote questionable teachings and have very close associations with Reformed theologians in other contexts.



About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am an Associate Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


A Tiny Error Overthrows the Whole Teaching — 18 Comments

  1. If I understand this article, I am surprised to learn that LCMS Lutherans align with the Roman Catholics on the “bodily presence” of Christ in communion rather than the “Spiritual presence” as Reformed Presbyterians do. The be physically present conveys Christ is again being crucified. In Catholicism, it gave rise to people taking home pieces of the elements which were then idolized. Further, his position that LCMS Lutherans “should not give even the appearance of associating with those who teach or promote false doctrine” concerns me greatly. Two things: To believe LCMS have perfect theology dangerously aligns with the Pharisees. Secondly, for which sin did Christ not die? If anyone thinks they have the perfect theology, they may be focusing too much on theology, the study of God, and too little on salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

  2. @Glenn Dowling #1

    Glenn, I agree with you that I think the point is overstated a bit. No one has a corner on the market with regard to doctrine. We have had great Christian theologians throughout the years whom we have taken from without having to agree on all points. Tertulian and Augustine come to mind. Personally I think it is better to engage in dialogue and affirm where we agree and clearly enumerate those issues where we disagree. But I understand not wanting to be a party to spreading what may be considered as doctrinal errors.

    That being said, I think that you are misinterpreting the Lutheran position on Holy Communion. Yes, we believe that Jesus is bodily present in the Lord’s Supper. We don’t try to explain how it happens so we differentiate ourselves from transubstantiation. In addition, we do not view the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice for forgiveness of sins. We believe the Lord is bodily present because he says he is present (This is my body…This is my blood…). In addition, Paul indicates a similar understanding of the Lord’s supper in Corinthians. As stated before though, Holy Communion reminds us that we are forgiven, but is not a re-sacrifice of Christ in our theology. So there are some key differences from the Roman Catholic understanding.

  3. @Glenn Dowling #1

    All Lutheran’s who subscribe the Unaltered Book of Concord confess the true bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. To suggest that we align with Rome on this matter, however, is incorrect as we reject the false doctrine of transubstantiation.

    As for the rest of your argument, you are engaging in the same conduct as the ‘sacramentarians’ by suggesting that we are being unkind toward those not in doctrinal agreement with us – such is the reason why you toss the ‘pharisee’ language around. This is not the first time we’ve heard such a claim, it won’t be the last. Furthermore… I don’t think anyone confesses that the ‘LCMS’ has perfect theology. We only confess that what is written in the Book of Concord is a clear and true exposition of what Scripture teaches. The LCMS can err. Such is the reason why we as ‘theologians’ must continue to strive for pure doctrine in our churches.

    Lastly, you create a false dichotomy as though Theology and Justification are in opposition to one another. To be concerned with Theology – the study of God – is to be concerned with salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. All Theology is Christology. All Theology is to serve to point us to Justification by faith in Christ Crucified for the forgiveness of sins. Hence the reason why the theology of the Sacrament of the Altar is so important – is it what Christ has clearly said it is in His Word (His Body and Blood given and shed for the forgiveness of sins) or is it merely a work of remembrance to be done by us? That is the distinction between us and the rest – whether Rome or the Sacramentarian crowd. For them, the Sacrament is something we/they do. For Lutherans, it is Christ in His body and blood given and shed for us – it is what Christ is doing for us.

  4. p.143

    It is not charity to bear with others because the differences between us are trifling; it is charity to bear with them although the differences are great. Charity does not cover error; because error is the daughter of sin, and charity is the daughter of God.

    p. 186

    We do not claim that our Confessors were infallible. We do not say they could not fail. We only claim that they did not fail.

    The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology
    Charles Porterfield Krauth
    CPH 2007

  5. @Glenn Dowling #1

    Glenn, do you believe that sound doctrine is important? More importantly, do you believe that sound doctrine is God’s doctrine or man’s? Does man invent doctrine or did God give us doctrine?

    The trouble with the pharisees wasn’t their zeal. Zeal, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil. No, their trouble was the object of their zeal which was false doctrine. They taught that salvation was by keeping the law, and keeping it so perfectly, that they invented other laws (fencing) to make sure it was kept, even though they themselves didn’t keep it. They had zeal – sure as the sky is blue – but it was wrongly purposed zeal. This is what Jesus went after them for.

    Now for us Christians, it is not wrong for us to have zeal either. Even Christ had zeal, St. Paul had zeal, St. Peter had zeal. But they loved the doctrine, and they were zealous for right doctrine, clear teaching, and unapologetic for teaching Christ crucified and risen as the only source of salvation. They were also zealous for God’s Word, the Scripture and wanted to make sure every word that came out of their mouths was not potentially leading people away from Christ. Do you blame them for such zeal? After all, what’s more important, just getting along with folks, or teaching the truth so that souls are saved?

    If some church should happen to teach the same as we do regarding the Lord’s Supper, that’s great. But it’s not as if we’re going out of our way to agree with the Roman Catholics with regard to Christ’s bodily presence in the Supper. Scripture teaches this doctrine and we confess it. That’s it. And we pray that the reformed churches would read Scripture rightly and agree too, but they let rationalism and individualism cloud their mind.

  6. Rev. Carlson, with all due respect, did you consider the questions you posed may appear to be a bit patronizing? Did you expect me to say, “No, I don’t think sound doctrine is important?

    I would describe the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees somewhat differently than you. Yes, they had zeal but the charge Jesus brought against them was self-righteous legalism. They were hypocrites; white washes tombs.

    It occurred to me for a moment that semantics might be playing a part in this exchange; surely not. If this teaching is so deeply ingrained in the Lutheran teaching to the point of urging members not to fellowship with those who differ, you too have become legalist.

    I do not see or agree with your position. Recall, Jesus Christ “ascended” (gone) yet assured the disciples that he would send a helper, a Paraclete. And said, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again (resurrection) and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. He did not say, “Not to worry, I will come back (bodily) each Lord’s day as you celebrate the Lord’s supper.” He did not say nor imply that he would.

    Scripture also teaches, “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Matthew 26:26-29

    It’s clear Jesus was not going to be with those celebrating the Lord’s Supper “until” they were with him in his Father’s kingdom. I have a feeling you have volumes of writing to defend your practice. Christ has risen and will return for his own. Once again, I do not believe he “bodily” returns each time the Lord’s supper is administered.

    Indeed,though he is always with us as the Holy Spirit indwells true believers.

  7. @Glenn Dowling #8

    It’s clear Jesus was not going to be with those celebrating the Lord’s Supper “until” they were with him in his Father’s kingdom. I have a feeling you have volumes of writing to defend your practice. Christ has risen and will return for his own. Once again, I do not believe he “bodily” returns each time the Lord’s supper is administered.

    You don’t believe in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Like Zwingli, you want to reason that “This is my Body” can’t mean “This IS my Body”.. Nobody here will try very long to “reason” you out of your statement, because it’s a matter of faith, not reason. [At least, I hope they won’t spend a 100 posts on the effort! (How about one/person, folks?)]

    You’ve strayed onto the wrong list. If you persist, someone will suggest you are a troll.
    But no faithful Lutheran will invite you to the Lord’s table as long as you refuse to believe what He said about it. That is for your own good! If you don’t “discern the Lord’s Body” it can hurt you.
    [A Roman Catholic would be safe; he doesn’t believe he is receiving bread but he does know that he is receiving the Lord’s Body.]

    [No “volumes of writing”… just Scripture.]

  8. @Glenn Dowling #8


    Your spirit and our spirit cannot go together. Indeed, it is quite obvious that we do not have the same spirit.

    It’s that simple. I wish you well.

  9. @Glenn Dowling #8

    Hello brother.

    I have an unpublished paper on the doctrine of the Ascension and how it relates to the Lord’s Supper, making what I think is a decent argument as to how the Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper is quite in line with the doctrine of the Ascension. If you wish, email me and I will send it to you. And you can discuss it with me there.

    [email protected]

    In Christ,
    Rev. Robert Mayes
    Beemer, NE

  10. @Glenn Dowling #8

    Thank you for your willingness to engage with Lutheran teaching. I provided a link above that discusses the theological issues you raised. Have a great day.

  11. Hello, Mark. As a born-again Christian, your comments, “our spirit cannot go together…” …and “Indeed, it is quite obvious that we do not have the same spirit,” seems extremely premature.

    Searching the web on communion, I came upon the Steadfast Lutherans link and found it interesting. My comments were based on my understanding. I had no idea of the tensions Lutherans felt against Calvinist. I’ve never heard it coming from this side.

    I serve as a ruling elder in a conservative Presbyterian Church in America and am active in Gideons International.

    Yes, true doctrine is essential. Yet it seems the world takes special note of our infighting and uses it against the church. Not saying they are right;only that Christians should learn to dialogue in mature and respectable ways that honor God and strengthens the bonds of unity. I believe that’s what Christ earnestly prayed for; that we be one in the spirit.

    Grace and Peace,

    Glenn Dowling

  12. Glenn, our credentials are about the same. Achieving ecumenism is a pipedream. But because of the Scriptural mandate to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace, we should never stop trying to agree on doctrine. It’s a catch-22, really. The more one fights for the faith, the pure Gospel, the more he is maligned as a disturber of the peace. If one is not willing to fight, argue, contend for the faith, then doctrine will erode or morph into something devised by man and unrecognizable to God. American Christianity is a hodgepodge of this and that, mostly because people have not required more from the Church in the way of catechism. We have allowed things to take their own course, which has resulted in a multitude of belief systems. But division in the Church is inexorable. All you can do is speak the truth in love the way Luther did when he told Zwingli what I quoted in my first comment. Lutherans are not just stubborn people. We are frustrated people, at least the ones who hold to the Confessions. We want to share our treasure with the world but the world seems to want nothing of it. I wish you well in your quest for knowledge and I hope you can separate what man thinks is rational from the very words of Christ which must be taken in faith.
    Christ’s peace to you,

  13. In all fairness, the topic is about “tiny” errors. The doctrine of the Real Presence is by no means “tiny”; it is a mainstay of our faith.
    Some time ago I started to go through the Lutheran Service Book systematically to read the texts of our hymns. Out of the first 100 or so, I discovered about 10% had words that I do not believe should be sung by believing Lutherans. In the process I also marked with an “X” those hymns which I thought expressed the Gospel, and the assurance of our salvation particularly well. #348, The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns, has one of those “X”-s, as does its predecessor, 347, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People. But already by #350, Come Thou Precious Ransom, Come, verse 2 has these words, which I do not sing: “Enter now my waiting heart, …” and “Ah what riches will be mine, When Thou art my guest divine.” And #354, Arise, O Christian People, says this in v. 4: “Come now to dwell within me.” Then there is that all time favorite, #913, “O Holy Spirit, enter in, and in our hearts your work begin …” What they all have in common is a denial of the presence of the Holy Spirit in every Christian from the time of Baptism. Actually, this isn’t “tiny” either; nevertheless we sing them with gusto and pious tears in our eyes.
    Are these harmless expressions of pious sentimentality, or do they misrepresent what God has said about His relationship with us? Do they overthrow the whole teaching?
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  14. @Glenn Dowling #1

    Your initial objection to Dr. Phillips was that you were greatly concerned by the following statement:

    “Our congregations and specific Lutheran organizations should not give even the appearance of associating with those who teach or promote false doctrine.”

    Are you similarly concerned by Dr. Luther’s statement:
    (i.e. the 3rd quote in the original post)

    “We are surely prepared to observe peace and love with all men, provided they leave the doctrine of faith perfect and sound for us. If we cannot obtain this, it is useless for them to demand love from us. A curse on a love that is observed at the expense of the doctrine of faith, to which everything must yield–love, an apostle, an angel from heaven, etc.!”

  15. My friend, and hopefully my brother in Christ, if you are anyone thinks they hold the golden key; the only interpretation of scripture which gives them the right to withhold love from anyone, may God have mercy and enlighten your understanding. The love of Christ’s is unconditional. There are millions who’ve never heard of Drs. Luther or Phillips and their views regarding a proper understanding of the Lord’s supper.

    You do well to study scripture to mine its deepest meanings. But afterwards, if it causes you to withhold you love or fellowship from believers who have not come to that point, you have widely missed the mark.

    Lest you forget, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

    Bear in mind, it was the Pharisees to whom Christ said, “Woe to you, scribes and hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. Lest you forget, Christ came to save sinners!

    Be reminded from scripture, my friend, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13: 1-3)

    Grace and peace,
    Glenn Dowling

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